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In ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ a postracial, patriarchal hellscape

What happens to white supremacy in a totalitarian theocracy? It depends on whom you ask

This article discusses details of The Handmaid’s Tale, both the book and the 2017 television adaptation.

Recently, Elisabeth Moss, the star of Hulu’s new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, the 1985 dystopian Margaret Atwood novel, was a guest on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Colbert invited Moss to explain the show’s premise to those who might be unfamiliar with it. “It’s about, in America, a right-wing totalitarian fundamentalist regime …,” Moss said, smiling coyly.

She paused for effect, and the audience laughed.

“… takes over the country. Women are enslaved and made to be breeding hosts. All reproductive rights are stripped, and the Constitution is blown to smithereens. So I don’t know if you can imagine (pause, more laughter) such a world. Try to go there.”

Such is much of the conversation surrounding The Handmaid’s Tale: that it’s an unsettling, beautifully executed work that also happens to be frighteningly timely.

For all the talk of The Handmaid’s Tale’s equal parts exquisite and disturbing look into the future, there’s one area in which the television adaptation departs from an otherwise fairly close reading of Atwood’s original text: race. It’s also the area that suffers from a lack of deep interrogation of how to make such a change realistic in a series that has been commended for, and that prides itself on, a vision of the world that feels all too possible.

Adapted for television by Atwood, Bruce Miller (The 100, ER) and Ilene Chaiken (The L Word, Empire), The Handmaid’s Tale reveals what happens to women when the United States is taken over by religious fundamentalists who change its name to Gilead. It’s a world in which widespread pollution has dropped the fertility rate to species-threatening lows and fertile women of childbearing age are conscripted into serving as “handmaids” for the Gileadean aristocracy: men known as Commanders, and their barren Wives. The rules and realities of living in Gilead are revealed through the eyes of a handmaid named Offred (Moss). All the handmaids are stripped of the names they had in their former lives once they’re assigned to a Commander and Wife. Offred is assigned to a Commander named Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), and the handmaid who accompanies her on daily errands, Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), is assigned to a man named Glen. Lower-income men who cannot afford a handmaid and a wife are assigned women, known as Econowives, who are expected to perform the duties of several women.

Hulu is releasing the first three installments of the 10-episode limited series Wednesday, April 26, and releasing a new episode each week thereafter. Strategically, staggering the release of episodes in the way regular television does (Hulu also does this with its new original period drama Harlots) just makes sense. It’s eight weeks of recaps and writing and discussion about a vision of the future that feels less and less like an impossibility. And its stunning, all-too realistic execution is precisely why I wouldn’t recommend spending 10 straight hours in Gilead — that is, unless you just enjoy having nightmares.

A scene from Episode 1 of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale

Take Five/Hulu

Gilead’s borders are heavily policed to prevent people from fleeing. People guilty or suspected of crimes against the state are executed and their bodies hung in public at a place called The Wall, serving as decomposing, fly-infested warnings to other potential dissidents. Placed throughout Gilead are secret informants known as Eyes, charged with enforcing loyalty to the totalitarian regime by spying and snitching on citizens, sowing distrust and preventing any sort of open, widespread oppositional solidarity.

The environment of The Handmaid’s Tale is culled from historical events: American slavery, the Holocaust and World War II, postwar East Germany, totalitarian Stalinist Russia.

Women are not allowed to read. Everyone has a specific uniform that corresponds with their societal duties. The handmaids are dressed in red full-length dresses and cloaks, with stiff white bonnets, called “wings,” that cover the sides of their faces.

Only a warped form of Protestant evangelicalism is allowed. Catholics are forced to convert or are banished to an area known as the Colonies, where they’re forced to clean up toxic waste until they die. Gay people — labeled as “unwomen,” “unmen” and “gender traitors” — are largely banished to the Colonies as well.

“We’ve seen this so many times in history, so what are you going to do? These people are violating your rights and killing your relatives,” Atwood said of totalitarianism. “What are your choices? You shut up and try to get through it and not get killed yourself. And those have been the kinds of choices for subserviented, for oppressed, for people with very little power, throughout history.”

There’s a reason that Atwood’s novel has felt so eerily prophetic in the 30-some years since it was first published. The environment of The Handmaid’s Tale is one culled from historical events, among them American slavery, the Holocaust and World War II, postwar East Germany, totalitarian Stalinist Russia. When it comes to the horrors human beings can inflict on one another, Atwood, 77, didn’t have to use her imagination; she merely had to look back in history.

“It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

In the book, black people are banished and sent “back” to Africa, while Jews are sent to Israel. The few black people who remain are postmenopausal women, known as Marthas, who perform domestic duties as maids and cooks. Everyone in the world of the Commanders, Wives and handmaids is white and Protestant. When childbearing women are kidnapped, they’re brought to a place called the Red Center, where women known as “Aunts” train them in their duties as handmaids. They’re white, too.

Moira (Samira Wiley), shown in the first episode.

Take Five/Hulu

But Hulu’s adaptation features actress Samira Wiley, best known for playing Poussey on Orange is the New Black, as Moira, Offred’s best friend. Moira gets kidnapped too, and she finds herself being trained for life as a handmaid at the Red Center at the same time as Offred.

In a hierarchical society propelled by religious fundamentalism, just about everything in this history of this country suggests that racial divisions would become far more deeply entrenched.

Miller, Chaiken and Atwood took care to preserve the exacting rituals and ceremonies that characterize life in Gilead and bring them to life on screen. There’s the awkward, uncomfortable, perfunctory sex that happens when a handmaid is ovulating. The mandated positioning stipulates that the handmaid lay supine between the legs of a Wife, with their arms intertwined, so that the standing Commander may look into the eyes of his Wife as he’s having sex with the handmaid.

