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Loathsome 'Handmaid' erases race



Spolier warning: Contains spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale seasons 1-3.

I'm finally breaking up with the TV series The Handmaid's Tale. This has been a long time coming. I've loathed the adaption since its very first season. I kept watching in the hope that perhaps, with the second season extending beyond the scope of novelist Margaret Atwood's original text, the show may get creative and compelling in order to flesh out its own world. Unfortunately, this simply has not happened.

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid's TaleWhat originally concerned me has been written about by numerous other opinion writers: the colour-blindness of the show. The world of Gilead is a puritanical and fascist society based around the forced reproductive labour of a handful of women for the glory of those who hold the power. In the novel, Atwood wrote that the 'Children of Ham' had been resettled — the inference being that people of colour had been rounded up and had ultimately met their deaths.

Yet for some reason, the Gilead of the television series had people of colour everywhere. In the television interpretation, we are supposed to believe that a world which is both incredibly class-driven and misogynistic is also miraculously non-racist. Even though we know, through both the theory of intersectionality and basic world history, that this never actually happens.

There are black and brown handmaids, black and brown commanders and mixed-race partnerships. The main character June, for example, has a black partner, and her best friend Moira is a black lesbian. Yet there is absolutely no exploration of that race politics. My own experience with mixed-race partnerships indicates that race politics does not simply evaporate because two people choose to be together — indeed it's consistently present, discussed and important.

The show has instead chosen to completely ignore these important race-based dynamics for reasons it has never bothered explaining. Perhaps the creators felt that in current times, in light of criticisms of Hollywood whitewashing (see, for example, this excellent takedown on John Oliver's Last Week, Tonight), it would be better to be more representative. Instead though, The Handmaid's Tale has managed to merely erase the experiences of people — particularly women — of colour, for no reason other than to make its cast more diverse.

I've now lost count of the number of think-pieces I have read from white feminists claiming that Gilead 'could happen'. According to these pieces, the Trump administration in the US is going to lead that country to this inevitable horrific Gileadean conclusion. Yet the women in Gilead are experiencing nothing that many women of colour have not experienced time and time again. Indeed, Atwood herself stated that all the events in her book had been drawn from real world examples.

Forced labour? The African slave trade, 'stolen wages' and black-birding already tell that tale. Reproductive control? One needn't look further than the Stolen Generations in Australia. Rounding up black people and resettling them elsewhere sounds awfully like our missions, or even the prison camps and lock hospitals. It additionally sounds like the original theories behind the Native American reservations, and the segregation of African American people.


"In other words, a white woman has been positioned as the face of the rebellion while a black woman is happily siding with the oppressors."


As for enforced puritanical rule, in addition to the aftermath of the Iranian revolution (by which Atwood was partly inspired), it would be difficult to name a single Indigenous population colonised by the west which has not been subjected to intense religious conversion programs.

For those privileged white feminists, these threats appear new. For many other women, however, this is a lived reality, and white women have benefited from these realities. The true problem therefore is how society consistently interprets these happenings as being far more horrific when they are enacted upon white people while continuing to ignore the suffering they enact upon non-white people.

Instead of acknowledging this, the Hulu adaption of The Handmaid's Tale has consistently told us that someone's gender and sexuality is far more important than their race. I continued to watch despite this erasure and also despite the sometimes gratuitous violence in the hope it would get better. Instead, the show has only succeeded in becoming more absurd.

The third season of the show seems to consist almost entirely of close-ups of June glaring into the camera; that's when it's not trying to get us to buy the ridiculousness of handmaids having their mouths pierced shut while concurrently being expected to bear the next generation.

The final straw for me has been the introduction of Ofmatthew, a black handmaid who is pious, compliant and so outwardly devoted to the maintenance of the Gilead society that she has no problem reporting her fellow servant class members for misdemeanours. June, meanwhile, is working towards the rebellion, as well as trying to rescue her daughter Hannah, who has been given as a daughter to a commander. In other words, a white woman has been positioned as the face of the rebellion while a black woman is happily siding with the oppressors.

It's one thing to try to stomach this dynamic as it is playing out in front of me. It is quite another to watch that white woman onscreen launching herself at the black woman and attempting to strangle her because she believes that black woman is ruining her attempts to dismantle the system. As an Aboriginal woman viewer, I find the situation the creators are wanting me to buy not just absurd but offensive. With this, any small hopes I maintained that they would eventually use their diverse cast to explore race politics has vanished. It is simply not going to happen.

So for now, it's an 'under his colour-blind eye' from me.



