Thursday 22 August 2019

'The referendum would not have been won without the support of men' - The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood

Writer Margaret Atwood attends the press conference for the miniseries
Writer Margaret Atwood attends the press conference for the miniseries "Alias Grace" at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), in Toronto, Canada, September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Margaret Atwood
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Margaret Atwood has said that the Yes result in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment would not have happened without the support of men.

The author of dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale revealed to Ryan Tubridy on RTE Radio 1 that she followed the coverage of referendum closely.

"The referendum, and I point this out to all, that referendum would not have been won unless a lot of men had voted for it," she said.

Asked why she felt it was important to say that, she added, "A lot of people want to divide things into 'men over here - bad, women over here - good' and this particular thing would not have been won without the support of men, nor would votes for women, all of those things.

"You're always in the minority position and therefore you need the support of people who are not like you to back you up on it.  That happened this time which was very interesting to see."

The Handmaid's Tale, which was published in 1985, describes a dystopian future in which the US becomes a totalitarian state called Gilead and, faced with dropping fertility rates, force fertile women - the handmaids of the title - into sexual and child-bearing servitude for the ruling elite.

The author revealed that she took cuttings from daily newspapers and researched the treatment of women throughout history to the present day across the world for the book.

"I did a lot of research into American native polygamy, namely the Mormons, because that's one of a couple of religions actually invented in the United States.  And old order Mormons were polygamous," she said.

She spoke about the fact that Mary Magdalene was always depicted as wearing red while the Virgin Mary was in blue.

"The reason why she was in blue was it was the most expensive colour," she revealed.  "If you were commissioning a painting you would tell the painter it has to be blue because it's the most expensive, therefore the most honourable thing to offer up in such a painting."

In the lead up the vote on the referendum on May 19, Atwood had tweeted a satirical article from Waterford Whispers News which bore the headline,  ‘Irish women have taken to searching out light entertainment, escapist in nature, in the form of the dystopian dread-fest TV show, The Handmaid’s Tale.’

Earlier this week she was presented with the Ulysees Medal at University College Dublin and spoke about the impact of her novel, which has recently been adapted into a critically acclaimed TV series.

"I think it's more of a symbol than a primary influence," she said.  "In other words, if people had not been ready to change that book alone, or that television series, would not have changed it and it's about women's rights in general, a very broad spectrum of women's rights."

Atwood revealed that the news of Donald Trump's election win came during filming for the first series of The Handmaid's Tale.

"We were shooting the show and we had started in September and the cast and crew woke up on November 9th and said to themselves, 'we're in a different show'," she said.

"Nothing had changed in the script, the frame had changed, so it was going to be viewed differently and that's exactly what happened.  Instead of saying, 'we elected Hilary Clinton so we won't have The Handmaid's Tale', everyone said 'here comes The Handmaid's Tale'."

She added, "Then you started getting the sit ins and the legislators of women dressed as handmaids, which is quite brilliant because they're not saying anything or causing a disruption.  They're just visible, they're just there.

"We've had that not just in the States, but around the world, and in the lead up to the referendum there were some handmaids here."

Speaking about the language used by Hilary Clinton's opponents during the campaign, she said the idea that the US would not elect a female president crossed her mind when she "saw the enormously 17th century vocabulary that was being applied to her by the opponents".

She said, "I thought all of this Salem witchcraft stuff is still there, because basically those were the kinds of adjectives and nouns that were being applied to her."

Asked about what kind of future we are facing into now, she said that "there is no future, there is no set in stone futre that will inevitably arrive because there are too many variables and so many things you can't predict, such as the election of Donald Trump".

She added, "We can't talk about the future but we can talk about the fact we have a number of choices and if we make this set of choices we will get a better and brighter future and if we make that set of choices we will not.

"One of the biggest determinants is how we're going to handle the planet.  What are we going to do about what we've done to the planet, because short story - oceans die, we're gone."

You can listen to the full interview on the RTE Radio 1 website.

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