Author: Anonymous Submitted: 03.25.09 Word Count: 1867
MARGARET ATWOOD: “SPOTTY-HANDED VILLIANESSES: PROBLEMS OF FEMALE BAD BEHAVIOUR IN THE CREATION OF LITERATURE”
Margaret Atwood is once of Canada’s best known literary composers. She is best known for her ability as an author of novels such as Alias Grace, Bodily Harm, Hairball, Rape Fantasies, and the highly acclaimed The Handmaid’s Tale, which was later made into a movie. These works establish her as a feminist writer, raising issues of women in literature, the difficulties associated with being female and the role of women in society.
The feminist movement began in the 1960s, as women’s groups searched for equality in the workplace. The movement resulted in the increased participation of women in the paid workforce, and the widening of career opportunities from traditional occupations such as teaching, nursing and secretarial work.
Atwood was influential during this movement. Through her literary work, she expressed her views about, and generated support for feminism. She campaigned against the oppression of women and pushed for equal rights in all aspects of life. However, she opposed extremist feminist ideals such as dressing like men and having male hairstyles in order to demonstrate the fact that men and women could be the same.
In Spotty-handed Villainesses, Atwood raises the issue of the role women should take in society, as portrayed through literature. She raised the issue during the ongoing clash between the feminist and anti-feminist movement, making it a very topical and widely discussed oration.
Spotty-handed Villainesses deals with the issue of feminism and the perceived view of it being evil. She attempted to provide her audience with an entertaining insight into the portrayal of women, especially female villains in novels, short stories and plays. In delivering her oration, she also found it necessary to outline the aims of fiction and trace the process by which it is created. Her purpose in the first part of the speech is to explore the scope and genres of fiction.
From this point, Atwood then explores the pressing issue of feminism’s influence on literature. She found it necessary to lend support to the movement which had resulted in a wide array of female characters being portrayed in fiction. However, she differentiates herself from the extreme feminists, criticising their view that evil women should not be depicted in literature.
She found it important to establish the idea that it some women should be portrayed as evil in literature because this would be a reflection of society, as well as good women. Her aim in the second part of the speech is then to defend the current portrayal of both good and bad women in fiction and to differentiate herself from the feminist movement.
Atwood’s speech deals with the issue of the portrayal of women in literature, their role in society and the impact feminism has had upon this area. In dealing with these issues she uses various techniques, including cumulative listing, allusions, metaphors, similes, anecdotes, paradox and rhetorical questions.
Role of Women in Society
Atwood explores the changing role of women in society in her speech, through the investigation of the portrayal of female characters in literature, and the changes they have undergone over time. She recounts the history of fictional women in literature, from Shakespeare’s Regan and Goneril in King Lear, the Victorian “little girl with a curl”, to modern female characters such as those in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. Atwood praises the women’s movement for expanding the roles of women in literature and in society, but she also criticises them for limiting the reality of this portrayal.
Literature reflecting reality
Atwood also investigates the links between literature and reality. The fundamental difference between literature and reality, she suggests, is that in literature “something has to happen”. Literature requires a plot, climax and resolution in order for audiences to feel that they have gained something from engaging in a text. However, in reality, we do not require action and are satisfied with the absence of the “something” that is needed in literature. We are a happy with an “eternal breakfast” and we “ask for nothing” to happen.
LINKS TO SOCRATES
Both Margaret Atwood and Socrates declare that the upholding of the rights of the individual is imperative to the progress of society. Their reasons for doing so, however, were different. Socrates advocates the rights of the individual in the defence and justification of his actions, whereas Atwood suggests that women should have the right to choose whether they wish to be seen as good or bad, and that it is wrong to deny women the right to have evil in them.
– Atwood opens her speech using colloquial language. The informal nature of her language makes her speech more accessible for the audience and the humour associated with the colloquial phrases engaging. It sets the casual atmosphere in which the speech is delivered.
– In the opening, she shares her childhood encounters with women in prose with the children’s rhyme “a little girl who had a curl”. This personal anecdote introduces the topic of the portrayal of women in literature, as well as establishes a connection with her audience.
– “It brought home to me the deeply Jungian possibilities of a Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde double life for women.” Atwood makes a psychoanalytical allusion to Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which tells of a doctor who takes a drug that changes him into a new person, physically ugly and spiritually evil. The novel is a psychological inquiry into the nature of the evil that exists in all people. Hence, this allusion emphases the “Angel/Whore split” portrayal of women previously suggested by Atwood.
