A Little Respect, Just a Little Bit: On White Feminism and How “The Handmaid’s Tale” is Being Weaponized Against Women of Color
by Max S. Gordon
“All I’m asking is for a little respect when you get home (just a little bit).”
Aretha Franklin, Respect
(Please note: this essay contains spoilers from Seasons 1, 2 and 3 of The Handmaid’s…oh, fuck it. Either read it or don’t.)
FOR AN AUDIO VERSION OF THIS ESSAY CLICK HERE:
Two weeks ago, I was kicked out of a Facebook group devoted to discussing Season Three of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is still unclear to me why I was ejected, as I never received a warning from a moderator or even a private message. I went to check on a comment I had left on the page earlier in the day and discovered that not only was I unable to find the thread I had started, I couldn’t locate the group or its notifications in my history. I was completely disappeared.
The criticisms I posted about the show weren’t new; I’ve written twice now about The Handmaid’s Tale since the show premiered, seasons one and two, and I continue to express my frustration about the show’s treatment of race — or lack thereof. To some, Bruce Miller’s decision to blind-cast his series based on Margaret’s Atwood’s 1985 novel was admirable. Miller claimed to be committed to diversity, appalled, in 2017, at the idea of creating an all-white show.
I wanted to give Miller and his team the benefit of the doubt, and like someone in an abusive relationship, I’ve continued to come back to The Handmaid’s Tale hoping that it would have a moment of insight and become the show it might have been all along; a drama that would include examples of white and black female resistance. I hadn’t anticipated writing about the series a third time — twice was more than enough to make my point — but what I saw in the episode that premiered last night was disturbing on so many levels, so antithetical to what I know about black women, both historically and from what I have seen in my own life, that I feel the show has now become a tool to be weaponized against women of color.
Atwood’s novel about a dystopian society in which the religious right has run amok is a beautiful elegy to one woman’s battle against despair. In the theocratic society of Gilead, in which women are ritualistically raped by the State and forced to conceive as “handmaids”, we meet a woman whose daughter has been stolen from her. The character as written by Atwood — we never learn her name in the novel — is brave in subtly subversive ways. Her resistance is mostly internal, psychological. With her freedom constricted and her body controlled in every way, she resists Gilead as an imprisoned artist or abused child does — she ferociously protects her imagination. She maintains her sanity through her greatest asset: her ability to remember her past. The book moves the reader with its intrusions of the life she once knew, reconciled with the life she is now forced to live. We see the way memory ambushes, and the horror of watching evil normalized as well as the exhaustion of living in a constant state of bewilderment.
Miller’s conceit was that Atwood’s handmaid, named June in the TV series, has a best friend, a husband and a daughter who are black. An intriguing, potentially profound choice — in the right hands. Miller’s dilemma is that he never conceived of a way to integrate these black American characters into Atwood’s fundamentalist society. Finally exasperated, oblivious or both, Miller threw up his hands and chose not to explore racism in Gilead at all. Miller lets race ride, and despite the great talent on the screen, both behind and in front of the camera, the show, founded on this bedrock of disbelief, suffers greatly for it. A fundamentalist Christian American society conceived without racism might as well have dancing unicorns, winged horses, and magic flying carpets. It is the stuff of fantasy, child’s play.
The Handmaid’s Tale is mesmerizing television, but no one is able to answer — and believe me, I’ve asked — how we got from a contemporary America with the likes of Fox News, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity to a society in which racism is completely eradicated. We are meant to assume that black handmaids are encouraged to sleep with white commanders during the fertility ceremony while their white wives lie beneath him.
In Atwood’s novel, blacks, or “the Children of Ham”, were exiled to the Outer Hebrides of Gilead and used for slave labor. Homosexuals were criminalized and hanged, older women, no longer useful for Gilead’s reproductive purposes or punished for their feminist activism in the past, were worked to death in concentration camps called the “Colonies.” Atwood was very clear in her novel about the agenda of Gilead’s architects, their commitment to genocide, and what they believed about race, gender, and sexual orientation. Miller not so much.
