Atwood: Flawed Activist, Genius Author


Yesterday I delivered a trifecta of lectures at the University of Ljubljana—the busiest day of my visit—and I have today off, which I will spend visiting with friends and dining with the English department. Today’s post summarizes the third of those lectures: “Margaret Atwood’s Ambiguous Relationship with Feminism.”

I’ve always been struck by Atwood’s rocky relationship with feminism given that some of her novels, particularly Handmaid’s Tale, have played important roles in the movement. Indeed, few literary works have had more of an impact, as demonstrated by the way that activists will routinely don the red robes and white bonnets of the handmaid to protest anti-woman policies.

Yet Atwood has always been reluctant to call herself a feminist, and more recently she has offended certain activists for her cautions about the #MeToo movement and her critique of the process that fired accused sexual harasser Steve Galloway from his post at the University of British Columbia’s prestigious creative writing program.

As I see it, literary authors and political activists have different agendas, which sometimes clash. Activists try to effect change in the world while authors try to do justice to the full complexity of the world. To change policy or influence people, activists may simplify the issues, focusing on broad outlines rather than teasing out nuance. Authors make their home in nuance.

One can see this in the way that Atwood talks about why she resists the feminist label:

We have to realise it’s become one of those general terms that can mean a whole bunch of different things,” Atwood replied. “So I usually say, ‘Tell me what you mean by that word and then we can talk.

“If people can’t tell me what they mean, then they don’t really have an idea in their heads of what they’re talking about. So do we mean equal legal rights? 

“Do we mean women are better than men? Do we mean all men should be pushed off a cliff? What do we mean? Because that word has meant all of those different things,” says author.

“So, if we mean, should women as citizens have equal rights, I’m all for it and a number of advances have been made in my lifetime regarding property rights and divorce and custody of children and all of those things,” Atwood said. “But do we mean, are women always right? Give me a break! I’m sorry, but no! Theresa May is a woman, for heaven’s sakes!”

Vox notes Atwood’s reservations about the #MeToo movement:

Atwood fears the worst: “In times of extremes, extremists win,” she writes. “Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.” If the #MeToo movement is not properly channeled, she suggests, it will end in a system of kangaroo courts and excommunications.

Atwood is not above criticism just because she is a great author. In fact, we should distinguish between her novels and her political pronouncements. I agree with some of the criticisms of Atwood mentioned by Grady:

For many of those active in the #MeToo movement, Atwood’s argument felt like a betrayal. She seemed to be trashing a movement for hypothetical crimes it might perhaps commit in the future while ignoring what it was doing in the present — and in the same piece, she failed to engage in good faith with the criticism against her for her support of UBC Accountable.

Atwood’s comments appear different, however, if they are seen as an author laying out the conditions she needs for fictional creation. Sir Philip Sidney famously writes, “the Poet, he nothing affirms,” and Percy Shelley cautions against authors weighing in on current issues, observing,

A poet therefore would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.

While Atwood is not embodying her comments in her poetical creations but in an editorial, that just emphasizes Shelley’s point. Her political work is not the same as her creative work, and, while brilliant as a novelist, she is a flawed activist. Indeed, we could predict that this would be the case.

Some of Atwood’s critics haven’t been content to attack her political pronouncements but have gone after her novels as well. I’m thinking particularly of an article in The Root, referred to me by reader Lauren Davis, which accuses The Handmaid’s Tale of appropriating images of black suffering for a white woman’s drama.

Just as authors may come up short as activists, however, activists come up short as literary critics when they view works as political tracts. In her fiction, Atwood is not focused on furthering a cause. She wants to capture the truth of humans’ experience in the world. Now, activists can take advantage of the truths that Atwood reveals so that their politics rest on a firm foundation. But when they do so, they are engaged in a different process than poetical creation.

In yesterday’s talk I surveyed several of Atwood novels to show some of the truths that she offers up.

