Margaret Atwood: The Prophet of Dystopia

A TV adaption of Margaret Atwood's seminal work, The Handmaid's Tale has recently come to Australian shores via the free streaming service,  SBS on Demand. The series is set in a near-future totalitarian state in which the few women whose fertility has not been compromised by environmental pollution are forced into child-bearing surrogacy for the country's elite.

'What makes The Handmaid’s Tale so terrifying is not that it’s timely,' wrote  Jessica Valenti for The Guardian, 'but that it’s timeless.'

What we found particularly resonant is the underlying  theme about control of women’s sexuality. Across cultures and time, there have been ways of controlling women’s decision about their sexuality – the pressure to not have sex, then to ensure once they are permitted to, that they don’t refuse sex. This culture of misogyny reduces women to one function, with all other rights seen as roadblocks to child-bearing. There is an unspoken fear of women finding pleasure in sex – in fact the female genital mutilation (FGM) depicted in the series to control 'unnatural urges' is still a common practice in many parts of the world.  UNICEF estimatedlast year that 200 million women living today have undergone a FGM procedure.

In The Handmaid's Tale, women's identities are reduced to their ability (or inability) to bear children, an interesting expression of  the Madonna-Whore Complex. Women's bodies are unapologetically seen as nothing more than the instrument of social engineering – for the good of society, of course. The show 'captures today's sense of dread and anxiety about the erosion of rights; about the environment; about war; about the increase of freely expressed racism, misogyny, and homophobia,'  wrote Kate Arthur for BuzzFeed.

It's clear the series has hit a nerve, with think piece after think piece comparing events in the show to events in the news –  women being forced to carrying children after they've been raped, or  pregnant women being referred to as 'hosts' by politicians. Confirming what many have suspected, the show's star Elizabeth Moss said in an interview earlier this year, 'I asked Margaret Atwood, "Do you feel like you predicted the future?" And she said very firmly, as she does: "Everything I wrote in that book was happening at that time, or had already happened.

"It just wasn't happening in America."'