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Kylie Jenner sure does love a party. Only a few months back, she hired out an entire lot at Universal and transformed it into a theme park called Stormiworld (including a butterfly garden, personalised food and drink and a funfair) to celebrate her daughter Stormi’s first birthday.
The level of detail and effort was as impressive as it was obscene, so it’s understandable, maybe even nice, that Jenner followed it up by planning a lavish 22nd birthday party for her best friend Anastasia Karanikolaou.
What’s less understandable is why Kylie went for the theme she did. Rather than going for theme parks again, or Alice in Wonderland, or James Bond, or 1920s, or literally anything else that would have actually made sense, Jenner decided that the best way to celebrate her friend’s birthday was to throw a party themed around The Handmaid’s Tale.
After all, nothing says “party” like the systematic capture, rape, forced impregnation and torture of women in a dystopian, uber-patriarchal society. Am I right, ladies?
Once again, Jenner showed a remarkable aptitude for party planning. On her Instagram stories, she gave her followers a tour of the party. She transformed her house into one from the Republic of Gilead, the military dictatorship The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in. Gilead flags hung from the walls, all of the staff were dressed as “Marthas” (the serving class of women in the book) and refreshments included Under His Eye Tequila and Praise Be Vodka cocktails – named for the phrases from the book and TV series that handmaids are forced to parrot or in order to avoid punishment.
The party started with everyone watching the first episode of season 3. Guests were also dressed in the red robes and white bonnets of handmaids, although they didn’t stay in them for very long as later photos and videos showed them partying in their bikinis. Followers were relieved that an hour of watching desperate women try to escape the relentless hell that their once-free lives had become didn’t spoil the party mood, I’m sure.
Social media, as you’d expect, exploded. One user said “With all of the serious reproductive rights fights that are going on, Kylie Jenner gave a ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ themed birthday. This entire family is tone-deaf due to privilege, and don’t you forget it”, while another wanted reassurance that “'Kylie Jenner's Handmaid's Tale–Themed Party' is a phrase (she) hallucinated on this festering grease trap of a hellsite".
But others were on her side, pointing out that people have Game of Thrones parties all the time and that show features the rape, murder and slavery of women on a regular basis. Others asked if this meant we needed to stop dressing up as witches, considering that witches were regular women who were persecuted, tortured and murdered on a regular basis, too.
But Game of Thrones isn’t real, and we aren’t still regularly drowning witches – whereas the war on women, their autonomy and their reproductive rights is very much happening. And those outfits – those striking red robes with the white hoods – are a symbol of that. The TV series didn’t come up with those clothes because they’d look good on camera – the author of the book, Margaret Atwood, specifically imagined them to look that way to demonstrate the awful situation the handmaids found them in.
There are numerous reasons the handmaids wear red, she explained. In part, it’s to show that they’re prisoners: German prisoners of war held in Canada in World War II. The red would show up against the snow, so they couldn’t escape – just like the handmaids are completely trapped in this hellish regime.
But the red also highlights how the world around them sees them. Red was the colour of Mary Magdalene, the original “fallen woman”, just like Gilead sees women as inherently sinful, lesser than human, as property to be passed around and used by men until they have no use for them any more. And, obviously, red is also the colour of blood – the blood you experience every month with the menstrual cycle, the blood of childbirth.
As the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale says, “Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.” In Gilead, the most important thing about a woman is not her brain or her actions, but her fertility. They wear that red in order to remind everyone around them – including themselves – of that fact at all times.
Except the “white wings” – the white bonnet they wear around their faces. Atwood has described how she was inspired by a 1940s Old Dutch Cleanser package, which scared her as a child. She told NewsHour that white is, in many places, seen as unlucky – for example, widows wear white in India – and that the bonnets also act as blinkers, narrowing what the handmaids can see and limiting how they’re able to interact with the world.
So yes, the white bonnets and the red robes look very striking, but they aren’t like that because they look cool. They’re there to prove a point – to show that women are lesser than the men around them, and to keep them in their place. Doesn’t seem like such a fun costume for a party now, does it?
Yet Jenner isn’t the first person to take these bonnets and turn them into something wildly inappropriate. Just last year, Yandy had to pull a “Sexy Handmaid” Halloween costume after backlash from… well, basically, anyone with half a brain. Back in 2017, catwalks were full of hoods, red and white outfits and long, flowing robes, causing Vogue to say that “The Handmaid’s Tale Conquered The Catwalk”.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of genius, and the first series of the TV show is magnificent, and it’s understandable that the wider culture would embrace it. But considering what the costumes represent, it feels painfully obtuse to have them become an object of fun and frivolity – especially considering what's actually happening in the world around us at the moment.
Alabama has become the latest US state to ban abortions, even in case of rape and incest. Louisiana recently became the eighth state to sign into law a bill which means that you can’t get an abortion after six weeks, which is before most people even know they’re pregnant. The “heartbeat bill”, as it’s known, also throws up worrying questions about whether or not women can be imprisoned if authorities believe that she somehow was responsible for her miscarriage.
And it’s not just in the US - abortion still isn’t legal in Northern Ireland, and Jeremy Hunt casually mentioned he’d like to drop the abortion limit for 24 weeks to 12 in the rest of the UK as part of his Conservative leadership campaign.
And this isn’t a new thing. When speaking about the book – which came out in 1985 – Atwood was adamant that this was speculative fiction because she “didn't put in anything that we haven't already done, we're not already doing, we're seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress... So all of those things are real, and therefore the amount of pure invention is close to nil.”
As horrifying and seemingly unreal as the events of The Handmaid’s Tale are, they aren’t worlds away from the lives many women around the world experience now. There’s a reason that protestors for women’s rights sometimes wear the robes of the handmaids, and it’s not because they look cool or because they enjoy the show so much. It’s because they mean something.
Kylie Jenner is clearly an excellent party planner, and it’s great that she and her friends enjoy The Handmaid’s Tale so much that they want to pay tribute to it. It should also be noted that Jenner spoke out on Instagram against the Alabama abortion bill, and her partner Travis Scott is donating the profits from the merchandise on his latest tour to Planned Parenthood.
And taking The Handmaid’s Tale and everything it’s saying about the world too lightly isn’t something that only she is guilty of. We need to have serious conversations about why the world so enjoys watching the suffering of women - whether that’s in crime dramas/documentaries or big budget, high-quality TV shows.
But the point still stands. The world needs to stop ignoring the warning and the seriousness of what The Handmaid’s Tale represents. These abortion bans aren’t the first step towards The Handmaid’s Tale becoming a reality; we’re already several steps down that slope. If you can look at The Handmaid’s Tale and see it as just a cracking piece of telly, then you’re incredibly lucky to be so safe and privileged that these things don’t affect you… yet.
But spare a thought for those who aren’t so fortunate, and maybe choose a different theme for your birthday.