I will tell you right away... I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale. I have not seen the movie from the 90's. I have not watched the Hulu show. This is not because I disagree with the idea of resisting the dystopia it so brutally represents. I have not read it for the same reason I haven’t read other dystopian classics like 1984, Brave New World, etc.
The closest I really get to anything like that is Blade Runner, Ray Bradbury’s ‘Farenheit 451.’ Or its somewhat linked shoot’em’up movie cousin, ‘Equilibrium’. Or maybe the ‘Hunger Games’. But I don’t ever see re-watching those. And as quality as it is by repute, I still have not seen Amazon’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ yet. Dystopia is not my thing. I don’t play dystopian games. I’m not much for grimdark. And honestly with current events like they are... my escapist genre fiction is meant to relieve and distract. Not disturb and terrify. It’s too close to home.
What I know of the Handmaid’s Tale is terrifying. It’s the stuff of my nightmares. A full on de-evolution of the United States into a fascist fundamentalist theocracy.
Now I’ve heard some of the media. My wife is rather a fan of the book. Tho... fan may be the wrong term. Admirer maybe? Proponent? She’s listened to an audiobook of it behind me. She’s watched the Hulu series on her laptop while I’ve been doing things on my own machine. So I get drips and drabs. Bits and pieces. It’s disjointed awful moments for me like a lamp swinging wildly, illuminating random parts of a dark room. I know her favorite adaptation is a 6 part audio drama performed on the podcast. Secrets, Crimes and Audiotape. Being a voice actor, if I do this, I’ll likely listen to that. I respect my wife as being a tough audience with an eye and an ear for a quality production when she sees or hears one.
So... for most of the month of August, leading up to DragonCon, she sort of fell in with the Cosplay of Gilead group that seems to have incepted itself in response to the new TV show. She’s a costume seamstress and designer. So she had friends that wanted to do this as a whole group, and where we didn’t have the money, she had the talent to put it together. Or as she puts it, “My friend was pretty much, ‘I can’t sew a lick. But I do have a credit card!’ Several smoking strikes later, and a full on crunch-mode week spent in the studio working on patterns, red fabric, brown leather spats and getting the ‘wings’ in the mail, the costumes happened.
And while this was happening, this group of women and men were coming together more and more cohesively. Their Facebook group came together. Moderators were named, including my wife as the costume mod. More and more people were added. They weren’t just going to be Handmaids. They’d have armed protectors called ‘Angels’ and ‘Wives’ and ‘Aunts’ and a ‘Commander’. The Doomsday track at DragonCon suddenly had a Handmaid’s Panel in which my wife would be speaking. This was starting to take on a life of its own.
Headed down to DragonCon from North Carolina is a 6 to 8 hour drive depending on how you go. During which we stopped and visited with our family in South Carolina where my Brother-In-Law and his wife just had their firstborn not 12 hours previous. The fellow is black hair and cheekbones, being a combination of my BiL’s Swedish genes and his mother’s chinese heritage.
We on the other hand have been trying for 3 or 4 years to make a pregnancy happen. And while I fear I may never be ready for us to actually succeed at that and produce offspring, we’re still trying. It’s been an emotional wrecking ball wending its way back and forth in our lives. We had me checked out first. And while type b motility for my guys isn’t the greatest thing... (think zig-zag patterns instead of straight shooters.) I’m still considered to be viable for a 45 year old. She’s 9 years younger than me, and she’s had her bio-clock drop on her like a bomb these last years.
And we’ve gone a progressively more expensive route to see if things are wrong in her works. Doing fertility drugs. Washing and injecting my guys. None of which are covered by insurance companies in NC cos they feel free to gouge us in a state that never accepted Obamacare. Because here, if they even get a whiff of the word ‘infertility’ your coverage evaporates. Down in red state country, as far as healthcare goes, women are already to some degree... second class citizens. We’ve still not succeeded, but we mean to try.
Given the Handmaid’s stuff we were going down to DragonCon for her to take part in, sometimes the trees on the sides of I-85 seemed a bit indistinct and unreal. The whole situation seemed a bit surrealist. I thought of films like ‘ZPG’, and ‘Children of Men’, which I also haven’t seen. Even to some degree, ‘Soylent Green’. And our own situation preys on us. It preys on her more than me, and I know that for a fact. I’ve even thought of getting some help with my own feels as she has. If I haven’t, I wonder sometimes if it’s because I don’t want to ‘appropriate’ her feelings and frustration. It’s not a pie, I know. Just cos I feel like getting help too doesn’t invalidate her own feelings.
