In Western fiction, dystopic stories often ask, "What if this atrocity had happened to white people instead?"
That was the formula more than 100 years ago, when H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds, its narrator comparing the Martian invasion of Britain to Britain’s ruthless invasion of Tasmania. It’s the formula in Universal Pictures’ new franchise-starter The Mummy, which envisions a Middle Eastern woman bringing war to London, as Brits and Americans brought war to Iraq. And it’s the basis for Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale, which imagines a world in which white women are enslaved and sexually coerced as black women were under American slavery.
Appropriating the experiences of women of color to create a hell for white women raises uncomfortable questions. The novel and Hulu’s television adaptation — which just wrapped its first season, and has been renewed for a second — address these questions in different ways. But both are ultimately unable to get beyond the initial assumption that their dystopias are wrenching because of exactly who’s suffering.
The novel The Handmaid's Tale is set in a post-revolution United States where the theocratic Christian authoritarian regime of Gilead has replaced the old order. Environmental poisoning sterilized most of the population, so Gilead enslaves fertile women. The regime calls them “handmaids,” and assigns them to influential families, where the husbands ritually rape them as the wives watch. If a handmaid conceives, the baby is taken from her to be raised by the father and his wife.
The novel is narrated by Offred, a college-educated white woman forced into service as a handmaiden. Atwood openly acknowledges that Offred's experiences of violence and sexual coercion are based on American slavery. The network that rescues handmaids is clumsily named the Underground Femaleroad, after the historic Underground Railroad. Atwood also mentions that the regime hates the song "Amazing Grace,” which was originally written as a protest against the slave trade. Handmaids, like black slaves before them, are not allowed to read, need passes to go outside, and can be publicly lynched for perceived crimes against the regime.
Atwood also links the handmaids’ plight to the oppression of women in some Arabic Muslim countries. The handmaids are forced to wear enveloping, draping outfits that mix nun's habits and burqas. And Offred muses that handmaid gatherings look like "paintings of harems, fat women lolling on divans, turbans on their heads, or velvet caps, being fanned with peacock tails, a eunuch in the background standing guard." In her world, independent Western women have fallen into an Orientalist nightmare. The terrible thing about being a handmaid is that you cease to be white.
The book does explain why black people are absent in Gilead: the regime is not just sexist, but racist. It is only interested in white babies, and therefore only interested in enslaving white women. The novel mentions a news report about the "resettlement of the Children of Ham," which suggests American people of color are being forcibly relocated — and given the American historical precedents, probably murdered outright. Gilead obligingly moves black people away so the novel can present black people's experiences without black characters. Atwood critiques the regime, but also collaborates with it to push black people aside. As Bruce Miller, the showrunner for Hulu’s Handmaid's Tale, insightfully put it in an Time interview, “What's the difference between making a TV show about racists and making a racist TV show where you don't hire any actors of color?”
Miller didn't want to create an all-white world, so the Hulu version of The Handmaid's Tale includes numerous black actors. Offred — whose real name is June in the television show — is played by white actor Elisabeth Moss. But her husband, Luke (O.T. Fagbenie), her best pre-Gilead friend and fellow handmaid, Moira (Samira Wiley), and her child, Hannah (Jordana Blake) are all black.
In some ways, the use of black actors effectively addresses the narrative's debt to African-American history. In the opening episode, Gilead troops take Hannah from June; the reference to enslaved black children being sold is more powerful, and more honest, because Hannah is black herself. When Luke makes his way across the Canadian border, it resonates with Canada's long, honorable history as a refuge for escaped slaves. When Moira is forced into prostitution by the Gilead regime, it illustrates how slaves were raped, then hypersexualized, as if they were to blame for the violence done to them.
The problem is that while the television show reproduces slave suffering, it’s unable to acknowledge that those experiences are familiar rather than novel. The Gilead in the television show is post-racial and ahistorical. The powerful Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) calls Moira a "degenerate," in part because it’s suggested she is a lesbian, but there’s no suggestion of racial prejudice in the show. No one in the series, seems to see or reference race. Gilead is virulently sexist and homophobic, but it is, to all appearances, less racist than the current United States.
From a simple suspension-of-disbelief standpoint, this is hard to credit. Conservative gender politics in the United States have been closely intertwined with racism for decades. Right-wing restrictions on reproductive freedom go hand in hand with right-wing Islamophobia and right-wing antipathy to movements like Black Lives Matter. In the United States, patriarchy has always been importantly both white and male. It is extremely unlikely that an American fascist theocracy would somehow rid itself of the racism that has been a hallmark of United States authoritarianism from slavery through Jim Crow, and on up to mass incarceration today.
The Handmaid's Tale doesn’t just scrub the future of racism, though. It also cleanses the past. Neither Moira nor anyone else mentions American slavery, or uses the past history of black oppression to try to understand the current situation in Gilead. It's as if the show's creators feared that any discussion of racism, or any recognition of race, would cause Gilead to crumble, leaving the handmaids, black and white, standing in the rubble, blinking in confusion.
Ultimately, the television show The Handmaid's Tale has the same problem with race as the novel. June has numerous black loved ones. But she herself has to be white, and black history must be sidelined. The conceit of the show relies on the displacement and bracketing of America’s racial past.
There are dystopias that deal straightforwardly and honestly with the fact that America has always been a dystopia for people of color. Octavia Butler's Parable series imagines a racist theocracy much like Gilead. But rather than focusing on white people, it tells the story of the black and interracial communities targeted for death and exploitation by the regime. (Published in 1998, Parable of the Sower features a dictator whose slogan is “Make America Great Again.”) Marge Piercy’s 1976 Woman on the Edge of Time is about a Hispanic, mentally ill woman who has visions of a utopian communal future. The dystopia in the novel is simply America in the 1970s, in which marginalized people are experimented on, disbelieved, and murdered, without regard for their rights or humanity.
Butler and Piercy's novels aren’t as well-known as Atwood’s, nor are they as celebrated. Neither is likely to be made into a television series anytime soon. There could be many reasons for that. But the fact that The Handmaid's Tale is about white suffering is probably part of it.
If creators are concerned about the horror of violence against people of color, why not center stories on them? The answer is that (generally white) creators believe that the imagined (mostly white) audience will be better able to empathize with a white protagonist. This creates a situation where even anti-racist stories are unable to represent or sympathize with the suffering or struggles of non-white people. From Orwell to The Hunger Games to Harry Potter and back to War of the Worlds, we constantly imagine tyranny as something that is inflicted on white people. Many people have argued that The Handmaid’s Tale is particularly timely now. But the current presidency isn’t just predicated on sexism, it’s built around demonization of Mexicans, Muslims, black people, and the generalized specter of non-white immigrants. Trump’s policies have traction precisely because they’re seen as primarily affecting those people, over there. Because fictional tyrannical dystopias are primarily envisioned as affecting white people, it can be harder to see negative policies that oppress others. At the point where the fictional metaphor matters more than the current reality, something’s gone terribly wrong.