The Handmaid’s Tale, Women’s Bodies, and Donald Trump


Is The Handmaid’s Tale really so far off from Donald Trump’s rhetoric?

Wading into the world of literary speculation means wading into a world where very little is concrete, where proof matters, and where you can argue quite a bit so long as you have an argument and a modicum of sense. (Ask me how I know.)

Some works find themselves the subject of debate based on their symbolism. Others get discussed because of their Marxist or feminist readings. And some, like Margaret Atwood’s 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale, have their very classifications debated.

You see, even Wikipedia can’t decide: when you search the novel’s title, you’ll see it listed as a science fiction novel. When the actual article comes up, you’ll instead see it classified as a work of speculative fiction. That basically qualifies as splitting the difference, since Margaret Atwood herself calls Handmaid speculative fiction.

The Handmaid’s Tale cover, image via McClelland and Stewart

Why? According to The Guardian‘s 2003 profile, it’s because “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.” Put perhaps less succinctly but more concretely, she’s arguing that science fiction might become reality, while speculative fiction could become reality, monsters and spaceships set aside.

So, let’s take her definition at face value. Could The Handmaid’s Tale really happen? Not necessarily, but when you look at the rhetoric of certain male politicians, particularly Republicans like the current candidate for president, Donald Trump, things are less clear than we might like.

The Republic of Gilead

To begin, we’ll look at The Handmaid’s Tale. Narrated by Offred (Of-Fred, signifying her current Commander’s name), the book is set in the Republic of Gilead, where women are sorted into several different classes. In her world, the United States government as we know it no longer exists.

Offred happens to be a Handmaid, a still-fertile woman assigned to different high-ranking Commanders in order to bear a child for them. She describes herself as a tool, “a two-legged womb” (116 in the Anchor Books edition).

Abortion is outlawed. Women cannot read or be independent. Yet the Republic calls this a new form of freedom.

During the transition from the United States to Gilead, Offred spends time with Aunt Lydia, who sums the new world up like this: “There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it” (24).

“Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t overrate it” (Atwood 24).

In other words, women have no choices. All decisions are made for them. There’s no catcalling, as Offred describes. She no longer needs to follow these rules she mentions on the same page, the rules many still follow: “If anyone whistles, don’t turn to look. Don’t go into a laundromat, by yourself, at night” (24).

Atwood’s world predates our current political climate. However, one particular politician has said some things that make Gilead seem closer to reality.

Donald Trump and Women

Donald Trump’s commentary towards woman remains a pertinent issue. This is a man who has said that “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Both Cosmopolitan and The Huffington Post have put together lists of his so-called greatest hits.

At one point, he said that there should be “some form of punishment” for people who undergo an abortion. He later issued a statement saying that was not the case, and that he viewed those people as victims instead.

To quote Hillary Clinton in response to the original statement,

“Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse,” she tweeted. “Horrific and telling.”

He didn’t say what the punishment would be during the interview on MSNBC. However, taking a leaf from Handmaid and deeming someone an Unwoman doesn’t seem that far out of the realm of possibility. That’s doubly true when one looks at the case of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman charged with feticide after self-inducing an abortion. (She has since had that charge thrown out.)

After all, Indiana’s current governor, Mike Pence, happens to be Donald Trump’s running mate.

Furthermore, Ohio governor John Kasich has said that Donald Trump Jr. offered him control over all domestic and foreign policy as the vice president. CNN‘s report on the story calls it the most powerful vice presidency in history.

So, should Trump win the presidency, Pence, a governor who signed legislation restricting abortions, could be in charge of domestic policy.

Put it this way: we can’t say that Trump has a particular position on abortion. We thus must look at what he has said and what his running mate has done. Those things look closer to the dystopian world of Handmaid than at first glance.

(Photo by Hector Vivas/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Making Gilead Great Again?

All of this focuses on just some of the ways women’s positions have changed in The Handmaid’s Tale. It also only looks at just a few of the things Trump has said. Though he may not have a stated position on women’s health, his statements suggest that he’s embraced positions not far from Pence’s.

The Republic of Gilead offers freedom from choice for women. However, that freedom comes with such restrictions. Simply put, its offered freedoms mean nothing. Trump offers blatant and open disrespect to women.

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It does not seem like such a stretch to say Aunt Lydia could have pointed to Trump’s rhetoric as an argument for Gilead’s so-called freedoms for women. Freedom from his statements about women’s appearances and capabilities does have some appeal to it, doesn’t it?

This is not to say that Donald Trump would make the Republic of Gilead a reality.

However, his statements do make it seem as though he does not see women as equals. Perhaps he doesn’t see them as “two-legged wombs,” either, but it seems disingenuous to call his views positive.

One may even go so far as to call his comments “deplorable.”