Race was obviously a problem in the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, and many voices weighed in early, expressing their exasperation with the show. The problem was that black women, with the exception of Moira, the best friend, were too often seen but not heard. This might have worked if everyone in the cast were cowed and silent — women of all different races and sexual orientations organizing with each other in whispers — but under Miller’s conception, June is a different kind of handmaid than in the book — outspoken, outraged, a rebel. And alone.
She is also, oddly, a life coach, motivational speaker and teacher, reminding women of color about why they must resist oppression. In the first season, she shames and speechifies at a visiting ambassador from Mexico, begging her to provide some underground help. The woman declines, and we as an audience immediately feel contempt for the character. There is no attempt to understand her previous history, no conversation about how she might once have been harmed by racism or Americans — “Where were you when we needed your help?” — or the risks she might face. No acknowledgment of the power issues between the two women, now in Gilead and once upon a time. Miller isn’t interested in this kind of nuanced perspective. The show tells us that Ambassador Castillo is a mean lady and that when the chips are down, Latinas have no desire to resist. One may be tempted at this point to say, “She’s just one flawed Latina in the series, what about the others?” Answer: there are no others.
Several episodes later, June gives her black lesbian friend Moira a pep talk on resistance and why she needs Moira not to give in to patriarchy. At this point, it should have been clear to the writers that the show was getting out of hand with its white paternalism, but viewers were encouraged to hang in there — Season Two promised to be better.
On the subject of race, the second season was, devastatingly, worse than the first. Not only had Miller not solved the problem, he hadn’t even approached it. Season Two was filled with walk-on supporting roles for women of color, characters we meet and never see again, or a silent Greek chorus of black, Asian and Latina victims, experiencing the same torture and persecution as the white women and all without saying a word.
In several of the discussion groups I visited, viewers were becoming exasperated at June’s sassiness; it seemed that whenever the show needed her to be feisty it bent the rules to accommodate her. Miller didn’t seem to realize that his choices weren’t making June more heroic, but just succeeded in making her more white. Under his eye, the Republic of Gilead, where punishments are swift, brutal, and often grotesque, seemed to be less of a dystopia and more of a secret society, in which spunky white women were given second and third chances as long as, when they committed their crimes, their hearts were in the right place.
The series’ creators could have made a different choice. Orange is the New Black used their privileged white female character as a Trojan horse to tell the stories of the black, Latin and working-class white women inside Litchfield prison; when Piper Chapman’s storyline began to run out of steam and someone in the writers’ room figured out that the women of color around her were far more interesting than she was —that they could only take the fish-out-of-water, Private-Benjamin, entitled-white-princess-in-over-her-head theme so far — the writers pulled back the focus on Piper and made her part of the ensemble.
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, however, seems even more determined in Season Two to keep the juicy plotlines firmly in the hands of the same white female characters — June, Emily, Janine, Serena, Aunt Lydia. The show is so greedy, in fact, some of the white characters get the same plotlines twice. Miller might have focused, even briefly, on what the black handmaids experienced in a white Commander’s house, what a transgender woman’s reality looks like in Gilead, what stereotypes an Asian or a Latin woman would be forced to contend with. But one must conclude now, after close to thirty episodes, that he and his writers simply aren’t interested. So we watch June plot her third, fourth, fifteenth escape.
As Season Two reached its final episode, I argued in the discussion groups that it was important in the times we live in for younger generations to appreciate the intersectional dynamics of racism, gender inequality and violence against the LGBTQ community. (Now I’m starting to think that they already get it and we’re the ones who need educating.) Often, when you look at the lawmakers who attack difference of any kind, they are the usual suspects — defending police brutality and denying gay rights while trying to end reproductive freedom for women. But I was told several times, and in some cases by people I respect, that race was just too much to deal with on The Handmaid’s Tale, that sexism and homophobia were enough, and if I didn’t like it, go create my own show.
