The red costume was recognizable — but it wasn’t quite right. A white visor led into a long red cape, draping over the model’s shoulders. But instead of covering the woman’s entire body in a swath of crimson, the Halloween costume’s cape opened up to reveal a tight red dress and fishnets.
This get-up definitely wasn’t how Margaret Atwood described the handmaids’ uniforms in the oppressive society Gilead her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale. Amid a flurry of internet outrage, the Handmaid’s Tale-inspired Halloween costumes were pulled by their manufacturer, Yandy. Elsewhere in the world, women continued to don the red uniforms to protest policies that curtailed women’s rights, earning praise and media attention. Women stood silently in body-concealing red dresses during pro-choice protests on the streets of Ireland and Argentina. They flocked to Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing, where the memory of an alleged sexual assault was interrogated. Their red cloaks contrasted with the white buildings the Washington, D.C. In recent years, wherever women’s rights to their bodies were questioned, the women in red cloaks appear like ominous reminders of what could be — ghosts of dystopian futures.
There’s clearly a time and place for handmaid costumes. In Atwood’s novel and the ensuing Hulu adaptation that began airing in 2017, these red uniforms represent the total reduction of an individual woman into a role. Handmaids are nothing but vessels for carrying children. During monthly “ceremonies,” the women are raped by Commanders in the hopes they’ll get pregnant in the increasingly polluted Earth. If they fail to fulfill their function, they’re shipped off to the toxic Colonies.
Depending on the context, the costume’s weighty associations can either be magnified for power — or undermined as parody. Let’s review: Can handmaid’s costumes be used to condemn the curtailing of women’s rights? Definitely. As a skimpy Halloween costume? Definitely not.
Well, how about for a themed viewing party, thrown by a self-professed Handmaid’s Tale fanatic? What then? Over the weekend, Gilead’s best-known symbol was placed in an unlikely setting: Kylie Jenner’s Handmaid’s Tale-themed party that she threw for her friend Anastasia “Stassi” Karanikolaou’s 22nd birthday.
It may have been the world’s most misguided viewing party. Coinciding with the premiere of its third season, Jenner painstakingly transformed her mansion into a tribute to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is apparently her favorite show. Actresses dressed as Marthas, the Gilead equivalent of maids, greeted partygoers. Guests sipped on themed cocktails – including “Praise Be Vodka.”
The party garb transfixed and enraged Twitter users. Handmaid costumes hung from a rack in Jenner’s foyer. Young women in their 20s donned the robes and took mirror selfies as they also took shots. The costume that represented subjugation in Gilead now had another feature: A nonexistent waistband that wouldn’t impede the party’s sumptuous feast. These uniforms might have been a more accurate rendering of the uniform than the skimpy Halloween costume, but their application was just as reprehensible to Internet onlookers.
Still, Jenner presided over the controversial festivities with enthusiasm that belied no hesitation or shame. “Praise be, ladies,” Handmaid Kylie Jenner said, standing at the end of a long red tunnel and greeting guests. ”We’re going to watch an episode.”
Maybe Jenner was only proud of her themed party because the internet hadn’t reacted with vitriol yet. Though if she were as true a fan as she claims to be, Jenner could’ve predicted the internet’s reaction. Anyone who’s seen how eerily an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale coincides with the rolling back of women’s rights in the United States would known this party would be a disaster.
Jenner’s party very clearly made light of the show’s dire premise: Women are sorted by a theocratic authority into categories by metrics of morality, fertility, and age. Their survival is contingent on their utility. Fail to fill a roll adequately and get shipped to the Colonies to wither away in a radioactive wasteland.
More likely is that Kylie Jenner didn’t care or think about the reaction. She wanted to throw a party for a show she really likes, and she did. In theory, Jenner’s party wasn’t far off from, say, a Game of Thrones party where people come dressed as the villain Cersei Lannister. You know Cersei’s a TV character. You know it’s “just a show.” Dressing up as Cersei isn’t necessarily condoning her behavior, nor is it supporting the patriarchal society that made her. It’s just fun. Cersei is a total HBIC.
Nevertheless, The Handmaid’s Tale has never been “just a show.” Its premiere coincided eerily with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Since then, it’s functioned as a north star for the “worst case scenario.” We watch The Handmaid’s Tale and see a future version of ourselves, should Washington continue to devolve into chaos. The more the Trump administration rolls back women’s rights, attacks the press and pro-choice institutions, and controls all branches of government, the closer we come to Gilead. Jenner’s party makes light of the significance this show has held for audiences, especially women.
Then again, as the show continues, it falls into a trap that resembles Jenner’s party. Jenner wanted to entertain her house guests; she did so with punny cocktails spiked with irreverence. Similarly, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale needs to entertain its audience. In order to keep returning, the audience needs to be increasingly shocked, thrilled, surprised. Because if a viewer in the era of peak TV’s abundance is bored, her next step is simple: Switch to another prestige drama. So that means a new layer of Gilead’s horrors must be unveiled in every episode. It’s like a challenge to what a viewer can take: “You think it’s bad now? Think again.”
Back in 2017, when the show was new, The Handmaid’s Tale almost soothed us by acknowledging our fears were valid. The handmaid uniforms, when used in protest, were satisfying because they were scary. They strip women of their identities and symbolize a society where women have also been stripped of freedom. Now that it’s been done time and time again, the costume-as-protest gimmick is less clever. So is the show — with season 3, the Rotten Tomatoes rating has dropped to 75%, an all-time low.
But then, we have always asked too much of The Handmaid’s Tale. It never was going to predict the future, or protect us from it. Because our future won’t be Gilead, exactly. It’ll be a beast of its own.
And in this beastly future, a young woman with a platform of millions and a net worth of billions wears a handmaids uniform and greets her guests at the front door. Those numbers bolster her, insulate her, lift her up from the gnawing fears that other women feel for their futures when they watch The Handmaid’s Tale. The future is coming, but as this party so callously shows, Jenner doesn’t think it’s coming for her.