A costume retailer recently advertised a Halloween costume, the “Brave Red Maiden,” which, with its hair-covering bonnet and red cape, was a clear reference to the garb worn by the oppressed females in Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopia, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” There was one notable alteration, however. Yandy shortened the body-covering robe into a mini-skirt.
Outraged tweeters pounced, claiming that Yandy was ignoring or condoning the rape visited upon the Handmaids in the novel. One wrote, “Our society doesn’t take the rape of women seriously, why should they take the rape of fictional women seriously?” Another user stated, “I can’t decide if this misses the point of the Handmaid’s Tale, or encapsulates it completely.”
Yandy quickly removed the advertisement from their website and issued an apology: “Over the last few hours, it has become obvious that our ‘Yandy Brave Maiden Costume’ is being seen as a symbol of women’s oppression rather than an expression of women’s empowerment … This is unfortunate, as it was not our intention on any level.”
Apart from citing the rape scene of the novel, however, their complaints make it apparent that the critics have not read the novel closely. The chief character, Offred, hungers for such costumes, viewing them as the ultimate form of rebellion against the theocracy, which not only reduces women to birth machines, but forces them to hide any attractive qualities.
One of the first ways the regime, courtesy of the thick-calved “Aunts” (the female enforcement arm of Gilead), “reeducates” young women is to take away their “sluttish” garb and clothe them in head-to-toe robes. Their rationale is based on the idea that women showing any type of skin was what caused male violence against them.
But Offred’s appetite for such things remains, and to dress that way is for her a political act. Encountering Japanese female tourists clad in what Western women used to wear, Offred expresses her longing for such things:
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen skirts that short on women … Their heads are uncovered and their hair too is exposed, in all its darkness and sexuality … I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.
This is not Offred’s only heresy that would have assured, at best, a cattle-prod session with the Aunts. Embraced from behind by her commander’s chauffeur, Offred reacts, thinking, “It’s so good, to be touched by someone, to be felt so greedily, to feel so greedy.”
When the commander Offred is supposed to be impregnated by invites her into his study after hours, the first thing she asks for is hand lotion. The commander also allows her to read the kind of women’s fashion magazine that militant feminists despise: “It was a magazine, a women’s magazine … a model on glossy paper, hair blown, neck scarfed, mouth lipsticked.”
Offred’s reaction to it is something the Aunts and militant feminists would both hate: “Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fish bait, I wanted it. I wanted it with a force that made the ends of fingers ache.”
As with what the Japanese tourists were, Offred sees such magazines as representing freedom: “What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities … They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.”
The garb the tweeters despise, a lingerie type of clothing, is also regarded by Offred as a form of freedom and rebellion. Asked by the commander to dress in one, she does so because it would “be so flaunting, such a sneer at the Aunts, so sinful, so free.”
For all the classifications of feminism attached to Atwood’s novel, the militant feminists of “The Handmaid’s Tale” do not come off so well. It is they who do much of the prep-work for Gilead by burning not only pornographic books, but also women’s fashion magazines and provocative clothes.
Whether Yandy’s staff has read the novel or not, it is apparent through their initial description of the costume — “we say be bold and speak your mind in this exclusive Brave Red Maiden costume” — that they are more in tune with what Offred regards as a political statement than Yandy’s critics are.