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Margaret Atwood has long believed that the most spellbinding female literary characters display a strong propensity for evil. In a speech at the 1993 Cheltenham Literature Festival, held in England’s Cotswolds, Atwood extolled the female schemers, the pleasure-seeking voluptuaries, the depraved governesses and wicked grannies, the seducers and killers. “Morally spotless” women were insufferable bores, Atwood argued in the speech, which she titled “Spotty-handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behavior in the Creation of Literature.” Far more compelling were the likes of Lady Macbeth, Goneril and Regan, or Medea, she who poisoned her husband’s lover and murdered her own children. Literature was once full of wicked women, but critical priorities had shifted. In fact, Atwood lamented, readers now tended to judge female characters “as if they were job applicants, or public servants, or prospective roommates, or somebody you’re considering marrying.”
You might think that, by 1993, feminism had long since demolished the social expectation for novelists to write “good” female characters. But Atwood’s argument was that feminism, while winning for women authors more space and freedom to write, had replaced those earlier expectations with demands of its own. Sure, female characters could now rebel against society or leave their husbands, but only because those once “bad” things were, under the new dispensation, “good.” You still couldn’t write about women’s will to power, portray heroines behaving sadistically toward other women, or tackle pure female evil without being accused of anti-feminism and of propping up the male power structure. For Atwood, this pressure to represent the “right” kind of bad female behaviour was just the flip side of the repressive Victorian injunction that survived into her childhood: “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All.”
“Spotty-handed Villainesses” has a particular resonance in this moment. It reminds us that Atwood has never been terribly interested in writing female role models, let alone in becoming one herself. She has never been a great representative of the Feminist Trailblazer, unassailably good in the tradition of Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Eleanor Roosevelt or Michelle Obama. She has never been a patron saint for all the progressive things.
Still, people expect Margaret Atwood to set a good example. She does not always oblige. Atwood recently incited a storm online by sharing a Rosie DiManno column headlined “Why can’t we say ‘woman’ anymore?” Critics accused her of providing a dog whistle for transphobic propaganda. She was compared to Dave Chappelle and J.K. Rowling. Hundreds chimed in on Twitter, mostly to scold Atwood or express their disappointment. “Be better!” they told the 82-year-old.
The affair soon became international news. “Feminist writer criticized for not being intersectional,” said the U.K.’s Independent. In USA Today bioethicist Florence Ashley suggested that Atwood’s “passive transphobia” was one step removed from “the trans panic defence, an attempt at justifying or excusing violence against trans women.”
Much of the criticism sprang from a sense that Atwood had “abandoned her feminist values,” as Toronto writer Stacy Lee Kong argued in her piece, “I Truly Could Not Be More Over Margaret Atwood.” For Kong, Atwood had come to symbolize a “strain of feminist [who] believes the problems that affect white, able-bodied, cisgender women are paramount … When people with less privilege ask for their needs to be considered, these feminists react as if they’re being replaced or, in this case, erased.”
Some saw Atwood’s retweet as continuing an anti-feminist trajectory she’d been on since 2016, when she signed an open letter denouncing UBC for denying due process to creative writing professor Stephen Galloway, who was accused of sexual assault and harassment. Critics interpreted Atwood’s call for “due process” as a defence of the sexist status quo, or as siding with Galloway over his accusers.
The now widespread desire to disown Atwood for her insufficient feminism is understandable in the world of Twitter, where 2016 seems like a lifetime ago. But the current controversy also betrays a bewildering cultural amnesia about a writer who has spent the last six decades fighting on a dizzying range of social, political, and esthetic fronts. Gender is an important part of that story, beginning with Atwood’s audacity at presuming that a woman could make it as a writer in 1960s Canada. In the 1970s, she documented astutely the ways in which gender, class and racial prejudice converged in the abortion debate. But Atwood has remained a prescient voice on issues ranging from free trade and the financial crisis to ecological disaster and the prospect of authoritarian dystopia.
The current debate, in which critics find the author failing to meet “feminist” standards she once exemplified, also elides the extent to which Atwood herself has always resisted the “feminist role model” label. In 1982, an interviewer asked her, straight-up: “Are you a feminist writer?” She replied by poking holes in the concept.
“‘Feminist’ is now one of the all-purpose words,” Atwood said. “It can really mean anything from people who think men should be pushed off cliffs to people who think it’s OK for women to read and write … So what do you mean?”
Regardless of any ambivalence on Atwood’s part, feminism had been quick to claim her for the side. “A few years ago, Women’s Lib was looking for any woman writer who seemed to be dealing with ‘feminist’ issues,” Atwood explained in the mid-1970s, and her early poems and prose fit that bill.
Her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969) struck readers as radical — although it was not, she would always hasten to add, the expression of any movement. “[T]here was no women’s movement in sight when I was composing the book in 1965,” she wrote in a preface. (McClelland & Stewart supposedly misplaced the manuscript for years before publishing it). The story was rooted in social reality: as she later explained in an interview with Joyce Carol Oates, it was “still very much the model pattern, in Canada anyway, to take a crummy job and then marry to get away from it.” The Edible Woman, an anti-marriage comedy, came from her own frustration as a consumable object within consumer society.
