The Handmaid’s Tale. Read it now.

Handmaid's Tale

“I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it’s shameful or immodest but because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to look at something that determines me so completely.”  – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I belong to an amazing book club of ten women, and we just finished reading and discussing The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my first exposure to this iconic dystopian novel about the theocratic Republic of Gilead (formerly the United States), where fertile women have been enslaved for purposes of reproduction due to dramatically declining birth rates.

Atwood has said that every aspect of extreme female oppression depicted in the novel has actually happened. The ghosts of New England puritanism and witch hunts haunt The Handmaid’s Tale: the novel takes place in Cambridge near a university (Harvard) that has been shut down. There are also strains of American slavery, the Bible, and the Third Reich, among other periods.

NOW is the perfect time to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. It has been getting a lot of attention because of the new Hulu series starring Elizabeth Moss and, of course, because of the unsettling political era unfolding in the U.S. As Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker put it, “Our President is a Playboy-brash predator; his Vice-President is pure Gilead.”

I decided to simultaneously watch the unfolding Hulu series, which added interesting contrasts and depths to my reading and viewing experiences.

I quote Emily Nussbaum below because I think our book club would agree that reading Handmaid inspired us to reflect on how it was for women in the Reagan era when the book was published. (We range in age from 40s to 60s.) I was thirty when The Handmaid’s Tale came out in 1985. I’d just moved out of New York City, where I’d watched the Trump Tower go up on Fifth Avenue directly across the street from my office. In fact, the book publisher I worked for moved to a humbler downtown neighborhood once Trump’s golden tower was in place and the rent became unaffordable.

“…for many readers of my generation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is also a time machine back to the Reagan era, a mightily perverse period for sexual politics. Just a decade earlier, a woman could be denied a credit card without a man to co-sign, and yet, by 1985, when the novel was written, the media was declaring that feminism was over, dunzo, defunct—no longer necessary, now that women wore sneakers to jobs at law firms. At the same time, sexual danger was a national obsession, seen from two opposing angles, each claiming to protect women. On the right, there was the anti-abortion New Christian Right—led by figures like Phyllis Schlafly and the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker—intent on restoring traditional marriage. On the left, there was the anti-porn movement….It was a peculiar era in which to be a teen-age girl, equally prudish and decadent: the era of Trump Tower and cocaine, AIDS and “Just Say No.” Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

While I read and watched The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d been working on a scene in my memoir that takes place in New York City in 1978.  I’d been trying to remember how I’d seen myself in the context of the times at twenty-three, but my memories were delivering up a great deal of ambivalence and little clarity. I knew I’d felt grateful for the second-wave feminists and the 1960s cultural pioneers and that I’d thought that women’s liberation had done its work. Yet carving out a career wasn’t proving to be easy; mostly I’d blamed myself for that. Reading Nussbaum’s essay helped me flesh out my scene and my thoughts by reminding me that the late seventies already heralded a backlash: Phyllis Schafly and Ronald Reagan were just around the corner.

Atwood’s book, of course, shows us that history can move in cycles. Freedoms won can be lost.

Nussbaum points out in her essay that the Hulu show has to keep going season after season, while the novel is a self-contained work. Because of this, the spirit of the TV show eventually departs from the claustrophobic bleakness of the book. Offred’s quest on television becomes escape and reunification with her daughter and lover. (Offred is a handmaid forced to have sex with her married Commander; should she become pregnant, the baby will be turned over to the Commander and his barren wife.) The TV series becomes more like a thriller, while in the book there seem to be few ways the women can work toward liberation. The TV show is more hopeful, but be warned that it is graphic and violent. I think both the book and the series are excellent, but I don’t know how long I will watch the series. Season after season, a series can lose power and focus. It could eventually pale next to Atwood’s book, which reads like a bomb going off.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale or are you watching the Hulu series? What do you think?

AtwoodAutograph

“How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone.”

 

(On the heels of The Handmaid’s Tale, I happened to find out about a new documentary series on Netflix, “The Keepers.” My husband and I watched all seven episodes in two nights.“The Keepers” depicts a real-life dystopia for young women who attended a Catholic school in Baltimore beginning in the 1960s, the life-long ramifications of untold secrets, and the confounding process of recovering memories. Well-crafted documentaries remind me how truth can be stranger than fiction. It’s got me thinking about how story and dramatization, no matter what the medium or genre, can so powerfully reveal truths about the human spirit. It’s not easy to depict such depth of character in documentary. I’m still thinking about the good women–and the handful of good men–in “The Keepers.”)

 

Mad Men

Mad Men posterI was surprised at how bereft I was the day after the Mad Men finale, as though I’d said goodbye to my childhood forever. The only thing that made me feel better is the memoir I’m writing; nearly every day lately I return to the 1960s.

This post has spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the last episode of Mad Men, or if you’ve yet to watch the entire 7-season, 92-hour epic, you may want to stop reading right here. (Or click on these links to the New York Public Library’s Mad Men reading lists and NPR’s guide to the music of Mad Men. If you plan to watch or re-watch the series, you could supplement with books and music of the times.)

