Leading up to the release of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the show looked to be on the cutting edge of diversity. Not only was it woman-centric, it featured two queer women and three black characters in significant roles, plus several other characters of color. Like surely many queer women, I was thrilled to hear that Samira Wiley of Orange is the New Black fame had been cast as the protagonist Offred’s Gay Best Friend, Moira. Moreover, when Alexis Bledel was announced as part of the cast, it was also revealed that her character Ofglen (Offred’s shopping partner and confidante) was going to be a lesbian. Moira was already a lesbian in the book, but the queering of Ofglen was new and unexpected, and more than welcome.
Indeed, the first few episodes of the series were heavy on queer content. The two lesbians’ sexual identities were discussed openly and often, and persecution of the LGBTQ community was a prominent theme. We saw Moira flirting with girls in flashbacks to college and in later years we heard several mentions of her girlfriend, Odette. When June (Offred’s real name in the series) was reunited with Moira at the Red Center, Moira told her Odette was rounded up in a “dyke purge,” an early indication of Gilead’s brutal homophobia. If that wasn’t enough to get the message across, we also saw the body of a gay man hanging on the river wall.
As for Ofglen (whom we came to know as Emily), she mentioned her former life with a wife and son and referred to herself as a “carpet-munching gender traitor,” one of my favorite one-liners all season. When Emily was caught in a relationship with another woman, June got interrogated about what she knew about her partner’s sexuality and if “Ofglen” had ever come on to her. June admitted she knew Ofglen was a lesbian, and got tazed as punishment for legitimizing her identity. Meanwhile, Emily was put on trial with her lover, then forced to watch said woman hanged in one of the most gut-wrenching sequences of the season. The real shocker came at the end of the episode, though, when Emily woke up to find that her punishment was a forced clitoridectomy.
While episode 3 was obviously unpleasant for queer female viewers, no one could accuse The Handmaid’s Tale of queer erasure when it was putting our stories and persecution by the Religious Right front and center. The rest of season 1, however, proved to be quite the let down. Emily’s arc was cut woefully short, and while Moira saw a slight increase in screen time, she had some of her story from the book taken away and given to a man. For obvious reasons, that is particularly troubling in this piece of media.
The most famous trope affecting queer women’s representation on television is Bury Your Gays, the tendency for queer characters (especially queer women) to be killed off at much higher rates than straight characters. 2016’s infamous “spring slaughter” killing spree of queer women caused quite the backlash and brought that trope into the limelight. While The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t kill either of its main queer female characters, cutting Emily out of the story essentially buried her alive. The two episodes after her departure featured no Moira either, leaving us with no representation at all. It’s not as though everything has to be about us, but total silence on the queer narrative front after Emily was dragged away by the Eyes wasn’t fun, to say the least.
With all that in mind, let’s examine these characters’ trajectories in more detail, shall we?
Moira had a larger role to play in episode 4, in the flashback sequence of her and June plotting and executing their escape from the Red Center. This was a notable change from the book, in which Moira escaped alone and Offred only learned about it through Janine. I liked this change because I enjoyed the controversial adjustments in Offred/June, namely how she was made snarkier (at least in her head) and more active as a rebel. It did mean that parts of the lesbian’s story were taken away and given to the straight protagonist, namely the gruesome foot flaying scene that was punishment for a failed escape attempt. However, I gave the show the benefit of the doubt because up to that point we had only seen flashbacks from June’s point of view, so it was the only way to include it.
As an aside, since Moira is played by a black actress, this can also be seen as an instance of giving the black woman’s story to the white woman. However, it would have been rather tasteless to show a black woman getting whipped by white women, especially when it wasn’t in the original story. (The event itself was, but Moira was white in the book.) So I am not sure what to think of that aspect of it. Black women, feel free to chime in in the comments.
Other than a brief scene in a flashback in which she inadvertently played wingman for June, Moira was absent in the next three episodes. More disappointing than her lack of screen time, however, was the fact that her story of nearly escaping to Canada via the Underground Femaleroad was given to Luke, June’s husband. Episode 7 revolves around Luke, telling his side of his and June’s failed escape to Canada with their daughter.
Frankly, while it was interesting to see what had become of Luke, the exposition of how he got to Canada was unnecessary. It could be seen as worldbuilding, but that worldbuilding was supposed to come from Moira’s perspective, as it did in the book. Her story was long and detailed, as she went through several Underground operatives before getting caught near the border. Once we started seeing flashbacks from disparate perspectives in episode 6, it seemed reasonable to assume the show would adapt Moira’s escape as a flashback. Instead, she got a throwaway paragraph in episode 8 about some Quakers helping her and then getting caught outside the city.
