The series is like a train-wreck – don’t want to look, can’t look away. It’s dark, gruesome, horrific, intriguing and let’s admit it….entertaining and at times, downright juicy. The Handmaid’s Tale, starring Elizabeth Moss, has captured the attention of millions of viewers because it’s powerful, moving, and obsessively uncomfortable. It pulls us deep into a twisted web of pain, abuse, resilience and heroism…the perfect ingredients for a masterpiece laced in brilliant agony. Totally binge-worthy if you ask me!
Taking place in the former United States of America, The Handmaid’s Tale depicts an unrecognizable Republic overrun with widespread misogyny and oppression. It’s a fictional tale. The very thought of women being kidnapped, torn away from their families, forced into excruciating labor until their feet and hands were bloodied, raped by their owners, impregnated against their will, and left to stand idly by as their babies were ripped from their bosom seems far beyond reality and anything we could ever imagine here in the United States.
Now go back and read that last sentence again.
U.S. Slavery is Not a New Concept.
The Handmaid’s Tale cuts me deep. It may be a Hulu “Original Series,” but this is actually an edited story about U.S. slavery that was retold and reformatted for your HD viewing pleasure. The Hollywood portrayal of what a future totalitarian regime could look like is straight out of the history books about what U.S. slavery did look like. While viewers are sitting on the edge of their seats processing the painstaking idea of “what if,?” Black women are watching and grappling with “what was.” It happened to Blacks here in America, and not too long ago. My grandma’s grandma’s grandma to be specific.
For Black women, this show looks pretty damn familiar on both a visceral and subconscious level, which makes it hard to consume as just a casual viewer. I’m unable to watch it without seeing my own slave roots. The disgusting abuse and hedonistic captivity rattles deep memories that are buried and embedded in our collective post-slave psyche. And for me, every scene scrapes at a near-recent wound that will never fully heal.
But the show does showcase an underlying and foundational variation that needs to be noted: this story focuses on the enslavement of white women. The media’s use of white victim-hood is both a disturbing, yet fascinating distinction that commonly causes viewers to exude deeper sympathy and express greater outrage for the abused. Let’s face it, many forms of oppression are not validated, given attention or addressed until they threaten white people firsthand.
But before I get deeper into my critique of the series, I want to lay the groundwork and point to the uncanny similarities to the real, non-fictional U.S. history.
Palpable Parallels to Slavery
#1 Women are Kidnapped Into Captivity.
The first thing that jumped out of me was the basis for The Handmaid’s Tale’s entire plot. The show takes place in the newly formed Republic of Gilead, which is run by a fundamentalist organization that has taken control over the former United States of America. It is a state where only the leaders are free, and all other citizens are enslaved. Due to a plummeting birth epidemic, fertile women are kidnapped, torn away from their families, forced into sexual servitude, and used to breed a population of babies for it’s totalitarian society.
As June Osborne, the main character played by Elizabeth Moss, was ripped from her daughter’s arms and dragged into her new world of slavery, my mind drifted to my 1995 trip to Ghana, where I toured the Cape Coast Slave Castles. This was one of many precious locations from where my ancestors last set foot on our beloved African soil. My eyes glued on Hulu, yet, my heart and thoughts focused on how my own ancestors were torn from their families and forced to board slave ships to the U.S.
Individuals were forever stripped of freedom. Families were forever severed. Communities were forever broken. And it was not a fictional tale- an entire race of people was forever changed. So the series definitely began on familiar ground.
#2 Becoming Property and Taking a Master’s Name.
The next thing I noticed was that upon captivity, the handmaids were renamed after the Commanders (owners) that controlled them. Welp, that too sounds eerily familiar. As June Osborne was assigned to serve her new family, she was renamed “Offred,” identifying her as a property of her Commander, Fred. All of the women of Gilead were “Of….” somebody. Offred. Ofglen. Ofwarren. In a narration, June introduced her new name and explained that her true name was forbidden in this land. As handmaids rotated to new families and became the property of new Commanders, their names changed as well.
Forgotten identity and slave naming-conventions are certainly not new concepts. It’s exactly what happened when my African ancestors were stripped of their given names and renamed under their respective American slave owners. I, like many Black people I know, still carry the last names of our original slave masters. (Note: many people have since changed their surnames to move away from this tradition). Morris and Harston are two of my family names that originate from slavery. I imagine wretched white men on Mississippi and Arkansas plantations placing Morris and Harston dog-tags around my ancestor’s necks. Ofmorris. Ofharston. In short, the handmaids of Gilead were name-branded like my ancestors.
