A Post-Racial Gilead? Race and Reproduction in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale

In the Texas state legislature last month, several women dressed as handmaids sat in silent judgment over the lawmakers who were attempting (yet again) to outlaw an abortion procedure. Since last November’s election, sales of dystopian literature, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, have skyrocketed. A number of writers, perhaps most notably Rebecca Traister, have argued that Atwood’s novel couldn’t be more relevant to our current political moment.

The cast and director of Hulu’s adaptation have been hyping this angle as well. In an interview with Esquire, Elizabeth Moss described filming the day after Trump’s election and stated flatly, “We are fascinated and horrified by the parallels.” Similarly, Samira Wiley said in an interview with Cosmopolitan, “after the election, it was like, ‘Now we are really there.’” With this in mind, the official trailer is designed to evoke a sense of familiar dread among folks who read Sarah Kendzior’s essay about authoritarianism in the days after the election.

Predictably, some Trump supporters vehemently denounced the trailer as liberal propaganda, some seemingly unaware that the show was an adaptation of a decades-old novel. Given that Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale will be viewed as a commentary on the Trump era, analyzing how the adaptation departs from Atwood’s novel becomes all the more important.

One of the biggest departures from the novel was casting Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black) as Moira. Interestingly, the director of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Bruce Miller, said in an interview with TV Line that the decision to cast Moira as an African American woman was “a huge discussion with Margaret Atwood.” In Atwood’s novel, only white women are handmaids. In fact, the novel only mentions offhandedly that the “Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule,” i.e. that African Americans have been exiled to forced labor camps in North Dakota.1

(Take Five/Hulu)

The centering of white womanhood in Atwood’s dystopia is all the more problematic because she leans heavily on the tropes and imagery of antebellum slavery — the Underground Femaleroad, the Jealous Mistress, Quaker dissidents. Atwood has always been forthright about her use of the past to inform her dystopian vision. In an interview with Ms. Magazine in 1986, she said, “I didn’t invent a lot. I transposed to a different time and place, but the motifs are all historical motifs.”2 But what she didn’t say was that she transposed races, taking what happened to African American women under slavery and imagining a near future where white women experience forced breeding.

Recent scholarship has detailed, more than ever before, the extent to which slavery as an American institution was built on the forced reproductive labor of African American women.3 Ned and Constance Sublette have dubbed this the “capitalized womb.”4

It would have been fairly egregious to overlook women of color in a televised series about state-sanctioned reproductive control, given our nation’s history. And the director of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale seemed to understand that fact, at least on the surface. When discussing the decision to include women of color as handmaids in the interview with TV Line, he pondered astutely “what’s the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show?” Indeed, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale has a much more racially diverse cast of characters than the novel, including Offred’s pre-Gilead husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and her daughter Hannah (Jordana Blake).

Luke (O-T Fagbenle), in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. (Take Five/Hulu)

However, in his efforts to cast people of color in the show, the director decided to cut out the white supremacist ideology of the Republic of Gilead. In explaining this significant change, he said simply, “I made the decision that fertility trumped everything.” But of course historians know that concerns over the birthrate and population have always been about whose fertility and the fear of being overrun by someone else’s babies. And this is where Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale misses the mark.

Dropping the racism from the story couldn’t be less relevant to our current political moment. Hulu’s adaptation is steeped in Obama-era post-racial thinking, where no one in Gilead places different values on mothers and babies on the basis of race and ethnicity. It imagines a future of women’s oppression that is somehow free of racial oppression, as if the two were not always intertwined. It imagines an America of the near future, seized by fundamentalist Christian nationalism, which nevertheless embraces racial diversity.

And this is where Atwood’s novel was more honest. In its epilogue, a historian in the distant future gives a keynote lecture at a symposium about the rise and fall of the Republic of Gilead. He cautions against judging the Gilead regime too harshly and explains that Gilead’s “racist policies … were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.”5

By eliminating the white supremacist ideology of Gilead, Hulu’s adaptation misses the chance to more complexly wrestle with our past and present so that we may all avoid a dystopian future.

Notes

  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1986), 107. Return to text.
  2. Cathy N. Davidson, “A Feminist ‘1984’: Margaret Atwood Talks about Her Exciting New Novel,” Ms. Magazine (February 1986), 24. Return to text.
  3. See Daina Ramey Berry, The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2017) and also Marie Jenkins Schwartz, Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010). Return to text.
  4. Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-breeding Industry (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2016). Return to text.
  5. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 387. Return to text.

About the Author

3 Comments

Surreal

I disagree with the author’s assertion “It would have been fairly egregious to overlook women of color in a televised series about state-sanctioned reproductive control, given our nation’s history. ”

Our nation’s history is exactly why all the Handmaids were white. The children the white Master forced on captive women of color were never going to inherit the Master’s wealth, position and authority; in the eyes of the Master, raping women of color slaves was like breeding cattle. The men who serve as the model for the Masters of Gilead are the same racist asses who believe that “mixing the races” is immoral – thus, their heirs will be “pure” born of white womanhood (OK, I need to puke now).

The decision to cut out the white supremacist ideology of the Republic of Gilead IMO is wrong and changes the story significantly. The road to Gilead, as the author notes, was paved with racism. It downplays an important truth – that racism and “fertility is everything” are the same ideology.

IMO The women who need to get the biggest clue from the Handmaid’s Tale are the ones who are likely to miss it because the Handmaids are diverse, i.e., white women who think they don’t need feminism. By all means, expand on the racism of Gilead by showing what happened to “children of Ham”, but also make it unmistakably obvious that the only roles for white women in Gilead is slave… no matter that they call them wives, wombs,drudges or whores.

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hegelsghost

I understand why the writers and directors rewrote the story; They wanted to cast more nonwhite actors and actresses. I get it. That said, removal of the racism of Gilead cheapens the story. In the book, fertility is not really a true issue but a straw man used to convince whites that they are being overrun by “undesirables”. The most frightening aspect of the book was that birth rates were not down due to fertility troubles but that birth rates (at least of white, upper class people) were down due to women having access to birth control and abortion. Fertility might have been slightly suppressed due to environmental factors (as they are currently), but all indicators pointed to a lack of control over women rather than a lack of fertility as the impetus for a reactive, anti-woman revolution.

This is huge and completely changes the story. This could have been worked around if the show focused on the Children of Ham in forced labor camps. Since we get to see what happens to Ofglen and the show isn’t written solely from the perspective of Offred, it makes sense that we could see what’s going on there as well. It’s a missed opportunity to critique the how the Altright and evangelical movements revolve around unfounded white fears of being “overrun” by “other” people. If there was ever a parallel for Gilead, it’s the modern Evangelical “quiver full” movement where white women are expected to bear child after child to create a white Christian army of god.

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Julie22

I disagree with the assertion that Atwood “transposed races, taking what happened to African American women under slavery and imagining a near future where white women experience forced breeding.”

What Atwood depicts in the book has happened to to women in totalitarian societies around the world throughout history. The Nazis practiced forced breeding. Argentina in the 1970s Dirty War kidnapped children and placed them in the homes of the ruling class, just like Offred’s child was stolen. In 1980 only five years before the book was published, Iran fell to a theocratic regime that stripped women of their rights and forced them to wear restrictive clothing. The public ceremonies in the book reek of the auto de fe. And Atwood was obviously influenced by the Bible.

I think too many are expecting a Canadian woman now in her 80s, to have the same sensibility as somebody living in America in 2017 where pretty much everything is framed through a white/black binary.

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