British Association for American Studies


For a Series so Concerned with Leaning into the Horror, The Handmaid’s Tale Utterly Fails to Address Race

[Content warning: sexual violence; racist violence; FGM; also contains show spoilers]

Whenever the TV series or the new sequel to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are mentioned, the same question arises: do we really want to know what happens after Offred (pre-Gilead name June) steps “into the darkness within; or else the light”? This is June’s infamous last line, which finds its way into the first series with meticulous fidelity before the HBO adaptation continues her timeline. Until Atwood released The Testaments in 2019, critics have been asking whether the HBO adaptation ought to have done this – yet the original novel did play with such boundaries, giving readers glimpses of past lives and future conclusions about those lives in the academic conference provided in the “Historical Notes.” What makes Handmaid so appropriate for this golden age of television is that the political premise finds its place just as comfortably in the Trump era as it did under Reagan. Atwood noted herself when Handmaid was first published that while British and Canadian responses were entertained and concerned respectively, the American reaction was “How long have we got?” (Mayer and Siegel). Its enduring relevance as a critique of church-state power in contemporary culture proves the success of the novel’s suspicious tactics if nothing else. But there is something jarring about how closely the show approaches the horrors of the regime, often undoing some of Atwood’s haunting gift for understatement, satire, allusion. Where readers had to imagine Gilead’s euphemistic punishments, viewers must now accompany a heartbroken (white) lesbian character through her penalty of genital mutilation. Where readers had Offred’s ironic observations, viewers must stare for minutes on end into the face of their protagonist (seemingly every episode ends with a fourth-wall-breaking close up). The results can be extremely moving, but they can also feel indulgent, gratuitous, overly earnest – words rarely applied to Atwood – and many find it hard to watch.

But for a show that has a tendency to lean into the horror, Handmaid reveals a glaring lack of willingness to interact with race on screen. The casting of O.T. Fagbenle as partner Luke and Samira Wiley as best-friend Moira is inspired, and fans of Octavia Butler’s fiction discuss at length the Easter egg in the form of Luke’s new surname, Bankole. But what the HBO series gains in a more diverse and talented cast, it loses in failing to use this opportunity to deepen its criticism of white American Christian politics with an intersectional approach that includes race as one of its major factors. Atwood’s original Gilead is a racist as well as a sexist, transphobic, homophobic and ableist regime, but she too received criticism for tucking these details neatly away early on in the novel (black people are sent to Africa; Jews to Israel; “gender traitors,” disabled people and political activists are sent to the “Colonies”). Series creator Bruce Miller has attempted to explain away his choice, deflecting by pointing out how Samira Wiley was the perfect Moira (Bastién), or dismissing the issue altogether: “it just felt like in a world where birth rates have fallen so precipitously, fertility would trump everything” (Dockterman). “So Gilead is postracial because the human race is facing extinction,” responds Soraya Nadia McDonald, “and that prompted Americans to get over several hundred years’ worth of racist education and social conditioning that depicted black people as inferior and less than human?” So too is Bastién astounded by Miller’s tidying away of the issue: “in times of strife, divisions don’t dissolve – if anything, they become more ingrained.”

While a more diverse casting is absolutely the right choice for HBO’s series (and Wiley is absolutely the perfect Moira), the overwhelming reaction seems to be – why not do something better with this opportunity? Lauren Thoman puts it thus: “Implying that diversity begins and ends at casting ignores the intersectionality of its characters’ experiences, and the lived reality of its audience.” Well might the show be criticized for delving so deeply into white lesbian character Emily’s heartache and torture while failing to explore the reality of, for example, Moira’s experience as a black lesbian in Gilead. Her placement as June’s best friend allows plenty of space for such an exploration, and her experience in Gilead’s brothel, Jezebel’s, only makes the omission more conspicuous. “To place a black woman in this scenario automatically makes it more fraught and complex, particularly since she’s seen with white men,” argues Angelica Jade Bastién, “a decision that feels like a clear evocation of how enslaved black women were forced to be mistresses.” The show’s oversight here is in keeping with its general indifference to the significance of the tools of oppression: the Gilead regime is replete with the loaded imagery and harmful tropes of rape, lynching, patronymic nomenclature, and domestic and sexual servitude. These are the instruments of the West’s legacy of slavery and the theft of indigenous land and culture, which, despite the timelessness of the Gilead regime, cannot be consigned to the halls of white amnesia in such a socially “prescient” show (Midge).

