The Problem with The Handmaid’s Tale

I read The Handmaid’s Tale in two and a half hours. I started it at 12am on a weeknight, because I have the sleep schedule of a caffeinated owl, and didn’t put it down until I hit the very last page. Margaret Atwood is a riveting writer, and The Handmaid’s Tale is a fantastic book.

Except… there’s an “except”, and it’s a big one.

It didn’t strike me until I had finished the second book. I knew there was something bothering me about it, but then I read an article which provided clarity. The Handmaid’s Tale depicts female sexual servitude as the realm of white women, a horror story which has never played out before in American history. This is, of course, wrong. For 250 years, Black women were legally subject to exactly the kind of treatment Atwood describes in her novel––assault, unwanted pregnancy, forced illiteracy, lynching. This cruelty did not die with chattel slavery: today, Black people make up 40% of human trafficking victims in America.

And yet Atwood erases them from this narrative entirely, with a dismissive aside about “the children of Ham” being “relocated”. That’s all. There are no people of colour in the entire book, save for perhaps the Marthas (it’s ambiguous). Even in her sequel, The Testaments, practically the entire cast is white––and Atwood doesn’t even have the excuse of writing in the 80s for this one, because The Testaments was published in 2019. With characters like Lydia, Atwood briefly touches on the role wealthy white women have played in perpetrating misogyny, but she conveniently ignores how much of that takes the form of misogynoir, discrimination against Black women.

Atwood’s books didn’t horrify me, not in the way Octavia Butler’s Earthseed novels did. Earthseed is also a two-book series which involves an evangelical takeover of the American government, and which is narrated by a female protagonist. In her novels it’s clear that Butler draws from real American history, from non-white Americans’ stories, to tackle all the things Atwood was too afraid to mention: the dark history of economic slavery in company towns, the separation of children from their mothers, anti-Blackness, the disparities in treatment between poor white and poor nonwhite people, the rape of enslaved women by their “owners”. I had to power through the Earthseed books slowly, because they are brilliant but they hurt to read. They are torturous and raw and do not shy away from the most revolting aspects of American history.

That is what I missed in The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale feels like history which has been sterilised, wiped clean of all the messy racial bits so it can show white women as the truest victims of misogyny.

––Aditi Ramaswamy

Software engineer; emerging author; almost certainly not a changeling. I write about the uncomfortable parts of Indian & American history & culture.

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