This piece contains minor spoilers for the novel but does not reveal major plot points.In June, Kylie Jenner threw a birthday party themed around her friend’s favorite TV show. The Kardashian and her pals pouted and posed on Instagram Stories in sexy red capes, cloaks, full makeup, and white bonnets.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.There were, of course, think pieces and takedowns. Jenner and co were trying to imprint a new, fundamentally different meaning—Little Red Riding Hood meets party girl—onto the iconic costume from The Handmaid’s Tale . But that’s just not going to happen at this stage and Margaret Atwood , the author of the classic 1985 dystopia, knows it.
French and Saunders have done it, Funny or Die has done it. SNL did it twice, once with Amy Schumer, and the Hulu show that inspired Jenner’s party has been renewed for a fourth season. But the most visible use of the Handmaids costume, since sales of the book starting going up again after 2016, has been as an international uniform and symbol for women protesting anti-abortion and regressive reproductive rights laws from Alabama to Ireland.It’s a powerful visual, both culturally and politically, but one striking image can’t sustain a 400-plus-page narrative about a totalitarian regime. Half the world has been clamoring for more Atwood, but specifically for more Handmaids—something to cut through as an icon or a parable, anything to shine a light on 2019 or act as a clarion call with Handmaids getting justice or, better, vengeance.
Atwood has granted us a sequel, The Testaments, which returns to Gilead, formerly the United States, where women’s bodies are the property of the state, fertile women are forced to live as Handmaids and endure rape in order to produce children, and society is divided into various classes which oppress and are oppressed by each other. But this tale is not actually about Handmaids.It would have been easy for Atwood to revisit the red cloaks and build on the memes, but instead she focuses on women who are serving Gilead’s interests in different ways. Handmaids are never far from the minds and stories of the three narrators in The Testaments, which include Agnes Jemima, who comes of age in Gilead, and Daisy, who looks on in horror from Canada. That said, Atwood is far more concerned with the lives of Aunts (women who supervise, among other things, Handmaids' training), Supplicants (Aunts-in-training), Wives (the privileged spouses of Gilead’s ruling class of Commanders), and the children of Handmaids, who are raised by Commanders and their Wives.
Through their narrow viewpoint, we return to the homes and schools of Gilead, which is at war—possibly on multiple fronts—15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. Each character’s tale overlaps in some ways with Offred’s tapes (ie, the events of the original book) but also offers fresh perspectives on familiar rituals, and new concoctions like Rubies Premarital Preparatory school for teen Wives-to-be, and the Pearl Girls missionary program. Handmaid plotlines in The Testaments are there mostly to propel our new heroines’ emotional and intellectual journeys.
It’s a shrewd move that allows Atwood to return to themes of subjugation, sexual crimes, and sisterhood without getting boxed in by her original protagonist Offred, the Handmaids, and all the protests and parodies stored within those red robes and white bonnets. Nothing Atwood could write could give that image more power than it already has; it’s complete.None of Atwood’s new color- and costume-coded social classes are likely to make a similar leap to internationally recognized meme. The “spring green” palette of the teenage brides-to-be is affecting but ambiguous. Will we see middle-aged, morally conflicted, childfree women dressing in the drab, brown robes of the Aunts to make some sort of feminist statement? I doubt it.
Stan is his own character—a man who works for Donald Trump and whose marriage is unraveling after he falls for Angel—but he's also a stand-in for Pose 's white, straight, cisgender audience, a group that (presumably) would like to know more about the New York ball scene but can't until they're shown.