Atwood’s consciousness of gender-based discrimination had been forged in a prefeminist age. Her formative years, she explained to interviewer Karla Hammond in the journal Concerning Poetry, unfolded in a 1950s Toronto that was “very bent on having girls collect china, become cheerleaders, and get married.” As she recalled in the “Spotty-Handed Villainesses” speech, it was a moment in which mothers impressed upon their daughters the importance of “setting a good example.” At Toronto’s Leaside High, Atwood enrolled in Home Economics, where she learned not to lick the spoon while cooking, and that every meal should consist of a brown thing, a white thing, a yellow thing, and a green thing. She would later contemplate journalism, only to discover that female journalists were confined to obituaries and the “ladies page.” “There was nothing at Leaside High School to indicate to me that writing was even a possibility for a young person in Canada in the twentieth century,” she writes in a reflection on Northrop Frye, who nudged her toward graduate school.
When she arrived at Harvard in 1961, Atwood found that she was still clearly regarded as a second-class citizen. She was interested in modern poetry but, as Atwood biographer Rosemary Sullivan notes, “studentesses” were prohibited from the Lamont Library, where the collection was housed. Her professors were all male. The Harvard English department wouldn’t hire its first full-time tenured female professor, Marjorie Garber, until 1981.
To presume you could make it as female Canadian writer in the early 1960s would have required some steroidal tenacity. “CanLit,” for one, was not a thing: Canadian readers were uninterested in our own stories, leaving Canadian writers to seek publishing deals with American and U.K. firms. Thanks to Hemingway and his hairy-chested acolytes (poet Milton Acorn led the Canadian contingent), writing itself was understood to be a hypermasculine pursuit. Pioneering female writers like Jay Macpherson and P.K. Page were around, but the general social expectation was that a young writer “should go to Paris and drink a lot, or you should kill yourself,” Atwood remembered.
When male critics of this period wanted to say something nice about a female writer, they would praise her “water-color feminine sensibility,” Atwood remembered, or her ability to “think like a man,” neither of which fit the author of The Edible Woman. Instead, establishment critics regarded her as crazy or neurotic: maybe a husband and kids would help her mature. Atwood did mature, of course, but her critique of gender relations only sharpened with time: “You fit into me / like a hook into an eye / a fish hook / an open eye,” went the most famous poem in Power Politics (1971). Then came Surfacing (1972), a ghost story about a divorced woman returning to her family’s cabin after the disappearance of her father, the novel that launched a thousand feminist readings.
Yet Atwood remained skeptical. She was highly conscious of men’s dominance over women, but Surfacing was even more concerned with American dominance over Canada. Feminism itself, Atwood once argued, was an American luxury. As a Canadian living through a moment of nationalist crisis, she felt less able to dissociate women’s rights from other forms of political struggle. She could never “pull away and say, ‘That [issue] doesn’t concern me. I’m going to do nothing but feminism,’” she said in the interview with Hammond. Atwood had always written about female characters struggling within oppressive social hierarchies, but when pressed by another interviewer, she defined her feminism in universal terms, “as human equality and freedom of choice.”
By the mid-1970s, “freedom of choice” meant the freedom to choose an abortion, and Atwood was on the front lines of the debate. She worked for nearly a year on an unpublished Ms. magazine article called “The Ordeal of Henry Morgentaler,” about the physician who had been jailed for providing unauthorized abortions. A major strand of the story, for Atwood, was the rank hypocrisy of Morgentaler’s treatment: “Wives of government officials and, it is rumoured of members of the police department made use of his clinic,” she wrote, noting that abortions had always been available to “rich women,” while “poor women had babies or went to the local knitting needle artists.”
It did not escape Atwood’s sense of historical irony that Morgentaler, a Holocaust survivor, was picketed by anti-abortion placards reading “Remember Auschwitz” and “This Jew kills white babies.” Yet she was most interested in the Morgentaler affair as an allegory for the state’s ability to torment and squash the individual like a bug.
“This whole massive apparatus of the state seemed to come down on my head,” she quotes Morgentaler as saying. “It just seemed that this … arbitrary power of the state to prosecute or persecute one individual is so awesome — I didn’t expect that. I figured in a democracy that probably this could not happen.” Abortion was the defining “women’s issue” of the moment, but for Atwood it was not only a story of men subjugating women. In her telling, it was also a story about the state’s ability to crush dissent.
Which is not to say that Atwood ever turned a blind eye to the real, corporeal violence that men visit upon women each day. In the early 1980s, while doing research for her novel Bodily Harm (1982), Atwood forced herself to watch the “outtakes” of the Ontario Board of Film Censors. She was shocked, she wrote later, by “women getting their nipples snipped off with garden shears, having meat hooks stuck into their vaginas, being disemboweled; little girls being raped; men (yes there are some men) being smashed to a pulp and forcibly sodomized.” Feminism could go either way on pornography, but Atwood, otherwise sympathetic to freedom of expression, wrote in Chatelaine that “pornography” was “no longer simple old copulation … it was death, messy, explicit, and highly sadistic.”
