Emma Watson Interviews Margaret Atwood About ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ For Her Feminist Book Club

It is arguably the most explosive TV series this year in relation to what is happening politically. The attack on women’s reproductive rights under the Trump administration has increased, and we are even seeing many states emboldened to act their own restrictive policies of their own. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a searing fictional take on what the country would look like if America became a theocracy, and women’s reproductive rights as well as other freedoms were completely taken away.

Gilead may seem like a fictional dystopian future, but when you read about laws being proposed such as the one in Arkansas which would require pregnant women to get consent from their rapist before choosing to get an abortion, Oklahoma requiring a woman to get the father’s permission (regardless of the pregnant woman’s relationship to him), or this Iowa law which would force unmarried women to first get permission from her parents before getting an abortion, it’s clear the line between fiction and reality is becoming increasingly blurred.

So the TV series based on the book is not just a piece of entertainment, it is a warning to stay woke. Actress and humanitarian Emma Watson recently interviewed Margaret for her feminist book club Our Shared Shelf, after hiding copies of the book around Paris, which she has done in the past with other titles from the club.

“It is a book that has never stopped fascinating readers because it articulates so vividly what it feels like for a woman to lose power over her own body,” said Emma.

Margaret explains to the actress her three-fold inspiration behind writing the book, which took place while she lived in West Berlin before the wall came down. The first was based on what right-wing people at the time were saying they wanted to see happen, but lacked the power to do it.

“I believe that people who say those kinds of things will do those things if and when they get power: They’re not just funning around…If you’re going to make women go back into the home, how are you going to do that? If America were to become a totalitarian state, what would that state look like?…It would not be Communism in the United States; it would have undoubtedly been some sort of religious ideology—which it now is,” she said.

The second was the puritanical roots of America in certain parts of the East Coast/New England area, and third was her interest in sci-fi with the intent on creating something from the female gaze, as most others were from the male POV.

“Most of the ones I’d read had been written by men and had male protagonists, and I wanted to flip that and see what such a thing would look like if it were told from the point of view of a female narrator. It’s not that those earlier books didn’t have women in them, and not that women didn’t play important parts; it’s that they were not the narrators,” she said.

When asked by Emma why she thinks the younger generations have received the book and TV series so well, other than because of the political climate, Margaret is quick to remind her that every aspect of the story and its themes are taken from something that has already happened in real life, which becomes a moment of reckoning and identification for new readers.

“There were a couple of rules I had for writing it, and one of them was that I would put nothing into it that had not been done at some time or in some place. All of the details have precedents in real life…People know that I wasn’t just making up horrors to be entertaining…So the book isn’t a violation of human nature, and it’s not a just an invention. It’s based on stuff that people have really done and therefore could do again,” she said.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the power structures in Gilead is the way there are women who are part of the oppression of the handmaids. Margaret says this is also true to real life human nature, likening it to the way Boko Haram captures child soldiers and forces them to kill family members in order for them to stay alive themselves.

“If offered a position of power within a relatively powerless position, some people will take that. People say, ‘Why do you have Aunt Lydia?’ ‘Why do you have the female aunt being so controlling to women?’ And I say because they would be! That’s how such a power structure would operate, that’s how they’ve operated in the past: You give somebody a bit more power over the others, and they will take it. So it’s not a case of all women being angelic,” she said.

While the idea of women being oppressive is certainly a reality especially in systems where it becomes a survival mechanism, Margaret also says when women are valued as equal members of society and seen as more than just incubators (or handmaids!), their situation can improve. She used the example of how Inuit women, who make clothing for the men, become an integral part of their hunter-gatherer culture because the men rely on their expert handiwork to keep them safe from the water.

Her other examples was Bangladesh, where microfinancers are giving loans only to women to start small businesses, because they see how women invest that money back into their families and communities.

“As soon as they start bringing in money to the family their status and situation improves,” she explained.

While we are certainly nowhere near the point of women’s ability to earn money being taken away in the United States (at least not from any form of government), that is one of the first steps that happens before Gilead is fully realized. Women are no longer allowed to work or own bank accounts. ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ warnings are loud and clear, and should not be brushed aside by any means.

It is important to continue fighting for the autonomous and equal rights of all people, but especially women when it comes to reproductive healthcare. We’ve seen the massive backlash toward Republicans in Congress as they continually try to take away healthcare from millions of people, which would gravely affect low-income women and those with families.

We’ve seen a number of Handmaid’s protests, most notably in Texas, where women are dressing up as the fictional characters in red robes to object to the relentless onslaught of anti-choice bills which are a blatant attempt to strip women of their ability to choose the right healthcare for their bodies.

These protests are not just a publicity stunt, they are drawing a direct correlation between a fictional novel, and what is happening politically today.

“You’ve probably seen that women dressed as Handmaids have been turning up in state legislatures and just sitting there. You can’t kick them out because they’re not making a disturbance, but everybody knows what they mean,” Margaret told Emma.

You can read the full interview in Entertainment Weekly, watch ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ on HULU in the United States, or buy the book on Amazon.

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