I Wore the Robes: A Handmaid’s Tale

On June 27, I was filming Handmaids in processional to the US Supreme Court. As I mentioned earlier, it’s been a busy last few weeks for me as an activist in the non-fictional world that we’re forced to live in, no matter how much we may love our preferred imaginary ones.

Since I relocated to NY State last year, I’ve been very active in volunteering with my local chapter of Planned Parenthood and with PPESA for events and actions supporting expanded reproductive healthcare access and education. When PPESA requested volunteers to dress in costumes from the recent Hulu television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale for a multi-day action at the NY State Senate (to bring awareness to two crucial healthcare bills, in the last days of the state legislative session), I knew I had to show up for this.

Genre stories have an immense power as vessels for exploring our societal hopes and fears. They allow us to reframe the familiar into new contexts and force new perspectives on our reality and possible consequences of our actions in the real. Political and social commentary in the form of fictional genre narratives is a time-honored way of critiquing and interrogating the world we live in, the worlds we want to live in, and the worlds we fear living in, but the recent use of Handmaids imagery in protests is bringing the allegorical into juxtaposition with the real.

Given its intense relevance to our current cultural moment, The Handmaid’s Tale was already topping my list of stuff I feel guilty I haven’t read/watched yet. (My Kindle contains multitudes, and I fear I will never have enough downtime to explore them all.) But I was familiar with the gist, had seen the promotional images for the Hulu series, and immediately could imagine the kind of visual impact it would make, with enough women clad together this way in the ornate halls of the Senate. We gathered in common purpose as we donned our robes and bonnets quickly and assembled to line the hallways and offer literature on the bills to passers by. The rules were simple. Don’t break character if at all possible. Head down, stay silent, stay in pairs at all times. I usually wear hot pink lipstick when I’m at events for PP, but for this occasion, I left my face bare of makeup and swept my decidedly non-compliant blue hair back from my face and out of sight.

Selfie by Dr. Genre, June 21, 2017

It was a hot and humid week, and the polyester robes were suffocatingly warm, as were the paper bonnets, but I wasn’t prepared for how much I ended up shivering over the hours we stood there those days. I knew my fellow volunteers flanked me on either side along the hallways, but I had no peripheral vision with the bonnet, and every time we moved in formation to a new location, I couldn’t recognize familiar figures from the identical back views. We were uniform, submissive, and silent, and I had no idea how much and how fast the act of assuming that role would start to make it feel all too real, like I had slid into some alternate universe where this was reality, plain and simple. It didn’t help how many male legislators and aides refused to look at us as they walked by, to even acknowledge the humanity of women there to protest for autonomy of our voices and our bodies. It felt dramatic, it felt epic, and like somewhat-too-immersive cosplay, where the outside world was playing along a little too readily. At a PP rally later that week, again in a volunteer role, I was giddy to show my hair, wear neon pink lipstick, and display my NC tattoo. I reveled in interacting with everyone I saw, feeling power in our numbers and upraised hands and voices. I was relieved to put a fictional world aside for the real one, however, flawed.

When I answered the call a few days later, to go to D.C. and Handmaid up for the impending Senate healthcare vote, I got on the bus in the middle of the night and sleepily wondered how many more times lay ahead, that we would have to bring fictional imagery into such intense juxtaposition with real historical moments in order to prevent those fictions from becoming prophecy. There were so many of us, there weren’t even enough robes to go around, and some of us assumed more interactive supporting roles than the handmaids could undertake without breaking character, as we moved our procession from landmark to landmark.

I asked a fellow protestor, Jasmine Shea, who did wear the robes that afternoon, about her thoughts on protesting in the robes in the US capital, and our conversation is condensed below:

Dr. G: Had you read the book or watched the series before taking part in the action?

J.S.:No, I haven’t read the book nor seen the show but I did read about it when it came out.

Dr. G: How did it feel to actually wear the costume and be “in character”? Did you feel like it altered your emotional or sensory perceptions in any way?

J.S.: I am very talkative person. […] If something like the handmaids world really existed I would probably the first one dead because I speak up. I like to see what is going on as well so having to look down was hard. NOT being able to see the world around me and take in, can effect you. But I kept my head phones on. Only broke character when Maxine Waters walked by us on our way to the Capitol because she’s amazing.

Dr. G: What [else] should I have asked you?

J.S.: If you are fighting for women to have equal rights then you’re a feminist. We shouldn’t define what a feminist is. We as women are all different shapes, colors and sizes. We didn’t come from the same cookie cutter, so why cookie cut what feminism is? We, as Society can’t be inactive or complacent because what [Handmaids] shows, is that world is possible and things like that are already going on around the world and even in America, but is hidden by religion. In the words of Jason Butler, ” this ain’t about “these types of people.” It’s about ALL of us. As a people.

Have you been involved in a Handmaids protest or dressed as another genre character in IRL activism? We want to hear all about it!

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