– “Spot as in guilt, spot as in blood, spot as in ‘out, damned.’” Here, Atwood uses asyndeton to emphasise her definition of the word “spot”, with each phrase growing increasingly powerful, ending with a rearrangement of a famous quote from Macbeth.
– “But is it not, today � well, somewhat unfeminist � to depict a woman behaving badly? Isn’t bad behaviour supposed to be the monopoly of men? Isn’t that we are expected � in defiance of real life � to somehow believe, now?” Atwood’s cynical tone emphasises her criticism of the restrictive elements of the feminist movement. Her cumulative, rapid-fire questioning are confronting and accusatory, in order to stimulate audience response.
– Atwood then uses another anecdote to introduce the idea of the need for ‘bad women’ as ‘something disruptive to static order’. She tells of her daughter’s first encounter with literature as she puts on the breakfast play in which nothing happens. Atwood and her friend question the meaning of the play, making references to famous playwrights as they do so. The juxtaposition of a play written by five-year olds with the work of famous classics is humorous, helping to establish a personal connection with the audience.
– “If you think I’m flogging a few dead horses � horses which have been put out of their pain long ago � let me assure you that this is because the horses are not in fact dead, but are out there in the world, galloping around as vigorously as ever.” Atwood’s use of the well-known saying, “to flog a dead horse” maintains the casual atmosphere of the delivery. Her extension of this saying justifies her decision to also discuss the “essentials” of writing.
– “I feel that this is a matter which should be more properly taken up with God. It was not, after all, I who created Adam so subject to temptation that he sacrificed eternal life for an apple.” Atwood justifies her portrayal of weak men as approved by God, who similarly created the character of Adam who “sacrificed eternal life for an apple.” This religious allusions help to align the novelist and herself with God, who is “among other things, an author.” By validating her opinion with religious teachings she also appeals to the religious beliefs of the audience.
– “Is our female protagonist lost in the jungle, caught in a hurricane, pursued by sharks? If so, her story will be an adventure story and her job is to run away, or else to combat the sharks, displaying courage and fortitude, or else cowardice and stupidity.” Here, Atwood uses asyndeton to suggest a cumulative list of roles women may play in novels. She then juxtaposes the qualities of “courage and fortitude” and “cowardice and stupidity” to emphasises the range to ways in which the woman can respond to her situation.
– Atwood explores females characters in literature through allusions to these classic literary works that explored female sexuality, making historical references to famous works that her well-read audience would have been familiar with. She notes the shift of females into the once exclusively male domain of villains such as werewolves and vampires, but declines whether to comment that this is “good or bad news”.
– Atwood makes reference to this gender inequality in literature again, remarking, “all sleuths were once male, but sleuthesses are now prominent…”, making a reference to Miss Marple, one of the most famous of Agatha Christie’s detectives. Through this accumulation of a list of roles women have taken throughout literary history and the genres they have appeared in, Atwood suggests through the use of the metaphor that in the age we live in that there is such a gender and genre crossover that “you can throw all of the above into a cauldron and stir”
– Her initial anecdote about the children’s play consisting only of a breakfast scene is used again as a point of reference to show what novels are like; ‘to avoid the eternal breakfast, some of the characters must cause problems for some of the others’. Her use of relevant personal anecdotes establishes a personal connection with the audience and creates a bond with her audience as she discusses the role of women in literature.
– Through her logical structure, Atwood introduces the historical impact of the women’s movement on literature, on “how people read and therefore what you can get away with in art”. Through the cumulative listing of the “benefits to literature of the Women’s Movement”, Atwood acknowledges the achievements of feminism such as the “exploration of many hitherto-concealed areas of experience” and “a sharp-eyed examination of the way power works in gender relations”. She then proceeds to criticise the movement through the use of paradox to illustrate the divide between “women who wore high heels and make up” and “those in overalls”, provoking a thoughtful reflection for her audience that contained feminists who were critical of her appraisal of the Women’s Movement, and yet was well received by other feminists who acknowledged that feminism does occasionally bring with it some excesses.
– She expresses her disapproval of what she saw as the restrictive side of feminism, continuing with her observation that “if a novelist writing at that time was also a feminist, she felt her choices restricted”. Criticising the notion that all heroines were “to be essentially spotless of soul”, she makes reference to The Perils of