Atwood and the Aziz Ansari Affair

Is the woman complicit (Alias Grace) or innocent (Handmaid’s Tale)?


Margaret Atwood is apparently under attack from certain radical feminists for raising questions about the #MeToo movement’s use of vigilante justice. In a related controversy, certain radical feminists want actor Aziz Ansari taken down for his gross insensitivity on a date, as reported by an anonymous woman in Babe magazine. I’m with Atwood in the first controversy and her novels can help us negotiate the second.

Atwood argued point in a Globe and Mail article that the legal system rather than twitter must settle issues of sexual assault. Not that she blames people for turning to social media. After all, if the legal system fails to protect victims, then they must use what resources they have. As the victimized Mrs. Yonge says in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s 18th century poem, “But this last privilege I still retain; /Th’ oppressed and injured always may complain.” In the case of #MeToo, complaining can actually have an impact.

Unfortunately, Atwood warns, vigilantism cuts both ways, with victimizers employing it as well as victims. And yes, women can be victimizers.

Atwood has gotten in trouble with feminists on this issue in the past. After The Handmaid’s Tale all but became the Bible of the feminist movement in the 1980’s, Atwood shocked fans with her depiction of Cordelia in Cat’s Eye (1988). This relentless bully showed that not every woman is a benign Offred or a heroic Ofglen. To feminists fearing that Atwood’s negative depiction of a woman hurt the feminist movement, the author replied that women have agency–they are not just pedestal objects—and must be shown in all their complexity. As she wrote in her Globe and Mail article,

My fundamental position is that women are human beings, with the full range of saintly and demonic behaviors this entails, including criminal ones. They’re not angels, incapable of wrongdoing. If they were, we wouldn’t need a legal system.

Nor do I believe that women are children, incapable of agency or of making moral decisions. If they were, we’re back to the 19th century, and women should not own property, have credit cards, have access to higher education, control their own reproduction or vote. There are powerful groups in North America pushing this agenda, but they are not usually considered feminists.

Atwood’s novel Alias Grace explores this dynamic. Is Grace a foul murderess or is she the innocent accomplice of a murdering man? He goes to his death claiming that she instigated the murder and one is never sure. Atwood makes it clear, however, that the age’s double standard means that many insist on seeing her as an angel. They may seem to be on her side but, in the process, they reduce her to a stereotype.

Some challenging the woman’s account of her date with Aziz Ansari say that she portrays herself as a victim as opposed to a person with agency and that she could have ended the encounter at any point along the way. After all, this was more consensual than the Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Donald Trump situations. Ansari should have been more alert to certain signals, but no one is claiming that his insensitivity was criminal. Had the woman been more forceful, the date would have ended much earlier.

True, there was a power imbalance insofar as he is a celebrity and she a star-struck fan. He appears to have been unaware that with star power come certain responsibilities. For that particular dynamic, Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock has insights that I’ll share in a future post.

My point today is that women’s rights and better dates will come about only if we acknowledge the full complexity of women, men, and their interactions. Literature specializes in this complexity.

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  • 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.

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