Margaret Atwood: ‘When did it become the norm to expect a porn star on the first date?’

The Canadian author on shades of feminism, the #MeToo criticism against her and Ireland’s ‘bad’ abortion laws

Margaret Atwood on MeToo’s limitations: “Domestic violence among people who aren’t rich, it’s not reaching there yet.” Photograph: Tara Ziemba/WireImage

Margaret Atwood on MeToo’s limitations: “Domestic violence among people who aren’t rich, it’s not reaching there yet.” Photograph: Tara Ziemba/WireImage

 

Margaret Atwood wants to know exactly what you mean when you call her a feminist writer. “Tell me what you mean. I don’t sign blank cheques. Do you mean that I’m a 1972 feminist who felt that women were betraying their gender to have sex with men? I’m not that kind of feminist. And I’m not the kind that thinks that trans women are not women. So you tell me what you mean and I’ll tell you if I am one.”

Not wishing to be claimed by any particular school of thought, she says, “Women’s rights are human rights because women are human. Its not a hard concept.”

In a conversation with Atwood, there are no easy passes. Broad statements or questions are unacceptable. Everything is relative to its place in history; where there is explanation and context, Atwood wants them. “I’m always getting into arguments on Twitter with people who don’t seem to be able to let go of their ideas.”

Hashtags leave little room for nuance, so it should come as no surprise that in her recent examination of the #MeToo movement, Atwood would come bearing a scalpel. In her recent essay, Am I a Bad Feminist? she took issue with the fact that with #MeToo, an assumption of guilt immediately follows an accusation.

Cue the backlash.

Atwood is unfazed by her critics. She has often been, she says, “an early adopter of things that everybody now thinks. To be clear, some women lie. Why not? They’re human beings. That doesn’t invalidate any of what we’ve been hearing. If you take the false position that no woman ever lies, you’re just going to be shot out of the sky pretty soon.”

For many it grates when powerful women like Atwood focus on the rights of the accused. But to Atwood, “I think what is actually detrimental to women is to take the stand that they’re angels of perfection because that’s not going to stand up to any sort of scrutiny in real life.”

Atwood was due to be in Dublin today to take part in a UCD literary festival, Imagining: Home, exploring Irish-Canadian cultural links, hosted by Craig Dobbin Visiting Professor Jane Urquhart, a fellow Canadian author. Sadly it has been postponed because of Storm Emma. Ireland has a long literary tradition, she says, but in Canada, they had to start from zero. “I’m so old, when I was young everybody was always saying the only good literature is from Europe or the States.” She set about proving otherwise.

Nowadays Canadians no longer look to the US, as they once did, for literature or opportunity. “It’s the other way around. We’re having an influx of refugees into Canada because people are scared in the United States. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this.”

There was a reason she set her most famous dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, in the US. “Not there aren’t some conservatives in Canada but the percentage is not large enough to create a mindset like that. We were not founded by 17th-century puritans.”

The Handmaid’s Tale: “I’ve seen women dressed up as handmaids in Ireland.” Photograph: George Kraychyk/Hulu
The Handmaid’s Tale: “I’ve seen women dressed up as handmaids in Ireland.” Photograph: George Kraychyk/Hulu

The story of Gilead, a state ruled by a fundamentalist regime where women are state property, was written in 1985, during a backlash against feminism. “People were saying, ‘Well, you got everything you wanted and you don’t have to be a feminist any more.’” After the success of the television adaptation, its influence is more visible than ever. Women can be spotted wearing the iconic handmaid costume in protests around the world: white bonnets, crimson robes.

“I’ve seen women dressed up as handmaids in Ireland,” she says. She is aware of the upcoming referendum, and “all the contentious conversations. They’re all ‘choice of evils’ conversations and people get very entrenched in their positions but there’s plus things to be said on each side and minus things to be said on each side. That poor woman [Savita Halappanavar], who died because nobody would lift a hand, that’s the kind of thing you get into when the law is a bad law and it’s unclear.

“For me, the downside of not having a reasonable law is pretty bad. You’re going to have death, you’re going to have illegal abortions and, once upon a time, you had the situation in which people were having unwanted children and parking them with the nuns. Then what happened to them? So unless you’re planning to have a lot of support for babies that women can’t afford, then you’re going to get those situations.”

