Walking On Broken Glass: How Bruce Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale Turned Out Racist After All”
by Max S. Gordon
Did I tell you I was lying, by the way, when I said I wanted a new mink coat?
I was thinking of something sleek to wrap around my tender throat.
I was dreaming like a Texan girl.
A girl who thinks she’s got the right to everything.
A girl who thinks she should have something extreme.
— Eurythmics, “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)”
“The trouble with white folks singing the blues is that they can’t get down low enough.”
—Bessie Smith (quoted in Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston)
(This essay contains spoilers for all of Seasons 1 and 2 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Season 5 of Orange Is The New Black.)
Soon after I wrote about my frustration with Season 1 of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and its unwillingness to deal with racism, I read an interview in which showrunner Bruce Miller promised that Season 2 of his hit show would finally approach the subject.
I didn’t presume that he had read my essay “On Race and Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’”; he didn’t have to. There seemed to be thousands of articles, tweets, discussion groups and Facebook comments where viewers expressed dismay that Gilead, known for its misogyny and its violence against queer women and men, had no reaction at all to race. We know from the show’s first episode that Gilead was once the United States of America. Margaret Atwood’s novel takes place in the “near future”, sometime after 1985, the year the book was written. In both seasons of the series, references to Uber and Old Navy were recent enough still to be relevant now. The question became how did we get from the cultural divided America we live in today to Miller’s Gilead, which seems to be a cross between the menace of Orwell’s 1984 and the racial simpatico of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood? We needed answers.
As someone who felt deeply loyal to the source material throughout Season 1, I was often frustrated with Miller’s choices — there was a lot of “that didn’t happen in the book!” shouting at the screen. But as the first season concluded where the novel ended, I was aware that anything added would be imagined by the writers. I was able to watch Season 2 more relaxed, pleased to discover that the additions to Offred’s story were making sense, wonderful sense. Several scenes seemed uncompromising, harrowing and very true to the book’s original tone. And no matter what happened on the screen, hands down, The Handmaid’s Tale is perhaps one of the most beautiful shows ever filmed on television; with its inspired costumes, deep reds and use of light and darkness, it is a Caravaggio painting come to life.
But as I enjoyed it, or rather endured it — the show, along with its pleasures, can be harrowing at times and very hard to watch — I was still intrigued by how Miller planned to solved the race problem. I imagined a first step might be hiring black writers. But even the most talented writers, white or black, were going to be challenged to find a way to bring up the subject of race in a society that seemed to be oblivious in the show’s first ten episodes. Watching Season 2, I was prepared for the fact that whatever the writers conceived probably wouldn’t work this late in the game, but at least they would have made the attempt. Season 2 is now complete and I’m very unhappy to report that not only did they fail, much worse, they never even tried.
But the producers are astute and they almost get away with it: there are enough black faces running across the screen in The Handmaid’s Tale that it is almost impossible to argue with its staunchest defenders — and they number in the hundreds of thousands— that there isn’t anything culturally diverse going on; that if a Latina character appears as a guest for five minutes in one episode, it is not the same as someone we respond to and empathize with week after week. It feels like a form of greed; the unwillingness even to consider that, on a show about oppressed women, women of color and their stories are underrepresented. I became exhausted aruging race in discussion groups after Season 1; I’d never had such a frustrating experience, challenging white entitlement over a show about a society based on white entitlement.
I am anticipating the reader who will approach this essay with anger or contempt, who will argue, “Why does everything always have to be about race!” Because everything is about race, at least in America, and given the historical relationship between racism and fascism, given the way we are encouraged to be afraid of the dangerous “other” and the freedoms we will give up in order to be protected by the State, one can see how an increasingly racist society could easily become a Gilead. Margaret Atwood knew this; she acknowledges Gilead’s racist origins in her book. The Handmaid’s Tale on television, brilliantly executed at times and entertaining, should also be a powerful warning: the wall that is built today to keep immigrants out, is the same wall that may one day be used to keep a Handmaid in.
One would think, with the white supremacy we are currently facing — from random daily encounters on the street to the man in the White House — that Miller and his team would run to the subject of racism rather than from it. At times the series has been remarkably prescient in its storylines: an episode in which June is reunited briefly with her daughter and then watches her taken away again was aired at the exact time that children at the U.S. border were being separated from their parents by immigration authorities.
And yet The Handmaid’s Tale ambles along in Season 2 with black and Asian actors appearing onscreen in the private houses of Gilead, in the marketplace, and in the Colonies (a faraway prison camp where women are punished by being worked to death.) These women of color, with few exceptions, have no lines and no names. There is also a black commander; not a light-skinned black man passing for white, as one might imagine in Gilead, but a dark brother. He’s completely isolated in a sea of white commanders, a fly in the buttermilk. The one detail we are given is that he was able to impregnate his wife without a handmaid. While this may seem like a compliment to black virility, it is actually insulting and tidily ensures that he is locked out of the series — we will never know what a handmaid experiences in his house.