I asked her how she was doing before we stopped off to see our newly expanded family. And to let me know if she wants to talk about it afterward. Checking in. That’s what safe and sane dominants call it. I’m not a dom. I’m a switch that slants sub when it comes to that. But I know the practices. And I know they make sense. And if you think your BF/GF, partner, lover, spouse, best friend is having feels, you ask if they’re okay and you help if you can.
She says she’ll let me know if anything comes up.
That was Wednesday. Which is what DragonCon folk call the new Thursday. Meaning since the con used to start Friday, everyone would come down and get all situated and settled into their rooms the day before. We get in, park with our friend at his mother’s place who are both noble and hospitable. When I think of southern hospitality nowadays, I don’t think of that negatively tinged passive-aggressive politesse you see in so much media. I think of my friend and his mom who graciously let us stay over a day and park in their driveway.
We get to the room at the Hyatt Place. Money’s tight but we managed it this year with help from my in-laws. The people we normally room-share with along with their daughter couldn’t come this year. Issues to deal with. Fish to fry. I can relate. We almost didn’t come. The intention was not to this year until the tickets fell into our laps as an anniversary present. We were wed in a Gallifreyan ceremony during DragonCon 5 years ago. More emotional charge for the trip. But good feels there.
Fast forward to Saturday. We’d had to go to bed and not really stay up late. We’re getting ‘older’ as uncle George Carlin used to put it. We’re not as rambunctious or young as we used to be. We tend to want to be rested so we don’t get con crud, and so we can get our hotel’s free breakfast of cooked hot food. We had to get up extra early on Saturday. Saturday’s the parade. And while we had 80,000 people this year, a lot more than that come downtown for the parade. We’re joined at the handles of the wheelchair I scoot her about in for most of the con. (hip issues) So I wheel her fast and furious down to the Mariott so she can get a shuttle bus to the mustering area where I can wait for her at the end of the parade.
They’re at the very end of the parade. So I have a while to myself to wait. But it comes off as a success. It’s brought to my attention when I find my wife at the end of the group, that Margaret Atwood herself has retweeted photos from the parade. So the author of the book is aware of us. The group is excited. Even ‘Offrex’ the inflatable T-Rex in a Handmaid’s dress. We get back to the hotel after that. Tomorrow’s the cosplay group photo, which we don’t have to get up at ‘ohgod-o-clock’ for. But it’s a block further up Peachtree, so it’s a bit of a schlep for us. Especially with a cracked caster wheel on our chair, which happened when we did registration over the cracked pavement and ramps on the streets near the Sheraton. But we wanted the robes to be fresh.
Next morning... we’re up and it’s nice out. Windy down the streets of downtown. Not a usual situation on labor day weekend in Atlanta. Things are tense at the corners. We’ve got a bad case of street preachers this year. Usually, you’ll have one horrible fundie shouting his poison religion through a megaphone at the corner across from the Hyatt where a lot of cosplay photoshoots are taken by an older library arch. This year, we have them at every major intersection. I have to restrain myself when one of them tells my wife she’s going to hell. This is our convention. Not the haters hiding behind their cross. So as much as I want to push the heel of my palm through the back of the fellow’s skull or shove him under the nearest bus;Hate-church protest sign and all, I restrain myself. Cos if I do, the rest of our day and vacation will go quite differently. The guy’s not worth the aggro.
My wife in her wheelchair lets him know quite loudly that he’s a horrible person, and Jesus thinks so too. She’s just this side of starting to sing Aurellio Voltaire’s ‘God Thinks’ at him.
I love her so much. Can ya tell? Words fail.
I spend the rest of my trip to the little park imagining whatever group of Handmaids I’m about to meet standing around the megaphoned fundie. All of them silent. Pointing wordlessly. Accusing. Being on record for the masses around us and their cameras, and through them, the world itself. It’s a nice little fantasy, and it calms me down. I notice that the guys selling water and unsanctioned DragonCon t-shirts on the corners have property of some church I don’t remember written on their coolers in magic marker. Nothing quite like bilking the rubes out of their money, then telling them they’re going to hell. Though I suppose they’ve been doing that for centuries, really. I’d turn the other cheek and judge not. But I’m clearly being judged first. They’re fair game, according to their dogma at this point.
