The Handmaid's Tale Finally Offers A Necessary Privilege Check

Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
For a freshly formed society that has dedicated a lot of resources to subjugating over half of its population, the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale is eerily nondiscriminatory. It’s the one aspect I side-eye most about the show. Obviously, oppression based on gender and sexuality is at the core of this new world order; but I’m expected to believe that the Sons of Jacob just conveniently abandoned racism and classism? I’m still not much closer to a definitive answer about how race and class work in this twisted new America, but in last night’s episode there is some acknowledgment that a diversity of perspectives exists, at least among the Handmaids.
Intent on finding out more information about the secret resistance, June ditches her companion/shopping partner, the new Ofglen, to talk to her predecessor. In case you missed it, talking is pretty discouraged amongst the Handmaids, and they are forced to shop in pairs in order to keep an eye on each other. This also makes them partially responsible for any indiscretions their partners commit. All June learns from her hushed chat at the market is that the old Ofglen is now Ofsteven but her real name is Emily, and that the resistance is called Mayday.
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However, the new Ofglen is furious that June is engaging in such risky behavior, especially when it puts her ass on the line, too. During their walk home she snaps at June, “Don’t mess this up for me.” When June alludes to how messed up things already are, she is in for a rude awakening. ”I used to get fucked behind a dumpster just so I could buy a sixth of Oxy and a Happy Meal. I’m clean now. I’ve got a safe place to sleep every night and I have people who are nice to me.” She adds, “Whatever they did to Ofsteven, that’s not gonna happen to me.”
This privilege check is unsurprisingly delivered by a woman of color. It is often the role of women of color to bring attention to the different ways that women experience and cope with oppression. There is certainly something to be said about the kind of privilege it takes for women like June — white, college-educated, and (formerly) gainfully employed with benefits — to be willing to rage against the machine. Sure, the new Ofglen’s bold stance might be about her own selfish needs. But more than likely, it’s acquiescence — stemming from an understanding that keeping your head down, your mouth shut, and doing whatever it takes to “make the best of it” is required to survive.
At the same time, I was a bit off-put by the implication that women who are any combination of poor, addicted, and/or of color are jaded enough to accept mass disenfranchisement. What I felt was at play here is the idealized notion of welfare — where services like addiction treatment and housing assistance are only granted under the condition that the government assumes complete control of the recipients' lives and reproductive functions — and that those in need of these services should be grateful.
This isn’t too different from some of the tactics used to control women’s bodies by our very real American government.
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