We never meet this man’s wife or know if she is black or white. We watch as he sits with the other commanders and drinks with them at gatherings, asking ourselves, “If this is Gilead’s attempt at tokenism, why would they even bother? As their government is authoritarian and there is no longer a constitution or any semblance of equality, whom is this solitary black man there for, and whose quota does he serve (except perhaps the studio’s)?” We will never find out, as the actor has a handful of random lines and vanishes. His commander is basically a walk-on part.
An eager black female student appears during a university scene, and I sat up expectantly thinking she might have something to add. I was right, she did, and what she added was treacherous; it is implied that she turns in her lesbian professor Emily, who becomes Ofglen, to the authorities soon after Emily shows her a picture of her wife and child on her phone. This minor character disappears, and soon after, the professor’s boss, a closeted gay man, is hanged with “faggot” written on the ground beneath him. When Miller talked about adding black characters his The Handmaid’s Tale, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.
However dispiriting these scenes are, nowhere is the racial schizophrenia of the show more disastrously evident than a mid-season episode in which Miller gives us a confrontation between June and Luke’s soon-to-be-ex-wife, Annie. Annie, a black woman, discovers that June and Luke have been having an affair and asks June to stop seeing him, to give them time to work out their marriage problems. It’s a classic confrontation scene, usually guaranteed to be juicy for any actor, and riveting for the audience if it is played right. The scene as written would have been fine if Luke had been married to another white woman. But as the writers conceive Luke’s wife as black (another dark-skinned character — trust me, it matters), the scene is pedestrian, the lines predictable — written for anyone. Clearly the Handmaid’s writing team has no idea what an enraged, heartbroken black woman would say to a white woman who has just “stolen” her husband. (As a black viewer raised by a black mother and a sometimes philandering father, I had a few ideas.)
It is assumed in Atwood’s novel that Luke, June and Luke’s ex-wife are all white. The focus of this altercation — which isn’t in the book — should be on June’s guilt over the affair and how this sets her up psychologically for the oppression she endures. But as a viewer, I’m thrown out of the scene because I’m not inspired by a word this black woman is saying. It’s another example of blind casting failing us in the series, and in this case, maybe even harming us. Blind casting has to be deeper than just shoving a black actress into a white woman’s role. We need to know what this woman would say to June and, more importantly, to her black husband, and how he would respond to her pain.
The episode goes from bad to worse. Luke tells his wife off for confronting June, screaming at her answering machine, “You’re being a fucking coward, don’t fucking stalk her, just leave her the fuck alone!” When June expresses remorse for their affair, Luke tells her: “She’s trying to wreck our life. You didn’t take me from her. I love you more than I ever loved her. Just forget about her. She doesn’t matter to us.” (Black audiences may lose all sympathy for Luke at this point — he becomes the textbook example of a black man who “runs” to white women because he finds black women “unreasonable”.)
The episode throws this black woman away, and because Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale exists in a race-free universe, no one seems to appreciate how a scene like this, and a line like “I love you more than I ever loved her” can change a black viewer’s entire relationship to the show. An activist of color whom I respect wrote soon after this episode aired that friends had strongly recommended he watch The Handmaid’s Tale. They warned him about the rape and brutality, but no one had prepared him as a black man for the emotional violence of this scene, and Luke’s contempt towards his wife.
Finally, with talented writing, June and Luke’s wife Annie might have had a scene in which the two characters, able to get past their anger and guilt, have a real conversation as women. We could learn what a black woman might to say to a white woman in their changing America; a tour-de-force moment for a guest black actress in the role. But The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t seem interested in black conversations or “moments”; Annie doesn’t really exist as a character, she’s just there to offer perfunctory lines of dialogue. In the twenty-three episodes of the show filmed so far, and with the exception of a tiny monologue from Rita, the maid in the Waterford house, we haven’t heard a single black handmaid’s story. And I’m not talking about a character who would arrive and offer an exegesis on racism or attempt a summit on race relations; just an “ordinary” black woman who used to work on Wall Street and who is also searching for her husband and missing children. (A scene in Season 2 in which a black woman doctor is called from “retirement” to help a dying baby, has potential; but she’s brought in, offers her professional opinion, and after being castigated for “giving up” too soon, disappears.)
These auxiliary black characters are functional, but they have no real power and don’t drive the plot. They never get to show any real anger, any rage. We don’t have a sustained relationship with a black handmaid in Gilead as we’ve had with the show’s main characters — Janine, Emily, and June. It’s the white women in the series who do the shouting, the screaming, the stabbing, the grieving, while the women of color women watch.
