The Handmaid’s Tale again falls short in racial representation, despite how hard it works to make its (white) female gaze one that is both absolute and universally accepted as the reality.
WARNING – Spoilers ahead.
Watching The Handmaid’s Tale is a constant struggle between feeling amazed at the nuance that the show gives its female characters, and frustrated at the constant erasure of Blackness.
As the season nears its end, it becomes more and more apparent how much of this world is lifted and crafted from anti-Black racism, particularly the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. By continuing to shift these specific instances of violence to become representative of overall human tragedy, The Handmaid’s Tale continues the tradition of anti-Black racism for the small screen.
Take, for example, this week’s episode. In one of the most bizarre twists in the show, Commander Waterford “surprises” Offred by taking her to Jezebel’s, an underground club where sexual pleasure is abundant and the dangers of being someone’s property are still very, very real. But to our surprise, Offred finds a familiar face within Jezebel’s: Moira. After a tearful reunion, we find out that Moira was captured after trying to escape the country, and was given two options: Jezebel’s or the Colonies. We find her less resolute and sure than when we last saw her as if the realities of trying to survive Gilead have broken even her spirit.
What struck me the most about this episode is the obvious racial implications of the episode – the overt sexuality, the allusions to Black women’s sexuality specifically – but again, The Handmaid’s Tale refusal to acknowledge the roots of these things because we are meant to attribute them to Offred’s experiences. The show’s most frustrating problem is its refusal to let go of its grip on Offred as the only one whose experiences and struggles are valid.
By refusing to dive further into the ways that Black history are so entrenched in this world, and its continued use of the white gaze to suffocate any authentic character growth that we could see from the few women of color in the show, The Handmaid’s Tale again falls short in racial representation, despite how hard it works to make its (white) female gaze one that is both absolute and universally accepted as the reality.
This week’s episode also gave an interesting perspective on masculinity, through the (somewhat uncalled for but not particularly unwelcome) focus on Nick’s backstory. Through flashbacks, we see Nick as an aimless wanderer while Gilead was just beginning to take shape. He happens to be at the right place at the right time and sparks an interest for a man who later offers him a job as an Eye. From there, Nick continues to lurk in the shadows of the action, reporting the shortcomings and flaws of the Commanders to his own superiors, who have pledged themselves to “make Gilead great again”.
Nick remains in the shadows through the episode, which mostly revolves around the journey that he takes with Commander Waterford and Offred to Jezebel’s, an underground club where sexual pleasure is abundant. Through Nick’s watchful eye (no pun intended), his gaze is both one of jealousy from his feelings for Offred and also his conflict for the obligation he has to his job.
This episode’s significance towards race is reflected in Nick’s ambivalence towards everything happening around him as well. He has a unique place within Gilead in that he remains on the outskirts of what is happening, even within the Waterford residence. By the end of the episode, when he tries to repair the damage done to his relationship to Offred, we see that she has pulled back, leaving him once again as an island of a man.
The focus of answering lingering questions – both of Moira’s whereabouts and Nick’s true loyalties – weave back to the central narrative of the show’s white female gaze being central. The end of the episode brings us Offred, once again looking resolutely in the closet, determined to survive. But what message does it send that her survival is rooted in its resolution only after she sees her few allies become complacent and broken, one by one? Will she be next, or will her white womanhood once again protect her from suffering the worse of possibilities as she waits for the chance to strike?
For better or for worse, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Featured Image: courtesy of Hulu