Why Isn’t Handmaid’s Tale Woker?

“Until The Handmaid’s Tale learns to make its feminism intersectional, it’s going to keep letting its audience down.”

Louis Peitzman at Buzzfeed

I agree, and I’m deeply moved by the writers at Buzzfeed who deign to speak on behalf of the show’s entire following (not to mention their brave efforts to help readers know what kind of unusual petBridgerton brother, and spirit rodent they would be). Besides, I’ve always believed that art exists to propagate political agendas. In an ideal world, the government would be involved in its production–and the suppression of heretic material–but I guess we’re not quite there yet. Thus, I have taken the liberty of enumerating Handmaid’s Tale’s problems and offering some potential ways for the show to redeem itself.

Problem #1: White feminism

“Sometimes white feminism is so emphatic in its insistence that the world reckons with it that it obliterates all else in its path.”

Melanie McFarland at Salon

If you think that living under a brutal totalitarian regime is bad, then you’ve clearly never heard of white feminism, aka the most destructive force in Gilead. As Melanie McFarland notes, “Sometimes white feminism is so emphatic in its insistence that the world reckons with it that it obliterates all else in its path…never does June fully interrogate the racist structuring of Gilead or any kind of ethnic-based hierarchy.” She spends so much time trying to find her daughter and make it out alive that she forgets to acknowledge her white privilege.

Solution: June is irredeemable–or, as Alexis Nedd of Mashable put it, a “melanin-seeking missile”–so other less problematic characters come to the rescue. Aunt Lydia gets her hands on a copy of White Fragility, which finally allows her to come to terms with her complicity in a capitalist system that feeds on white supremacy. (However, she does take comfort in the notion that white liberals are the worst culprits, which lets her off the hook.) She attempts to book a diversity training with Robin DiAngelo but is unsuccessful. Aunt Lydia vows to Do Better™ and tells each handmaid that she acknowledges their lived experience as she prepares them for ceremonial rape.

Problem #2: What about racism?

Until we learn to judge everyone based on the color of their skin, our society will never move beyond racism. The creators of Handmaid’s Tale have made the horrendous mistake of treating non-white cast members as individuals rather than allowing their race to dictate their character’s experiences. And the protagonists are so caught up in trivial activities like surviving under a brutal totalitarian reign that they forget to acknowledge microaggressions and other racial dynamics. Consider the following:

  • Rita, the Waterfords’ Martha, is not a main character. This is offensive.
  • The show devotes more attention to Emily (not black) than to Moira (black). This, too, is offensive.
  • A black Martha is pulled to the side by a guard, which, according to Melanie McFarland of Salon, is offensive: “When we see a group of Marthas reach a checkpoint one of them, a dark-skinned black woman, gets pulled out by the guards for unknown reasons…Even among invisible women, the black woman is not.”
  • Ofmatthew, who is black, has gorged herself on the Gilead Kool-Aid. The author of the article doesn’t specify how this is offensive, but I’m sure it is.

Solution: June, Emily, Serena Joy, Fred Waterford, Joseph Lawrence, and a bunch of Guardians all die of natural causes. The remainder of the season focuses entirely on Moira and Luke, who attend a Canadian university to get their PhDs in gender studies and find lucrative jobs as intersectional freelance slam poets.

Problem #3: Historical and Cultural Plagiarism

“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.”

The Haughty Culturalist

Solution #1: The show’s creators rewrite the entire thing in a different setting with different characters and a different plot, making sure that nothing in the show bears any resemblance to any event that any non-white person has ever experienced.

Solution #2: They change the plot so that it only mirrors the peaceful events of Stalinist Russia, the Irish War of Independence, the Black Death, or Nazi Germany. This makes the series much more light-hearted since white people, by definition, have never suffered.

Solution #3: The show’s directors simply remove black characters from the cast. Cate Young of Cosmopolitan puts this nicely: “Treating black characters as though they occupy the same social position as their white counterparts negates the purpose of including them at all.”

Solution #4: The creators of the show remove its plot, characters, setting, props, and scenery, such that each episode consists only of blurred pixels floating around the screen in an attempt to avoid offending viewers.

Problem #4: Where’d all the trans people go?

There are no trans characters in Gilead. Even worse, citizens never ask anyone what their pronouns are, go to Pride, or teach their children about the Genderbread Person. As a result, people who are assigned male at birth may be forced into roles as Commanders, Guardians, and Economen; denied the opportunity to participate in traditionally female activities (i.e., the Ceremony or Salvagings); barred from gender-segregated areas like the Red Center; and never given the chance to have gender reaffirmation surgeries. Similarly, men who give birth or non-binary bleeders may not be able to serve as Handmaids, which would invalidate their sexual identities.

