The Liberal Fantasy of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Margaret Garner found herself cornered by slave catchers and faced with a choice. She could either ...

Seven years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Margaret Garner found herself cornered by slave catchers and faced with a choice. She could either allow her children to be returned to slavery, or she could end their lives right there. She chose the latter, and thus saved one child from enslavement. Garner’s story circulated widely through abolitionist circles of the day and inspired texts such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Garner’s was a common yet impossible choice, encountered by many women throughout US history. Yet this choice was never forced upon white women such as June, the protagonist of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

A scene in the Season 2 episode “Seeds” depicts a heavily pregnant June (Elisabeth Moss) in a hospital bed. The image is saturated with whiteness—from the lighting, to the sheets, to June’s gown, to her pale skin and hair. June tells her unborn child, “I will not let you grow up in this place. … They do not own you. And they do not own what you will become. … I’m gonna get you out of here. I’m gonna get us out of here. I promise.” The overwhelming whiteness of this scene evokes the purity and protection of white motherhood, in contrast to the lack of choice and futurity experienced by Black mothers like Margaret Garner.

The whiteness of The Handmaid’s Tale is not only present on-screen in moments such as this but is also pervasive at a metaphorical level. The show reimagines the history of American racial enslavement as gendered enslavement, erasing the structural differences and intimate relations between patriarchy and white supremacy. In Morrison’s words, “Images of blinding whiteness seem to function as both antidote for and meditation on the shadow that is the companion to this whiteness.”1 The blinding whiteness of the show is inseparable from the show’s anti-Blackness, which masquerades as post-racial, colorblind liberalism and erases the oppression of actual Black people.

In this manner, The Handmaid’s Tale shows how liberal culture works through co-optation and erasure. The Handmaid’s Tale illuminates—through the “good” liberal intentions of the showrunners and the anti-Black logic of the show—the way in which liberals are making sense of the decline of liberalism and the rise of fascism. The Handmaid’s Tale reveals the liberal mechanism of simultaneously lamenting the violence of white supremacy and shoring it up by making the oppressed people white.


As if to compensate for the show’s foundational whiteness, those characters closest to June are Black. That said, their race is never explicitly acknowledged. Such liberal inclusion, merely formal, is the narrative equivalent of someone not being racist because they have Black friends. Moreover, having those closest to June—Moira (Samira Wiley), Luke (O. T. Fagbenle), and Rita (Amanda Brugel)—be Black legitimizes a fantasy: that white people can appropriate Black struggle while also being loved and admired by Black people.

According to Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale does not include anything that has not happened sometime, somewhere already. One of the main aims of the American colonial project is to maintain and reproduce white supremacy. This includes everything from the suffragettes, who leveraged the fear of Black men getting the vote and promoted sterilization for Indigenous women, to today’s abortion bans, which accompany the lead poisoning of Black children and the caging of brown migrant children.

It is impossible to speak of the American project without acknowledging that the reproduction of colonial whiteness was crucially supported by slavery, which institutionalized the rape of Black woman. By effacing the significance of race in a nation that did, in fact, institutionalize rape, the show ignores the real historical manifestation of the state violence and oppression it is ostensibly critiquing.

The blinding whiteness of the show is inseparable from the show’s anti-Blackness, which masquerades as post-racial, colorblind liberalism.

Popular culture explicitly or implicitly attempts to make sense of its historical moment, providing a fantasy of resolution through the hypervisibility, erasure, or reconfiguration of existing conditions. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale arrives at a time when the US president is a white supremacist and a sexual assaulter, while his vice president is a religious fanatic who has said he cannot be in certain spaces with women without his wife present.

Feminist activism has surged in response, with around 4 million people across the US attending women’s marches the day after Trump’s inauguration, in 2017. Pink pussy hats became the MAGA hats of the #resistance. Tensions between white feminists and women of color are nothing new, but the resurgence of feminist activism in the wake of Trump brought these tensions into relief. The Handmaid’s Tale chose a side, with its quintessential white feminist heroine: plucky June, who doesn’t see race and boasts both agency and resilience.

