The Handmaid’s Tale has never had a great track record when it comes to its handling of race. Despite all historical and contemporary evidence to the contrary, the ongoing adaptation (now in its third season on Hulu) continues to blindly insist that black women would not be uniquely affected by the implementation of a theocratic regime built on the reproductive subjugation of their bodies. This has always been the show’s biggest flaw, but this season’s focus on Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), her grief over losing baby Nichole and her shaky alliance with June (Elisabeth Moss) has once again brought the show’s racial issues into sharp relief, demonstrating the many ways in which stories about women suffer when they do not recognize how experiences of injustice can be amplified and complicated by race.
In some ways, it is understandable that the show would try to fold Serena Joy into the Handmaids’ feminist resistance. Strahovski is a layered actor who effectively manages to convey Serena’s deep internal conflict about Gilead, her place in it, and her understanding that loving Nichole may mean letting her go. Serena is deeply invested in Gilead’s restrictive faith tradition, but her realization that the power she wields is severely limited has led her to question her beliefs. Strahovski brings tautness and depth to her performance and deftly paints Serena’s pain plainly across her face, tricking the audience into extending empathy to her, and even into identifying with her desperate human desire to mother a child. After all, what is more universally relatable than longing?
But Serena Joy is not simply a woman longing for a child. She is a Wife and war criminal who helped create the architecture of Gilead, actively advocated for the restriction of women’s rights and participated in the ritual rape of enslaved Handmaids. She directly contributed to the oppression of tens of thousands of women and still benefits from the limited privileges she made sure to allow for a woman of her station. Serena did not begin to question her devotion to Gilead until after she found herself caught in the crosshairs of its cruelty. There is no path for her redemption. Her meager regrets do not absolve her of her sins or make up for the harm she has caused to the women condemned to servitude in the society she helped manufacture, or to the children she traumatized by forcibly separating from their parents.
Unfortunately, Serena’s budding feminist awakening isn’t the season’s only major misstep. June’s new role as the new de facto leader of MayDay, Gilead’s resistance, is equally galling considering her decision to remain in Gilead at the end of Season 2 instead of getting herself to Canada, a place with the resources and wherewithal to help her launch an effective resistance effort. It is doubly frustrating then that June seems more inclined to find common ground with the white Wife who stole her child than with the black Handmaid she has deemed insufficiently rebellious. OfMatthew (the enigmatic Ashleigh LaThrop) is continuously positioned as an antagonist to June, and is rarely extended the basic empathy June manages to find in abundance for Serena. OfMatthew’s vocal support of the regime and prickly relationship to the other Handmaids has made her an outsider to the group of mostly white Handmaids with whom one might assume she’d find easy solidarity.
Instead, her outward displays of devotion to Gilead alienate her from them, most of whom dismiss her fealty as naive treachery. When OfMatthew reveals that she has given birth to (and been separated from) three healthy children, and is now pregnant with a fourth, it never occurs to June that her faithfulness to Gilead may be a way to ensure her own children remain safe, in the same way Serena attempted to coerce “good behavior” from June with information about Hannah. June’s reckless attempts to reconnect with her daughter are privileged in the narrative, now at the expense of yet another black woman, Martha Frances (Ordena Stephens-Thompson), the woman tasked with taking care of Hannah in her new Commander’s home. Despite Frances’s insistence that June’s behavior was irresponsible and her clear warnings that following through would put them all in danger, it is Frances who ends up hanged by June’s own hands when OfMatthew reports their minor conspiracy to Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
The choice to have one black woman in the background betray another is further example of how The Handmaid’s Tale fails to incorporate historical parallels to Gilead into the narrative, erasing black women from the very stories of their own subjugation. June is surrounded by black women who are trying their best to survive enslavement, but at every turn her singular desire to get back to her daughter is privileged over their equally valid desire to endure and hopefully escape unscathed. Instead of exploring the many varied ways black women might compartmentalize their oppression in order to maintain their sanity, the show’s hyper-focus on June ensures that any response short of outright revolt will be received as traitorous by the audience. But black women know that their transgression will not be forgiven and that the leeway extended to a troublemaking white Handmaid will not cover them. They know this because the history of the country in which the show is set tells them so.
What makes Serena and June’s tense relationship so dispiriting is that the bond they share rests on little more than their shared whiteness. It is the only thing they truly have in common. Rather than focus on developing relationships with the other women experiencing the same bondage, June chooses to appeal to a feigned sense of moral similarity in a woman with the power to make her life even more unpleasant than it already is. But Serena’s love for Nichole is selfish and her goals are clear and unyielding; after all, she was willing to build an entire new world order and steal other women’s child to get there.
Without a meaningful engagement with how race might affect how women interact with Gilead, The Handmaid’s Tale is nothing more than a torture fantasy created in service of a vivid white feminist nightmare and built on the backs of black women who have long suffered under draconian institutions who seek to punish them for their reproductive choices. The only thing that has changed is that white women are also suffering. But perhaps it is merely a return to the status quo that white women’s stories are being foregrounded, as ever before.
The Handmaid’s Tale is currently streaming on Hulu.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.