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The Kylie Jenner Handmaid’s Tale controversy is part of a larger story

The show’s red Handmaid robes exist in a weird kind of limbo space where they are both pop culture icons and protest symbols.

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Protesters dressed in Handmaid outfits protest the Kavanaugh hearings in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill, September 4, 2018.
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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

When Kylie Jenner posted pictures of her Handmaid’s Tale-themed party to Snapchat this past weekend, the outrage followed thick and fast.

Jenner threw her party in honor of her friend Stas’s 22nd birthday, and her commitment to detail was extensive. As guests entered the party, they walked past a line of women dressed as “Marthas” — the domestic slaves in the world of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale — who murmured, “Under his eye,” in greeting.

Inside, guests were dressed in the red gowns and white bonnets worn by Handmaids — fertile women kept as breeding slaves — and drank “Under His Eye tequila” and “Praise Be vodka,” named in a nod to the religious ritual phrases that citizens of the totalitarian theocracy of Gilead are required to say in every episode of The Handmaid’s Tale.

CNN noted that on social media, people were calling the party “‘tone-deaf’ and ‘embarrassing.’” The Daily Beast called it “the epitome of clueless Kardashian entitlement.”

“Kylie Jenner: what in the world are you doing?” asked Vanity Fair.

“Nothing says ‘happy birthday’ like a recreation of a dystopian society in which women’s rights have been systemically and violently ripped away,” concluded the A.V. Club.

Jenner’s defenders, meanwhile, protested. Jenner was just creating a tribute to her favorite TV show! How was that worse than throwing a Game of Thrones-themed party? Game of Thrones, after all, has plenty of rape in it, but you’re still allowed to fantasize about running off to Westeros and wearing all of its beautiful clothes.

The iconic red gowns of The Handmaid’s Tale exist in a weird kind of limbo space. On the one hand, Handmaid outfits have become powerful protest symbols: They show up when states try to pass laws restricting abortion access, and they were a presence at Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. They’re like the dark inverse of the pink pussy hat worn at the Women’s March: Instead of shouting out women’s power, Handmaid outfits whisper darkly of the looming horror of women’s oppression.

But on the other hand, Handmaid outfits aren’t just protest symbols. They’re also part of the extremely successful branding of an extremely successful TV show.

As protest symbols, Handmaid outfits are serious evocations of what the future of America could look like. As brand symbols, they’re pop culture icons for people to get fannish over. The tension between those two roles gets weird and complicated.

Handmaid costumes have always been both protest outfits and pop culture ephemera

The day before Jenner’s Handmaid’s Tale party, Wired declared “Handmaid garb” to be the “viral protest uniform of 2019.”

“The handmaids are ominous, silent, semi-faceless, and the most powerful protest costume since hacktivist collective Anonymous popularized wearing [Guy] Fawkes’ smirking face over a decade ago,” wrote Emma Grey Ellis. “And now, as Hulu’s adaptation heads into its third season, they are everywhere.”

The Handmaid’s Tale originated as a novel by Margaret Atwood in 1985, and Hulu adapted it into a TV show in 2016. It takes place in a dystopian vision of America called “Gilead,” one in which a religious cult has staged a coup and instituted a totalitarian government by theocracy.

In Gilead, Handmaids are fertile women who have somehow violated the government’s religious purity laws. As punishment, they are forced into a life of childbearing slavery, one in which they are ritually raped by their owners on a monthly basis. They have no names of their own, but are instead named after their owners. They wear their red gowns and white, winged bonnets so that anyone looking at them can tell exactly who they are — and so that the Handmaids themselves can only see what is directly in front of them.

The first viral Handmaid protest came shortly after the show’s premiere on Hulu, in March 2017. As the Texas Senate deliberated over a series of bills restricting abortion access, women in red gowns and bonnets took seats in the gallery.

More protests followed rapidly, and they weren’t confined to Texas. As Ellis lays out at Wired, Handmaids have appeared in DC at the Kavanaugh hearings, in Alabama, in Ireland, in Croatia. If you want to organize your own Handmaid protest, the nonprofit group the Handmaid Coalition can help you assemble your costumes.

But as the Handmaid became an icon of political protest, she also took over pop culture. At the 2017 Emmys, Stephen Colbert opened the show by jazz-handing his way onstage surrounded by Handmaids. “The dark future’s always brighter on TV!” he sang, and the Handmaids doffed their red cloaks to reveal that some of them were men, and all of them were wearing spangled red showgirl leotards. (The bonnets stayed on.)

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Stephen Colbert and the Handmaid showgirls at the 2017 Emmy Awards.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

It was exactly the kind of gently mocking nonsense you usually see at awards shows with pop culture ephemera, because on one level, that’s exactly what The Handmaid’s Tale is: pop culture ephemera, meant to be consumed and enjoyed.

But it’s also uncomfortable to enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale, because the Handmaids are also a symbol of women’s oppression. So then what do we do with it?

The Handmaid’s Tale is supposed to be disturbing. It’s also supposed to be enjoyable television.

Part of what makes the Kylie Jenner party so uncomfortable to so many people is that she’s not appreciating the show in what we generally understand to be the “correct” way. When you’re watching The Handmaid’s Tale “correctly,” you don’t want to enter Gilead and be a Handmaid. Instead, you take the show as instructive, so that it makes you want to do everything you can in our own world to keep Gilead from coming to pass.

But is it really possible to watch The Handmaid’s Tale on a regular basis, to be a fan of the show and willingly come back to it week after week, without finding pleasure in what you are watching?

The Handmaid uniforms are disturbing, but they are also supposed to be beautiful. That’s intentional.

“I wanted […] a very painterly swaying of movement that was feminine but not sexual,” Handmaid’s Tale costume designer Ane Crabtree said of the show’s red gowns in 2017. “I wanted something that would look almost lighter than air in the way that it could move for the camera — to help the [director of photography] but also to look like blood flowing, when they would be in large expanses of environments or landscapes. I wanted it to be a kind of David Lynchian surreal painting, of this bright green with this red flowing line of Handmaids. I think it worked.”

Gilead is supposed to be beautiful. “Every time Gilead does something that I think is good, it makes me feel ooky,” showrunner Bruce Miller said in 2017. That’s why Gilead is filled with lush and leafy tree-lined streets, why it’s so quiet and peaceful: “When we do the sound for the show, we cut out all the sounds of cars, even in the distance,” Miller explained in 2017. “There’s no planes, and there are probably 10 or 20 times the number of bird songs. We added birds that don’t really exist in that part of Massachusetts anymore.”

Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale is told in a visual medium, and it is meant to be visually pleasing. It is meant to please its audience — to disturb, yes, to spur to action, maybe, but assuredly to please. If you take aesthetic pleasure from The Handmaid’s Tale, then you are watching it as its creators mean for it to be watched. You’re not supposed to want to live in Gilead, and it seems fair to assume that Miller would consider Jenner’s Gilead-themed party to be in poor taste, but you’re supposed to see the appeal.

That’s the inherent contradiction here. The project of The Handmaid’s Tale is to make us see the seeds of Gilead in our own society — our own yearnings for Gilead — and to recognize them for what they are. But in order to sustain itself for multiple seasons, the show also has to make Gilead a place that viewers will want to return to every week. So how does it make us feel Gilead’s horror and Gilead’s pleasures simultaneously? Is it even possible to build a successful long-running TV show in which no one would ever want to visit Gilead?

More broadly: Is it possible at all to make drawn-out serialized television about atrocities — and not make those atrocities attractive?

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