Precise critiquing can be so powerful. I started reading The Handmaid’s Tale some 10 years ago as a teen and dropped it halfway through. I had expected something else and failed to understand that its message was, ultimately, bigger than this first person character’s story. I am eager to pick it up again and see how I read it. Meantime, I have been watching the TV show, which was initially as brutal as at it was slow-paced, but also engrossing, thanks to its star-studded cast. The viewings have been catalysts for stimulating conversations in real life and online. However, with my heightened awareness of the exclusionary historical aspects of the book and show, I often have a different appreciation of this work’s scope and its status as a piece of entertainment rooted in the fictional.
Several women of colour have written thought-provoking pieces about the monumental racial omissions of The Handmaid’s Tale (e.g. here and here) as a book and a TV programme, even though the latter sought to rectify this by having a more diverse cast – a move that conflicted its creators. But yesterday I was enlightened by an essay that discusses this issue in relative depth (2500 words). ‘White Women in Robes’ was written by Sherronda J. Brown, a Black woman, and published on her website – unlike the other pieces I had come across.
The essay is afforded the space to analyse specific events in American history and policy-making associated with feminism concerned only with white women’s wellness. It brilliantly illustrates the ellipses of the conversation around reproductive rights in the West. It unblinkingly looks at how slavery then disenfranchisement until 50 years ago used African American women in the way the [in the book, all-white] Handmaids are used and how Suffragettes were recruited by the KKK in droves, as well as revealing the link between the Eugenics movement and Planned Parenthood. This is an instructive and well-researched unmasking of the systemic inequity between different ethnicities, which I hope those reading can engage with as more than something warranting a ‘not all [insert relevant demographic] retort. I strongly urge you to read it to fully acknowledge the supremacist aspects of the reproductive rights conversation, which like the parity of people of colour, are too often ignored.