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Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale casts Canada as a racial utopia

by Miranda Green-Barteet and Alyssa MacLean

Pho­to: Mer­cy Ferrars


When Hulu’s series The Handmaid’s Tale pre­miered in 2017, review­ers not­ed its grip­ping dra­ma and dystopi­an explo­ration of rape cul­ture and misog­y­ny at a time when both were hall­marks of Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­den­cy.

The series is adapt­ed from Cana­di­an author Mar­garet Atwood’s 1985 dystopi­an nov­el. It has won numer­ous awards and was recent­ly renewed for a fifth sea­son. But some com­men­ta­tors, includ­ing writer Ellen E. Jones, have crit­i­cized the series for its use of colour-blind cast­ing that cre­at­ed inclu­siv­i­ty but oth­er­wise ignored race in sto­ry­lines. Oth­ers, includ­ing Noah Berlatsky, have ana­lyzed how both the series and nov­el erase Black people’s his­to­ry.

Our research exam­ines rep­re­sen­ta­tions of race in spec­u­la­tive fic­tion and of Cana­da in U.S. lit­er­a­ture, lead­ing us to notice how Hulu’s series rep­re­sents race and nation­al difference.

The show posi­tions Cana­da as a moral­ly supe­ri­or nation that has reject­ed the dystopi­an society’s repres­sive and exclu­sion­ist think­ing. This is espe­cial­ly appar­ent in Sea­son 4’s focus on char­ac­ters’ escape to Cana­da, a theme that ref­er­ences old­er abo­li­tion­ist nar­ra­tives. In so doing, the show obscures Canada’s his­to­ry of slav­ery, colo­nial­ism and racism.

Atwood’s dystopi­an world

Both the nov­el and show draw on U.S. his­to­ry to imag­ine a dystopi­an world fac­ing an unex­plained fer­til­i­ty cri­sis. Gilead, a theo­crat­ic nation led by reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists, has over­thrown the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Atwood’s female nar­ra­tor is an edu­cat­ed white woman forced to become a “hand­maid.” Each month, a com­man­der rapes her in a reli­gious fer­til­i­ty cer­e­mo­ny. Babies born to hand­maids are raised by com­man­ders and their wives. The sole pur­pose of the hand­maids is to rebuild Gilead’s population.

Writer Priya Nair explains that Atwood’s nov­el draws on the his­tor­i­cal oppres­sion of Black enslaved women and applies it to fic­tion­al white women. For exam­ple, hand­maids who are dis­obe­di­ent are beat­en or hanged.

Despite clear par­al­lels to slav­ery, Atwood only oblique­ly ref­er­ences slav­ery when the nar­ra­tor explains that the “Chil­dren of Ham” have been relo­cat­ed to the Dako­tas. “Chil­dren of Ham” is a Bib­li­cal phrase that was used his­tor­i­cal­ly to jus­ti­fy enslav­ing Africans.

Nair also notes that the nov­el focus­es on white women’s oppres­sion, while seem­ing­ly ignor­ing “the his­tor­i­cal real­i­ties of an Amer­i­can dystopia found­ed on anti-Black violence.”

While the nov­el relies on his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ences of Black Amer­i­cans, its char­ac­ters are pre­dom­i­nant­ly white, a fea­ture of Gilead that Atwood main­tains in the 2019 fol­low-up The Tes­ta­ments. As review­er Danielle Kurt­zleben notes, in this sec­ond instal­ment: “Read­ers hop­ing to hear more about race in Gilead will be sore­ly dis­ap­point­ed.”

Atwood inten­tion­al­ly framed Gilead as both misog­y­nist and racist: the theoc­ra­cy is inter­est­ed only in repro­duc­ing white babies and, there­fore, only enslav­ing white women.

Colour-blind cast­ing in Hulu’s adaptation

In adapt­ing the nov­el, Hulu relied on a diverse cast of actors. White actor Elis­a­beth Moss plays June and Black British actor O‑T Fag­ben­le por­trays her hus­band Luke. Black actor Sami­ra Wiley was cast as June’s best friend Moira. Actors of colour por­tray char­ac­ters of all class posi­tions in Gilead’s society.

Exec­u­tive pro­duc­er Bruce Miller acknowl­edges that he cast actors of colour in many roles to avoid cre­at­ing an all-white world, which would result in a racist TV show. The show doesn’t address race, he explained, because: “It just felt like in a world where birth rates have fall­en so pre­cip­i­tous­ly, fer­til­i­ty would trump every­thing.”

