This post contains spoilers for The Handmaid's Tale.
Macarons are perhaps the most innocuous cookie on the block. They're also the prettiest: A pastel dessert that looks like it has leaped right out of Lauren Conrad's Instagram. Yet the moment Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is offered the rare treat by Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the wife of her commander (Joseph Fiennes), we are reminded that the cookie, and all of the things that add to the surface-level beauty in The Handmaid's Tale, is a signifier of something much more sinister.
Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, which is based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name, is a dark dystopian story that doesn't look as dark as the source material. The new world order has been crafted by a hyper-religious ruling class that has stripped women of almost all of their rights in the name of repopulating the Earth under the regime's strict moral code. The regime hangs people in the street — the bodies of intellectuals, members of the LGBTQ community, and even religious figures are left to warn those off on their morning walk of the consequences of "bad behaviour." They pluck the eyes of misbehaving women, and mutilate the bodies of lesbians so that they no longer "want what they can't have." It's an ugly, sick world — but the aesthetic is purposefully pretty.
The ruling class and those who serve them live in communities that, on the surface, seem idyllic. Everything is lovely, from the quaint home in which Offred keeps quarters, to the mansions that house the elite. Even the groceries stores are well organised, brightly lit, and full of colourful fruit. (Never mind the men with guns guarding the doors.) The new world is drenched in colour, and that includes the people within it: The handmaids all wear bright red with white hoods, while the elite women don emerald green from head to toe.
There's order in everything in The Handmaid's Tale, from the rehearsed, standard responses the handmaids greet one another with to the disturbing pregnancy "ceremony" that places Offred's head in Serena's lap as the Commander has sex with his handmaid. It's not that the beauty of the world hides the darkness beneath it, but rather that the aesthetic, lovely as it may seem, is carefully organised and coordinated for purposes of control. Women are literally color coordinated. Macarons are offered not as a kind gesture, but as a way to display who's at the top of the hierarchy.
The world of The Handmaid's Tale is oppressive, even if it doesn't look oppressive. The handmaids don't wear shackles. They aren't locked in dungeons during the day, but are free to roam about in their own room with lace bedding and a view to a sunny backyard. They can walk down pretty cobblestone streets and even enjoy homemade meals complete with a dessert of stewed cinnamon apples. The Handmaid's Tale succeeds in allowing its audience to witness all of this and still feel dread. In this case, the beauty of the world is the tool of the oppressors hellbent on keeping women subservient.
It almost makes you want to pass on that macaron, no?