For black women, The Handmaid's Tale's dystopia is real—and telling -

For black women, The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopia is real—and telling

The way people are talking about The Handmaid’s Tale—Hulu’s buzzy TV series—reveals the limits of popular feminism

Women dressed as handmaids promoting the Hulu original series "The Handmaid's Tale" stand along a public street during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Film Interactive Festival 2017 in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 11, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Women dressed as handmaids promoting the Hulu original series “The Handmaid’s Tale” stand along a public street during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Film Interactive Festival 2017 in Austin, Texas, U.S., March 11, 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The Handmaid’s Tale, a Hulu-produced television show based on Margaret Atwood’s classic novel, has exploded in popularity. And between the book often being required reading in high school and the nasty women constituency of modern-day feminism eager for a show that speaks to them—in March, activists even protested anti-choice measures in Texas in Handmaid’s Tale garb—it’s little wonder the show has become a smash. The discourse around it has been enthusiastic, mostly focussing on two main themes: the modern resonance of the dystopian Republic of Gilead in the novel, and whether the story is a feminist one.

But these conversations are both misguided, led by mainstream, ahistorical and dangerous understandings of both oppression and feminism.

The book and the show are decidedly not in line with an inclusive feminism. But I can acknowledge its undeniable feminist themes centred on reproductive rights, subjugation, inequality and political disempowerment. And in Trump’s America, where Congress just passed a health care law that deems the Caesarean section to be a pre-existing condition, the show’s timing is uncanny. But as a matter of whether The Handmaid’s Tale constitutes a dystopian future, it doesn’t offer a vision of an America where democracy has collapsed. Instead, it shows white women subjected to the conditions under which their country was born. The thing that, tellingly, has proven the most alarming to audiences.

Recently, the National Post’s Barbara Kay penned a dismissive review of the show, reasoning that the series creates a gross caricature of Christianity and conservatism. Kay also dismissed the feminist core of the series, thinking it rather ludicrous that women could ever find themselves immiserated under the gender-based violence and captivity brought about by Republic of Gilead. But Kay need only look at the history of America, in which women did find themselves captive, were bred against their will, and were tortured and even killed for attempting escape. This, of course, was the reality for black women in America for hundreds of years, a period where it was nearly impossible for a woman to be born, live, and die of old age under a social system that deemed neither her body nor the fruit of her womb to be her own.

On this, Kay finds a sense of existential horror in the show—as do other reviewers who took a more positive view of the show—as the American government steadily encroaches upon the autonomy of women’s bodies. On the other hand, Kay believes her body is and will always be protected, to the extent she cannot relate to the story at all. But the central question in viewing this series seems to be this: “Could it happen to me?”

Progressive feminists see parallels between American conservatives and Christendom’s almost prurient interest in reproductive rights. As Kay writes: “Pious Christians are the last people on earth to dream up a system in which the state has control over everyone’s sexual and reproductive lives….” Both miss the facts of reproductive science in America, in which women of colour were subjected to painful and gruesome experiments to bring birth control and family planning to today’s generation.

Indeed, on the matter of whether The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian work, Barbara Kay is wholly incorrect. Of course it is. With birth rates in the West falling, immigration on the rise, and alt-right groups claiming that we are on the verge of “white genocide,” the idea of white women being resigned to the role of housewives and brood mares is the stuff of white supremacist daydreams. For women of colour, on the other hand, this is not dystopia. These are realities we have lived with. When Gregory Pincus developed the birth control pill, his obscene lack of ethics and inhumane treatment of his patients caused needless suffering to hundreds. It’s no accident that Pincus’s experiments targeted of the bodies of women of colour.

Elizabeth Moss, who plays the show’s main character Offred, caused a minor furor when she said The Handmaid’s Tale was not a feminist story, but a human story. Later on, she clarified that not only is she a feminist, but so is the series. What is clear is that she does not intend to upset the base audience, people watching the show to draw out feminist themes. The rest of the cast seemed to follow suit, and Atwood herself decided to infer that feminism needed clarification before conceding the work fits after she created a palatable definition: “When you say ‘feminist’ do you mean: Should women have the same rights as other human beings? Then, yes. But what else do we mean by that term? Do we mean women are angelically more perfect than men? Well, no. Women are human beings.”