(After our interview, Atwood sends me an email with “Sign of a Bad Law” in the subject line. It contained links to stories of the consequences of strict abortion laws in El Salvador and in Ceausescu’s Romania.)

Volcanic eruption

While Atwood has laid bare the shortcomings of Me Too, she also considers it “a wake-up call, inevitable when there isn’t a viable other way. So when there isn’t a way you can make your complaint known, and then all of sudden there’s a way in which you can, when it’s all been building up, you’re going to get a volcanic eruption. But you can’t live on top of a volcano forever.

“The next move has to be to make structural changes, to bring back the structural protections that used to be there for women in the workplace when there were unions, for instance.”

The movement is focused, she says, on “powerful men in the spotlight, and workplace conditions, especially for a lot of women who are not Hollywood actresses” but also on “social behaviour. When did it become the norm to expect somebody to act like a porn star on the first date? Men need to look at their own behaviour. Women have changed the idea of what it is to be a woman but men have not caught up with that.”

Atwood has been criticised for a recent suggestion that written guidelines for sexual etiquette might be helpful.

“I was simply saying [what] a lot of people were already saying, which was: what are the rules? A lot of people are very confused about them. Why would it be harmful to people to have some guidelines for how they should behave, written by people of their own generation?”

With trademark sardonic humour, she adds, “It will at least be something that people can go to and say, ‘Hey maybe I shouldn’t say, as soon as I’ve met somebody, how about a blowjob?’ Maybe that’s not polite. Maybe that will get me shown the door. It’s been shocking to me to hear some of the stuff that goes on. It’s quite different to how you used to be expected to behave. I think what everybody would like is just to be shown some respect and not treated like a blow-up plastic doll. I think that’s really the bottom line.”

Trump of Oz

Season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is in the works but it is now out of Atwood’s hands. She sold all the television rights in 1989 and the profits go to MGM, but she remains a consultant, and book sales are brisk.

In Trump’s America, the Handmaid series felt portentous.

Writing the book, Atwood had asked herself “if the United States were going to have a totalitarian regime, what kind would it be? It wouldn’t be communist. It would be something quite a lot like the Tea Party.”

Trump, however, was beyond her imaginings.

“I imagined something a lot more like Mike Pence, which is what you’re gonna get if they get rid of Trump. He’s much more like the puritanical model. Trump is a character like The Wizard of Oz. He’s a showman, an outcome of the fact that a certain portion of society felt neglected. Mr Showman comes along and says, I’m your guy, and they think, hey we’ve got a guy. But he’s not their guy.”

Of the Make American Great Again idea, “you have to ask, what do you want to go back to? It usually lands you right in the middle of Jim Crow, and segregation.”

Atwood has never set out to write cautionary tales, just good books. “But you don’t write about these things if you want them to continue happening.”

Wheel of fortune

Inevitable progress is a myth, she says. “People are pretty short-term thinkers: when times are good, everything is wonderful and will all continue to be wonderful. But the wheel of fortune is always turning. When times are not good, you get a lot of fortress building and defensive attitudes.”

Nevertheless, she is encouraged by Never Again and Me Too.

“I’m very admiring of those young students. They have really handled themselves enormously well under a huge amount of pressure. They actually stand a chance of moving the needle a bit. And I think Me Too has already moved the needle somewhat.” But it has some way to go.

“The people who are being vulnerable to being toppled from their perch are the people who have a perch. So domestic violence among people who aren’t rich, it’s not reaching there yet.” Her focus is on power structures and legal structures and how they need to change. When I tell her about the divided opinions on a high-profile rape trial in Ireland, she jots down details to look it up later.

Atwood has described herself as being in the “golden handshake and goodbye” phase of her career yet here she is at the fore of a discussion on the tenets of modern feminism.

She is not weary yet, “but I can see it coming. I’m like that old lady that’s probably about my age in the Women’s March holding up a sign saying, ‘Why after fifty years am I still holding this fucking sign?’

But part of it is filling in the background for quite young people who weren’t there – to tell them, we’ve been here before.”

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