#3. The Control of Women’s Sexuality. Rape. And Baby-Breeding.
The Handmaids’ most valuable asset were their wombs and fertility, and they were kidnapped into captivity to breed. As such, the enslaved women were subjected to disgusting rituals referred to as “ceremonies,” whereby the Commanders would impregnate them via rape while the victimized handmaids literally laid in the arms of their Mistresses. The purpose? To bare children for the barren women of the house. Commanders also had the power to subject handmaids to female castration if they deemed the sexual-controlling punishment necessary. These scenes were extremely hard to watch and stomach. In fact, I know several women that were unable to continue watching the series after the first ritual scenes were too “triggering.”
I could not watch the scenes without being triggered of how white slave masters controlled Black women’s bodies as well. Slaves were forced to procreate and have babies. They were used to breed more slave bodies, thereby increasing their master’s commerce and wealth. Their female bodies served at the pleasure of white men. Masters often raped the women slaves and impregnated them as well, sometimes as their husbands stood by. So yes, I most certainly was triggered when I watched these scenes.
#4. Baby-snatching, Lynchings, and Such.
There are other parallels I could draw to U.S. slavery. I could compare the Commander snatching away June’s newborn baby to the pain my ancestors felt when their babies were sold off on auction blocks. I could focus on the public lynchings the silenced handmaids faced if ever seen speaking or passing along critical information to other enslaved women in the grocery store. It reminded me of the hush harbors from long ago, where slaves met in secret to learn, practice religion, and share information about escape, survival, etc.
I could also go into detail about how “friends” of the handmaids were equally at risk of their lives if ever caught lending a helping hand to the women in captivity. Watching the scenes of those hanging from “the wall” by their necks sure did feel uncomfortably familiar. My mind drifted to the public lashings and lynchings of “nigger lovers,” underground “station masters,” or anyone that aided and abetted the escaping slaves hundreds of years ago. If any of this sounds familiar to you too, it’s because the show used an old story (U.S. Slavery) on a new cast of characters (white women).
#5 The Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman.
I saved the most shocking parallel for last. The handmaids devised, built and maintained a modern-day Underground Railroad to flee north to freedom. The secret network of safe-havens was in place to help the women escape captivity. The “station masters” that secretly assisted the handmaids hid the women in their cars, homes and other secret places to avoid being caught. IF the women successfully fled north and reached Canada without being captured and killed, they were able to re-assimilate into society and begin the process of looking for lost loved-ones.
To my fascination, the entire plot was lifted straight from the real Underground Railroad, complete with northern star symbolism. And to my horror, June Osborn played the role of Harriet Tubman! At the end of season 2, not only did June successfully smuggle her own way to freedom through the secret labyrinth of channels, but the season’s cliffhanger was that she actually turned around and went back to get others in a prelude to Season 3. Harriet Tubman reincarnated in white America.
Here is the problem. The Handmaid’s Tale depicted an updated version Underground Railroad as if it was a new and unique idea. There was no connection to the original railroad, built by brilliant slaves to allow many Blacks to escape to freedom. The show made no mention of the original train conductor, Harriet Tubman. I never heard the names of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Nat Turner, or any other instrumental slave that helped to construct and maintain the complex operation of the original infrastructure. No credits were given to the rightful owners and heroes of this pivotal foundation of American history.
My Final Thoughts
I’m not angry with the show or it’s writers. In fact, I profoundly empathize with the show’s characters that are enslaved and tortured; for no human should ever experience such abuse. I am happy the show has once again restarted national conversations about gender inequalities, rape, abortion, and the #metoo movement. I respect that Elizabeth Moss is using her platform to speak about women’s rights. Most importantly, I am deeply proud that my ingenious ancestors built and pioneered a network to freedom that is still being studied and emulated in modern television today.
But as a Black woman viewer, this show also “hits different.” It quickly dawned on me that this was not a new concept at all, but a lifted and sanitized story of my own people’s oppression and resiliency. Because of my double-conscious lens that always straddles a visual field between gender inequalities and institutional racism, I am also here to uncover the problematic nature of omitted U.S. history and the recreation of Black intellectual property in film. My goal is not to compare oppression, devalue the show or exploit any of the characters. But I do have a social responsibility and obligation to speak truth to power.