I recently started watching The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time. I made a joke to my partner the other day, when SBS On Demand asked us words to the effect of, “Are you enjoying Handmaid’s Tale, you might enjoy…” I laughed because who is enjoying the show? I don’t think anyone is watching it and having a fun time.
For those unfamiliar with the book and television series, The Handmaid’s Tale follows the story of June, who is given the name Offred. It is set in a dystopian future where fertility rates have plummeted. Cis women who are able to give birth are indoctrinated and coerced to join families as handmaids. They are routinely raped by the male head of the house in the hopes they will get pregnant and give birth to a child that joins the family. They are essentially forced surrogates. If handmaids aren’t compliant enough they are sent to colonies or forced into sex work. Families and communities were torn apart for a new dictatorial state.
For black people these stories do not have be imagined as a dystopian future. The handmaids are slaves and many nations including Australia have a black slave history.
There is a lot missing from the show. There are no trans people or narratives around transness which is a glaring omission for a television show exploring gender and gender-based violence and control. The subjugation the handmaids experience is predicated on their ability to give birth. In reality there are trans men, non-binary and gender diverse people who give birth. 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.
What happened to trans people in this show? How would trans people be treated in a religious dystopia? Did they escape to safety in Canada? I really hope so.
Trans people are not the only omission. The show, like many other works in the genre, does not address race. Although sexism and misogyny are institutionalised, legislated and embedded in every single facet of life in Gilead, apparently racism doesn’t exist. This colour-blind approach also bleeds into commentary about the show. There seems to be a common thread among white women of: "It’s just so real!”
This whitewashing in the show and its subsequent whitewashed analysis wouldn’t sting as much if the show didn’t rely so heavily on narratives taken from the lives of black people.
This whitewashing in the show and its subsequent whitewashed analysis wouldn’t sting as much if the show didn’t rely so heavily on narratives taken from the lives of black people. For black people these stories do not have to be imagined as a dystopian future. The handmaids are slaves and many nations including Australia have a black slave history. We don’t have to look further than our own families. In this country black children were stolen from their black mothers, black women were forced to have hysterectomies or given them without their knowledge.
Black women were kept as domestic maids and routinely sexually assaulted by the men in the house while the women looked the other way. How many children conceived like this were then stolen by the state? We don’t just have to look into our history either. Contemporary black life is controlled by the state. The finances of many black people are controlled by the state through welfare cards. Black people are forced into cheap labour via the CDEP. We too had and have white women who worked against us. White women working at the girls homes, white women who were the wives of mission managers, white women helping steal us from our parents. Now it’s white women working in child safety, white women calling the cops, it’s white female cops, white female teachers seeing black children as deviants and constructing narratives of problematisation before they’ve finished year one.
Last week Youtube “comedian” Nicole Arbour, a white lady, did a “feminist” version of Childish Gambino’s song This is America.
It was called the Women Edit. The underlying assumption she seemingly made was that This Is America was not already for women. I don’t think this is true. I saw many black women sharing and praising the film clip including Erykah Badu, Tracey Ellis Ross, and Munroe Bergdorf. The song and film clip refers to the horrific gun violence and police brutality that many black people, including women, experience. These are black experiences, regardless of gender.
It wasn’t women who were missing from the film clip, it was whiteness. This is a reminder of the way The Handmaid’s Tale uses black narratives but gives it a white face for the sake of entertainment. I wonder why this is the case? Of course it is not the only show to do this. Orange is the New Black also follows a nice white lady, Piper, into prisons. Prisons are disproportionately filled with black and brown bodies yet it is the nice white face we follow into the prison first.
Why do these stories need a white face in order to be palatable? Is it because it's easier to empathise with a white face than a black one?
The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 premieres on Thursday 29 April 2021. The Australian season is exclusive to SBS and SBS on Demand.
SBS will air the double-episode season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale at 8.30pm Thursday 29 April, with episodes 1-3 available at SBS On Demand. A second double episode will air on Thursday 6 May at 8.30pm, with weekly episodes to follow at 9.30pm. All episodes will be available to stream weekly at SBS On Demand.
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