By the time we get to the little outdoor fountain park area, my hair’s a wreck. I’m more windblown than David Hasselhoff in a tornado. My wife can’t really tell. She’s got the dystopian equivalent of Mal’s Frilly Bonnet on.
Or as I think of them at this point... ‘Woman Blinders’.
We get there early. There’s only about 5 people there when we show up, so we’ve got a little time. The rumor that becomes fact is that CNN has picked up Ms. Atwood’s retweet and widebanded our cosplay group. I don’t really count. I wasn’t a part of this and was just nicely dressed in a vaguely Wizarding World kind of way. A wand on each hip, and a staff. My sweetie’s gone all out. She’s even got a net bag today full of fake veg and meat as though she’d been out shopping as a prop, as well as her cane. She’s sharing out some of the themed buttons she was given to hand out in the parade yesterday. One of them is the waste of flesh occupying the oval office. Written on his right cheek is ‘UNDER HIS EYE’.
50 others show up, along with 3 aunts, a few angels, some wives and a commander over the next 30 minutes. One’s even got a pram with a baby doll in it. Some of our handmaids are visibly pregnant. And they’re not prosthetic. They marched in the parade anyway. And we’ll do more today. More on that in a minute.
So the people who put this cosplay group together start having all the Handmaids line up on the steps of a fountain made of steel grid towers that aren’t on. It could be a location in some dystopian capitol city if you don’t have your aperture set to cinemascope length. Our group isn’t billing itself as a protest group. They don’t really have to. The material they’re cosplaying on does that smartly enough really. Looking at this from the outside in, I really cannot help but remember some of the protests I’ve seen in the news in local government over this last year. Handmaids in the buildings in state general assemblies. Handmaids in the courtroom galleries. Silent. Witnessing. Living effigies of disapproval. Cautionary.
I’m just using my Galaxy S5. Not any kind of camera meant for serious photography. But I’ve a good eye and some artistic training. I’m not doing badly. I’m just snapping and snapping. I’ll go through it all later to see what might have come out well. I do love technology. As they’re all lined up, they do straight shots where they’re all looking into the cameras. But they’re also doing poses with all these women looking down. So you get a faceless mass of red, heads bent forward. Reduced to red fabric, swells and blinder-bonnets. Some with their Commander standing proudly with his wife and a pram. Others with angels on the sides with assault rifles. Some with the aunts among them.
The aunts have electric cattle prods.
This is becoming ominous. Nothing like Dr. Forrester shocking the bejeezus out of Jack Perkins with a prod on Mystery Science Theater. This is intimidating. This is just this side of unreality from being real, if that makes sense. It’s all too possible right now to imagine this becoming reality. This is the kind of thing they’re working towards out in Spindale, NC where people are kidnapped beaten and tortured by the local church, and apparently just getting away with it. This is my impression of what fundamentalists, supremacists and fascists are working for. And every time my wife bows her head, I get a chill.
It turns surreal again when they do straightforward shots, submissive shots, and then do a silly one for each setup. If only to clear the air it seems. One of the shots is a blackly humorous moment with a handmaid and a wife playing tug of war with the baby doll over its pram, to the horror of all the onlooking handmaids. And it is funny. But I’m not exactly laughing. It honestly feels a bit like whistling past the graveyard. Or I suppose in handmaid’s terminology, whistling past the wall... I can’t be the one feeling this, can I?
It goes on through some of the more pivotal shots of the show. And then we all have a break. But it appears there’s more planned for us. As it turns out, we’re going to be doing a walk. Back from the little park we’re in all the way up to the Hyatt, through the building-to-building habitrail that connects the Hyatt to the Suntrust Building and on through to the Mariott to the BIG Atrium level where you see a lot of DragonCon cosplay photography posted on the internet. The commander, wife and pram will be out front. Two ‘angels’ next for protection. Then there’d be me wheeling my wife along. Then all the Handmaids who’d stayed for after the shoot. Two by two...
At least 30 or 40 of them. All demurely staying in character. Quietly greeting other pedestrians and congoers with “Blessed be...” and “May the Lord open...” My wife occasionally adding in, “Under His eye...”
