There's been quite a lot of talk about the television adaptation of Margret Atwood's seminal classic novel The Handmaid's Tale premiering this week on Hulu, and New Republic's Sarah Jones makes the argument that Atwood's dystopian story of America being turned into a prosperity gospel theocracy is closer than ever to merging with the dark reality of the Trump regime.
Set in the very near future, Hulu’s new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale subtly updates Atwood’s dystopia. The execution of a gay woman in episode three seems inspired by a real Iranian execution. Played by Elisabeth Moss, Offred is more relatable than she’s ever been, with a motto (“I intend to survive”) destined for a thousand Etsy products. In the show, as in our moment, it is not just men, but crucially some women, too, who fervently wish for a society where women are no longer free or equal. Women known as Aunts initiate the Handmaids into their new roles; Wives terrorize Handmaids with little restraint. These women midwife Gilead into the world, though it’s not clear what they stand to gain from any of it.
Most contradictory and recognizable of all these female collaborators is Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of Offred’s commander. Before Gilead, she graced American television screens as a preternaturally blond evangelist. (Serena Joy was her stage name, a nom de guerre for the culture wars.) Even though she occupies the highest rank for a woman in this new world, she is now legally inferior to her sad-sack husband and, finding herself childless, has to employ Offred as a surrogate. Rage roils the edges of her ice-princess restraint. “She doesn’t make speeches anymore,” Offred notes in the book. “She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word.”
America is rich in Serena Joys. One need look no further for her contemporary counterparts than Michelle Duggar and her daughters; or Paula White, the televangelist who allegedly led Donald Trump to Christ; or his aide Kellyanne Conway, who defends him as a “great boss” to women. The character Atwood invented is an amalgam of Phyllis Schlafly and Tammy Faye Bakker with a dash of Aimee Semple McPherson. The spectacle of the female fundamentalist celebrity is not recent, and she is not an anomaly. Her existence is proof of American fundamentalism’s durability, and a reminder that it could not thrive without the enthusiastic backing of women.
When Atwood wrote her novel, Schlafly had already established herself as one of America’s most visible and influential conservative women by leading a successful campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. A committed Catholic, Schlafly hurled herself against feminism’s second wave with all the conviction of the activists she loathed. “The women’s libbers don’t understand that most women want to be wife, mother, and homemaker—and are happy in that role,” she asserted in 1972.
But like her fictional doppelgänger, Schlafly was no homemaker. She traveled the country; she appeared on television; she influenced policy. The world she wanted to build could not coexist with the world that allowed her career. These contradictions did not, however, trouble Schlafly’s supporters. She defeated the ERA by mobilizing them; her mostly female volunteer brigades harried legislators into rejecting the bill.
Women also propped up the career of a man to Schlafly’s right: the theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony. Whereas Schlafly was content to work within the Republican Party, Rushdoony preferred a purist approach: As historian Michael McVicar has recounted, Rushdoony lost a job at the Center for American Studies after attempting to purge its Catholics. This was further than most in the American right of the 1960s wanted to go, and so he labored in the fringes, formulating his vision of a literal Protestant theocracy. It was conservative women who came to his rescue: In 1965, Women for America granted him a stipend to continue his work—envisioning a society in which women would stay at home with their children, and apostasy and homosexuality would be punishable by death.
The dilemma of Serena Joy feels deceptively easy to resolve. She’s in this for power, and understands that it’s hers if she says the right things to the right audiences. Schlafly achieved international fame, and Conway has the ear of the president. With Gilead, however, Atwood reminds such women that they might not like the results of their labor; that by the time they come to regret it, the culture they helped create will have developed far beyond their control. Serena Joy is a warning, not only to her feminist antagonists, but to conservatives, too.
It's a stark but true warning: those who helped create the government we now exist under are only now finding out that it was never meant for them, and that has never been more true than for "powerful women".