• June (Elisabeth Moss) in The Handmaid's Tale. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Margaret Atwood and her crimson handmaids are having a big moment in popular culture and politics.
Sharon Verghis

20 Apr 2018 - 9:23 AM  UPDATED 9 May 2019 - 4:09 PM

Margaret Atwood will be 80 in 2019. In an interview on social news website Reddit, she described herself as in the “gold watch and goodbye phase of my career.”

Not quite. The Canadian Booker Prize-winning author of more than forty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays has never been more popular.

Her 1985 classic of feminist dystopian fiction The Handmaid’s Tale – set in a Christian theocracy where fertile women are sexually enslaved - struck a powerful chord with readers concerned about the backlash against hard-won women’s rights led by the then new politically powerful evangelical Christian right in the US.

It would continue to fascinate and terrify in various adaptations, from a 1990 film starring Natasha Richardson, to an opera, radio play, ballet and stage play.

The book that taps unerringly – and eerily – into the big fears of our times.

But it was the ascent of Donald Trump, coinciding with the novel’s blockbuster TV adaptation by MGM and Hulu last year (SBS will air the second season later this month) that has catapulted Atwood’s nightmarish dystopia to new heights as a must-read feminist classic. In 2017, The Handmaid's Tale was Kindle's most read book of the year, according to Amazon; the Trump effect has also fuelled  a reported 200% increase in sales since the US election.

Atwood and her crimson handmaids are also having a big moment in popular culture and politics, featuring in an advertising spot on Super Bowl Sunday, as a hit parody on Saturday Night Live, starring in everything from cosplay outfits to Vera Wang's fashion shoot in Vogue, and finding a new generation of readers on the back of celebrity endorsements. Emma Watson recently featured it in her book club, Our Shared Shelf.

In the political realm, those red capes and white bonnets have popped up everywhere from last year’s Women’s Marches to silent protests in US state capitals as the new uniform of feminist protest against a perceived backlash against women’s reproductive health and safety.

Atwood herself is riding high from international writing festivals to social media (she has more than 1.9 million followers on Twitter), generating headlines with tart pronouncements on everything from the merits of the #MeToo movement, to pornstar aesthetics in dating to sexual etiquette and modern-day courtship.

Atwood’s slim tale is a potent touchstone and reminder of the power of female voices as a tool of resistance.

We can’t get enough of her work, it seems. In September 2016, Atwood sold the rights to The Heart Goes Last, her 2015 novel about a married couple trapped in a social experiment, to MGM Television, while another classic work, 1996’s Alias Grace, found new life in Netflix's 2017 adaptation last year. A bidding war also erupted over her MaddAddam book trilogy, which went to Paramount TV and Anonymous Content

So why does this queen of dystopian fiction and her handmaids continue to intrigue and terrify a new generation of readers?

Federation University literature lecturer Linda Wight says The Handmaid’s Tale is a book that taps unerringly – and eerily – into the big fears of our times, particularly those that concern young women: “the power of the Christian right, environmental degradation, gender inequities, homophobia, media censorship and control, terrorism.”

To young women grappling with oppression and abuse, from sexual harassment to the curtailing of reproductive rights, Atwood’s slim tale is a potent touchstone and reminder of the power of female voices as a tool of resistance.

“As Offred reflects, ‘there is something powerful in the whispering of obscenities, about those in power…it deflates them, reduces them to the common denominator where they can be dealt with’. Both The Handmaid's Tale and #MeToo recognise the power of women's voices and the danger to women - individually and as a community - when those voices are silenced by fears of violence, unemployment and other significant repercussions.”

Like Orwell’s 1984, the novel not also taps into fears about authoritarian government control over bodies and minds but concerns about the future, and the role science and technology will play in our lives, says Sydney University English studies Associate professor Margaret Rogerson.

“The Handmaid's Tale and the Oryx and Crake trilogy are the most obviously futuristic/dystopian works but there is also a very short story about the (futuristic) cloning of the thylacine called Thylacine Ragout which was published in The Tent (Bloomsbury, 2006). This has a chilling message for Australians (in particular) who are concerned with science and the future as Atwood obviously is," Associate Professor Rogerson said. 

“We may think that things are bad now, but will it be worse in time to come and will the 'worse' be anything like what Atwood has shown us here?”

SBS will air the double-episode season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale at 8.30pm Thursday 6 June, with episodes 1-3 available on SBS On Demand. New episodes will then air weekly on SBS, moving to the 9:30pm time slot from Thursday 20th June. All episodes will be available to stream weekly on SBS On Demand.

The Handmaid's Tale is not dystopian for black women - it's real life
For black people these stories do not have to be imagined as a dystopian future.
Why we respond so strongly to Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid's Tale
Women like Aunt Lydia exist and have always existed. In the show she is an enforcer; in real life we can recognise her as the moral campaigner.
The red robes of the Handmaid's Tale have become a symbol of power
Elisabeth Moss says that the robes are “an image that stands so clearly for feminism and women’s rights".