Samira Wiley’s Moira comes the closest to a consistent black character, and in the first season, Moira had her moments. But once she arrived in Canada her story line pretty much dried up. (This may be why the writers keep sabotaging June’s escape — in Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Canada is boring.) Samira Wiley works wonders with the material she’s been given, and one of her gifts as an actress is a deep internal life behind her eyes, and powerful restraint: she manages to keep a straight face at the end of Season 1 when June gives Moira, a black lesbian, a lecture on resistance and not giving up. But the writers give us flashbacks instead of new challenges for her character, and the backstory they conceive for Moira feels rushed, contrived and stale. In the episode “After”, we find out for the first time not only that Moira was a surrogate mother, but that she fell in love with her doctor after the pregnancy, and that this woman became her partner. As the doctor, Odette, was never mentioned before the episode, and is never mentioned after, it’s an exasperating, lazy choice by the writers. Wiley gives a moving performance, but we can’t care about Odette whom we’ve only known for an hour, (a deathbed lesbian wedding in the Colonies earlier in the season is much more effective), and Moira as a paid surrogate doesn’t reveal anything about her or add real shading to the character. As Moira doesn’t seem to grieve her child in the present, or to be looking for him, what is the point? The writers are playing darts with these characters’ lives, and as the actresses have invested so much pain and thought into their work, it’s deeply unfair.
Moira, as a black woman, also suffers from a classic case of Jennifer-Lopezitis, an affliction suffered only by black and Latino characters in movies. While June’s compelling motivation is always to get her daughter Hannah back, Moira seems to have no black parents, no siblings, no great aunt in Detroit, no nephew in Atlanta, no hamster left behind in a cage, or anyone else who might be wondering where the hell she is, or who she might be looking to rescue from Gilead. I’ve observed before, in the two Jennifer Lopez movies I went to the theater to see, her character’s parents had either died in a “car crash” or she was orphaned at birth. I laughed out loud, knowing this was a racist way to isolate her and keep other Latinos off the screen. (This was particularly problematic in the movie in which Lopez is physically abused by her white husband. I kept waiting for her Puerto Rican relatives from the Bronx to arrive and jack this white man up.)
Another version of the disease, equally incurable, is a “black” character like Luke who checks all the diversity boxes but contributes nothing to make the show culturally diverse. On The Handmaid’s Tale, Luke and Moira never deal with racism in Gilead and they never reference any racist experiences from their past. There is blackness in Wiley’s performance, but it is in her facial expressions, not her storylines. My suspicion is that, because the writers can’t conceive of Moira’s universe, and are too arrogant to admit their limitations or hire a black writer who can use her imagination, their compass is off — they have no idea what a black woman’s considerations might be. Without this sensitivity, black Moira and black Luke are basically just hanging out in Canada, waiting for June to arrive. The show becomes June-centric and ultimately white-woman centric, as every person of color’s experience on the show, including Rita’s, is filtered through June’s reality: June as a character is in danger of becoming Scarlett O’Hara.
Some may see Miller’s decision to blind-cast The Handmaid’s Tale as brave; he made it clear when the show premiered that an all-white series would be racist and wrong for 2018. And he was right. But his vision didn’t go far enough, and now he’s fallen into other racist traps, and they are equally despicable. We see black, Asian, and Latino handmaids on his show but they stand around on the periphery of the action — nodding, looking terrified, being punished en masse, rounded up like cattle. (We don’t even get to see a black woman roll her eyes or a Spanish-speaking woman mumble “puta” under her breath while Aunt Lydia lectures them.) We still have no idea whose families these women conceive for, and we are expected to believe that the same white men who envisioned a Christian fundamental Gilead, based on a Bible used historically to defend slavery and lynching, wouldn’t also demand a white supremacist world of racial purity. Who is raising these black handmaids’ babies? It’s unconscionable to leave these questions still unanswered in Season 2. The Handmaid’s Tale, in its refusal to tell these women’s stories, stories which could be rich in experience, ends up returning to the same “white” well over and over again. And it’s drying up. There is also the threat of a backlash: more than one review I’ve read has suggested that June, returning to Gilead after three potential escapes, is starting to become tiresome.
It is likely I will watch Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale out of curiosity, but I don’t really trust it anymore. I am relieved, however, to know I can still return to the book, as I do every couple of years, and not envision the show or Miller’s corruptions — and that’s a good thing. Part of the beauty of the original work is that we spend a very brief time in Offred’s world, and most of that time is spent in fantasy and flashback. Just as we are starting to appreciate the rhythms of Gilead and become acclimatized to its reality, June is taken away from us and her story and our relationship to it ends. It’s abrupt, the ending is ambiguous, and we aren’t prepared for it. I respected this choice when I first read the novel, and I maintain my original argument in my earlier piece that June’s story resembles an American slave narrative. (June is “disappeared” from us at the end as a family member may have been sold during slavery — we never get any “closure” or find out exactly what has happened to them or where they have gone.)
