The Handmaid's Tale Still Has A White Female Privilege Problem

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Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
June’s (Elisabeth Moss) refusal to get into the truck that we should all assume has made its way into Canada and far away from the horrors of Gilead by now has everyone who saw "The Word" — The Handmaid’s Tale season 2 finale — fuming. Her unexplained decision to remain within the borders of the republic that has sanctioned so much of her misery and pain, without the newborn baby that she has spent the past two weeks desperate to connect with, and without any clear plans about what to do next, was reckless. It didn’t instill me with faith that June would be some kind of hero of this story. It contradicted so many other vital moments in the series’s history, including June’s previous attempts to escape, and it also triggered a subtle observation that had been gnawing away at me as I’ve followed the show. In more ways than one, The Handmaid’s Tale is actually a saga that only works with a white woman like June at the center of it.
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It’s hard to imagine privilege working for any female citizen of the Republic of Gilead, the heavily militarized version of America that has built an infrastructure and economy on the complete subjugation of women. Handmaids — women assigned to high ranking, infertile married couples and forced to act as surrogates for their children — are raped, beaten, and generally mistreated at will. Marthas — post-menopausal women of god — cook and clean for these families in solitude and a lot of silence. Even the wives of high-ranking officials are resigned to roles of domesticity and forbidden from sex with their husbands or reading. Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) broke the latter rule in "The Word" and lost a finger as a result. Death, or a life sentence to till the land in the toxic Colonies, is the punishment for insubordination of anyone who refuses to abide by these specific rules. June has felt the brunt of Gilead’s extreme sexism as the rebellious handmaid of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). But the resilience that she has acted on during her time in their home has left many people dead, or at risk of death.
Too many of those people have been Black or brown. The season 2 finale's offering of a late-night trip to the Canadian border came courtesy of Rita (Amanda Brugel), the Waterford house Martha who has been cleaning up the messes of June’s insubordination from the beginning. While “The Word” did not show how well Rita covered her tracks after leading June out through whatever underground railroad system the Marthas have created, I know what kind of punishment awaits her if she is discovered. The second Ofglen (Tattiawna Jones), a Black woman, was beaten and had her tongue ripped out for vocally opposing the stoning of one of her white peers (Madeline Brewer). It was also she who detonated a bomb that killed many of the Commanders in their brand-new processing center in a final, suicidal act. A Black driver and his wife were killed for harboring June during her first big break from the Waterford home. And all of that trouble only for June to give it all up. People of color are laying it all on the line for the white women of the resistance.
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That Rita helps June out of Gilead instead of helping herself is infuriating to me. I want a Handmaid’s Tale where the Marthas of color are disappearing because they’re saving their own asses, not those of the white women around them. I want a Handmaid's Tale that goes deeper into the lives of more than June and Emily (Alexis Bladel). We were promised that when Samira Wiley was cast as Moira, June's best friend. But we've seen less and less of her as the series has progressed. Now that she has escaped into Canada, she is an afterthought as we're glued to the dreaded realities of white handmaids.
But then again, the show works because it relies on our own cultural obsession with protecting white women. When white women are having their ears tagged, their consent disregarded, their fingers cut off, and their babies kept away from them, we are supposed to be rooting for a "by any means necessary" approach to saving them. I am in no way diminishing the desolate conditions that would influence June to make a fast break to freedom for herself and her daughter in any way she can. Desperate times call for desperate measures. But the fact that June gets to move effortlessly between the perfect victim and a martyr is the kind of humanity that we have been trained to expect from white women, and white women only.
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