General spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of the tv series.
The Handmaid’s Tale is the reason I started a Hulu subscription. The novel had long been a favorite, and a book that I had taught more than once. It’s fair to say that I enjoy watching the series, though enjoy is a strange word to use.
Perhaps the weakest area is the question of race that the tv series at times seems to gloss over. More than one critic has pointed out that many of the Handmaid’s stories seem to be taken from slaver narratives. In the first season, Moira seems to be little more at times than June’s black best friend in the most magical woman cliché way possible while still being a real character. This changes in the second season, thankfully.
In the second season, the viewers are introduced to Luke’s first wife, Annie, a black woman, who when confronting June about the affair with Luke strangely doesn’t mention race. Now, it’s true that in some areas – say like in the Colonies with the Unwoman who were in an interracial relationship, it would have been strange to stop for a racist react scene. But the confrontation with June and Luke’s first wife feels off because race is not mentioned at all.
Yet, we do have a scene where June is questioned about whether she is truly Hannah’s mother, and that is a reference to white woman with the darker skin daughter. The point about slave narrative is complex. This is because there is much truth to the charge. Yet, it is also hard to see how the handmaids could be made believable without the use of stories that have historical precedent.
Additionally, it would be also fair to say that African women were not the only enslaved women and that there were women in other culture who might have committed the same actions (and enslaved women were not the only women to lose their children. There are Indian schools were Native American children were taken from their parents). Yet, watching it in a religious American, with mostly white handmaids acting out the stories is a bit discomfiting in terms of racial politics.
Yet, I wonder if that is the point. In the second season, episode ten, there is a scene where Offred/June is briefly reunited with her daughter. This is done as a favor to June by her commander, Fred Waterford. Hannah has been placed with another couple and is brought to the reunion by a Martha, who is a black woman, and a driver. The scene is poignant because June and her daughter are saying good bye. It is impossible to watch such a scene and, as an American versed in the nation’s history, not think of similar cases, actually real cases, where slave mothers said farewell, if they were lucky, to their children. This is highlighted and brought to the fore by the inclusion of the black Martha. I wonder if the inversion of roles isn’t an attempt to show the privilege of white skin, the protection that skin color has brought white women in modern society (and Western society) for many years. This would also tie into Annie and the lack of mention of June’s whiteness. We are getting the story via June’s memory, is race something that she would allow herself to think about? Would she be woke enough to notice?
The same episode also hints at something possible occur later. A black commander notes that his wife is pregnant. In Atwood’s novel the low birth rate is seen primarily among whites. Is the inclusion of this commander a hint that the series will be addressing race more openly?
The strongest area is actually more firmly on display in the second season of the show. That is the way the women are stopped from forming alliances. This is most drastically highlighted in the episode were Serena Joy and June have formed a strange alliance while Fred Waterford recovers from wounds gained when a Handmaid set off a grenade during an opening of Rachel and Leah center. When Fred returns to the house, at first everything is fine. But then he goes to June’s room and discovers a flower and a music box that Serena Joy gave June as a thank you for helping. It is after this discovery that Fred punishes Serena Joy, by beating her, in front of June. It isn’t that Serena Joy took over his work, though that might be part of it, it is that the women did it together. The women are working together, and that is not something Fred can have. In fact, over the course of much of the first and second seasons, part of what Fred has done is put Serena Joy and June/Offred at odds, making a jealous woman more jealous, and giving June things he does not give his wife. It’s true he gets quite a bit for having June for himself, but part of it is geared toward division. This also extends to the Martha, Rita, as well, and the love/hate relationships that seem to exist between the commanders’ wives might also come back to this as well as professional jealously. T
he show illustrates this division at all levels. We see it when Aunt Lydia is told that Janine cannot attend a dinner because of her missing eye. Aunt Lydia is given this order by Serena Joy, and Aunt Lydia is not happy. She too has already divided the Handmaid’s to a degree, with favorites and such, and in the second season we see this in greater detail when June is the only Handmaid to avoid punishment. Aunt Lydia may have to obey but once June is pregnant, she gets to control Serena Joy to a degree as well.
The whole Gilead rests on the idea of keeping the women at each’s throats so they don’t have each other’s backs. The show captures this amazingly well. It also shows how and why women succumb to it. Serena Joy breaks it for a bit, just a bit, but she can’t break totally away. And she really wants that child. It is not surprising that two episodes after her beating that Serena Joy aids her husband in the rape of June. What is surprising is how many people have objected to the rape. Since day one of the series, June has been raped. What is violent and disturbing about the rape in episode ten is the extent to which Serena Joy takes part. Before, she did not view June as a woman but as a womb she had to tolerate to get what she wanted. When she works with June and thanks her, Serena Joy sees her handmaid as human. Yet after her beating, after her rejection of an escape to Hawaii, she has recommitted to the power structure. She is even more complicit.
June’s reaction is not much different. She cannot keep her alliance with Serena Joy if the wife does not seem to want it. June goes back to the handmaids as her only allies, and the handmaids are relatively powerless. June also reaches out to both Rita and Aunt Lydia as de facto godmothers for her soon to be born child. What is important is why they agree – it is to protect the child. Not for June, but for the child. June is unimportant. June is as unimportant as Luke’s first wife was to her [June’s] worldview.
In many ways, what the tv series show is what happens when we stop seeing other women as women as the other. Not even female, but simply a thing, a rival, a non-human. It is something that we do today, that June did before, and something we should be very warily of.