MORE: A Donna Ferrato photo essay from the Women’s March

This blanket characterization of women’s rights as human rights, while not new, is lacking in nuance. What Atwood and Moss are getting at is a kind of “accidental feminism”—that is, one that just happens to be stirred by virtue of the fact white women are involved or affected by its reach.

The Trump connections to dystopian Gilead can be made easily. But what is to be made of the comparison? The Trump administration has no doubt offered the world a clear vision of totalitarianism, instilled fear, and poses a threat to a large majority of Americans. But new? Not for a great deal of women.

As usual, race has barely been mentioned in popular analysis of the series. In the age of the Women’s March, as well as the most visceral, public, bare-bones discussions of feminism we’ve had in decades, how can we even discuss feminism if for some, the story is dystopian, and for others, too real? The novel itself considered race in its exclusion of Black characters, calling them Children of Ham and deporting them to the imagined National Homeland One. This detail, and the implied desire for purely white characters in the show, was so important that the executive producer, Bruce Miller—upon deciding to cast Samira Wiley and other people of colour—had to have a discussion with Atwood about his decision to remove the white supremacy element of The Handmaid’s Tale in its TV adaptation. In an interview with TV Line, Miller aptly points out the stark similarity between making a television series about racists and making a racist television show.

White supremacy, weaponized to protect white women’s bodies, is not new. Liberal and conservative women have collectively struggled to acknowledge the ways in which mainstream feminism has served to undercut and erase the voices and struggles of women of colour. One of the central critiques of first-wave feminism was that it erased of women of colour. And even amid critique and consideration of third-wave and intersectional feminism, the way we talk and think about shows like The Handmaid’s Tale demonstrates that this erasure continues.

Melayna Williams holds a JD, is pursuing her Master of Laws in anti-discrimination law, and is the director of the Rights Advocacy Coalition for Equality (R.A.C.E.). 


For black women, The Handmaid’s Tale’s dystopia is real—and telling

  1. It’s a story, not a documentary

  2. Methinks the most startling omission here is that Kay reviewed a television series that she has not actually watched. Her review is entirely based on the book. Talk about hubris.

    • No surprise…. a number of years ago Kay smeared NFLD writer Lisa Moore over the subject matter of a book she had written … while heartily admitting she had never actually read the book. Kay is a blowhard whose best before date expired years ago. She and Blatchford are two of the main reasons one should avoid reading the National Post whenever possible.

  3. “the series creates a gross caricature of Christianity and conservatism” – My wife makes me watch (I’m never an Atwood fan); however, for me this is the entertaining part of the show – better digs at religion’s brass feet than any Twain or Shakespeare could concoct. Dogma readily transitions into absurdity which, from a distance is comic. One should remember that burning at the stake was a virtuous endeavor from a religious point of view as it protected protagonists from literally having blood on their hands and gave the victims one last chance to send their souls to heaven – as with many religious practices cruelty is clothed in supposed virtue. BTW – there’s still plenty of that going on today even in Canada.

    “Pious Christians are the last people on earth to dream up a system in which the state has control over everyone’s sexual and reproductive lives….” say what. The author might have taken a more feminist role and set that imaginarium on fire. When one researches the post-confederation Canadian past, one finds plenty of evidence that women’s rights to own property were tightly and legally coupled to marital status and reproductive activity. Of course, when it comes to self determination more generally, one can find numerous examples of sermons against any level of self determination for women. The opposition to complete equality for women was an overtly religious activity; in many ways it still is with the overt portion having merely retreated to within the scope of religion itself … mostly, but still informing law making and forming an overt component of party politics today. The common argument is that misogyny is defensible on the basis of freedom of religion i.e. it’s a democratic right of male religionists (when will we erase this blot on our democracy?).

