The most incisive aspect of The Handmaid’s Tale is that it portrays America not as it could be, but how it’s always been.
Margaret Atwood’s acclaimed feminist novel, and the Hulu series based on it, remixes history to tell a blistering tale about what happens when women’s rights are stolen by powerful government forces. The lineage of early Puritan settlers and the Salem witch trials echoes throughout the world-building. But the series most clearly evokes the terrifying realities of black and brown women that have existed since this country’s founding.
During the late 1960s through the early 1970s, Mexican and Mexican-American women who were admitted to the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center were sterilized against their will after coming in for C-sections. This spawned a landmark 1978 court case that coincided with conversations surrounding the then-growing Chicano and feminist movements. From 1929 to 1974, North Carolina’s Eugenics Board forced or coerced the sterilization of predominantly black poor women. One was as young as nine years old. Others were the victims of rape and incest. These are but two examples of how maternity and bodily autonomy have always been battlegrounds for black and brown women. But the history that The Handmaid’s Tale trades in to the most profound degree is America’s greatest sin: slavery. Black women were brutalized, raped, separated from their children and family, forced into servitude, and not allowed to enact the cultural practices that reminded them of the homes they were stolen from solely for the profit of white people. Watching The Handmaid’s Tale, which ends its first season on Wednesday, I can’t help but think about the voices of enslaved black women, given how this narrative so closely aligns with theirs.
The show takes place in a near-future America clearly meant to evoke our own. Women smoked weed, joked about Tinder, let pop music blare in their ears while they ran. Well, that is until the government is overthrown and a theocratic, far-right Christian power structure known as Gilead takes its place. Gilead is structured on oppression. Men in the upper echelon of this culture, known as Commanders, lord their control over others with practiced ease — from their dutiful wives to the “Aunts” who enforce their rule with cattle prods and other forms of torture. Handmaids learn to move through this strange new world with quiet piety, even as they’re raped monthly by Commanders in what’s known as “The Ceremony,” in order to produce children for a world in crisis as the population dwindles. As writer Priya Nair points out for Bitch magazine, the strictures that shape the lives of the handmaids, like the protagonist, June (an excellent Elisabeth Moss) — “banned from reading, writing, or congregating, the spectacle of public lynchings,” and renamed after the men that own them (she’s named Offred to mean “of Fred”) — are the same methods that have been used to control black people during and after slavery.
In Atwood’s novel, black people are mentioned in only a few sentences to alert readers that they’ve been rounded up and sent to some colony in the Midwest, in a move that resembles South Africa’s apartheid. This decision feels like the mark of a writer unable to reckon with how race would compound the horrors of a hyper-Evangelical-ruled culture. Furthermore, it misrepresents how black and brown people resist in times of crisis. As writer Mikki Kendall noted on Twitter, “black people did not survive slavery, Jim Crow, and the war on drugs to be taken out by a handful of white boys with guns.” Showrunner Bruce Miller understands the troubling optics of showcasing an all-white Gilead in 2017. The show casts black actors in key roles that make up June’s strongest emotional bonds, including her daughter, her husband Luke, and her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley). There are also black, Asian, and Latina handmaids. Miller addressed the show’s color-blind casting in an interview with Vulture, saying, “When Samira Wiley comes and auditions, you cast her. She is amazing. She was Moira. The same thing with O.T. Fagbenle, who plays her husband. Terrifically interesting actor. We were blessed to get both of them even interested in our project, so once you get to that, that also plays a role because in this landscape of TV now, it’s much more diverse.”
But the show doesn’t end up considering the racial dynamics of June’s family, or what it means to be a handmaid of color. In the end, its approach to race is just as mishandled as Atwood’s. The Handmaid’s Tale’s silence on race grows more awkward as the show goes on, particularly in light of its marketing as a politically astute salve for these troubled times, and the girl-power inflected feminism destined to launch a thousand T-shirts with clever wordplay. In reality, though, it’s more concerned with the interiority of white women at the expense of people of color who recognize that Gilead isn’t a possible horrifying future, but the reality of what America has always been.
The Handmaid’s Tale is best described as post-racial. In an interview with TVLine Miller explains this choice, saying, “The evangelical movement has gotten a lot more integrated” in the years since the book was published. In actuality, the evangelical movement continues to twist scripture in order to support virulent racism — a practice that goes back to this country’s founding, when slaves were stripped of their own practices and forced into Christianity while being barred from reading the same Bible slave masters used to assert their superiority as not just biological fact, but a spiritual imperative. More importantly, Handmaid’s post-racial view of America rings false because in times of strife, divisions don’t dissolve — if anything, they become more ingrained (which proves true for gender on the show). As Soraya Nadia McDonald posits in a piece for the Undefeated, “So Gilead is post-racial because the human race is facing extinction, and that prompted Americans to get over several hundred years’ worth of racist education and social conditioning that depicted black people as inferior and less than human?”
