Why I Wish I’d Never Watched “The Handmaid’s Tale”
A call for the pop culture stories America needs right now
By Bridgit Antoinette Evans
It often appears in the quiet of night. I shut my eyes and try to imagine the future. An image, always the same image, darts into my mind. The first thing I notice about this future is that I’m not in it. Somehow, I have been disappeared: either through a return to chattel slavery or ethnic cleansing, I do not survive in this new world. In fact, most Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, immigrants, Muslim, Jewish, trans, queer, disabled, and elderly people do not.
I know this image isn’t real — it’s playing tricks on my imagination. Still, fear rises in my chest like bubbling acid. My breath accelerates. Then comes the blunt force of my anger as it breaks through the panic. The rage calms me and I begin to sense my own power again.
This feeling is fleeting. My anger betrays me, giving way to hot, sticky shame, like when you’re a child and someone chides you for being afraid to try something other kids do with ease. I’m a rational person; I know this image should have no power over me. Yet, here it is, in the deep of night, holding my imagination hostage.
This image, so clear in my mind, is a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale, the incredibly popular series on Hulu (based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name) that has misappropriated centuries of BIPOC trauma and oppression into the near future storyworld of the Republic of Gilead. Since its premiere just three months after the historic 2017 Women’s March, its creators have asked viewers to imagine a world in which women — mostly white women — are sex slaves, and men — mostly white men — are serial rapists. Genocidaires. Sociopaths. Each week, millions of people tune in to watch Gilead’s social systems and norms take hold. Secret police snatch children from their parents’ arms at U.S. borders. Same-sex marriages are nullified. The instinct to love and care for others is a weakness that will get you killed. In this white nationalist, patriarchal fan fiction, trauma is relentless and the swift pace at which human rights are devoured by an authoritarian regime is breathtaking.
It doesn’t help that the illusion of Gilead has evolved alongside our own increasingly dystopian reality. When we turn away from our screens and reenter the real world, our nation looks more and more like the images we see on screen: families are separated at our border; a global pandemic exposes the racism and bias that prevents Black and Indigenous people, immigrants, and older people from receiving equitable care; hyper-militarized police and immigration forces troll communities of color and disappear people into the labyrinth of our prison system; state laws attempt to control what we do with our bodies and what identities we can claim. The lines between fiction and reality are blurry.
Do you feel this way too? When you close your eyes and think of the future, has a White Nationalist regime overtaken our government, as in The Handmaid’s Tale? Does a corporate-controlled government convince young people to fight each other to the death in a ruse to distract them from organizing to reclaim democracy, like The Hunger Games? Do we, like the characters in Mad Max: Fury Road, live in a desert wasteland because human beings have recklessly ignored the clanging alarms of climate change?
American popular culture is a powerful, immersive ocean of stories that have shaped how generations of people understand the past, make sense of the present, and envision the future. While stories like Star Trek, A Wrinkle in Time, and Black Panther have expanded our collective imagination about what is possible, most films and television shows about the future leave us starved for characters and stories that show us a just and pluralist world in which we all survive and thrive.
I believe we can create new oceans, if we begin to make different choices and tell different stories. Let’s do the work. Let’s reclaim our imaginations.
Re-Awakening Pluralist Yearning
Throughout America’s history, the most transformative cultural shifts — from slavery abolition to Reconstruction, “I Have A Dream” to “Yes We Can,” #BlackLivesMatter, the DREAMers, and Love Is Love — have been achieved by artists, organizers, and movements that have awakened people’s deep yearning to belong in a pluralist America. In each case, the tug of war between belonging and exclusion sparked a portal moment — a cracking open of the public imagination — in which we could see a glimmer of what this country is capable of becoming.