Atwood’s dénouement is a bit too cerebral and tidy for me — in the book’s final pages a professor from the future gives a history lecture on the downfall of Gilead and speculates about June’s fate. But it is our emotional relationship to June, the relationship that really matters, that is devasted by our feeling of loss. She knew us because she created us, the reader, in her imagination to sustain herself, someone to bear witness to her experience and keep her from going insane. And although there is a relationship, we never really know this woman who tells us her story — we don’t even know her real name. “June” becomes archetypal, an anonymous face in photographs from horrific historical moments, a woman peering out from behind a concentration camp gate or holding a white baby in her lap during slavery, a teenage solider, a gun hung over his shoulder, on his way to war. The grief in the novel never leaves you. This is certainly true of the scenes between Moira and June at Jezebel’s. Atwood gives us the fulfilment of being reunited with someone you’ve loved and thought you’d lost forever, but the meeting is a chance encounter, a bittersweet miracle of sorts with a paucity of time — June knows after this night she will never see Moira again. Nor is she ever reunited with her daughter or her mother. In Atwood’s book, loss and death matter, and the blues song is real.
It has been pointed out in other critiques of the series I’ve read, why it is important that June is an “ordinary” woman as conceived in the book; professional and educated, but not a freedom fighter like her radical mother. By the end of Season 2 Miller seems to have made June a pop-culture hero for resistance, a white Angela Davis, Malcolm X, or Nat Turner. The show clearly has an agenda for her, but in the novel June’s “everywoman” quality brought a poignancy to her story. She was the woman standing behind you at the dry cleaners, sitting at the desk next to you at work. An “unexceptional” June in the novel allowed the character to be as bewildered by Gilead as we were.
One thing the show has gotten right, and it’s major: the scenes between June and Serena Joy. They are masterclasses of acting and the two leads play them beautifully. In my earlier piece, I argued for a Serena Joy that was truer to the book, a Tammy Faye Baker or even a retired Ann Coulter or Kelly-Ann Conway. Yvonne Strahovski and Elizabeth Moss have done extraordinary work in both seasons, and I eventually submitted to Strahovski’s Serena Joy — a woman who was not just a “TV personality” like Baker and Coulter, but who is complicit in creating the Gilead that has now rendered her useless, a woman who may have regrets. Having Serena and June approximately the same age — they might have gone to high school together — brings out different shadings in the characters. The actresses play these scenes like operatic duets.
If anything on television could give a viewer the remotest sense of what it might have been like during slavery or the Deep South to deal with a capricious master or mistress or employer, The Handmaid’s Tale and June’s relationship to Serena is it. Knowing that a woman or man decides your fate and how that dictates the tone you must use, the way you look them in the eye, the potential violence and humiliation of any interaction no matter how seemingly benign, the way that, in a moment, solidarity can turn to betrayal, and the constant subtext: “Please don’t harm my child”, can all be found in Serena’s and June’s relationship. The Handmaid’s Tale succeeds in these moments because Serena is that woman or man who believes in her own goodness, her ideological rightness, and yet will still hold a woman down and watch her get brutally raped by her husband. The show allows us to see Serena, a woman with a title in Gilead, still defending its patriarchy while it attempts to destroy her. When Serena is caught committing an offense against her husband, he whips her like a child in front of June; for the offense of reading aloud he cuts off part of her finger. And yet, in critical moments in which her instinct is to empathize with June as a woman, she chooses to protect the State. We need to reflect on this woman, her values and her hypocrisy, for the choices many of us may have to make during this current administration.
I thought about the deeper implications of these scenes, the rage that some black feminists have written about when organizing with white feminists, the shared experience of gender inequality but the unwillingness to have a meaningful conversation about race, class and white privilege — Audre Lorde’s work, for example, and her piece, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly.” I may be crossing a line here as a man talking about feminism and what any feminist needs, black or white, but in my first essay I argued that June was living the “black” experience in Gilead as a white woman, and white people who are interested in understanding the frustrations of racism will find insights in June’s and Serena’s scenes. We watch June negotiating with Serena for survival — trying at times to be sympathetic but also wanting to kill her. The dynamic is made even more interesting because as Luke is now cast as black, June is protecting her daughter, who is a black child. This is where Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale can be revelatory. It’s ironic: the “blackest” scenes in the show don’t have black characters at all. We have no cultural precedent, with the exception of incarcerated women, for a middle-class white woman like June being treated with this level of disrespect — not interpersonally, but institutionally. More simply, we aren’t used to seeing a middle-class white woman beg to see her child. In these moments, as in the book, June’s courage is simply staying sane just one more day. Which is why, when the show forces her heroism, when Miller blasts pop music and radicalizes her and makes her a “star”, it’s stunningly false, and makes us question all that we have trusted about the show before.
