White women are oppressed, too, or Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale

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All images courtesy of HULU

The second season of Hulu’s critically acclaimed and award winning show, The Handmaid’s Tale premiered last week. Picking up where, last season’s seemingly triumphant cliffhanger left off, with our heroine Offred-June in a black “Eye” van, being unceremoniously removed from Commander and Mrs. Waterford’s home for parts unknown. The final shot, of Offred-June resolutely staring into the unknown future, offered viewers some emotional compensation. After all, what comes now can’t be worse than what our heroine and avatar has already endured, can it? The creators of the show apparently decided that this was a challenge worth accepting and ratcheted up the gruesome, cruel, and inhuman barbarity of Gilead’s regime, paying particular attention to the role of (white) women in enforcing its brutal gendered violence.

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Positioning women as the agents and enforcers of the regime’s extreme patriarchy is not a departure from last season. Indeed, the final episodes developed an odd but understandable rivalry and hatred between Serena Joy and Offred-June. We were reminded that Serena Joy was an architect of the male domination scheme, where she willingly surrendered her autonomy for either the good of the new republic or for her extreme religiosity. Because both nation and God are closely intertwined motivations for Gilead’s ruling elite, the narrative doesn’t need to contemplate the root causes of her motivations. The problem of not probing more deeply into her character, however, results in her uncomplicated alignment with and acquiescence to extreme patriarchy. To be sure, we witness Serena Joy taking great pleasure in lashing out at her husband for his extra-judicial trysts with their handmaids and in his impotence, but that scene is foregrounded by her physical violence toward Offred-June. Perhaps we are meant to see the toll that such inhumanity takes on everyone, that the degradation and dehumanization visited upon the handmaids by the regime turns all those who uphold the system into degraded and dehumanized brutes. Certainly any good reader of Frantz Fanon, could identify the fruits of colonial violence at work within Gilead. Indeed, in a particularly chilling scene, Serena Joy takes Offred-June to see her daughter, but denies her access to the child and threatens to kill her if Offred-June harms the fetus gestating inside her body. The scene highlights the extreme mental strain Serena Joy suffers, but it’s quite hard to be sympathetic to her position when she’s actively torturing Offred-June and threatening innocents, especially children, given that the fertility problem is how they all got in this mess in the first place. The animosity and uneasy detente between these women continues into the first two episodes of season 2, reminding us that all are guilty and culpable.

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While the show might–and does–occasionally attempt to solicit sympathy for the barren and beleaguered wives of the commander-class, it proffers other (white) women at whom we can and should direct our outrage, those whose duties are to indoctrinate and discipline the handmaids, the aunts. Standing head and shoulders above any of her cohort is Aunt Lydia (recently in the news because of a brilliant analogy drawn by Michelle Wolf at the WHC), the sadistic headmistress of the Red Center. The season two opener reveals that in retaliation for the disobedience of the handmaids–their unwillingness to be exectutioners for the regime–Aunt Lydia has designed a punishment that exposes just how vulnerable their position truly is. These women might think that their fertile wombs safeguard them from the lethal brutality of Gilead’s fundamentalist legal code, but they soon find that the body can withstand much pain and suffering and still remain a habitable gestational vehicle. All of Aunt Lydia’s violence serves the regime’s interests; however, by making her the figurehead of this terror, the show once again highlights the profits that some women receive via their proximity to patriarchy.

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As viewers, we incredulously wonder how these women, the wives and aunts, can support the mental and physical violence and exploitation of other women. In fact, we might even consider the positioning of these particular women and the deliberate obfuscation of men within these institutionalized practices of violence as misogynistic because it visually locates the actual, physical power of the regime in women rather than men (even though we see the militarized police patrolling the public sphere of Gilead). Nonetheless, as my allusion to colonial violence above points out, a system built upon the exploitation and dehumanization of one category of people cannot escape its own degradation and violence, no matter how ennobling, lofty, or religiously mandated its goals and ideals. The show makes some effort to exhibit this when it depicts the arrival of a commander’s wife in the colonies. Just like the other women occupying this brutal hellscape, she, too,  must work and suffer under the gaze of a cattle-prod wielding aunt; moreover, she is made to fatally answer for the sins of the system she actively participated in: holding down other women so that they could be raped by her husband. She had power in that moment because her class status protected her, so that she could be the one helping him rather than the one being raped by him. That power, however, proves illusory because the system designed by men for men banished her to a labor camp for the crime of adultery that both she and her husband committed.

Which brings me then, to the problematic solidarity the show seeks to establish between its audience and its female protagonists. It’s problematic for me because of the racial ambivalence with which I watch this show and in general because of the show’s commitment to a post-racial schema. I know that the producers don’t want me to think about race in a narrative that’s primarily about gender violence, sexism, and patriarchy. I and others have already written about the problem with the color-blind, post-racial approach that the show takes, but what happens when the show does not acknowledge the processes of racial formation in American society and in fundamentalist Christianity, is that it seems to highlight rather than diminish the importance of whiteness in the show. What I mean is that all I see, everywhere, in this show is the power of whiteness, particularly the complicated position of white women within our society. The camera is fixated on the white face of its protagonist. Through her agony, her pain, her despair, her fear, her desire, and her rebellion, the camera unflaggingly attends her every emotion. Like the regime that circumscribes her movement and agency, the camera similarly encloses her body and most especially her face, framing her every expression to preserve a true account of her degradation, to bear witness to the horror she endures. That this horror is visited upon a white victim is as important as the white women who inflict it. In this way, the show reminds us of the privileged position that white women hold in our society and the lengths to which they will go to preserve that privilege. Perhaps this is where the post-racial bent of the show works in some perverse way. It allows us to see, without race “getting in the way,” that white women have a real, material stake in the system.

The show, then, would serve as a very acute reader of the historical contexts of its production. Reminding us that 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, and that a sizeable majority of white women in Alabama voted for accused child molester, Roy Moore. It’s curious to see women, specifically white women, voting against their own perceived interests. Why would they feel more comfortable sending men who degrade and disrespect women to Washington, than those who ostensibly don’t? We can locate this desire in religion, in party affiliation, and even in personal distaste for the other candidate, but to overlook racial power here would be a mistake. Even as white women are feminists and staunch advocates for women, they also gain power through their whiteness, through their solidarity with white men.

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Image: Angela Peoples at the Women’s March 2017. Photo credit: Kevin Banatte

So what does this mean in a show that isn’t supposed to be about race and only about gender? It means that the show’s feminism is a failure and short sighted. Feminism that is only about the power of men over women, that doesn’t take into account the interlocking systems of racial, gendered, and economic oppression, will not be an expansive or even successful movement. This is a feminism that remains deeply committed to white structural and patriarchal norms. Despite its rebellious and revolutionary topic, the show flirts with this investment in whiteness. It, too, on a production level is invested in the identification that most viewers will have with its white protagonists. It’s no coincidence that all of the handmaids of note, the ones who are named, are white (June, Emily, and Janine). It also features almost all of the wives of commanders as brittle white women, who have made their filthy bargain and must see it through to the end. What then is the lesson that we are to understand from this dystopia? What is it telling us about our world and where our sympathies should lie? It’s telling us to believe that misogyny is real and powerful, and that resistance is difficult and dangerous. But through its uncritical presentation of whiteness as race and as power, it’s also reminding us that the feminist sisterhood is a lie because the majority of white women will betray it.

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