First of all, it’s nice that Kylie Jenner threw her friend a party based off her friend’s favorite TV show.
It is unfortunate that show was The Handmaid’s Tale.
The party featured cocktails like Praise Be Vodka and Under His Eye Tequila and had costumes for all the guests to dress up and take cute pictures in. Backlash was pretty swift, with some of Jenner’s followers wondering if she understood the point of the show. If it is, as she said, her favorite show, then probably! And maybe this party was filled with a lot of interesting conversations about how to best approach a post Roe v. Wade world. Given that Jenner has family ties to the LGBTQ+ community, a sister who is vocal about prison reform, and is a pro-choice advocate, I hope it was.
But it still reads as tasteless. Why?
Certainly, in part it’s because Kylie Jenner is a woman privileged and wealthy enough that she likely won’t experience the brunt of abortion restrictions. Her wealth and connections would almost certainly insure she could get an abortion safely if she required one. But then, complicity and privilege in patriarchal society isn’t enough to protect women entirely.
If men are determined to assert their dominance over women, even the most privileged among us can’t stop them. Sexual assault, for instance, happens less to wealthy white women than it does women of color, but it continues to happen all the same. I strongly suspect that far less women of Jenner’s income bracket would put their lives at risk to obtain an unsafe abortion than would women with less money, but that doesn’t mean none will. Abortion restrictions aren’t good for anyone, and the notion of Kylie treating a dystopia as someplace she might casually visit, party in, and then emerge from unscathed is jarring.
Still, she’s not the first wealthy person to host a party based on a show that traffics in depictions of horrors less privileged people often endure. Hell, people theme their weddings around Game of Thrones, a show that depicted a ton of fairly gratuitous rape. Sexy Daenerys or Sansa costumes don’t inspire the same outrage that sexy Handmaid costumes do, despite the fact that both of those characters were rape survivors.
In the Washington Post, Monica Hesse wondered whether the party Jenner threw was really all that different than the viewing party she hosted with her friends for the show’s premiere. (As someone who dressed up as a Handmaid for Halloween in the show’s first season—in large part because I can’t wear a T-shirt that says "please engage me in a conversation about reproductive rights" and it’s the next best thing—I certainly can’t deny that people often use pop culture as a way to bond with their friends.) But I think making the world of this particular show look fun or glamorous right now—as it can’t fail to do at a party where numerous models are drinking cocktails and making sexy faces in red capes—is really unwise.
Because aspects of the world the women of The Handmaid’s Tale inhabit may be rapidly approaching in America.
If someone throws a party glorifying Game of Thrones, well, I think it’s unlikely that we’ll have to use dragons to fight frost zombies any time soon. But women across the country are already dealing with a very real rollback of reproductive rights that are being described as "torture" by the Deputy High Commissioner of the U.N.
When people on the right claim that The Handmaid’s Tale is “just fiction,” and no more real than any fantasy series, that’s always been a bit of a bad faith reading. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel was inspired by the 1979 revolution in Iran, and the formerly progressive country’s swift transformation into a religious theocracy. She’s been very careful to point out that there’s essentially nothing in the novel that hasn’t already happened to women at some point in history.
Dictators, from Hitler to those leading the junta in Argentina, regularly took children away from people they disliked politically, and gave them to people they favored. State sanctioned raped happened under the Khmer Rouge.
Indeed, plenty of the minor oddities of the show happen with such regularity we hardly think of them. The notion of calling someone Ofdaniel seems strange on the show, but many women take their husband’s last name when they marry without a second thought. We may not wear the ultra-conservative nun-like habits described in the show, but religious leaders are still getting plenty upset over women showing their shoulders.
The show is fiction, but it’s hardly fantastical.
One of the aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale in particular that’s very clever is that it creates a world that, at first glance, looks beautiful. Perhaps especially to women. The old houses are beautifully preserved. The food is all homemade. The kitchen, with its lush foliage and beautiful countertops, is Pinterest worthy.
The characters on the show often reiterate, in Gilead’s defense, that the country has “gone green” and has almost zero carbon emissions. Married women have plenty of time on their hands to paint, or garden, or knit, or otherwise participate in the hobbies we all say we’re going to take up when we find the time (but we never do, because we’re too busy). Even the Commander, played by Joseph Fiennes, is an attractive man in a nice suit.
It is, on the surface, the world that Republicans were referring to when they said they wanted to make America great again.
And Margaret Atwood has done a wonderful job of demonstrating how, no matter how superficially pleasant that world is, it is also utterly poisonous. The main character is still being raped, even if the Commander is handsome. The women preparing the food are still slaves, even if the kitchens are nice. The wives are, at worst driven mad, and at best, brittle and furious as a result of lack of outlets for their ambitions.
Bruce Miller has tried to make the horrors of that world extra clear through a pretty unending string of physical torments in the second season. Which is why it’s so worrisome when people act as though that world is sexy, or cute, or fun, or a place they’d like to inhabit for the afternoon. It sends a message, whether intentional or not, that people see this world, and think it’s not so bad.
And that’s troubling because if the goddamn Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t seem freaky to women, then lawmakers can go a long, long way in terms of repealing reproductive rights before people start rioting in the streets. They’re already forcing women who want an abortion to undergo entirely unnecessary pelvic exams in Missouri, which Rachel Maddow described as “state sanctioned sexual assault.”
I’m not saying these elected officials are trying to recreate the precise world of The Handmaid’s Tale. I don’t think, for instance, that they’ll worry about the country going green.
But if women like Jenner depict potential outcomes of reproductive restrictions as anything but terrifying—which The Handmaid’s Tale has so clearly demonstrated they are—anti-choice politicians will lean into saying that a society where women have no reproductive autonomy is fine; appealing, even. Then, the world depicted on The Handmaid’s Tale won’t be one that even someone as privileged as Kylie Jenner can casually exit at the end of the day.
Which isn’t to say Kylie Jenner should throw out those Handmaids costumes. She should keep them. I just hope the next time she wears one, it’s to a protest.