‘Grab them by the Pussy’: Renegotiating the Sexual Politics of Touch in The Handmaid’s Tale

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Published conference proceedingChapter

Abstract

Sales of Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, originally published in 1985, soared on the run up to the 2016 US election to become a number one bestseller on numerous lists that year, leading countless journalists and news outlets to attribute the novel’s resurgent popularity to its prescient timeliness. The first season of the Hulu television adaptation was in mid-production during the election and Atwood has noted those involved in the production ‘woke up…and realised they were in a different frame’. In this chapter, I explore how a hate-fuelled and divisive climate is played out and challenged in The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation through what I refer to as a renegotiation of the sexual politics of touch.

In the drama, the regulation of touch becomes a controlling mechanism enforcing passivity and compliance. With their tactile interactions policed and punished and their ‘deepest sense’ (Classen 2012: xi) denied, Gilead’s Handmaids live a disembodied existence, disconnected from the world and themselves. The only sanctioned acts of bodily touch for Handmaids are those directly contributing to procreation, a pre-determined and pre-ordained ritual and state-sanctioned monthly act of rape. While the novel is punctuated with references to touch, touch in the adaptation - outside of the monthly ritual and initiated and controlled by the Handmaids - is rare and rich with meaning, sensory acts of defiance and hope.

The intimate act of touching and being touched as depicted in The Handmaid’s Tale is made all the more powerful when considered in the context of the Trump era and the brash, aggressive physicality that characterises Trump’s politics and performance. Often lacking the approval of his own cabinet, congress, senate and party, his is a non-consensual, neoliberal politics of impulsive greed, demand and manipulative force. It is evident in his incendiary and puerile political enactments and pronouncements on the world stage. It is palpable in the misogynist rhetoric defended by the ‘grabber-in-chief’ (Klein 2017) as ‘locker-room banter’ and his easy dismissal of the 22 accusations of sexual assault levelled against him.

Through its renegotiation of touch, The Handmaid’s Tale offers a commentary on the increasingly fragile human relations that characterise the contemporary western world, as frequently detailed by cultural critics such as Naomi Klein and George Monbiot. As a social, cultural and political analogy of our time, I explore how the televised adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale compresses and encapsulates the politics of women’s sexual agency in the powerful act of touch.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAmerican Television in the Trump Era
EditorsKaren McNally
Publication statusIn preparation - 2020

Fingerprint

Sexual Politics
Handmaid's Tale
Grab
Elections
Television Adaptation
Sexual Assault
Passivity
Controlled
Greed
Procreation
Defiance
Accusations
Enactment
Physicality
Misogynist
Bestsellers
News
Sexual
Rhetoric
Hate

Cite this

Peberdy, D. (2020). ‘Grab them by the Pussy’: Renegotiating the Sexual Politics of Touch in The Handmaid’s Tale. Manuscript in preparation. In K. McNally (Ed.), American Television in the Trump Era
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‘Grab them by the Pussy’ : Renegotiating the Sexual Politics of Touch in The Handmaid’s Tale. / Peberdy, Donna.

American Television in the Trump Era. ed. / Karen McNally. 2020.

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Published conference proceedingChapter

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