Elisabeth Moss stars as June/Offred/Ofjoseph in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and she’s bringing her message of nolite te bastardes carborundorum, bitches to the red carpet. At the 2019 MTV Movie & TV Awards, Moss rocked a velvet mini architectural dress by Balmain, complete with a fishnet sleeve and a huge silver serpent, rendered in three glorious dimensions. But is there a secret message that Moss is broadcasting to the world? That serpent comes with serious backstory — and Moss’ dress is loaded with symbolism.
The serpent is an ancient symbol that spans many ancient cultures. It can refer to snakes or wyrms, a wingless, limbless creature with the head of a dragon and the body of a snake. Throughout history, serpents have been a symbol of deception, especially by women — we all know the Biblical story of Eve eating the apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Suppressing feminine energy is a huge theme in The Handmaid’s Tale; women must be sheltered from their own sexuality and power, whether literally through oppressive power structures, or metaphorically through their color-coded, modest clothing. Putting a snake on her dress is one way of acknowledging she sees the oppression of women and is embracing that old school idea of taking it back — by hook or crook, deceptively or right from under their noses.
The serpent can also be found in a very optimistic, familiar place: the caduceus symbol of modern medicine, a winged staff with two intertwining serpents. Moss’ dress reminds us that the serpent also symbolizes healthcare as a noble pursuit. Gilead is a sobering reminder of what can happen if we don’t value women’s healthcare, or women at all.
Moss has been outspoken about Gilead’s oppressive power structure as it relates to our own. Last year, when she accepted her Golden Globe for her portrayal of June, Moss dedicated to award to women and allies who are “brave enough to speak out against intolerance and injustice and to fight for equality and freedom in this world.” Just this week, The Handmaid’s Tale cast recorded a PSA for Harper’s Bazaar and Planned Parenthood, in which they unequivocally affirm that abortion is healthcare — and “denying access to safe, legal abortion care is dangerous and deadly.” It’s unfortunate that this needs to be said, but abortion access is being decimated across the U.S. as we speak.
The red-hooded Handmaid costumes have taken on a life of their own beyond the show. Protesters against anti-abortion measures have arrived at state capitals all over the country, silently donning the cloaks as an eerie reminder of the consequences of rolling back women’s rights. Moss’ serpent gown may also be a nod to those protesters, her way of saying, “I see you.” Refinery29 has reached out to Moss for comment.