‘Handmaids’ wield dystopian imagery for a message

A group of women in red robes have appeared unexpectedly in different areas of Whidbey Island.


Special to The Record

A group of women dressed in red robes and hoods have appeared unexpectedly in different areas of Whidbey Island, creating unsettling scenes as they stand or walk together in silent anonymity.

That is the handmaid’s purpose, according to the woman who brought the unique protest to the island. It’s not about further dividing people, but about spurring uncomfortable but necessary conversations about women’s rights and the direction of the country.

The haunting figures represent characters in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” published in 1985. The dystopian story takes place in a time when birth rates are plummeting and women are routinely forced to give birth against their will. In Atwood’s story, women’s bodies are literally owned by men. The women who break men’s laws against “sexual purity” are punished by becoming slaves called handmaids, breeders of babies, and forced to wear red capes and hoods.

In a marketing campaign promoting its chilling television series based on the book, Hulu hired women to dress as handmaids, who then stood motionless at the series’ premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2017. Reproductive rights activists also borrowed the imagery. A dozen of the red-robed women then visited the Texas Senate to protest a bill restricting abortions.

A Whidbey woman adopted the name “Ofgeorgia” in bringing the handmaids to the island. In the novel, handmaids are stripped of their personal names and given their commander’s name. For instance, the name “Offred” comes from Fred, the commander’s name. The lowest classes are the “unwomen.”

Ofgeorgia, meanwhile, chose to honor mothers and matriarchies by using her mother’s name, Georgia.

She asked that her real name not be published in order to preserve the anonymous nature of the group.

When the Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked in early May, Ofgeorgia went walking and thinking. She ended up investing in a number of handmaid costumes and has since been trudging with other handmaids around Langley, at Payless Foods in Freeland, at the Bayview Farmers Market, in downtown Coupeville and on the ferry.

“The story is really creepy,” Ofgeorgia said. “What’s happening in real life is really creepy. I thought, maybe a bunch of us could wear these costumes and walk around town and go into a grocery store — the handmaids walk in grocery stores in pairs of two in the series. It is theater. We are intentionally playing this role to be a disturbance to provoke conversation. It’s about getting people to think and reflect.”

Ofgeorgia said the handmaids stand in silence and do not converse with one another. When they are out in the public, they are sometimes approached and spoken to.

“People want to engage and some of us speak for what is true personally,” Ofgeorgia said. “One woman said, ‘It’s happening now.’ Another said, ‘Don’t go back to sleep.’”

The movement is continuing to grow, Ofgeorgia noted. A man offered to make a donation for buying the costumes.

Ofgeorgia wrote in an email that she wants the handmaids’ movement to open a door for dialogue.

“We are hoping that curiosity actually draws liberals and conservatives into conversation, and that labels can be dropped,” she wrote, adding, “Basically working in a way that brings us together and does not further divide feels really important.”

To learn about joining or supporting the group, email whidbeyhandmaids@gmail.com.

By David Welton
By David Welton