By: Paige Allen
In the face of our unusual times, marred by a purposely domineering political regime, continuously precarious economic stability and increasingly explicit instances of prejudice based hostility in everyday social settings, certain cultural relics have been unearthed as a means to process the situation. Among the many worthy examples of this rising trend,The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood stands out for its renewed relevance.
For the unfamiliar, the plot focuses on the devolution of modern America into a neoconservative totalitarian state known as Gilead. Patriarchal fundamentalism reigns supreme as women are stripped of all forms of civil liberties and independent personhood as human beings. Under the state, they are instead reduced to property, their value based on their fertility and their reproductive capabilities subsequently controlled and exploited through systemic rape. Well-known conceptions of family, friends and other loving relationships are brutally replaced with a new formation of social life: a man, the owner of the household and often a powerful government Commander; his Wife, whose status is a throwback to 1950s’ era domesticity; the miscellaneous servants who tend the household, often women themselves; and a Handmaid, the forced mistress to the Commander who must replenish the house and society-at-large with children, as is her God-given responsibility.
Readers explore the world of The Handmaid’s Tale through Handmaid Offred, whose depiction as a flawed, relatable, everywoman character reveals the ease in which citizens of liberal democracies can succumb to the evils of misogyny and passive complicity. In the chaotic throes of a Trump presidency, Offred and her dystopian nightmare have become just a little too realistic for comfort. The barrage of think pieces and features that have led to the novel’s modern adaptation into a Hulu television series are the most recent reflections of this anxiety, revealing the ever-present fear of subjugation that has plagued most, if not all, women’s minds for centuries.
Yet in finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale in preparation for the Hulu adaptation, I did not feel any strong pangs of terror — not because the novel’s situation is not worthy of fear but because, as a black woman, nothing described in the novel was particularly new.
While reading the novel, every aspect of its fictional slavery seemed as if lifted straight out of a history book. The very nature of sexual violence experienced by the Gilead women, coupled with the elimination of their basic human rights, is a near perfect replication of the slavery experienced by black and brown women during the heights of Western colonialism and imperialism. In relation specifically to black women, there are too many similarities to address: how Handmaids are essentially house slaves, how their sexual reproduction is controlled by the Commander to forcibly perpetuate a federal system of oppression, and how their children are taken away to be raised by the Commander’s Wife, just to name a few basic aspects of the plot. Even the aesthetic choices of the Handmaids, the puffy colonial era clothes and the large white caps to hide their bodies and their hair, are reminiscent of the Tignon Laws enforced against black women to dissuade male attention to their beauty.
These parallels are intentional. As stated in her recent op-ed in The New York Times, Atwood is no stranger to the ways in which “the control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet.” She specifically cites the “history of slavery” as one of the many inspirations for her novel, though this inspiration is described in a general sense rather than through the identification of a specific period and affected population.
Atwood’s literary approach of vaguely borrowing from specific historical precedents highlights a curious racial blind spot of The Handmaid’s Tale. Race is never explicitly mentioned but, despite the oppression of Gilead apparently being a phenomenon affecting the entire geography of the United States, most named characters in the novel seem to be white. Readers stumble upon this monochromatic racial landscape through an array of subtle physical descriptions – a smattering of light freckles on a Handmaid’s nose, the bright blue eyes of a Commander’s Wife or the brief mentions of blond hair and pale skin attributable to Offred herself.
Meanwhile, characters of color are distinctly missing from the novel, both in plot and in narrative structure. There is a brief mention about the government relocation of “the Children of Ham” to North Dakota, and the popular inworld theory is that they will be forced to farm in this area of the Midwest. Historically, the biblical Curse of Ham has been reinterpreted by Western forces as the explanation for blackness and used as a justification for slavery, so the novel’s distinct whiteness is somewhat justified.
Yet at the same time, black people still seem to exist around Offred and are revealed by the narrative’s subtle lack of attention to them. There is a group of older women in the world of Gilead known as the Marthas, house servants who are not deemed fit to serve as Handmaids. Interestingly, their physical appearances are never mentioned, despite the fact that Offred lives with two Marthas, Rita and Cora, and spends significant time around them in the novel. Readers are not provided a viable reason as to why these particular women are not Handmaids, but only have their mannerisms to draw any conclusions from, and their gossipy, colloquial speech patterns are similar to those of older black women. It is only logical that these women are black if we follow historical precedent where, especially during conservative periods that praised traditional white family values, black women’s only apparent value in society came from their domestic servitude to a wealthy white family as a means of survival.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a story about American society’s racist fear of “plummeting Caucasian birthrates,” a concern which the novel states was caused by poor environmental conditions poisoning that population. However, there is a peculiar lack of nuance in the portrayal of this racial crisis. Fears around white racial purity have long been vehicles of oppression in this country, but the execution of these fears has never been as clear cut as white men withholding white women’s rights and forcing black and brown people to go away. Concerning the basic plot, there is a lot left to be explored: what happens to mixed adults and children in this new world order? What is done to the multitude of nonblack people of color that exist in the former United States, where do they exist in this new system?
