The Handmaid’s Tale: speculation so white

Picture of a young white woman in a long red robe with a large white bonnet that stops her seeing other than in front of her, exiting a brick building.The Hulu TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel set in a New England taken over by a fundamentalist Christian theocratic police state that styles itself the Republic of Gilead, concluded on Channel 4 last Sunday night. The series (like the novel) follows the story of Offred, AKA June, who has been conscripted as a ‘handmaid’ to provide children to wealthy élite families in a society beset by a so-called plague of infertility which seems to be affecting other countries (such as Mexico) as well. The series has been described as not fiction but “a warning” by an Australian feminist columnist, and it seems many people are watching it despite finding it distressing, most likely because everyone is talking about it so everyone else needs to understand it. I found it a very weak and unbelievable piece of TV and its biggest weaknesses are its back-story and its handling of race, which are connected.

The novel was written in the mid-1980s and set at the turn of the present century; the TV series appears to be set about now or in the near future. The novel was clearly set in an age following a war, most likely a nuclear war although Agent Orange was mentioned as a reason why people cannot conceive healthy babies; there are only the barest references to that in the series, mostly to the “colonies” where women who refused to be Handmaids or Jezebels (prostitutes in officially tolerated brothels) are sent to “clean up toxic waste” and die. The novel is a sort of cross between 1984 and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, a book set in Labrador after a “tribulation” has rendered most of North America uninhabitable; that is also a fundamentalist Christian society which fetishises “the Norm” as the war has resulted in widespread birth defects which are referred to as “Offences” or “Blasphemies”, and anyone with so much as an extra toe is killed. At the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is a transcript of a conference on “Gileadian Studies”, set a hundred years into the future, which puts the material sourced from Offred in context. That is missing from the TV series which ends with Offred being taken away in the back of a van by two men in black, who may be taking her out of the country or to prison or her death; she does not know, and we are not told.

The war seems to have had no environmental impact on the parts of Gilead we see, other than the fertility problems, which are otherwise unexplained though briefly alluded to in the scenes set before the takeover. Apart from people mutilated as punishments, such as the Handmaid whose eye is removed after she tries to run away during training, we see no disabled people, which we would expect to after a war. This fact is never mentioned. Why so many women are supposedly infertile despite being otherwise perfectly healthy (which I suspect they would not be, if the cause was environmental) is not explained either. American conservatives are in general capitalists who serve and defend corporate interests and oppose regulation and state welfare and healthcare, yet capitalism is muted or absent here; there is little talk of money and no advertising to be seen, for example. Life outside the élite, even that of the so-called Econowives from the book, is not mentioned anywhere. There are also some strange inconsistencies: how is it that June and her daughter were captured trying to flee to Canada and her partner escaped only through great danger, but Moira, her friend from before the takeover who had been forced into the Jezebels, gets out very easily with no apparent help from anyone by stealing a client’s car?

A scene set in a green field with trees surrounding it, with women in identical red robes kneeling on the grass in rows and columns, with armed men in black surrounding them.Gilead is also suspiciously, and mysteriously, racially integrated. This is by far the biggest credibility problem. Gilead is a highly stratified society in which nobody really has any rights although some people have a lot of power, but you find people of all races at every level including Commanders, which was not the case in the book, in which Black Americans had been exiled to a colony in the Midwest. Although we are told Catholics are being persecuted and nuns executed by public hanging from a crane, people of other religions such as Muslims and Hindus are also absent. Both these absences and the mysterious racial harmony are never remarked upon. This is odd, to say the least. American Christian conservatives are not openly, ideologically racist, but they tend to prosper in areas where they can appeal to a racist vote, to stereotypes understood to be of people who are Black, poor or (usually) both, and they are also notorious for trying to peel back protections for Black people’s right to vote, for supporting laws which are impediments to voter registration and opposing those which make it easier to vote. Although they are in favour of banning or restricting abortion, their principal injustices have been against Black and poor people of both sexes, not women. It’s ridiculous to suppose that these sorts of people could produce a racially integrated society, where racism was so thoroughly defeated that it is not even spoken of, in the space of a few years. The series’ ‘showrunner’, Bruce Miller, explained that “it just felt like in a world where birth rates have fallen so precipitously, fertility would trump everything”, but that does not explain why the absence of racism or race as an issue is never mentioned. Besides, many racists actually would not think like that.

In Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith hears about an underground conspiracy and believes that his inner-party handler, O’Brien, is in on it (he is in fact a Thought Police agent who later tortures Smith). The fake ‘Brotherhood’ he tries to join is echoed here by ‘Mayday’ which Offred hears rumours of among the Handmaids and later tries to retrieve a package for, which turns out to be writings by women captured and imprisoned during the Gilead takeover. Offred does not know if the men who take her away are members of ‘Mayday’ or state agents, but I’m inclined to believe the latter especially given that it came right after she instigated a mass refusal by the Handmaids to stone another Handmaid to death after she attempted suicide when her Commander (who had been having an affair with her rather than just having ceremonial sex with her in front of his wife) dumped her and gave the child to his wife, as was usual with Handmaids.

Picture of a late-middle-age white woman wearing a brown hooded robe with a whistle round her neck and holding a microphone in her hand.The series does explore the relationship between Offred and Serena, her Commander’s wife, showing Offred’s fear and Serena’s resentment of Offred which abates somewhat when she gets pregnant (meaning no more ‘ceremonies’) — pregnant Handmaids are treated with extreme kindness by both the couple and their servants — and returns with a vengeance when it turns out she was not pregnant after all. Despite the series being ten, hour-long episodes long, no other classes of women except (briefly) the ‘Jezebels’ are examined in detail; we do not see much of the lives of the so-called Marthas, who include the servants in the Waterford household (and are also seen guarding the ‘Jezebels’), or how they came into that role; in the book they were older, infertile women, but the Waterfords’ servants do not seem to be that old. And it’s a decent portrayal of a ‘total’ police state in which people’s interaction with each other is monitored and controlled, where friendship is fleeting and nobody is able to trust anyone.

But I wouldn’t describe the programme as essential viewing. It’s over-long, and I regularly had to look at the Wikipedia descriptions of each episode (which were available as the episodes were shown in the UK weeks after they aired in the USA) to keep up. For what its author claims is ‘speculative fiction’ rather than sci-fi, the society it portrays is unconvincing and the backstory and connection to present trends is weak. It has been claimed that all the oppressions depicted in the programme have happened somewhere, but they are out of context: it was not women but Black people that were banned from reading and writing; nowhere are women expected to wear a ‘uniform’ all the time (even in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, women wear ‘normal’ clothes under the outer clothes, which actually is not a uniform, and when at home, which is not the case here). We keep hearing that the story is of added importance in the age of Trump, but Trump is an amoral, anti-religious capitalist, not a religious fundamentalist and real fundamentalists in the USA show no enthusiasm for a police state or depriving women of rights beyond restricting abortion and birth control pills. Only race-blind, middle-class white feminism could produce ten hours of TV with such a weak narrative on race and none on class like this. So there’s no need to watch this if it is distressing; it’s not real, and it’s not realistic.

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