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.

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  1. Athena n'haLee says:

    “The Handmaids Tale” smacked me into an ancestral Irish berserker’s rage from the moment I heard about it and what it contained; if anything remotely like that ever happens in America, you can be damn sure that I’m going to go out and establish my own very real Renunciate House in a heartbeat!
    ( Free Amazons of Darkover by Marion Zimmer Bradley ). As a woman, I have been fighting misogynistic assholes my entire life and put a world of hurt on many of them as a military policewoman. I will not ever ever ever stop fighting the good fight!

    • Why is this author turning this series into something about race?

      • My thoughts entirely. What this series laid bare for me was my own prejudice I have harbored, passing it off as ‘an opinion ‘. I am ashamed.

  2. Alimagrog says:

    The latest episode, in the medical clinic Offred is taken to, there are pictures of officer wives holding babies, and there is at least one woman of color in a blue dress.

  3. India6000 says:

    -Perhaps the movement of people of color to the Midwest is meant to symbolize/criticize the Manifest Destiny that pushed all the Native Americans westward.
    -Perhaps it’s an all white cast to demonstrate what this extremist vision actually looks like.
    -I would posit that sexism is older, and far more deeply rooted, than racism. It’s so deeply rooted that people don’t even notice it, such as the prevalence of referring to grown women as “girl.” White women are not exempt from sexism.
    -Although not as prevalent, there were white slaves in history as well, who have been largely forgotten.
    -No story can cover everything and therefore must ignore something. Perhaps a good sequel would be to show what was going on in the Midwest at the same time as this story.
    -It may be possible that the author, if she is/was white, did not feel expert enough to write about something outside her experience. It doesn’t necessarily mean there is racism there.
    -Black women are not the only group who have endured being considered property, being forced to reproduce, being hung… or burned for that matter. If you don’t believe me, take a trip through any European torture museum and you’ll find a special set of implements that were created exclusively for women.

    • Nothing you mentioned is relevant to what the author writes about here and is classic derailing that happens way too frequently when the experiences of women are the sole topic of discussion. I’d like to respond to each point, one by one.
      -If that’s the case, then it should be explicitly stated.
      -“So deeply rooted that people don’t even notice it”? The same can be said of racism. Don’t make it a contest, especially because doing so erases the experiences of women of color, who experience both.
      -What is your point here? If you feel that white slaves don’t get enough attention, then by all means, do something about it, but don’t use that viewpoint to try and derail conversations about other types of slavery.
      -No story can cover everything, but it’s worth exploring why it is that so many stories (at least in the realm of television) seem to ignore the same thing/viewpoints/groups, and I think that’s what the author is getting at here.
      -Writers write about things outside of their experience all the time, and it can definitely be done respectfully. Regardless, it’s pointless to theorize about Atwood’s motivations. Intent does not erase the effect erasure has on us as a society, and one can be complicit in racism without being “a racist,” if you will.
      -Again, what is your point here? Because other people have experienced torture, it makes the ignored experiences of black women less relevant? If there are other groups who have been through that that you feel aren’t getting enough attention, derailing a conversation about the oppression of a different group – downplaying what they’ve been through – isn’t the way to go about rectifying that.

      • Robyn makes important points but, I wonder if q. did Robyn read Atwood’s novel” 2.has she been waatching the film version? QUOTE from Robyn: “If there are other groups who have been through that that you feel aren’t getting enough attention, derailing a conversation about the oppression of a different group – downplaying what they’ve been through – isn’t the way to go about rectifying that.”
        Margaret Atwood’s novel was trying to deal with misogyny & sexism—which seems to be a TABOO topic UNLESS women of color talk about it(where it then often becomes a discussion about ONLY RACISM). I think demanding “Handmaiden;s Tale” address racism is an example of “derailing a conversation about oppression” AS WOMEN. Plus: the film series is BASED ON a work of FICTION. Would it be OK to critique Toni Morrison’s novel”Beloved” for whatever “omissions” I’d like to see in it? Or how about slamming the film “12 Years A Slave” for not including a white abolitionist as one of its perspectives? It would be ABSURD to make such demands of an artistic work. I think Margaret Atwood’s novel & the film inspired by it deserve the same basic artistic respect. No one is forcing Robyn to watch “Handmaiden’s Tale” .

      • “If there are other groups who have been through that that you feel aren’t getting enough attention …” – I’m concerned by the “if” in this sentence. Surely you are not suggesting that black Africans are the only victims of slavery in history? Just consider the word “slave” that is related to the word “slavic”, and referred to a South-East-European tribe. To characterize Africans as history’s only slaves would be an oversight that wrongs both black Africans and the masses and masses of non-black slaves that have existed and, it may be argued, continue to exist. It wrongs black Africans because it reduces African history to a history of white supremacy and classifies them as eternal victims of that. It wrongs slaves of every other colour because it pretends they were never there, or that their suffering and oppression is somehow not relevant. “If you feel that white slaves don’t get enough attention,” you say – as if the only alternative to black is white. That’s a very black-and-white view of the world that you’ve got there 🙂

    • Chris Whitney says:

      Well said. I don’t quite understand why every serious conversation about sexism has to have the obligatory “sorry, so sorry” nod toward racism.

  4. Ageism if we are going to call out more of what is not being talked about explicitly.

  5. Sarah Ferguson says:

    “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.” Um, nope. This line, and the Hulu series director’s politically correct decision to include women of color as sex slaves actually undercutnthe brutality of Atwood’s story. It is a devastating portrait of male white supremacy. Race IS part of her tale. The non white people were used as slaves until they dropped dead. They don’t even get to live. The white women handmaids are vessels to reproduce a “pure” race. Changing that by including women of color as handmaids changes the story. And it makes it LESS brutal, less devastating.

    • This is exactly right if you’ve read the story. The Hulu series has ignored the horrors of white supremacy by making this major change.

  6. Kimberly says:

    Think Iran 1979. Women lost their money and the right to work and dress how they want. M.A has said she wrote from real events. Iranian women still have no rights. And without a man, starve on the streets or are forced into polygamist marriages. Let’s not talk hypothetical but what is happening now. How can we as women solve this matter?

  7. Yea I was thinking Iran to Kimberly. I do not watch the show and after this blog I definitely will not be watching it.

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