I ran into a neighbor of mine, a writer, who is watching The Handmaid’s Tale now — he’s several episodes behind. We talked about the show and when I described my reaction to certain scenes, he said, “Yeah, it’s getting kind of icky, isn’t it?” I hadn’t heard that word in years and embraced it with delight. We stood on the corner and had a long conversation about “good icky” versus “bad icky” on television and in film.
I knew exactly what he meant: “good icky” is when you sit through something dramatically disturbing or traumatic, hoping it will ultimately result in catharsis. A friend of mine appreciated the scene in The Handmaid’s Tale in which Aunt Lydia, playing on June’s guilt over a man who is murdered for helping her escape, psychologically tortures her. Lydia differentiates between June, the woman who keeps getting punished for fighting back, and Offred, the creation of Gilead, who has a chance to redeem herself. The scene is horrifying, and my friend related to it personally, as it reminded her of a dissociative childhood experience. She took the scene to therapy and it became an opportunity for healing. This is what great drama can do.
“Bad icky” is always more interested in titillation than revelation. In the episode “The Tightening” from Orange Is the New Black an abusive psychopathic guard, Piscatella, enters the prison where the inmates have taken over and captures several of the women one by one, dragging them to a utility room. We watch them being kidnapped slasher-movie- style, and it is the first time we see the Litchfield women through the “pornographic gaze” — the camera puts us on the side of their stalker. One of the things that distinguished the series from the beginning was that we got to see women of different ages, races, colors and classes interact with each other, even make love to each other, without being objectified by the camera. When the women are later tortured by Piscatella in the utility room, the tone shifts, and violence and cruelty are presented realistically. We realize that the earlier kidnapping scenes were meant to be comic relief. It’s always dangerous when you discover that you feel more empathy for characters in a series you’re watching than the writers do.
Most of us we will keep returning to a fucked-up storyline because we are waiting for the crucial turning-point that will justify what the writers have put us through or because we are deeply invested in the show. Writers know this and often take a season of “bad icky” and attempt to turn it into “good icky” at the last minute. In the season 5 finale of Orange, we get a morality play between survivor and perpetrator, a powerful archetypal struggle about forgiveness versus revenge — but it’s too late and it hasn’t been earned. We realize scenes we’ve watched earlier — a group of captured guards are forced to strip naked, bend over and endure perverse humiliations — are merely stunts with no emotional weight or follow-up. We feel played with and our trust is violated, especially when Orange Is The New Black presents itself as a work of dramatic integrity and substance, but when deconstructed, may be closer to a TV sitcom.
We used to have a family joke in our house about the 70’s television series Good Times. Watching the show (now over 40 years old!) we asked ourselves if the Evans family, living in the ghetto in Chicago, could ever, even once, have an actual good time? Of course they enjoyed themselves, but the bigger point was that whenever an opportunity came that might have liberated the family from crushing poverty — James, the father, getting a new job, or Thelma, the daughter, getting a scholarship — the job always fell through, the scholarship was to a racist school. Something had to happen to keep the characters stuck where they were, because if things changed, no more situation, no more TV show, no more revenue for the network. So on Will and Grace, Will meets and marries the man of his dreams, then discovers his new husband is a sociopathic asshole and divorces him; on The Golden Girls Rose moves out, lives with indifferent roommates who won’t listen to her stories about St. Olaf, and is back to share a cheesecake by the end of the episode. Sitcoms are designed to comfort and reassure, but they can also be frustrating exercises in futility.
Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale is in serious danger of becoming a sitcom. Saturday Night Live has parodied the show as a dystopic Sex and The City, but they may not be far off: in one of the last scenes of the season, Janine, Emily and June walk down the street having a conversation about Emily’s first ceremony in the new Commander’s house, and they are able to talk freely without any guards observing them. This is very different from Atwood’s conception of handmaids so oppressed that they walk in pairs, unable to make eye contact because of the bonnets they wear, and barely able to speak above a whisper. Any communication other than “Blessed be the fruit” or “May the lord open” might be considered treason — Ofglen’s first use of the word “Mayday” — could lead to death. The show seems confused; these three handmaids seem like college students walking along the beach during spring break. What makes the show racist in these moments is the fact that their oppression as women in Gilead begins to feel random; the characters are no longer oppressed any time the writers don’t need them to be, which suggests white privilege — not of the characters but of the producers. It’s offensive to any oppressed person who empathizes with June, portrayed as a woman struggling to survive in the Waterford house, when she tells her oppressor, “Go fuck yourself” and then goes to kitchen to chat with Rita. It seems that every time the show gets low down and reveals something genuine about powerlessness and evil, Miller loses his nerve and June gets to be white again.
