I’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.