Significantly, the figure of June transforms resistance from mass action into individual behavior. The show’s valorization of June turns her into something like a superhero—like Wonder Woman, whom so many #resistance folks look up to—thereby individualizing the resistance to oppression. World-building in this show is foregrounded less to interrogate the emergence and mechanisms of fascism than to create an atmosphere of suffering through which June’s individual resilience shines brightly.

Indeed, narrative is less important than June’s face in close-up, full of grit and gumption. Liberalism fetishizes the individual agent, and while individuals do not topple governments, they are necessarily the subject of liberal narratives. June is, of course, always centered—be it within the frame, the narrative, or other characters’ lives—in a way that solidifies her as an exceptional individual.

Sara Ahmed’s notion of affective economy illuminates how “emotions work to align some subjects with some others and against other others.”2In The Handmaid’s Tale’s narrative of oppression, whose lives matter? Who gets the choice to resist (or be included in #resistance)? How many people does June have to sacrifice for her personal perseverance?

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Kids in Cages

By Ittai Orr

In an infuriating incident in Season 2, June is rescued by an interracial Muslim family—yet another example of colorblindness (though their Muslimness is a difference that matters within the show, and it is meant to evoke some pathos). At a time of real-world institutionalized Islamophobia—from increased hate crimes to the 2017 Muslim ban—the Black Muslim father is executed on the Wall.

Yet the narrative purpose of this plot point is not to critique Islamophobia but rather to teach June a lesson. The affective economy of our Islamophobic moment does not allow the show to view the death of a Muslim person as anything more than a narrative device, facilitating a character shift for June.

Perhaps the most egregious form of anti-Blackness in The Handmaid’s Tale is the show’s casting of June’s devout (and fecund) walking partner Ofmatthew (Ashleigh LaThrop) as a Black woman. The show justifies June’s later violence toward Ofmatthew because, unlike June, she is invested in her own oppression: her stated desire is to conform to the system. Ofmatthew also prevents June from rescuing the latter’s daughter, which results in another Black woman’s death.

In the climactic scene of the episode “Unfit,” Ofmatthew brandishes a gun and attacks police officers. The sequence’s shot-reverse-shot editing makes it seem as if June is in control, goading her on. Ofmatthew is overwhelmed and shot by the police. The succeeding bottle episode, “Heroic,” takes place in Ofmatthew’s hospital room; her dying is merely a set piece for June to reach a breaking point and eventually learn sympathy.

Anti-Blackness haunts the colorblind transposition of racial oppression (that is, of course, also gendered) into oppression that is solely gendered. Here, the tropes of Black women’s hyperfertility and racially motivated police violence are woven into the story as mere levers for June’s character development.

The show unironically presents the exceptional (white) individual, rather than the (multiracial) collective, as the path to salvation.

Season 3’s finale features June emancipating more than 50 children by securing their safe passage to a free Canada. In a transparent appropriation, the show manufactures an obstacle that requires June to take the children through the woods. Thus, the Femaleroad (a term from the novel) looks more like the real Underground Railroad, with June naturally cast as Harriet Tubman.

The Femaleroad arc involves multiple levels of erasure and fantasy. The sacrifice of yet another marginalized person—Mrs. Lawrence (Julie Dretzin), who does not have access to mental health treatment—makes the house of June’s master, Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), safe for June’s covert scheming. There is no room for people with disabilities in this resistance movement.

A network of mostly Black and brown Marthas has been fomenting Mayday Resistance, a diffuse but organized collective. But, ultimately, June outmaneuvers those already working in the collective, instead claiming herself as Mayday, the one who will lead the children to freedom. There is no irony here regarding her theft of the racialized Marthas’ liberation movement. Rather, the show celebrates June’s audacity and triumph.