When a pregnancy results in a birth, there’s a special chair devised for Wives and handmaids once a handmaid goes into labor, one that positions the handmaid (rather uncomfortably) below the wife and between her legs. Wives are encouraged to experience birth days as if it is they who are going through labor to deliver a child.

All of this serves to reinforce the idea that the handmaids are merely ambulatory wombs. They serve one purpose, which is to pop out babies, then give them up as soon as they’re weaned. And so introducing the idea of nonwhite handmaids prompts a question: What happens when a black woman gives birth to an interracial baby who serves as a daily reminder to a Wife that she’s not the child’s biological mother when so many rules and ceremonies have been created to obscure that very reality?

“Let’s assume that fertility, which is already going down — male fertility is being affected by plastics in the water even as we speak — let’s suppose that the ability to have a child, any child, is higher in rank than racial feelings,” Atwood answered.

“Fertility trumps everything,” Miller chimed in. “And if you posit a world where the fertility rate was falling well before this, that change would have happened before Gilead came.”

Offred (Elizabeth Moss) and her fellow Handmaids assist with the delivery of Janine’s baby.

George Kraychyk/Hulu

So Gilead is postracial because the human race is facing extinction, and that prompted Americans to get over several hundred years’ worth of racist education and social conditioning that depicted black people as inferior and less than human? Because Jesus? Recent findings from researchers at Villanova and Texas A&M universities suggest that’s highly unlikely. Glenn E. Bracey II and Wendy Leo Moore found that white evangelical Protestant churches subjected black parishioners to “race tests” and would push them out if they were found wanting.

Women are not allowed to read. Everyone has a specific uniform that corresponds with their societal duties.

“When people of color were unwanted and/or potentially threatened the boundaries of white institutional space (through their presence or their racial perspectives), white insiders in the churches employed exclusionary race tests to identify and repel people of color whose racial status, non-white customs, and/or racial politics disrupt the norms of white space,” Bracey and Moore wrote.

“My understanding was that there were slight differences in the evangelical movement, at least in America, that have gotten a little more diverse in the 35 years since the book came out,” Miller said. “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a kid in school where there isn’t a kid in school that’s a different race than their parents, because that kind of adoption, international adoption, has really happened.”

But the world of Gilead is not a world of adoption, not really. It’s something else entirely. And even if it were, that argument neglects to consider that nonwhite babies available for adoption are more difficult to place than their white counterparts and are usually accompanied by less expensive adoption fees.

This is where the series departs from its characterization by so many as prophetic: It ignores historical evidence that when white people feel existentially threatened, some double down on their prejudices, and it ignores how religious fundamentalism has been used to justify such prejudices and their incorporation into American institutions.

What happens to women when the United States is taken over by religious fundamentalists who change its name to Gilead.

The insecurity that drives the Wives of Gilead to create seemingly irrational rules governing the lives of handmaids are not so different from the tignon laws of New Orleans. Handmaids are forbidden from owning or using lotion because the wives want them as unattractive as possible, lest they tempt the wandering eye of a Commander, just as black and multiracial women in New Orleans were once required to cover their hair as a way of reinforcing their diminished social standing. In the Hulu series, the Aunts punish an insubordinate handmaid at the Red Center by gouging out one of her eyes, because handmaids don’t require eyes to reproduce.

It’s nearly impossible for me to see how a black handmaid would not find herself subjected to similar cruelties faced by Harriet Jacobs and countless other enslaved black women, whose mulatto children bearing their slave-owning father’s features served as constant reminders of infidelity and lechery. In a hierarchical society propelled by religious fundamentalism, just about everything in the history of this country suggests that racial divisions would become far more deeply entrenched, not less.

I’m not arguing that Wiley shouldn’t have been cast — far from it. Especially in flashbacks to modern-day city life, Wiley performs beautifully with Moss, creating exactly the sort of intimacy, normalcy and day-to-day happiness that becomes a distant memory once Gilead’s totalitarian regime is firmly ensconced in power. And for those familiar with Moira’s ultimate fate, serving up the sort of celebratory, “dirty,” illicit sex that’s been all but outlawed in Gilead, her blackness actually works quite well. Of course a black woman would be prized as exotic at an underground bordello that’s known as Jezebel’s.

Furthermore, in our current climate of heightened media literacy, I doubt that Hulu would have been able to get away with airing such a high-profile series with no women of color in consequential roles. So it’s up to writers to do a better job of addressing the complications that race presents, especially in a work that’s being sold as a glimpse of a possible future.

Imagining a dystopia in which misogyny takes center stage makes total sense because an America in which abortion is outlawed and women are forced to give birth seems frighteningly realistic. But one in which racism is no longer an issue is about as real as the unicorn tears and fairy powder being used to make Starbucks’ latest Frappuccino. If dystopic art is to serve as a commentary on what’s currently taking place in the world, its stewards would do well to remember that.

A scene from Episode 1 of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale

Take Five/Hulu

The oversight from Miller, Chaiken and Atwood doesn’t necessarily make The Handmaid’s Tale a bad series, but it does make it an incomplete one. Just as America’s origins as a nation founded by Puritans and Calvinists still inform our modern-day politics, so too does America’s original sin of slavery. Those two ills fit hand in glove, with religious fundamentalism often serving as the velvet cudgel justifying white supremacist dogma. In a fictionalized world, maybe it’s possible to separate them for the sake of convenience, but in the America of the past, present and near future, religious fundamentalism doesn’t usurp the power of racism. It helps to reinforce it.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.