As a home-schooled teen, I never had The Handmaid’s Tale as required reading. I was aware of the plot, thanks to my older sister trying to explain it to me once, but had little interest in seeking it out on my own. At the time, it wasn’t clear why that was, since I loved reading feminist literature and I loved science-fiction. There was simply something about it that rubbed me the wrong way, leaving me disinterested in ever picking it up.
Over the last few days I’ve marathoned through the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale and the book. If you’re worried about spoilers, turn back now.
Perhaps recognizing how difficult the story would get for a white author to deal with race under these circumstances realistically and that it wouldn’t be her story to tell, Margaret Atwood had all black Americans shipped off to a place called National Homeland One and never seen in the narrative. Atwood has famously said that she didn’t write anything that hasn’t happened before and she’s absolutely right. The domestic slavery and rape that Offred suffers have great historical precedent in America… as things black women have been subjected to. I think this whole setup was flawed from the start (people who survived centuries of slavery and oppression can be written off in a literal throwaway sentence?), but it was an attempt to deal with race. Not a great one, but an attempt.
The show went a startlingly different direction, with a sort of colorblind fundamentalism that is pretty laughable. In the show’s universe, racism has ceased to exist and the white heroine June (Offred’s real name) and her best friend Moira, a black woman, are subject to the exact same form of misogyny. Intersectionality doesn’t exist in this universe, for the only axes of oppression that matter are those white women are oppressed by. That a black woman would experience sexism differently is ignored, because the very concept of The Handmaid’s Tale must ignore it.
This is a story, as so many popular dystopias are, about a dark future where white people are treated like people of color. As Ana Cottle put it:
Atwood describes her novel as “speculative fiction,” meaning that she believes the events she depicts are a credible possibility. It seems to me the peak of hubris to “predict” events as a possibility that we have already seen come to pass, just to a different set of people. The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that the brutality of slavery alone is not impactful enough to serve as a universal wake-up call; instead, we’re only drawn to this “feminist” rallying point when the person enduring these heinous crimes is a college-educated white woman.
Falling fertility rates are a major plot point on the show (less so, or at least less explicit, in the book) and a justification for the whole Handmaid system. Usually when you run into worries about falling birth rates out here in the real world, it’s from racists and xenophobes terrified that native Europeans and white Americans are going to be “outbred” and immigration will dilute their culture. Yet because the show tries to pretend race doesn’t exist, how this fear actually plays out in the real world doesn’t influence anything. It’s pure fantasy infertility, where rutting Commanders do their duty to their nation out of a genuine need for babies.
There are beautiful moments of brilliant acting on the show, as well as gripping writing from Atwood in the book, but the foundations of the show are sand and the further the series goes, the more that becomes apparent. The moment it all fell apart for me was in the episode when the trade delegation from Mexico arrives and it’s revealed that they’re looking to trade with the Republic of Gilead for Handmaids. See, the city the Mexican diplomat is from hasn’t had a birth in six years! The rise of infertility has gotten so bad it’s reached apocalyptic levels. Entire nations will die without the fertile wombs of the tiny handful of Handmaids.
Look, people can be terrible. They’ll try to justify a lot. I get that. The patriarchal Republic of Gilead wants to dominate women and will do so in rather ridiculous, transparent ways with absurd explanations for why it’s necessary. Fine. I could grit my teeth and accept the world-building, while making mental notes about the terrible White Feminism of it all. But now you’re trying to tell me that Mexico–and it’s implied other nations across the world–is so desperate for babies that they’ll trade for… Handmaids?
Why? Why is a backwards nation that isn’t using fertility drugs or acknowledging sterility in men the one that people are looking to for answers in a crisis like this?
Even in the 1980s when Atwood wrote the original book, IVF already existed. She knew this was a matter of religious extremism, not practicality. Reproductive technology has advanced by incredible leaps since then. With a potentially species-ending rise in sterility driving innovation and changes in the law, embryo cloning would be trivially easy to perform in virtually any fertility clinic. From a few eggs, thousands of embryos could be cloned, to be farmed out to anyone with a uterus willing and capable of carrying them. Databases full of information on the genetic donors would have to be kept, for maximum genetic variability, much in the way breeding programs for endangered animals are undertaken. The desperate need for material from the minority who are still fertile could still lead to oppression, still be driven by sexism because eggs are so much more precious than sperm and carrying a pregnancy to term is a massive physical undertaking. (There is already plenty of precedent for this in the real world, as poor women are exploited as surrogates by people with far more power than them.) Any country not under the totalitarian control of religious extremists would be looking at these solutions and grappling with the ethics of saving humanity under these conditions.
But if they were doing that, then we couldn’t have white women fretting over being sold as slaves to other countries. We wouldn’t be taking real people’s real suffering and appropriating it for others. We wouldn’t be able to sidestep so much of the religious commentary necessary for this kind of setting. “As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t put in anything that we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress… So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil,” Atwood maintains.
With its greater emphasis on infertility driving things rather than racist fundamentalism, perhaps the show-runners should have tried just a smidge more invention.