Now, it may not be my place, as a gay man of color, to comment on “white feminism” or feminism of any kind. But, from reading black feminist scholars, I am aware that the idea of eradicating sexism first, racism second, and the passive-aggressive, and sometimes aggressive-aggressive, silencing of black women by white women while in dialogue has been an issue within the feminist movement. There are enough testimonials from black women activists on the frustrations of organizing with white women who refuse to consider their class privilege and race, who become uncomfortable if the voices in the room become “too loud” (translate “too black”), and who try to control every aspect of the dialogue and a black woman’s anger. If they don’t like what they are hearing they either cry or shut the conversation down.
This may seem like a deeply unfair assessment to some, and perhaps the ones who should be criticizing white feminism are other white women. (Nichole Denato and Callie Coker of the podcast Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack, brilliantly deconstruct the problems with June as an entitled white character with great insight and often hilarity.) All I know is that as I began to challenge the show in the third season, I observed a new aggressiveness in the discussion groups until eventually I was kicked out of one. I might have understood being thrown out if my tone had been bullying or if I was “mansplaining” to everyone. But I merely expressed my frustration that the black female characters on the show were underused. I couldn’t help but observe the irony that I was silenced as a black gay man in a Facebook group about a TV show where people are silenced by the government for speaking out. It seemed that some of The Handmaid’s Tale discussion groups were turning into mini-Gileads run by Aunt Lydias. I was definitely feeling the cattle prod.
The advice, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch”, may seem like an easy remedy for the constantly frustrated viewer, but the problem is this: my “not watching” The Handmaid’s Tale wouldn’t change what was happening in these groups, nor would it affect the impact the show has had on our culture and around the world. Prior to the show’s airing, but especially in this cultural moment, when a group of women dress up in handmaids’ costumes and attend a rally, a political hearing, or stand on courthouse steps, it is a stunning, horrific image. The Handmaid as a cultural symbol has become iconic and represents the attack on women’s bodies and how a totalitarian society can appear almost overnight when we aren’t hypervigilant about the dissolution of our civil rights.
As Margaret Atwood is listed as an executive producer, one has to wonder in which ways she may be complicit in the changes we’ve seen. Fortunately, her novel is so emotionally powerful and true that I returned to it recently and realized that Bruce Miller’s corruption barely made a dent. I still believe in the woman of that story: I trust her and love her. And I believe in what The Handmaid’s Tale stands for, I just don’t like the way the show is being executed.
Which is why I continue to be fascinated by the conversations taking place around this show. And while I believe there are those who are critical about the choices the writers and June as a character makes, the series enables the majority of its viewers to stay firmly entrenched in their white privilege. This would be sad, but not surprising, if the series were based on different book, but Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t romanticize whiteness at the expense of black women’s history. And it didn’t go out of its way deliberately to harm them, as the series now does.
This season we have been introduced to a black handmaid who is probably considered by most viewers to be a “kool-aid” drinker, a “company” woman, Ofmatthew, played by actress Ashleigh LaThrop. Ofmatthew is pious, judgmental, knows her Scripture and has convinced herself that she doesn’t mind that Gilead has taken her children away from her. She’s already conceived several times and is now pregnant again. She stands in stark contrast to June, who we know has foiled an escape attempt and put other characters in danger in her determination to see her only daughter and one day get her back.
Ofmatthew is presented without irony, and she’s annoying as fuck —she’s the student in high school who rubs it in, reminding you when you fail the test that there was plenty of time to study and that she began reading the asssignment three weeks ago. I prayed that this character would reveal an ironic, nuanced side, as I just couldn’t imagine that Miller & Co. would serve us this abominable black person after we’d been starving for authentic representation on the show for years.
I don’t need Cleopatra Jones, by the way, for me to be satisfied with a black female character, karate-chopping and shooting her way to glory. And I don’t want to suggest that every black woman must be portrayed heroically, because that means falling into a different trap. There are black women all over the world who are addicted to religion, who have been brainwashed or who use the church to mitigate their own pain and to harm others. But I wanted someone I could empathize with, root for, created with the same sensitivity afforded characters like Emily and Janine. Given the history of enslaved black women in this country and black women who have had to protect their children from everything from malnutrition to street violence to police brutality, I found it incredible that Bruce Miller found the one black woman in the world who seemed delighted to give her children away. (There are suggestions that Ofmatthew is traumatized, but she never reveals herself, she never lets her guard down. She is a pariah amongst the other women: the moment anyone tries to connect, she goes into “Stepford” mode.)
