In 10 For The ’10s, The A.V. Club looks back at the decade that was: 10 essays about the media that defined the 2010s, one for every year from 2010 to 2019. Today: 2017 and The Handmaid’s Tale.
Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was already well underway before the 2016 presidential election, but when it debuted on April 26, 2017, the series seemed, for many, made precisely for times like these. With its theocratic state and disenfranchisement of women, The Handmaid’s Tale offered a glimpse at an increasingly probable future. The resurgence of religious fundamentalism and white nationalism, the encroachment on the rights of marginalized groups, including women and LGBTQ+ people—all elements that could have just as easily been lifted from the pages of Margaret Atwood’s chilling work of speculative fiction as the headlines of contemporary news stories. When a serial sexual abuser becomes president, it’s hard not to think that you’re hurtling toward a full-on dystopia. As so many thought at the time, it was a dark day for democracy when such a man could be elected, especially after so casually admitting to assaulting women.
But the truth is, Trump’s well-documented history of racism was a much earlier indicator of his deplorability. So why weren’t most white people (and many non-Black people of color; we’re not off the hook here) equally horrified and galvanized to action by this plutocrat’s discriminatory housing practices, or his published attacks against the Exonerated Five in the 1980s, during the 2016 election cycle? And if his abuse of women was really the last straw, why did 53% of the white women registered to vote in this country vote for Trump? Part of the answer is, of course, that white supremacy is a helluva hegemony—white women regularly vote against their own interests in order to retain the power that comes with whiteness. Even some of the 47% of white women voters who cast their ballots for a different candidate seemed to rally more around catchphrases and fashion—“nasty women,” pussy hats, and pantsuits—than ending endemic racism in this country.
Three seasons in, what The Handmaid’s Tale captures more than any form of anti-racism or social justice movement is that brand of white feminism that’s long on style and short on intersectionality and efficacy. But when it first premiered, there was no denying its unnerving effect. In 2017, Atwood’s novel went through another round of acclaim, and Bruce Miller’s series was hailed for its prescience. Reed Morano’s direction made this a dystopia that was equally compelling and difficult to watch, and the combination of Elisabeth Moss’ thousand-yard stare and impossibly emotive face rightly won her an Emmy. For many writers, including some of us here at The A.V. Club, topicality was woven into the series’ bleak alternative future. Handmaids like Offred (Moss), Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), and Janine (Madeline Brewer) had an utter lack of autonomy, which seemed for many viewers a plausible leap from Trump’s first 100 days in office.
The first season of The Handmaid’s Tale hewed closely to the book, right down to Offred’s open-ended fate. There were several significant alterations, though, including the reveal of Offred’s pre-Gilead name (June), and the fact that several characters who were white in the book—Offred’s husband, Luke, their daughter, Hannah, and Offred’s best friend, Moira—were now Black or biracial (played by O-T Fagbenle, Jordana Blake, and Samira Wiley, respectively). For the most part, these changes to Luke’s, Hannah’s, and Moira’s characters haven’t affected their storylines. That’s because, like the book it’s based on, The Handmaid’s Tale avoids dealing with racism. Atwood literally wrote off a huge portion of the U.S. population with a line about the forced relocation of the “Children of Ham,” who are widely believed to represent Black people in the book. The text doesn’t bother to reveal what happened to other people of color. The series has followed Atwood’s suit, aside from its so-called colorblind approach to casting.
The issue here isn’t just one of representation on TV, which is still sorely lacking for people from marginalized groups; it’s that racism and sexism are inextricably connected in this country. White women were often just as complicit in slavery as white men; a look at archival photos of Black teens being escorted to desegregated schools will find plenty of white women in the abusive crowds. The Handmaid’s Tale might feature more Black people than its source material, but it ignores how Moira’s and Hannah’s experiences might differ from those of white Handmaids and Gilead children, or how June and Luke’s interracial marriage would be viewed in a society inspired by white religious fundamentalists. The book and the TV show both draw directly from the history of Black women and women of color in their most horrific portrayals of violence against Gilead’s Handmaids, who are mostly white. It’s not quite whitewashing history, but by presenting marginalized women’s history as a worst-case scenario for white women, it exploits their trauma and diminishes the lasting impact of chattel slavery and systematic rape.
Such criticisms of the show are nothing new—in June 2017, Vulture’s Angelica Bastien examined how its approach to racism was its greatest failure, while Clarkisha Kent, writing for The Root, pointed out how prevalent and limiting Atwood’s white feminism was in the text, as well as the series, in January 2018. Bruce Miller, who is also one of the main writers for the show, addressed those critiques and others in interviews ahead of the second season, telling The A.V. Club’s video team in April 2018 that the people behind the show were aware of this mishandling. The objective for season two, Miller said, was to show Black characters’ lives “in full. In that way, you figure out where they put race into their own story, and what do they think about their race, what Gilead’s thought about their race.” But in season two of the show, Luke and Moira remained in Canada, far from anything resembling their own storylines. June, meanwhile, made her escape (only to be recaptured), and an episode was devoted to her relationship with her mother, Holly (Cherry Jones), an outspoken feminist who despaired of her daughter’s head-in-the-sand mentality.
