Weaponized white feminism in "The Handmaid's Tale" and "When They See Us"

"The Handmaid's Tale" and "When They See Us" show how white feminism fails people of color. But it must star anyway

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 5, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

Elisabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale" (Elly Dassas)
Elisabeth Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale" (Elly Dassas)

This article contains light spoilers for the third season of "The Handmaid's Tale" on Hulu.

Sometimes white feminism is so emphatic in its insistence that the world reckons with it that it obliterates all else in its path. I've long understood this. But I didn't expect to receive a reminder while recently co-moderating a discussion of "When They See Us."

Netflix's limited series,  created, co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay, is a restorative act in many respects, the most vital being its insistent focus on the stories of the five black men wrongfully accused and convicted of the rape and beating of a jogger, Trisha Meili, that took place in 1989.

Following a screening its first two episodes, I opened an audience question and answer session by urging my fellow viewers to watch DuVernay's documentary "13th," citing it as a companion piece of sorts to "When They See Us." "13th" addresses the tragic inequity mass incarceration inflicts on communities of color while "When They See Us" contextualizes this injustice within the framework of a specific story.

I hoped aloud that "When They See Us" would reinvigorate dialogue about racial bias in the criminal justice system and the near-impossible task of effectively reintegrating into society after release. Lastly, and most germane to this conversation, I opined that it demonstrates one way white feminism fails and even oppresses people of color.

That last point is demonstrated by Felicity Huffman's chilly portrayal of former prosecutor Linda Fairstein, a woman so driven to gain closure on this rape of a wealthy white woman that she decides Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, boys ranging in age from 14 to 16, committed the crime. No evidence tied them to the rape, and none had prior records. Korey's sole mistake was to accompany his friend Yusef to the police station.

But in DuVernay's script, Fairstein amps up the detectives investigating the case, reminding them that this is the opportunity to get some justice for their lady jogger — a lady who happens to be a pretty blonde investment banker. When detectives find that the evidence and the boys' testimonials don't add up, Fairstein urges them to make it add up. Think of our lady victim, Fairstein says time and again, referring to Antron, Kevin, Yusef, Raymond and Korey as "thugs" and "animals." The cops intimidate them until they submit false confessions.

Why am I spelling this out? Because moments after I made that remark about weaponized white feminism, a white woman raised her hand and declared that the real companion piece to "When They See Us" is "The Central Park Five," the 2012 co-produced and directed by Sarah Burns, her father Ken Burns and Burns' husband David McMahon,  based on a book Sarah published about the case in 2011.

This was followed by another (white) woman asking somewhat aggressively if DuVernay had spoken with Fairstein or fellow former prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer before making her series. In response I reminded her that "When They See Us" is not a work of journalism, but a scripted work informed by history and public record, whose intent is to center the stories and perspectives of people whose identities were erased first by the news media and then by history.

Besides, I added, Lederer secured a teaching position at Columbia University's law school, and Fairstein became a best-selling crime novelist. They made out just fine in the intervening decades, although audience reaction to "When They See Us" has prompted Fairstein's chickens to come home to roost, forcing her to resign from board positions and prompting calls for a boycott of her books.  But back to the post-screening:  it was clear this second woman was not content with my answer. She came up and told me so after the panel, adding that the boys' parents should have known better and really, what happened to their sons was their fault. Across her shirt she wore a variety of buttons displaying pro-choice symbols and feminist slogans.

Between her and the first woman, my mistakes became clear. In uplifting the valuable work of a black woman I, another black woman, neglected to pay enough tribute to white women.

Never mind that DuVernay created a previous non-fiction work that directly informs her current one; Sarah Burns' completely separate production is the "true" companion piece.

Never mind that Fairstein and Lederer constructed their success on a bedrock of five destroyed boyhoods. Never mind the ripple effect that wrongful conviction had on their families. The white women who prosecuted and persecuted them deserve a hearing, one more in a long list of them.

When disaster falls from the sky there's a tendency and a desire to claim ownership over that comet and the suffering it causes — if, and usually only if, it touches white lives. Here, the concern is over the lives of two white women who built a crusade around another white woman, and whose efforts resulted in the convictions of five black men who did not commit the crime. Meanwhile the actual rapist, Matias Reyes, remained free to rape and assault other women — nine that authorities know of, including Lourdes Gonzalez.

And yeah, sure, of course: #NotAllWhiteFeminists.

