The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

July 31st, 2008 11:59 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is part three in a nine-part series on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A full TOC, complete with links for easy navigation, is included at the bottom of each post.

Spoiler alert: Danger ahead, oh the horra! Plot spoilers abound! If you haven’t yet read the book, consider yourself warned. In fact, back away from this blog asap, go borrow The Handmaid’s Tale from your local library, and come back when you’re done. We’ll still be on the internets, promise.

Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

The Handmaid's Tale (Book 05)

In addition to being a misogynistic society, Gilead is also a racist and homophobic society. Unlike misogyny, however, The Handmaid’s Tale is notable for what it does not say about race and homosexuality.

In her narration, Kate very rarely mentions race. When describing people, skin color is almost never explicitly referenced. Through subtle clues, we can discern that many of the main characters in The Handmaid’s Tale are white: Kate describes her brown hair, the Commander’s silver hair, Serena Joy’s blond hair, Nick’s angular French facial features, Ofglen’s pink, plump face, Janine’s pink nose. Nameless Guardians have peach-colored mustaches and pale faces. Gilead is overwhelmingly white – except for its laborers. Rita and Cora, Commander Fred’s Marthas, are women of color. We know this of Rita because Kate describes her “brown arm”, but can only assume this of Cora.

Kate describes Marthas as women whose previous work in the domestic sphere has instilled in them a compliant, subservient nature. Wiki defines Marthas as “infertile women whose compliant nature and domestic skills recommend them to a life of domestic servitude.” (I’m paraphrasing Kate’s description, as I was unable to locate the exact quote.) While there’s some speculation as to whether Marthas are African Americans – thus conjuring America’s history of slavery – it’s unclear whether all the Marthas share the same race and ethnicity, or if any women of color who are appropriately subservient and compliant are given the option of working as Marthas as opposed to dying in The Colonies. It is my impression that Rita and Cora are Latinas, based on Rita’s “brown arms” and their first names. Additionally, while I was unable to locate the demographics of domestic workers in the U.S., Diana Vellos claims that “Latinas today constitute the largest category of women entering the domestic labor force in the United States. Many of these women are undocumented workers.”

Whatever their heritage, it seems as though Marthas are the only people of color living in Gilead. Most likely, any other non-white Americans were killed or sent to The Colonies as manual laborers.

Even though they are the only WOC in Gilead – and must stick out in the sea of otherwise white faces – the Marthas remain remarkably invisible in Gileadean society. Take, for example, this comment from Kate:

Rita is in here, standing at the kitchen table…She’s in her usual Martha’s dress, which is dull green, like a surgeon’s gown of the time before. The dress is much like mine in shape, long and concealing but with a bib apron over it and without the white wings and the veil. She puts on he veil to go outside, but nobody much cares who sees the face of a Martha.

Unlike the oversexualized Handmaids, Marthas are viewed as asexual; fit for lives of domestic servitude and little else. Like ovens, blenders and other assorted household appliances, Marthas are part of the background, objects to serve a purpose. They share this quality of objectification and property status with the Handmaids, but because they are non-white and/or infertile, they are not considered as valuable pieces of property as the Handmaids.

We do not see any men of color in Gilead, perhaps because they have all been doomed to a life of backbreaking labor in The Colonies.

Homosexuality receives more attention in The Handmaid’s Tale, most likely because modern-day Christian fundamentalists spend a disproportionate amount of time wringing their hands over the specter of gay sex. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Gilead. This stands to reason, as all non-procreative sex is against the law, but there’s also a great deal of Biblically justified homophobia in Gileadean society. Homosexuality is a crime, and “gender traitors” may be executed or sent to The Colonies. (Although it’s unclear whether the prohibition is on homosexual sex or a homosexual orientation.)

Moira, Kate’s best friend during college and a recurring character during Gilead’s reign, is in fact a lesbian. She came to The Red Center after she was apprehended by the Gileadean government and charged with “gender treachery”. Her choice of punishment? Become a Handmaid, or work in The Colonies.

Moira is perhaps the single most likable character in The Handmaid’s Tale. While Kate is timid, fearful, a self-preservationist, Moira is the rebellious nonconformist, the likely hero of the story. Moira makes several escape attempts, even finding her way to the Underground Femaleroad before she’s captured and sent to work as a Jezebel. Kate, on the other hand, withdraws from Ofglen when she’s asked to spy on her Commander for the May Day rebels. There are several points in the story when Kate has the opportunity to help bring about Gilead’s destruction, if even in a minuscule way, yet she always loses her nerve. In the end, it is Kate who escapes, but only through the graces of others, while a drug-addled Moira remains at Jezebel’s, resigned to her fate.

It hardly seems fair, yet little in The Handmaid’s Tale is.

———————–

The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Table of Contents

1. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Book (Margaret Atwood, 1985): Intro & Plot Summary

2. Misogyny & the Oppression of Women

3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms

4. The Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too (or, “But What About Teh Menz!!!1!?”)

5. A Theocracy is Harmful to Believers and Infidels Alike

6. Hypocrites, Egotists & Apologists: Who’s Sorry Now?

7. Dear Dystopian Deniers

8. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Film (Volker Schlöndorff, 1990)

9. The Handmaid’s Tale, The Dramatization (BBC Radio 4, 2000)

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7 Responses to “The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms”

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Misogyny & the Oppression of Women » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] 3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms […]

  2. The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Intro & Plot Summary » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] 3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms […]

  3. The Handmaid’s Tale(s): On the BBC Radio Dramatization (2000) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] 3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms […]

  4. The Handmaid’s Tale(s): Dear Dystopian Deniers » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] 3. Race, Ethnicity and Sexual Orientation: Gilead is a Society of Isms […]

  5. Alexa Says:

    What makes you think that her name is Kate? Just curious! :)

  6. Kelly Garbato Says:

    I thought Atwood mentioned it in passing in the book, but it looks like I got that from the film adaptation:

    It is implied in the novel that her real name could be Stacy; in the film adaption, her real name is Kate.

    http://the-handmaids-tale.wikia.com/wiki/Offred

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