I know this isn’t entirely fair, and some people reading this may take exception to the constant reference to whiteness. But I define whiteness in this context as behavior without consequences. What are we as viewers to make of the horrifying rape scene in which June begs for Serena’s help, only to watch June in a follow-up episode reach out to Serena with compassion? I am aware that all relationships have nuances, even ones founded in oppression, but when we are still emotionally shattered by rape scene that the characters seem to have forgotten by the next episode, we are definitely trafficking in “bad icky”.
The Commander slaps June, and she slaps him back hard enough to dislodge a tooth and knock his shellacked hair out of place. We are light years away from the tense, clandestine scrabble games the two shared in the novel. Given his penchant for violence, this scene can only work is if Fred is turned-on by the slap, if he laughs and sexualizes it to save himself from humiliation. Instead he grabs her angrily and leaves the room. Later June is in the kitchen, helping him make tea for Serena. There are no marks on his face or hers, and the slaps are never referred to again.
This sassy, no-real-consequences June is a carry-over from the first season. I imagine Miller just couldn’t help himself. As I wrote in my last piece, nothing was more irritating than those moments when Elizabeth Moss walked towards the camera with a battalion of handmaids behind her. In the novel, June lives a life of such deprivation that to moisturize her skin she uses butter from her meals that she keeps hidden inside her shoe. It’s one of the few pleasures she has; that she can occasionally pamper herself, and that she has disobeyed authority. It’s a moving act of resistance, sensuality, and self-possession. Instead of butter, Miller gives June an army. Or maybe a rock group — “June and the Junettes”. I was very relieved that the show seemed to have done away with these MTV moments in Season 2, only to discover they were clearly saving them all up for the Season 2 finale.
The Handmaid’s Tale demands a lot of us. We not only don’t get a real backstory for Rita, the only consistent woman character of color still in Gilead, but we have to listen to her tell Nick, the Commander’s chauffeur and the father of June’s child: “Your girlfriend’s a bad-ass.” She admires June for fighting back; another woman of color in the series who takes empowerment lessons from June. In the Season 2 episode, “Other Women” Serena Joy slaps the complete shit out of Rita and Miller doesn’t even allow us to see Rita‘s reaction later — nursing her face, or ripping up her mattress with rage. A follow-up scene with Rita could take all of thirty seconds. Instead, Rita is conceived so tentative, downtrodden and oppressed, she barely speaks above a whisper even when the Waterford’s aren’t in the room.
We are expected in the finale to believe that Serena is willing to give up the baby, Nicole, for whom she has basically sold her soul, and is also willing to risk her own life when Gilead finds out the baby has disappeared and that she may have had something to do with it. In multicultural Gilead, black and white exist side by side in “harmony”, but a fifteen year-old-girl is drowned for adultery. The saddest part in all of this is that because of these ludicrous inconsistences, Elizabeth Moss’ performance, which has been uniformly great, is consistently undermined. The leads in The Handmaid’s Tale are Cinderellas, dangerously close to getting happy endings. Emily has a knight in shining armor who frees her, Janine gets to hold her baby one more time, June is reunited with her daughter, sees her second child freed, and turns down yet another chance at escape, putting even more people’s lives at risk. Atwood’s novel goes from being a cautionary tale to a fairy tale. (At the end of Season 2, June even looks like a sadistic little Red Riding Hood out for revenge.)
The show is greedy with its storylines –despite Miller’s earlier intentions, white women still get to have everything, making the show seem more racist than if he’d just left it alone. Alex Bledel is an amazing actress, and I have been moved by her work several times over the run of the series, but she has had enough plot points for three characters, while others still haven’t had any. After a clitoridectomy, after watching her female lover in Gilead hanged for “gender treachery” (homosexuality), after having driven a car over a Guardian and clandestinely murdered an ex-commander’s wife in the Colonies we become numb to her persecutions, and her bewildered, wounded kitten look becomes a reflex. A scene where her commander dies in the bedroom on ceremony night is particularly odd; as Emily has killed before with poison, I suspected for a moment that his death wasn’t a coincidence, that she either had supernatural power or a lethal vaginal cream. (I’m serious here.) At the end of the season when she is brought into the house of a commander who toys with her psychologically and may be a sadistic freak — we wait to see what fresh hell will be delivered to her. I thought, I can’t go through this with her again. Janine, whose character really should have died in the first season on the bridge while holding her baby — either shot and martyred, or by a suicide with dignity — keeps returning with her puckered lost eye, her eternal dreamy optimism and her winning smiles — she’s become a sitcom favorite.