Because there is no racism in Gilead, or appreciation of the trauma that comes from surviving a racist past, June feels no compunction at all for her hatred towards this black woman. Surprisingly, even with a black husband and best friend, June seems to have no empathy whatsoever for Ofmatthew, who, if she is as heinous as portrayed, must be deeply disturbed. Instead, June tells her as they part company one afternoon: “Bite me.” In Atwood’s Gilead, even the remotest suggestion of insurrection, of disbelief, the slightest hesitation after one of their Christian slogans (“Blessed Be The Fruit”, “May The Lord Open”) can lead to devastating consequences. June and the writers seem to have forgotten she exists in a totalitarian society and speaks instead as if she were in a touring company of the musical “Grease.”
In the latest episode, “Under His Eye”, June enlists the help of the Martha who works in the house where her daughter is being raised by another family. June has been told to stay away, but she convinces the Martha, a terrified, mousy black woman, to help her. This is the second Martha of color we’ve seen who has a case of the shakes; another Martha in a previous episode, I believe of Indian descent, is also a hot mess; she gets yelled at and ridiculed for being a clutzburger, for dropping things and not moving fast enough.
The plan to see June’s child is so maladroitly carried out (and so badly written) that it is no wonder that everyone involved gets caught. June, whose part of the plan is too contrived to be detailed here, comes home when it falls flat and once again gets to tell everyone, including her commander, exactly what she is thinking, regardless of consequences. Miller has maintained some of June’s internal dialogue from the book in his series, but I have no idea why it’s necessary — most of the time June says whatever she thinks, to whomever she wants, whenever she wants. June wallows in whiteness in these scenes, becoming more grotesque as the audience watches astounded, wondering which is the greater violation: June’s relentless assault on the commander’s household or Miller’s attack on Atwood’s novel. When our sympathies begin to lie with the commander over June, something is seriously off in the show’s direction.
The black Martha involved in the “kidnapping” plot is discovered for her role and hanged. There is no “give me liberty or give me death” in her state-sanctioned murder; she is just as sniveling and quaking as she was when she reluctantly agreed to help. It’s a tiny pathetic death without grandeur, and much too graphic. Her mouth is covered while she screams in terror: this scene might have been directed by Eli Roth, from his Hostel torture-porn films. We discover that the woman who has turned her in is Ofmatthew. And while there may be a show that can handle the lethal betrayal of a black woman by another, instead of the sisterhood that many black women count on in real life to survive, this show ain’t it.
Meanwhile, June, who hatched the disastrous plot, one of many, watches as another person of color is sacrificed to her entitlement, ineptitude and bad planning. (You may recall a father of color, who was punished by death in Season Two.) June discovers that the family with her kidnapped daughter has relocated, their whereabouts known. Her reaction to the Martha’s death is cold — she seems outraged that this woman was stupid enough to bungle the plan and get herself caught and killed.
As the women walk away from the hanging, Ofmatthew says something self-righteous that reveals she is the snitch, the real reason June’s daughter is gone. The camera freezes and we realize that with all the rage pent up in June, she’s going to attack this black woman.
We’ve been waiting for this release for weeks now, we’re eager to watch Ofmatthew get her smug little ass kicked. The scene is set up in the same way that countless scenes have been set up in movies to release an audience’s misogyny, to feed their desire for violence against women. You know the kind; a woman in the movie just won’t shut up during a fight, she goes on and on about how worthless her husband is, how unsuccessful, how little money he makes, how he’s a terrible father, and finally, she does the unforgivable: she laughs at his penis. He slaps or punches or kills her and the audience cheers because they’ve been encouraged to cheer. We’ve seen this scene in everything from Tyler Perry’s films to the final scene in Fatal Attraction. Glenn Close was committed to a nuanced portrayal of the character Alex Forrest rather than a feminist “psycho”, but the producers of the film changed the original ending and were more interested in what has now been referred to as a “Kill the Bitch” climax. When Ofmatthew gloats, not over snitching for a minor infraction like catching someone shoplifting but for her role in the death of another black woman, June asks, “What did you do?” in a tone that sounds like the Clint Eastwood iconic growl from Sudden Impact: “Make my Day.”
