Dystopia and Resistance

The Handmaid's TaleI’m working on an essay to present at WisCon. As part of my research, I took a deep breath and embarked on a re-read of The Handmaid’s Tale. I have avoided watching the television series, because there’s only so much dystopia I can handle right now and following the news takes up most of that. It was a hard read, but at least a book goes quicker than a TV series.

Something unrelated to my project struck me this time through the book: Everyone in it is white. While Atwood doesn’t describe all characters in sufficient detail to make that obvious, she refers to a homeland for the “Children of Ham,” which leads the reader to assume that separate settlements have been established for African Americans. She doesn’t mention any other people of color, though there are a few references to the treatment of Jews.

I am not bringing this up to criticize Atwood. I don’t recall thinking about race at all when I first read this book, even though I should have been more aware, especially since at the time I lived and worked in primarily African American neighborhoods in Washington, DC. Atwood was focused on religious extremists and their attacks on women. Given the popularity of the TV adaptation, it’s clear how much that still resonates.

But reading it now, and especially making the assumption that it is set in what is now our present day (for me, the references to the main character’s mother’s activism evoke second wave feminism, which allows me to date the story as taking place very close to the here and now), I can’t divorce sexism from racism. The commanders and the wives and the handmaids are all white (or at least, appear to be white), because the combination of the fertility crisis that underlies it and the very white Christian fundamentalism that drives it evokes white supremacy as well as extreme patriarchy.

A Black feminist of Atwood’s generation would have thought about this in creating such a dystopia. It would not be a stretch to find such a society bringing back slavery, given the current rants of white supremacists. And given what we’re dealing with today, Muslims would be part of the story.

I understand that the TV show has people of color in some key roles, so I don’t think they’re bringing white supremacy into the story, or at least not in the way I think it would happen. Of course, if they had cast the story as written by Atwood with only white actors, that wouldn’t have addressed the racism either — even if it implied it – because most white people in our country are not yet sufficiently aware to realize that if there are no people of color in that society, something even more terrible has been done to them.

Given that in our current society — where the U.S. is in danger of becoming more dystopic and the only reason to oppose impeachment is that it would give us the Gilead-like Pence — African Americans are major leaders of the resistance, it would be nice to see a story that incorporated the racism along with the sexism.

Here’s a good piece on race and the TV show.

The slippery slope to Gilead on which we find ourselves today is built on racism, sexism, and religious intolerance. If you want to understand what’s going on, you can’t leave out any of those things.

If I had my druthers, we’d have a TV series built around successful resistance to an oppressive regime instead of one that emphasizes how much power the regime has. A majority of the resistance leaders would be people of color and way more than half of them would be women. Some would be old; others would be just getting out of high school.

You know: a resistance like the one we’ve got going right now.

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Dystopia and Resistance — 8 Comments

  1. I confess that when I read Handmaid’s Tale on its initial publication I did think where various “others” would have fit into Gilead, particularly African Americans and Native Americans first, and then Asian Americans. However, as the outcry in the SF/F community was so great against Atwood’s book then, and I was so much operating within the community then, I ended up focusing on the community’s insistence that 1) Atwood had no right to write sf because she doesn’t even think she writes sf! and she doesn’t write sf! and this story has already been done! and better! by us!; and 2) this can’t happen here! — that I didn’t spend that much time considering those ramifications.

    Like you too, I can’t make myself watch the television series. Heck, I couldn’t even get through all the episodes of the truly splendid Alias Grace on netflix due to my head needs at least some space not occupied by the horrors that male dominance has committed on women, and continues to do. From reading about the Handmaid’s Tale’s second season, there seems to be overt slave work death-camps, like the nazi death camps and the gulags, for that matter. These have a large population of women of color. But I haven’t seen it, so no one can take my word for that.

    • I tend to ignore it whenever people complain that non-SF/F people are writing SF/F, because (a) I think including speculative ideas in so-called literary fiction has immeasurably improved said fiction and (b) the same people tend to get upset if someone brings ideas from other genres into their SF/F. Anyway, Atwood has always written SF/F and I think she admits it these days. Ursula K. Le Guin had a wonderful comment on the subject after Atwood had denied she was writing SF by saying she was writing things that were going to happen. It was something along the lines of “I really hope what she’s doing is SF, because I don’t want to live in that world.” [very bad paraphrase, I’m sure]

  2. I have just written an essay (for John Scalzi’s blog!) in which I argue that while the question SF asks is “What if this goes on?” the statement of historical fiction is “This is how it was — let’s not do that again.” And if we’re not careful, we -will-. We cannot drive over the cliff.

    • I suspect there are readers of historical fiction who are looking for “I wish I lived back then.” (Not me, though — I’m all for the “let’s not do that again” approach.)

      The nice thing about SF is that “what if this goes on” can have various answers. I’d like to see us SF folks do less of the dystopia, myself.

      And please make sure we all know when your essay appears.

      • It seems like the “I wish I lived back then” people are the ones who like the Disneyland version of history. Modern people with modern attitudes dressing up in period clothes and living in period houses and playing at history. It can be fun reading, as long as people realize that’s not how life was actually lived in that day.

        • I love Jane Austen’s novels (which, of course, were about modern life when they were written, but are history to us now), but the thought of living in a world that constricted women to that degree terrifies me. Also, I wouldn’t want to marry Mr. Darcy, much less the inferior choices.

  3. I never could bring myself to read the book. I lived in Indiana growing up. I knew very well what some groups wanted, and I got out of there as fast as I could. I just hope the people watching make the connection. The “handmaids” who show up in the legislature here in TX started a movement just by their presence.

    But I understand the “where is everyone?” response to the book. I tried to read a well-written National Geographic book about US History I found at my parent’s condo, written in the 1960s. Sometimes older history books have less slant, and I did find that to be true in an article. But the book was upsetting me. It felt like I was reading an alternative book, even though the little bit about the 1770s and before seemed accurate.

    I finally figured out that the front photos and photos as I flipped through the book had no one in them who was not white. Not one person. The photo taken in front of Lincoln at the memorial was especially distressing. I gave the book to the library sale.

    We are still learning. I’d like to see that resistance series, Nancy Jane. Are you going to write it?

    • It’s not exactly what I’m working on, but I am writing near future stuff that assumes life is very messy, but people are resilient.

      I am glad we are learning to notice the whiteness of books like the one you mention. We used to assume that’s just the way things would be published, even when we were aware that they weren’t presenting the whole story.