The meaning of red in The Handmaid’s Tale

Karen Haller 01
Karen Haller


Hands up if you’ve been riveted to The Handmaid’s Tale? I certainly have. My friends and I have been talking about how it’s been an uncomfortable watch at times. The TV series plunges you into a dystopian society which is the uncomfortable part yet the story is compelling viewing.

And from a professional perspective, what I am finding incredible about this show is the use of colour, specifically the colour red.

One of the things I find fascinating is that whilst every colour has characteristics or traits the ones we actually relate to depends on the context. So watching this show has been fascinating because the way they use the colour red, which I’ll be talking about a little bit more further down, actually determines which characteristics of red we’re relating to.

Before I dive into the meaning of red, I’ll briefly share what The Handmaid’s Tale is about for those of you who haven’t watched it. It’s a television series based on a book by Margaret Atwood. It shares the story of Offred who finds herself (like all the Handmaids) in a world with a plunging birthrate where fertility is prized above all else as there are very few fertile women left.

Those women, although on the outside appear revered, are in fact slaves whose sole purpose is allow their ‘commander’ to impregnate them. If they try to fight the system they will be hurt or killed. Yes… it is an uncomfortable watch at times.

Now that you know a bit of the background, let’s look at the three main ways red is used in The Handmaid’s Tale.

1. To symbolise fertility
Probably the most significant reference the show is making is through the use of colour symbolism where red is used in the context of fertility. The Handmaids wear red dresses and red capes, which they must wear in public. Wearing red indicates the Handmaids’ fertility, symbolising their primary role which is to produce a child. Only those women who are fertile wear red.

2. To make them highly visible
Did you notice whilst watching how no matter what else was happening on the screen your eyes were always drawn to the Handmaids’ red dresses and capes?

This is because red has the longest light wavelength. This means it appears to be nearer so it grabs our attention first over any other colour. So whilst there may be other bright colours used, it’s the red that our eyes are drawn to.

For the Handmaids, this also means there is nowhere for them to hide from the ever-present guards and “The Eyes”. This is the security arm of the dystopian state and they are ever watchful over the Handmaids to make sure they are keeping in line. They are an ever-present threat because if you step out of line you’re immediately punished.

The Handmaids are of high value and importance to the success of civilization, and red makes sure they are easily visible, making it hard for them to hide especially when they are let out of their commander’s home.

3. An army of Handmaids
What’s fascinating in terms of the psychology of red in this TV series is across the first season you see the psychology of red and how its use changes. In the beginning one of the ways the psychology of red was shown was in activating the ‘fight or flight’ response of the Handmaids. They are constantly in a state of high alert, they are fearful of everyone and you can see that in the way they are acting – always afraid, always fearful. That’s one aspect of red – the fight or flight’ response, it can raise our pulse rate and elicit that in us.

That’s the first thing you see and sense in the series. But as it progresses, you start to see another trait start to surface that relates to the colour red, which is rebellion and revolution. So as the story develops we get to learn there is an underground movement of the Handmaids where they are banding together to get the message out to the rest of the world what’s really happening to them.

And one of the gripping things that the lead character Offred played by actress Elizabeth Moss (who is riveting) at the end of season 1 says is, ‘They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army’. In that episode you see them band together because the Handmaids are told to stone to death one of their own as a punishment and they refuse. This is one of the first true acts of rebellion and defiance where they all collectively say no. They finally have the courage and the strength to stand up for themselves and rebel against the tyranny of authority. These are all traits of the psychology of red.

The subconscious power of colour
What always fascinated me about watching how colour is used in shows is the way the creators are using colour as a way to reinforce on a subconscious level the words that are being spoken on a conscious level. That’s because we are having an emotional response to colour before our minds have even heard the words, so it is a brilliant way of giving viewers a multilayered experience of the story and its themes and meanings.

I can’t wait for season 2 to see what they do next. I’m just willing them to rise up as an army and break free.

When you’re watching other TV shows or at the cinema, have a look and see how colour is being used to tell a story.

I’d love to know what effect or impact the colour red has on you? Leave any thoughts you have in the comment box below.

Wishing you a colourful day,

If you love colour and want to hang out with a group of colour lovers then come on over to The Colour Collective where colour lovers from all over the world share their passion and colour inspiration. Looking forward to welcoming you in…


images 1 and 2 courtesy of Channel 4

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  1. Ruth on September 7, 2017 at 8:43 am

    This is fab, though just as interesting is the colour of the wives which is the opposite of the handmaidens, though still complements them. Teal is an interesting choice for these which are meant to be powerful in the ‘home’ environment. Great series for colour lovers.

    • admin on September 12, 2017 at 7:26 am

      Hi Ruth,

      Thank you. Yes, great use of colour to tell a story – Teal used for the wives, black for the security and guards…

      Karen 🙂

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