Handmaid's Tale Merch Begs Question: When Does Promotion Go Too Far?
"The Handmaid’s Tale," a dystopian TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name, tells the bleak story of a society that has enslaved women in ways that draw comparisons to the atrocities committed in concentration camps. The show has received much praise since it debuted on Hulu last year, with many drawing parallels to our own society, in which women are still paid less than men while facing steeper obstacles for success and fewer means by which to protect themselves from discrimination and degradation.
Fortunately, we are currently undergoing a cultural shift, ushered along by the Me Too movement, through which women are becoming increasingly vocal about injustices, while predatory powerful men have seen their ill-earned fortunes fall. Unfortunately, these messages are already being co-opted for distasteful commercial means.
This brings us back to "The Handmaid’s Tale," a decidedly serious and important show that has generated some questionable merchandise and promotional marketing.
Enter The Wing, a self-described “work and community space for women” that requires a $2,000 yearly fee for membership. The site offers official Handmaid’s Tale merchandise such as hot pink notebooks, pens and matchbooks, all emblazoned with empowering Atwood quotes and lines from the show. While there is certainly tons of precedent for TV shows licensing questionable content for the purpose of promotion, the disparity between message and merch is rather apparent here.
In marketing, there is quite a fine line between support and misappropriation. Here, we find an example of the latter, by which a work of art concerned with weighty themes such as truth, history and the oppression of women gets the merch treatment no one really asked for. It’s one thing to write an article or start a conversation about how a show can be used to dissect issues in the modern moment. It’s a whole other ball game to base a clothing line off of that show, sell T-shirts emblazoned with its slogan of resistance and make YouTube tutorials on how to create its signature symbol of oppression, the white bonnet. (We’re looking at you, Vaquera and Hot Topic.)
On the flipside, Hulu has invested a significant amount of time and money into creating and producing "The Handmaid's Tale," to critical acclaim. The company has every right to promote the show—a duty, even, given its cultural importance and the timeliness of its themes—and promotional products, when done tastefully, are an effective means of doing so. Where is the line?
While the brands aren’t entirely to blame here since Hulu is licensing the merch, they still bear some responsibility here for conspiring to cheapen the show’s message with promotion. Feminism is not consumerism, and vice versa. Apparel manufacturing in particular is notoriously dangerous, and even deadly, for workers around the world, many of whom are underpaid women living in third-world countries and conditions.
Consider, for example, abhorrent factory conditions in Bangladesh, or Turkish workers sewing desperate pleas for public acknowledgment and assistance into the garments they produce. Does contributing to a culture that feeds off of these conditions really constitute feminism, or any positive, human-focused-ism? How much longer will we let our cultural obsessions and addictions dictate the lives of others?
It's a tricky issue with no easy answers for brands or distributors. Promotion is all well and good, but it must be done appropriately if we hope to sustain the fortunate lifestyles we lead, if not for our own sakes, then at least for the sake of those who hope to reach the states of well-being we so often unconsciously enjoy.