The Handmaid’s Tale Ruined Me For Dystopias

Kit Steinkellner

Staff Writer

Kit Steinkellner is a playwright, screenwriter, and creative writing teacher. She also writes about books and reading  at Books Are My Boyfriends. Follow her onTwitter: @BooksAreMyBFs

This post is part of our Margaret Atwood Riot Reading Day, a celebration of one of our favorite authors on the occasion of the publication of her new novel, MaddAddamCheck out the full line-up here.

When I was in high school I checked The Handmaid’s Tale out of my school library, and it changed my reading life.

I had dreams of Atwood’s Gilead weeks after I finished the novel. In my dreams it was my debit card that stopped working at cash machines because I was a woman and no longer able to own property. I was the one sleeping in that gymnasium with a dozen other sex-slaves-to-be, I was wearing that red cloak with the white-winged habit, I was forced to lie between some rich woman’s legs while her husband climbed on top of us and… I dreamed a lot of crazy things, they’re dreams, you guys, they’re supposed to be crazy.

My reading of The Handmaid’s Tale came quickly after my readings of 1984 and Brave New World. I get why the kids these days love their dystopias because I loved mine. It thrilled me, diving into these worlds. It deeply disturbed me, finishing these books and puzzling out not only their meaning but their plausibility. I get you, Hunger Games/Divergent/Delirium/Matched/Uglies/Legend/ teen fangirls and fanboys. I get you because in the early-mid 2000s I WAS you.

Only I wasn’t you. Because “Dystopian YA” wasn’t a thing in 2003. YA wasn’t even really a thing. I mean, it was a thing, but it wasn’t a neon-signed-fireworks-exploding-Rockettes-doing-a-kickline-at-Radio-City-Music-Hall thing. After I finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I kind of reached a dystopia dead end. My school library was out. I searched AOL or whatever Byzantine technology we were using back then, and I came up with Canticle for Leibowitz, which fifteen-year-old me could NOT get into. Then I sort of gave up on the genre and moved on to Ginormous Russian Classics which I was also SUPER into.

I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale a few times over the next several years. Each reread took me apart and put me back together again. I still marveled at the world, at the fable-like quality of the story. I still puzzled over the ideas brought up and the questions raised. I still was in awe of Offred, a woman so ordinary forced into such impossible circumstances, and managing to survive.

I absolutely see The Hunger Games as a direct descendant of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a fable of its own (less neo-Biblical, more sci-fi-take-on-a-Greek-myth-mashed-up-with-a-dystopian-gladiator’s-tale). It literally kicks more butt, violence is this series’ bread and butter. I don’t think it makes you think nearly as hard. I don’t think it’s supposed to. The Hunger Games was written for adolescents. We adults are just along for the ride. On the flip side, when I read The Handmaid’s Tale as a teen, I was reading a novel written for adults. I was the one who had to play catch-up. And I loved it.

I have great respect for The Hunger Games. I have less respect for the dystopian series that have followed in its wake. The world-building tends to ham-fisted and slap-dash. After a while, I can’t tell the young female protagonists apart. I feel like so many of these series ask me to think less, where Handmaid’s Tale begged me to think so much more. So I should stop reading the subgenre. But I keep reading, because The Handmaid’s Tale gave me the bug, and there’s no bug that bites harder than a genre bug. The Handmaid’s Tale (with the help of 1984 and Brave New World) ruined me for dystopias, I hope it’s pleased with itself.

Here’s what I’m wondering. The Handmaid’s Tale ruined me for dystopias, that’s the title of the post, I just reiterated my thesis four seconds ago, you get it, you get it. What I’m wondering is what happens when a teen who’s been inundated with hunter-warrior girls fighting evil regimes and sorting out complicated love triangles, what happens when that teen picks up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale? Can that teen love this classic for its own merits? Or will it seem slow or lacking without the hand-to-hand combat, without a girl having to choose between two boys who are sexy in DIFFERENT ways. The Handmaid’s Tale ruined me for dystopias, and what I’m wondering is, do YA dystopias now ruin young readers for classic dystopias like The Handmaid’s Tale?


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