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Opinion Why it’s time to retire the Handmaids

Women wearing handmaid costumes protest in front of the Alabama State House. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Washington Post)

Handmaids are everywhere these days.

The red robes and white bonnets made famous in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel-turned-streaming-sensation first showed up in Texas. Then they spread — throughout the country, over the ocean and eventually into a Senate office building where the women wearing them loomed over lawmakers scheduled to decide whether Brett M. Kavanaugh deserved a spot on the Supreme Court.

Now Kavanaugh has his seat, and abortion rights activists have their uniform. News outlets covering the crusade by lawmakers in conservative states to stop women from ending their pregnancies seem to have settled on a favorite featured photo in turn. So when the public thinks about Roe v. Wade, it thinks about “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And when we think about the activists fighting for women to control their own wombs, we think about them wearing red and white.

But should we?

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“Fight to keep fiction from becoming reality,” exhorts the Handmaid Coalition, which helps organize events and even offers instructions for garb assembly. Fiction is the imaginary country of Gilead, the theocratic realm Atwood sent to the bestsellers’ list in 1985. Reality is America, right now.

The comparison has some power. The title character of Atwood’s creation, remade for millennials on Hulu two years ago, is treated as a human incubator. The laws that states are adopting this spring banning abortions at the first detection of a “heartbeat,” or prohibiting them outright as Alabama did this week, also yank any semblance of bodily autonomy away from women.

The spectacle, too, has been effective. Those women standing silent outside the Kavanaugh hearings, all in carmine, looked like a work of art, and like art, they had a visceral impact. They didn’t make people think so much as they made them feel — our throats tightened, our stomachs clenched.

Still, there’s something uneasy about anointing “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its wardrobe as the avatar of the abortion rights movement.

Yes, it can be uncomfortable to watch women don the garments of oppression as a way of arguing against it, even when the aim is reclamation. And yes, it’s odd to see so consequential a battle doubling as a Hulu marketing campaign. But there’s more to it: Seizing on any pop cultural trope as a political tool tends to flatten both the work that trope comes from and the world it’s supposed to be describing. And in this case, the flattening creates all kinds of confusion.

Handmaids in Atwood’s universe, for example, are only allowed to have sex when they’re being forced to by their masters, whose children they’re then supposed to carry. Here, in real America, women can have sex with more or less whomever they want — or not — and the restrictions cover only what happens next, which is exactly what Republicans eager for harsher rules seize on to argue that it’s ridiculous to suggest women can’t “choose.”

Maybe the point of the protests is that limiting reproductive freedom necessarily ends up limiting sexual freedom by pushing women toward abstinence, so the right to choose in one area isn’t worth much without the right to choose in the other. (Incidentally, that’s what made actress Alyssa Milano’s proposed “sex strike” so absurdly counterproductive.) But a cape and a bonnet will have trouble making that case without some help.

This muddle points to the larger flaw with leaning too heavily on handmaids to talk about abortion in today’s America. It is difficult to tell whether protesters are trying to say that the United States is on the road to becoming Gilead or whether they are trying to say that in the most important ways it has become Gilead already.

The answer, as it turns out, may not matter much. Because as long as an image pulled from fiction is used to define reality, reality starts to seem a lot less real. And reality seeming real is crucial to persuading people to do something.

The handmaids worked when they were a spectacle because they shocked observers into attention. But keeping that attention now will require convincing people who aren’t already on the streets that this isn’t make-believe. That means discussing real consequences for real people at a real moment in time — not focusing on an imagined future that makes the current crisis feel like a permanent hypothetical. It means stressing that the situation on the ground is bad enough rather than suggesting that the truly dire circumstances exist only in some made-up hellscape.

“Is America turning into Gilead?” is the wrong question. “What is America turning into?”, “What is it already?” and “What do we want it to be?” are better ones.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: You can tell which side is running scared on abortion bans

Megan McArdle: The Supreme Court should have never intervened on abortion

Leah Litman: The Supreme Court now has cover to cut back on reproductive rights without having to overturn ‘Roe’

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans will lose the ‘reasonableness’ fight on abortion

Helaine Olen: Alabama’s abortion ban doesn’t promote life. It exhibits contempt for it.

Catherine Rampell: Can corporations save us from the attack on reproductive rights?