The Handmaid’s Tale Of Race, Women, And Feminism
I could not stop myself from hollering at the screen as I watched the last minutes of The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 finale last night. Thank God the season is over because I am all the way fed up with this show and its main character at the moment.
The Handmaid’s Tale is always a very heavy watch. It makes you mad for a number of reasons; usually, you can identify exactly what has bothered you about an episode right away, but sometimes it’s sort of a slow-burn. For me, there was one subtle theme that really struck a nerve with me during this last episode: the intersection of race and feminism.
Spoilers Ahead. Proceed at your own risk.
June. Is. The. Wooorst.
The directors behind The Handmaid’s Tale say a lot without saying a word during the show. For observant viewers, the exposition can be very in-your-face. Whether they were aware of it or not, this season there was an underlying and unspoken story line about the value that society places on white women over women of color. I’m not just talking about the fact that the majority of the Marthas we see on-screen are women of color, either. Although we’ll get back to that in a moment.
During this round of The Handmaid’s Tale, we got more insight on June’s relationship with her husband, Luke. Irrespective of race, it had already bothered me quite a bit that he left his wife to start a family with June. No one ever really checks June about the fact that she assisted in breaking up a marriage. Finding out that his wife, Annie, was Black made me cringe. Some of the hardest scenes to watch in those flashbacks were the moments when Annie confronted June, begging her to back off so that she could work things out with Luke. There wasn’t even a hint of guilt from June when faced with what she’s doing. Worse yet was the next scene when June comes home to find Luke leaving Annie, a vicious voicemail. No sympathy or remorse from him–just rage. As soon as he hung up the phone, he rushed to comfort June, who wasn’t that bothered.
Here was a Black man disregarding and abandoning his Black wife, Annie, for the sake of his white mistress. Moreover, we have a set of scenes where he’s being overtly cruel (if not outright hostile and violent) to his heartbroken wife, only to literally turn around to shower his mistress with care and concern because she was slightly upset. He was protective of June moments after leveling threats at his wife. There was a stark contrast in the treatment.
Fairly early on this season, June also comes in contact with another Black man as she tries to escape to Canada. He reluctantly agrees to take her to his home after a botched transfer, and his wife (a white woman) is apprehensive about harboring her. Her husband assures her that it will be OK, but obviously it’s not. Their family is part of a religiously protected group, but it doesn’t take long for them to be rounded up by the authorities in Gilead. He’s killed by hanging. His wife is forced to become a handmaid. Their child is given to another family to be raised. While this isn’t directly a commentary on how the value of womanhood is treated across racial lines, we do have a Black man (once again) putting his family on the line for June, a white woman.
June is the viewer’s vessel into a larger story. She doesn’t just represent herself, but women in general. However, Black women were never really meant to be part of this story. This isn’t much of a surprise, considering that author Margaret Atwood was very clear that Gilead is a segregated society. There are Black women with key roles in the show, but Black women aren’t very present in this story. Sometimes we’re used as motivation for June (in the case of her friend, Moira, or her daughter, Hannah), but we’re ultimately sidekicks. We’re peripheral. To include us in the story means that there are going to be some apparent differences in the treatment of women of color in the story, if the series is going to remain true to the book that it is based on. Black women are Marthas or Handmaids. None of them have any measure of authority or proximity to power in Gilead. Our role is mostly to help move June’s story along. That position leaves women of color at great risk because of June’s unsuccessful rebellions.
This narrative culminated in the season finale with an entire line of Marthas (and a key Commander) risking it all to usher June to freedom, literally laying down their lives for her. Viewers know that in Gilead punishments for challenging the current order are swift and severe. No one outside of a select few are protected from judgment–not even the wives of the elite. So, when a chain of women (mostly women of color) who are among the most vulnerable in this society formed an underground railroad to get June and her baby out of Gilead, it was a real slap in the face that she decided to wave off her ride to freedom. When she does that she is basically putting them all in grave danger. And June doesn’t think twice about it.
All season, June has been struggling to escape Gilead and enslavement. Here she had her best shot to make it out, and she literally walks away. Why? We’ll probably find out next season. I’m willing to bet she’s going to try and rescure her daughter Hannah, but June’s not even really able to save herself. For June, it was probably a real moment of empowerment. Sadly, she wasn’t thinking about the consequences for all of the people that helped her there. In that moment, there were tones of the 2016 presidential election in her decision. While nearly 94 percent of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton, about 54 percent of White women voted for Donald Trump. Despite his obvious misygony, the majority of White female voters did not vote in the best interest of all women everywhere.
We see that women of color are instrumental in doing the work of liberation for all women, but June isn’t taking full stock of the situation or the affect that her decisions have on others. But in a story where everyone does their best to put her needs first, should we expect anything more from June? She’s never really been held accountable for what her actions mean for others around her.