Opinion: Series 3 of the Handmaid’s Tale – once groundbreaking TV – marginalises the diversity it claims to champion.
Race in The Handmaid’s Tale
There are no black people in the Gilead Margaret Atwood describes in The Handmaid’s Tale. We don’t know what happens to them (we can guess), but the commanders and their wives are only interested in white babies. Hence the Handmaid’s Tale is a white woman’s story – it has to be, because there’s no other kind left in Gilead.
Perhaps this doesn’t really matter. As a society defined by its misogyny, Gilead is an allegory for how things are for women around the world: even now, many are denied education, freedom and reproductive rights. If this sounds bad, the novel warns, things can always get much worse.
Initially, the TV adaptation was true to this essential feminist message, then went one further by including black characters and actors not present in the book. This was the right call.
Television is already ghettoised. Shows are either predominantly white or predominantly ethnic. If they’re mixed, it’s often to Power Ranger ratios: one each of black, white, Asian, disabled, gay, bookish and so on. And yet, we need more of this – not in this ham-fisted manner, of course, but we need more diversity on screen. To not have it means we slip further into silos of uncritical thought, prejudice, and hyper-imagined fears of the Other, and the violence that these foment.
Season 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale grasped this diversity issue head-on. June is white, but her husband Luke is black (and their daughter Hannah is both). Moira, June’s best friend is black, yet not ‘ghetto black’ of the kind that pop culture serves up. There was no overwrought message to this, either; it just happens to reflect a social canvas common in many cities (it also acknowledges that black, Asian and other ethnicities want to see themselves fairly represented in modern media).
So what changed?
Perhaps most significantly, the show has become predominantly and almost exclusively about June, a middle class white woman. The flashbacks to life before Gilead are much less frequent, as are glimpses of the ‘diversity quota’ characters who escape to Canada (Luke, Moira, Emily). By default, that means the show has become the Gilead that Atwood first hinted at … and it’s a white wash.
Wait, that’s not true. There are and have been black characters on-screen. There’s the black handmaid who blows herself up towards the end of Season 2. There’s the black martha who’s hanged for conspiring to let June see Hannah in Season 3. And there’s Ofmatthew, who is first shunned by the other handmaids for causing the hanging, then shot, and then kept alive long enough for the authorities to harvest her baby. The on-screen mutilation of her body is slow and lingering.
These hideous events aren’t unique to black characters. The premise of the show is that all women are enslaved, and anyone who doesn’t fit the mould is murdered, tortured or sent to the Colonies to die slow, painful deaths. Despite this, this latest series sees formerly bold casting falling back on stock typing, in which non-white characters (where they aren’t invisible) are destined to act out a certain way, and then die, often painfully or in humiliation.
What hasn’t changed?
A novel, film narrative or TV show can only be about and for so many people at once; it can’t speak for everyone – nor should it have to. Exploring crucial themes of female liberation and true freedom is and should be enough: unbelievably, in 2019, we still need this.
The Handmaid’s Tale – this story of and by and about a white woman – plagiarises the real, true history of non-white people. The TV series has used sickening images of mutilated and tortured women as a comment on their reproductive servility, yet these are real things that really happened, often without comment or reparation, to black slaves in America, and in countless colonised countries around the world.
It seems shocking to see women denied education and jobs in the future because they’re turned into breeding machines, yet access to education and jobs in America is now divided along colour lines; so too are experiences of criminalisation.
The bitter, unfair, cowardice of this kind of story telling is that The Handmaid’s Tale predicts a dystopian future for white women (and white society), yet it’s one they likely never truly have to fear. This is a theme central to Western story telling / mass media, in which middle class white men and women recast themselves as Outsiders to face foes ranging from aliens to terrorists. Yet being the outsider, being enslaved, being excluded is not a dystopian what-if for white societies; it’s the past and present for people of colour.
Picture credit: Hunter Wiseley