The Thin Red Line Between The Handmaid’s Tale And Reality

At our marches, red is the color of female solidarity; in fiction, it’s the color of female servitude

From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.

In the past, March 8 was International Women’s Day. In 2017, it became A Day Without a Woman. Women everywhere were encouraged to take a day off from work in order to protest (if privilege and possibility allowed) their rights being threatened under Trump’s administration. Participants were asked to wear red in solidarity, and the resulting marches looked like crimson waves through city streets.

The scene recalled an ongoing Canadian art installation by Jaime Black. The REDress Project has collected hundreds of red dresses as an “aesthetic response to the more than 1,000 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada.” These empty garments, lit dramatically in the confines of a gallery or hanging forlornly from a tree branch, are a powerful evocation of loss. The recontextualized commercial objects are haunting in their literal and symbolic emptiness.

The color choice, in both instances, is no coincidence. Red means very different things in very different contexts: It’s the color of anger, the color of care and aid, the color of menstrual blood and childbirth. It’s the color of and for women.

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Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale reads like a catalogue of acts made recently seditious. In the 1985 novel, a Christian fundamentalist group gains control by killing the United States president and most of Congress, enacting an authoritarian regime, and renaming their territory the Republic of Gilead (and exterior nuclear-waste sites the “Colonies”). Abortion doctors are hung beside political and religious dissidents. Women are rounded up and forced into subservient positions in high-ranking households. They’re forbidden to read or write or sing, to walk outside unattended, or to dress as they please. Handmaidens are identified by their red vestments and white wimples. The narrator, Offred (her name a patronymic nod to the wealthy commander to whom she belongs, Fred, also hides the name of her designated color), is of the first generation transitioned to this Christian authoritarian society. She is plagued by flashbacks from her previous, freer life. Many of these flashbacks involve her mother, an ardent second-wave feminist, deeply offended by her daughter’s political disengagement and complacency. “You young people don’t appreciate things,” she says. “You don’t know what we had to go through, just to get where you are.” Offred’s mother reminds her frequently of the sacrifices she made to fight for women, to champion abortion rights, to give birth at 37 years old. Offred shrugs her off as oppressive: “She expected me to vindicate her life for her, and the choices she’d made. I didn’t want to live my life on her terms.”

The terror of Atwood’s Gilead is its liminality: the way freedom eases itself into tyranny. Atwood consistently resists classifying her dystopian works as science fiction because she “couldn’t put anything into the novel that human beings hadn’t actually done.” There are historical precedents for everything that occurs in The Handmaid’s Tale, something of particular interest in our current era, when fascism and Nazism have entered the everyday lexicon, and the threat of nuclear war looms large.

Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale comes out in April, and in a Reddit AMA promoting the miniseries, Atwood remembered the reception of the 1990 film version. “Then,” she wrote, “many people were saying, ‘It can't happen here.’ Now, not so much...” Just this week, a group of women wore red cloaks and white bonnets to protest several anti-abortion measures in the Texas senate.

Renewed interest in The Handmaid’s Tale follows the reemergence of 1984 on best-seller lists. 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale share a lineage; Atwood has written at length about George Orwell’s influence on her own body of work. And in Orwell’s famous novel, the new order’s most ardent female adherents wear red sashes around their waists, indicators of their commitment to chastity.

Natasha Richardson and Faye Dunaway in a scene from the 1990 adaptation.


