The Flattering Dystopia

The Handmaid's Tale revival misconceives the aim of dystopian literature.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the new must-watch and must-write-about prestige drama. A dystopia set in a theocratic, patriarchal near future, it sees ritual rape, a worship of fertility, and social control of women by villainous men. The show is now hailed as a bold vision with relevant themes. Megan McArdle in Bloomberg calls nonsense on that and admirably disassembles such fervor:

America hasn’t had a unified theocratic tradition since the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the descendants of those Puritans are now pouring their fervent moralism into buying Priuses and complaining about Trump. The closest modern equivalent, the statewide hegemony of the Latter-day Saints in Utah, doesn’t look very much like The Handmaid’s Tale, and hasn’t the faintest prayer of co-opting the rest of the nation’s fractured religious traditionalists, many of whom do not even consider the Mormons to be Christian. And even if some movement did, somehow, gather a Mormon-like critical mass, Trump is hardly likely to be its avatar; our most religious red state was also the one where Trump had the greatest trouble.


Meanwhile, the culture is moving the other way. Women are gaining more economic power relative to men; the nation is becoming less religious. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is becoming less plausible a future with each passing year, no matter how hard feminists insist that there is only a brief and slippery slope between overturning Roe v. Wade and forcing women into state-sanctioned breeding programs.

It seems to me that the dystopian genre is meant to challenge, not flatter their audience and I cannot see how Hulu’s new series does that at this time. Atwood’s original novel may have resonated honestly in its time during the high-water mark of the Religious Right in the 1980s, but it was clearly far from prophetic. It’s safe to say the patriarchal enemies of her tale would be rather frustrated with how things have turned out in modern America, Trump and the wage gap notwithstanding.

The dystopia genre has enjoyed a recent revival in the Young Adult fiction genre and the young girls who cut their teeth on Divergent and The Hunger Games are all grown up now and ready for Hulu’s series. But in the dollar-driven fervor, authors and critics alike have forgotten how to read a dystopia. All of these stories come down to elaborate depictions of collective social control and fantasies of resistance. The bad society is the one that brings our heroes under jackboots with some philosophical and ideological justification. It seems enough to these authors to take some already noxious element of society, no matter how out of favor, and imagine it taking over everything. They are written so that readers identify with their beleaguered protagonists, not the villains who stand as distant authoritarians. They validate ideas that are in fashion and villify those its audience already fears.

But the best dystopias unnerve because they bring their audiences into contact with the horrifying possiblity that the way they are already living could result in something like the extremes the story posits. This is why Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the only dystopia worth reviving today. It challenges ideas that are still quite in favor among our modern intelligentsia and upper class – a medical regime that controls birth for maximum quality of life, legalized drugs on the market that do nothing but provide cheap and easy euphoria, judgment-free casual, noncommittal and non-procreative sex enjoyed on a mass scale, a degraded secular anthropology leading to justifications for eliminating unwanted childrenpornography elevated to the status of art, great books and classics outlawed for the harmful thoughts they might engender. These ideas are brought to life in the fictional but plausible world and produce the consequences that (ought to) horrify and challenge the way of life the reader takes for granted – a genetically engineered caste system, eroticism encouraged in children from an early age, lifestyles of extreme pleasure connected to despair and suicide. Brave New World is about unlimited individual choice. Its denizens are indeed controlled by their own appetites. They have lost the imagination and desire to seek virtue, truth, or beauty. They are lotus-eaters are incapable of preferring anything else. The elimination of pain and memory leaves them in a state where they cannot imagine any alternative, much less choose it willingly. The revolutionary idea of Brave New World is that we are prisoners of our own pleasure; that a culture of death is the result from one that offers its citizens unlimited amounts of exactly what it wants. Death by quality of life.

Precisely because Huxley’s novel is so timely, I am certain that we will not be getting a prestige TV adaptation of Brave New World anytime soon. It would be too uncomfortable for today’s content creators to adapt faithfully. I’d cut my losses and settle for remakes of Gattaca or a series version of Idiocracy. Meanwhile, we will continue amusing ourselves to death with the comfortable fiction that we are not living in a time of rampant individual liberties, that the only danger to ourselves and our progeny comes from the retreating voices who still have the gall to tell us what we shalt not do, and that our liberties and lives are under immanent threat from Nazis, Puritans, and all the forces of uncool.

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