Ahh, Halloween… so many traditions. trick or treating, bobbing for apples, horror film festivals, John Carpenter’s film showing up on the BBC as a token acknowledgement of the day, and middle class people with hugely privileged existences getting worked up about inappropriate costumes because they literally have nothing more pressing in their lives to worry about.
Given that we still have eight days of September left, it’s probably a little early to say that any one specific point of outrage will be this year’s sole example – I’m confident that the easily offended will be eagerly scouring the fancy dress websites for other things to be horrified by over the next few weeks – but the one that erupted yesterday will be hard to beat in terms of deliberate misinterpretation, condescension and hypocrisy.
I imagine that some of you have been watching the recent TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian science fiction story The Handmaid’s Tale. Or you might be familiar with the earlier film version, or, of course, the novel itself. If so, you’ll be aware that the story is set in a future totalitarian state where women have been forced to live as slaves for the ruling elite – they are the ‘handmaids’ of the title. The handmaids – the women selected for breeding – dress in red, and the central character, Offred, is the one we follow as she makes a break for freedom. She rebels against the system and, while the demands of the TV series in particular ensure that she never quite succeeds, she is clearly the hero figure of the story.
So we can take the handmaid costume as either a symbol of enslavery or of rebellion. Or both. Some people have, in fact, already adapted the look as one of protest against Trump and his ultra-conservative allies. But regardless of how we might individually see the meaning of the clothing, the one thing we should perhaps really take from the story is how important individual freedom to choose is, and why we should be defending women’s rights of self-determination.
Unless, it seems, that freedom of choice is to wear a ‘sexy’ Handmaid’s Tale inspired Halloween costume.
Now, you might think that wearing a costume based on sexual slavery is the height of bad taste, or you might think that it is hilariously outrageous, or you might think that it is striking a blow against the patriarchy by reclaiming a symbol of oppression and making it your own, just as various groups have done with various taboo words. That’s your choice. But when you decide that, because you don’t like this costume, no one else should be allowed to wear it, well… that’s missing the whole point of freedom of choice somewhat.
But of course, the Handmaid’s Tale costume – an unofficial tie-in called the Brave Red Maiden, we should point out – has caused just that evil of outrage from the sort of opportunist campaigners and clickbait outrage-feeding websites that seem to believe that women’s rights will only be furthered if they are told what they can or cannot do. Let’s be blunt here: if you tell people that they can only make certain decisions, only believe certain things, only dress certain ways, then you are more like the oppressors of The Handmaid’s Tale than the rebels. But that’s a point rather lost on the flurry of internet commenters and tweeters who were so furious about a costume – one that they had no obligation to wear and would probably never even see if they weren’t looking very very hard for it – that they used their loud voices to force US retailer Yandy into withdrawing the costume and issuing a pathetically grovelling apology. An apology to people who are not, and probably never will be, its customers, while shitting on the woman who are, and might have wanted to buy the costume. Their rights, their freedoms, don’t matter it seems. Do as we say, wear what we tell you, say the protestors. The men of The Handmaid’s Tale would be proud.
Admittedly, Atwood’s story, and more specifically the TV series, has already been wilfully misinterpreted by some people who choose to think of it as an endorsement of the world it portrays, while Atwood’s criticisms of the more extreme element of the #metoo movement and her apparently outrageous suggestion that the accused be allowed the due process of the law, rather than be immediately convicted and excommunicated from society on mere accusation, has put her in the position of being the ‘bad feminist’ in the eyes of the more swivel-eyed internet extremists.
But even so, the very idea of women telling other women what they can or cannot wear, or what forms of ‘sexy’ are acceptable and unacceptable, what opinions are right and wrong is pretty disheartening, and to do so about a costume inspired by a story that shows the horrors of removing women’s individual freedoms is staggeringly lacking in self-awareness. And let’s be honest here – the fact that there are some people who have so few genuine difficulties or obstacles or injustices in their lives that they feel the need to go looking for reasons – any reason, even someone else wearing a piece of clothing at a party that they won’t be attending anyway – to claim victimhood status is extraordinarily pathetic and sad. First World Problems indeed.