Today marks the return of Hulu’s prestige literary-inspired dystopian drama for its second season, The Handmaid’s Tale.I’m not here to shit on this show. It’s good, compelling TV. It’s important TV. It walks a fine line between being pointed enough to bring women’s rights into pop-cultural discussion while still remaining an entertaining drama. But it’s not without its flaws. And some of those flaws can be smoothed over with a book called Kindred. And not only is Kindred a great companion piece to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s a wonderful book in its own right.
When season one came out there were numerous think-pieces about how The Handmaid’s Tale did and did not deal with race. Both the show and the source novel have this as a blind-spot, albeit race-blindness in different ways. The book quickly dismisses racial diversity by banishing all non-white people, never to engage with them. Since it’s Offred’s narrative and she doesn’t see them, it never comes up. The absence of any non-white people barely merits a mention to Offred, and that’s a big problem. Offred is our call to justice and her call only includes her own kind of women: white women.
The show, conversely, does include black people yet still manages to almost completely ignore racism. In the dystopia of Gilead, there is a backhanded utopian lining in the enslavement of women, and that is all women are suddenly equal. We know that with the current wage gap, not only do women earn less than men for equal work, but there’s a racial hierarchy as well. But all systemic racial issues fade away as women are formally subjugated. The show really should take a more nuanced, leveled approach, showing how race as well as gender would affect women’s positions in the various classes of chattel.
While season two is just starting, and we’ll have to wait to see if these issues are addressed, there’s something everyone watching the show should do. And that is to read Kindred by Octavia Butler. If you’re watching the show, if you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, you owe it to yourself to read Kindred.
First off, it’s just a great book. Second, there are so many things borrowed from the history of black women that Atwood uses to construct Gilead that it’s worth knowing where they came from. The United States owes so much to black people, and to black women in particular. The hard-won lessons of the white women in Gilead come from the real treatment of black women in the pre-13th amendment United States. In fact, those lessons are possibly borrowed from this book in particular as Kindred was published in 1979, six years before the Handmaid’s Tale.
The story of Kindred is that of a young black woman named Dana. She finds herself in the situation of traveling back in time to antebellum Maryland whenever a first boy, later man, named Rufus is in danger, and then returning to the present. She quickly realizes that Rufus is one of her ancestors, and that combined with the fact that he’s a slave-owner makes for a very complicated relationship.
Because of the time travel element, Kindred manages to have both a first-person account of slavery as well as an awareness of the implications of slavery in a cultural past. That interplay between how history and the present both define people and their struggles plays out in a very deep way that The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t quite do justice, and it’s a fundamental difference.
Handmaid treats the world of Gilead as what religious fundamentalism could be.Kindred offers up a vision of what mainstream religion has already done. Gilead gives us a vision two steps removed from our lives, and offers a bit of a perceived safety. It’s the fundamentalists, and not the mainstream, that are the threat. And it’s speculative, a warning of what could come. Kindred’s tale is all the more frightening because it shows us a world that has already happened. There’s nothing in it that is beyond believable because it is this country’s literal history.
When looking at these two novels it should be noted how similar the treatment of women is in both.
- Women are chattel.
- Women are used for breeding.
- The promise of children is used to keep women in line.
- Men have a two-fold household, encompassing both primary wives as well as women contractually bound in a lower class.
- Hangings are used to scare the population into submission.
I don’t mean to cast any sort of accusation of plagiarism, the shared points between the two stories are either based on historical treatment or alluding to that same treatment. But taking these points in Handmaid without giving due respect to the women who already endured these things is not just an oversight, but a dangerous omission. Gilead is a warning for women, but is it a warning for all women? For black women, it’s a world that has already happened, and offering a horrific vision of the future without acknowledging the people who’ve already live it is problematic. In a different story, borrowing from another culture’s past could be looked at as an oversight. But in this case the allusions are so specific and so real that it goes deeper. Atwood has stated that everything in the book has been endured by real women sometime in our past. She’s was aware that everything the women of Gilead go through is something women in the real world have had done to them. And to have so little acknowledgment of non-white people in Handmaid’s Tale becomes a big problem. It signifies that research was done, and even acknowledged by the author outside of the story, but that the intended audience are people may not have a cultural connection to these specific types of treatment and oppression. In short, the educational value of The Handmaid’s Tale is geared toward white people.
That’s not all meant to tear down The Handmaid’s Tale, show or book. No, the intention is to point out that it has a gaping blind spot and that reading Kindred to fill in some social context is absolutely worth your time. I had actually chosen it for the most recent meeting of my book club and one member mentioned that she had never heard of Octavia Butler and after looking over her biography, list of works, and awards, that she was surprised that Butler hadn’t made it into her child’s school curriculum. This is an oversight, and a not uncommon one. Classic American literature tends toward the white, and it’s no surprise that given two comparable books (though one is historical fantasy and the other speculative science fiction) the general curriculum will drift white.
So now that The Handmaid’s Tale show is past the original story and exploring new territory, I suggest trying a novel that will likewise explore things not covered in the book. And besides, after all those critical call-outs and the fact that this season is made up whole cloth, we might see some more textual interplay in terms of racial issues playing a role in Gilead.