Watching The Handmaid’s Tale In The Age Of Donald Trump

The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2 uses current events to show us Gilead is closer than we think.

Unlike the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, season two was written and created while eyeing Trump’s America warily across the border. The events of the flashbacks are more disturbing and immediate because they focus on the tipping point between normal life and Gilead, something that many fear could happen to us any day. As June puts the timeline together in the abandoned Boston Globe offices, we see familiar concepts: militarization, power structure, curtailing of civil liberties. With many of the fictional warnings already happening all around us, the sad fact is that Gilead is closer than we think.

Emily’s flashbacks of her inability to leave the country due to homophobia and immigration reform calls to mind anti-immigration legislation and Mike Pence’s various homophobic policy positions that are actively harmful and dangerous. The eerie similarity to the airport protests this past fall when President Trump enacted the poorly planned Muslim Ban. Showing the ACLU legal aids at the airport made the distance between her reality and ours incredibly small. The airport scenes are a horrifying reminder that with the flick of a pen, everything can change, even for relatively comfortable people like a white professor. Totalitarianism could always be just around the corner, even when outwardly, it seems like the protections of our democracy are still functioning. 

Before attempting to flee, Emily faced a dilemma familiar to many: when do you stand up for yourself, and when do you do what it takes to live to fight another day? And when do you ultimately cut and run? Emily was adamant about the importance of being herself, but it also put her in the crosshairs of the increasingly empowered hatred of the Sons of Jacob and their supporters.

Emily’s department head, an older white gay man, reflected on how he once thought that Emily’s generation of LGBTQ folks had it easy, and chose to “lie low,” so to speak. That makes his eventual lynching all the more disturbing – if this happened to a man of stature and privilege who tried to re-closet himself so he didn’t rock the boat, what was happening to the visibly queer people? The queer people of color? Given that trans people already experience devastating levels of violence, what would happen if that hatred was further empowered? It’s a dark reminder that for marginalized people in this country, our rights are always at stake. 

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June is repeatedly pulled between her obligation to her child and her fear for her country. Her mother, a woman who lied to her kid to drag her to a protest, seems not to have felt that tension, or perhaps June simply couldn’t see it from her vantage point as a child. 

Certainly as an adult, June’s mother wishes her daughter were doing more. She wonders why June can’t be more like Moira, who’s helping a queer women of color collective with their website. She questions June on whether she would rather pick a more meaningful career instead of wasting herselfin publishing. Quick – someone catch June’s mom up on the racism and misogyny of the publishing worldand the importance of #OwnVoices

So much of June’s relationship with her mother was her mom on the front lines and wondering why her daughter wasn’t. Many parents feel this tension rather acutely these days, as they must decide how to fit much-needed activism into their already busy lives. Beyond the issue of time, there’s the reality of having to determine how much to tell kids, and how to keep them from losing their innocence when awful things happen like a terrorist attack on the government or when police shoot another unarmed child not much older than them.

Still, June’s mother’s activist friends are a reminder that protesting isn’t always enough. One of them references people who carried out abortions being targeted for retaliation. Their shock tells us this is a chilling new development, but the reality is that this has already happened, a fact of which a group of activists from Brookline would be acutely aware, given the murder of two people who were shot at Planned Parenthood in Brookline in 1994. But it’s far from an isolated incident, and as of 2016, threats and attacks on abortion clinics were on the rise. It’s even scarier to hear dangerous rhetoric from an Idaho Republican, who said people who have received abortions should face the death penalty.

Another sharp scene is when June is repeatedly referred to by Luke’s last time, regardless of how many times she corrects the nurse. In the US women keeping their own name is still around the same level it was in the 1970s, and half of all Americansthink a woman should be required to keep her name, and far too many think she’s less devoted to her marriage and her children if she keeps her own name. The historical reality is that for most of its existence, marriage was a business arrangement, the transfer of property from one man (father) to another (husband.) We see echoes of this throughout the modern wedding, from the garter, which originated from a hymen check, to the lifting of the veil, which is to ensure the bride is correct and beautiful enough. 

But the nurse intentionally misnaming June is about more than anachronistic traditions or incredibly limited worldviews. The nurse shames June for being a working mother and threatens to take Hannah away via child services. There is a danger in not performing motherhood and female gender roles perfectly, in Gilead and in our world. While this may seem like an unprecedented ability to legally remove a child from her mother, parents of colorknow different, since they experience having children removed from care at a much higher rate, and for seemingly innocuous reasons, much like the nurse threatened June.

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Another manifestation of this idea that women are possessions, rather than full people, is the scene in which June needed Luke’s permission for birth control. It brings to mind the Saudi law requiring a male guardian’s permission to travel. But closer to home, many American women experience something similar to June. Many doctors won’t permanently prevent pregnancyvia a tubal ligation, commonly known as getting your tubes tied, if the woman hasn’t had children, is young, or doesn’t have a husband’s permission, even if the woman’s life is at stake. The implication is that the opinion of a man, even a theoretical one she hasn’t yet met, is more important than a woman’s decision about her own body. 

The breakout first season of The Handmaid’s Tale was inevitably interpreted in light of Donald Trump’s presidency. His candidacy certainly made many of the shows themes more prescient, but there’s a world of difference from watching a cautionary tale from the vantage point of a relieved democracy, rather than our current position of watching a fictional failure of our country’s democracy on one screen, while seeing the same signs happening for real on the other.  This only serves to make season two hit closer to home as we see it in the context of our own lives. It seems Aunt Lydia may be right: Gilead is all around us. Gilead is within us. Gilead knows no bounds.