The Handmaid’s Tale and the Rise of Queer TV


Last summer, Samira Wiley’s beloved Orange is the New Black character Poussey Washington met a brutal and unexpected death at the hands of the White Establishment. It was a plotted move meant to move the conversation about police brutality forward, but that didn’t stop people from being royally pissed off. Fans couldn’t believe that the most beloved character on the show was being sacrificed in favor of a Grand Statement about the way we live now. And just like that, the #PousseyDeservedBetter tag was born.

Samira Wiley in OITNB

Fans were right to be upset. Jenji Kohan’s tale of a hapless white girl set loose into the multicultural world of the American prison system had, since its first season in 2013, held up as one of the most longstanding progressive (and intersectional) shows on TV. The death of one of its most beloved characters felt like a slap in the face.

But what if Wiley’s death was written to release her for newer, queerer projects?

Case in point: Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s famously unfilmable tale of a dystopian, anti-feminist future. In the much-hyped adaptation, Wiley plays Moira, a lesbian working as a prostitute and keeping a low profile inside of a homophobic society with close parallels to Trump’s for America.

Talk about making a statement.

Even without taking The Handmaid’s Tale into consideration, the fact is that, since 2013, culture has moved away from OITNB’s somewhat heavy-handed portrayal of lesbianism that seemed so revolutionary just a few years ago. TV is headed into a grayer area when it comes to discussing the problems of our society, and the way sexual orientation provides a kind of political revolution of its own. In a word: Gay TV belongs to the past. It was about representation, period. Queer TV is the future, and it’s political.

The amount of queer-headed or queer-themed projects coming up that Wiley could have easily been a part of is dizzying—and most of which promise to leave OITNB in the dust.

Offhand, there’s Ryan Murphy’s camp extravaganza Feud, the Jonathan Groff-starring, David Fincher-directed Mindhunter on Netflix, Lee Daniels’s Star, the CW’s Supergirl, and Fatimah Asghar’s Brown Girls, a web series about queer women of color in Chicago. And in all of these—most remarkably—queerness promises to be an integral aspect of plot without pegging each show as specifically “gay” programming.

So why is this a big deal, exactly?

Since the early days of specifically “gay” programming, we’ve witnessed a queer TV renaissance. Casual queerness is showing up everywhere on TV, from acclaimed HBO comedies like High Maintenance and Insecure to prestige Hulu shows (Casual, Difficult People) to routine network dramas (Supergirl) and comedies (Modern Family).

To be fair, it’s been a long time coming. The early 2000s say the birth of true, long-form prestige television. They also saw a dramatic rise in Queer programming, from the now-clunky L Word and Queer as Folk, which portrayed, celebrated, and—let’s be honest, exploited—gay sex on primetime television.

Queer As Folk

Queer As Folk

And then the Internet happened, ushering in its own new queer renaissance. Orange is the New Black was one of the first majorly successful shows on a streaming service—something you could binge-watch on the instant of its release. In 2013, it seemed radical, as did its more casually queer counterpart House of Cards that premiered on Netflix earlier in the year.

In the post-binge era, a time of casual mass TV consumption leading to braver, less traditional programming, queerness has become a sort of afterthought.

HAPPY ENDINGS - ABC's "Happy Endings" stars Adam Pally as Max. Photo by Bob D'Amico/ABC via Getty Images)

Happy Endings

Though we may have yet to embrace queerness on TV in quite the offhand, ‘everybody’s-a-little-queer’ way in the country, the TV of today (and in the years since Orange in the New Black) that assumption seems to be kind of a given. One of Broad City’s main characters is a proudly undefined bisexual. In the cult favorite Happy Endings, one of the main characters laments being ‘too normal’ or ‘too bro-ey’ to be gay, only to realize by season’s end that he’s just fine the way he is. In Difficult People, Bill Eichner tries desperately to fit into a gay subculture until he realizes that it’s just not that necessary—in terms of getting laid or otherwise—in 2016. Queerness isn’t about labels anymore.

Intersectionality plays a part in this, of course. There’s a reason why Wiley’s OITNB death was so up- setting to the internet. They had come to feel that the show was for them. That it had a responsibility to portray the world not as it was, but as it should be.

As in: The Black queer character gets to live at the end. And maybe even go off into the sunset and be happy.

In a way, Wiley is going off into the sunset to be happy—just not on-screen. Her latest project promises to be the most ambitious yet, for both Wiley and Hulu. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has had its share of awkward adaptation attempts. Whether or not this version gets the book right this time, they’ve already gotten one thing unmistakably right: The timing.

About The Author

Henry Giardina is FourTwoNine's Senior Editor

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