What were they thinking? Marketing thoughtlessness reached a new low with wines inspired by The Handmaid's Tale
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/07/2018 (1661 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For a few hours this week, Handmaid’s Tale-themed wines were a real thing that existed.
On Tuesday, Lot18, a U.S.-based online wine retailer, unveiled three varietals based on characters from the dystopian TV series and novel written by Margaret Atwood. Also on Tuesday, the line was swiftly cancelled amid a backlash.
Lot18 also sells Saturday Night Live, Portlandia, The Bachelor and The Walking Dead and other pop culture-themed wines. However, their latest brand is a classic case of one thing being decidedly unlike the others. The reaction to a Handmaid’s Tale line of wines was one of shock and horror; when I told a colleague about it, her jaw literally dropped.
Offred (Elisabeth Moss), Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) — those sassy ladies of Gilead! — served as inspiration for the three varietals; Handmaids Offred and Ofglen are reds (how subtle) and Wife Serena Joy is a white. The promotional copy sounds like that of a teen-magazine personality quiz, as though the women surviving oppression in the tyrannical nation of Gilead are the fun sexy ladies of Sex and the City. Are you an Offred or an Ofglen?
“Completely stripped of her rights and freedom, Offred must rely on the one weapon she has left to stay in control — her feminine wiles,” the description of ‘Offred’ reads. “This French Pinot Noir is similarly seductive, its dark berry fruit and cassis aromatics so beguiling it seems almost forbidden to taste. But it’s useless to resist the wine’s smooth and appealingly earthy profile, so you may as well give in. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, indeed.”
You know, the way you describe a character that is ritually raped and forced to bear children.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a lot of things — gripping, compelling, disturbing. But it’s also a TV show, and TV shows, like any other form of entertainment, usually have a marketing engine behind them. Even the grittiest dramas get accompanying merch; remember all those Heisenberg shirts during the height of Breaking Bad?
Lot18 isn’t the only company to market Handmaid’s Tale-related merchandise. The Wing, a trendy women’s co-working club, was selling pens that had “the most powerful weapon” printed on them, as well as matchboxes that read “I am free.” You can also buy hoodies and T-shirts adorned with what has become an empowerment slogan: Nolite te bastardes carborundorum (”don’t let the bastards grind you down”).
But, as Vulture’s Laura Bogart points out, there’s something particularly icky about the way The Handmaid’s Tale has been commodified and girl-powered. “This jingoistic veneer of alpha-lady prestige isn’t just discordant with the reality of characters like June or Emily or Moira — it blithely ignores Atwood’s real message, the message we forever allude to when we discuss her story’s prescience: that women’s independence is a terrifyingly fragile thing; it can’t be cutesily codified in pink-washed talk of empowerment.”
The notion of a Handmaid’s Tale-themed wine, in particular, manages to seem both strikingly tone deaf and, if you’re cynical, just about right. Why wouldn’t wine — which, I hear, is very popular among women — be the inevitable marketing extension? Wine glasses emblazoned with “Blessed be the Fruit” written in trendy brushscript already exist on Etsy; it was really only a matter of time before someone thought to brand their contents.
“Really, Lot18 was just answering the question we’re all subliminally asking when we flock, glassy eyed, to the LC after a long, hard day making less money than our male colleagues, looking for a wine to drink with our deeply disturbing prestige TV: do you have something in a red that pairs well with the systematic subjugation of women?”
Besides, we’re all drinking it just to get through the show anyway, right ladies? I’m surprised the tagline wasn’t just “Handmaid’s Tale wine: because sometimes you need an escape from your escapism.” Really, Lot18 was just answering the question we’re all subliminally asking when we flock, glassy eyed, to the LC after a long, hard day making less money than our male colleagues, looking for a wine to drink with our deeply disturbing prestige TV: do you have something in a red that pairs well with the systematic subjugation of women?
But more than a pen or a T-shirt or a notebook, a Handmaid’s Tale-branded wine feels markedly more sinister — especially when one considers how wine is marketed to modern women. It’s branded as ‘mommy juice,’ a modern-day mother’s little helper. It’s sold as a vacation in a bottle for stressed-out women who are trying to do it all and need respite from their lives, or at least the relentless news cycle. Women are encouraged to deal with their day-to-day by cracking open a bottle of rosé; and then we wonder why binge drinking is on the rise.
In that light, using The Handmaid’s Tale to sell a substance already marketed to women as a way to numb themselves to life’s sharp edges is appalling. How do we stay awake, as Offred cautions on the TV series and in Atwood’s novel, if we’re anesthetized?
The Handmaid’s Tale second season finale airs Sunday night on Bravo, and begins streaming on Crave TV on Monday night.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.