We’re more than halfway through the month of #MARM and today is Margaret Atwood’s 80th birthday. Naomi and I are supposed to be deep into discussions about The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments (her spoiler-free launch of The Ts discussion is here). But I’ve still got my head in Handmaid’s.
Even though I finished rereading more than a week ago. I’m rewatching the Hulu Originals series (more on that soon – and I’m only on episode four, you can still catch up if you care to), and I’m reading the graphic novel adaptation by Renee Nault too. But I’ll probably start with TheT tonight. Even so.
When I was in my twenties, I was flummoxed by the fact that Atwood did not identify as a feminist. I could pinpoint, to the day, the incident which spurned my discovery of feminism, and I didn’t understand her equivocating about the term, when I had so recently and passionately adopted its usage.
Instead, when the F-word comes up, Atwood often speaks about her commitment to equality. And it often comes up. And it’s often complicated. Because everyone who challenges her on the matter has their own personal understanding of feminism (and is perhaps just as puzzled by, or oblivious to, her lifelong insistence that she is committed to equality not to feminist ideology, as I was).
These days, more and more people are taking their truth from the media (including social media, not necessarily journalism) rather than from the source, assuming that when other people declare Margaret Atwood a feminist spokesperson or a prophet (which also comes up fairly often, in regards to Handmaid’s), that she identifies as such herself.
Her-storically, that’s not been the case, although the topic often comes up in her writing. And in her writing about writing. In the earliest days of her career and in the present-day, everyone has questions (and assumptions) about her position in relationship to feminism. Her answers are not always what you might expect. Take this one, for instance, kinda from the middle.
In 2002’s Negotiating the Dead, Atwood writes:
“For instance, there’s the F-word. If you’re a woman and a writer, does the combination of gender and vocation automatically make you a feminist, and what does that mean, exactly? That you shouldn’t put a good man into your books, even though in real life you may have managed to dig up a specimen or two? And if you do courageously admit to being one of those F-word females, how should this self-categorization influence your wardrobe choices? I know that’s a frivolous comment, but if the wardrobe matter is all that frivolous, then why have so many earnest commentators made such ideological heavy work of it? And even if you aren’t an F-word feminist in any strict ideological sense, will nervous critics wallop you over the head for being one, simply because you exemplify that suspicious character, A Woman Who Writes? If, that is, you put any female characters into your books who aren’t happy, and any men who aren’t good. Well, probably they will. It’s happened before.”
In this series of questions, you can catch glimpses of all the accusations and praise that have swelled around her over the years. She’s been asked about her wardrobe. She’s been walloped over the head for the way she looks. Queries about male characters who aren’t good and female characters who aren’t happy: the answers to these could lead to walloping as well. But the list of questions begins with what does it mean, being a feminist.
In recent years, as more people have begun to adopt Aunt Lydia’s either/or thinking, I have questioned my own use of the term ‘feminist’.
That’s a way of looking at the world – this either/or perspective, I mean – that I used to associate with conservative, right-wing outlooks. It’s something I associate with the Republican government in the United States’ ultimatum in the wake of 9/11: “You’re either with us or against us.”
More recently, either/or thinking has become just as prominent in liberal, left-wing groups. (Of course these are generalizations: traditionalists and progressives. It’s never that simple.)
These days, if you declare yourself a supporter of one thing, an “either”, others will declare on your behalf that you cannot also be a supporter of another thing, an “or”. There’s no room for both/and, not in the either/or perspective on the world.
I think about the Commander’s observation in The Handmaid’s Tale: “Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.”
And I think about a passage from the perspective of a female character in Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Brightness Long Ago: “It was a good thing, she thought, that there were women working to widen the world in different ways. They could nod at each other in passing, in recognition, then carry on expanding what was allowed.”
In a both/and view, both characters are speaking the truth here. And I’m good with that. I would like to redefine ‘better’, so that more people would come to see that equality is ultimately better for all (and only temporarily worse for some). And I’m good with other women working to widen the world in their own ways, “expanding [what’s] allowed”.
One thing that I could have learned earlier on, from Margaret Atwood’s stance, was the importance of defining your own position. Of recognizing when my position aligns and intersects with that of other women. But not allowing anyone else to do that thinking for me. Taking responsibility for doing it myself.
When I’m doing the ‘feminist’ thing these days, engaging with women who self-identify as feminists – listening to a panel or a podcast, reading an article or an academic paper, attending a march or a strike – I often disagree.
Maybe not more often than I agree. Certainly more often than my younger self would have expected to disagree. But more than anything, what I disagree with is this idea that there is only one way to be a feminist. That there is only one way to address the myriad systems of oppression in this world.
I suppose what it comes down to, is that I’m okay with using the word about myself and defining it for myself, but not necessarily okay with having someone else use it to define me.
And maybe that’s what Margaret Atwood was saying from the beginning, back when I needed to hear her saying something else, because I hadn’t done the work for myself yet.
Did you/ Have you/ Do you identify as a feminist and did you/have you/do you find tenets of your belief system reflected in/challenged by The Handmaid’s Tale?