By season three, the series makes the smallest of attempts to approach the issue when Ofmatthew, originally named Natalie, appears as June’s pious new walking partner. Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia with chilling commitment, explains that some commanders express a preference for white handmaids so that they might father white children. Natalie goes on to suffer hugely both at the hands of her fellow handmaids, who bully her mercilessly and the guards, who kill her in an all-too-realistic overreactive shooting in Loaves and Fishes. The actor who plays Natalie, Ashleigh LaThrop, responds to questions about her character, who is rarely able to speak for herself in the show:

I decided that OfMatthew had not really ever been around Black people. […] I created this character based on some people that I know — one person in particular who is Black but doesn’t seem to know that she’s Black. It’s one of the more infuriating things about this person. I play with that frustration in OfMatthew. (Nicolaou)

LaThrop’s decision to play Natalie in this way seems to be necessitated by the outlook of the show’s creators, who presumably also have not spent much time around black people either. Her storyline feels too lightly dealt with, and too late. Lauren Thoman points out that despite the series’ attempts to humanize other thorny “pious” characters like Aunt Lydia and the Commander’s wife Serena, Natalie is given no such sympathetic flashback, no space for complexity. As a consequence, her devastating story arc doesn’t seem to know whether it critically reflects the lived experience of people of colour in the USA, or flagrantly ignores it. Countless viewers and critics have had their hopes dashed, and McDonald’s challenge to the series sadly holds true after two more seasons: “it’s up to writers to do a better job of addressing the complications that race presents, especially in a work that’s being sold as a glimpse of a possible future.”

Works Cited

Bastién, Angelica Jade. “In Its First Season, The Handmaid’s Tale’s Greatest Failing Is How It Handles Race.” Vulture.com, 14 June, 2017. https://www.vulture.com/2017/06/the-handmaids-tale-greatest-failing-is-how-it-handles-race.html.

Dockterman, Eliana. “The Handmaid’s Tale Showrunner on Why He Made Some Major Changes From the Book.” Time.com, 25 April, 2017. https://time.com/4754200/the-handmaids-tale-showrunner-changes-from-book/.

Mayer, Petra, and Robert Siegel. “Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Soars to Top of Amazon Bestseller List.” All Things Considered, edited by Robert Siegel, National Public Radio, 7 Feb. 2017, www.npr.org/2017/02/07/513957906/margaret-atwoods-the-handmaids-tale-soars-to-top-of-amazon-bestseller-list.

McDonald, Soraya Nadia. “In Handmaid’s Tale, a Postracial, Patriarchal Hellscape, What Happens to White Supremacy in a Totalitarian Theocracy? It Depends on whom You Ask.” Theundefeated.com, 26 April, 2017.  https://theundefeated.com/features/hulu-handmaids-tale/.

Midge, Tiffany. “An Open Letter to White Women Concerning The Handmaid’s Tale and America’s Cultural Amnesia.” Mcsweeneys.net, 6 June 2018. https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/an-open-letter-to-white-women-concerning-the-handmaids-tale-and-americas-cultural-amnesia.

Nicolaou, Elena. “OfMatthew Didn’t Get Any Last Words In The Handmaid’s Tale, So Ashleigh LaThrop Says Them For Her.” Refinery29.com, 10 July, 2019. https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2019/07/237495/ofmatthew-handmaids-tale-death-season-3-episode-8-ashleigh-lathrop-interview.

Thoman, Lauren. “After Three Seasons, The Handmaid’s Tale Remains Brazenly Unaware of Racism.” Mic.com, Bustle Digital Group. 15 Aug. 2019. https://www.mic.com/p/after-three-seasons-the-handmaids-tale-remains-brazenly-unaware-of-racism-18658839. 


About the Author

Lois Wilson is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, funded by the Carnegie Trust.