The Handmaid's Tale as historical fiction

Curator's Note

My video link may require some explanation, as MC Hammer and Margaret Atwood aren’t an obvious pairing. While "can’t touch this" could be a slogan for the Republic of Gilead, and "life comes at you fast" is relevant to the 2017 Hulu Handmaid’s Tale, I chose this video primarily for the way it highlights movement of material across time. In 1990, 5 years after the publication of Atwood’s novel, MC Hammer released what would become his signature tune, "U Can’t Touch This"; part of its appeal came from its prominent sampling of Rick James’ 1981 hit, "Super Freak." Then, in 2005, Hammer, his song, and his real-life financial disasters became the basis for an insurance company commercial. Such a swirl of creativity and "real life," re-imagined and re-purposed across time, represents the kind of work Atwood does that makes me claim HT as a historical novel.

When she "jumped the tracks … from realistic novels to dystopias" ("Dire Cartographies: The Roads to Ustopia," 2011), Atwood brought her tools with her. Placing her novel based on a 19th-century Canadian true-crime case, Alias Grace (1996), alongside HT suggests the continuity between Atwood’s historical and dystopian fiction. That the past’s Grace Marks and the future’s Offred are brought to life using some of the same motifs and techniques does not signal limited authorial vision. To the contrary, these parallels reflect Atwood’s profound understanding of time and period. The literary devices in these works are the kind of thing that often makes film adaptations unsatisfactory to those who have read the book, but they also offer cinematographic potential.

In "Dire Cartographies," Atwood explains that in writing HT she decided nothing would go into it that "humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools." Her decision, thus described, emphasizes the inherent connections among historical record, contemporary actual, and future potential. As in her merging of the genres of dystopia and utopia into something she calls "ustopia," Atwood follows a similar process regarding time; it’s as if all of Scrooge’s ghosts visit simultaneously. As she noted in a 1996 lecture, "the past belongs to us, because we are the ones who need it." From the particular warnings and observations brought to life in the Hulu HT, we can adduce a universal imperative: pay attention! 

Comments

Deborah James's picture

A bricolage of here and there, now and then

Your post evokes the concept of bricolage, the construction of art/literature from a diverse range of ‘things.’ As you note, Atwood’s writing reveals “the inherent connections among historical record, contemporary actual, and future potential,” and demands active viewing with the promise of disquieting and new understanding. Thus, your comparison between MC Hammer and Margaret Atwood, is both timely and timeless.

This bricolage of here, there, now and then, offers up something familiar (a historic reference, a turn of phrase, an image, a song), loose threads of experience which encourage (demand?) that we rethink, watch, and reconsider. Therefore, rendering this adapted series both uncomfortably knowable and at the same time, new. For example, in this narrative familiar images and sounds are juxtaposed with disturbing results. In the closing scene of S1Ep2 the 1985 Simple Minds pop song, “Don’t You Forget About Me (best known for closing the GenX movie, The Breakfast Club), renders the moment when Offred’s hope turns to shock and dismay, as immeasurably dehumanizing.

Unlike the book, I would also argue that Atwood’s trip back and forth across time and human experience in this adaptation, demands a reconsideration of every single cultural moment as a potential clue to how we might better shape a future.

Sharon Lauricella's picture

Don't You (Forget About Me)

The bricolage of MC Hammer, Offred, and Simple Minds is brilliant in Rosemary’s post and Debbie’s response here. As I watched Ep2, I found the Simple Minds track somewhat confusing and rather misplaced, though as soon as the “new” Ofglen showed her face, and the track came to an abrupt standstill, it made perfect sense. We’ve all had that moment of optimism and a glimmer of hope shattered, a door slammed in our faces, shocking news, terrifying results, disappointment — it is inherent to the human experience.

I think the common sentiment in these posts, and in THT itself, is that our vivid participation in historic reference and culture is essential. As scholars, viewers, and social justice seekers, how do we participate in ways that, as Debbie articulates, better shape a future? One positive outcome - and a good start - is that we have found one another and have the opportunity to create community and space for this discourse.

Kevin McDonald's picture

No Time Like the Present?

I have also been struck by some of the music included so far, though I tend to see this as part of a broader reference to untimeliness. The Simple Minds song at the end of episode 2 (and, to a lesser extent, Jay Reatard’s “Waiting for Something” at the end of episode 3) acts as a kind of audio equivalent to the temporal disorientation so prominently featured in the show’s visual signature: the handmaid’s regalia, a medieval, or is it colonial, intrusion into the dystopian future. Perhaps in this sense there is a difference between the way that Hammertime works as the punch line in the commercial and the untimely dissonance that the Handmaid’s Tale is going for. On the other hand, the show’s musical choices seem to be contrived for something more than just aesthetic or allegorical purposes. The highly curated selections so far (featuring Peaches, Blondie, and SBTRKT among others) are reminiscent of those found on other recent TV soundtracks and suggest a strategy similar to Amazon’s in The Man in the High Castle.

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