Let’s talk about… An Evening With Margaret Atwood and feminism.
The first memory I have of Margaret Atwood is of my friend Sam writing about The Handmaid’s Tale on Twitter. Unsettled and intrigued at the same time, I decided to buy the book. Let it be known that I was barely 14, Italian was my first language and my English could have done with some work. Thinking back to that time, 14 year old me was not equipped with what she needed to read such a book. I read it and then chose to ignore it for a couple more years. Slightly more mature and having attuned my whole existence to the finest examples of classical literature, armed with a British accent and a fully functioning brain, I deemed it necessary to give Handmaid’s Tale a second chance, or better, to give myself a second chance at understanding the book. And would you ever guess what happened next? Well, let me tell you. Margaret Atwood and the book she’s most known for, feature in my top 5 list of books to take with me after the machines turn against humanity or, as it seems to be happening more often than not, humans turn against humans until nothing is left but ruins.
I was lucky enough to grab myself a ticket to attend “An Evening With Margaret Atwood” back in June and have been meaning to write a post about it ever since. Now that the lady of dystopian fiction herself has announced that The Handmaid’s Tale will have a sequel, I figured it was about time I put pen to paper, or keyboard to pixels in this case, and drone on about how clever this woman is.
The Handmaid’s Tale being made into a successful TV Show paved the way for more and more people to find the courage to admit what’s wrong with the world. It is infested by people with the emotional range of a teaspoon and ideas that, up until a few years ago, I had only read in history books. The simple idea that a man in a position of power can mock disabled people, denigrate women, put children in cages, enrages me and the fact that he is still in charge of a whole nation, after his actions and crimes have been exposed to the public, is beyond me. To be clear, I am perfectly aware that there is worse in the world that the pathetic excuse of man currently sitting in the White House, but he was something that could have easily been avoided in the first place. I am not going to go on and on about him, so let’s get down to business and talk about that motivational evening with Ms. Atwood.
I have read almost every book written by Margaret Atwood, I listened to her reading a poem titled, “Double Entry Slug Sex” and even that was captivating. I think the world of her and not simply because of her writing, her creativity and how she brings stories to life. Behind the writer, there is a remarkable woman who enjoys the simple things in life, who, as far as I can tell, hasn’t let her career change what’s at the core of her being. Before that evening, I had always assumed that Atwood had written The Handmaid’s Tale as a way to put her feminist agenda out there, and, like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it came out before people were ready for it and it took a decade or two for people to actually “get it”. Turns out I was wrong. When the Canadian novelist was asked if she knew that the book would turn into some sort of feminist bible, she was pretty adamant in denying that that had been her intention when she wrote it. Since then, I have read and watched interviews in which she speaks candidly about feminism and her views of it and now I understand her answer on a deeper level. In one interview she explains how she sees different kinds of feminism: there are feminists who put women on pedestals and view them as the most perfect, angelic creatures; there are feminists who see women as victims of an unjust system and because of that they are “incapable of moral choice”; and then there is a third group, the group that Atwood seems to be most comfortable with, who sees the disparity between men and women and fights against it, but admits that, just like men, women are flawed human beings.
That night, Ms. Atwood compared herself and her book to Doris Lessing and The Golden Notebook. The two books have been identified by many people as feminist propaganda, but both novelists claim to be, in this case, “feminists against their will” as that was not their purpose when writing the books.
As she discusses feminism, Margaret Atwood recalls her life. She was born in 1939 in Ottawa and she recounts how she lived through the 50s, where people acknowledged the fact that “some men had had really bad ideas and people had voted for them”. As current as this situation is, Atwood says that there is a sense of distance, it’s a faint memory, but the idea that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, doing laundry, being a perfect wife and raising children is ingrained in people’s heads. Then came the sixties and suddenly, with the invention of the pill, “an offer of utopia” is distributed among people. The fear amongst men and women of unwanted pregnancies is lifted and it gave way to people being less afraid of sex which led way to the wild and liberal seventies. Atwood claims that up until the seventies, feminism didn’t really exist and that it was only when she was in her mid twenties that she first read a book containing feminist ideas. I remember laughing at her joke about Canada having less problems and issues than their neighbours and how Canadians have a different attitude than Americans. They are brought up to roll up their sleeves and work hard. There isn’t a dream, the American Dream, dangling over their heads like a donkey with a carrot.
Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale while travelling between Berlin, Check Republic and Poland when the Berlin Wall was still standing. She saw how society, both in America and Europe, was pushing people, back towards the fifties, to that joyful idea of a happy family, with men working hard and women being the perfect housewives. She still sees that happening now. More and more conservative parties are rising to power and it seems that every conservative politician (in 90% of the circumstances a white male) wants to revert back to the fifties. There is this idea running rampant amongst conservatives that the fifties are the utopia, a place where there seem to be less worry hanging onto every person. To them, it feels, using Atwood’s words,like “the perfect time”, when a woman’s place is in the kitchen, cooking, doing laundry, raising children and being the perfect housewife.
The Handmaid’s Tale is now being seen by women as a fight against the push back and that’s why the book is so important. I have read this book about ten times and, every single time, it instils in me this feeling that if we don’t act now, that’s exactly how we will end up. We are not there yet, but to me The Handmaid’s Tale feels like a mirror reflecting the utopia that a lot of men in charge of this world are seeking, that world were women don’t have much of a choice, where men are completely in charge of their own lives and that or the women in their life. Women will be passed on from man to man, like in previous centuries, and the emancipation that a lot of women have fought for will turn to dust and get swiped under the carpet and maybe it’ll figure in history books as a momentary lapse of judgement and new generations of women will be bread into thinking that they’re not good enough to have aspirations that bring them outside their father’s and husband’s homes, that they’re not allowed to do certain things simply because they’re women. This is no utopia. This is a dystopia.
We need to act now. We need to keep talking about these issues. We need to be loud enough, persistent enough and consistent enough. It’s not the worse yet and as Margaret Atwood said that night, “We have infinite futures ahead of us. How we act now, changes things.”
It’s not the worse yet, but NOW is CRUCIAL.