We’re halfway back to the Hyatt when I realize we’re very intentionally NOT crossing on the other side of the fundie that may be the one that said my wife was going to hell earlier. We’ll all be walking right by him. And as we start to approach, the Commander and the Angels in front of me start shouting in this really aggressive military verbal command tone of voice in the holy-roller’s face. Drowning his megaphone out as we pass.
And you know... it felt so damned good. Like Montag said. ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’
Looking behind me, I see that we’re not actually done with the fellow yet. Each and every Handmaid in their turn, as they pass, shoot the fellow the finger to his face. Not letting the bastard get them down. Ask... and ye shall recieve, it would seem.
We proceed on to the Hyatt. Having made our point. And from there into the Mariott where as we silently pass, we’re being snapped by who knows how many phone cameras. It gets noticably more quiet in a building that’s always loud during Dragoncon. I’m able to hear the civilians and lookyloos whispering... not shouting as we pass... “Wow... that’s great... oh geez, that’s creepy! Amazing... No... they’re protesting religious tyranny... check that out!”
Before we form up for public photos, we meet up with our Rabbi who’s here from California in costume. He picked us out of the crowd and gave us hugs. I’m not Jewish, or religious really. But he’s my Rabbi anyway. We love him and can’t wait to see him at the other con we do on easter weekend or thereabouts. We’re the geek track moderators at that one. And game room staff to some degree. He’s family. And a reminder that religious folk have their good people too. And while I’m not religious, he certainly helps me with my faith in people. Among the photographers that shoot us after, I wonder if the fellow with the monopod and the interesting array on top is the fellow from Sneaky Zebra, shooting the con.
Later, after a bit of food and game room, we head over to the Doomsday track where a lot of gaps get filled in for me about Atwood’s book in the Handmaid’s Tale panel. My wife is eloquent and emphatic. Earnest and talkative. She holds her own with the teachers and historians up there as the topic ranges from fascism to current real life parallels, to dominionists feeling their power in the current regime and how that seems to mirror the leadup to the state of Gilead, which up to a few weeks ago was a Dark Tower / Stephen King reference for me. Infertility and the lengths people will go to while not expecting to be burned themselves comes up. I pretty much interpolate what ‘THE WALL’ is in the book from the way our panelists and audience talk about it during the Q&A session. And right about the time it’s my turn to ask a question, the panel runs out of time. Should have been quicker I suppose. I’ll ask the love of my life later. She’ll know. Or at least have ideas she’ll share with me. I love that about her too.
After the panel, we learn that we’ve also been acknowledged by the costume designer for the TV show too. And the official Hulu group / online presence for the show. I speak with someone in a Heinlein TANSTAAFL shirt and mention how the whole thing reminds me of a religious dystopian novella he wrote called ‘If This Goes On’, which is told from the point of view of a soldier in the equivalent of the American President/Pope’s retinue in the capital after a theocratic takeover of the United states around the year 2100. I resolve to ask my wife if I could read it to her. I think she might enjoy it. And notice at some point, I’ve started to think of myself and this group as ‘we’.
We got to do other things at the con. We saw a panel on Star Wars Rebels, got to play 80's videogames and pinball machines in gaming, as well as a copy of Terraforming Mars, which we mean to get at some point. We went to the Symphony and laughed and cried. We went to see the Atlanta Radio Theater Company, whose people told me to email them about the prospect of performing with them at some point. And really... my con is done. I’ve peaked and everything else is icing on the cake. And I get to take home with me the memory of my wife flipping off a fundie full of poison.
I look so forward to growing old with her. But like the other guy says... today?
“I feel young.”
-Edward WinterRose is an award-winning voice actor in Star Trek: Outpost Outpost, a Star Trek Fan Production, a writer, graphic artist, hypnotist and 46th level geek. He maintains a steady diet of sci-fi-fantasy, genre fiction, novels, comics, movies, TV, videogames, internet, science and other disreputable pastimes are toxic to the imagination and personality, and offers himself as an example.
PS: I worked up some parody signs based on the ones the fundies on the sidewalk had while they were harassing people. I’m not telling anyone to make great big signs out of these and go counter protest or piss off these mentally deficient religiosity drones out to harm peoples’ good times at conventions. But if I go this fall and see a few of my signs bopping around... well... it’ll put a smile on my face.