Protestors across the country have adopted a new uniform.
It’s immediately recognizable to avid readers or fans of dystopian TV, yet perplexing to those unaware of its origins, easily thrown by its anachronistic vibes. Whether you know the name Offred or not, the getup ― seen in congresses across the United States over the past few months ― is arresting nonetheless: Red robes and white bonnets have become standard livery for activists in America.
Of course, the uniform harks back to The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s chilling depiction of a future U.S. occupied by theocrats convinced that their survival hinges on an ability to control women’s bodies, recently adapted as a TV series on Hulu. In Gilead, powerless, fertile women are indentured servants, expected to endure regular sexual abuse in the name of procreation on a polluted planet. They live as handmaids, still attempting to come to terms with the bizarre political upheaval that’s slowly stripped them of their human rights.
In the 1980s, such a hellscape in real life seemed silly. Today, as a proposed GOP bill threatens to “decimate women’s healthcare,” and the realities of climate change continue to be contested, the improbability of Gilead has faded.
The Hulu series, led by showrunner Bruce Miller and star Elisabeth Moss, brought the likelihood of Handmaid’s Tale to contemporary attention. Fans of the book had long touted its relevancy, but once the show ― critically acclaimed, adored by fans ― hit the streaming service, its potency bubbled over. Miller’s Gilead, now set in present day with references to Tinder and weed and millennial feminism, was a graspable place. A place many American women were unwilling to go.
Just this week, a group of activists dressed as handmaids marched on the Capitol building, protesting the GOP’s healthcare plan which, among other things, would leave millions of women uninsured, result in a likely spike in unintended pregnancies, and increase overall Medicaid spending on births. Written by 13 men, the bill would shirk the kinds of preventative care women in particular rely upon and notably roll back an Obama-era rule that requires insurance companies to cover contraception, as well as maternity care. Their red robes and white bonnets, on display in a place otherwise populated by men in suits, spoke volumes.
In May, when House Republicans voted through legislation that would repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), replacing it with a bill that suggested things like pregnancy, postpartum depression and rape would be considered pre-existing conditions, visions of “Handmaid’s Tale” flooded social media. “Live from the WH Rose Garden,” one woman tweeted alongside a still from the show, showing handmaids in those familiar red robes and white bonnets being corralled by emotionless armed men.
Before that, women had staged similar protests in capital cities across the U.S. They’d put on their robes and bonnets to stand up against legislature proposed in states like Texas, California, Ohio and Missouri. “Shame,” they’d yell, a word repeated throughout Atwood’s novel. In their stark red-and-white ensembles, the women demanding representatives and senators in their homestates rethink their stance on anti-abortion legislation were delivering a clear message: Your policies belong in Gilead, and we won’t stand for them.
“The easiest way we try to explain it is that the handmaids represent a future where women are nothing more than their reproductive capacity,” Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas told Mashable. “Unfortunately, with the laws that are being passed, that future is not so unrealistic and not so distant.”
Many have noted that as powerful a reference point as The Handmaid’s Tale might be, the U.S. is far from descending into Gilead-levels of injustice. Yet the robes and bonnets keep appearing, as those women ― exhausted by the cycle of threatening bills ― find continued utility in the pop culture phenomenon. Not only did women identify with the issues being discussed on-screen, they were able to take the show’s vision of a woman, oppressed but not without a will to fight, and turn it into a symbol of resistance in 2017.
The show, already set for a second season, had perhaps always been intended as a wake-up call of sorts, albeit one that was planned long before President Donald Trump, a man infamous for his sexual abuse-laced quotes, was elected. The book certainly was.
“The whole message that Margaret was sending in the book is that big changes like this don’t happen overnight, they happen very slowly over time, almost so that you don’t know that they’re happening until it’s too late,” “Handmaid’s Tale” director Reed Morano said. “We tend to be a little sheltered in America because of the rights that we do have and what we’ve all been used to. One of the things I liked about doing this story is that I thought maybe it will make people really appreciate what they have.”
In this case, it’s made people march. And that’s a lasting impact we shouldn’t ignore.