At my lowest moments, I have contemplated a devil’s bargain: would I give up my “gifted” IQ in exchange for an average IQ, if in so doing, I could be both classically beautiful and thin? While most of the time, (with perhaps the exception of graduate school, when I felt like a fraud) I have taken pleasure in a brain that loves to play with words, that contemplates the cosmos and my part within it, that cannot read anything without breaking it down to its component parts in order to put it back together again.
And yet, exposing these most tender feelings about my physical self — while it leaves me feeling vulnerable — does not leave me as isolated as I would expect to feel. This year, for many of the women I know personally and across social media, Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the revelation of the conversations he has about women — and of course — the things he says about and to Hillary Clinton — have reminded us that Marley’s ghost has nothing on the chain that many of us drag behind.
Nearly 170 years ago, Charlotte Bronte captured that peculiar mixture of feelings in her titular character The feelings she describes call to mind what modern feminists describe as the “personal becoming the political,” that is, that the personal feelings and situations experienced by women in the singular can be extrapolated to understand what happens to women on the larger political stage.
I have never been a great beauty. I am petite, and have been told on more than one occasion that I’m gamine, but I have known since adolescence that I would never be a runway model or a movie star. I made peace with that. Or so I thought. As I have entered my fifties, and the combination of migraine medications and menopausal hormone shifts have packed saddle bags onto my formerly small frame, I have become even more invisible in a culture that focuses its attention on youth, and those old feelings about the mediocrity of my physical self have crowded back into my brain. I feel wrung out, exhausted, by feeling the compunction to pay attention to my “attractiveness” to others when all I really want to do is to be subsumed by my work.
I have been loath to talk about this. What woman of my age wants to reveal this shallow self? These are more the concerns of adolescence, which I had told myself had been left behind along with my crushes on teenaged heartthrobs and wanting to eat Poptarts for breakfast.
This week, laid low by the wear and tear of these last few days of the ugliest presidential campaign that I can remember, I retreated to the comfort of the well-worn, yellowed pages of the Bantam Classic paperback Jane Eyre that I purchased as an undergraduate. I had first read it as an adolescent, reading my mum’s copy. My copy has followed me thousands of miles and 35 years, and each time I read it, I see something new. This time, as I read it, I saw the spectre of Donald Trump in its pages; I saw aspects of the character of Jane in Hillary Clinton; and, of course, as we do with all books that are so well-loved, I saw myself.
Almost from the first pages, the anxiety I had been feeling collided with the anxiety I felt on Janes’s behalf as she hid from her bully cousin, John Reed. He is stalking her for his own amusement, wanting to break Jane as he has broken the bodies of the pigeons in the farmyard. John is “large and stout,” with “dingy and unwholesome skin” with a “dim and bleared eye with flabby cheeks.” In my mind, as I read this passage, John took on the visage of Trump, the man who, even when his face is at rest, appears to sneer.
And yet, like Jane, it’s not clear to me why someone I recognize to be the classic bully — an intellect that never got beyond its pupal stage of development encased within an oozing sac of resentment and slime — is capable of inspiring the level of fear that I see Trump has inspired. Of her own tormenter, Jane says:
He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in a day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh on my bones shrank when he came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions…
Jane is surrounded by people who are either powerless to speak against him or who are blind to his faults. She is alone in facing him, and feels herself alone in seeing the monster that he is. It’s not just his ability to bully her that causes her fear: it is his seeming ability to fool other people around him that he is an ordinary boy. Donald Trump has been able to convince some large proportion of the population that when he and Billy Bush discussed groping women, this was not some casual discussion of sexual assault, but was rather, the playful banter of “locker room talk” that ought to be treated as harmless.
Jane defends herself against John Reed when he uses a book as a weapon against her, and that confrontation sets the action in Jane Eyre in motion. Jane is sent off to the charity school, Lowood, which is governed by another bully man, the Reverend Brocklehurst. Brocklehurst runs the school as an institution where young women are to be broken: they are stripped of all that marks them as individuals, and they are fed at a barely subsistence level while being regularly subjected to corporal punishment for the smallest of infractions.
Brocklehurst announces to the school that Jane is a “liar,” and is to be shunned. The trope of the woman as liar figures greatly in Christian mythology. In her pursuit of knowledge, Eve ate of the Tree of knowledge, and then, with Adam, lied to God about having done so. Christian writers — diverse figures ranging from St. John Chrysostom to the witch hunters Kramer and Sprenger, claim that perfidy is among women’s greatest faults. That fear of lying is, of course, located in one of men’s greatest fears: that they will, just like the unwitting birds who raise cuckoos’ young, raise another man’s child as their own.
