The power of The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel that Hulu adapted into an Emmy contending TV series (the season 1 finale is tonight), lies in the idea that its particular, disturbing dystopia is so close to being real, and within plausible distance of our own. After all, the book, which takes place in an environmentally-ruined future America where women have been robbed of their rights—and turned into enslaved concubines, in the case of the so-called handmaids—is rigorously based on atrocities that actual humans have committed throughout history.
That sense of chilling recognition might be why "Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again” signs have been popping up at protests, and why the increasingly familiar sight of "handmaids"—women dressed in the red robes and white bonnets that have become shorthand for the oppression of women—milling about the streets of America has been such an extraordinarily unsettling thing to behold in real life.
“It’s surreal, but they knew what they were doing,” Atwood told me in April, shortly before the show's premiere, of the “handmaids” who showed up at the Texas Senate in March to protest the state’s restrictive legislation regarding abortions. “The still shot of them looked exactly like a still out of the TV series.”
Those "handmaid" protests returned in May, armed with signs outlining Texas’s history of reproductive rights restrictions, as well as stories of their own abortions. And their “so in” take on the “look of the month,” as Glamour described the uniforms, had in fact been preceded a week and a half earlier by another army of “handmaids” roaming South by Southwest. Only this time around, they had been enlisted by Hulu.
This IRL marketing strategy also showed up during the week of the show’s premiere, when Atwood spoke at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and has even continued into this week, as the show gears up for its Emmy campaign (industry voting takes place this month). On Monday, two days before the final episode airs tonight, red robes showed up across Los Angeles, in Beverly Hills, Culver City, and West Hollywood, standing sentinel outside landmarks like the Beverly Wilshire and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (and, in a media-savvy move, The Hollywood Reporter’s offices). But this, of course, wasn't a guerrilla political statement that begged consideration of women's rights. It was Hulu’s “For Your Consideration” marketing campaign—which is why Hollywood Forever and LACMA kicked the crew off their property.
After all, the sight of the handmaids is unsettling, menacing even. These tactics are an effective way to get eyes on a very worthy and very important TV show—especially if they do lead to an Emmy nomination or win. And it must be said that some of the women who have been moonlighting as "handmaids" for Hulu have called the job “blessed,” “a blast” and “an honor” on Instagram. But is sending handmaids into the real world in service of awards for a streaming service just one step too far?
Anecdotally, it sure feels like it. And still more so when one of Hulu’s most ambitious marketing pushes to date results in an out-there runway show by the underground label Vaquera (featuring high-fashion takes on the handmaid's costumes) and a pop-up exhibition in Ian Schrager’s flashy new downtown Manhattan hot spot. There's a fine line between smart, socially-conscious marketing and exploitative tactics that capitalize on the very real fears women face in America's political climate today. The handmaids' very presence can come across as a threat—even if it does remind us of Atwood’s admonishment to keep history always in mind in the present.
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