June is the protagonist, and Moss such a powerful core for the show, that it initially made sense to center the show around her experiences. But the story has contorted itself so often to keep June in Gilead, as well as to keep Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) in her life. With each new season, the contrivances grow worse, the staging more heavy-handed (if still gorgeously lit and shot). Season one ended on an ambiguous note (like the book, before the epilogue), but the fact that we were hearing June’s tapes gave us hope that she had survived. Sometimes, that’s enough. But The Handmaid’s Tale’s creative team looked out at all the people wringing their hands over how the show was hitting too close to home, and decided June needed to turn into an action hero; or, failing that, an antihero.
The Handmaid’s Tale made the fight for equality resemble the social media efforts of the #Resistance, distilling the struggle to cool soundbites and meme-able moments (like virtually every time June glowers from under her hood). In season two, not an episode passed without June squaring her jaw or shoulders, or a needle-drop accompanying a slow-motion stroll. June’s decision to send her daughter Nichole to Canada with Emily, in order to return to save her other daughter, was scrutinized by critics and viewers, though some of us felt that for once, the season’s attempts at timeliness had worked. June, a white feminist and symbolically, a 47-percenter, was returning to the lions’ den to deal with the 53%. It was, potentially, a greater show of allyship than most, but it just ended up being another addition to the “Bitchin’ moments from the revolution” reel the show seems desperate to put together.
Although season three was just as capably directed as before (thanks in part to the addition of Amma Asante to the roster), it fell steeply into a white savior narrative, with June bossing around the women of color at the Lawrence household. June grew more ambitious in her plan to rescue children born or abducted into Gilead, but along the way, she caused the death of a Martha both indirectly and directly, and manipulated the Handmaid Ofmatthew (formerly Natalie, played by Ashley LaThrop) into pointing a gun at Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), which led to her being killed by armed guards of Gilead. Both of these women were Black; the latter, Ofmatthew, spent an entire episode unconscious in a hospital room, her body being literally and figuratively dissected by white people. This, after she was gunned down in an act of state violence.
As relevant as these events are to our reality, The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t delve past the surface. Ofmatthew’s death at the hands of a state official is treated in an exploitative manner, her body twirling in the air in slow motion as it’s torn apart by bullets. June had led the other Handmaids in shunning Ofmatthew—who, yes, had ratted out the Martha who was executed, but how was that any worse than what Serena or any of the Commanders’ wives have done? June rescued Serena from the house fire the latter set in season two, and continued to meet with her to try to win her over in season three, but decided a fellow traumatized Handmaid was beyond help. Eventually, June realized she had indeed turned heel, but just an hour or two before The Handmaid’s Tale finally turns her white bonnet into a halo.
Even as the show seemed to realize June was emulating the cruelty of her captors, it continued to give her the cool, dry wit of an action hero, framing her smirks and glares with equal reverence. June’s final act sees the flight of dozens of children (and a few Marthas) to Canada, where they’re met by Luke, Moira, and Emily. She’s only able to do so with the help of Marthas, Handmaids like Janine, and Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), but Miller, who wrote the season-three finale, can’t keep himself from putting June at the forefront of the escape efforts. As Rita (Amanda Brugel), a Martha who helped June escape in season two, sobs in relief to Luke, “She did this. June. Your June. She did everything.” A Black woman, who has been part of the resistance to Gilead, which is how she helped June escape with her infant daughter in season two, gives all the credit to a white woman. She does this after having fawned over June at the grocery store, calling her “such a boss now.”
Again, the show has never properly engaged with race, aside from a single stray reference in season three—when making assignments, Aunt Lydia notes that one couple would rather not have a “Handmaid of color.” But it has repeatedly drawn from Black women’s history, and more recently, the plight of migrant families at the U.S-Mexico border. The season-three premiere opens with the desperate flight of Emily, who carries Nichole through a river and into the Canadian woods. The scene evokes the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which has led to more family separations at the border than ever, even as the broader context of the show doesn’t take into account the history of U.S. interference and exploitation of Latin American countries, let alone the bigotry that leads so many people to support these camps.
The Handmaid’s Tale continues to reframe the history of Black women, indigenous women—who’ve also had their children taken away in government-sanctioned initiatives—and other women of color with white women at the center of the story. In that sense, the show very much reflects our reality, but this direction also explains why the show has struggled to foment revolution. Every major social change in this country has been led by the work of Black activists, going as far back as the abolition of slavery to the ouster of corrupt officials in Chicago following the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. The show’s writers—who are primarily white, aside from two women of color and a white Latinx man—seem blatantly unaware of that history. As Miller told Paste’s Whitney Friedlander this past June, “If I said to you today, OK, start rebelling against your government … What? Do you go buy Rebelling for Dummies? I don’t know what you do.” Maybe if the show hadn’t been so preoccupied with the Lean In feminism of upper-middle-class white women, and had spent any time looking into the efforts of Black Lives Matter or, more recently, the protests over a fare hike in Chile that led to redrafting the country’s constitution, it might have been able to offer something more incendiary than the clove cigarette-smoking rebellion of Offred.