Real tragedy matters. Or at least it should, as it is happening all the time in the world around us. And in order to maintain our empathy, we have to allow ourselves to be heartbroken by our art. Dramatic tragedy is essential to life, it is the grief we can control. Shakespeare knew this. But there is a danger when that tragedy is drawn out over several seasons to create a hit series or compromised because we’d miss a beloved character or because the lead actor is a star and mustn’t die because it’s not in his contract. How far are we willing to go with this thing? Othello didn’t really strangle Desdemona to death, he just choked her out for a while so she can return next season and really show him what a cheating wife is, with Iago; Romeo and Juliet didn’t poison themselves, they just took another really powerful sleeping agent provided by the Nurse, who digs up their graves later so they have a chance to run away together and live happily ever after.
Are The Handmaid’s Tale writers afraid that if they focus on black women, the stories will be so compelling that June’s will seem like she’s been crying over a broken fingernail? If so, I think they should trust themselves more. June, Janine and Emily have suffered, which means, if they are willing to examine the privilege in their pasts, solidarity and sisterhood with black women may be possible. It’s not for me to say. But perhaps their experience in Gilead gives them new insight about oppression and this would offer possibilities for reconciliation. And we as viewers, and those who use the series as a teaching tool, could make the connections — which so needs to be made in 2018 — between sexism, racism, homophobia, and class, all of which are in Atwood’s book. I can envision a scene in which June runs into Luke’s ex-wife, who is now a handmaid herself or a Martha. Maybe their empathetic conversation takes place after all. But without any comment at all about racism, we don’t get the proper response to racism — resistance. How can you resist something that doesn’t even exist?
I take no great pleasure in calling Bruce Miller’s show racist — racism is spiritually and culturally exhausting and, frankly, I’m tired of America’s addiction to it — but I’m not sure what else to call it. The decision not to talk about race has been seen by some fans as “bold” and “original”, rather than what it is: the same old silence about racism we’ve endured for centuries. I would not make the same argument about Atwood’s book — as it is written in the first person, it doesn’t make sense for June to report anything outside her own experience. She makes it clear what Gilead thinks about people of color, using a few biblical reference points. Filling in the rest with my imagination was enough for me. And Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t told from only June’s perspective, but increasingly from Emily’s/Ofglen’s. Miller has opened the book out, which means there are now infinite creative possibilities for discussing race. Emily, at times, even has the more compelling story line: June’s compulsive return to the Waterfords’ house has become stultifying for many viewers, but Emily’s time in the Colonies, and the amazing cinematography in these scenes, suggesting Nazi concentration camps, made for some of the best moments of Season 2. Emily, clearly, is fighting a daily battle with hope. But the show doesn’t try to make her, unlike June, a poster child for feminist resistance, or an icon, so she gets to stay in character, loyal to the tone that Atwood originally conceived.
Which is why I’d argue, if we can have an Emily, and a Janine, and a Serena, then we can also have a Kiesha, a Constanza, a Haruko, a Fatima. These women exist already, they are on the screen, but they are mute. Not only do they have nothing to do or say, their presence in the society as written doesn’t make sense. And given the absence of any racial analysis in The Handmaid’s Tale, they are subjected to a double dose of erasure, twice made invisible — by Gilead and by the producers. It becomes morally reprehensible to create a show where women of color are repeatedly victimized by white people week after week without showing their forms of resistance or giving them a voice.
This is particularly disturbing when one considers the enslavement of women all over the world, women both black and white, who are trafficked in the sex industry, bought and sold daily, the real living Offreds. There is a danger that we will no longer empathize with these women’s struggles in the same way, that we will watch the news and say about the young girl forced into prostitution, the woman living under Sharia law, the woman who flees her country seeking asylum from genocide, “Why didn’t she just hit her oppressor like June hit her commander?”, “Why can’t these women be ‘bad-asses’ too? They must not want to fight back like June.” These women resist every day, and Atwood’s novel, and the character she created — a woman who negotiates terror daily in order to stay alive — honors them.
In the season finale, Emily, after stabbing Aunt Lydia in the back with a kitchen knife and kicking her down a flight of stairs, awaits the consequences of her actions. This time she’s lucky; as I’ve mentioned, the quirky, bizarre commander who, we are informed, is one of the primary architects of Gilead, turns out now to be part of the underground railroad. Instead of turning her in for her crimes, he takes Emily to a drop-off point where she will be led out of Gilead to freedom. In the car, as she awaits her fate, the commander asks if she likes music and then turns on Annie Lennox singing “Walking On Broken Glass.”
These moments in the series can be as devastating and dislocating as they were in the book, pop music as a heartbreaking reminder of the past. Emily responds in horror, seemingly having a panic attack in the back seat; and we wonder, still unsure where the commander is taking her, if the moment is so bizarre and anachronistic for her that she is overwhelmed. After all the persecutions she has suffered, music from a time of freedom may be the last straw. Online viewers have joked that in this moment she’s either experiencing psychological torture, or she really hates Annie Lennox.
