Reproducing the White Republic: The Ontology of Slavery in The Handmaid’s Tale

Activity: External talk or presentationOral presentation


The Handmaid’s Tale has become one of the most politically salient representations of slavery in recent decades, thanks, in part, to a high-profile television adaptation and the striking use of Handmaid costumes by reproductive rights activists. But Handmaid is a speculative story of white slavery, leading critics to accuse Atwood of erasing race and appropriating African American history. In this paper, I argue that the text’s deracination of slavery is not so much a matter of colour-blind racism or political insensitivity, but rather an intervention that attempts to map a metaphysical terrain of slavery by ontologising race and gender. This gesture cannot be explained away as a mere product of the text’s mid-eighties pre-intersectional context. As the ongoing fascination with Handmaid attests, the image of slavery that Atwood offers speaks directly to the questions of autonomy and agency that animate our current conjunctures.

My suggestion is that Handmaid deploys slavery as a discursive operator to organise and secure the affective and libidinal economies of ‘hegemonic feminism’ – a form of predominantly white feminism that mounts a dialectical battle with patriarchy by essentialising femininity and reproduction. As Sophie Lewis has recently explained, Handmaid offers a ‘wishful scenario’ in which the complicating factors of trans and nonbinary genders disappear along with Blackness, creating a cisheteronormative foundation for women’s rights while avoiding feminism’s troubling history of complicity with anti-Blackness. Drawing on the work of Saidiya Hartman and Sylvia Wynter, I argue that the text uses the figure of slavery to raise the stakes of this fantasy. Through close readings of Handmaid’s depiction of domestic servitude and its Linnaean naturalisation of hierarchical categories of race and gender, I unravel the narrational strategies that enable representations of enslavement to reinscribe the ontological premises of social death.
Period26 Jun 2021
Event title“Blood on the Leaves/And Blood at the Roots”: Reconsidering Forms of Enslavement and Subjection across Disciplines
Event typeConference
LocationUnited KingdomShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational


  • Speculative fiction
  • slavery
  • ontology
  • whiteness studies
  • The Handmaid's Tale
  • critical race theory
  • Linnaeus
  • Contemporary literature