Note: This post contains a few plot details from the first season of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
One of the most noticeable differences between Hulu’s critically acclaimed adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel is the presence of people of color in Gilead, the dystopian society that relegates women to servitude and subservience to men.
The decision to feature a more diverse Gilead was a deliberate one. Executive producer Bruce Miller told Think Progress that one thing the producers considered, as they moved the story’s timeline forward to present day from the mid-80s setting of Atwood’s novel, was the increasing diversity of both American society in general and the conservative evangelical movement in particular. Miller argues that seeing a society devoid of black and brown people would be very different than reading about it.
The show’s colorblind approach to casting gave way to Offred (Elisabeth Moss) having an interracial family — her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) is black; their daughter Hannah is biracial — and prominent changes to another key character: Offred’s best friend, Moira, is portrayed by a black woman (Samira Wiley, of “Orange Is the New Black” fame).
There could be something powerful in showcasing life in Gilead for people of color, but the show rarely, if ever, goes there. The first season’s 10 episodes (all of which are available to stream) feature people of color, but fail to tell their stories from that point of view. Moira, for example, is a heroic and pivotal figure, but much of what we know about her is related to her place in Offred’s life. It’s especially disappointing considering the subtext of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Atwood, a consulting producer on the Hulu drama, has always been very clear about the fact that the horrors of her acclaimed novel had real-life precedents. On screen (and arguably in Atwood’s novel), the obvious precedent is American slavery.
In a piece for Vulture, Angelica Jade Bastién writes that “the history that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ trades in to the most profound degree is America’s greatest sin: slavery.” She continues:
Black women were brutalized, raped, separated from their children and family, forced into servitude, and not allowed to enact the cultural practices that reminded them of the homes they were stolen from solely for the profit of white people. Watching The Handmaid’s Tale…I can’t help but think about the voices of enslaved black women, given how this narrative so closely aligns with theirs.
The similarities are striking and undeniable — down to religious justification for carrying out horrific acts in support of the economy. In Gilead, women are not permitted to read or write. Handmaids are referred to using patronyms — derivatives from the names of the men they are forced to serve. Offred is derived from Fred, the name of the powerful commander (Joseph Fiennes) to whom she’s assigned. The handmaids are repeatedly raped, as part of a monthly ritual designed to get them pregnant at their most fertile and, in some cases, at the whim of their commanders.
And in another parallel to slavery’s dark legacy, the handmaids are separated from their families, including any children they had before Gilead was established. They are forced to bear children for the ruling class, but treated only as temporary surrogates. This comes into crushing focus in the sixth episode, when a female ambassador from Mexico arrives to survey the theocracy and its “Handmaid program” (as it’s referred to in polite company). At a formal dinner, Fred’s wife, Serena Joy, impresses the delegates by trotting out the children of Gilead, citing them as evidence of “God’s blessing” and “the devotion of a group of girls.”
Miller told Vulture that the similarities are not lost on the producers. “You couldn’t get around the fact that the way the handmaids were treated had such a feeling of slave narratives in America — women who were pregnant knowing their children would be taken away from them and having no control over them,” he said. “That was such a shocking metaphor that it seemed ridiculous not to have handmaids of color to play out that story on screen.”
The problem is that “The Handmaid’s Tale” has yet to let that story be told through their eyes. The story is about Offred, yes, but the show has devoted major scenes to Luke and Moira, who end up reunited in the show’s first season finale — without exploring their lives as people of color. Colorblind casting doesn’t have to mean colorblind storytelling. What does Gilead — and its founding — mean for people who don’t resemble the majority of the ruling class? Here’s hoping the show makes a meaningful attempt to answer these questions in Season 2.