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‘We’ve Seen This Before’: Margaret Atwood on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and How History Repeats Itself

The author reflects on the lessons of decades past, how they emerge in her writing, and what they can tell us about the future

Margaret Atwood in Toronto in 2019.

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP Images

Margaret Atwood has always been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Born in Ottawa in 1939, Atwood has been consumed with the specter of a sudden totalitarian takeover, like the one she imagined in her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, since she was a girl. She watched with trepidation, then, if not necessarily surprise, as Donald Trump was swept into power in 2016. When the TV adaptation of her book debuted on Hulu in the early months of his administration, it was heralded as an allegory for our times. But Atwood sees herself less as an oracle than a student of history — including her own. The fourth season of the series, now streaming on Hulu, follows June as she attempts to escape to Canada, as Atwood’s own ancestors did: Protestants driven out of France, and United Empire Loyalists who fled north after the American Revolution. “They were all kicked out of somewhere for being on the wrong side of something,” Atwood says.

The author recently spoke with Rolling Stone about the inspiration for The Handmaid’s Tale and its companion text, The Testaments, written during Trump’s tenure, her fears for the future, and the one plot point she vetoed from the Hulu series.

I’ve been fascinated by the added cultural resonance The Handmaid’s Tale took on during the Trump administration. The TV show premiered only a few weeks after his inauguration in 2017—
No kidding! What a coincidence. What a series of adventures led up to that coincidence happening. I noticed from looking at my notes that I started actually thinking about [the book] in 1981. What had just happened? Ronald Reagan had been elected, and the religious right was on the rise in those years, the early Eighties. The Seventies was a “fermentous” time, with second-wave feminism making a lot of gains — but not the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment, which got nixed, basically, by Phyllis Schlafly, who got a lovely little cafe named after her in The Testaments. And then there was a backlash. There are always backlashes. In the Eighties, that is when people started saying things like “Women belong in the home.” And I started thinking, “Well, if they do, how are you going to get them back in there?” In the Fifties they were stuffed back in with some pretty amazing propaganda.

You’re talking about after World War II, when women had gone to work in factories and other places.
Dial back even more. In the Thirties, during the Depression, it was considered bad manners and not permissible, once you got married, for you to have a job if you were a woman. You were supposed to give up that job so that some man could support his family. Then it was the Forties and “Step up, gals, roll up your sleeves. We need you to work at a factory, have a victory garden,” do all of those things. Women were doing all kinds of things they never would have in the Thirties: driving trucks, earning salaries. A very big social stir-up, fermentation, and an equally big unsettling of previously received sexual mores. How can I put this? A lot of partying while the bombs were falling!

Along comes the Fifties: “Back into the bungalow! You can have a bungalow now, and you don’t have to have a servant, because you’ve got a Hoover and a washer-dryer.” That gave rise to another backlash in the form of Betty Friedan: educated women who felt stuck in the box. Then we got the birth control pill about the mid-Sixties, and then, not coincidentally, the miniskirt and, not coincidentally, the so-called sexual revolution. A lot of thinking went on around that: Should women behave like men? How did men behave? Should you have wide-open freedom, or would that turn into a different form of oppression? In the Fifties you were supposed to say no, and in Seventies, you were supposed to say yes, and if you didn’t, then you were a prude. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll, that was the undercurrent of the Seventies. A huge amount of feminist writing took place — some of it pretty extreme, some of it historical. Then arrived the Eighties and Ronald Reagan: “This has gone too far. Let’s roll it back.” And The Handmaid’s Tale came out of that.

My ever-present question, since I was born in ’39, is: If there were to be a totalitarianism in the United States, what would it look like? What would be the slogan? What would be the excuse? Because they all come in with: “We’re going to make things so much better, but first, we have to get rid of those people.”

Knowing your fascination with the looming shadow of totalitarianism in the U.S., how did you watch the rise of Donald Trump?
With trepidation! We’ve seen this before. It’s right out of the playbook. The big propaganda lies, the replacement of people in pivotal positions in the judiciary — because every totalitarian regime controls the judiciary. The attempt to subvert the Constitution, the attempted coup. These are motifs that have occurred many times throughout history. The attempt to seize control of communications media. They couldn’t actually do that, but they could try to erase belief in the media as a trustworthy source of information, and replace that with other sources that were telling you there are blood-drinking Democrats in the cellar of a pizza parlor that didn’t have a cellar.

It was either Hitler or Goebbels who said if you tell the big lie often enough, people will believe it. Make the lie big, and make it often. We saw that. And it’s not a question of left or right — so-called left regimes have done the same thing. It’s a question of totalitarianism or not totalitarianism.

One of the hallmarks of a totalitarian regime is intolerance for peaceful protest. You’ve said that if you can protest and not get shot, you’re not living under a totalitarian regime.
Yes, absolutely.

Now there are these laws that have been passed, in Florida and elsewhere, basically legalizing the act of running protesters over with your car.
What? What? What? When did that happen?

In Florida, the governor recently signed a new law protecting drivers from civil and criminal liability if they hit a protester with their car.
So they’re legalizing murder? That’s the name for it: murder. You might as well just go out with the Night of the Long Knives and knock on people’s doors and shoot them. It’s extrajudicial murder, and there is no other name for it.

I’m curious how you view our current moment. Earlier we were going all the way back to the 1930s, talking about the cyclical nature of some of these things throughout history. Where do you think we are right now, post-Trump? What are your thoughts or fears for the future?
We’re in a very unsettled moment. Since there is no “the future,” not graven in stone, there are a number of potential futures, and how people react to these things now is going to determine what kind of “the future” we have in, say, two, three, four, or five years. It has never been any different. We’re in a moment, much like the Thirties, in which things [are] pretty polarized. And we have just seen another Thirties-era thing happen, which is this huge — better not use that word, “huge,” so many words have been trashed — the enormous infrastructure plan that the Biden government has just proposed, a lot like FDR’s.

