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 Handmaids have entered the #txlege. #sb415 #fightbacktx pic.twitter.com/Fpa9cNGHR0
— Nan L. Kirkpatrick (@nanarchist) March 20, 2017
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
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).
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.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1986), 107. Return to text.
- Cathy N. Davidson, “A Feminist ‘1984’: Margaret Atwood Talks about Her Exciting New Novel,” Ms. Magazine (February 1986), 24. Return to text.
- 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.
- Ned and Constance Sublette, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-breeding Industry (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2016). Return to text.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, 387. Return to text.