In a moment of blind fury (“Do you know what you did, you fucking bitch!”), June flips out and starts to choke Ofmatthew, pushing her to the end of the bridge. She doesn’t take her hands off her until the other handmaids intervene. Miller has come up with his own variation on a theme: “Kill the Black Bitch.” The audience has been hyped-up since we met Ofmatthew to share June’s fury. Now some on social media want her dead.
If you doubt this, “Under His Eye” aired exactly three hours from the time of this writing and I have already observed on Twitter and Facebook the posts expressing their rage at Ofmatthew, that she deserved more than she got, that they can’t wait to tune in next week to see what else June has in store for her, etc. One post by a woman reads, with a picture of Ashleigh LaThrop as Ofmatthew, “Hang the bitch. Choke her out.”
These viewers are enraged and bloodthirsty, like the women in the book who tear a “rapist” (read political dissident) apart limb from limb during the “salvaging” scene. It is quite extraordinary: Miller has taken a classic novel which I considered to be sympathetic to the experiences of enslaved woman of color around the world and created a macho TV show that has inspired a social media lynch mob to attack a single black woman.
When I went on social media to voice my frustration about the audience’s reaction to the episode, I was told in several discussion groups, “It’s only a TV show” and, specifically in response to the violent hatred towards Ofmatthew: “Hey, no one likes a tattletale.”
But I think it’s much deeper than that. At the 1946 Nuremberg trials after World War II, Julius Streicher, founder and publisher of the German newspaper “Der Stürmer”, was convicted of Crimes Against Humanity. His paper was known for its propaganda, which included cartoon depictions of Jewish people. The cartoons portrayed Jews as pickpockets with big noses, devils with horns, and Nazis shoving Jews off cliffs. The paper was tried for war crimes because prosecutors believed those cartoons helped facilitate the exterminations. Julius Streicher didn’t drive the train to the death camps, but he created a culture in which the hatred of Jews was encouraged.
When the five black boys known as the Central Park Five were tried in New York City in 1989 for raping a white female jogger, the newspapers and TV stations ran stories describing them as “animals” and “savages”. Filmmaker Sarah Burns in her book “The Central Park Five” describes how the media used this language to whip the city into a frenzy of hate. Most New Yorkers probably weren’t aware that this language had a historical context — it wasn’t new, nor was their response of rage at the “rape” of a white woman by a black man. Their reaction was a direct descendant of racist tropes from the Jim Crow era, the justification for many Southern lynchings of innocent black men.
My point is, the media and the entertainment industry have power. And it knows that people can be manipulated easily to respond in certain ways — it’s called advertising. Well, racism can also be advertised. If you’ve been wondering how we go from generation to generation, seeming to have different media and different consumers, and yet dealing with the same racial discrimination, the same hate-crimes, over and over, the portrayal of Ofmatthew on “The Handmaid’s Tale” will help you understand exactly why.
These are fragile times, with back-to-back shootings, and a president who seems to revel in divisiveness, who encourages its progress. For the storm that’s coming, we need to see how people can organize beyond difference; how, in order to overturn a Gilead, a black and a white handmaid would have to work together. We need nuanced characters, complex motivations, not two-dimensional people we can easily despise. We need responsibility, even when what we are responding to appears to be “just a show.”
In other words, the person who doesn’t think, when she tweets “Kill the bitch” about a black handmaid, that she’s tapping into a wellspring of conditioned cultural violence against black women, shares a relationship to the young man in the fraternity house who believes that his joking about sexual assault only occurred because he “drank too much that night” and not because of millions of messages he’s gotten since birth about women, sexuality, and his right as a man to violate. It doesn’t let him off the hook, or justify his behavior, mind you, but it helps us contextualize why an actual assault may occur on a given night when his friends are chanting him on, why this hatred of women may be readily accessible in his consciousness when he looks for the inner permission required to rape.