Is this a moment of crisis for America? Yes, it is. How should America respond? It should respond with positivity and some realism. People in the United States have taken for granted for so long that they’re top dog, that they can afford these battles and in intramural wars that they’ve been having, but maybe they can’t afford them. Maybe to indulge yourself that way is going to be to slip from world power. And when you slip from power — I give you the Battle of Waterloo as an example — when you turn around and start to run, you will be ruthlessly pursued, because other people want your power.

What has it been like for you to see the handmaid’s costume, from this story you wrote in the Eighties, take on so much resonance in the last four years?
The reason it has is because it’s very visual and we live in a visual age. People with cell phones, well, we’ve seen the power of those, but also just television, taking pictures, putting them up on social media, et cetera. You can convey a message without having to say anything.

You can also get into a state legislature [with the costume]. They can’t bar you, as things are now — but maybe you’ll get run over by a car on the way there — but, as it is, you’re not creating a disturbance, because you’re not saying anything, and you’re not immodestly dressed, lord knows. So that’s one of the reasons. The other reason, of course, is the television show. It made the narrative available to a lot of people who would not have necessarily seen or understood it before.

Is it ever surreal for you just how ubiquitous of a symbol it’s become?
Everything is surreal to me. Take your choice! It’s all pretty surreal when you come to think of it. But against what normal are we measuring this? That is the problem. What is normal? Looking again back to history, once we get to a period of recorded history, there are a great many unsettling events, and very few periods in which there were no unsettling events.

You started writing The Testaments as Trump was on the rise.
That’s right.

Did you have, at the time, almost a sense of déjà vu to this period in the Eighties when you were writing The Handmaid’s Tale?
During the two Obama elections we had some of the Republicans saying these kinds of things — quite amazing things, like, there’s real rape and not-real rape. What was it?

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
The body has ways of shutting things down. Yeah, it was a very peculiar understanding of the female anatomy and physiology. They said things like you have to carry a dead baby until it got birthed naturally because that’s what cows did. Do you remember that? There were a lot of comments like that, which I think had something to do with them losing the election to Obama. So I was taking note of those. They were gaining adherents, believe it or not, and that’s why a pussy-grabbing presidential candidate didn’t turn the election. There was already that happening during the Obama years — not so much under George W. Bush, who now seems like some kind of paragon of old-world gentility. I mean, he made some disastrous foreign policy decisions, but he was not on a crusade to smoosh women into the ground — partly because he had a pretty smart and literate wife. So, yeah, I’d been thinking about it not just when Trump was on the ascendant, but before he even appeared as a presidential candidate. But in those two elections, although the clouds loomed on the horizon, what with the “women are like cows,” et cetera, it didn’t happen. But people were already using Handmaid’s Tale imagery in those elections, and then came out in full blossoming form during the Women’s March, and then internationally after the television show was launched.

June (Elisabeth Moss) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) in Milk Episode 404 of the Handmaid’s Tale


What has your involvement with the show been like, and what has it been like for you to see it develop over each successive season?
I’m called a consultant — that means I don’t have any actual power. I get to read the scripts, and voice opinions, and I talk with Bruce Miller, the showrunner. And he was happy to have The Testaments in hand, because it gave him some ideas about where things could go next. But as we all have said — [both myself and] people in the writing room who are actually writing the show — nothing goes in that doesn’t have a precedent in real life, either in history or now, elsewhere or here. All of that has been respected. They are exploring the possibilities of what might happen next in such situations. And I was interested to read the other day, which I didn’t know, and I should have known, that Audrey Hepburn was a resistance fighter in World War II. She was a teenager, and they used teenagers a lot as messengers, because they were less likely to be suspected. She was helping rescue downed British airmen. It was very, very risky, of course. So there’s a lot of precedent for girls and women doing these kinds of things. It is not out of line for women in The Handmaid’s Tale to be working underground in this way. There would always come a moment when they’ve felt that their cover was about to be blown, or when people would try and get them out. No spoilers, but there would be these issues and it has been that way with Canada and the United States before. Canada was the destination of the Underground Railroad. Canada was the destination of, I think, 250,000 draft dodgers during the Vietnam period. Canada was a destination during the American Civil War for people who wanted to sit it out — they went to Montreal, apparently.

Miller has said that you will occasionally put the kibosh on some of the ideas from the writers room. What’s something you’ve nixed?
I did say you can’t kill on Aunt Lydia. That time they pushed her over a banister and stuck a knife into her, I said, “You cannot — do not kill Aunt Lydia! No!” Ann Dowd is so brilliant as Aunt Lydia. Brilliant.

You wrote in The New York Times in the first season about one of the scenes — I think it was the slut-shaming of Janine. You said it was “horribly upsetting” to watch. One of the criticisms of the show, especially in recent seasons, is that it can be so hard to watch what these women are going through.
History is hard to watch. The present moment is hard to watch, which is why a lot of people don’t watch it. What is happening to the Uighurs in China — all of these things are hard to watch, but if you have a personality that includes empathy, which most people do, unless they’re psychopaths… This is painful. Ouch. This hurts. Yes, it’s true, it is hard to watch.

The show was, for a lot of people, an almost cathartic escape at the very beginning of the Trump administration. You might think that that’s the time when people would want to turn away from something that feels so resonant with their reality.
There’s another way of looking at it, which is: It hasn’t happened yet. And no matter how bad you are feeling about what has happened, at least it’s not there.

From Rolling Stone US