As the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale aired on Channel 4 a few weeks ago, my peers started tweeting in their dozens about how sick it was making them feel. How tearful, how terrified they were that this world was so close to our own. Friends were messaging me saying they had to turn it off. I went into work the next day and nodded along as colleagues went through the sprawling range of emotions they’d felt, all telling each other how fitfully they’d slept that night. Whereas I, much to my own surprise as a fan of the book and an emotional TV watcher, felt nothing.
For those who haven’t seen it, the series is set in the oppressive republic of Gilead where women’s widespread infertility has led to the birth of the Handmaid: fertile women forced into sexual servitude, who are impregnated by the male leaders of the state and after giving birth, hand the baby over to be raised by the barren wife of said leader.
Fast-forward to episode two, then three, and my nonchalance continued: no goosebumps, crying or nausea. Then it hit me.
These stories of entrapment, of rape for procreation, of children being seized, assets being frozen, are well-told in the homes of PoC, not just because they have moulded our families and our upbringings, but because their effects are still present in our lives today. Slave owners used to impregnate black women to create more hands to work in the field.
Writer Melayna Williams agrees, commenting in a piece for Macleans that the horror shown in The Handmaid’s Tale was “the reality for black women in America for hundreds of years, a period where it was nearly impossible for a woman to be born, live, and die of old age under a social system that deemed neither her body nor the fruit of her womb to be her own.”
I went back to my Twitter timeline to see if many women of colour were tweeting about The Handmaid’s Tale and noted that if they were, it was exclusively to applaud Samira Wiley [pictured above] for her portrayal of Moira, Offred's (formerly June's) best friend.
I asked a black friend how she felt when she watched it, wondering if other women of colour had the same reaction that I had. “Don't come to a black woman to talk about The Handmaid's Tale,” she said, “all you'll get is an eye roll.” We spoke about the first episode, in which a man was beaten to death by the Handmaids as punishment for raping a pregnant woman. The scene itself was presented as a moment of catharsis, of frustration and rage channelled into the destroying of this rapist; he a symbol of pain and entitlement. “Where was that for women of colour, in fiction or truth?” we questioned. I also asked the 10 friends in my WhatsApp group (all people of colour in the arts) if they’d watched it. Not one of them had felt compelled to, but one did point me to this brilliant Twitter thread from writer Mikki Kendall, who pointed out that women of colour have actually lived the life of this dystopian fiction presented on screen:
I watched 12 Years a Slave, the film adaptation of the autobiography of Solomon Northup, and was left shaking violently for the next hour. I had to sit through at least five whippings and four rape scenes per episode of BBC 4’s remake of Roots, and Ava DuVernay’s Selma, the film detailing Martin Luther King’s momentous march from Selma to Montgomery, almost killed me. This, I suspect, is why I’m so unmoved by The Handmaid’s Tale. These presentations of what actually happened, of a history that has marked the past and the futures of women of colour, these are the ones that sit with us, the ones that haunt us, the ones that nauseate us.
Of course I wouldn’t wish to speak for all women of colour, but for myself and the groups I spoke to, it’s hard to be moved by the presentation of a dystopian world in which mainly white women’s power, their children and their dignity are taken away. Because we’ve lived it. The power that we’re seeing taken away from white women in the show is power we’re still fighting for, day to day. And it’s hard to empathise with the loss of something you’ve never been allowed to have.