Some of that sadism slithered into Atwood’s next novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which would cement her place as the most famous writer in Canadian history. Atwood’s apocalyptic vision maintains its chilling hold over readers (and viewers, with the Elizabeth Moss-starring vehicle entering its fifth season). The late critic Harold Bloom decreed The Handmaid’s Tale superior to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, Huxley’s Brave New World, and even Orwell’s 1984. Each of those books, Bloom wrote in 1999, were now “period pieces,” but “theodicy is a live menace.” Life is rough for women in the Republic of Gilead, especially for the “handmaids” forced to provide offspring to their infertile overlords. Atwood’s target, however, was not “patriarchy.” It was theocratic puritanism. She dedicated the book to Perry Miller, the great scholar of American puritanism, whose Harvard seminar she’d taken two decades before.
Atwood’s activism continued along a path parallel to her art. As a novelist, she was entering a major new phase of her career. Between Booker Prize wins (for The Blind Assassin in 2000 and The Testaments in 2019) her imagination roamed from ancient Greece (The Penelopiad) to a postapocalyptic hellscape (the Oryx and Crake trilogy, in which humanity is ravaged by a global pandemic).
Through it all, Atwood carved out strong positions on some of the defining political issues of our time and was never shy about confronting establishment consensus. In a speech to the Law Society in 1984, she told a room full of judges “to take cognizance of the fact the society you serve is not all white, all male or all middle-class.” In 1987, Atwood delivered an anti-NAFTA speech to a Parliamentary Committee on Free Trade. (The only position the U.S. ever adopted toward Canada, she said, was the missionary position.) She cocreated the Writers Trust of Canada in 1976 to amplify and support Canadian literary voices. A decade later, she helped found the English chapter of PEN Canada, devoted to fighting for jailed and oppressed writers, and served as the organization’s president. She has spoken out on environmental issues ranging from fossil fuels to rare birds. On the eve of the global financial crisis, she devoted her 2008 Massey Lectures (published as Payback) to the subject of debt — or what the book’s subtitle called “the shadow side of wealth.” In The CanLit Foodbook, “a compendium of tasty literary fare,” she took a stand in defence of that least-loved meal: lunch.
Atwood’s social conscience is not always uplifting. She used her pulpit at a University of Toronto Convocation Address in 1983 to inform the bright-eyed, newly minted grads that when (not if) the atom bombs finally fall, “we can die with the dubious satisfaction of knowing that the death of the world was a man-made and therefore preventable event, and that the failure to prevent it was a failure of human will.”
Still, while her academic critics were continually trying to undermine the distinction between her politics and her imaginative work, Atwood always insisted that art was never reducible to politics. She would never advocate art for art’s sake: even when it is set in other worlds, Atwood’s fiction remains rooted in the inequities and power dynamics of our own. However, as she noted in “Spotty-Handed Villainesses,” if the “main design” of any artwork “is to convert us to something — whether that something be Christianity, capitalism, a belief in marriage as the only answer to the maiden’s prayer, or feminism, we are likely to sniff that out, and to rebel.”
Atwood, then, may be less of a feminist icon than a feminist paradox: a tireless advocate for women, who nevertheless sharpened her own thinking in opposition to feminist doctrine; a political writer convinced that political dogma (of any sort) is inimical to writing itself. Today, Atwood occupies the genuinely weird position of being the country’s most popular writer who holds some of our least popular opinions. Those opinions — that democracy depends upon due process; that a poem is not a manifesto; that free speech includes the right to say the unsayable; and that any attempt to enforce utopian thinking will end in dystopia — are perfectly consistent with the ideas behind her most celebrated books, which are also chock full of women behaving badly.
Atwood has never shied away from expressing an unpopular opinion. The difference, today, is that those opinions are immediately parsed and scrutinized by millions on social media. Atwood’s fame, and her massive Twitter following — around two million — allows her to rally instant support for causes, from funding libraries to protecting bird habitats. But with the celebrity has also come a reification of her image as Global Superfeminist, and a corresponding simplification of her art and politics.
The zeitgeist has decreed that this is a moment for toppling statues. For some, Margaret Atwood will now only ever be a statue, a stone angel erected by deluded ancestors we can no longer respect, calling out to be smashed. But if we retrace Atwood’s own journey, her six decades of writing and speaking and activism, we find a mind alive in the world, an author who was always deemed worthy of reading, even by those who recoiled from her opinions. Readers admired her acerbic wit, her excoriation of injustice, her skewering of moral pretension, her sense that the worst elements of our past may yet define our future. For as long as there are readers to recognize those qualities, Atwood will remain, despite herself, one of our very best examples.
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