The Pool, an online journal, referenced The Handmaid’s Tale in an article about the recent Presidents Club scandal, and the allusion is an apt one. Kat Lister draws comparisons with the private club to which the Commander takes Offred.
According to Wikipedia, Presidents Club Charitable Trust is (now was) a British charity that holds an annual charity dinner for male guests only. This past month the dinner featured 130 scantily clad “hostesses” who were instructed to wear “skimpy black outfits with matching underwear and high heels.” In the course of the evening, they “were subject to groping, lewd comments, requests to join guests in their bedrooms, questions whether they were prostitutes.” One attendee even exposed his penis to a hostess. We know this because reporter Madison Marriage went underground and reported on the affair.
Other than the black outfits, the event does indeed sound like “the Club” in Handmaid’s Tale, where (as Lister puts it) “seedy high-ranking officials act out their male privilege behind closed hotel doors.” Here’s the scene that greets Offred upon entering:
The women are sitting, lounging, strolling, leaning against one another. There are men mingled with them, a lot of men, but in their dark uniforms or suits, so similar to one another, they form only a kind of background. The women on the other hand are tropical, they are dressed in all kinds of bright festive gear. Some of them have on outfits like mine, feathers and glister, cut high up the thighs, low over the breasts. Some are in olden-days lingerie, shortie nightgowns, baby-doll pajamas, the occasional see-through negligee. Some are in bathing suits, one piece or bikini; one, I see, is wearing a crocheted affair, with big scallop shells covering the tits. Some are in jogging shorts and sun halters, some in exercise costumes like the ones they used to show on television, body-tight, with knitted pastel leg warmers. There are even a few in cheerleaders’ outfits, little pleated skirts, outsized letters across the chest. I guess they’ve had to fall back on a mélange, whatever they could scrounge or salvage. All wear-make-up, and I realize how unaccustomed I’ve become to seeing it, on women, because their eyes look too big to me, too dark and shimmering, their mouths too red, too wet, blood-dipped and glistening; or, on the other hand, too clownish.
…It’s like a masquerade party; they are like oversize children, dressed up in togs they’ve rummaged from trunks….
“It’s like walking into the past,” says the Commander. His voice sounds pleased, delighted even. “Don’t you think?”
In both instances, Lister writes, the issue is abuse of power and who’s in control. It doesn’t matter that the “hostesses” volunteered. In the one case you have women with limited options hiring out for a job, in the other slaves who are told they are “rentals”:
“Here,” the Commander says. He slips around my wrist a tag, purple, on an elastic band, like the tags for airport luggage. “If anyone asks you, say you’re an evening rental,” he says.
We learn that many of the Club’s “Jezebels” are former professional women who prefer this life to the grim alternatives. The Commander points out some of them to Offred:
[W]e have quite a collection. That one there, the one in green, she’s a sociologist. Or was. That one was a lawyer, that one was in business, an executive position; some sort of fast-food chain or maybe it was hotels. I’m told you can have quite a good conversation with her if all you feel like is talking.
Lister says that the assertion of male power in the President’s Club is really about employment rights and who’s the boss. She calls upon us to remember
working women who lack a platform and a voice – in boardrooms, catering kitchens, science labs and on shop floors. Women with bills to pay.
Lest you doubt that the Presidents Club event aims to bolster the guests’ belief that they deserve to be movers and shakers—that’s the hook that pulls them in–check out Atwood’s Commander. He uses “the Club” to reassure himself:
He retains hold of my arm, and as he talks his spine straightens imperceptibly, his chest expands, his voice assumes more and more the sprightliness and jocularity of youth. It occurs to me he is showing off. He is showing me off, to them, and they understand that, they are decorous enough, they keep their hands to themselves, but they review my breasts, my legs, as if there’s no reason why they shouldn’t. But also he is showing off to me. He is demonstrating, to me, his mastery of the world. He’s breaking the rules, under their noses, thumbing his nose at them, getting away with it. Perhaps he’s reached that state of intoxication which power is said to inspire, the state in which you believe you are indispensable and can therefore do anything, absolutely anything you feel like, anything at all.
Or as Donald Trump was overheard to say on the Access Hollywood bus,
You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything….Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
As depressing as all this is, Lister finds one silver lining:
In the pits of all the groping, pinching, genitalia-flashing and up-skirting, it’s important to remind ourselves that, despite our deepest fears, we’re not in Gilead. At least, not yet – despite the Trump-Weinstein effect. Yesterday, an undercover female reporter managed the unthinkable: she shut The Commanders down.
This is what #MeToo is all about.
Further thought: Here’s another parallel with the president. The Jezebels must watch their weight to work for the Club, the Commander tells Offred:
“They’re strict about that. Gain ten pounds and they put you in Solitary.” Is he joking? Most likely, but I don’t want to know.
And here’s our president in a radio interview with Howard Stern:
“You know, Howard, she’s got the kind of a body and makeup where, about one day after the baby, it’s going to be the same as it was before,” Trump said during an appearance on Stern’s show on Dec. 7, 2005.
“You’re giving her one day?” Stern asked.
“One or two,” Trump replied.
Moments later, the future president reconsidered. “I think I’ll give her a week,” he said. “No, I’ll give her a week.”
Was he joking? Do we want to know?