Gender Treachery, or Where Are All the Trans People in “The Handmaid’s Tale”?
Hulu's patriarchal sci-fi dystopia can't quite bring itself to explore what happens outside the cis experience.
September 5, 2019

Hulu’s patriarchal sci-fi dystopia can’t quite bring itself to explore how Gilead would treat trans people in a world of ‘gender traitors’.

Three seasons in, it’s become clear that the creators of The Handmaid’s Tale see themselves as great weavers of social allegory. With every heartfelt speech about separating children from their mothers and every flashback to the political machinations that led to the creation of Gilead, audiences are constantly asked not only to see the show as a direct parallel to the present day, but to see themselves within that parallel specifically as gendered people.

Gilead is what we might call a gender dystopia – a fictional society so strictly delineated along gender lines that the delineation itself becomes horror. We bear witness to the show’s underclass of women as they are beaten, raped, and enslaved, and we ask ourselves: could we survive this? Would we?

All this is to say that the show’s writers clearly think a lot about gender, particularly within the context of representation, privilege, and oppression. We have that in common. I, too, spend entirely too much time thinking about how gender shapes societies; that’s probably why I’ve powered through a lackluster third season. But for all of the writers’ attempts to bring me into the world of Gilead, I still can’t see myself in any of the characters. In fact, I spend a good part of my time watching the show wondering, “where are all the people like me?”

And then I remember that they’re probably all dead.

At first glance, it might seem obvious why The Handmaid’s Tale wouldn’t spend much time (or any time) with the plight of any transgender or gender-nonconforming people who got caught up in Gilead’s dystopia. After all, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and only people who can bear children (i.e. cisgender women) can be handmaids. Furthermore, we can assume that gender-nonconformity would fall under the banner of “gender treachery,” the charge that got Emily mutilated back in season one. If sexual minorities are punishable, surely gender minorities are, too – a neat extension of discrimination on the basis of sex

But these explanations don’t hold up. For one thing, if we can spend as much time as we do with “gender traitors” like Emily (Alexis Bledel), we should certainly be able to spend time with a trans person. And the assumption that only cis women contribute to reproduction and heterosexuality simply ignores reality – not a good look for the fictional setting supposedly drawn entirely from real-world examples.

Not to mention that gender dystopias have addressed the trans question before. Y: The Last Man is a critically acclaimed comic series published by Vertigo between 2002 and 2008. It follows Yorick Brown, who alongside his pet monkey is the last male mammal on earth after a mysterious plague wipes out everything with a Y chromosome. In terms of gender politics, Y: The Last Man is even more bioessentialist than Handmaid, and its main thrust is showcasing a world inhabited entirely by (cis) women. 

Y: The Last Man (Vertigo)

But even though it has its issues (and boy, does it have its fucking issues), Y manages to nod however briefly to the state of trans and gender-non-conforming folks in this brave new world. When investigating what went wrong with The Handmaid’s Tale, we can look to Y: The Last Man for an example of how the rules of a gender dystopia can be bent to provide richer stories than the clear-cut delineation the dystopia seemingly demands.

First and foremost, we have the argument that The Handmaid’s Tale can get away with excluding trans characters because trans identity is considered at least useless to, and at most an active rebellion against, Gilead’s values. But we’ve seen already that this show has no qualms with showing audiences what happened to “useless” or rebellious women, from mock trials to hangings to exile in a post-nuclear wasteland. Hell, we even saw this in the most recent season finale, in a flashback scene that bears perhaps the most direct Holocaust parallels we’ve seen so far: women with physical and developmental disabilities herded onto trucks toward an unseen but undoubtedly lethal destination, while June (Elisabeth Moss) and her fellow handmaids-to-be are taken to the Red Center. 

Though we may not spend much time with these women, and though in many cases we don’t even know their names, the show acknowledges our curiosity about them and gives them enough visibility for us to know why they aren’t around. Though June and her fellow fertile, able-bodied, normative-presenting women are the focus, we see enough of other women’s plight to understand why we care for their fate. But trans people aren’t afforded that luxury.

I spend a good part of my time watching the show wondering, “where are all the people like me?”

And then I remember that they’re probably all dead.

Y: The Last Man performed marginally better on this front. Although transmasculine people weren’t affected by the plague that eradicated the Y chromosome, violence is still enacted against them in a world suddenly populated overwhelmingly by womanhood. In the series’ second issue, Yorick meets Waverly, a woman whose trans boyfriend was murdered by a radical feminist militia group. Waverly’s dialogue on the subject is clunky – she misgenders the boyfriend and refers to Yorick comparatively as a “real man” – but the moment shows an attempt to address how a gender-segregated world harms trans people.

How hard would it have been to cast a trans woman to be herded onto trucks with the others? Why are even the openly queer women on this show largely normative in terms of gender presentation? Why are queer people only visible in terms of sexuality on this show, and not of gender? If The Handmaid’s Tale is so committed to allegory that runs parallel to modern-day politics, why not show us what happened to one of the groups most heavily targeted by right-wing extremism?

As the show, episode after episode, seems determined to run the gamut of feminist misery porn, the continued absence of the fate of trans women grows ever more glaring as an overlooked category rather than a case of not enough screentime.

When you think about it, The Handmaid’s Tale is pretty TERFy.