The show then relies on colour-blind cast­ing and colour-blind sto­ry­telling.

In Atwood’s nov­el, Cana­da is the place to which hand­maids escape, flee­ing there on the Under­ground Femaleroad — a term that clear­ly invokes the Under­ground Rail­road.

In Hulu’s series, hand­maids — includ­ing Moira — escape from Gilead to Cana­da where they find pro­tec­tion and safe­ty, and are able to rebuild their lives. The series draws on old­er lit­er­ary tra­di­tions that have been inte­gral to main­tain­ing the myth of Cana­da as free from racism.

Read: The Handmaid’s Tale (4): Slaugh­ter the Beast

Draws on abo­li­tion­ist narratives

In the 1840s and 1850s, U.S. abo­li­tion­ist authors inten­tion­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed Cana­da as a racial haven. By cast­ing Cana­da as moral­ly supe­ri­or, abo­li­tion­ists imag­ined what the U.S. might look like if slav­ery were abolished.

Abo­li­tion­ist authors like Black song­writer and poet Joshua McCarter Simp­son and white nov­el­ist Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe cel­e­brat­ed Cana­da as a place that resist­ed racial vio­lence and pro­vid­ed legal pro­tec­tion for Black refugees flee­ing U.S. slavery.

Some abo­li­tion­ists sought to cap­ture the nuanced accounts of Black refugees in Cana­da. Abo­li­tion­ist edi­tor Ben­jamin Drew pub­lished oral tes­ti­monies of Black refugees, includ­ing their expe­ri­ences of racism in Ontario.

Oth­ers, like Stowe, min­i­mized the dif­fi­cul­ties of the lived expe­ri­ences of Black Cana­di­ans, focus­ing on sto­ries of Black suc­cess in Cana­da. These cel­e­bra­to­ry nar­ra­tives dom­i­nat­ed rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Cana­da in U.S. literature.

Cana­da as utopia?

Lit­er­ary schol­ar Nan­cy Kang argues these abo­li­tion­ist sto­ries con­struct­ed an “alle­go­ry of Cana­di­an free­dom reign­ing tri­umphant over Amer­i­can bondage.”

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale escape-to-Cana­da sto­ries draw on these his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives. The hand­maid Emi­ly, por­trayed by white actor Alex­is Bledel, escapes Gilead dra­mat­i­cal­ly, enter­ing Cana­da by wad­ing across a rush­ing riv­er, near­ly los­ing June’s daugh­ter. Once across, she weeps over the baby, recre­at­ing an icon­ic scene from Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cab­in, when the enslaved Eliza escapes slave-catch­ers by flee­ing across a riv­er with her child.

Lat­er in the episode, an Asian Cana­di­an doc­tor wel­comes Emi­ly to Cana­da, say­ing: “You’re safe here.”

On some lev­el, Hulu’s use of colour-blind cast­ing, as Berlatsky notes, “address­es the narrative’s debt to African-Amer­i­can his­to­ry.” But view­ers are still watch­ing an adap­ta­tion of a nov­el whose emo­tion­al hor­ror is based on imag­in­ing vio­lent, racist aspects of U.S. his­to­ry as if the atroc­i­ties hap­pened to white peo­ple.

Myths of Canada

The series avoids Canada’s his­to­ry of anti-Black racism, slav­ery and state vio­lence against Black bod­ies, as detailed by gen­der stud­ies and Black/African dias­po­ra schol­ar Robyn May­nard in Polic­ing Black Lives: State Vio­lence in Cana­da from Slav­ery to the Present. It also over­looks Canada’s colo­nial vio­lence toward Indige­nous peo­ples. These forms of vio­lence are inter­twined with seek­ing con­trol over women’s repro­duc­tive rights and sex­u­al freedom.

The series also over­looks Canada’s his­to­ry of racist immi­gra­tion and asy­lum policies.

Hulu’s series does explore some of the con­se­quences of patri­ar­chal oppres­sion. But the show’s posi­tion­ing of Cana­da as a racial haven obscures its his­to­ry and the con­tem­po­rary real­i­ty of racism expe­ri­enced by BIPOC women and com­mu­ni­ties in Canada.

Miran­da Green-Bar­teet, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor, Gen­der, Sex­u­al­i­ty, and Women’s Stud­ies, West­ern Uni­ver­si­ty
Alyssa MacLean, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor, Depart­ment of Eng­lish and Writ­ing Stud­ies, West­ern Uni­ver­si­ty
This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.