One by-product of The Handmaid’s Tale’s color-blind casting is that people of color are often seen on the margins of the show. Take the introduction of Commanders of color. (People of color exist in every strata of Gilead society, which ignores how racism has always been a schism throughout America, barring black people especially from finding wealth to pass on to future generations.) They appear only a few times: In the episode-four flashback detailing June and Moira’s partially successful escape from the Red Center, black and Asian Commanders are seen leaving the train that Moira boards to freedom. When June is at a clinic in the same episode, pictures line the walls showing Commanders and their wives cradling the infants that handmaids have given birth to. A few seem to be people of color, but they’re too hazily and briefly focused on to clearly make out the race of everyone pictured. In the finale, a tribunal of Commanders is gathered in order to decide the fate of one of their wayward members. One of the Commanders is black. The scene is so gloomily lit that it’s hard to make out if anyone else in attendance is a man of color. What unites these examples is the way in which they show men of color — the only acknowledgement that people of color have any power in Gilead whatsoever: All of them are either out of focus or pushed to the margins of the frame. This proves to be an unintentional metaphor for how the series treats race, as a way to earn kudos in a landscape in which viewers demand inclusivity, but is ultimately not worth direct conversation.
The presence of handmaids and Commanders of color also makes it difficult to buy the world-building of Gilead, no matter how astute Moss’s performance is or how adept certain story lines are at building tension. Are white Commanders and their wives really okay with having a handmaid of color? Is there a caste system for handmaids of color in which some are considered more desirable than others? Do Commanders of color have the same privileges as their white counterparts? If Gilead is meant to imagine a possible future for America, how could deeply entrenched racial dynamics disappear?
The Handmaid’s Tale’s uneasy relationship with race and its faux-feminist posturing come most into focus with June’s best friend, Moira. In many ways, Moira is everything June isn’t. She’s a brave, humorous queer black woman. She doesn’t hesitate to question the nature of the Ceremony when Aunt Lydia (an unnerving Ann Dowd) first explains it. She carves “Aunt Lydia Sux” into a bathroom stall, even as June warns her about punishment. “It’ll let her know she’s not alone,” Moira says of future handmaids who might see the message, in response to June’s fearful admonishment. Moira’s radicalism is a common act of survival for black women who’ve grown up learning about and witnessing resistance movements. It’s also Moira who engineers their escape attempt in episode four. While Moira is able to abscond, thanks to commandeering an Aunt’s uniform, June is returned to the Red Center for punishment. Moira is assumed dead, but since this information is relayed by Janine, whose defining feature is her madness, it’s easy to doubt. Moira is next seen when June unexpectedly encounters her working at a brothel named Jezebels.
Moira’s interiority as a queer black woman, forced to have sex with men at a brothel in order to survive, is never given focus. The narrative turn seems blissfully unaware of the Jezebel stereotype that has haunted black women since times of slavery. To place a black women in this scenario automatically makes it more fraught and complex, particularly since she’s seen with white men — a decision that feels like a clear evocation of how enslaved black women were forced to be mistresses. For a show that routinely uses flashbacks — even giving Luke an entire episode to himself — it seems odd that Moira only recounts her journey to Jezebels in a brief conversation with Offred. Even more frustrating is that Moira has sanded off her edges in order to survive, while June is now positioned as the feminist radical willing to aid the resistance movement, Mayday. These decisions are a way to avoid exploring the horror she experiences head-on, as the series has done for the white women in Moira’s orbit. Just witness the camera’s relationship with Moira versus other characters. In particularly complex emotional moments for June, Janine, and even Serena Joy, they are framed in extreme close-up, which feels like a more intimate way to communicate their point of view than even voice-over. Moira gets no shots like this. There is an emotional removal in regards to how the camera interacts with her compared to the aforementioned white women, whose perspectives become important to the narrative to varying degrees. It almost feels like a reminder to the viewer that Moira is an appendage to someone else’s story.
These dynamics aren’t lost on the people behind The Handmaid’s Tale. When asked about the absence of racism in Gilead in an interview with Vulture, Miller said, “We didn’t come upon a story where we needed to talk about it this season, but that’s not because we didn’t feel it was interesting. We think we will, but it just didn’t happen that way.” He continued, “You couldn’t get around the fact that the way the handmaids were treated had such a feeling of slave narratives in America — women who were pregnant knowing their children would be taken away from them and having no control over them. That was such a shocking metaphor that it seemed ridiculous not to have handmaids of color to play out that story on screen. But I don’t think racism has disappeared — it’s supposed to be our world, and it’s supposed to be as racist as our world, and have racial issues. So I think it will definitely come up.” Based on Miller’s comments, and how Moira’s story ends in season one — with her escaping to Canada, becoming a refugee with political asylum, and tearfully reuniting with Luke — it’s possible her arc will be given more depth in season two. But this isn’t just an artistic oversight that can be written off in hopes that the next season proves more perceptive. That the series fails to properly consider how race intersects with its discussions of theocratic rule and rank misogyny isn’t surprising, considering there are no women of color on its writing staff. While it’s easy to cast people of color in a variety of roles, it’s far harder to meaningfully evoke the ways race affects our lives — The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic example of the problem with settling for diversity that exists out of a desire to be “color-blind.”
How can you attempt to craft a political, artistically rich narrative that trades in the real-life experiences of black and brown women, while ignoring them and the ways sexism intersects with racism? The Handmaid’s Tale creates a claustrophobic reality, particularly for black viewers and the characters that mirror us onscreen. Its catchy feminist rhetoric is a mask for how it propagates the same systems it seeks to critique. The bodies and histories of black and brown women prove to be useful templates for shows like The Handmaid’s Tale, but our actual voices aren’t.
Additional reporting by E. Alex Jung.