Initial Thoughts on Hulu’s The Handmaid's Tale
Hulu’s new prestige drama The Handmaid’s Tale is engrossing and immersive, so much so that despite my intentions to watch only the beginning of the first episode, I stayed up until 3am catching up with the first three episodes. As Anne Helen Peterson has noted, the formal aspects of the show are masterful and innovative. I also appreciate very much how time is out of joint, with the soundtrack playing songs from our past and characters using language from our present—the spectres here of course being less of Marx and more of Trump/Pence. Indeed, there is much to admire about this show.
That being said, I would like to dwell here a bit on how the shift from novel to television show changes the text’s racial politics. In the novel, white supremacy has reached its terrible end, with racialized people expelled to the toxic “colonies” as surplus population. The main characters are entirely white, as only people considered to be white are allowed in Gilead. However, the show makes a different choice: those closest to the main character, including her family, are people of colour, and we occasionally see other black and brown people as Marthas or Handmaids or police. Justifying the logic behind the increased diversity of the show, executive producer and writer Bruce Miller argues that the evangelical movement is less white than it was when the novel was written, families are increasingly mixed, and in this world infertility trumps race. While Miller is correct that interracial adoption has increased in the last 30 years, this is not necessarily an indication of an abatement of racism, and can indeed signify more insidious forms of neo-colonialism. We also see—in France, for example—how lowering birth rates can help fuel the rise of ethno-nationalism. Miller then contends that the practical differences of seeing a show on the screen with entirely white characters raises the question, “Why would we be telling Offred’s story and not the story of someone [in the Colonies]?”—that is, why should the show reproduce Atwood’s narrative choice of creating this world through its white characters? To be honest I wouldn’t want to watch a show of only white people with all the absent brown and black folks living in toxic sludge either, even if it would stay true to the novel. On this point at least, I agree with Miller: representation matters, fidelity does not.
Let’s take a closer look, then, at how this shift actually plays out in the series so far. Rather than providing any specificity to Moira or Luke’s blackness, it seems much more the case of diversity as mere inclusion, the calculation of one unit of melanin here, another unit there. Moira’s situation is only different from June’s because of her queerness, which is no different than Ofglen’s or her partner who is a Martha. Moira is there to give June strength and then dies silently off-screen—in a perverse sense, this is the only way she is racialized, in the common trope of the black or brown person helping the white character along her journey. I am not asking for more images of black death—yes, representation matters, but not for its own sake: I am not here for yet another depiction of the no-future of racialized people. Telling the story of people dying in the colonies alongside the novel’s narrative in Gilead would not improve the politics of representation—it would entail parallel narratives not only of black death but black superfluity to white futures. Yet the problem of the mere inclusion of people of colour without any consideration of racialized power leaves out one of the foundations of American society: white supremacy.
Speculative fiction as a genre expands and amplifies existing social and political structures. Indeed, Margaret Atwood herself has famously said, “The thing to remember is that there is nothing new about the society depicted in The Handmaid's Tale except the time and place. All of the things I have written about have been done before, more than once.” Here what precipitates the break from what comes before is actually embedded in that before. One of the main elements of the American project concerns maintaining and reproducing white supremacy; reproductive futurity is thus the reproduction of whiteness. What is at stake in an increasingly infertile world is the crisis of reproductive futurity and the reproduction of the white nation. The novel The Handmaid’s Tale takes white patriarchal oppression to its extreme, positing as the vectors of white futurity not white women but rather the wombs of white women. The show, however, plucks the womb out of its context in bodies that may be otherwise racialized and thus levels patriarchal oppression. Although the show does not efface queerness as it does race, Ofglen’s queerness is punished but her womb saves her—in a most horrifying way that further highlights that the womb, not her queerness, is all that ultimately matters. The erasure of racism and white supremacy means that, while the novel extends multiple American ideologies, the TV show reduces these complexities to one—the show itself plucks patriarchal oppression out of its interlinked structures.
While I enjoyed watching the show for its formal aspects and delicate treatment of small moments of pain and relief, it was jarring, for example, to see black cops. Furthermore, are we honestly to believe that the upper-class couples would be OK with brown or black handmaids or treat them the same as white ones when this world is not too far from our present? If the spectre of Trump/Pence haunts this show—in terms of rape culture, reproductive autonomy, mass incarceration, police violence, gated communities, clean white homes with gilded teacups, etc.—it does so without its intensely racialized aspects. Moira and Luke and Martha are racialized for the liberal sensibilities of viewers but not within the story world.
The show addresses the myth of reproducing the white nation without acknowledging that part of the reproduction of the white nation was supported by the rape of black women. It disavows the future nation as white despite the whiteness of its structures, thus allowing for the disavowal of the history of slavery itself. June laments her previous political ignorance; we can draw parallels here to the shock of white people after Donald Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton (see Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock). June’s white feminist complacency is related to the erasure of the rape of black women because they are both part of the larger erasure of white supremacy, of which the rape of black women was an integral part. In other words, by effacing the significance of race in a world that institutionalizes rape, the show reproduces the very thing it is ostensibly critiquing: both June’s and the show’s disavowal not just of history but of the present, with potentially horrifying consequences extended into the future. In America you cannot separate white supremacy and patriarchy. Consider, instead, Children of Men, another post-apocalyptic film about reproductive futurity. Race matters intensely; one of the main problems that arises in the post-fertility era of the film is that refugees are encroaching upon a Britain that embraces total nationalism. The difference here is that racialized people have not been totally eradicated from the main narrative and the body that represents futurity belongs to a black woman. What might it look like for The Handmaid’s Tale not merely to insert black and brown bodies here and there but to show why blackness and brownness matter? Rather than reproducing white feminism and liberal inclusion, how could the show instead grapple with the messy valences of American hegemony intensified, how they crash and cleave? An already compelling show that sparks a range of emotions (in me and others, judging from social media) would thus gain greater political relevance.
The Handmaid’s Tale shows us what adaptation does and the power of televisual form, but watching it is also a reminder of the urgency to be critical about what is being made visible and what is being effaced in our cultural texts.
Special thanks to Helen Frost for conversations and comments.