The Disturbing Merchandising of The Handmaid’s Tale

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s bitterly bleak femicidal dystopia, where women are enslaved as breeding chattel or concentration-camp labor, seems like the last show that should inspire merchandise, wearables, or swag. Yet, scrolling through a Twitter account for The Wing, an elite, achingly hip women’s co-working space, I saw the hot-pink matchbox with the words “I am free” on its side. It was artfully arranged atop a matching hot-pink notebook, beside a hot-pink pen. The notebook was beautifully embossed with a line from a Margaret Atwood poem: “A word after a word after a word is power.” As if this message was still too subtle, the pen bore the phrase “the most dangerous weapon” in a tasteful white script. These feel-good goodies aren’t the only kinds of Handmaid’s gear on the market: There are mass-produced T-shirts and custom fashion lines, YouTube tutorials about how to make the white bonnet, special cocktails, and, of course, the powder-pink paper goods.

The Handmaid’s Tale certainly isn’t the first show marketed and commodified in ways that seem contradictory to its real message. The Mad Men cocktail guide, for instance, is a bit misleading in its nostalgia chic — given that the show itself brutally razed its hero’s whiskey-tinged leading-man glamour to depict a terrified, forever-untreated addict. The hashtag accompanying The Walking Dead’s season-seven premiere featured a cutesy rendering of the villain Negan’s barbed-wire baseball bat, Lucille, the same weapon that would brutally crater the skulls of two fan-favorite characters. It’s inevitable, of course, that studios will merchandise and market their shows to make them palatable to the broadest audience, even if that means winking away some of the darker, less digestible aspects of those shows.

Yet there’s something especially galling about treating The Handmaid’s Tale — which derives its narrative and thematic potency from a horrifically prescient and plausible vision of women’s sustained, systemic disempowerment — as a vehicle for a hollow, “Who the run the world” message of girl power. Hulu’s partnership with The Wing exemplifies this tonal disconnect between the rah-rah you-go-girl-ism of the marketing plan and the deeper meaning of the show it’s promoting. The Wing’s cross-promotions mostly encompass Boss Bitch status symbols, such as the hot-pink notebooks and pens, signature cocktails (like the “Blessed Be” and “Fury Risen”), launch parties, and book clubs (the headline for one Refinery 29 article about the book club, “Dystopia & Rosé: Reading The Handmaid’s Tale in Donald Trump’s America,” inadvertently articulates the cringe-worthiness of this Cool Girl approach to knotty feminist issues).

This jingoistic veneer of alpha-lady prestige isn’t just discordant with the reality of characters like June or Emily or Moira — it blithely ignores Atwood’s real message, the message we forever allude to when we discuss her story’s prescience: that women’s independence is a terrifyingly fragile thing; it can’t be cutesily codified in pink-washed talk of empowerment. One of the Gilead regime’s first official acts is stripping women of their economic autonomy, denying them the right to work, and forfeiting their bank accounts to their closest male relatives. Season one of the series endows this moment — women being marched out of their offices carrying the cardboard boxes that hold their entire work lives, their faces stricken and pinched with rage and fear — with the heavy dread it deserves.

This dread has its own, more diluted, though no less real analog in our world, where women are still paid less on the dollar and report more economic anxiety, and where the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have illuminated story after heartbreaking story of women driven from their chosen professions by sexual harassment and assault. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with launch parties and book clubs and rosé — but there’s something incredibly disingenuous about treating them as arbiters of empowerment, especially for a target audience that can afford The Wing’s over $2,000 yearly membership dues. If Hulu’s intent is to truly engage and inspire all women, then where are the celebrity Q&As in libraries or women’s shelters, in independent bookstores or rec centers?

The merchandising of The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t limited to The Wing. Last year, to coincide with the show’s debut, Hulu commissioned the gritty chic label Vaquera to design a Handmaid-inspired line: This line includes a red hoodie with the novel’s signature catchphrase, Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (or “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”) printed, in a Sex Pistols–esque torn-magazine font, on the front, an extra-long spin on the white bonnet, and a red jacket with the word Maidez stitched across the shoulders. According to the designer, this capsule collection addresses “poignant social issues” and seeks “to reverse cultural norms, celebrate individuality, and empower oppressed individuals.” Meanwhile, Hot Topic now sells a girls’ T-shirt with the phrase Nolite te bastardes carborundorum across the chest, and the words “You Are Not Alone” on the back. “You Are Not Alone” is a comforting thought in a nation shanghaied to Trumplandia — and yet, I can’t help but think of the Chibok girls kidnapped in Nigeria, who were forgotten by the Western media once #BringBackOurGirls faded from consciousness; or of the Yazidi women stolen into sexual slavery by ISIS, who never managed to wrest the headlines from debates about the “anti-feminist feminism” of Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway. And in the United States, where women of color are statistically more vulnerable to sexual assault, they’ve been largely sidelined from cultural conversations about sexual violence.

The Handmaid’s Tale merch is but one particular strand in a gaudy tapestry of a trend — like the pink-ribboned canteens and car decals and, yes, even handguns, rallying women to “fight like a girl” against breast cancer; the coffee mugs proclaiming that “girls just wanna be CEO”; and the “She Persisted” children’s books and wall prints and tattoos — that turns feminist ideas into commodities (and not just a regular feminist, but, like, a cool feminist). It’s politics as fast fashion: You can wear your convictions quite literally on your sleeve, without ever challenging yourself to put those convictions into action.

The Handmaid’s Tale teaches us that freedom is always tenuous — a matter of where we’re born and what we look like, who holds power over our nations, or in our families, at any given time — despite what a matchbook may proudly proclaim. The story’s main point is that the bonnet is never cool or ironic; it’s a damn trap — no matter how prettily it’s been redesigned. Looking at the Handmaid’s swag, I’m reminded of my time as a health-care marketing writer, when I interviewed women in breast-cancer support groups; these women loathed all things pink ribbon. Pink-ribbon merch was cute, but it wouldn’t save their lives: Only the painful, painstaking, and decidedly unglamorous process of treatment and research could help them. Sporting Nolite baby tees doesn’t change the fact that some of us are freer, and have always been freer, than others; sipping on a Fury Risen cocktail as we click our “most dangerous weapon” pens mid-thought won’t make us woke — though we sure do look the part. And looking the part all too often passes for doing our part.

The Disturbing Merchandising of The Handmaid’s Tale