It was a late April morning when commuters getting to work around Sydney were surprised by the sight of a group of Handmaids wandering around the CBD. Silently wandering in a pack, the experience of seeing Handmaids interacting in the real world was a startling and unnerving sight. Some onlookers quickly took photos, but many people just watched on - confronted by a group that felt out of step with the usual hustle and bustle of the city.
For those who didn't know the show, seeing the Handmaids walk around was difficult to put into an immediate context. The costuming isn't quite audacious enough to seem like it's a statement or some sort of promotion, but witnessing a group of people dressed the same is enough to be unnerving. But for those familiar with the iconography of The Handmaid's Tale, the sight of the women walking together through the city was discomforting - a reminder of how close the dystopian reality of the show is to our own real world.
Later in the day, the Handmaids arrived at the University of Sydney where they walked the grounds of the campus before making a brief stop into a lecture. Watching the Handmaids wander the campus was a unique contrast to seeing them walk through the CBD. In the city, seeing the very traditional, buttoned-down, bonnet-wearing Handmaids felt anachronistic as they walked past cosmetic stores and Subway restaurants, however on campus the visage of the Handmaids walking amid older, heritage buildings seemed more natural.
For the students, watching the Handmaids pass by was still a jarring experience worthy of a new Snaps and Insties.
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This week we're joined by very special guest, The Handmaid's Tale costume designer, Ane Crabtree.
It was gender studies lecturer Dr Jessica Kean who agreed to allow a few minutes at the end of her lecture for the Handmaids to walk through the theatre. It provided an opportunity to draw a parallel between real world gender politics and that of a pop-cultural phenomenon that positions gender discourse as the foundation for its stories of a broken society.
Kean explained: "One of the reasons I said yes to this stunt in the classroom is because, being able to critically think about gender, being able to educate ourselves around gender, power, and society... this is not trivial. This is core business. This is how we learn how to make the world better. How we learn what to watch out for and start to make sense of the ways of the world… the violence of the world as it is.
"It’s a really important time to be doing gender studies. The fact the show points towards these well-educated, smart women being separated from their workplaces, separated from the capacity to read. For me, that link between resistance, education, and feminism made it a good fit for Intro To Gender Studies."
Kean said that she was enthused that the show serves as a strong entry point for viewers to consider gender politics: "The core themes of the show are things I spend a lot of my working life thinking about - gender dynamics in society, institutions, discourse, and power. And how the gendered order comes to be what it is today. The show is thinking about that in a dystopian future state which is increasingly feeling like… the fact the show is set in something that was the United States has creepy resonance at the moment, given the current state of politics, including gender politics. There’s a President of the United States who has, on record, bragged about assaulting women. That can’t help but resonate in a different way now that the material of The Handmaid’s Tale feels like it has an extra layer of foreboding.
"With the series treatment of things like reproductive rights, of women’s education, and right to work, and more subtle gender dynamics - the show demonstrates the way that how we speak about people, name people, and how we interact. How all of those micro-dynamics of the household, how it has a role to play in the more extreme violence of the show."
The reaction from the students was fascinating to watch as the Handmaids walked throughout the lecture theatre. For some students, watching the costumed women was met with a relative indifference. But for others who feel a connection to the show or the book that the series is based on, the sight of the Handmaids was met with intense fascination.
"My heart stopped. I felt like they were being forced. Like there was some sort of tension in the room as soon as they walked in," explained one of the students, Gabby. "She sort of walked straight up to me first and I didn't know what to think. It caught me by surprise. Like a slap in the face kind of moment."
Emma, another student in the class, has not yet seen the show, but she started reading the book just prior to starting her undergraduate degree. Emma revealed "I know the image of the Handmaid and I thought it was particularly eerie. What is particularly confronting about The Handmaid’s Tale is that whilst you read it and you think: 'this is so far fetched, this is unrealistic', but then you stop yourself while reading it, telling yourself this is not real life. But it could be - in today’s political climate there are aspects that speak to truth."
It was watching the rigid and overly mannered presentation of the Handmaids that really stood out to student Catherine. Like Emma, for Catherine it's the reflection of real-world gender politics that the show offers which resonated with her: "It’s the fact that something that can seem so absurd can really happen - based on who’s in charge and the way power is distributed in society".
One of the strongest reactions in the lecture came from Sophie, a student who studied the book in high school and has watched the show. She confessed that she has a deep relationship with the book, so watching the Handmaids enter the lecture theatre had a considerable impact on her.
"I always get this feeling when I watch the show, almost a queeziness in the pit of my stomach and I had that same feeling as soon as I saw them walk in. I just thought: Oh god, no. It’s this really weird feeling of it being distant, but not distant enough for it to not have a physical reaction".
The Handmaid's Tale airs Thursday nights on SBS at 8:30pm. Episodes are available anytime at SBS On Demand: