The desire to evoke a sense of fear is, for many participants, what gives the costume its strength. Tori Neal, who recently dressed as a handmaid for a protest in Huntsville, Alabama, wrote via email that the red robe is “a warning about the future.” For Lexie Baker, of Denver, Colorado, the costume also signifies how American society has regressed. “The costume’s purpose is to remind the onlooking audience that female rights have again been teetering, and if you care about keeping us…from slipping backwards into a totalitarian society, then you better take advantage of your right to VOTE,” she wrote.
The reasons for dressing like a handmaid span solidarity, personal empowerment, inspiration for voting, and intersectional expansion for the feminist movement—all valuable, important motives. What the costumes don’t do, however, is imagine a future in which circumstances are actually better for women; they just suggest an apocalyptic path. There’s a bit of a slippery-slope logic operating in this new brand of demonstration: It’s a terrifying, but unlikely, prospect that the U.S. will actually end up functioning like Atwood’s fictional society of Gilead.