At the Pop Culture Collaborative, a philanthropic fund and learning community, we believe our nation is on the precipice of another historic breakthrough: a once-in-a- generation opportunity for the American people to decisively choose to move in the direction of pluralism and justice. With the 2020 election season underway, the COVID-19 pandemic challenging us to recommit to our civic purpose, and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah McClain, and so many others reigniting widespread demands for deep structural change, an important question has moved to center stage: How will the American public respond to this call for transformation? Will we submit to authoritarian narratives that entice us to retreat back into the systems of exclusion and violence that stain our past, or will we step boldly through the portal these crises have opened up and onto the path towards our pluralist future?
In 2018, the Collaborative began a learning and narrative system design process in collaboration with hundreds of partners, including our grantees, senior fellows, Managing Partners, movement leaders, and entertainment industry cohort members, led by our Senior Fellow Ryan Senser and his colleague Eleanor Morison. At dozens of retreats, genius banks, national convenings, interviews with field practitioners, and virtual gatherings, we worked to develop a deeper understanding of the mindsets and behaviors that define belonging. We analyzed a range of past culture change processes, from the journey to voting rights and marriage equality, to the rise of bottled water, minivans, and 12-step programs, and interviewed people just as curious as we were about what belonging looks like in action.
Along the way, our focus on belonging expanded to encompass the ideology of pluralism. We quickly discovered that pluralism has gotten a bad rap in recent years, often dismissed by the social justice sector as a benign and outdated construct closely tied to ideas like multiculturalism and diversity. Two insights roundly debunked these assumptions.
First, The Pluralism Project at Harvard University helped us understand that pluralism is not primarily defined by our values, but by how we behave in relationship to values. It is defined as both “the valuing of difference, and the active forging of bonds across our differences.”
The second insight emerged during a learning immersion held in the aftermath of the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and featuring civil rights leader Eric K. Ward, Executive Director of the Western States Center and a member of the Collaborative’s narrative system working group. “The most dangerous thing to white nationalists,” said Ward, “is an American populace that believes their nation is meant to be a pluralist society.”
Intrigued by the sense that pluralist yearning could be a motivating force for change in American society — the heartbeat of a future society worth fighting for — we constructed the following definition:
Pluralist Culture: a social condition in which the majority of people in a community or nation are actively engaged in the hard and delicate work of belonging together in a just society.
The most important thing we concluded from this process: If social justice organizations and foundations hope to create lasting political and cultural change that centers justice and belonging, we need to cultivate many more people in our nation and the world who identify as Pluralists and make decisions based on a Pluralist worldview.
Who will lead the way?
What is a Pluralist? And what kinds of narrative and cultural experiences can inspire them to play a pivotal role in the story of how America finally lets go of the white supremacist, patriarchal values of our nation’s origins and moves towards a future defined by justice and belonging?
In 2019, the Pop Culture Collaborative partnered with Open Society Foundations to use culture change research to dig deeper into these questions. Led by Jeff Yang and Ken Habarta of the cultural analytics agency Metafo.re, Towards a Pluralist Future is a multiphase research project that explores questions such as: What types of people already embody a pluralist worldview? What life, narrative, and story experiences have been most influential in shaping Pluralist identity and mindsets? And, how and why do Pluralists remain resilient in the face of inhumane rhetoric and provocation?
Metafo.re surveyed more than 200 people to find Pluralists from all walks of life, and then conducted 2-hour interviews with a subset of people whose responses most closely embodied pluralist behavioral instincts and mindsets. Through this work, the researchers found that people most likely to embrace pluralist culture and/or self-identify as Pluralists share these life experiences:
1. Immersion in a specific heritage, family culture, and faith
Most Pluralists had early home life and community experiences that involved clearly defined cultural norms and values, shaped by racial or ethnic identity or other heritage.
2. Concepts of justice shaped by key cultural touchstones
Most Pluralists can point to specific cultural inflection points — the Civil Rights movement, September 11th, the Iraq War, the election of Barack Obama or Donald Trump — that spurred their journey towards a Pluralist identity.