Celeste LiddleCeleste Liddle is a trade unionist, a freelance opinion writer and social commentator. She blogs at Rantings of an Aboriginal Feminist.

Main image: Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid's Tale.

Topic tags: Celeste Liddle, The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale



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Existing comments

Excellent article.

Stephen Jackson | 08 July 2019  

I totally agree with your analysis. I'm not sure if I missed something, but when the black woman was hanged with a group of people, I assume for talking to June???? I wondered, why was she punished and not June? Is June made of teflon? Did I miss something? It disturbed me, because the woman was black, and her strength and bravery was diminished by that act of hanging her with little context.

Pam Harrison | 08 July 2019  

As a mother who had her child dragged from my unconscious body in the 60's and never given to me to hold, a human violation of by medical professionals conspirators who knew they were breaking the Law. This story for me is satisfying to watch. but I am not a WOC altho I get your point. many FNP suffered in the same period the same fate separated for life from with their mother or child. A crime never accounted for, Just like every "inquiry" it had no power to investigate crimes of abduction. I'd like to believe Motherhood is worth of a united front against capitolistic materialistic misogynistic tyrany

Spring Blossom | 09 July 2019  

Are you loathsome tonight/Do you miss me tonight/Are you sorry we drifted apart. Even though I read Margaret Atwood's magnificent novel with intensity I'll definitely be watching Wimbledon this week. After that, who knows?

Pam | 09 July 2019  

Pam’s right - who knows what we’ll watch when Wimbledon finishes? It is just The Handmaid’s Tale that uses colour blindness as an excuse to resile from the obligation to engage with the reality of life (even in a fictional drama). Every British contemporary drama I’ve watched for years has a casting policy that ignores race completely, for excellent reasons which nevertheless contribute to a sense of unreality. Because it is unreal, and lacks integrity, to portray life as though the Kingdom is already fully here. Dramatic clarity probably demands that the writers don’t try to address too many issues at once. However, scriptwriters seem to remove people of colour from our human story when they remove them from their fiction. People of colour are there - but they’re the same as everyone else! History and culture expunged! And we’re supposed to think this is a good thing?

Joan Seymour | 10 July 2019  

After reading the book and watching the first series I just can't be bothered watching the rest. In relation to the race issue let us not deceive ourselves -it is nothing more then the media conception of "political correctness" to use the required "coloured" quota rather then a racist "free" society" - the author of this article is 100% correct.

nick | 10 July 2019  

The Handmaid's Tale is bizarre. It should be classed as Science Fiction. What lessons applicable to life can we glean? None. Read/see it if you like. It's your life.

Edward Fido | 10 July 2019  

It's fiction. Like some Utopias and Dystopias.

Uncle Pat | 10 July 2019  

Incisive article, Celeste, that cuts to the chase about Margaret Atwood's glaring occlusion of intersectionality in her writing. Those of us who are non-white and gay can spot it straightaway, as we experience it in many different ways in our daily lives. When my marriage broke down under the strain of its many contradictions, my former wife, who is white, gained the support of a radical feminist who denied that my gayness had anything to do with it and imposed a unilateral analysis that it was a 'straightforward' case of spouse abuse. When she was made forcibly aware that our children were non-white, she proved unable to provide the kind of depth intersectional analysis that should always be part of good family therapy.

Dr Michael FURTADO | 11 July 2019  

It's fascinating how much feminism is racist and homophobic because it lacks the reflection required to recognize the intersectionality of misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism. Feminism becomes the refuge of white, cis, able bodied women who ignore or dismiss the unique experiences of other oppressed people. The fact that this book and show have been so successful without much mainstream feminist critique speaks volumes about where the movement is at. Great article as always Celeste, thank you!

Oli | 15 July 2019  

Another interesting article and discussion. I loved the series from both a writing and cinematic point of view - and particularly so given that Atwood herself was involved in this interpretation of her original novel, and often wondered what her experience was of reinterpreting and re-presenting her original work. And yes, we have to remember that it is a work of fiction, and an asking of the question, "What if?" I am now questioning myself as to how I perceived the representation of race in the series, and my immediate reaction is that firstly, there were characters of black, white and yellow (sorry if my terminology is clunky) race: and that the over-arching oppression that was operating here was by men against women, even the Wives who were forbidden to read, have any sort of opinion, or any sexual fulfilment - whilst the men could still have everything, and ALL women were subservient to them, regardless of their roles. All of this regardless of race of the oppressors or the oppressed. I have enjoyed reading and thinking about all the other comments.

Di Mann-Povey | 24 August 2019  

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