‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: A White Feminist’s Dystopia

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Margaret Atwood’s seminal book raises concerns. In trying to address them, the Hulu series has raised its own.

When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I remember being uncomfortable — but I couldn’t really articulate why.

With the recent election, a surge in activism, and the ensuing criticism of this activism, the topic of white feminism has come to the forefront of liberal politics. Following Hulu’s release of a TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, the root of my discomfort finally hit me — The Handmaid’s Tale is a White Feminist dystopia, specifically.

While no one can deny that Offred’s life is miserable, the book often references those who have it worse off than her — namely, minorities. Yet these nameless minority groups are never fleshed out as characters. Instead, black denizens — who are referred to as “Children of Ham,” a reference to the Biblical Curse of Ham that some religions have used to justify slavery — are sent to re-settle in a place known as “National Homeland One.” It is also suggested that some of the servants, or “Marthas,” may be people of color.

Meanwhile, as actual people of color are sidelined in the narrative, and their stories never explored, Offred endures domestic slavery and forced sex — hardships that are strikingly similar to those experienced by non-white women in much higher numbers throughout history, and in various parts of the world still today. In particular, there are clear parallels to the enslavement of African Americans in the United States. Offred’s name means literally “Of Fred,” signifying the “commander” she “belongs” to, calling to mind the practice of African American slaves taking the surnames of their masters when they were emancipated; she’s forbidden to read, a common provision in many slave codes; she needs a special pass to leave the house, a rule akin to the laws restricting the movement of slaves; and she is repeatedly raped by her master, as many slaves were.

The network that smuggles women out of Gilead is even referred to as “The Underground Femaleroad.” Moreover, Offred finds herself singing “Amazing Grace” in her head and notes that it has been banned by the new regime. Besides being a popular hymn in the African American community, this is also a clear reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Stowe not only utilized the hymn, but wrote an additional verse.

Offred endures hardships that are strikingly similar to those non-white women have experienced in much higher numbers throughout history.

The book, in effect, appropriates the black female slave experience and applies it to white women — while banishing actual women of color to a place we never see. While it’s true that this banishment storyline was meant to serve as commentary on slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy, the fact that this plotline was pushed to the fringes of the narrative, while keeping the focus on the plight of white women specifically, raises concerns.

As source material, in other words, the book poses some problems — and in addressing them, the Hulu series has created its own.

As has been written about extensively, the Hulu series’ creators made the deliberate decision to cast the show with some diversity. Executive producer and writer Bruce Miller has said, “What’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show? I don’t know that there is any apparent difference when you’re watching.”

So, in the series, Offred’s husband is black, as is her best friend, Moira. Her daughter is biracial. Though all the other primary characters are white, we see other people of color depicted on screen, as citizens of Gilead.

But while the decision to cast people of color has been widely heralded, we shouldn’t presume this “fixes” the book’s issues with racial appropriation. Adding “diversity” by casting a couple people of color does not actually address the fundamental problems with the book’s premise. The story still belongs to Offred, a white woman being punished in ways that echo the experiences of black women in America.

While the decision to cast people of color has been widely heralded, we shouldn’t presume this ‘fixes’ the book’s issues with racial appropriation.

Moreover, it is itself problematic to present a racially diverse Gilead—a theocratic society supposedly founded decades in America’s future—and then essentially ignore racism. The show’s creators have argued it makes sense that this future world would be mostly post-racial, because evangelical Christianity has become “a little more diverse since the book debuted in 1985, and because fertility is the focus of Gilead’s theocracy. As Miller put it:

“When you think about a world where the fertility rate has fallen precipitously, fertility would trump everything. And we’ve seen that: When fertility becomes an issue, racism starts to fall because people adopt kids from Ethiopia and Asian countries and from everywhere.”

Miller’s colonialist statement aside, pretending that the story takes place in a futuristic American society in which racism is no longer a serious issue is not only dismissive — discounting the ongoing prejudice and discrimination that large groups of people within the U.S. still face today — but dubious. It’s difficult to imagine an America ruled by fundamentalist Christian men in which racism wouldn’t be prevalent.

Not only was America founded on the slavery and genocide of people of color, but the modern religious right — the group that most closely echoes the hyper-conservative, theocratic ruling class of Gilead — has incredibly racist roots, in part developing to fight back against race-mixing in schools (and certainly, this racism endures today).

Moreover, the gendered violence that dominates the Handmaid’s Tale narrative, and which runs rampant in our current society, is often bound up with racism. Colonialism has historically involved sexual violence against women of color, and still today in America, black women, mixed-race women, and American Indian and Alaskan Native women face much higher rates of rape.

The Hulu series’ creators had an opportunity to address these facts by exploring how racism might manifest in a world like Gilead — and, at least so far, they have not.

Underlying all this is an unsettling message that has been carried from the book to the series. Atwood describes her novel as “speculative fiction,” meaning that she believes the events she depicts are a credible possibility. It seems to me the peak of hubris to “predict” events as a possibility that we have already seen come to pass, just to a different set of people. The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that the brutality of slavery alone is not impactful enough to serve as a universal wake-up call; instead, we’re only drawn to this “feminist” rallying point when the person enduring these heinous crimes is a college-educated white woman.

The Handmaid’s Tale’s warning to white women is thus clear: beware, lest that which was already done to other women, be done to you.