Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale explores a dystopian future in which a conservative and totalitarian state has overthrown the United States’ government. In this society, women are objects owned by men and have no rights as citizens. The reader explores the disturbing Republic of Gilead through the handmaid June, who is referred to as Offred. Handmaids are a class of women in the Republic of Gilead whose sole task is to get pregnant by the men they are assigned to. In order to complete this task, they are raped regularly. The novel is meant to be a work of speculative fiction as it offers Atwood’s satirical view of various political, social, and religious trends of the 1980s United States. She wanted to explore what could happen if these trends continued and history repeated itself, as it is known to do. In an interview, Atwood explained that “everything that happens in the book has already happened.” The domestic slavery and systematic rape experienced by the handmaids could happen in the United States because it already has.
June’s hardships parallel the enslavement of African Americans in the United States. As a handmaid, she is forbidden to read, a common restriction in many slave codes.June’s name “Offred” is given to her by her Commander, which means, “Of Fred,” so people will know which Commander she “belongs” to. This is similar to the practice of enslaved African Americans taking the surnames of their “masters” when they were freed in 1865. The handmaids also need a special pass to leave the house, a rule similar to the laws that required slave owners to provide their permission or license when transporting enslaved individuals. June and the other handmaids are also repeatedly and legally raped by their “masters,” as many enslaved individuals were.
Atwood also uses the experiences of Indigenous women, who also faced systematic rape in the past and who still experience the highest rates of rape and assault. Additionally, the handmaids’ pain of seeing their children raised by their oppressors mirrors the experience of indigenous women under the boarding school system. Indigenous women were forced to send their children to schools that were meant to assimilate them into the society that sought to destroy their culture. Similarly, the handmaids’ children are taken and raised to continue Gilead’s oppressive system.
Atwood researched the experiences of women of color when writing The Handmaid’s Tale in the 1980s because she wanted to see how these previous systems of oppression would look in a modern era. However, Atwood was only interested in exploring the consequences for white women.
Atwood excludes women of color from the Republic of Gilead. She writes off African American people with a few lines that suggest the “Children of Ham” have been relocated. “Children of Ham” refers to the curse of Ham, which refers to the Genesis 9 of the Bible. In this verse, Noah’s son Ham disrespects him and as punishment Noah condemns Ham’s bad behavior by cursing Ham’s son Canaan to be “a servant of servants.” The curse has been interpreted by white supremacist as black skin and has been used to justify the enslavement of Africans and African Americans. By making this reference, Atwood confirms that the white Christian men running Gilead are building a segregated society based on their religious and racist beliefs. Yet she does not explore this aspect of Gilead any further. Latinxs, Native Americans, and Asian Americans are never mentioned, as if their location does not need to be explained because they never existed in the United States in the first place. While Atwood acknowledged that the violence and dehumanization in her novel are not new, her decision to exclude women of color from the novel is unacceptable.
Atwood’s decision to focus on white women’s experience with the violence that has been systematically used to oppress women of color is an example of white feminism. Atwood’s desire to explore the political, social, and religious trends of the 1980s was a desire to explore how these trends affect white women, not women in general.
When the white feminist novel was made into a television show, the creators attempted to update the story to comment on the current socio-political climate of the United States under the Trump administration. The show discusses gender roles, reproductive freedom, and classism, and represents these issues and discusses them fairly well. But, like the novel, race continues to be ignored.
The show’s creators tried to diversify Gilead: the show casts African American actors in key roles, including June’s daughter Hannah, her husband Luke, and her best friend Moira. There are also Latinx, Asian American, and African American handmaids. Additionally, writers included storylines that focus on queer women in Gilead, such as Moira and the handmaid Emily. While the cast is still primarily white, the show creates a more diverse Gilead (though the bar was set extremely low by Atwood’s all white world).
However, more people of color does not mean a more intersectional version of The Handmaid’s Tale. The show has continued the novel’s white feminist tradition with colorblind storytelling. While there are more women of color, their experiences are treated as exactly the same as white women’s. There are no storylines or references to how the experiences of handmaids of color differ from white handmaids. In a country where race plays a major role in egg donation, it is difficult to believe that white, conservative Commanders would allow their children to be anything but white. By ignoring race, the story treats the experiences of white women as the default and norm.
The show’s creators also attempt to redeem Serena Joy, whose white feminism stands out in this white feminist world. Serena Joy is the wife of Commander Fred. Prior to Gilead, Serena preached the return of traditional roles, believing women needed to return to the home and dedicate themselves to motherhood to battle the declining birth rate. Serena and Fred assisted in the coup that overthrew the United States’ government and establishment of the Republic of Gilead.
In the series, viewers watch as Serena is destroyed by the social structure that she helped create. She accepts her loss of rights and the handmaid system because she has faith in Gilead’s ability to succeed and overcome the mass infertility and birth defects. Throughout the series, Serena demonstrates her desire to see Gilead succeed and to raise a child of her own.
Serena allows for women to be tortured, enslaved, and raped in order to increase the birth rate of the nation and to become a mother herself. While there are moments in which Serena appears to be questioning the current system, such as when she secretly helps a woman to temporarily return to her position as a pediatric doctor in order to save a sick child, she ultimately accepts the social structure because it benefits her. As a wife, she has more privileges and rights than other women in Gilead. She has power over domestic slaves and has the legal right to mother June’s child. Additionally, she is not exposed to the same systematic rape as the handmaids, but instead assists in the sexual assault. She uses her power to get what she wants, asking her husband to rape a pregnant June in an attempt to induce labor.
After taking June’s baby girl, Serena decides she wants to make changes in Gilead in order to protect “her” daughter’s future. She convinces the other wives to appear in front of the council to request a change in the law: to allow the daughters of Gilead the right to read. While this is meant to be a moment of feminism and women empowerment, it is classism. Serena is not fighting for the right for all women, she is fighting for the women of her class. While she was brave, she was only brave for people like her. Similarly, white feminists do not battle against issues that do not directly impact on them.
Yet the series wants viewers to sympathize with her. We are meant to pity her for the pain she suffers because of the system, demonstrating the series’ failure to detach itself from its white feminist roots. The writers glorify a character that embodies white feminism: she exercises power over women less privileged women than her, she assists in their oppression, and she only fights for the rights of women like her.
The end of season 2, Serena allows June to escape with her baby, but it is doubtful that she would have allowed her to leave if the child had been a boy. If she was not worried about the child’s future within the patriarchy of Gilead, Serena might have stopped June. She was motivated to help because she realized how toxic Gilead was to women like herself, not because she was concerned about how Gilead treated women below her class.
Atwood wrote the The Handmaid’s Tale in order to explore the experiences of women like Serena: white, straight, able-bodied, and middle class. June/Offred, the novel’s heroine, has a similar social standing. Atwood wanted to explore a world where these women had been stripped of their rights and dehumanized the way women of color have been. The show wanted to distance itself from that white feminist framework, but failed with colorblind storytelling and Serena’s “redemption” arc. The show’s attempt to redeem this character demonstrates it’s failure to confront race. Serena’s actions need to be addressed, not minimized. She also cannot be forgiven for doing the bare minimum: treating June like a human being and allowing her to escape enslavement. This white feminist framework makes it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for the television series to provide a meaningful social critique. While The Handmaid’s Tale series attempted to bring attention to dangerous social, political, and religious trends, it fails to confront the white feminism of the past and the present.