If we’re going to talk about white feminism on television, the conversation begins and ends with the Lincoln Memorial.
In the sixth episode of Season 3 of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” June (Elisabeth Moss) and her former “family” made up of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) take a little trip down to Washington, D.C. on a diplomatic mission and in the process stop by the National Mall, now undone by the fall of the United States as we know it and the rise of the totalitarian government known as Gilead.
During a quiet moment of respite, June stands at the foot of the now destroyed statue of Lincoln at his namesake memorial, gazing sorrowfully at the desecration when she is joined by Serena. The pair devolve into aimless bickering.
It’s not even that the argument over who wronged whom is invalid, given that the women are arguing over the fate of their respective children, but that after staging a stark visual representation of the downfall of American society, as well as the country’s history of mass subjugation, “The Handmaid’s Tale” wastes it as a background for two white women hissing death wishes at each other.
That simply isn’t good enough.
It’s 2019. Television is at the zenith of its powers of influence and, in the real world, times are troubled, fueled by existential dread, blatant racism, xenophobia, and sexism, much of it funneled straight from the White House. If TV wants to be the dominant art form, then it must hold itself to a higher standard of conversation, a standard that that its current crop of prestige dramas, including “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Big Little Lies,” and recently concluded cultural phenomenon “Game of Thrones,” fall, repeatedly and spectacularly, short of.
Too often these shows – and many others, at many other networks – want to tell unique and nuanced stories, but because of the homogenous nature of those in charge, end up creating shows offering identical points of view. It becomes myopic and verges on cognitive dissonance because while the world is slowly but surely realizing that people other than white men have stories to be told and celebrated, TV has yet to catch up.
It’s a failure, not of imagination, but of recognizing all of the things that you don’t know and working to surround yourself with and listen to people as unlike you as possible, the better to build a world that reflects our own.
Time and again, critics point out that “The Handmaid’s Tale” misses the forest for the trees, attempting to engage in the dangers of oppression and disenfranchisement, while refusing to engage in the intersectionality that the issue deserves. That is, there are plenty of Americans who have suffered or are suffering from those things and for whom slavery is not a fictional dystopian nightmare but a very real cultural inheritance from these United States.
But the feminism of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is deeply limited, with considerations largely extended only to white women. That might not be a problem were the show not so clumsy when handling characters of other races. But it is. And even more troubling, it’s not the only prestige drama on TV right now struggling through similar storytelling speed bumps.
And what do these shows have in common? White guys. Specifically, white guy showrunners. Before we proceed, let’s clarify: The problem is not white guys, per se. It’s that even when “woke” white creators attempt to wade into the waters of feminism, it only goes deep enough to explore issues as they relate to white women, because often that’s all they know. Audiences deserve shows that explore the issue through decentralizing a single point-of-view, i.e. white women. And if you think that hiring a couple women for the writer’s room grants you the keys to the kingdom of the entire feminine experience, you are sorely mistaken.
Take HBO’s gone-but-not-forgotten fantasy series, “Game of Thrones,” which had no problem (eventually) putting (white) women into positions of power. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) was famous around the Seven Kingdoms and beyond for freeing non-white people and then dispatching them into battles with little regard for what became of them, so long as it fit into the narrative of her being a “breaker of chains.”
Some of that problematic storytelling surely spawns from George R.R. Martin, author of the original series of books the show adapted, but Martin’s most recent release in the series came in 2011, the same year that the television series launched. That means that failures of inclusion could easily have been rectified by showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss at some point during the show’s eight seasons but they just never got around to it.
Benioff and Weiss even went so far as to kill off the series’ most prominent woman of color – Dany’s aide Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) – in the antepenultimate episode to serve as a catalyst for Dany’s rage and eventual psychological breakdown, a move that was both a spectacular failure of intersectional feminism and, honestly, feminism in general.
It’s an issue that few prestige dramas – give or take CBS All Access’s “The Good Fight” – succeed at.
Even HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” a who’s-who of Hollywood’s most powerful actresses, is not beyond reproach. With the Season 1 reveal that it was Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) who had blood on her hands, Season 2 has been a strange mishmash of grief and denial and depression, coupled with strange storytelling misfires.
But nothing in the second season has been so strange as the reality that the series made Bonnie, the only non-white character in the hyper-white setting of Monterey – other than wily detective (Merrin Dungey) working the case – a murderer, without any thought or care given to the additional burden the character would carry in a community where she is already “othered.”
In the first season, Bonnie is a character that exists on the outskirts of the story, even more than new-girl-in-town Jane (Shailene Woodley), by her position as step-mom, married to Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) ex-husband. Members of the community comment on her beauty, on the sensual way she dances, stopping just short of calling her “exotic.” To place the burden of murder on her character, who isn’t even central to the thrust of the first season’s narrative, is strange – and to divorce it from the additionally fraught implications is irresponsible.
