AS NEWS about The Handmaid’s Tale miniseries continues to roll in, some have taken issue with a particular casting choice: Samira Wiley as Moira. Purists insist that casting a black actress to play Moira undermines author Margaret Atwood’s treatment of Gilead — the former U.S., which has been overtaken by an extremely patriarchal new government — as a white supremacist dystopia. But The Handmaid’s Tale miniseries can address white supremacy, even with Wiley playing Moira.
If you have not read The Handmaid’s Tale, please know that there are spoilers beyond this point.
Atwood’s 1985 novel centers on Offred, the titular Handmaid, who has been stripped of her name, property, and family, simply because her marriage isn’t recognized by the new government. She is placed in service to a Commander and his Wife, for whom she is supposed to bear a child. Failure to produce valid offspring for this couple will brand Offred an Unwoman, and she will either be executed or sent to a work camp in the Colonies — areas outside of Gilead laid waste by radioactive toxins — as punishment.
Moira is Offred’s lesbian best friend from the pre-Gilead days. She refuses to submit to the new order, and runs away from the re-education center where she and Offred are trained as Handmaids. The two are reunited, late in the novel, when Offred’s Commander sneaks her into an underground brothel, where Moira now works as a prostitute.
The supposed problem with Wiley’s casting as Moira stems from the fact that all people of color are forcefully relocated as the Gileadean regime takes power. Black Americans — officially called Children of Ham by the new government — are moved to “National Homelands” in the Midwestern U.S., according to government-controlled TV news reports.
Removing people of color from Gileadean society ensures that Gilead will not be put in an awkward position, should non-white birthrates rise while white babies continue to be born with defects or not at all: a situation that would challenge the new state’s white supremacist status quo. Thus, purists argue, having Wiley portray Moira on the small screen will soften Gilead’s abhorrent nature.
Perhaps that is the case. But here’s the thing: unless you’re paying serious attention to what’s going on in the background, you won’t notice or remember that Gilead is an all-white society. Here’s what the novel tells us:
“Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule,” says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. “Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit.” How are they transporting that many people at once? Trains, buses? We are not shown any pictures of this. National Homeland One is in North Dakota. Lord knows what they’re supposed to do, once they get there. Farm, is the theory.
And that’s it. That’s the only time black Americans are mentioned in The Handmaid’s Tale: one short paragraph in a series about the treatment of undesirables in Gilead. Even though Hulu will adapt Atwood’s novel as a miniseries, the sole mention of the Children of Ham could easily be thrown out.
More importantly, Hulu’s version of The Handmaid’s Tale will provide viewers with a new installment each week. The minor details of previous episodes will be lost in viewers’ minds. So, supposing the showrunners kept in the TV broadcast of the mass-relocation projects, there’s little guarantee that the average viewer would recall, at the end of things, that Gilead was a white supremacy.
Without a black Moira, then, The Handmaid’s Tale would be whitewashed. Should Hulu’s adaptation remain faithful to the racial dynamic of Atwood’s novel, we would find ourselves concerned with Elisabeth Moss’ Offred, her white ex-husband and white daughter, the white Commander and his white Wife, their white driver, and all the myriad white people Offred meets. In this model, the forced resettlement of black Americans might haunt us, but we wouldn’t address the horror of what’s happening in Gilead, because our concern for the white people in that white world would override any opportunity for reflection.
While it’s understandable that we feel compassion and anger for Offred, the fact remains that there are people who have it worse than she. Because we aren’t constantly confronted with their oppression, as we are the Handmaids’, readers don’t have the chance to react sympathetically to their plight.
Yes, having Wiley portray Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale will slightly alter Gilead’s caste structure. However, The Handmaid’s Tale has always functioned as a mirror, held up so that we may see the atrocities of our own society. Just because the white people in power no longer dictate where people of color may move, work, and live does not mean that the U.S. has crushed white supremacy. In an age when we’re still forced to remind others that black lives matter, a black Moira isn’t just progressive; she’s necessary.