In The Handmaid’s Tale, women who can still have babies are used as a resource, vessels to keep the endeavour of splinter nation Gilead going. Sadly, the TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction novel does very much the same thing with the bodies of people of colour.
Image courtesy of Hulu
Over the last two weeks, I’ve watched The Handmaid’s Tale in its entirety. I’ve been enthralled by how the Hulu adaptation has presented a chilling world where women’s rights have been eroded down to nothing. It’s a great show with all the hallmarks of Peak TV — well-executed thematic ambition, sharp production design and strong performances. But I’ve been bothered by nagging sensations when I stop and think about how it’s portraying people of colour or, rather, how it isn’t portraying them.
The Handmaid’s Tale‘s problem isn’t that it doesn’t have people of colour on the show. They’re there in prominent roles, such as Samira Wiley as Offred’s best friend Moira and O.T. Fagbenle as her husband Luke. The problem is that the show fails to imagine how their lives would be any different in an American splinter nation that’s a regressive theocracy.
As seen in the verse read before the ritual rape of the Ceremony where elites try to conceive children, Gilead’s oppression of women is rooted in a restrictive interpretation of the Bible. The Good Book has been used to justify racial prejudice in reality, and Atwood’s novel makes an elliptical reference to that history, one that appears to have given some thought to how Gilead would stratify citizens according to racial difference. On page 84, there’s a mention of the Children of Ham being resettled to National Homeland One, an incident that sound very much like forced relocation into something like camps or reservations. Children of Ham is a biblical reference to the son that Noah cursed and cast out in the Book of Genesis. Scholars have said that it’s difficult to read skin colour prejudice into the passage, but such an interpretation was used anyway to create justification for the chattel slavery system where black people were owned as property in the 18th and 19th Century. Atwood doesn’t specify what the Children of Ham look like or what ethnic group they belong to, but naming them in such a way suggests they deviate from Gilead’s elites in some significant identifiable way.
The Handmaid’s Tale TV show backs away from that, creating a fiction where people of colour don’t get treated any differently than white people, which is nonsense. There’s an old canard that you can hear when you’re a non-white person in a predominantly white institution: “When I look at you, I don’t see a marginalised/minority person, I just see a person.” It’s meant to sound nice, as if the sticky aura of being legally and culturally Othered doesn’t matter in that moment. But those words often come across as erasure, too — a privileged ignorance that elides the joys and pains of living your specific life. It’s an attitude that removes a level of dimensionality from those it’s directed at and it’s how The Handmaid’s Tale treats its non-white characters.
There are black and brown handmaids on Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic work of dystopian speculative fiction. In a world plagued by infertility that treats women as property, it makes a sick sort of sense that women from all backgrounds would be used in repopulation efforts. But The Handmaid’s Tale invokes the specificity of oppressions that people of colour have faced in American history, only it applies them almost exclusively to white women. It was illegal for slaves to assemble on their own, travel freely, or learn how to read; while Offred faces the same kind of restrictions, the show never explores if there’s any difference in application or penalty for non-white women. Take Moira, who is more defiant than June/Offred and sees Gilead’s oppressive garbage for what it is. Somehow, she winds up alive after assaulting an Aunt and trying to escape. But studies on sentencing have shown that that non-white people get punished more frequently and harshly for criminal offences when compared to white counterparts. Furthermore, if the Sons of Jacob began as a terrorist organisation rooted in American fundamentalist Christianity, there’s no way that their history of racism just disappears in the few years it takes for them to establish Gilead. I’m glad that Moira gets to live, but having to entertain the idea that Gilead’s ruling men are less racist than the world we live in now breaks my suspension of disbelief.
My suspension of disbelief also gets strained by thinking about the babies being born. In a heartbreaking scene midway through the season, we see young children paraded out during a diplomatic dinner. But are we ever going to see a black woman give birth on The Handmaid’s Tale? White hegemonic systems have always used non-white women for labour and pleasure and, when the children born of secret assignations have been light enough to pass for white, they get afforded the privileges that come with it. If they’re on the wrong side of an arbitrarily defined colour line, they get coded as black, non-white or some other label that keeps them from accessing equal rights. The show would have to be up to the task of showing a black Handmaid giving birth, her baby being immediately given to a white Commander’s wife, and then spotlighting the cognitive dissonance of the latter woman acting like the child is her own. The show’s actors and writers could certainly do the job, but would it feel real? Furthermore, do one-drop rules exist in Gilead? Knowing what I know about American history, I can’t believe that they don’t.
The Handmaid’s Tale is chilling and relevant, but this adaptation is prioritising a particular strain of feminist critique that says all women suffer equally under patriarchal systems. But it’s also incredibly naive, or coldly calculating, for the show’s creators to think that just putting bodies of colour on the screen is enough. History has show that oppression — fascist, religious or otherwise — doesn’t look exactly the same for all women, regardless of race. The Handmaid’s Tale should, too.