On the bright side, episode 8 saw her return in a big way and stay for the rest of the season. As in the book, she was working at Jezebel’s when Offred/June showed up with her commander, Fred. True to the original story, she was demoralized and had given up any hope of escape. She was happy to hear Luke got out, but was quick to point out, “But he isn’t us. And he isn’t in here.” And she was right. There are far less roadblocks (literally) to a man escaping Gilead than a woman.
Episode 9 got quite creepy, as once again we saw Moira at Jezebel’s when June convinced Fred to take her back. Her goal was to procure a package from a Mayday operative at the bar, but Fred thought she wanted to see Moira. More specifically, he thought she wanted to have sex with her, and he seemed eager to watch.
Fred was the second man in the series to make pervy assumptions about Moira and June sleeping together, the first being Luke. The fetishization of queer women by straight men apparently doesn’t go away in a deeply homophobic society. It was disturbing to watch, especially when Fred called Moira a degenerate. Even more disturbing was the scene in episode 8 where June came across a man enjoying a Ceremony-inspired threesome fantasy with two women dressed up like a handmaid and a wife. However, I’m glad the show addressed said fetishization and the double standard of men shaming queer women but also getting off on them.
The fetishization of queer women by straight men apparently doesn’t go away in a deeply homophobic society.
After a heated argument in which June urged Moira to keep fighting like she had sworn to, Moira stormed out. But at episode’s end, June received the package from a guy at the butcher shop with a note from Moira. “Praised be, bitch. Here’s your damn package.” The episode closed with Moira duplicating her toilet tank shiv from episode 4, then killing a guy and stealing a car. (Queer women murdering men and stealing cars seems to be a running theme on this show. More on that later.)
In episode 10, we saw Moira arrive in Canada, though regretfully none of her experiences along the way. One piece of worldbuilding we did get from her perspective, however, was the refugee processing facility. Her shock at being free and having so much help was clear all episode, and cathartic to watch after all she’d been through. As much as I’ve ragged on the show’s usage of Luke, her reunion with him was sweet. Finding out he’d put her on his alert list for escaped family members was heartwarming. And their hug, god. I totally cried did not cry.
Overall, I was pleased that Moira was in so many episodes, because she was an important character in the book. By making her presence felt nearly every week, the series stayed true to what Moira meant to Offred. Better yet, it didn’t shy away from her queerness one bit. That being said, she didn’t really have a lot of screen time, even in the final three episodes. We never met Odette, and we barely saw Moira with any love interest. As I recall, we never even saw her kiss a woman.
It’s nice to see queer characters whose stories don’t revolve around their queerness, honestly. But given all the heterosexual drama that went down this season, you’d think they could at least let us see a queer relationship. You know, other than the one where we watched one partner get hanged while the other screamed. That’s not exactly progressive in terms of depicting queer relationships.
And of course, scrapping Moira’s experiences on the Underground Femaleroad to show Luke riding around on a school bus with other would-be escapees was a big mistake. And not just in terms of representation. The Underground was important in the book, while the bus was just some random people who meant nothing to the larger story. The writers gave up an opportunity to show us what this network of facilitators would look like onscreen. And in doing so, they gave a major thread of a queer woman’s story to a straight man. That is never going to sit well with queer female audiences.
After how prominently she figured in the first three episodes, Emily’s quick exit from the story was especially irksome. She returned for only one episode following her surgery, and disappointingly, that one episode did little for her arc. Other than to illustrate how Dead Inside™ Emily was following her trauma in episode 3, she was mostly brought back for plot convenience.
Emily was in three scenes in episode 5. In the first, June saw Emily at the supermarket and Emily deflected June’s questions and concerns, saying she was fine when she was very clearly not fine. When pressed for information about Nick, Emily revealed she had been cast out of Mayday because she was too risky a person to have involved. On that note, the new Ofglen swept in to whisk June away, because she didn’t want to be even remotely associated with Emily.
In the second scene, we saw again how not fine Emily was as she threw a ball for her commander’s dog, eyes dead yet full of pain. Obviously feeling sorry for her, the wife suggested they skip tonight’s ceremony because she “wasn’t feeling well.” Emily blankly pointed out that the wife couldn’t fake sick every month. Why bother putting off one mechanical rape when the next is just around the corner?
