The Handmaid’s Tale and White Supremacy
Margaret Atwood said of her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale:
America was not initially founded as an 18th-century enlightenment republic. It was initially a 17th-century theocracy. That tendency keeps bubbling up in America from time to time.
Atwood’s picture of a post-liberal, theocratic America is strikingly characteristic of our particular shade of fascism here in the States. People say that fascism looks unique in every society and that American fascism has its own special flavor: that is to say very oily and probably pretending to be Italian.
I particularly love the novel’s restricted point of view: it feels old, as though Babatha had slipped her personal diary among the Cave of Letters as she saw the Romans closing in. It makes this narrative feel like a note rolled up into a bottle and thrown out to sea. You can feel the visors the Handmaids wear to restrict their view.
The series, which debuted on Hulu in 2017, can’t restrict point of view in this way. The visual medium of the screen, while opening many storytelling possibilities, removes the intimacy the reader has with Offred’s internal world. Instead of being told the many complexities and nuances of Offred’s feelings, the audience need to look at Elizabeth Moss’ face and body language to understand what she is perceiving.
And while we lose some specificity into Offred’s thoughts, we gain a far more vivid image of the world around her. In fact the world gets so big and so complex that there are plenty of scenes she simply can’t be in. She can’t be in council meetings or on diplomacy trips to Canada. And this means breaking away, often very far away, from Offred’s point of view.
As a result, we see a couple things with our eyes for the first time. And one of the most glaring things we see is that the show’s Gilead is not a white supremacist state. Hmm…
Bruce Miller, the showrunner, says about this:
“When you think about a world where the fertility rate has fallen precipitously, fertility would trump everything. And we’ve seen that: When fertility becomes an issue, racism starts to fall because people adopt kids from Ethiopia and Asian countries and from everywhere.”
Unfortunately, this idea does not hold up to an ounce of scrutiny. We don’t currently live in a white fascist state; the people in our culture currently adopting kids from Ethiopia and Asia are generally not Sons of Jacob-like people.
As for the fictional scenario of Gilead:
- White supremacy isn’t rational.
- The concern of American fascists isn’t generally the universal fertility rate, it’s the white fertility rate. That’s the whole point. And to take away that aspect of Atwood’s work I think is to kind of strip it of the relevance of its critique.
The white supremacist aspect to what an American theocracy would look like is a fact so obvious in the book that it’s mentioned as practically a throw-away line.
“Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule,” says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. “Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit.”
The whole franchise is about declining birthrates, for fuck sake. The population of the world does nothing but rise, and white supremacist like to stress about the “pure” white population rising with it.
Consider, everyone one knows that the old commanders in Gilead are all sterile, it’s a well-known secret. Yet, they keep… “giving” fertile women them, rather than trying to encourage, or more likely force, the Handmaids to reproduce with younger, healthier dudes.
So, I ask you: what does the society of Gilead really care about, in the novel? Do they want birth rates to rise? Well, if they wanted that, they’d have put more money into researching high-tech methods of conception. The remaining husk of the United States accomplished that in the show, as it happens. What did the Sons of Jacob really want?
I would like to leave you with a question that The Handmaid’s Tale has had me thinking about for a while. If the fertility rate did go down — across the board, tract toward extinction — what would happen? What’s the fate we’re all dreading after each and everyone of us has concluded their short moment of consciousness?