In a recent New York magazine piece, “Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, One Month Into the Trump Era,” Rebecca Traister charts the backlashes that historically, predictably follow each new wave of feminism. Traister draws direct parallels between the political climate surrounding the 1990 film adaptation and the forthcoming miniseries. The dystopian masterpiece is timeless by design: By grounding its conjectures in historical precedents, Atwood has ensured the novel will always feel eerily otherworldly while uncomfortably close to reality. Though Gilead might be fictional, it’s cobbled from bits and pieces of humanity’s unsavory past, and rereading the story now evokes a kind of perverse familiarity. Traister writes, “The unwillingness of the next generation to defend the feminist legacy is part of what led to its undoing," later describing the belief "that expansion of rights and opportunity for women are now so established that they are in no realistic danger of rollback. Therefore, those who continue to lodge complaints about the distance still to be traveled can be cast as greedy, whiny, spoilt children.” In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s mother and other radical feminists are cast as Unwomen, expelled to colonies contaminated by nuclear waste. The remaining women are rounded up and forced into subservient positions in high-ranking households, either as Marthas (cooks and housekeepers), handmaidens (sexual surrogates for the largely infertile upper-class wives), or econowives (the partners of lower-status men).

In a world devoid of music, writing, or recreational entertainment, Offred instead obsessively describes the new society she inhabits, and the stringent and often violent methods by which it’s maintained. Dress codes are a significant component of this maintenance. While men wear variations on the modern suit, women dress in accordance with their assigned caste. Handmaidens cover every inch of their body in red: flat red shoes, long red gloves, ankle-length dresses that echo the cassocks of Catholicism’s clergymen and altar boys. The long red vestments, government issue, advertise their fertility, symbolize their monthly bleeding, and identify them as little more than indentured wombs.

There’s a literalness, too, to the white “wings” the handmaidens wear. An exaggerated iteration of a nun’s wimple, they narrow the handmaidens’ fields of vision, restricting them, on their rare trips out to grocery shop or to witness a birth, to their designated task. In Gilead, vanity is the ultimate sin, and even to be seen, Offred is taught, is to be “penetrated.” The handmaidens, as a result, spend a lot of time looking at their feet.

Offred often reminisces about the choices she’s lost, frequently with regard to clothing or hairstyle or perfume (she misses Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium). That these “choices” were empty — their existence did nothing to stop the rise of tyranny — does not eclipse her nostalgia. While Offred finds memories of her husband and daughter unbearably painful, she allows herself to linger on the superficialities she once took for granted, taking solace in their banality. When Japanese tourists approach Offred, she can’t take her eyes (somewhat literally, because of her wings) off of one woman’s painted toenails. “I remember the smell of nail polish, the way it wrinkled if you put the second coat on too soon, the satiny brushing of sheer pantyhose against the skin … I can feel her shoes, on my own feet. The smell of nail polish has made me hungry.” In their absence, Offred has elevated simple beauty rituals to a kind of spiritual sustenance. Enacted in pursuit, as Offred puts it, “yearning … for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back.” Offred’s mother, on the other hand, balked even at the idea of dyeing her gray hair: “What do I need it for, I don’t want a man around … A man is just a woman’s strategy for making other women.” When given the opportunity to ask a favor of her commander, Offred asks for moisturizer.


The Handmaid’s Tale in 2017 is not subtle. Signals aren’t meant to be. The trappings of choice, of variety, of agency feel, now more than ever, illusory. But we marched in red for the same reason Jaime Black shows red dresses: to amplify marginalized voices, to preserve the fragile progress we’ve made so far, and to stretch that progress further while we can. In both of these cases, red meant stop and listen: We’re wearing this color today so you’ll hear what we’ve been saying the other 364 days of the year.

Traister points out that participatory protest is something Offred shrugs off in the months before Gilead’s reality calcified. Offred isn’t to blame for Gilead, but a generation that takes its rights for granted is ripe for indoctrination into tyranny. The trailer for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale opens with Elisabeth Moss’s Offred saying, “I was asleep before — that’s how we let it happen ... when they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn’t wake up either. Now I’m awake.” The miniseries is aesthetically faithful to its source material, but nothing about the trailer feels outdated (or futuristic). The police in riot gear, the hand-painted protest signs, the religious extremism, and even the sea of handmaidens in red: It all feels like right now, like 2017. When we choose to parse Atwood’s book now, exchanging knowing glances with other women reading it on the train, we’re warning each other. This is a book about a future, rooted firmly in our past. Maybe it’s already begun. But it’s not too late to see what’s in front of us.

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