How 'The Handmaid's Tale' Is Failing Its Queer Characters In Season 2
After years of asking for better LGBTQ representation on our television screens, it seems that creators are finally listening. This is both good and bad: Good, because it means more widespread representation for our community; bad, because oftentimes, that representation is sorely lacking in any kind of nuance or depth. The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 shows how LGBTQ representation can be well-intentioned but still ultimately fail its characters, and that's even more apparent now that the show has fully diverged from its source material.
The series takes a one-off line from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, wherein June says that her friend Moira “prefers women,” and uses it to introduce two very different but equally engaging queer characters: Moira, played by Orange Is The New Black’s Samira Wiley, and Emily, played by Gilmore Girls’ Alexis Bledel. The former nearly escapes Gilead, only to get caught and be given a choice between suffering to death in the Colonies, or doing sex work at an underground club in what was once Boston. The latter is caught having a sexual relationship with a “Martha” (household slave), and is sentenced to “redemption” while her lover is hanged. Redemption in Gilead looks like this: mutilation of her sexual organs so that Emily can still give birth to children, but not enjoy sex. Later, when she tries to escape, she isn’t given a choice; she’s sent straight to the Colonies, which is where we find her in the second episode of Season 2.
In some ways, The Handmaid’s Tale does very well with queer representation (though like its source material, the show falls into very cissexist understandings of gender; trans people are never even talked about, which suggests in canon that they were killed in the transition to Gilead — that's another story). On one hand, both Moira and Emily feel like fully fleshed out characters who are incredibly, achingly real. They are queer characters who are present in a way that’s almost surprising; they are easily the strongest, most resilient, most rebellious women in Gilead. They cannot afford to be complacent, even before the United States falls to ruin, and their resilience allows them to work against the patriarchal system of Gilead that forces them into new, even more subservient roles, wherein fertile women are raped once a month for the sake of furthering the human race.
On the other hand, both characters are clearly based on stereotypes which, when examined side by side, point to how often creators rely on certain ideas of the LGBTQ community without bothering to add any further nuance to their writing.
Moira is the angry, black, misandrist lesbian who gives in to her oppressors until her white, straight friend convinces her to keep fighting. She openly rebels against Gilead and is punished for it; in order to fully escape, she murders one of her rapists and, by some miracle, makes it beyond the borders of Gilead into the “safe” land of Canada.
Emily is the bookish, white, secretive lesbian who believes she can dismantle the system from the inside out. Before Gilead, she was a well-to-do professor with a wife and child; her first instinct when her marriage certificate was declared invalid was to ask for a supervisor. Like Moira, Emily also murders people in Gilead, though her victims are not directly harming her — but they do uphold the system.
Thus far, neither Moira nor Emily have been outright killed, which to a certain extent subverts the harmful “Bury Your Gays” trope. The fact that they both live to the second season is, frankly, remarkable — though given the fact that they are mutilated, abused, and repeatedly traumatized primarily at the hands of men, that doesn’t feel like a huge accomplishment. Queer women in fiction are often counted upon for their resilience, which is certainly the case in The Handmaid’s Tale. While that’s accurate to many experiences of being queer in the real world (we are never going away), the repetition of this story in fiction suggests that queer women are only valid if they are resilient.
Queer women suffer far more than their straight counterparts in The Handmaid’s Tale. That isn’t to say that women in general don’t suffer incredible harm under Gilead’s regime, because they do. But there’s one major difference in how the queer characters are treated: any nugget of happiness that they may find is rapidly stripped away, from romantic relationships to sexual pleasure to freedom. They also lack the resources and support of the straight characters, which is downright infuriating.
Moira, a childless, queer woman of color is never given the chance to find love or romance while she is repeatedly violated by men; she has to rely entirely on herself to escape, and once she does, it’s her best friend’s husband who meets her at the refugee center in Canada — someone she openly criticizes for his toxic masculinity in flashbacks. Emily’s lover is hanged in front of her eyes, and she never manages to learn any information about her wife and son; she’s dying in the colonies, abandoned by the resistance movement she risked her life to help, suffering day in and day out.
Meanwhile, June — the straight, white protagonist — has taken a lover who is part of the resistance. She knows that her husband and child are alive, and an entire network of individuals help her to escape Gilead. Her value lies in her ability to birth children, just like Moira and Emily, but the writers also prioritize her storylines. The argument that she’s the protagonist doesn’t cut it here; queer women deserve the same chance at happiness as their straight counterparts, regardless whose face is on promotional posters — even if this is a story about an oppressive dystopian society.
Furthermore, The Handmaid’s Tale often feels like a public service announcement for Resistance. Now that the series is off the beaten path of Atwood’s novel, that feeling is even more pronounced. When June builds her makeshift memorial to the Boston Globe journalists who were slaughtered — a distressing reminder that our current president actively promotes violence against members of the news media — the careful focus on a single Pride flag feels heavy-handed. It feels cheap, especially in the wake of Emily murdering a Wife for her role in creating and upholding the society of Gilead.
June’s inclusion of the Pride flag feels performative in the same way that straight allyship often does: it implies that by acknowledging the rainbow flag’s presence and giving it a place of honor, she’s somehow Helping the Cause. The thing is, flying a rainbow flag — especially in Gilead — isn’t going to help.
Until media creators acknowledge that, and start writing queer characters with intention, rather than a desire for diversity, our representation will continue to lack depth. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the best measures of queer representation on TV right now, and that is, quite frankly, terrifying.