What Are Econopeople On 'The Handmaid's Tale'? Gilead's Social Hierarchy Expands In Season 2
The first two episodes of The Handmaid's Tale Season 2 premiered in April and it's been as difficult to stomach as ever. As The Verge states, part of Season 2's strength lies in how "it zooms out to the deceptively normal-seeming parts of Gilead," including the introduction of the Econowives. But those who are unfamiliar with the book may be wondering: what are Econopeople on The Handmaid's Tale? Viewers are about to get a crash course in Gilead's middle class.
Commanders and their Wives, always dressed in teal, are considered the upper crust of Gilead. Then come The Eyes (the police force and spies, who dress in black), Guardians (bodyguards, security, and personal drivers, also in black), and Angels (soldiers who can climb the social ranks). Econopeople are poor, low-ranking men who generally work service jobs, and their wives are referred to as Econowives.
In the book, Econowives wear multi-colored clothing, to indicate that, because they are married to low-ranking men, they must serve their husbands in all "female" roles. They are Wives, Marthas (servants), and Handmaids, if they're fertile, to their husbands. The Econowives are seen as lower-ranking than Wives, Marthas, or Handmaids, although they appear to have a bit more freedom, since they don't serve high-ranking men.
There are also Jezebels, sex workers who live on the margins but have a certain amount of autonomy not available to women in stricter gender roles, and Unwomen, the sect of criminalized women who are banished to radioactive work camps to die. In the Hulu series, costume designer Ane Crabtree decided to change the Econowife uniform from how it appears in the book. She opted for a monochromatic gray color scheme instead, telling Refinery29 in an interview:
Gray was perfect for the kind of concrete colors we were painting of Massachusetts. It's this everyman color that blends in with the environment...Gray was the one of the working class male and female. Econowives do have the ability — these are all rules that I made up along the way — to wear different things. They don’t have a lot of clothes, because the society has only started five years ago and everything is being made for them in a factory unless they’re a Wife or a Commander. They have different sweaters, scarves, sweatshirts, maybe slightly different jackets, but they all wear the same head coverings. There is very, very little difference if you look at them as a whole. This is always the idea. I want to be able to look at each tribe as a whole and then zero in on their individual faces and then realize the teeny tiny touches that make them individual.
Fleshing out the Econopeople is just one way the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale is expanding its story past that of June Osborne. Season 1 told the complete narrative arc of the novel, and now we get to spend more time in places like The Colonies, exploring different facets of the story. Of course, there are new characters being introduced, too, like June's mom Holly (played by Cherry Jones), and a Commander's Wife who gets sent to the Colonies (played by Marissa Tomei). As Alison Herman writes for The Ringer, "By shading in more details of how Gilead functions as a society, Handmaid’s makes its not-too-distant future more concrete, and therefore more convincing." Season 2 looks as terrifying as ever, but it'll be interesting to see if the show can keep up this level of tension.
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