Enough of them do insist on centering their plight that for women of color navigating their interruptions, attempts at erasure and deflection grows aggravating and tiresome. Women of color learn to contend with this early in life, particularly women of color who embrace the version of feminism typically taught to them first. This brand of feminism, like whiteness itself, is considered to be the default vision of female empowerment, with the understanding that if white women rise, all women rise. All lives matter.

This brings us to these latest episodes of "The Handmaid's Tale," now streaming on Hulu.

A critic's job is to evaluate a work on the merits of its creative and technical execution first and foremost, examining what a work adds to the cultural dialogue, what its creators are telling us and how they say it. Generally speaking, one strives to keep as much of themselves out of these evaluations while informing them with enough of a personal taste to assist the viewer, who may agree or disagree.

But viewing the six new hours of "The Handmaid's Tale" made available to critics made me acutely aware of the balance and restrictions I impose upon myself as a critic, and as a black woman. I can never forget that part of my identity even as I operate from the cool framework of criticism; I strive to construct my evaluations from a kind of liminal space between these parts of my identity.

Sometimes a work makes that impossible to do, particularly when I and other people of color have made the same criticism over and over again.

Season 3 of "The Handmaid's Tale" glows thanks to the superb work of cinematographer Colin Watkinson, who renders Gilead's dim interiors in a drug-like haze and employs instances of god's eye perspective as artistic flourishes. Handmaids quietly ascend a spiral staircase shaped like an eye in one scene. In another, their wings are placed on a table in a perfect circle surrounding a floral centerpiece. Gilead is a frightening speculative concept, but at a distance Watkinson makes its orderly rooms and daytime exteriors look stunning.  The fourth episode also shows us a line of handmaids walking over the bridge that could be just a bridge, or may be evocative of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

The handmaids in Washington D.C. all wear muzzles, and in one moment, June (Elisabeth Moss)  stares up at what we recognize to be the Lincoln Memorial. We are supposed to take in the quiet irony of a woman, enslaved, at the feet of a once-proud icon of American history. It may not be lost on some of us that Abraham Lincoln's story also was prettied up by history, his own racism largely washed away. But I'd wager most viewers simply see the heroine of "The Handmaid's Tale," Moss' June, muzzled and subjugated at the feet of the great liberator. They may think of the protesters in red robes and wings at our nation's capital and state seats of government, women quietly co-opting an image popularized by a show that itself co-opts its horrors and struggles from those of slavery and the civil rights era and sidelines minorities in doing so.

In their own way those viewers may be thinking to themselves, "What about the white women?"

Taking the perspective of narrative realism, season 3 of "The Handmaid's Tale" should not exist. Gilead's totalitarian patriarchy would have murdered June for her part in securing escape to Canada for the baby she is forced to bring into the world, a baby that by Gilead law belongs to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).

Ah, but the business end of things requires the Emmy Award-winning Moss to continue as the face of the show, thereby explaining her character's special treatment and relatively light punishments and unfortunately miring the story in a redundancy in the name of putting off revolution for as long as possible. Hence June remains alive despite her defiant acts; for refusing to stone a fellow Handmaid to death at the end of Season 1, she's scared to the brink of death at Fenway Park and made to witness as her fellow Handmaids are tortured.  Otherwise her life continues; her irritation grows.

Meanwhile the woman who speaks out first in this act of resistance, a woman of color played by Tattiawna Jones, has her tongue cut out. Later she'll blow herself up in a suicide run. That character, Amanda Brugel's Rita (the Waterfords' "Martha," or housekeeper) and Samira Wiley's Moira are the most visible women of color in "The Handmaid's Tale," but their roles are minor in the first two seasons.

"The Handmaid's Tale" is primarily a showcase for Moss, Alexis Bledel's Emily (a role that also won her an Emmy) and Strahovski, who has now fully rendered Serena Joy as a complex walking contradiction. Serena Joy is a woman who wrote a book that became one of Gilead's founding texts but who lost a finger for daring to read a passage from the Bible. She's also flaxen-haired, and her delicate features add to her picture as the American feminine ideal. Strahovski's performance quietly rages against that portrait even as her character reaps the benefits of its image and status.

All of these actors gift the audience with outstanding performances, as do Ann Dowd as the fiercely tyrannical Aunt Lydia and Bradley Whitford, whose Commander Lawrence first appears late in season 2 but has a central role in the third into which he pours every drop of fatigue, arrogance and conflict a human can muster.

