I’ve been reading the reviews of HBO’s The Handmaid’s Tale with as much fascination as anyone. This morning I thought about the frenetic pace of work the past few months, and my yearning to just be done with it — I resent the constant demands on my time. In my fantasies, I float, untethered, above the fray — a place of non-work, a seamless peaceful existence. Transcendence — I’ll rise above hunger and worrying over what to eat; I’ll float beyond worries about children, dogs, car repairs, doctor appointments, meetings, upset clients; I’ll no longer need to pay attention to politics, or economics, or life. I’ll just be me.
I thought about the handmaids in the story — they had those worries and tasks weighing them down before it all happened. The handmaids had been real women with real, messy, difficult lives. They worked at jobs where people wore unflattering and sensible colors, they had children, they had the mess of emotions, demands, and decisions to make. And then Gilead gave them a whole new set of life-or-death demands that superseded their old lives of too many choices, too many tasks, too much to do. Now, life whittled down to what they glimpse through the narrowed scrim of the bonnet’s rim. Their choices are brutally simple, decisions are few and now are about life or death.
Decisions about what to wear are, in Gilead, a mockery of the aspirational “minimalist” wardrobe that fills so many lifestyle-advice blogs on the web.
And the only decisions allowed are whether to allow one’s self to be used, whether to resist and die, and whether to think or not about one’s life.
To have a life of order, cleanliness, where baseboards don’t gather dust, pet hairs don’t clump together in the tight corners of the house, where dirt and disarray never impinges because it is simply not allowed to. And a work life in which the imaginary supersedes the real: one sits upright in a clean, untarnished desk chair, unconcerned about the transparency of the glass surface, where arguments do not spring up, workers don’t rush to a bathroom stall to breathe slowly and try to contain tears, where the general grime of many people inhabiting the same space for dozens of hours a week doesn’t build.
Ivanka Trump is perhaps the most widely-known popularizer of this clean aestheticizing of work life. Her web site, intended to draw in millennial young women with its deployment of the millennial pink, white, black, and silver color palette, presents a work life devoid of discord, effort or challenge. Work magically happens without sweat, wrinkles, or mistakes. Here, our “boss lady” leans up against her perfect, spare desk, her lady-like white purse prim and proper, her landline phone an archaic touch of dull matte-black technology. Someone else will wipe the handprint left smeared on the glass sheen of her transparent desk. And those heels will not leave smudges on the white flooring or dents in the thick pile of the carpet.
On the Ivanka Trump blog dozens of images like this, pinterest mood boards for the millennial crowd, appear. Every product for sale, these are accessories for a work life coordinated and clean, untouched by the mundane banality of office supplies. To go to work is, on her website, to enter a world of antiquated femininity accessorized and untroubled. If there are young women conflicted about the demands of career and family, here is assurance that one can be “girly” while still succeeding. And if a young woman worries over how much work — how hard — adult life might be, here is assurance that with the right clothes, accessories, and decor, all can be managed tidily. This is femininity defined as tranquility, a lack of energy, a lack of movement. To be feminine in the workplace is to be still, quiet, tidy, controlled, clean, unhurried. It is to not work.
Underpinning this aesthetic, of course, is Ivanka’s non-necessity of work. To choose to work, to inherit and marry the success that already need to be in place to take up the demand to “lean in” and take risks with one’s livelihood — to choose to self-consciously shoulder the burden of being a “working woman” — that is the privilege of being born wealthy. For the vast majority of women, there is no choice. And there is no “leaning in,” because leaning in will get you fired, demoted, scheduled on the bad shifts, docked wages, insulted. And for the vast majority of workers, exercising choice over one’s push pin styles, memo notebooks, or wearing golden-trimmed white headphones is not an option. One simply works, works hard, and works the ways one is told. And by the way, office supplies are usually mandated, doled out and tallied, and certainly not color-coordinated.
This montage of images from the Ivanka Trump company’s new office, posted April 23, 2017, is a non-work workplace. There’s an eerie, frozen stillness to the aesthetic — not because the photographs show workspaces unpopulated by workers but because the style demands non-use. A white rug under a white table ringed with white chairs with silver trim: can a normal meeting take place here? Perhaps workers who don’t eat or drink, or more realistically, who are carefully trained to perform bodily tasks out of sight, could sit here. The cement-toned flooring is surprisingly practical: in fact, the “layering” of white and cream carpets and rugs looks temporary. If you remove the “Ivanka” touches of sheen, silvering, gilding, and whiteness, you do have a functional workspace, a place where real people might actually get something done.
“Dream And Do.” This motto seems, to a critical mind, oddly familiar, creepy. It’s an imperative — a demand softened by millennial pink and serif lettering… and the order is issued in a workplace. So employees are urged, ever so gently and in an ever so genteel fashion, to Work. Work. Work. Work and be free. Dream and Do. The slogan is a mockery of most women’s lives as those lives are really lived. And by the way, most women work in jobs that offer no opportunity to “dream” because in our inequitable economy, that is how most jobs are structured. Workers don’t get to configure these jobs to take the shape they want; workers have to shape themselves to suit the demands of the job. Only those with enormous privilege — and who have little actual need to work — can shape their workplace, their work life, and their life overall.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, women no longer “work” at careers, and most women are now defined by roles dependent upon the woman’s relationship to men. Handmaids bear children, Marthas labor, and Wives… Wives have no real role. They do not work nor labor, they do not bear children, they do not function. They are, among all the women, defined in Gilead as purely transcendent. Formerly career women, the Wives now find themselves immensely privileged and static. They no longer have reason to make messes, to sweat, to work, to lose out. They simply are to be … to live a life transcendent of the old ways.
Atwood’s novel shows that there is no real escape from the messiness of life. Jealousy, cruelty, love and lack of love, and conflicts carry on in this new world. And the Handmaids are there, their value whittled down to womb, their decisions no longer worth making, for the only things to do is to wear the garments provided, endure the tasks assigned, and attempt to not feel anything.
On March 21, 2017 in Texas, ten women dressed in handmaid costumes were arrested at the State Capitol building as they attempted to attend a public legislation session. On the table were two bills aimed at limiting women’s access to reproductive rights by adding new regulations to abortion procedures. The protestors held signs related to broader health care issues facing women and children, asking that prenatal health care be funded, that medicaid be funded, and so on.
As they walked to the state capitol building, the sci-fi dystopian vision of Atwood’s novel came to life. The protestors were, in some ways, calling other men and women to do what is very, very difficult: take up the work of bettering the society for women, children, and men. And guess what — it might get messy. And women won’t be wearing Ivanka’s millennial pink; they’ll be wearing blood red.