When We Commercialize Dystopias, Bad Things Happen

Do you really want to wear lingerie named after after a sex slave?
July 22, 2018
10 mins read

What do you think of when you hear the words “The Handmaid’s Tale”? A horrific future where women are imprisoned and used for forced breeding? A TV show which consistently depicts rape and graphic, brutal torture? Or maybe … wine?

No? Well that’s what MGM evidently thought of. Recently, in conjunction with wine company Lot18, the media company announced a collection of fine wines to tie into the TV show. The wines were named after characters in the show — two reds called Offred and Ofglen and a white called Serena Joy.

The three wines created by MGM and Lot18 to accompany the show understandably received massive backlash. (Image via The Drinks Business)

For those unfamiliar with Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” it’s a dystopia based on Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel of the same name, in which a post-apocalyptic world and religious ultra-conservatism collide to create a society where women are forced to be either wives or breeders.

The characters Offred and Ofglen are named after the men that own them, Fred and Glen. So, already not fantastic things to name wines after. And it gets worse. The Offred and Ofglen wines are red because the characters themselves have to wear red to signal their status as “handmaids” — basically meaning sex slaves.

Obviously, this is all in pretty poor taste. Writer Andi Zeisler tweeted “finally a product that combines everything I hate: wine, marketing, unbridled capitalism, and authoritarian patriarchal dystopias where women are chattel,” and the Guardian asked if it was “the worst tie-in ever.” After a swift backlash, Lot18 canceled the wine.

In an even more jaw-droppingly tasteless move than the wine, sleepwear company Lunya recently released lingerie inspired by “The Handmaid’s Tale” — again, a show about institutionalized rape. The Independent satirically called it the perfect choice “for the sexual slave look.” Like Lot18, Lunya backpedaled swiftly after public outcry. Originally called “Offred,” their red silk set has now been renamed “Drift.”

Far from being sexy, Lunya’s new lingerie came across as tone deaf. (Image via i09)

Maybe most weirdly, on fan merch site Redbubble, “Handmaid’s Tale” fans can buy T-shirts, mugs, stickers and phone cases bearing slogans like “under his eye” and “blessed be the fruit.” In swirly calligraphy or trendy typewriter font, they all seem pretty unironic and sincere, which is honestly perplexing.

The phrases, as used by handmaids in the show, refer to being watched and having babies. The handmaids don’t have free speech; the phrases are drilled into them in an effort to brainwash them and remind them of their duties and the fact that they’re under surveillance.

Much to my displeasure, these examples aren’t unusual; merchandise that consistently misses the point of dystopian narratives keeps, infuriatingly, popping up. Take the movie that started the whole current trend of young adult dystopias: “The Hunger Games,” based on a teen novel by Suzanne Collins.

After “Catching Fire” came out, online fashion store Net-a-Porter created a clothing line called “Capitol Couture,” based on the fashion worn in the affluent Capitol of “The Hunger Games.”

Back in 2013, CoverGirl produced the “Capitol Beauty Collection,” a line of makeup inspired by the districts of Panem, the future version of North America from the movie. They included themes like “mining,” “agriculture” and “technology,” after the main exports of the fictional districts.

Covergirl’s “Hunger Games” makeup line seemed to miss the main message that the novel tried to convey to readers. (Image via Fashiongonerogue)

Dystopias, as a genre, function like fables: They act as warnings of potential catastrophic futures, and at the same time, hold up a mirror to the darkest parts of our present reality. Dystopian narratives are often categorized by a totalitarian government, surveillance and a stark class divide, where human rights only apply to the rich and one part of the population live in extreme luxury and the other in extreme poverty.

“The Hunger Games” very much adheres to these tropes. The protagonist, Katniss, is from the mining district, and it’s her interactions with people from the Capitol that reveal the extent of her society’s unfairness. The privileged Capitol citizens have crazy, over the top makeup, which acts as a signal to Katniss and the audience that they’re corrupt and self-obsessed, and will never understand the hard life of someone from the poorer districts.

Evidently, that’s not the message CoverGirl took. Like MGM, they completely missed the point of the film’s message. There’s no point in a dystopia if the take-away from audiences is “let’s buy something!”

And then there’s the saga of Guy Fawkes masks. Worn by revolutionary V in the dystopian movie “V for Vendetta,” these masks soon became a symbol for protest and anti-establishmentarianism. They’ve been used in many contexts, but most famously have been adopted by hacktivist group Anonymous. By buying a Guy Fawkes mask, though, you’re giving money to Time Warner, who own the attire — since, as many people seem to have forgotten, they’re merchandise from “V for Vendetta.”

When people respond to dystopian narratives not by examining our society but by collecting merch, they don’t just miss the richness of the story they’ve experienced, they also miss an opportunity to engage with real issues.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is a warning of the places America could go if institutionalized misogyny is left unchecked. Author Margaret Atwood even said that she included nothing in her novel that had “not already been done sometime, someplace”.

This history that Atwood draws from might also be repeating itself. Considering President Trump’s recent Supreme Court pick, it’s beginning to seem like Roe vs Wade is in danger of being overturned. Some states already have frighteningly regressive laws regarding women’s rights: an Iowa bill from this year sought to make abortion completely illegal except in cases of rape and incest, and even then there was a 45 day limit for reporting the assault. The U.S. itself is only 49th in the world for women’s rights according to the World Economics Forum.

Fan responses of dystopias are especially disturbing when, like in the case of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the Iowa bill, the warnings hit very close to home. And really, what is it about our current society that means the default response to being a fan of a dystopian story is spending money on it?

Maybe the problem is that we’re getting our anti-authoritarian messages from the mass media in the first place. It leads to a situation where “The Handmaid’s Tale” is incredibly successful and mainstream, even winning a Golden Globe, and yet many would argue that the U.S. is heading closer every day to women’s rights being overturned.

By looking to TV for answers, we risk treating real life like a TV show — bound to work out okay in the end. But dystopias — and our increasingly dystopian reality — tell us that’s not usually the case.

Jen Tombs, University of Warwick

Writer Profile

Jen Tombs

University of Warwick
English Literature

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