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Pence and the Philly ‘Handmaids‘: Why getting the red out there matters

“They shouldn’t have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”

— June/Offred, “The Handmaid’s Tale”

By now, Vice President Mike Pence probably has at least a vague idea of why women in red habits and protest signs keep turning up at his public appearances, even if he’s never seen an episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale or read the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel on which it’s based.

JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer An unidentified woman protests on Broad Street the pending arrival of Vice President Mike Pence at the Union League, in Philadelphia, Monday July 23, 2018.

At the very least, he’s probably figured out that they’re not nuns. Or happy with him. aren’t braving July humidity, and potential thunderstorms, in handmade handmaid habits because they want to look cool.

Red means one thing on an electoral map, but in Gilead, the dystopian, post-U.S. society in which The Handmaid’s Tale is set, it’s the color that denotes a class of  women who’ve lost all civil rights and who’ve been turned into breeding stock, forced to bear children for a ruling class that can no longer reproduce on its own and uses religion to justify ritualized rape.

The Hulu series, which just ended its second season, has been tough viewing for anyone who’s inclined to see parallels between the events leading up to the creation of Gilead and  present-day attacks on women’s ability to control their fertility, and on LGBT rights. It’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t see, or care about, such parallels watching it at all.

Call it a failure of imagination, but I don’t see Pence and his wife, Karen, whiling away a free hour watching June (Elisabeth Moss), whose handmaid name is Offred, trying to fight the Scripture-spouting patriarchy while wearing an outfit that’s at once offensive and strikingly attractive.

Out here in what’s still America, handmaid’s habits are more like — handmade, often by those who wear them, and meant to send a message of solidarity. Their appearance may have no more effect on Pence, or on those who support him, than June and her fellow handmaids have so far had on the institutions that enslave them. They may even look a little silly. (If there’s one thing the TV Gilead has going for it that a real one probably wouldn’t, it’s first-class costume design.)

What the handmaid protesters are, though, is visible. The uniform they’re briefly adopting might represent the sum of all fears or might just be a convenient cultural reference, but it makes them easy to spot in a crowd.

And reminds those who’ll get, and appreciate, the allusion that they’re not alone.

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