Like every person with an internet connection, I’ve been devouring season three of The Handmaid’s Tale (currently streaming via SBS On Demand). While a little frustrated by the ambling plot, that’s gone well beyond the conclusion of Margaret Atwood’s book, I’ve remained a devoted viewer. There is so much about this dystopian futuristic tale that feels other-worldly. At the same time, there’s so much that is familiar. And it’s that terrifying familiarity, which keeps me tuning in week after week, wanting to know how it ends.
The social and political order of Gilead was born from a combination of environmental cataclysm and intense religious fundamentalism. Birth rates plummet after the planet becomes so damaged that humans are increasingly unable to reproduce. Men control law-making, while women are reduced to decorative or functional means. The handmaids, in their trademark red cloaks and white bonnets, are captive breeders who are routinely raped by their commanders while the rest of the household looks on.
Here in the real world, we read daily warnings that climate change has passed the point of no return. By acting now, humans could reduce the scale of devastation, but instead our lawmakers look the other way; worried about immediate costs like keeping the lights on. In the United States, white men promulgate strict anti-abortion laws across the southern states under the guise of religious doctrine. “This isn’t a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale,” says presidential hopeful Kamala Harris, “this is happening in Alabama – in our country – in. 2019”.
I won’t pretend that things in Australia are all that much better. We are already seeing the impact of temperature changes here at home, and on our neighbours in the pacific. Whether or not to act and the scale of action required has dominated the political debate in our country for a decade, with no positive outcome. Women are killed by men who say they love them every week and that’s considered par for the course by our political leadership and mainstream media.
“Progress towards gender equality is not linear. Our ambitions can be thwarted. Our campaigns halted.”
On abortion rights, however, we see progress. With new laws passing the lower house of the NSW parliament this month (admittedly with vocal dissent) a woman’s right to access safe and accessible termination of a pregnancy is all but secure across the country. You’ll recall that it was only last year the Queensland parliament voted to decriminalise abortion. A woman’s right to control her own body remains contentious, however free we might feel.
As Australian women we often take for granted our right to work, to own property, to have a bank account and make decisions about our own fertility; to control our own bodies. We should not. These rights can be taken away as readily as they are given. Progress towards gender equality is not linear. This is not some slow, steady march towards a fair society. Our ambitions can be thwarted. Our campaigns halted. Laws can be undone and yes, our country can and has retreated from equality.
Of course, it’s far-fetched and sometimes the plot gets silly and frustrating. The heaviness of The Handmaids Tale can be gut wrenching and we understandably crave a break; time to watch reruns of Seinfeld instead. I hope, however, that we all keep watching. That the fictitious red cloaks and white bonnets remain etched in our minds’ eye so as to maintain our vigilance. Progress for women is happening and it is heartening but its continuation cannot be assumed. Just like the future of our planet is far from assured.
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