There are a handful of cultural texts that seemed with a disturbing clairvoyance to predict—and respond to in advance—the horrific identity politics that would mark 2017’s U.S. slipslide into a dumpster fire of open bigotry, competitive misogyny, and proud incompetence. Tops on this list I would place the poignant not-a-comedy Get Out and what, in my opinion, is the most resonant and significant screen text of the year: The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet another exploration of the narrative complexity, aesthetic quality, and social commentary enabled by the conversion of streaming sites into providers of content, Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale begins of course with Margaret Atwood. Her remarkable literary output – my favorite being 2001’s The Blind Assassin – marks her as arguably the finest critic and sharpest revealer of the classism, sexism, and historic institutionalization of inequality of our age.
That inequality has manifested and monetized itself openly in recent years: the digital spreadability of Kim Kardashian’s plush-tush, the construction of Atlanta’s anus-modular Mercedez Benz Stadium to cage its CTE-riddled gladiators, and the successful presidential campaign of the nation’s Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief come immediately to mind. The disgusting degree of ideological manipulation, public deception, and ethical disgrace demonstrated throughout the campaign and thus-far-administration by The Apprentice’s celebrity host outdistances the very worst Black Mirror nightmare of the values-of-reality-television-realized-as-national-ethos, as the echo chambers of social media, Russian electo-bots, and Tweeting President have inverted the ontological real and virtual parallel like an ugly Christmas sweater pulled hastily off, inside-out and tangled into a knot, the ugliest interior threads straggling loose and the neck stretched beyond repair by the bulbous and empty cranium of narcissistic stubbornness. Consequently, never before has our relation to screens been so signification and so troubled, popular culture desperately needing to claim its potential as a bastion of social responsibility and engagement.
The Handmaid’s Tale has done just that. Bewildering as it may be that a longtime Scientologist and once-seemingly-pigeon-holed-Peggy-Olsen has managed to transform into her generation’s most selective eye for socially resonant roles, Elizabeth Moss’s intellectually engaging and empathy-inducing performance is only one factor in the intensity and importance of The Handmaid’s Tale. It comes as little surprise that Eileen Chaiken, whose The L Word was potentially the most significant cultural text in the 2000s struggles for queer and trans rights, helped to produce this, nor that Samira Wiley made the lateral move from being the strong voice for homosexual women on Orange is the New Black to being the strong voice for black women in The Handmaid’s Tale—somewhere along the multi-dimensional spectrum of social struggle in an era of revamped conservatism, we are graced by a growing network of interconnected cultural voices that refuse to accept sexual harassment and racial profiling as the new norm.
Atwood’s place in this is still somewhat of an enigma; when I shelved her work in a local bookstore in the mid-90s I had no idea that her pages so tautly intertwined revelations of—and challenges to—classed patriarchy, political oppression, and social inequality, issues equally strung (and handled expertly at the hands of writer Sarah Polley and director Mary Harron) through Netflix’s miniseries adaptation of Atwood’s 1996 Alias Grace. During this moment of the meme and the presidency of bombast, intimidation, and bigotry, I give thanks for the Margaret Atwood renaissance. And, as the avalanche of sexual assault revelations continues to build from the snowball of Harvey Weinstein’s horror show of entitlement and exploitation; and as the politics of biopower are thrown across bathroom battles and the attempted installation of puritanism as the logic of public health services; and as the gears of capitalism build pipelines across native lands and drop fracking Transport Modules to burrow deeper into the human disregard for the natural environment; there has been no more poignant and moving allegorical fiction than The Handmaid’s Tale. I would have liked to write something more ironic, funny, savvy, but the most important and shocking cultural event of this past year was sincerity—sincerity in a vacuum, brief flickers of genuine sunlight in the cheap neon Vegas motel room that was 2017.
Hunter Vaughan is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at Oakland University and a 2017 Rachel Carson Center Fellow, currently teaching on issues of media and the environment as a Visiting Lecturer with University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. He founded the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ ‘Media and the Environment’ scholarly interest group, and is currently developing a journal on environmental media, justice, and communication. His forthcoming book, Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: the Hidden Costs of Our Screen Culture (Columbia University Press, 2018), explores the environmental impact of media production, consumption, and waste, the natural philosophical and environmental justice ramifications of media representations of the natural world, and the underlying social contract according to which we convert natural resources into cultural spectacle.