A few seasons into Mad Men, a couple of friends predicted that Don Draper would commit suicide, given his self-destructive tendencies. Many viewers thought the opening animation of a man in a suit falling from a skyscraper foreshadowed such an ending.

No, I thought. That’s wrong. A misreading of his character. Don is a survivor. (Indeed, so says one of the characters in the final episode.) Cheever Collected Stories book cover

I bristled at the judgmental tone I sometimes heard, as if Don deserved such an end, given his many faults. On the contrary, Don was emblematic of a certain kind of self-made man of his time–raised in poverty and neglect, a traumatized war veteran who became a successful ad man, rich beyond his wildest dreams, yet alienated and lonely. Like all humans, he struggles. Like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, he’s lost.

You can find Don Draper in much of the literature of the 1950s and ’60s. The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, drew heavily on bestselling books of that era, and was particularly influenced by the short stories of John Cheever, as well as Cheever’s journals. In fact, at the beginning of every season of scriptwriting, Weiner read the introduction to Cheever’s stories to the writers as a source of inspiration.

Weiner says that he loved reading the journals of 1950s and 1960s writers and ad executives and found them enormously helpful. While many of us look upon advertising with distaste, or at least ambivalence, Don Draper and his colleagues were in fact supporting families while doing deeply creative work. I think Weiner got it so right as he charted the highs and lows of these highly creative men and women. Weiner also points out that many famous artists have had to do advertising work to make a living.

When I was in college, a couple of my male friends had fathers who were prominent ad men, having commuted from the suburbs into Manhattan every day for thirty years. They seemed to feel pressure to follow in their fathers’ footsteps, and I sometimes sensed they were afraid they wouldn’t measure up. Advertising was a difficult, high-pressure career, but also an exciting and fulfilling way to make a living. And, of course, most ad execs were not deeply flawed Don Drapers.

One note of nostalgia for me is that the show ends in 1970, and in 1977 I moved to Manhattan, where I worked in book publishing. For a time I was in the advertising department of a large publisher, where I worked with artists, graphic designers, photographers, and other creative people. Publishing was a different world from high-stakes Madison Avenue advertising, of course, a backwater compared to the pressure of Mad Men agencies. But when I saw Mad Men’s meek Peggy Olson show up for her first job in that office in the sky, I was taken right back to my New York City days. Peggy’s world, where women in the workplace were all secretaries, was to a large degree my world. Needless to say, watching Peggy’s transformation has been riveting. Mad Men poster

In a remarkably candid interview conducted by the author A.M. Homes at the New York Public Library, Weiner says that he often discussed with his therapist the challenges of his work as the creator of Mad Men, and they often talked about Don Draper–his flaws, his motivations, his journey in life. Weiner reveals that his therapist helped him figure out whether it was necessary to be miserable when one is in the midst of creating. (Weiner implies that he was often miserable and concludes that, no, one does not have to be miserable when one is creating.)

Weiner says Frank O’Hara’s poetry in particular helped him understand the zeitgeist of the times. He read Lunch Poems and Meditations in an Emergency (which we see Don reading in one episode), and says that Meditations changed his life. That makes me curious, so I’ve added O’Hara to my reading list.

Here’s another fascinating tidbit: when they were looking for an actor to play the stranger that Don reaches out to at the Esalen style retreat, Weiner told the talent scouts that the stranger had to be an actor who was not famous and that this character “was the most important character in the entire series.” Weiner has more to say about this character and the closing scene in the New York Public Library interview. (The final scene is shown during the interview.)

The last episode concludes with what has been called the most famous commercial of all time: the Coke ad with the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” People critical of this ending feel cynical about pairing this uplifting message, sung in harmony by people of all races, with crass commercialism. As for me, I thought the ending was perfect, in sync with the person Don is, and in sync with the times. Yes, Don Draper the ad man may have risen like the phoenix to create the most popular commercial in history. But I took his encounter with the lonely stranger at Big Sur to be an authentic moment of growth and greater self-awareness. I haven’t been to Esalen, but I’ve been to a place called Spirit Rock, and things like that do happen to people.

If Mad Men were to continue, I think Don Draper would still be the flawed man we know, far from perfect.  And yet, a better man, too. You can hear Matthew Weiner’s thoughts about Don here in the NYPL interview.

I think Matthew Weiner ranks right up there with the great novelists of our time.

If you’d like to meet the real ad man who created the Coke commercial (Bill Backer, who makes clear he has nothing in common with Don Draper), click here.

Mad Men Books and Music Meditations in an Emergency book cover

Mad Men characters love to read. Here are lists of the books they are seen reading on screen:

The Mad Men Reading List compiled by Billy Parrott, Managing Librarian at the New York Public Library

Mad Men Reading List Collection of 25 books read by characters throughout the series

Weiner chose a popular song of the time to close each program:

A Comprehensive Guide (Nearly) to the Music of Mad Men from National Public Radio

Are you a Mad Men fan and have you watched the ending? What did you think? If you’d like, please share your thoughts about any aspects of Mad Men.

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