What can The Handmaid’s Tale teach us about intersectionality in institutional life?

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale focuses on women living in a theocratic totalitarian regime in a newly created dystopian, pronatalist society called Gilead. The regime attributes declining fertility to women’s rights, same sex relationships and an environment damaged beyond repair, which it solves with  the creation of a society predicated on women stratified into their biological destinies to reproduce (Handmaids) or to fulfil household obligations in the private sphere (Marthas). The women are all white, and the story is told through Offred, the plucky white narrator enslaved in a white male supremacist society, where all the people of color have been banished to ‘the colonies'(we are also left uncertain about whether this includes indigenous peoples).  Margaret Attwood doesn’t need to attend to characters of color in the book because in a matter of sentences we already know that they are not included in this new world. This lets Attwood off the hook for engaging with with characters of color in the novel. However, critiques of the book from an intersectional perspective have noted that the narrative banishment comes to extrapolate white women’s experiences as representative of the experiences of all women, even though many of the exploitative and cruel mechanisms to curtail maternity and bodily autonomy used on the white women were used specifically against women of colour in actual North American history that underpins the life of the author and the novel. Or were used on enslaved Africans in the United States including public lynchings and being named after their owners.

The television version attempts to address the invisibility and exclusion of the book where people of color were banished or exterminated. People of colour are visible on screen, as loving husbands, loyal running mates, a daughter, a housekeeper.  The women of color characters are dispersed through the stratified roles of Handmaids or Marthas which also assumes levels of social mobility. But these characters are merely backdrop cardboard cutouts, holograms, one-dimensional, devoid of depth in this white supremacist tale. Characters like Luke and Moira don’t get to explore their racial identities, much less how religious totalitarianism would specifically affect their racialised experiences. In ignoring racism, the show misses an opportunity to show how racism would manifest and evolve in a puritanical theocracy. In the show, The Handmaid’s Tale assumes that racism has been solved or that it is trumped by gender in the cause of preserving fertility. But there is a lost opportunity to consider ‘racist sexism’, that is how policies and practices that discriminate against women, also discriminate in different ways against racialised women. It also fails to acknowledge that America has always been a dystopia for people of color or that American dystopia is founded on anti-Black violence.. It appears on the surface that all subjects other than the commanders and their wives are treated in much the same way as each other. Seemingly the biblical rules of law are applied equally for transgressions. But Bastien asks: 

Are white Commanders and their wives really okay with having a handmaid of color? Is there a caste system for handmaids of color in which some are considered more desirable than others? Do Commanders of color have the same privileges as their white counterparts? If Gilead is meant to imagine a possible future for America, how could deeply entrenched racial dynamics disappear?

In this color-blind, post-racial idyll, there are people of color, but they are hollow and we know nothing about them, past or present. Evan Narcisse suggests it is like the comment made when you’re a non-white person in a predominantly white institution: “When I look at you, I don’t see a marginalised/minority person, I just see a person.” Although meant kindly, in its unmarked privilege it erases the fact of your difference and what it means to inhabit your body and your life. Whiteness is still the unacknowledged default. As Stephanie Brown observes, the men in power are white, as are most of the women. It’s important though that we care about all of this in real life, not just as fiction, as Berlatsky notes:

Because fictional tyrannical dystopias are primarily envisioned as affecting white people, it can be harder to see negative policies that oppress others. At the point where the fictional metaphor matters more than the current reality, something’s gone terribly wrong.

Several critics suggest that The Handmaid’s Tale represents a failure of intersectionality. The term ‘intersectionality’ originates in African American theorising and activism, and is most commonly associated with work by Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Collins. It describes how systems of oppression are viewed as interlocking. Therefore, attempts to dislodge one axis of oppression will impact on another. Globally, the term intersectionality is being appropriated as a way to activate attempts to address issues of under-representation in institutions without reverting to a single focus lens on issues such as gender, race, class, or sexuality. Intersectionality provides an understanding that identities can be simultaneously privileged and marginalised, depending on social context. Consequently we are all interpellated differently by racism and sexism through a ‘matrix of domination’ (Collins, 1990).  For example, I can be a migrant woman of color who is marginalised through sexism and racism, but I am also privileged through class position, education, able body and heterosexuality. 

Intersectionality is being introduced into diversity initiatives in Universities and is gaining momentum in the Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine disciplines (STEMM) disciplines. Intersectionality is seen as a strategy  for addressing the barriers to success and to widen and increase participation by women, working class, indigenous and ethnic minority groups, in order to leverage a diversity dividend. The use of an economic metaphor valorises innovation and economic competitiveness, rather than attempting to address a pressing social justice. Metaphors to account for inequities and the underrepresentation of groups in STEMM disciplines include the old boys club, the glass ceiling and the leaky pipeline. These metaphors also guide the strategies developed to address these failures of inclusion and their limitations. Merely creating a pipeline and applying force to propel people forward does not guarantee an increase numbers (Núñez, 2014). In the case of a pipeline, we know that it leaks at various stages and is still designed for an implicit ideal input, consequently women and ethnic minorities are more likely than white men to leak out. We also know that the leaking is progressive, so the farther along the pipeline, the fewer these groups are in number (Clark Blickenstaff*, 2005). Merely focusing on increasing or diversifying the supply hides the real issue which is at the ‘demand’ end of things, that is, the organization and the need for it to change (Riegle‐Crumb, 2009, p. 4). Similarly, the metaphor of the glass ceiling assumes the barriers facing marginalised groups are a one dimensional insurmountable barrier experienced at the ‘top’, when in fact marginalised identities experience discrimination and ‘hurdles’ throughout their careers (Husu, 2001, p. 177)Instead the analytic of intersectionality is being vaunted as an antidote to under-representation.

Diversity management is fast becoming a feature of the public image of the corporatised entrepreneurial academy. Standing in for structural or organisational change, diversity risks reproducing the issues I’ve identified in the screen version in the Handmaid’s Tale. Damon Williams suggests there are several political, social and economic imperatives for Universities to respond to diversity. In its place in the knowledge based global economy, it must respond to changing demographics and meet the need for creative and capable students and also demonstrate the viability and vibrancy of diversity. The diversity management strategies it employs range from access and equity; to creating a multicultural and inclusive campus climate; enhancing domestic and international diversity research and scholarship and preparing students for a diverse and global world (Damon Williams, p.19). However, the emphasis on diversity as a way of increasing numbers and improving Human Resources, is often not supplemented with an explicit engagement with the systems of power and inequality that structure the processes of knowledge production. Consequently, the white, elite and middle class structures and structural arrangements that reproduce inequality remain both invisible and intact (Dill & Zambrana, 2009). The neoliberal assumption of an asocial and ahistorical individualised world of meritocracy, means sometimes ignoring racism and sexism (Ong, Wright, Espinosa, & Orfield, 2011). Unmarked white, masculine values and norms instituted through colonial processes of political, cultural, and military dominance favor dominant epistemologies which claim universal truths that overlook social locations and identities (Carlone & Johnson, 2007).

The Handmaid’s Tale is being flagged as a universal wake-up call, about a white feminist dystopia. But as critics note, this ‘feminist’ rallying point ignores enduring prior calls by indigenous and women of color and is a failure of intersectionality. The assumption of a post-racial, ahistorical world limits the possibilities of imagining alternative futures for people of color, in a time of Turnbull, Trump, Macron and Trudeau. Similarly efforts in academia to engage with ‘diversity’ without attention to intersectionality and attending to systems of power and inequality, risks positioning people of color as economic resources who are mere backdrop in a white supremacist institution.


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