3. Early childhood trauma
A common experience of Pluralists is the trauma of navigating difficult situations early in life (e.g., parents’ divorce, loss of a parent, family crisis or abuse, displacement and migration from their home community, and isolation within a new and strange environment). Most Pluralists later choose career paths shaped by their desire to right the wrongs experienced in their childhood.
4. Trust in relationships as a source of power
Many Pluralists lead with curiosity and channel their difficult life experiences into the behavioral instinct to embrace difference, habitually seeking out and forging bonds with others and evolving through these relationships.
5. A journey from loneliness to belonging
For Pluralists, survival meant having the courage to overcome feelings of isolation. Through transformative experiences in childhood (e.g., joining the drama club or marching band, finding one’s voice in a social movement, feeling seen among other queer or trans classmates), Pluralists gain concrete proof that belonging is possible: a critical turning point in Pluralist identity formation.
6. A mindset of abundance
Because of their personal knowledge of the pain of isolation, most Pluralists have a strong desire to make space for others, especially those who share their experience of being an outsider. This supports their core belief that more is more, that there is always enough room at the table, enough to go around, and more to be discovered by expanding community, not constraining it.
7. The instinct to cross borders
Most Pluralists share the experience of migrating across geographic and/or cultural borders. Whether through traumatic displacement and relocation or voluntary travel, Pluralists tend to routinely seek out and immerse themselves in new environments and relationships in order to expand their knowledge, empathy, and imagination. This culturally fluid behavior leads Pluralists to adopt more flexible concepts of identity, citizenship, and national borders.
The Metafo.re team also found that most Pluralists actively seek out and yearn for popular culture — particularly in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and documentaries — that reflects these early life experiences. In childhood, such stories help them make meaning of their trauma, displacement, and yearning to belong. As adults, these stories reinforce their Pluralist worldview and bolster their resolve in the face of toxic provocations from populist, authoritarian forces in society.
Towards a Pluralist America
Metafo.re’s research, together with the learning process conducted with Ryan Senser and the Pop Culture Collaborative community, offers social justice movements, the pop culture for social change field, and the funders who support them an ideological and behavioral framework that can help us all cultivate Pluralist identity in the American populace through entertainment storytelling and other cultural experiences. Equally important, the findings suggest that Pluralist identity formation cultivates resilient beliefs, values, and behavioral instincts that remain intact in the face of racist, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic rhetoric, narratives, and behavioral prompts.
As pop culture for social change field members wade deeper into the narrative waters of America’s cultural divides, philanthropy has an unparalleled opportunity — and responsibility — to support them to create the stories and other narrative experiences that can awaken and reaffirm Pluralist instincts in millions of Americans. Where content like The Handmaid’s Tale clouds our vision, stories that elucidate what just and pluralist culture looks like can replenish our imaginations, bringing dimension and complexity to the “hard and delicate work” of embracing difference, assuming abundance, practicing anti-racist accountability, and fighting for justice in every aspect of our lives.
America is capable of becoming something new, and the pop culture for social change field has the power to tell the story of how we get there. First, we reclaim our imaginations. Then we get busy making a hopeful future feel real and possible for millions of people.
Bridgit Antoinette Evans is an artist, culture change strategist, and philanthropic leader with more than 20 years experience in the pop culture for social change field. Since 2017, she has served as Executive Director of the Pop Culture Collaborative.
About the Pop Culture Collaborative
The Pop Culture Collaborative is a philanthropic resource and funder learning community working to transform the narrative landscape in America around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and indigenous peoples, especially those who are women, queer, transgender, and/or disabled. In the long term, the Collaborative seeks to contribute to the growth of a pop culture for social change field capable of building the yearning in most Americans — more than 150 million people — to actively co-create a just and pluralist nation in which everyone is perceived to belong, inherently, and is treated as such. The Collaborative awards grants to United States–based nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and individuals (with fiscal sponsorship) working to drive transformative experiences for mass audiences (i.e., more than 1 million people) through pop culture stories, media, and social networks. For more information, visit popcollab.org.