This past weekend, in a 2019 that’s increasingly dystopian-adjacent, model and reality star Kylie Jenner threw a friend a “Handmaid’s Tale”-themed birthday party.
“Welcome to Gilead,” read the invitation sent to a gaggle of women. The guests arrived and donned long red gowns and huge white bonnets that, for someone with the hostess’s wealth, looked frankly a little Boise-community-theater-ish. Waitstaff dressed as “Marthas,” the domestic underclass in the fictional world of Gilead — a place where, as depicted in Hulu’s prestige drama, women are forced into sexual slavery, bearing children for the religious elite.
Cocktails were themed: Praise Be Vodka, Under His Eye Tequila (what, nobody thought of “Blessed be the Fruit Punch?”), and once everyone assembled, the guests clustered in small groups, pulled out their phones and posed for duck-face selfies while festively attired in female oppression.
It probably goes without saying that the party was roundly scorned. BuzzFeed re-posted Jenner’s Instagrams from the night, which allowed critics to participate in a good, cathartic mocking. How dare Kylie make light of the show’s troubling themes? How could anyone believe this was a good idea?
The photos were circulating online while my friends and I were in the middle of our own planning regarding the show’s third season, which debuted last week. Maybe, we’d decided, we would watch together at my house so nobody would have to grapple with the traumatic scenes alone. I figured I would have to feed everyone. Probably I’d spring for pizza and wine.
What is the difference between pizza and wine and Praise Be Vodka? What is the difference between having a few friends over to thoughtfully process something and just having a party?
Kylie Jenner’s mistake wasn’t only that she treated violence toward women as entertainment. Kylie Jenner’s mistake was that she made a gaudy spectacle of treating violence toward women as entertainment. She didn’t realize that here in America, it’s perfectly acceptable to turn on the television and binge on rape, subjugation, kidnapping and torture — as long as we agree we’re doing it in a serious manner. As long as we claim we’re learning from it.
Netflix’s biggest sleeper hit last winter was “You,” a sardonic thriller — So well written! So complex! — that followed the stalking, imprisonment and eventual murder of a young graduate student.
“Game of Thrones” wrapped up this spring — finally quieting the many fans who spent years insisting all the raping was necessary, for realism’s sake.
One of my favorite recent documentaries was structured around interviews with actresses who have been hired to play dead, naked victims in TV dramas. I can’t remember the title, though, and you try Googling “dead girl documentary” and wading through thousands of hits for the right one.
And we haven’t even yet touched upon the “CSI”/“Criminal Minds” oeuvre, the powerhouses of syndicated television. “Law & Order: SVU” is about to become TV’s longest-running prime-time drama. Some of its appeal comes from watching Detective Olivia Benson — a character so popular Taylor Swift gave the name to her cat — heroically solve grisly cases. But an awful lot of screen time is dedicated to the grisly cases themselves: an endless parade of human trafficking, bodies in dumpsters, high school girls caught up in sex rings or molested by band teachers.
Television critic Emily Nussbaum once described “SVU” as “prurient and cathartic, exploitative and liberating — with an appeal much like that of the old Lifetime channel, that pastel-tinted chamber of horrors.”
We can assign some blame to the male showrunners who produce the gory content, but the “SVU” viewership is largely female — a demographic often repeated across the crime genre. A 2010 study about true-crime consumption, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, speculated that women saw crime dramas as educational. “She turns to true crime books in a possible effort to learn strategies and techniques to prevent becoming murdered,” the study read.
Which is an astonishingly depressing sentence, when you think about it.
Because “The Handmaid’s Tale” has coincided with parallel real-world legislation — restrictive reproductive bills in statehouses throughout the country — it’s become somewhat of an educational tool in itself.
Watching allows viewers to game out their worst-case scenarios. Activists have taken to showing up for protests dressed much like Kylie Jenner’s party guests: long red dresses of varying quality, white bonnets. “The Guy Fawkes mask of 2019,” Wired magazine recently declared.
It’s a little odd that a niche show on a premium subscription channel has provided the go-to populist protest attire, but we’ve decided this is acceptable usage: You can invoke the clothes from the show if you are doing it solemnly, and with good reason.
This is what Kylie Jenner did not understand. This is what Kylie Jenner got wrong. This is what Kylie Jenner got so spectacularly wrong that her gaffe ended up illuminating our own questionable rules when it comes to violence against women as entertainment.
You are allowed to watch it. You are allowed to binge it. You are allowed to cosplay it. You are allowed to clear your schedule Wednesday evening to make sure you don’t miss a minute of it. And afterward, you are allowed to talk about it with all your friends and read about it on message boards. You are allowed to do all of this, provided that you do so with solemnity.
Because even if you are dedicating hours of your leisure time to these shows, the one thing you cannot do is what Kylie Jenner did. You cannot let on that you’re having any fun.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.