It’s even harder to watch ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ when you know Black women’s history
“I love you. Mommy loves you, Charlotte.”
I watched a character named “Ofwarren” speak those words to a rosey-cheeked baby before jumping from a bridge. She was attempting to end her own life. Ofwarren survived the plunge into the cold waters below. Yet, the image of a mother willing to die, and kill her own child, made the scene especially powerful.
This mom, a red-caped handmaid, was white, though. A fact that the Hulu hit series The Handmaid’s Tale seems to exploit. When one considers the actual enslavement and treatment of Black women in the United States and throughout the transatlantic Black Diaspora, the show just doesn’t sit well.
When you think of the show on these terms, it makes the underlying premises quite problematic.
The show is based on the 1985 novel of the same name. Written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, it tells the story of Offred, a handmaid in a dystopian near-future New England city called the Republic of Gilead. There, the mostly white women concubines are subjected to slave-like conditions. In this reality, wealthier “commanders” and many of their wives are sterile. Thus, commanders systematically raped and exploited handmaids, using them as hosts to bear children before immediately taking them away.
While the original story was set in the late 22nd century, the television show seems to be just around the corner. This is a fact Atwood recently reflected on, acknowledging the parallels between her counter-revolutionary, patriarchal rendition of the United States.
Race in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
There’s no question that the show has a glaring race problem.
Moira, played by Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black), is the one Black character on the show. She exists mainly because the show’s producers were committed to a “removal of the white supremacy element” present in the book. Their words, not mine.
In the original book, Black people were forcibly removed to some reservation-like plot of land in the Midwest. Other people of color were made servants. These undertones still come through on the show regardless of the producers’ intentions. While not explicit, it still feels like a horrifying white world where all the bad people are white and all the good ones are too.
Week after week, I have watched as the show dives into a not-so-fictional universe. A universe where poorer, less-connected women are sex slaves. They are marked as simultaneously precious resources and whores whose abilities to procreate have become synonymous with a hyper-sexed identity. But, as a Black woman who has an intimate understanding of Black American History the show feels less like entertainment, horror, or even dystopic nightmare. Instead, it just seems like appropriation, the stealing of not only Black experiences but our deepest pains too.
Black mothering in the dystopic past
On episode 9, aptly titled “The Bridge“, when Ofwarren (also known as Janine) jumped, I was reminded of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who many know because of her struggle for freedom in 1856. Garner and her husband were working to free themselves by traveling north on the Underground Railroad. But, the slave catchers found them and she knew she would be returned to her master.
Rather than return her children into slavery, she slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter, killing her. Margaret wounded her other three before her slavemaster showed up. She was placed on trial and forced back into slavery, dying just two years later of illness.
Toni Morrison’s Beloved retells Garner’s story in haunting and gorgeous fashion. The Handmaid’s Tale just borrows it without permission.
In many ways, the dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale presents isn’t really the future. It more closely resembles the lived past of Black women in the United States, just wrapped in cloaks and creepy white bonnets.
Female circumcision and sterilization in the United States
Earlier in the series, a character named “Ofglen”, played by Alexis Bledel (Gilmore Girls), is found to be involved in a sexual relationship with another woman. In response, they muzzle and handcuff her. Then, they force Ofglen to watch her lover hanged before authorities violate her through genital mutilation. Unlike her lover, they only kept Ofglen alive because she could reproduce children.
The show never fully explains what they do with her. But it is clear that her position as both woman and slave gave them rights to circumcise her against her will.
In a piece at Romper, writer Megan Walsh struggled with this scene saying,
“The immense, crushing horror of that moment played out on Ofglen’s face as the episode concluded. What happened to Ofglen was an addition of the show (it wasn’t present in the novel) that drove home the inhumane brutality of Gilead, where women were only worth what their bodies could do. Not only were their personal feelings and desires irrelevant, their feelings needed to be eradicated. Ofglen’s individuality, autonomy, and agency were all taken from her. They wanted to deprive her of any sense of hope or escape, but only time will tell if they succeeded.
In a show filled with incredibly difficult moments, Ofglen’s fate was one of the toughest to take in.”
Reading this reaction was unsettling to me. Swapping Gilead for the United States, you get an idea of the experiences many women of color, especially Black and Latina women, have at the hands of the State.
I first learned for female genital mutilation from Alice Walker’s 1992 book Possessing The Secret of my Joy. The practice traveled the world during the Atlantic Slave Trade. But, it was never about white women.
The same goes for other forms of bodily invasion and mutilation like sterilization. As late as the 1960s and 70s, women of color were being forcibly and coercively sterilized in hospitals across the country. The State considered these women “unwholesome” and unfit for parenting, justifying the eugenicist method of population control.
Commodifying Our Pain
Yes. Pain is a part of our culture. Our experiences with exploitation and oppression in the United States directly influence our struggles with police violence, hypersurveillance, over-criminalization, and inequity today. For Black people, especially those living in countries directly impacted by slavery and its afterlife, these facets of ourselves are sacred. They are diasporic and linked.
Shows like The Handmaid’s Tale don’t honor those histories or even acknowledge them. Instead, they retell our experiences using whiteness as the subject and entertainment value as the backdrop.
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