Online, the mob against Ofmatthew grows bigger, they now call her “snitch bitch”. I am not worried about the safety of the actress who plays the character but perhaps I should be — irrate fans can be dangerous. (Ask actress Anna Gunn — as Skylar White — from Breaking Bad.) I am more, however, worried about the black woman next door — our neighbor, our co-worker, our friend. Those calling for the death of Ofmatthew may not be able to get their hands on her, but they can start a fight with LaVonne at work, they may be too aggressive when pulling Stacey over for a traffic violation, they will choose not to invite Andrea to a play date with other children because black girls and women “can’t be trusted.” I’m worried about Celeste, a pre-teen of color who self harms, who’s thought about suicide twice last week, and who looks to film and television for representations of herself.
The most reliable way to tell that a character has been objectified or “othered” is not by examining the show’s intention but by our reaction: we have no compunction about wanting her murdered. The fact that we even have to have this conversation about The Handmaid’s Tale, whose source material challenged us about this very question — the way people are dehumanized and destroyed by a totalitarian society — is a form of sacrilege.
It is hard to watch Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale if you’ve had a black mother, sister, friend, or if you’ve ever loved a black woman in your life. Or if you’ve watched that mother, sister, friend deal with racism and sexism and homophobia: if you’ve ever seen a black woman broken, if you’ve seen a black woman thrive. I’ve shared in a previous piece that a friend of mine is dead this year from cancer complications; she was in her early forties and left behind an eleven-year-old son. She was radiant, black, courageous and alive — trust me, you would have loved her.
Another black woman I know, an executive in a major company, has been locked out of meetings consistently by a racist, sexist boss. When I was eight, I remember my mother was fired from a job because of discrimination, and we had to get a lawyer. She won the battle a year later and we went out to dinner to celebrate. I remember being very proud of her.
It is hard to watch the crying, pathetic Martha and the religious zealot Ofmatthew on The Handmaid’s Tale if you are familiar at all with the names Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Zora Neale Hurston, Mamie Till Bradley, and Audre Lorde. It is impossible to watch this show if you are committed to the appreciation of the complexities of a black woman’s life, any black woman’s life. Black women whose children were educated despite segregated schools, who walked endless miles to work each day during the Montogomery Bus Boycott, whose vigilance in the South and the North made sure their daughters weren’t violated on dirt roads by the Klan, and that their sons weren’t lynched and found floating in rivers. The history of black resistance in this country is extensive and profound, from Phillis Wheatley to Michelle Obama. Black women and their experiences in America are fascinating and complex and some of that brilliance could have translated to the screen. We may not insist on this legacy from Game of Thrones and Stranger Things, but it should be required of The Handmaid’s Tale. Archetypally, black women have been looking for the children who’ve been separated from them a lot longer than June has. If the show were interested in the truth, these black women might be able to give June some tips on how to survive that particular heartbreak.
What’s sad for Miller and Atwood is that the effort to maintain their main character’s heroism at this point — on the backs of women of color around her — is having diminishing returns. June is so brave, so courageous, so impudent, that she’s become ludicrous. And that doesn’t do any favors to historical white women committed to social justice, either — women like Emmeline Pankhurst, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Keller. June’s a big white brat. She is the antithesis of a community organizer; June constantly goes rogue, a man’s fantasy of how a woman should beat patriarchy.
Elizabeth Moss is a deeply sensitive actress and she has won me over many times when the script has failed her. But it is depressing when I imagine what this show might have been if June had found a real black female ally. Perhaps that is where the show is going with the characters of Moira and Emily, both refugees of Gilead in Canada. There is potential in this interracial, gay relationship, but I may not stay around for it. The bottom line is that women of color just aren’t seen on The Handmaid’s Tale unless it is a white woman doing the seeing; and too often that gaze is contemptuous. What once seemed a benign omission and an oversight, and then a bad habit, has now become an act of aggression and perversity.