Couple that with the Season 2 appearance of Bonnie’s mother (Crystal Fox), who brings with her a sordid, abusive relationship with her daughter, in addition to a penchant for having visions and dabbling in mysticism, redolent of the Magical Negro trope, and it leads to the realization that “Big Little Lies” is precisely the kind of insulated, 1%, predominantly white environment that would foster such a story development. It’s possible that poor representation is an even greater sin than no representation.
“The Handmaid’s Tale,” even beyond the problematic iconography of its trip to D.C., is currently embroiled in an atrocious storyline that featured June as the central instigator in the death and or maiming of two separate Black women in two consecutive episodes.
In Episode 7, June badgers the Martha (Ordena Stephens) – a household’s domestic servant – of the home where her daughter Hannah lives to give her information on how to visit her at school. The Martha is hesitant, advocating that Hannah is better off without the danger June insists on inserting into her life, but eventually relents, giving up the information the Handmaid seeks.
By the episode’s end, the Martha is hanged and the blood is on June’s hands.
Except it isn’t. Because the series immediately pivots to blaming June’s Handmaid partner Natalie (Ashleigh LaThrop) for informing Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) of June’s scheming. To Natalie, her actions were an attempt to keep June safe. To June, they were a betrayal worthy of a complete meltdown, as she chokes her fellow Handmaid while excoriating her for the other woman’s death.
In the following episode, June turns the rest of the Handmaids against Natalie, staging a full “Mean Girls”-esque bullying campaign, complete with spitting in drinks and June getting Natalie dressed down by Aunt Lydia. By the episode’s end, Natalie has cracked, weighed down by the projected guilt and ends up shot in a bloody standoff with armed guards.
Is she dead? Maybe. But since she was pregnant, probably not.
That’s right. Natalie is pregnant. She is also Black.
At best, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is finally casting more women of color in its show, in a storyline that just happened to feature one character leading directly to the death of another and, potentially her own. At worst, “The Handmaid’s Tale” introduced two recurring characters of color only to have them brutally killed in large part due to the actions of the show’s white lady protagonist. And maybe worse than all of that is the fact that the series appears to have no concept of how that might play to an audience.
The pervasive misogynoir of prestige drama is glaring. In both “Handmaid’s” and “Game of Thrones,” women of color meet violent ends, the better to entertain often white, often wealthy audiences at home. Without inclusivity of ideas and identities in writer’s rooms and, perhaps more importantly, as showrunners and executives, point-of-view defaults to the same as it’s ever been. And it’s not enough to show feminism as though it exists devoid of the influence of race, because feminism without intersectionality isn’t feminism at all.
Despite criticisms after every season, at every juncture, about how the series addresses (or more accurately doesn’t address) race, “Handmaid’s” embarks on a third season with white women squabbling in the shadow of the Great Emancipator while spilling the blood of Black women. Additionally, the show appears to be laying the groundwork to return with full-force to the Marthas virtual Underground Railroad, all while ignoring the country’s long history of enslavement and genocide.
Three different shows, set in three different times, in three different genres, all run by white men. But not exclusively – and this is where the narrowcasting of white feminism becomes truly problematic.
Bruce Miller calls the shots on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but works with a writer’s room that is majority female. David E. Kelley has served as the showrunner for both seasons of “Big Little Lies,” but the episodes of Season 2 had stories crafted in conjunction with the original book’s author Liane Moriarty. “Game of Thrones,” well… those guys didn’t have a woman write or direct a single episode of their show for the last five years of its run. Adding women to solve the problem doesn’t get at the essence of these narrative struggles if the end result mimics what the storylines would have been if they were not present at the outset. Presence isn’t the same as empowerment, and what winds up on screen is the ultimate adjudication.
In an interview with The Independent in June, Miller talked about the struggle to find the right mix for a writers’ room.
“I think one of the problems with the journey for more diversity and diverse voices in the writers’ room is you don’t want a singular voice, because a singular voice ends up being just as stereotyping,” he said.
But Miller added, “You want people to fight it out. So you need people who are both willing to be honest and also don’t feel bad when you start asking them questions about super-personal things, about sexual assault, about child-rearing, about their feelings about being pregnant, miscarriages – all of those things you have to discuss in the writers’ room.”
So it’s not enough just to have representation in a writer’s room. Those writers would also carry the burden of explaining to the rest of the room how and why they were being racist, an unfair expectation of anyone, particularly someone who wants to stay in the good graces of their employer. The issue demands having more non-white men calling the shots.
It’s not enough to settle for having a flat, oversimplified version of feminism on television. The conversation is nuanced and deserves representation as such. But the only way to get to that place is to diversify not just the actors and the writers, but the gatekeepers who establish what story, really, gets told. Lest everyone, even the white women (especially the white women) become caricatures of their worst selves.
And so it’s no surprise that “The Handmaid’s Tale” has June telling Serena she wishes she had let her burn to death while in the shadow of the ruins of the Great Emancipator. That is rapidly becoming the show’s legacy: Two white women squabbling while the whole of the Union burns.