June is eventually shot during her escape, but not fatally, as she’s rescued by her Handmaid followers. While wounded, her voiceover shifts from the superheroic to the deific, dwelling on the exodus she led to Canada: “The Lord said, I have seen my people in bondage, and I have heard their cry. I know their sorrows. And I am come to deliver them from the hand of evil men, and to lead my people out of that sorrowful place to a land flowing with milk and honey.” Again, the show unironically presents the exceptional (white) individual, rather than the (multiracial) collective, as the path to salvation.

The end of Season 3 confirms liberalism’s strong desire to efface itself. Everyone else is ideological, but liberals are just free individuals. June’s rescued children are separated from the people they know as their parents but are not traumatized. Indeed, the show’s logic maintains that children are only traumatized when “bad guys” take them—not when liberals do.

A white girl asks June, about her future freedom in Canada, “Then what will I be?” June replies, “You.” It’s meant to be a powerful and liberating moment. But, as Slavoj Žižek reminds us, this fantasy of being outside ideology—of being a free “you”—is, in fact, where ideology is strongest: in the obfuscation of liberal co-optation and erasure, “we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.”3


Rather than reproducing white feminism and liberal inclusion, could the show instead have grappled with the messy multiplicities of American hegemony—how they crash and cleave? It would be impossible within the white liberal girl-power feminist context of this show, and even more so when the show presumes settler-colonial liberal democracy in Canada to be utopian.

Buying into The Handmaid’s Tale’s vision of Canada as the promised land requires an investment in liberal notions of freedom and progress. Despite benefitting from US hegemony—being economically, culturally, and militarily dependent on the southern superpower—Canadian mythology defines Canada as not-America: nice, polite, peaceful, multicultural.

Yet what enables liberal democracy and “peace” in Canada? Colonialism, in the form of Indigenous genocide and resource extraction, and neocolonialism, as Canadian mining companies operate and extract around the world.

In fact, we do not even have to look beyond the slavery and emancipation retold by The Handmaid’s Tale to expose the lie of Canada as an inherently liberatory state. Confederate President Jefferson Davis sought refuge in Canada and was greeted by a crowd of thousands when he visited Toronto—a far cry from the protests depicted in the show when the Waterfords come to Canada.

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The End of the End of the World

By Katherine V. Snyder

Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale adaptation arrives at a time of capitalist and ecological crisis. Supported by the engine of accumulation, liberalism has long served as the bridge between the fundamentally incompatible systems of democracy and capitalism. But liberalism is now threatened by the twinned crises of climate and financialization.

Liberalism can never defeat fascism. Theodor Adorno called fascism the “scars of democracy,” and, more recently, Nikhil Pal Singh has argued that “fascism … was the offspring and the symptom of a crisis of liberal empires and their ostensibly democratic regimes.”4 In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman writes of “the wedding of equality and exclusion in the liberal state,” arguing that “the encumbrances of emancipation and the fettered condition of the free individual, at the very least, lead us to reconsider the meaning of freedom, if they do not cast doubt on the narrative of progress.”5

The Handmaid’s Tale is deeply invested in the basic misunderstanding that liberalism and fascism are opposites, and that freedom is defined through a liberal framework. This investment is reflected across the real-world #resistance, from Never Trumpers to Joe Biden.

The reinscription of historical racial slavery into gendered slavery reifies white liberal notions of freedom and progress: that emancipation is freedom, that freedom is about legal rights. But as Hartman and others remind us, the legacy of slavery is not over. Instead, it has adapted itself to new contexts and today manifests in the colorblind liberalism and anti-Blackness that haunt The Handmaid’s Tale.

 

This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler. icon

  1. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 33.
  2. Sara Ahmed, “Affective Economics,” Social Text, vol. 22, no. 2 (Summer 2004), p. 117.
  3. Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real! Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (Verso, 2002), p. 2.
  4. Nikhil Pal Singh, Race and America’s Long War (University of California Press, 2017), p. 110.
  5. Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 10.
Featured image: Elisabeth Moss as June Osbourne in Season 2, episode 5, of The Handmaid’s Tale