Wiley is an extraordinary actor as well. But in this third season Moira, now living in Canada, is barely present aside from serving as a caretaker, while June's husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) awaits any news about her fate beyond knowing she's alive. Rita is barely present, and another handmaid played by Bahia Watson, like every other person of color, lurks in the periphery. Look closely and you'll see her. Then again, you have to be looking for her in the first place.

Bledel's Emily, who is attempting escape via the resistance's version of the underground railroad with June's daughter Nichole, becomes a stand-in for refugees at the border or a runaway slave. Her flight forces her to ford a fast-moving river with another woman's baby in her arms. Like Moira, Emily is a lesbian. And her journey to rebuild her life is the one "The Handmaid's Tale" explores closely in the third season's first six episodes, not Moira's.

So once again Moss' June is navigating Gilead's dangerous, lethal misogyny, looking angrier in these new episodes and growing bolder because the drama's resistance narrative requires it, and because she has to survive this mess until Hulu decides to end the show. But the figures placing themselves in the greatest danger are the Marthas, most of whom in this new season are white.

In one scene, June remarks that the difference between the handmaids and the Marthas is that the domestics have the advantage of being invisible. But when we see a group of Marthas reach a checkpoint one of them, a dark-skinned black woman, gets pulled out by the guards for unknown reasons. Except, we do know, don't we? Even among invisible women, the black woman is not.

Neither, for that matter, is June's new walking partner Ofmatthew, played by black actor Ashleigh LaThrop. But while June is depicted as a burgeoning champion of resistance, Ofmatthew is a handmaid who has submitted body and soul. "We're all trying to make it through this without making any trouble," Ofmatthew declares in one scene, after gossiping about the stupidity of June's act of defiance.  Later, after witnessing another woman beaten to her hands and knees for her insolence, June's black walking partner can only offer, "That's what you get."

Supporters of "The Handmaid's Tale" might femme-splain that excluding people of color from the storyline's fore is part of creator Bruce Miller's point: racial annihilation is but one fruit in white patriarchy's harvest.  Making Gilead a mostly white place, with just enough sprinklings of people of color for these holy, God-fearing white people to not talk about race at all, is its own anti-racist statement.

These same viewers may also cite to the fact that June's best friend and husband are black, that she is the mother of a biracial child. But never does June fully interrogate the racist structuring of Gilead or any kind of ethnic-based hierarchy. Why should she? June herself is not racist; the reason she chooses to give away her second child while she remains in Gilead is to reclaim her biracial daughter Hannah.

Therefore, what need does "The Handmaid's Tale" have to highlight the racial inequities within the severe, punitive stratification guiding this world? As June puts it in her ironic prayer, they're all in the Valley of Death, "and there's a fuck-ton of people to fear." Gilead sees no color.

Which, of course, speaks the entire premise of white feminism's faulty view. Time and again women of color are in the vanguard of civil rights struggles, but as in reality, their lives matter only insofar as white women's lives matter. "A victory for one is a victory for all," June observes. And if all women can survive Gilead, doesn't that by default include women of color?

By default. Hell of a qualifier.

Many people have called out this failing in past seasons of "The Handmaid's Tale," by the way. Many others wrote about the false confidence that Gilead can't happen here, bringing attention to the fact that it is happening in far flung places such as Saudi Arabia. Not in rural communities where poor women, many of them women of color, are denied access to adequate preventative medicine, including pre-natal care, because the religious right's influence on government has led to closures of clinics that serve them. Not here, where women of color are arrested for acts as simple as requesting plastic cutlery at a restaurant or refusing to sit in another person's vomit on a plane.

Perhaps due to the new season's debut in relative proximity to my own personal "What about the white women?" moment, I'm at the end of my patience with this particular shortcoming of "The Handmaid's Tale." Miller and his writers must be aware of these critiques; heaven knows there have been many.

But at this point erasing people of color is as much of a choice as the writers' co-opting of images connected to black and Latinx visions of pain and resistance, or choosing to cast a black actor in an entirely submissive role.

What about the white women? "The Handmaid's Tale" reflects the mainstream, white version feminism while appropriating the nightmarish visuals of slavery's brutality. These traumas still haunt women of color today and informs how they're treated by the justice system and their government. We bear witness to this in "When They See Us, " and some of us may still be watching "The Handmaid's Tale" too.

At least DuVernay's work presents viewers with marginalized voices and their stories out front, and in their fullness.  And in retrospect, I should have responded to those questioners searching for acknowledgement of white women by referring them to "The Handmaid's Tale," because that world and its vision of struggle belongs wholly and intentionally to them. They can keep it.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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