In my junior year at UC Santa Barbara I took a class titled Literature and the Environment. From an interdisciplinary perspective the class focused on environmental issues while examining the various ways literature approaches the subject of “nature.” It was one of the most transformative classes I ever took, and it was the catalyst to the path I am currently on. It was during this class that I realized that my love, respect, and passion for the environment could intersect with my love, respect, and passion for literature. Although I had read numerous novels that dealt with “nature,” I wasn’t aware that this could be my focal point as an English major. It was in this class that I first acknowledged my desire to study literature as a career, and continue onto graduate school. The professor had everything to do with this––as all the great ones do––as did the books we read and the discussions they roused.
The book that left the strongest taste in my mouth was Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. In fact the flavor was so potent it became the center of various essays I wrote while at Mills college, and was also the foundation for my master’s thesis. Although I took the class at UCSB back in 2010 Atwood has continued to penetrate my thoughts, papers, conversations, dreams, and fears. I had no idea when I first picked up Oryx and Crake how much of an impact its author would have–– it seems I can’t turn a corner without her name or one of her books crashing into me.
Thus, when my book club voted to read The Handmaid’s Tale for July, I couldn’t help but chuckle. I had somehow never read the book, and it was about damn time. But also, fuck: even out of school I can’t seem to shake the Atwood shackles. I had already accumulated hours, even weeks, ingesting the pages of her mind, and trenching through my own thoughts that her words and ideas had sparked. And because I was writing academic papers, it wasn’t just my thoughts I was sifting through, but those of other scholars. I find this to be one of the most gratifying experiences in the academic world, every book or piece you read becomes a “choose your own” story because after putting it down, you go from scholar to scholar, entering their idea or argument regarding the “fictional” world erected. I used to tell myself I was never going to be a “great” scholar because I was impressionable–I would agree with almost every journal or article I read, even when they were contradictory. Words sway me, so while attempting to make my own arguments on Atwood’s work, I was examining the assertions of others, constantly augmenting or questioning my own reasoning. But I digress. Or do I?
I sat down to write this post, like the gazillion other times Atwood pushed me into my desk chair, finger-tips-tap-ready, because the story is never over. No matter how many times I put down Oryx and Crake, MaddAddam, The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Blind Assassin it returns with a vengeance. Either I keep being one step ahead, and delving into her works before pop culture follows (but thats a little conceded no?) OR her works never fade into the past because they are slowly but surely becoming our future. Are we simply putting Atwood on a larger and larger pedestal, or is her speculative fiction shrinking less and less from speculation? The more I experience Atwood’s “imaginings” both on and off the page, the more committed I become to my role as reader. Reading Atwood engenders and accentuates one of the most historically important relationships, that between writer and reader. Letters, sentences, messages, and novels are simply words on paper, they become significant based on what both parties intend for and create with them. As a writer puts down words, they are having a specific and powerful experience, but to the outside their pages are simply kindling for a fire, that is until we, the readers, consciously decide to pick them up, and consume them. It is a relationship of relativity in that one doesn’t exist without the other. We do not become readers independent of authors, nor do authors become such without an audience (even if it’s just themselves).
This partnership produces a gateway between our past and future, and thus cannot be treated lightly. As readers we get to combine our knowledge of the present with a past reality, which in turn generates greater understanding of where we have come and what brought us Today. I am not interested in what literature does with the past, in regards to this post, instead I am entranced by what the partnership between reader and writer suggests for the future. Every author stands their own ground for different reasons, some shine in fantasy, others in non-fiction, many in romance, hundreds in mystery; and what we know Atwood for is her dystopian worlds that while occur in the future, ring all too present. Some could argue that her work represents dark possibilities and downward spirals. I would argue that her writing is actually an act of hope, and by picking up and reading her novels, or watching movies and shows based thereon, we are simultaneously re-acting said hope (and by re-acting I do not mean responding, but acting again). One act influences but also sustains the other.
Oryx and Crake is told through the eyes of Snowman, the alleged sole survivor of a global human apocalypse. He is our only narrator, and thus we live inside both his memories of the past, and his attempt to survive his present predicament. An important scene occurs near the end of the novel when Snowman returns to the room he was living in when the deaths began, and takes stock of his past belongings:
Beside the computer are a few sheets of paper, which must have been the last he’d ever written. The last he’d ever write. He picks them up with curiosity. What is it that the Jimmy he’d once been had seen fit to communicate, or at least to record – to set down in black and white, with smudges – for the edification of a world that no longer existed? […] He must still have had hope, he must still have believed that the situation could be turned around, that someone would show up here in the future, someone in authority; that his words would have a meaning then, a context. (Oryx & Crake 346)
Snowman’s reflections of what was going through Jimmy’s mind to write suggests that the act of his writing was also an act of faith, for to write simultaneously acknowledges the possibility of a future reader. And not just someone who would see the words scrawled on paper and think nothing of them, but someone who would find “meaning”, “a context.” In putting the words to paper Jimmy is both “communicating” and “recording”– indicating interaction with a future being, his smudges suggest a brighter future, a “turn around” from the current chaos, a future in which a fellow human will not only read his words, but find edification in them.
This scene is not coincidental in regards to who Atwood is as an author, nor who we are as readers, and I share this moment because Atwood’s writing is no different than Jimmy’s. In putting these stories together, editing, and publishing them, she too is committing an act of faith. A faith that her books won’t all be burned, that future generations will pick these novels up and find meaning and context in them. So, yes she writes of dystopian and less than ideal futures, but the act of doing so suggests that it doesn’t have to, and might not be this way. She is both showing us our possible future, while giving us an out. If by writing these novels demonstrates Atwood’s hope in a future different than the ones she plots out, than we continue to manifest and fulfill on that faith by taking our role as readers seriously. Not only must we find meaning and context in her pages, but acknowledge where we fit into them.
Ever notice how Atwood novels are a great topic of conversation? And if not simply think back to how her stories end, or how they don’t. Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam, and The Handmaid’s Tale all end ambiguously, giving the reader full reign to decide what happens next. Finishing one of her novels may mean putting the book down, it doesn’t however stop the story because the reader is left to speculate on her speculations. Where Atwood’s story ends, our position of Choice begins. We are given the responsibility to choose, but this goes beyond the plot, in our choosing what happens next we inadvertently are put in a place to choose what happens next in our lives, and in our actual futures. What is our next step to ensure this story ends here? What about it bothers us? What can we do different? What do we see now that we didn’t see before?
Many scholars and readers have argued about the purpose or “so what” with regards to Atwood’s works, and I maintain that if they do anything, it’s that they remind readers of their own power, their own ability to either create or fight against this possible future. It all starts with choice. Which future do you choose? And what will you do next? Our role as readers is not passive––I am sitting here writing this. In fact it took me over a week. Everyday I made the conscious decision and effort to sit down and write for an hour, because that is the commitment that my role as reader sparked. And because everyone gets to choose how they see the novels ending, they concurrently decide how they will move forward. What will we do with the information given? What ending will we fight for? Will we contribute to Atwood’s act of faith and take our role as readers seriously enough to ensure that her worlds remain speculative? The story isn’t over, it just now happens to be in our hands.
Now more than ever, as her popularity has skyrocketed, it is time to look at her works beyond the page. The television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale is nominated for thirteen Emmy’s, women are dressing up as Handmaid’s across the U.S., the massive Women Marches led across this country after Trump’s inauguration were filled with Atwood inspired quotes and poster boards. My invitation to everyone in writing this is to take a step back and not only acknowledge what your role as reader is, but to really think about the story being told, and what you want to to do with it. What about it pulls at your heart strings? What makes you angry? What will you be a warrior for? Each reader is left with a choice, what will choose?
It has been seven years since I wrote my first paper on Atwood, and here we are. I have made a clear choice, over and over again, to share and flesh out the aspects of her novels that speak to me. In doing so I aim to shed light on the treatment of women and their bodies. Because her speculations are ever present in our actual world, it’s hard to leave the story on the page. When you fall into an Atwood novel, you begin to see that it’s all around you. It’s not just on Hulu, or your kindle or your old fashion paper back, it’s on TV, it’s in the news, it’s the experience of all your female friends. In coming face to face with the level of objectification and consumption of women in the texts, I now see it everywhere, and I vow to fight against it. And that begins with sharing my observations with my readers, so they too can make a choice.
To begin, it is important to distinguish speculative fiction and how Atwood approaches it. Speculative fiction imagines what the future may hold, and allows us to question the world we find ourselves in. David Gill, who analyzes the genre, writes: “the exploration of alternative worlds reflects one’s mode of engagement with the ordinary world.” By creating a world in the “tomorrow,” the past and future coalesce, and writers can help understand or deconstruct what is happening today. As Katherine Snyder reminds us, “[d]ystopian speculative fiction takes what already exists and makes an imaginative leap into the future, following current socio-cultural, political, or scientific developments to their potentially devastating conclusions.” Anyone who reads or watches an adaption of Atwood’s texts will recognize a familiar world, of which she is transparent about: “I’d been clipping small items from the back pages of newspapers for years, and noting with alarm that trends derided ten years ago as paranoid fantasies had become possibilities, then actualities… [I] invent nothing we haven’t already invented or started to invent” (Writing with Intent 284). As we read Atwood it is imperative to remember this: what we find on her pages, though at times gruesome and disturbing, are mere reflections of a world we already live in, a world based on unbridled consumption––particularly of women (the Oxford English Dictionary defines “consume”, “when related to physical destruction” as: “to cause to evaporate or disappear; to destroy; to swallow up in destruction, to kill; to use up, exhaust”; and it is through this lens that I use the word).
While the metaphoric and literal consumption of women can be found in much of Atwood’s oeuvre, the MaddAddam trilogy is a perfect illustration of the how women are turned into pieces of meat, i.e. objects, which are then consumed both by society as a whole, and more specifically men. The novels are told, in part, by Toby, who from a young age understood the correlation between consumption, the marketplace, and thus her body; she was “a young woman in desperate financial straits, with no visible nest egg or trust fund or fallback. People would shake their heads – a shame but what could you do, and at least she had something of marketable value, namely her young ass, and therefore she wouldn’t starve to death” (Year 28). To survive in this world, Toby not only acknowledges her body as having value, but goes as far as selling parts of it, including her hair, and her eggs.
In this future world women’s body parts are worth more than their sum; and in a capitalistic consumer culture, trade value is of the upmost importance. Thus, women’s body parts become their most valuable commodity, which consequently turns them into flesh, into meat. Survival means not only being worthy of consumption (you must have something “worth buying”), but also acknowledging, and even accepting one’s own commodification. Ren, the novel’s alternate female narrator, chooses to work at a Sex-Mart called “Scales & Tails,” and Amanda, her childhood friend, survives through sexual trade. Ren recalls: “I knew she used to do that kind of trade, for food, when she was so hungry after the Texas hurricane, but she’d told me she never liked it and it was strictly business. She says you trade what you have to. You don’t always have choices” (Year 156, 58).
Women are regarded as neither humans nor equals, but are defined by their body parts or flesh, and thus experience a type of death: they transform from a living, sentient being into an object for consumption, of which the woman and/or individual is then absent. A similar transformation occurs to animals. As Carol J. Adams describes it: “animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist. If animals are alive they cannot be meat, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food.” Think no further than how we distinguish our animals from our food: pigs vs bacon, cow vs beef, chicken vs poultry. Animals are the absent referent in the concept of meat, much like women are the absent referent in their commodification (“check out those tits” “look at that fat ass”).
Blanco, Toby’s boss at SecretBurgers, a fast-food chain known for its mysterious meat, is a perfect example of how women become the absent referent. As Toby tells the reader, “the tattoo on his back was just as Rebecca had described it: a naked woman, wound in chains, whose head was stuck in his ass” (Year 37). Blanco envisions women as headless, mindless, and replaceable; women as a whole are then the absent referent, while the body or it’s parts remain for the fulfillment of Blanco’s sexual desires. As Adams’ describes it: “the absent referent permits us to forget about the animal as an independent entity” (66).
In Blanco’s eyes women are objects he “can take apart”: Dora one of his victims is found “in a vacant lot, neck broke, cut to bits,” and later that day he “promotes” Toby: “‘Come here. Take off my shirt.’ […] Blanco put his flayed hands around her neck. ‘Cross me up, I’ll snap you like a twig’” (Year 37). Toby becomes a receptacle for Blanco’s sexual fulfillment, and therefore experiences a symbolic death––as she is no longer seen as a woman or an animate being; the woman is erased, and what is left is the commodity, the meat. Adams’ writes: “the function of the absent referent is to keep our ‘meat’ separated from any idea that she or he was once an animal, to keep the ‘moo’ or ‘cluck’ or ‘baa’ away from the meat, to keep something from being seen as having been someone” (13). What separates the animal from the meat is not merely the death, or killing of the animal, it’s removing its voice, and that which makes him/her a sentient being with an identity. Thus Blanco removes any, and all indication, that his victims are human. He not only “winds them in chains” but makes them both faceless and voiceless (remember his tattoo). What is left is a body that could be anyone, or anything, a piece of meat that he will literally consume to the point of death: “he demanded her services during her lunch break––the whole half-hour––which meant she got no lunch. Day by day she was hungrier and more exhausted. She had her own bruises now like poor Dora’s. Despair was taking her over: she could see where this was going, and it looked like a dark tunnel. She’d be used up soon” (38).
When Women become absent what you are left with are body parts, or as men in the novels refer to women: “a meat hole on legs.” Though the connection between women and meat is disturbing, it cannot be seen as fiction, in fact, Adams’ argues that “a structure of overlapping but absent referents links violence against women and animals” (67). She indicates that the language used to describe meat eating intersects with the language of sexual violence. Toby herself relies on food metaphors to recall her sexually violent experiences: “freedom from Blanco was worth a lot: she was lucky she hadn’t ended up fucked into a purée and battered to a pulp and poured out onto a vacant lot” (103). Later, in response to Amanda being kidnapped, Toby thinks: “women are in short supply and therefore Amanda will surely be preserved and rationed” (362). We experience this constantly in our own world, think no further than the many ways we sexualize women, and men, based on food: “check out her melons,” “I’d like a piece of that ass,” “pop her cherry,” in fact there is an entire movie franchise based on a young male fucking a pie, and we live in a culture that refers to the vagina as a clam, a taco, etc.
And why shed light on the correlation between animals and women both becoming the absent referent? To demonstrate to what extent we have separated women from being seen as whole sentient rational beings, to instead focus solely on body parts and what one can get from them.This goes beyond a sexual relationship, we have put such a premium on body parts, that there is an entire industry devoted to this. In the novels women are forced to use their bodies in the marketplace, it is how they participate in the capitalist consumer culture. Think we don’t do that? Plastic surgery is one of the biggest and fastest growing medical industries. That doesn’t pertain to you? What about the money you spend on beauty products? Skin care? Getting specific parts of your body to look a certain way? We all interact with and put money and resources into this system, this marketplace that focuses on parts and flesh, rather than the whole. And then you wonder why everyone is obsessed with Hillary’s new haircut, or what she looks like without make up?
Consider the way we discuss and look at women in the spotlight. We know Kylie Jenner’s lips, Kim Kardashian’s ass, Beyonce’s thighs, Pamela Anderson’s boobs… These body parts or attributes begin to stand alone, they define the person. You open up a magazine that asks you to determine who belongs to the lips, boobs, abs, and butt they show pictured. And then you can go to a doctor and say I want my lips to be like Kylie’s and my ass to be like Kim’s. We have built an entire consumer culture on breaking women down into parts, into flesh, into meat. And of course there is a spectrum here, which becomes more and more violent and dangerous for women. When we create a system and society around body parts, we simultaneously take away identity and Being, and thus perpetuate a cycle of objectification, commodification, and consumption, which Adams’ proposes “links butchering and sexual violence in our culture” (74).
This of course is not only found in the MaddAddam trilogy, but is a major part of The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred, and her fellow Handmaids, are more or less absent from society, and completely disregarded except for what the lower half of their bodies can offer. Their only value is their ability to reproduce (they are objects of society’s desire for children), which then turns them into commodities, seen solely for their sexual organs, which are then used to create offspring. And when that is done, they are more or less tossed side, i.e. consumed, used up, exhausted of their resource, and no longer of value. The act of intercourse between a handmaid and her commander is really an act of separation, in that it solely involves the lower half of one’s body. Offered tells us: “I lie on my back, fully clothed except for the healthy white cotton under drawers. […] My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved” (93-94). The ceremony here discussed is neither recreational nor intimate, it is for the sole purpose of impregnating a handmaid so as to provide a commander and his wife a child. The role of Handmaid is simple, you must have capable reproduction orgrans to have any value as a commodity, but once that product is used, they are cast aside. Although Offred and her Commander have built a “relationship” outside of the ceremony, she remains body parts, and mere flesh to him, “he’s stroking my body now from stem as they say to stern […] He stops at the foot, his fingers encircling the ankle, briefly, like a bracelet, where the tattoo is, a Braille he can read, a cattle brand. It means ownership” (254). And even she experiences herself as detached from her body, simply lying there as flesh, “I lie there like a dead bird. […] Fake it, I scream at myself inside my head. You must remember how. Let’s get this over with or you’ll be here all night. Bestir yourself. Move your flesh around, breathe audibly” (255).
Think this seems fictional? Do you think Brock Turner was concerned with what his victim was thinking, or who she was as a whole person? Do you think Ted Cruz or Mike Pence are concerned with what happens above your panty line? I share these correlations, and my observations of how women are treated as flesh, and objects of meat in Atwood’s texts because
THIS IS THE WORLD WE ARE LIVING IN. This is why your female friends ALL have a story of harassment, objectification, commodification, and consumption, why your friends have to get restraining orders from strangers who threaten their bodies, why you walk around everyday with pepper spray hanging from your keychain. This is the world we are currently living in, but it doesn’t have to be. By Atwood showing us where we continue to head, and reflecting what are current systems and actions will lead to, readers are left with choice. The choice to do something different. Let us stop turning women into meat, into absent referents. It is no coincidence that at the heart and center of Atwood’s novels are women. It is also not coincidental that they are dystopiaan and even apocalyptic in structure. The end of women, is The End. The Future is Female is more than just a slogan, a call to action, a declaration of a shift; the future is female because without Her, there is no future. When we destroy and consume women, that’s it. We are our most important resource. And yes I realize you need men to make humans as well. Except also guess what? Thanks to that whole grand technology thing, we actually don’t. We can now sustain the entire population with that good ol turkey baster and a freezer.
So how do you partake in this? How do you fight it? Where do you make changes? Well, that’s up to you. I am not writing this with answers, nor does Atwood. I write to leave both myself and my readers at choice, which perhaps is the best answer of all. Choose to let her words affect you, feel them. Acknowledge their presence off the page, off the screen. And remain strong in your role as reader, in your role that produces Choice. At many of the Women’s Marches we saw “Make Atwood Fiction Again” signs. And while I loved these, and think they are so fucking potent and perfect, I can’t help but disagree. In making Atwood fiction again are we not suggesting that all this isn’t real and couldn’t be? Should we not remain so focused and aware that this is NON FICTION. And that we are players, and we have choice, and we take action. Do not stop at Atwood’s period, fight for the story you want. Be a warrior for the ending you deserve. The future is a contested space that belongs to all of us: what will you do with it?