In a broader social context, by not including characters of color, the narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale ignores both the complicity of white women to white men’s actions against people of color as well as their active participation in this same oppression in order to uphold the benefits they are afforded under white supremacy. The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent example of this complicity, but not explicitly showcasing the duality of white women’s involvement in such a racist system is problematic. Further, placing white women at the center of a unique form of reproductive slavery based wholesale on the experiences of black women somewhat taints this novel’s reputation as being a feminist work. Instead, at its worst, The Handmaid’s Tale reads like a horror story about white women being treated as badly as black women are treated, without ever actually acknowledging black women.
Simply put, The Handmaid’s Tale is disappointing in its lack of representation and creative complexity. There are other, finer literary works that successfully bridge the gap between a plot that borrows from history while also respectfully attributing certain oppressions to the people that rightfully inhabit them. A personal favorite comes, of course, from a black author – the Mother and Master of modern speculative Black fiction, Octavia Butler.
The novel Wild Seed, which Butler coincidentally published five years before The Handmaid’s Tale, tackles many similar themes of reproductive slavery through the perspective of Anyanwu, an African female character who is near immortal thanks to her shapeshifting and self-healing magical abilities. A supernatural being named Doro (who achieves his own immortality through stealing people’s bodies) stumbles upon Anyanwu and immediately coerces her into joining his supernatural breeding project. Not only does this slavery include Doro forcibly transporting Anyanwu to his own makeshift colony in colonial America (on a slave ship no less), but Doro’s increasingly violent attempts to control Anyanwu’s power and future descendants through her reproductive capacities serve as the main conflict of Wild Seed.
Despite the supernatural elements of the novel, the execution of this form of gendered slavery is incredibly realistic. The story explicitly follows the historical structure of chattel slavery from the first contact with an outside colonialist, the abduction from one’s ancestral home and finally the forced installation into a hostile environment created by that colonialist to perpetuate a certain system of oppression. Cleverly enough, Butler portrays Anyanwu’s oppression as a battle on two fronts. The first is the immediate power play she experiences with Doro, with whom she initially had consensual sexual encounters prior to the reveal of his true intentions. While this relationship already represents the interpersonal violence black women face in their intimate relationships, Butler takes the comparison one step further and makes it an intracommunity issue as well. Doro often steals the body of black men in Wild Seed, meaning that whenever Anyanwu is confronted by her oppressor and sometimes lover, she is looking at the face of her own kind. Whereas The Handmaid’s Tale features powerful men whose violence and support of extreme patriarchal oppression occurs primarily offscreen, Butler demands readers confront this gendered reality head on.
The other front of oppression is societal. Doro stationing his colony in colonial America is a calculated move, as the people on his land – some of whom are black, and many of whom are his offspring – do not have basic human rights or protection outside of that space. Essentially, if he did not enslave these people, then the young American government would certainly do so. Bringing Anyanwu to this location ensures her isolation and helplessness in this situation. She obviously cannot leave, but she cannot ask for help from Doro’s children or from the white people also in the colony who hold racial biases of their own. The power behind these various forms of slavery as described by Butler is grounded in historical accuracy and the lived experiences of the oppressed as they navigate a strange new world.
This is a critical decision to which The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t fully commit.
For what it’s worth, the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has taken steps to address this lack of representation. The Marthas are indeed confirmed to be black in the series, but several important characters from the novel are being portrayed by black actors as well. Samira Wiley is Offred’s friend Moira, also caught in the turmoil of Gilead America and forced to be Handmaid, and Offred’s former husband and daughter are now black as well. Other new characters of color include Nick, a driver for Offred’s Commander, whose actor Max Minghella is of mixed Chinese descent. Whether or not the adaptation will address this new integration of people of color into the Gilead system is left to be seen. Even as I watch the new series, hoping for a flash of racial self-awareness by the show, I’m also somewhat resigned to the fact that the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale may disappoint me… and that is what is terrifying to me.
The real horror in this disappointment is not how unusual the circumstances are, but how ordinary it is to see people of color, especially black women, divorced from their own histories. As a white female oppressor in the novel states, “[things] may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time, it will. This will become ordinary.”
Sometimes, I’m afraid it already has.
Paige Allen is a brand storyteller and content developer at a small public relations agency in Greater Boston. In her spare time, she’s an avid consumer of comic books, novels and television shows in the sci-fi and fantasy genres. She enjoys long walks in the city, partly cloudy weather and discussing critical race theory as it pertains to pop culture at appropriate times such as first dates and dinner parties. Connect with her on Twitter @goodbye_duppy.