    The difficult thing is to discuss the issues of inequality using terms like race, sex and religion is that all of these are divisive terminologies which divide people along arbitrary but simple lines that facilitate discrimination and bigotry. To some extent, the important discussion gets sidelined, as it does here, in arguments over the definitions of divisive terms. This tends to obscure the fact that within a society when some are oppressed we all suffer.

  4. I can see how this work, both the book and the television series, could be seen as a white feminism and grounded in systemic racism. However, I wonder if she’s watched or read any interviews with Margaret Atwood. Atwood writes speculative fiction which she has described as writing stories about things she think could happen and hope didn’t. In addition, the events in the book are taken from history. Meaning, she’s examined how women were treated throughout history, regardless of colour or religion, and put it in her book. Lastly, this was a book written by a white woman about a white woman. Should white women be writing about the lives and experiences of Black women? I don’t think so. What do they know of the lives of black women. Perhaps what Williams is missing, is the nuance.

    • Ummmm…The eugenicists who were at the heart 20th century’s first pushes for the widespread availability of abortion and the birth control pill were all hard core lefty’s. Both the birth control pill and better abortion procedures were advanced by white socialists concerned about the birth rates of blacks, and they were atheistic to the core.
      Secondly, how is government funding of birth control an infringement of a woman’s independence? I’d say that if you are totally dependent on government funding for birth control, then you are anything but independent. The exact opposite, in fact. If you can’t afford the very inexpensive forms of birth control available over the counter, maybe you shouldn’t be having sex. Maybe you should be focusing on making a living.
      And again, the Obama administration weaponized a number of US federal agencies against the American people. The EPA, DOJ, and IRS malfeasance against the constitution are all elements of a totalitarian state. The Trump admin is the antithesis of totalitarianism. If you wish to consider yourself legitimate journalists, get at least a little real.

      • Farmers have used ‘eugenics’ for thousands of years. It has nothing to do with ‘lefties’ or socialism, birth control or abortion.

        You need a dictionary.

    • It is nonsense to read this – or see it – as being grounded in racism. The different classes of women should tell the viewer something. And as others say, eg geraldr, the fact that married women have gained more and were treated better than other women is a fact of life today. The narrative is based on class divisions, for men, too – not much different from today. And for the women, the sexual aspect of it holds true – it was and still is the lower classes of women who are relegated to these tasks of reproducing and the sexual pleasing of men. The women who write these articles often don’t know what it is like to be a women who has no power, no man to stand up for her, no job to indicated she is a worthwhile human being. Those women, hired by Macleans or whatever newspaper, get treated a helluva lot better than the rest of us.

      It is standard for black women to see things in terms of being black. It’s not hard to make any story about being black, when it is about oppression. But in many instances, that’s not the story. Many white women have been oppressed too, and still are.

  5. Salafism is arguably the closest realization of The Handmaid’s Tale in the real world.

    • I know you’d like to think so, but I’m afraid not.

  6. FYI

    ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic military dictatorship formed within the borders of what was formerly the United States of America.
    Beginning with a staged attack that kills the President and most of Congress, a Christian fundamentalist movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They are quickly able to take away women’s rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by gender. The new regime, the Republic of Gilead, moves quickly to consolidate its power and reorganize society along a new militarized, hierarchical regime of Old Testament-inspired social and religious fanaticism among its newly created social classes. In this society, human rights are severely limited and women’s rights are even more curtailed; for example, women are forbidden to read.’

    • Which, if we’re going to fantasize about who would be more likely to bring about a theocratic and totalitarian government, leads us to today’s liberal Democrats and their enthusiasm for a greater entanglement with radical Islam.
      Btw- the eugenecists I referred to are icons of the left. In Canada, one of them is Tommy Douglas.

      • The Dominionists are alt-right, and just like Muslim fanatics.Sorry Bill.

        And eugenics is a farming practice, not political

  7. “Okay, Maclean’s needs someone to criticize a critic of The Handmaid’s Tale, while also criticizing the original book to make us look not just ‘woke’ but ‘super-woke,’ using as many random intersectional social justice dogmas as possible, all piled together in an incoherent lump. Who wants to take on this assignment? Anyone? Anyone? Williams?”