What’s Not Being Said About The Handmaid’s Tale

What critics are saying about Hulu’s new series The Handmaid’s Tale is true: It’s eerily reminiscent of our present-day reproductive dystopia; the acting, costumes and mise-en-scène are stunning and the story is terrifying—both because of its totalitarianism and everyday sexism. What critics are not saying is also true: the story’s torture is real as is its racism.

The series, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, takes place in the near future in an environmentally-devastated U.S., called Gilead, wherein a Christian fundamentalist regime has taken over. Women are banished to the domestic realm wherein the few who can still bear children are held captive as “handmaids,” and must reproduce for the owning class. The show will likely put Hulu on the map in terms of competing with Netflix and Amazon for viewership. The first three episodes premiered last Wednesday and the remaining seven will be released one at a time on Wednesdays (9 p.m. on Tuesday for those in PST).

I recommend viewing the series with a friend—someone who will let you grab their arm when the brutality feels like too much to watch. Handmaids are raped by their “commanders” repeatedly, but since the purpose is to produce offspring for those in power it’s viewed as a holy act. When handmaids resist, they get their right eye cut out (because they don’t need sight to bear children). Lesbians are hung publicly. A woman’s clitoris is cut off. Females are slut-shamed, publicly humiliated and beaten. Reading, for women, is forbidden, as is speaking their mind or talking about anything beyond shopping and the weather.

Atwood has repeatedly said that she “made nothing up.” Everything that happens in Gilead has happened “somewhere at some time.” Indeed, the hardest part of watching is knowing that in fact it’s happening now. The Trump administration has unrelentingly attacked the rights of women and people of color, and the U.S. still doesn’t have an Equal Rights Amendment—which means, as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Scalia asserted, women are not protected under the U.S. Constitution—or considered human beings. This contempt for women gets exacerbated in times of war. The series illuminates this.

Nearly every time a character in Handmaid’s goes outside, the sound of “the Eyes of God” can be heard. Their walkie-talkies remind everyone of the presence of Gilead’s secret police, in their black uniforms, with their large vehicles and weapons. They serve as the occupying army, the eyes, ears and muscle of the regime. Watching them conjures up images of the increased militarization of police nationally and the increasing military presence globally by the U.S.—and its addiction to mercenaries around the world. As recently as 2014, the U.S. was engaged in war in 134 countries, which means mass profits for those in charge and catastrophic repercussions for women. Extremism impacts women uniquely. The show, and Atwood’s book, illuminate this chillingly.

Gilead, like the U.S., is a white supremacist society. In her novel, Atwood addressed this by banishing all the people of color to “the colonies” in the Midwest in one slick sentence: “Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule.” Thus, she didn’t have to interact with characters of color while capitalizing from implementing systems of oppression that about were first used in the U.S. on enslaved Africans. Public lynchings, being considered property, being forced to reproduce and being named after their owners are all examples of the exploitation of Black people applied to white characters in the book and, now, the series. (The main character of the series, played by Elizabeth Moss, is named Offred, or “of Fred,” after her commander Fred.) “By taking the specific oppression of enslaved Black women and applying them uncritically to white women, “feminist writer Priya Nair asserts, “The Handmaid’s Tale ignores the historical realities of an American dystopia founded on anti-Black violence.”

Showrunner Bruce Miller recognized that if he stuck to this narrative, he would have an all-white cast, which would be a problem. “What’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show?” he asked in an interview with TVLine. “Why would we be covering [the story of handmaid Offred], rather than telling the story of the people of color who got sent off to Nebraska?”

His intention was good—but unfortunately, as Atwood said in discussions with him about this move, “that would change everything.” He decided that “fertility would trump everything.” The result, unfortunately, is an ambiguous colorblindness that ultimately supports white erasure.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to see people of color on screen. Offred’s best friend Moira is Black, played by Samira Wiley of Orange Is the New Black. Offred’s husband is as well and they have a mixed-race little girl. Some handmaids and house servants appear to be Latinas or Black women. This suggests that there must be some non-white Wives—spouses of the Commanders—if handmaids of color are going to reproduce for them, but none have appeared on screen yet. These few women of color may make it seem like the society is a racial utopia, which is not the case. Whiteness is still the unacknowledged default. The men in power are white, as are most of the women.

While well-intentioned, the casting choice has obfuscated race, racism and the potential for critiquing it. In order to actually have people of color in Gilead and show the white supremacy, they would have had to have changed the script significantly. But Miller’s question is a good one: Why aren’t we covering the stories of the people of color who got sent off to Nebraska?

Perhaps Hulu should take that on for their next hit series.


Stephanie Abraham is a non-fiction writer and media critic based in Los Angeles. Her writings have recently appeared in McSweeney’s, Al Jazeera and Bitch. She’s the Pop Culture Correspondent and Film Critic for Rising Up with Sonali. Follow her on Twitter @abrahamsteph and at StephanieAbraham.com.