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Calling Ivanka and Melania Trump Handmaids is a popular joke. It’s also a bad one.

Parade Celebrates Presidential Inauguration Of Donald Trump Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

On left-leaning Twitter right now, a reliable way to rack up some retweets is to call Ivanka Trump “Ofjared,” or Melania Trump “Ofdonald.” (Or, if you want to be really creepy, calling Ivanka “Ofdonald.”)

To explain that a popular Twitter joke is Bad, Actually, is to be a humorless scold, but the Ofjared/Ofdonald joke is so unpleasant that I’m just going to go for it here. There are a lot of levels on which this joke has some issues.

It’s a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Handmaids — fertile women forced to act as childbearing slaves to their owners, who ritually rape them once a month — take on their owner’s names with the prefix “of.” In the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, Elisabeth Moss’s character is called “Offred,” because she is the property of a man named Fred.

So the joke here is that the Trump women, via their involvement with and participation in Donald Trump’s administration, have become their husbands’ property. They are powerless, they have been reduced to belongings, they have no independent identities of their own, and this is funny.

On a purely technical level, it’s simply not a very good reference. Ivanka isn’t anything like an Offred, though she is a dead ringer for the Handmaid’s Tale character Serena Joy, the wife of Offred’s owner who smooths over her husband’s brutality with her smiling, immaculately coiffed blondeness. But more seriously, the Ofjared/Ofdonald joke creates some troubling slippage between its apparent target and the source of its humor.

The Handmaid’s Tale
Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy.

Ostensibly, the joke is supposed to critique Ivanka and Melania for their complicity with the Trump administration, for all the work that they did to make Donald Trump a palatable candidate during the election and the work they do now to advance his agenda. It’s supposed to say that we recognize them as free agents who made bad choices of their own free will and now have to face the consequences, the way SNL’s “complicit” sketch did.

But the punchline of the Ofjared/Ofdonald joke is that the Trump women are not free agents, that they are property. It says, essentially, “You made your own choices and I don’t like them, so now I’m going to laugh at you for being a man’s property who can’t make her own choices, you loser.” It’s a slightly more highbrow cousin of the right’s “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica” quip, in that it’s pretty sure that positioning a woman as a man’s sexual property is the absolute funniest way to make a joke about her. And that’s a dangerous and troubling characterization no matter your politics.

There are many, many things a reasonable person might want to criticize Melania and Ivanka Trump for, and many jokes to make about them. Why are we investing so much energy in the one about how they are sexual slaves?

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