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Future Tense Newsletter: What’s Missing From The Handmaid’s Tale

In a line of women wearing large white bonnets, one woman peeks over her red mask.
Protesters wearing Handmaid’s Tale outfits stand outside of the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 22, 2020. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

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This week’s season finale of The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu was typically dark, both in subject matter and in lighting. (Why must prestige TV shows be so poorly lit?) Parts of this season were satisfying: In a show that has often moved excruciatingly slowly, things actually happened! But I won’t spoil them.

Ultimately, however, I was left disappointed for one reason: We still don’t really know how Gilead, the theocracy that has replaced the U.S., works.


We see the seat of power: the commanders, who make decisions about justice (or their version of it), the economy, and international relations. We see those who orbit around them: their wives, draped in blue, who are not allowed to read; their daughters, who wear pink capes; the handmaids, who are raped and forced to bear their children when their wives cannot; the drivers and guards; the women forced to cook and clean for them.


But the Gilead we see is almost entirely based within that elite circle and those who must serve it, with occasional forays into the brutal colonies where people are sent to labor until death. Rarely do we see the rest of the population, known as “Econopeople.” The Handmaid’s Tale Wiki points out that our hero, June, describes the Econopeople as the ones who “played their cards right” and thus lead relatively normal, if limited lives. The women still cannot read, and everyone still wears a uniform, with the wives in gray stripes, for instance. They must all abide by Gilead’s ISIS-like rule. But the Econopeople are not singled out for punishment by the Gilead regime for past “sins” the way June and the other handmaids are In Margaret Atwood’s novel, June says that the Econowives hate the handmaids. But there are also hints that many have no idea that the handmaid system exists.


It would be fascinating to learn more about the Econopeople’s lives: how much they might get away with, how intensely the government supervises them. Are they forced to attend struggle sessions of some sort? Could an Econowife sneak in some reading if her husband doesn’t object? How often do they inform on one another? Do Econochildren grow up with a sense that their parents remember a different time?

Yet we’ve seen only the briefest glimpses of the Econopeople, even though they are doing the bulk of the work to keep the country operating.

This connects to a constant frustration I feel with dystopias. I love them. Yes, they are demoralizing, zapping all hope for the future, but their back stories—how did they come about?—are invariably fascinating. So often, however, dystopic fiction focuses on the extraordinary: the evil elites and those who would take them down. In The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, and dystopias in between, we get little opportunity to learn what life would really be like for most of us, the imagined world’s silent majority. This makes narrative sense, of course: Those lives seem dull and dreary and repetitive, filled with work and fear and little else. Watching someone first question and then challenge a regime, on the other hand—well, there’s drama and action there.


But if dystopias are supposed to help us avoid the futures we would not want to live in, then it would be nice to see the futures that most of us would actually experience. “Boring dystopia” is a phrase people sometimes use to describe (often unfairly, I would argue) things they find unsettling. But what we truly need are more boring dystopia stories. I have a suggestion for how The Handmaid’s Tale could find time in its final season to explore the Econopeople more fully: fewer long, dramatic closeups of Elisabeth Moss’ face.


Here are stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

Wish We’d Published This

Apple’s Emoji Keyboard Is Reinforcing Western Stereotypes,” by Andrew Deck, Rest of World

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It sounds like a show that began with a clever title: Beforeigners. In this Norwegian show, available on HBO Max, people from the past suddenly begin appearing in bodies of water. From three periods of the past, to be specific: the Stone Age, the Viking/Norse era, and the 19th century. The pilot shows the first day it happens and then skips forward a few years, where we learn that, yes, it was not a one-time event. Every day, people from the past bubble up in the water, like time refugees. The government tries to support them, giving them sessions on integrating into modern-day life before sending them out in the world in gray and orange tracksuits. There is a crime at the center of the show, but—as with The Handmaid’s Tale—what is really fascinating is thinking though how the world operates.

What Next: TBD

On this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, host Lizzie O’Leary talks to Nila Bala, of the NYU Policing Project, about the rise of genetic genealogy to solve crime and two new state laws intended to put constraints on law enforcement’s use of the technology. On last week’s show, Lizzie and Joseph Cox of Vice’s Motherboard discussed the app Citizen—and how it sparked a manhunt for a suspected arsonist who turned out to be innocent.


Future Tense closed out its busy virtual year with a debate this week on whether it’s time to head back to the office, the consuming question facing many of us 2021 Econopeople and Econoemployers.

We want to thank all of you who attended, and participated in, all our online events this past year.

But now it’s time to head outside! We will be planning our events programming for the fall, and welcome any suggestions you may have. You can email me at torie.bosch@slate.com.
In the meantime, thanks for continuing to read Future Tense on Slate.

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