I happen to like Annie Lennox’s music, in fact, I like it a lot, and I think choosing her for The Handmaid’s Tale is a compelling and subversive choice. Lennox is a real soul singer, with a relationship to the blues, not a soul music infidel like Christina Aguilera or Justin Timberlake. The Eurythmics, her duo most popular in the Eighties, meant something to me growing up queer and black. I loved her sexuality, her androgyny, and her anger. “Here Comes The Rain Again” which I played about 10 million times on my Walkman on the way to and from school and at lunch got me through the 7th grade. In the video “Beethoven (I Love To Listen to)” Lennox plays a repressed housewife who spends her day knitting and cleaning the house. At one point, she metamorphoses into a drag queen, rips the knitting and the house to shreds, and in a silver dress, heels and a blond spun-sugar wig, hits the streets. (She later wears this same outfit in the video “‘I Need A Man”.) Younger listeners who don’t know her solo career may be familiar with her popular duet with Aretha Franklin, “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves”. There is liberation and danger in her music, the sound of queer and feminist resistance.
In some ways, she is a perfect choice for The Handmaid’s Tale, and also a disastrous one. The minute I heard Lennox’s voice, it haunted me in the final scene, when June not only decides not to leave Gilead, but gives her daughter to Emily to watch over, and then tells Emily to call the baby Nicole — the name Serena gave her child — and not Holly, the original name she chose. Serena, we remember, is a woman who orchestrated June’s rape several episodes ago, and who kept her from seeing her baby. In fact, she wouldn’t have the baby in her posession if the Commander hadn’t brought her back into the house. This sentimental act, based on a false solidarity following Lennox’s moving voice in the earlier scene, brought up for me what is so deeply fraudulent at times about this show. When Lennox sings, she sings the blues. The Handmaid’s Tale plays at singing the blues, which is exactly what whiteness does — plays at singing the blues. And if you’re playing at your own blues, you’ll never be able to begin to understand someone else’s. Which explains the mess our country is in right now.
So, the tension in the series is gone. If the writers can pull this crap, they’ll pull anything. Which means with June conceived as “white”, we can assume that she will go back and raise hell in Gilead, she will somehow, perhaps singlehandedly, bring down the entire power structure, she will find a way to sneak through Hannah’s bedroom and rescue her and, with her daughter in her arms, find her way to Canada. She’ll sit down to a hot meal with her best friend, Moira, and her husband, ready for a good night’s sleep and a return to white privilege. I’d much rather watch a show where June escapes to Canada, she and Moira plot together to return and rescue Hannah from Gilead. This would be an amazing use of black invisibility. A racist commander might recognize June, but probably couldn’t tell the difference between one black Martha and another. Moira can get into that house as a black woman and put a knife to the commander’s throat after serving him breakfast in bed. June can’t.
It’s an insult to Atwood and the book, June as a superhero in a red cape. June is elastic, superhuman, able to stretch and contort in any way the plot demands of her, Rubber-Woman. Instead of a ten-episode mini-series, which The Handmaid’s Tale should have been in the first place, we will probably get seven or eight seasons. And given the history of the show, Emily and that little baby ain’t going anywhere. They will reach the entry-way to Canada and the escape van will get a flat tire.
A company called Lot18 had a major misstep recently when they tried to sell Handmaid wines: “Offred” Pinot Noir, “Ofglen” Cabernet Sauvignon, and “Serena Joy” Bordeaux Blanc. They were immediate pulled off the market after a major outcry, and while it appears that the production company of the series was not involved, I still believe something in the way the show is conceived made the winemakers think they could get away with it. I suppose Handmaid dolls are next. Miniature Aunt Lydias who torture other women and keep them in line (cattle prods sold separately), and tiny Commanders and their wives who hold Handmaids down during ceremonies. Two years ago, there were plans to put Harriet Tubman on new twenty-dollar bills.
I suppose it was inevitable, this commodification of resistance, this playing at resistance. But it’s nothing new. I have to stare at American revisionism every time I go to the supermarket and walk down the aisles. A black man grins as he offers to serve me a bowl of Cream of Wheat. I consider the violence behind that grin and wonder what his blues is like. Uncle Ben smiles from rows and rows of boxed rice. In my heart, I know there is an American nightmare inside that box, that the enslaved African man who cooked that rice wasn’t an Uncle, wasn’t named Ben, and, I think we can safely assume, wasn’t smiling at all.
Did I ever tell you the story of the morning when Aunt Jemima woke up and put a razor blade in a stack of pancakes? Remind me sometime.
On Race and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) by Max S. Gordon
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”, “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”
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