Donald Trump, for all his swagger, is an example of the type of fragile masculinity that constantly seeks to punish women — and men he perceives as being feminine — for his own lack of confidence in his own masculinity. His insistence that Hillary Clinton is a liar, even to the point of denying statements that he himself has made and which are preserved on video tape — is the constant pushing of the familiar narrative that men’s actions are overt and known, while what women do always takes place in secret and the dark, and that what she presents to the world is Janus-faced.
Mr. Brocklehurst attempts to separate Jane from the rest of the school through public humiliation, when he forces her to stand on the stool in front of all of the students. While she is up there, he repeats the lies that he has gathered from the Reed household about Jane, and he embellishes them with lies of his own. What bothers Jane more than the stories being told about her, however, is the sensation that Brocklehurst is creating distance between her and these new classmates. That before she has even had a chance to find love and friendship among her new cohort, Brocklehurst has poisoned the well so that no one will ever want to be her friend.
Many pieces were written by feminists after the debates. In them, writers focused on Trump’s attempts to bully Clinton up on the stage, either by stalking her movements, as he did in the second debate, or by constantly speaking over her, interrupting her, and telling her that she was “wrong” when she called Trump out on his past actions and statements. In that moment, Clinton experienced Jane’s moment upon the stool, stood before an audience of her peers, beset by a powerful male who sought to strip her of female support, and who used the epithet “liar” to make her anathema to any woman who might feel sympathy for Clinton.
Many women recognized Trump at that moment for the personal bully that they had experienced in their own lives. Whether he was the father who had denigrated us as children, or the former boyfriend who had diminished us by questioning our intelligence, or the boss who took credit for our ideas while denigrating the original ideas upon which his “great” new plans were based, women posted on Facebook, took part in personal conversations, and wrote essays on how they empathized with Hillary Clinton at that moment.
When Brocklehurst forces Jane to stand upon the stool, labeled as a liar, she feels the pain of separation from the other girls of her school. But she also burns with the indignation of knowing that while she is upon a stool, accused of crimes that were unjustly laid against her, Brocklehurst parades around the school with his wife and two daughters in tow. And the women with Brocklehurst are not subjected to the same treatment that the reverend inflicts on all other little girls. While Jane and her cohort have barely anything to eat, and are dressed in plain brown smocks and have had their hair cut in order to enforce humility, the women that Brocklehurst surrounds himself with are dressed in the finest of luxurious clothes. While the reverend punishes Lowood’s girls who show their hair with rough barbering, his wife and daughter sport the type of coiffures that require the assistance of a maid each morning. The Brocklehurst women’s entire wardrobe and style are direct evidence that the clergyman treats the women closest to him as if they were extensions of his own being. They were dressed up to show, through their ornate beauty, the power of Mr. Brocklehurst, while his ability to make other women’s lives miserable demonstrated just how much of a misogynist he was.
The women who Trump surrounds himself with — his wife, his daughters — reflect wealth at the world. They are modern-day Brocklehurst daughters. Whatever intelligence Ivanka Trump may possess, whatever business acumen she may herself claim, has been overtaken by her father’s use of her as prop. The daughter whom Trump has openly bragged that if she were not his daughter, he would date, defends her father against charges that he is a serial groper, a misogynist, a racist, and a bully. Melania Trump complains that her husband is being cyber-bullied — and makes these declarations with a straight face — after years of Trump’s unhinged attacks on anyone he decides has wronged him.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Brocklehurst both surround themselves with women who are praised for their beauty, and who act as mirrors for the powerful men they trail behind. When Trump looks at Ivanka or Melania, what he sees reflected back to him are fetish objects that represent his wealth and power: women as beautiful possessions who do not challenge his sense of himself. Reverend Brocklehurst’s wife and daughters perform the same function. They are, to borrow the language of the French feminist, Luce Irigaray, the “lips that dare not speak.”
When Trump denies that he has groped a woman by claiming that she was not attractive enough for him to do so, or when he rates his evaluation of Clinton’s physical self, he takes us back not only to the perpetual struggle of the smart woman who was not born into the culturally beautiful body, but he also takes us back into those pages of Jane Eyre where so many of us found original comfort. Jane struggles in a world where she is taught from an early age that her intelligence and her ambition are not enough. She must be beautiful, and because she is not, she simply has no right to demand attention.
For Bronte, the issue was not simply that of male versus female. For all of Mr. Rochester’s faults, ultimately, he is the man who recognizes Jane’s soul, her intellect, as the companion he wants for life. For girls like me, who never felt attractive enough, Jane Eyre was the story we needed that demonstrated that we could be smart and spirited and not-so-beautiful and still find both our independence and love out in the world. Donald Trump scares girls like me because he reminds us that, no matter how clever and accomplished we are, no matter what we say or do, if we are not beautiful, we will never be good enough.
Lorraine Berry’s work appears in The Guardian, LitHub, Talking Writing and other outlets. She left a university job where she taught creative nonfiction, and now spends her day playing in the Atlantic Ocean and trying to avoid Trump supporters. She and her partner run amberSands.net. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW