Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Female Body and Alien Territory

Whenever I want to explain to someone what I think feminist literature looks like, the first person who comes to mind is Margaret Atwood. I first encountered Atwood when I was in grade ten; I read Alias Grace, and hated it (I've since rethought that particular opinion).

Most women I know had their first encounter with Atwood through The Handmaid's Tale; most men through Oryx & Crake. My first real engagement with Atwood was through one of her early works: The Edible Woman. When I was struggling with anxieties about eating The Edible Woman helped me think through my relationship with food not only as a personal idiosyncrasy, but also as a symptom of wider social issues.

Two of my favourite Atwood books are Good Bones and The Tent. Part short story collections, part prose poetry, both books contain some of Atwood's most insightful -- and cutting -- writing on the subject of gender. Two pieces in Good Bones stand out in particular; I always read them in tandem. I've excerpted both of them here:

The Female Body has many uses. It's been used as a door-knocker, a bottle-opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreaths, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads.
It sells cars, beer, shaving lotion, cigarettes, hard liquor; it sells diet plans and diamonds, and desire in tiny crystal bottles. Is this the face that launched a thousand products? You bet it is, but don't get any funny big ideas, honey, that smile is a dime a dozen.
It does not merely sell, it is sold. Money flows into this country or that country, flies in, practically crawls in, suitful after suitful, lured by all those hairless pre-teen legs. Listen, you want to reduce the national debt, don't you? Aren't you patriotic? That's the spirit. That's my girl. -- from "The Female Body"

On the other hand, it could be argued that men don't have any bodies at all. Look at the magazines! Magazines for women have women's bodies on the covers, magazines for men have women's bodies on the covers. When men appear on the covers of magazines, it's magazines about money, or about world news. Invasions, rocket launches, political coups, interests rates, elections, medical breakthroughs. Reality. Not entertainment. Such magazines show only the heads, the unsmiling heads, the talking heads, the decision-making heads, and maybe a little glimpse, a coy flash of suit. How do we know there's a body, under all that discreet pinstriped tailoring? We don't, and maybe there isn't.
What does this lead us to suppose? That women are bodies with heads attached, and men are heads with bodies attached? Or not, depending.
You can have a body, though, if you're a rock star, an athlete, or a gay model. As I said, entertainment. Having a body is not altogether serious. -- from "Alien Territory"

I've always thought these pieces would be excellent for an introductory sociology class on gender, particularly one that dealt with representations of gender in popular culture. I'm thinking about integrating them into my own teaching, if the opportunity arises.

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