Edible Woman, which came out at the height of the sexual revolution in 1969, grappled with issues that women were only beginning to think about. Women were breaking with past traditions, and young women could relate to how Marian has her own job, an on-going sexual relationship with a man to whom she is not married, and no particular desire to get married. They could also relate to the forces that tear her apart.

Although Marian sees herself as a thoroughly modern woman, she still feels pressured become a wife. Perhaps she could better resist that pressure if she had a clearer sense of who she is or what she wants. But that’s the whole issue: questions of identity are necessarily confused, especially at turning points in history, and the 1970s were a turning point.

Marian’s fiancé experiences a man’s version of this drama: while he doesn’t particularly want to get married, he feels that he must do so to be taken seriously. Both Peter and Marian are trapped, and only when Marian presents him with an unforgettable symbol—a cake of herself that she invites him to eat—do their plans for marriage end.

Note that Marian hasn’t made Peter a villain nor Marian a shining hero. They are two people trying to figure out a confusing world.

In novel after novel Atwood does versions of this drama. In Surfacing, for instance, the major character learns that she must dive into her past to locate the source of her unhappiness. This points to how some feminists would morph as the 1970’s progressed, turning from external political work to internal spiritual exploration.

In Lady Oracle (1976), Atwood  anticipated those 1980s feminist scholars who would examine how popular women’s fiction influenced female identity. The major character, who writes popular gothic novels to sort through her mixed feelings about relationships, finds herself increasingly identifying with her female villains and concludes by subverting the genre.

The Handmaid’s Tale, written during a period of backlash against feminist advances and the rise of Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, seems the most polemical of Atwood’s novels and therefore the one that lends itself most to political agendas. Yet even this novel, as Atwood has pointed out, features men who are victims and women who participate in the oppression of other women.

Cat’s Eye (1988), coming after Handmaid’s Tale, shocked some feminists for its depiction of female bullies. For anyone who wants to uncritically sentimentalize or celebrate women, the narrator has this to say:

Most mothers worry when their daughters reach adolescence but I was the opposite. I relaxed, I sighed with relief. Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life sized.

And this:

I’m a fool, to confuse this with goodness. I am not good.
I know too much to be good. I know myself.
I know myself to be vengeful, greedy, secretive and sly.

For women fighting Reagan-era sexism or the Iranian Ayatollah’s policies, such observations may not seem helpful. They capture female complexity, however.

This same deep dive into the darker side of women continues on in Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin (2000). In Robber Bride, it takes a nasty woman, Zenia, to shake the three female protagonists out of their doormat relationship with men and stand up for themselves. In Alias Grace, we discover that the major character can be reduced to neither an angel in the house nor a cold-blooded murderess. The world may have agendas in seeing women as one way or another, but their complexity always defies easy labeling.

When Atwood speaks out as an activist, she isn’t any better than other activists. In fact, because she is defending the conditions of her novel writing, she has a different agenda and therefore is less effective. A #MeToo activist would be slowed down by Atwood’s cautions, and a novelist would be stifled by #MeToo’s generalizing. Atwood has been given a political platform as a “feminist novelist,” but she’s not the best person to have up there.

To really see Atwood’s feminism at work, check out my student who is currently writing her senior project on the author. Ashley says that Atwood saved her life, and when I look at the powerful exploration that the author triggered through Edible Woman, Surfacing and Robber Bride, I can testify that this is no exaggeration. Atwood’s diagnosis of women’s insecurities–the forces that women must fight against–has given Ashley a framework for understanding certain things that have happened to her, certain decisions she has made, and the destructive patterns that she is determined to break.

These complex interactions between reader and novel go deeper than the sometimes arid political discussions that Atwood and her detractors sometimes engage in.

One further thought: The difference between Atwood’s novels and political debates over her feminism remind me of the contrast set forth in e. e. cummings’s “O sweet spontaneous”:

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched


thou answerest

them only with


Not that art is either sweet or spontaneous. Still, you get the point that art operates in a different register than philosophic–or political–discourse.

This entry was posted in Atwood (Margaret) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!
  • Twitter Authentication data is incomplete