The Mad Men actor on the sexual politics behind the years biggest TV show and its eerie parallels with the Trump age
We live in a different time than we lived in a year ago, says Elisabeth Moss. And I wish we were sitting here talking about this dystopian fictional world, and how glad we are that were not in that, because we have a female president. I wish that were the conversation.
Instead, we are sitting in the library of a London hotel, and I am showing the actor who, until now, has been best known for playing Peggy Olson, the secretary who smashed though the glass ceiling of the advertising industry to become a highly respected copywriter a meme that perfectly encapsulates the colossal leap backwards that half the population has suffered in the past 12 months.
Under the caption 2016, the split-screen shows Peggy sashaying down the corridor at McCann Erickson for the last time, shades on, cigarette in mouth, the epitome of emancipated womanhood. Next to it, underneath 2017, it shows Moss in her latest on-screen incarnation, clad in an archaic-looking blood-red robe and white, winged bonnet.
As Offred, the protagonist in The Handmaids Tale, 34-year-old Moss has dramatically cast off her iconic Mad Men character of seven years. And while there are numerous elements contributing to the febrile excitement about the new series, the frenzy is, in large part, thanks to the political context in which it is being consumed lending it a truly chilling level of prescience.
There are themes that we thought were going to be relevant, like genital mutilation, human trafficking, child trafficking, rising rates of infertility, global warming, says Moss, who is also a producer on the show. But then, in my country, things got very, very relevant, much closer to home than we could have ever anticipated. She leans forward across the plump red sofa we are sharing. And that is something that we dont take any joy from.
The Handmaids Tale, based on the Margaret Atwood novel from 1985, takes place in the fictitious Republic of Gilead, an authoritarian regime that has overthrown the United States government. A far-right religious extremist group, opposed to what they saw as the corruption in modern society, assassinated the president and slaughtered Congress, putting the blame on Islamic terrorists. They then suspended the constitution and all women were fired from their jobs; women in Gilead are now no longer even allowed to read or write.
As Atwood herself commented recently in the New York Times Book Review: Back in 1984 [when she began writing it], the main premise seemed even to me fairly outrageous. Would I be able to persuade readers that the United States had suffered a coup that had transformed an erstwhile liberal democracy into a literal-minded theocratic dictatorship?
That would appear no longer to be a question. Our rights are under threat in a way they have never been before. Or certainly, that they havent been in our lifetimes, says Moss.
In the world imagined by Atwood, environmental toxins have reduced the birth rate to virtually zero, and Gilead ruthlessly divides women according to their reproductive capabilities. The elite of the regime have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids, who are forced to bear children for the barren wives of the Commanders of the Faith. They are stripped of their names, identified only by the man they serve Offred is Of Fred.
At the shows premiere, at New Yorks Tribeca film festival in April, Moss was asked whether she considered it to be a feminist work. For me, its not a feminist story. Its a human story because womens rights are human rights, she said. I never expected to play Offred as a feminist. The internet exploded in indignation at her apparent refusal to claim the F-word.