In her final scene of the season, Emily was again approached by June while shopping, this time at an outdoor market. Having learned about Emily’s surgery, June expressed her heartfelt condolences. But Emily again brushed off her concern, compelling her to get in touch with Mayday. In perhaps her only sincere moment of the episode, when June botched her new name (Ofsteven) for the third time, she told June her real name and gave her hand a clandestine squeeze. Before June could answer Emily’s question “Who are you?”, she was dragged away by Ofglen #2 again. Emily’s heart seemed to break in that moment, and so did mine.
In what appeared to be a moment of desperation, Emily jumped in an open car door and took a little joyride around the market. Interestingly, she didn’t try to escape. She did, however, run over a soldier twice, deliberately killing him on the second hit after a nod of encouragement from June. The Eyes pulled her from the car and into the back of a van, and then she was gone. It looked as though The Handmaid’s Tale may have fallen into the Bury Your Gays trope until it was recently announced that Alexis Bledel will be reprising her role next season. And thank god, because her season 1 arc was mighty dissatisfying.
My beef with Emily’s storyline is not the mutilation itself, though I can see why some queer women would take exception to it because we tend to suffer on television. Though it was clearly intended to shock, it felt realistic as something that would happen in Gilead to a woman who had “sinned” sexually but they wanted to keep alive. This is especially true for a queer woman, because there is that extra gross layer of helping her overcome her sinful desires, as both Fred and Aunt Lydia alluded to.
Also in terms of what the show did right, there was a good minute of the audience observing the emotional impact on Emily (courtesy of Bledel’s amazing silent acting) after Aunt Lydia left her alone at the end of episode 3. Therefore, they avoided a Game of Thrones type of controversy over focusing on someone else’s reaction to a woman’s sexual victimization.
What is disheartening about what the show did with Emily is that they abandoned her story and development after throwing all that suffering her way. I would have liked to see her working through her trauma, but all we saw in episode 5 was a demonstration of said trauma and then an impulsive act of blatant rebellion that allowed her to be written off. Emily jumping in a car and running over a soldier felt very out of character. But maybe that was intentional. Maybe it was meant to show that this was her breaking point. If that is the case, it didn’t come across very well.
“They didn’t get everything. There was something inside her they couldn’t take away. She looked invincible.” -June, re. Emily’s homicidal act of rebellion
To be especially salty, Emily’s return seemed to have a lot more to do with moving June’s plot forward than exploring her own trauma, save for her short interaction with Steven’s wife. Emily twice mentioned Mayday to June and urged her to get in touch with them, and her foray into grand theft auto and vehicular homicide gave June inspiration to execute her own little act of rebellion: going to Nick’s apartment and initiating sex with him. I feel like this should go without saying, but sacrificing the lesbian to further the straight woman’s romantic arc is pretty gross.
Beyond that, showrunner Bruce Miller said they purposely didn’t kill Emily onscreen so they would have the option of bringing her back in the future. That is to say, her future was up in the air. The idea that they were considering leaving her story like that and letting us assume her dead is enough to disappoint if not anger any queer female fan. And it’s likely they opted to bring her back because she was a popular character and her story hit home with people, so we probably have the fans to thank for her return more than the powers that be.
In general, The Handmaid’s Tale has not done a great job of pleasing minority groups, because it ultimately failed at being intersectional. To be fair, attempts at diversity and intersectionality were clearly made. Addressing the particular struggles of a lesbian handmaid was a good start, but dropping her story meant they also dropped the ball. Similarly, the colorblind casting was a nice idea and allowed us to see more of Samira Wiley being queer, which I am always down for. However, the writers’ failure to adjust the scripts to acknowledge the characters’ races meant they ended up ignoring racial issues altogether, which caused a controversy all its own.
Miller has said his team will do a better job addressing the racial issues next season, and they will already know that Moira, Luke, and Hannah are black while writing the scripts, so they will have no excuse for not doing better. Let’s hope that with some feedback, they also do better with their handling of queer female characters. Moving forward, I hope both Emily and Moira continue to play significant roles and have their characters and backstories deepened.
The show’s copious use of flashbacks should make this easy. It would be lovely to finally meet Odette and Emily’s wife and son, or even to see more of Emily’s relationship with the Martha. It’s rather annoying to say the least that we saw flashbacks from the perspectives of the main straight women and even some of the men, but not from the queer female characters. Because this is a woman-centric show, and we are women too. Our stories matter too.