I think it is a safe bet that if one of the show’s producers threw a wrap party after the taping and played some music, there would probably be at least one or two songs by a black American performer, most likely a woman. Everyone loves soul classics, music from the Seventies! They might play Evelyn Champagne King’s “Shame” or Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real” or The Emotions’ “Best of My Love.” Someone might request “I’m Every Woman” or “Ain’t Nobody” by Chaka Khan. Or some Whitney Houston, or Mary J. Blige. And I think it is more than likely, especially if the party went on for a while, that there would be several songs performed by Aretha Franklin.
The presumption on Aretha’s classic ‘Respect’ is that she is telling off a man who has done her wrong. But the song came out in 1967 during what are considered to be the final years of The Civil Rights Movement. Aretha is also speaking to racism in her country. All I’m asking is for a little respect when you get home, just a little bit. We dance to Aretha’s music, we know all the words by heart, but are we interested as Americans in the black experience that created that sound, that shaped her music? In the scream of terror that lies at the core of that beautiful sound?
In Season 1, Miller uses the music of Nina Simone as a radical shorthand. June walks towards the camera with a phalanx of handmaids in formation style — she’s a badass. The show hasn’t earned Nina Simone. (Imagine a young Nina Simone as a handmaid.) Perhaps Miller knows that if he used the energy of Nina Simone and not just her “hits” — she wrote “Mississippi Goddam” so she wouldn’t take to the streets with a gun in her hand to kill racists — June as a model of resistance would be an embarrassment to all of us.
In the novel, the woman who narrates the story of The Handmaid’s Tale leaves her remembrances on tapes so that people will know what happened to her. We see the value of her story to future generations as a historian reflects on her resistance as part of a conference on Gilead. The novel speaks to the basic desire in all of us to leave a legacy, for someone to know who we are, who we were, what happened to us.
What’s happening now is that we seem to live in a time where people create whatever they want about whomever they want irresponsibly and without consequences. You can perpetuate a mythology about someone’s culture, you can revise history, you can imagine a black woman who doesn’t seem to care about her children being sold or about the death of another black woman on a show about female empowerment — and if you are a white and a man you can get away it. We refuse to see that a show can be committed to pepetuating whiteness and still have black faces on the screen.
I grew up believing our generation would be different, that we wouldn’t fall back on the lazy racist conventions that defined our parents’ generation and the generations before. I thought we’d be better. We’re not. I feel powerless against what I saw this week on The Handmaid’s Tale; and I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know whom to tell, because when I tried to speak out, I was kicked out of the group, the doors firmly locked behind me, because someone didn’t like my “tone.”
They prefer Bruce Miller’s tone, however, and they prefer their own mythology. And it’s hard to go up against corporations, advertising dollars, the bottom line. So we will turn a page tomorrow, and there will be another episode to watch, another conversation to avoid, another distraction. Another season to anticipate. But when June choked that black woman on the bridge I felt harmed and betrayed, and when the show executed a black woman and she screamed for help, I felt terror.
We never heard that woman’s last words, by the way, because no one wrote her any. Even before death, in this space, black women remain silent. And that’s wrong.
You, whoever you are, reading this, today, tomorrow or perhaps one hundred and fifty years in the future: they will continue to control the conversation, they will ignore dissenters and they will reward themselves. But I wanted to say this to you now, if you’re listening somewhere. Because I thought it might one day matter to someone; because I thought you’d like to know.
July 3, 2019
Also by Max S. Gordon (On The Handmaid’s Tale):
Max S. Gordon is a writer and activist. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996). His work has also appeared on openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally. His essays include “Bill Cosby, Himself, Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”, “A Different World: Why We Owe The Cosby Accusers An Apology”, “Faggot as Footnote: On James Baldwin, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’ and ‘Moonlight’”, “Resist Trump: A Survival Guide”, “Family Feud: Jay-Z, Beyoncé and the Desecration of Black Art”