Finally, as Nayuka Gorrie points out, “The show imagines the cis woman who gives birth to be the most vulnerable, yet in reality trans women experience violence from individuals and the state at particularly appalling and scary rates. In reality this violence often comes from cis women and it is cis people gatekeeping the lives of trans people.”

The show’s writers need to recognize that just because you’re disenfranchised, enslaved, raped, and tortured doesn’t mean you don’t have privilege. For all we know, an Unwoman in the Colonies may be twelve times happier than a wealthy Commander who is perennially misgendered.

Solution #1: Serena Joy reveals that she identifies as genderflux and uses they/them pronouns. In odd-numbered episodes, Serena is female. In even-numbered episodes, Serena is male. As such, the plot alternates between a) a prisoner’s dilemma situation with both Serena and Fred in prison and Canada and b) a scintillating exploration of the disadvantages that queer couples face in the incarceration system. For bonus points, Fred could even overcome his internalized homophobia and admit that he’s gay–but again, only for even-numbered episodes.

Solution #2: Hannah transitions and now identifies as Hans. June searches for her daughter and eventually realizes that she will never find Hannah – because Hannah is Hans. She figures out how to get another plane of 50 kids to Canada, which she describes to them as “a majestic land full of gender-neutral bathrooms,” and she nearly manages to take her child and flee, but she drowns in the river as a divine punishment for deadnaming Hans.

Solution #3: After facing intense pressure from Twitter activists, the leaders of Gilead make the difficult decision to mandate the inclusion of preferred gender pronouns in traditional greetings. Citizens are now required to say, “Under Aer, Eir, His, Pers, Her, Their, Vis, Xyr, or Hir Eye.”

It took me a lot of emotional labor to compose the above paragraphs, but I’m going to continue my unpaid efforts so that I can be on the right side of history. Try as they might, progressive commentators have still missed the major sources of oppression that plague the series. Thank goodness I’m here to point them out.

  • The entire premise of Gilead is predicated on the notion that only women have periods and give birth. Gilead will never be truly intersectional until men can be handmaids, too.
  • Nick adopts an attitude of painfully paternalistic sexism when he helps June escape from the Waterfords’ house. If he were a true ally, he’d leave her there to rot.
  • Characters are never depicted as engaging in polyamorous/polysexual relationships. This erases the lived experience of sexual minorities. Obviously.
  • “Smart Power,” the episode that takes place in Canada, contains no recognition of the fact that French settlers seized land from Indigenous peoples. This is undoubtedly the primary injustice faced by every character in the series. Additionally, the word “smart” is ableist.
  • Various characters refer to Offred’s “breast milk,” when in fact the proper term is “chest milk.”
  • A Canadian doctor informs Emily that she has high cholesterol, recommending dietary changes and exercises. This is clearly fatphobic.
  • Luke is devastated when he receives a message from June telling him that she has slept with another man while they have been separated. This scene highlights Luke’s internalized polyphobia and toxic monogamy. A real ally would embrace the possibility of a polyamorous relationship.
  • White women cry countless times throughout the show. As preeminent intellectuals have noted, white women’s tears are deadly.
  • The requirement that women in Gilead eat meat and fish could be offensive to vegetarians, vegans, and animal-rights activists.
  • The fan wiki contains footnotes, which is a microaggression against amputees.
  • Many episodes have problematic titles. Thus, I recommend the following changes:
    • A Woman’s Place –> An Individual’s Place
    • Unwomen —> People Whose Feminine Identity Is Not Affirmed By Society
    • Other Women —> Other Female-Presenting People
    • God Bless the Child —> Celestial Deities Offer Some Sort Of Benevolent Blessing To Child (Or Just Season’s Greetings If The Kid Is Atheist)

Last but not least, although Gilead is not always woke enough, there are a few things it gets right.

  • In season one, episode one, Offred comments that handmaids “aren’t concubines. We’re two-legged wombs.” “Two-legged wombs” seems like an excellent gender-neutral phrase to describe people who give birth, along with terms like “vulva owners” and “individuals with a cervix.” 
  • In season two, episode six, we see a pre-Gilead Serena and Fred going on a college campus to speak, only to be shouted down, called Nazis, and then shot on their way out. This is a refreshing endorsement of campus disinvitations, and the rest of the show makes it clear that heckling the Waterfords was a highly effective strategy in preventing totalitarianism. 
  • In the original novel, we learn that a resistance movement called the Underground Femaleroad helps fugitives escape Gilead. I find this name rather quaint, and I would love to see it replace the word “railroad,” seeing as “rail” rhymes with “male” and is therefore cissexist.

Categories: Blog, Cultural Commentary

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