The Handmaid’s Tale: the Sickening Meaning of Gilead’s New Dress Colour

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Warning: contains spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 Episode 3

“It means she’s ready.” That’s what Nick told June when she asked the significance of the colour her daughter was wearing at Commander Waterford’s funeral. In a sly masterstroke, Serena had arranged for Hannah to present her with flowers at Fred’s globally broadcast Gilead ceremony. Viewers around the world saw the grieving Serena accept the tribute from a lovely young girl and then take her by the hand. How touching. How gracious. 

The Handmaid’s Tale viewers of course, know that there was nothing touching and gracious about it. Serena putting Hannah front and center was return fire for Fred’s murder, the next chess move in the ongoing match between two enemies. Hannah was being paraded in front of the camera as a threat and taunt. Serena was reminding June that she may have escaped Gilead but her heart is still there in the form of her 12-year-old daughter.

A 12-year-old daughter now wearing a lilac dress – the colour of which is new to The Handmaid’s Tale’s chromatic classification system. In Gilead, Handmaids wear blood red, Wives wear Virgin Mary blue, Marthas wear functional green, the Aunts wear drab brown, and little girls wear pretty pink with baby bonnets. Lilac is a new category, hence June’s question to Nick. A new colour division was required because, seven years into Gilead’s existence, the girls it stole from parents like June and Nick are starting to hit puberty. 

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In a country that reduces women to their biological breeding function, the colour lilac signals a transition from girlhood to womanhood. According to the Sons of Jacob, lilac means that Hannah – renamed Agnes by ‘adoptive’ parents the MacKenzies – is ready for her next stage of life: marriage. At the grand old age of 12, Gilead thinks that June and Luke’s daughter and her peers should be settling down and doing their duty to Gilead by starting families. Just like Esther before them. Just like Eden.

Gilead’s hypocrisy – by which Commanders pretend piety to justify acts of rape, and frequent brothels staffed by sex-trafficked prisoners – has always been on display in The Handmaid’s Tale. Only recently though, has the show foregrounded the horror of the state’s sickening attitude to sex and young girls: children are God’s holy blessings in Gilead, right up until the point that a Commander wants to fuck one.

Esther’s awful story in season four confronted viewers with the horrid truth that puberty is the cut-off point for young girls’ protection in Gilead. Even the social status of being a Wife couldn’t keep her safe. After puberty, girls become fair game, or as Nick tells June, “ready.” Commander Putnam’s despicable treatment of Esther at Fred’s wake showed his perverse excitement at both her youth and her fear. What powerful men want, Gilead provides. And what powerful hebephilic men want – as Warren Putnam and Jeffrey Epstein and his coterie of the rich and influential prove – both Gilead and our world provide.

Though Nick assures June that no marriage has been planned for Hannah, and that the new dress simply signals a move to a school where the daughters of High Commanders will be trained as future wives, its meaning is clear: the tick is clocking.

Until now, June and Luke have had the scant comfort that even though their child was stolen from them by a despotic cult of religious fundamentalist bigot-rapists, she at least appears to have been well-treated by her particular religious fundamentalist bigot-rapists. Up until this point, Hannah/Agnes has lived under the protection of childhood and of the MacKenzies’ high social status. But the deadline’s up on the first part. As soon as Gilead considers Hannah as a woman and not a child, she becomes subject to all of its dangers. The rescue mission had better step up the pace.

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 5 airs on Wednesdays on Hulu in the US. It’s expected to air on Channel 4 in the UK at a tbc date.

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