Cat’s Eye: Margaret Atwood, #metoo, feminist-not-feminist-bad-feminist, and… a 1988 novel

Margaret Atwood is (back) in the news. With the adaptation for television of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Alias Grace (1996), readers are returning to these earlier works in droves, with both novels (once again) atop the bestseller lists in Canada and the United States. With the renewed interest in these publications comes the reminder-of-what-we-always-knew (or thought we knew) about Atwood and feminism: she’s never been all that keen to call herself a feminist (see this great explainer from vox). She’s more interested in the women-are-‘human’-and-we-should-all-like-to-be-human approach to feminism. (She and JT probably both liked the recent ‘peoplekind‘ flap).

So I wasn’t surprised (though I was disappointed) to find she’s embroiled in controversy (is there any other way to relate to controversy except to be embroiled?) around responding to sexual assault allegations. It’s her ‘peoplekind’ approach that has, in part, put her at such odds with many readers, feminists and/or fans. I say ‘in part,’ of course, because there’s been a little more going on in Canadian literature than whether Atwood will use that ‘F’ word or not.

I need to make a few admissions: (1) Until reading Cat’s Eye and thinking about this blog post, I’d scrupulously avoided reading anything about Galloway, Atwood, and, for the most part, #metoo. On Galloway/#UBC Accountable, I felt a sort of relief that I was no longer required by academic affiliation with Can lit to pour over every think piece and tweet. I dutifully read a couple of articles and listened to a podcast  (with the enticing title ‘Canlit clusterfuck’). Then I filed the whole thing away in my brain and moved on. (2) When #metoo became a… thing (searching for an appropriate noun, and settling on… ‘thing.’) in October I didn’t even do the dutiful reading of articles or listening to podcasts. I wasn’t interested because it didn’t seem particularly shocking to me to discover that women – everywhere – experience sexual assault all the time and that men with power abuse that power. I was interested in reading and thinking about other things, and so I did. (I feel defensive in my non-engagement, like I need to offer up reasons, but then I remembered it’s for me to read or not to read and *I’m* not a bad feminist for deciding to tune out. Am I?). These admissions are made so that I can establish my relative ignorance when I read Atwood’s opinion piece in the Globe, “Am I a Bad Feminist?”

The opinion piece happened to coincide with a dry spell in my stack of books. With nothing waiting to be read I turned to the bookshelf of Eventual Reads and grabbed Cat’s Eye. Having decided that most of recent Atwood’s fiction is pretty crap , I do know that I like earlier Atwood novels and I’d never read Cat’s Eye. So there I was: reading an 1988 Atwood novel that is absolutely feminist and reading Atwood’s opinion piece and thinking… WHAT AM I MISSING.

A lot, as it turns out.

So I started reading – here’s a smattering of what I read in my effort to get up to speed on what was going on.

The thrust seems to be Atwood is very keen on there being Processes for responding to sexual assault in order to protect the reputation of men. And the rest of the world is (or at least for a brief few months was – now that the sex panic backlash has set in) prioritizing the experiences of women and beginning (finally) from a place of belief. And Atwood is mixed up in a lot of related stories and is using her mega cultural capital in the defense of… men getting due process. And ok. She can do that. She puts forward her arguments, she tweets her replies (all while feigning ignorance of how Twitter works…) all while devoted readers wring their hands because their Feminist Hero has betrayed them.

Do I feel betrayed? Outraged? Disappointed? Not really. I mean, I’m not surprised, I guess is what I’m saying. Atwood has – for me, at least – always had the bases covered when it comes to white lady second wave feminism. Of course she wants legal processes to be prioritized: it’s the legal system that did so much to advance equity for (white) women through the 70s, 80s and 90s. She argues for women as assertive and agential, who could – and should – say ‘no,’ or or leave, or whatever (forgetting that for so many women, power imbalances make it complicated or dangerous to say ‘no’ or leave. And why should women have to be the ones to change. And and and).

And, more importantly, (for me anyway), I’ve never had the expectation that Atwood the person has to be wedded to what happens in her novels. (If you’re interested – and I’m sure you are! – you can read more about authorship and celebrity and power in fantastic books by Lorraine York). What I’m fumbling around trying to say is that Atwood has never been my Feminist Hero, even while I appreciate the feminist themes in her novels.

Which is all a gigantic set-up for my reading of Cat’s Eye. Which was good. Really good. Following the painter, Elanie Risley, as she sets up for a retrospective of her work, the reader is taken along as Elanie sifts through childhood memories of her ‘friendship’ with Cordelia. Their relationship invites the reader to explore bullying with some complexity: the responsibility of adults, the extent to which bullying is caused by/contributes to mental illness, the role of the bystander etc. It’s also a novel about gender and power (as stipulated, there is no shortage of feminism in the book) as Elanie works out through her art and her relationships how to get what she wants and deserves. It’s also incredibly well written and fun to read in a sort of realist fiction that wants to do more show than tell kind of way.

Okay. This post has gone on far too long. So I know I promised more thoughts on bullying, but… I have other things to do today. Instead I can leave it to you to tell me what you think: is Atwood the bully now? (Instead of getting excited about new Atwood, go back and read some of her earlier works. They really are very good. Plus you can get the book a dollar at a used bookstore and not give any more $ to Atwood if you’re feeling like maybe she doesn’t deserve your coin right now.)


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