I’ve been thinking a lot about societies lately; how they can restrict us and how hard it is to do without them. A society is like an impossible partner: you can’t live with them and you can’t live without them. And two recent dramas which explore this theme are surprisingly similar, though one deals with ISIS in Syria and the other with a fundamentalist Christian dystopia in America.
These are so similar that at times ‘The State’ seems like a fantasy and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ like the reality: both are repressive totalitarian regimes in which women have to cover themselves when they go out or risk brutal punishments. Beatings and executions are common, though in Gilead they go for hanging rather than beheading; and both feature stonings and chopping off hands, though Gilead being wealthier does at least anaesthatise its victims first. In both societies women are reduced to chattels, kept only to serve or to procreate.
The difference is that, astonishing as it seems, the women in Syria have actually gone there voluntarily. The series features two groups, one of men and one of women, and follows their diverse experiences as the men are trained in fierce combat and the women kept indoors to cook and clean. As in Saudi Arabia they are not allowed out without a male guardian and have to obtain permission before doing anything beyond their normal duties. It’s all the more chilling for being real; yet ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ is not less chilling for being fiction, because it’s plausible. You can imagine a combination of circumstances in which it could happen.
Which brings me to Radcliffe Hall’s famous novel on lesbianism, ‘The Well of Loneliness.’ This is equally gripping especially if like me you remember a time when gays and lesbians had to hide for fear of internment or worse (it wasn’t all that long since Oscar Wilde had walked the treadmill at Reading Gaol.) It was written in 1928 and immediately banned because it contained the line ‘and that night they were not divided,’ making it clear that the two women had shared a bed. They manage to make a life together in France but in the end their isolation from home, family and society at large makes their situation intolerable, and the ending is heartbreaking.