By CLYDE HABERMAN
September 12, 2017
In popular culture, what lies ahead is somehow almost always bleak. That is certainly the case with one of the year’s most acclaimed television series, about a dystopia of the not-distant future.
In an America renamed Gilead after a violent theocratic takeover, women are denied control over their own bodies. The more fertile among them, known as handmaids, are sex slaves, forced to bear children for barren families of the ruling class. Based on a 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale” has been nominated for 13 Emmys and is an obvious favorite at the awards presentation Sunday night.
Ms. Atwood has said that every predation inflicted on women in her book actually happened somewhere at some time across the globe, including in the United States. But as shown in this first offering of a new Retro Report series, women’s struggle for reproductive rights and other forms of corporeal self-determination is enduring.
Retro Report, whose video documentaries explore how major news stories of the past still resonate, turns its lens on “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” a book first published in the early 1970s. It revolutionized how health care for women was discussed. In frank language and illustrations, it delved into topics that a half-century ago were publicly taboo, from birth control to pregnancy, from sexual desires to menopause.
Judy Norsigian was one of the women who got the project rolling. “We were dealing with a system,” she said, “that was antithetical to getting good medical care and being treated like full human beings.”
Early on, Ms. Norsigian and her colleagues found their book banned by some schools and libraries, or kept hidden behind checkout counters. Nevertheless, they persisted. Over the decades, revised several times, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” has sold in the millions, a lasting monument to raised consciousness.
Not necessarily for everyone, though. Also persisting are men like Todd Akin, a former Republican congressman from Missouri who won dubious fame in 2012 with his reason for opposing abortion rights even for rape victims: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Segue to the current president, once caught on a hot microphone boasting about groping women and how “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”
Many women, and men, now worry about efforts by the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress to reduce financing for women’s health care. Notably threatened is federal funding for Planned Parenthood because it provides abortion counseling, even though Mr. Trump acknowledged during his 2016 campaign that “millions and millions of women — cervical cancer, breast cancer — are helped by Planned Parenthood.”
Around the country, women have pushed back. Some have seized the cultural moment, holding protest demonstrations dressed in red robes and white bonnets — the enforced code for the handmaids of Gilead.