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The Handmaid's Tale isn't as woke as you think it is

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The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s cult classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale aired its first episode in the UK on Sunday, and in the whole awful dystopia filled with uniforms and sex-slavery and brutal capital punishment, the most difficult thing to believe was that Moira isn’t treated any differently from “June” due to her race. 

The source material is undeniably dated — rooted in the fears of America in 1985. One of the talking points surrounding the show has been how terrifying it is that Margaret Atwood’s “speculative fiction” doesn’t seem so distant to audiences in 2017. The visceral horror comes from seeing aspects of our own society woven seamlessly into Gilead’s extremist Christian theocracy. Atwood has often explained how she built the regime of Gilead ensuring that every aspect of it had historical precedent. The horror of it is, very intentionally, how close it could be to coming true. 

The novel does not deal with race in a perfect way at all, but it is not entirely ignored. Chapter 14 discusses how the “Children of Ham” (a biblical term often used to justify slavery) have been shipped back to the “Homelands,” allowing Gilead to become the white supremacist nation that the leaders want. The exception to this rule are the black-coded “Marthas” who remain as domestic slaves. 

Eugenics are the driving force behind this society, and that attitude, tied in with the extreme puritanical Christian beliefs of the regime, would undoubtedly involve racial segregation. This is not a comfortable topic of course, but neither is the violent subjugation of women. The whole point of the novel is to evoke horror by carrying existing prejudices to their most extreme manifestation, yet the show shies away from race entirely.

It would be remiss to ignore the problems in the way that the novel handles race. Most prominently, the subjugation and enslavement of the women is explicitly correlated with real historical black slavery in the US. Offred struggles to remember the words to ‘Amazing Grace’, and the rebellion’s escape routes are termed “The Underground Femaleroad” — both appropriations of real black suffering

This highlights a problem that has been pointed out with both the book and the show — that The Handmaid’s Tale is a horror story for white women specifically. Black people have already suffered these horrors in reality, but give their story to a white, college educated woman, and suddenly it’s a nightmarish dystopia. 

Audiences of colour certainly had hopes when this adaptation, coming over 30 years after the book was published, announced its casting of black lesbian actress Samira Wiley in the role of Moira. There was an opportunity there for the gender politics of the story to become intersectional — as is expected of all politics in 2017. Moira’s sexuality is an important part of her character, and the intersection of gender and sexuality is discussed in the novel and the show. Unfortunately, there is absolutely zero engagement with how race intersects with these other aspects of her identity.

It makes total sense when you hear what executive producer and writer Bruce Miller has to say on the matter: “Once you have decided it’s going to be a diverse world, it doesn’t change the story.”

His attitude towards the issue is completely flawed. It’s a perfect example of “colourblind casting” that does more harm than good. Specifically in a story like this, which intends to shine a spotlight on the vitally important social issues in our own society. To say that race makes no difference is disrespectful and insulting. It sends the message that the oppression and prejudice faced by women is somehow more important and worthy of discussion than those faced by people of colour. Worse, it damagingly simplifies the issue by implying that those two things are separate and have no bearing on one another, when in fact by making Moira a black woman, they prove the two inseparable. 

By casting a black actress, the show committed to representing the struggles of black women, and then proceeded to totally drop the ball on that. Miller also said: “What’s the difference between making a television show about racists and making a racist television show? I don’t know that there is any apparent difference when you’re watching.” The decision to cast a black actress therefore seems to be motivated by not wanting to appear racist by having an entirely white cast. Indeed, if the show had been made with an entirely white cast, I’d still be writing this article about how the show has not engaged with race at all.

What might come as a shock to Mr Miller, is that he hasn’t avoided this problem. The show has cast a black woman in the role, but has refused to adapt the role to represent black struggle. It’s still a white character, facing white problems, discriminated against for her gender and sexuality, but not her race.

The first episode also revealed that “June”’s husband Luke is black, and their daughter is biracial. Here is another opportunity to explore how race relations in the US today would affect and change the dystopia imagined in 1985. Instead we are treated to the only black man in the show being shot off screen to protect a white character. There was such potential for race to be examined in this show, and given the same respect and depth of analysis that gender is granted. Instead, the result of colourblind casting is that our protagonist is a blonde haired, blue eyed victim whose struggles are elevated above those of the three people she cares about most (Luke, Hannah, Moira) — all of whom are black, but only incidentally.

This ambivalence and refusal to engage with the reality of political movement in 2017 falls in line with some other weird controversy surrounding the show. The cast have repeatedly avoided or denied labelling the show “feminist,” instead emphasising it as “a human story.”

This lines up with Atwood’s own seeming reluctance to align herself with the term. In a recent New York Times piece regarding whether the novel should be deemed “feminist”, she said: "If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

The omission of Offred’s caricature-ish second-wave feminist mother from the show also works to de-fang the politics. Ultimately, this adaptation of the novel is cowardly. It de-politicises and distances itself from the vital issues that it could and should tackle. Though money of course is a huge factor in creating media, I would argue that creators have a social responsibility too. A balance has to be struck, of course, it wouldn't do to alienate half your viewers by pushing a radical feminist message unpalatable to male audiences, right? But what’s so frustrating, as a woman of colour who really wanted to enjoy this show, is that it alienates non-white audiences, and the creators don’t seem to care. Even if money was their motive, they could tap into a huge audience of people of colour by engaging with issues pertinent to them. Watching this show requires me to cut myself up, portion out my own identity. I can relate to Offred as a woman, but not as a woman of colour. I can relate to Moira as a queer woman, because that is the part of her identity which defines her in the story. 

Worst of all (and I’ll be vague here because I don’t want to spoil anything for UK viewers who are watching on Channel 4 rather than Hulu), is the fates of these two women. Here’s a link to a spoiler-filled blog post from one viewer, which sums it up perfectly. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth too. 

All in all, it’s simply unrealistic to imagine that this extreme Christian right-wing theocracy, which doesn’t tolerate women outside very limited parameters, and which literally kills LGBTQ* people and people from other religions, would ignore race entirely. It does a disservice to the struggles of all people of colour - especially black Americans whose history has been appropriated and applied to white women - for the show not to address it. 

One of the most quoted lines from the book is this, in the words of the Commander, justifying the horrors of the regime: “Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some.” That’s ironically applicable here. “Feminist” never means feminist for everyone … more often than not, it means feminist for white women. #GetWoke

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