On Margaret Atwood's "The Female Body"

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In 1990, Margaret Atwood wrote a semi-autobiographical piece in response to a letter from the Michigan Quarterly Review. Using the witticisms, ironic humor and autobiographical excerpts which characterize her uniquely poignant style of writing, she introduces a collage of seven definitions for the female form. Rife with feminism and sarcastic metaphor, this jaunt into various points on the social inequality of the sexes brings to light many hypocrisies held against the “weaker sex” today.

Section 1: Margaret Atwood, the Human Female

Atwood begins her foray into The Female Body by metaphorically describing a subject close to home – her own body. She refers to it, ironically, as her “topic,” implying the impetus for the writing piece as well as beginning the process of objectifying The Female Body – a centralized theme throughout the vignettes. I imagine Atwood mentally preparing herself to write the piece as she performs her daily toilet, describing, “I sprinkle it with water, brush parts of it, rub it with towels, powder it, add lubricant (490).” This humorous introduction to the feminine flows into a deeper, darker account of her personal struggle with her own body. The adjectives for her female form become upsetting: “my limping topic, my nearsighted topic, my topic with back problems, my badly behaved topic, my aging topic (490).” She draws you in to empathetic and complicit thinking. By these devices, she, or the female form, becomes the protagonist, and you want her to win.

The section closes, interestingly, with an almost flippant dismissal of her body, giving it an assonant string of noun descriptors, including “an avocado, an alderman” and “an adjective (490).” This is delivered almost by way of apology for the earlier, darker complaints, easing off of a brutally honest and difficult viewpoint to provide a safer, more comfortable place for the reader to land.


Section 2: On Undies and PJs

The next paragraph delves into the female wardrobe. Intimate apparel and other stereotypically female items are paraded across the page in a seemingly hodge-podge fashion: “Garter belt, panti-girdle, crinoline, camisole, bustle,” and “brassiere,” are held up against “virgin zone, spike heels, nose ring, veil” and “kid gloves” for examination. The section is given end-punctuation, quite inexplicably with “lace teddy, bed, head (490).”

The only clue to the inclusion of these out-of-place, final items is understood from the first words of the paragraph, which I had to re-read several times to fully gather their meaning: “The basic Female Body comes with the following accessories… (490)” I understood, then, after combining this opening statement with the not-so-subtle tone of antipathy from the previous section, that Atwood was illuminating how society tends to objectify women, as though they were mainly of importance due to their sexuality. She tells us here that the basic Female Body comes equipped with lingerie and a bed, for your pleasure, and lest we forget, a head, as well.  The fact that the head is listed last, after bed, does all but put it in bold caps under the ironic pose of deference. This reminds me of the trick of whispering, rather than shouting, when you truly want someone to pay attention to what you’re saying.


Section 3: The Female Body, by Fisher Price™

Next, according to Atwood, “The Female Body is made of transparent plastic and lights up when you plug it in (491).” This phrase is rife with sexual metaphor. The major anatomical systems of the body in this model are color-coded, except for the reproductive system, which is optional. Likewise, it “comes with or without a miniature embryo (491).” This is further demonstration, through hyperbole, of the objectification of women in society through sexism, in which a woman’s reproductive system is “optional,” according to a man’s preference. Her parts are not, as nature would have them, intended for procreation, but rather a potential nuisance to be dealt with and removed.

With the mention of the optional miniature embryo, Atwood is careful to note that “parental judgement (491)” should be exercised, to avoid potential fright or offense. At this, I had to ask Atwood and myself: Does this mean to say that femininity is offensive? The answer that came glaring back at me, through the essay’s example, was yes. The inherent beauty and implied sexuality of the female form is considered offensive to many.


Section 4: On Barbies

Here, a conversation between Atwood’s parents is transcribed as heard by her younger self. They are debating the admission of a Barbie doll into the house. As Atwood’s mother defends the doll, her father vehemently objects to its presence in the house. The language used between her parents gives the reader some insight as to the nature of her upbringing, which is apparently intellectual, nurturing, and honest in character. The section closes with a Barbie “whizzing down the stairs, thrown like a dart (491),” tattooed, mutilated and discarded by the young, and already sexuality-savvy, child version of Margaret. It is evident that from a very early age, she was able to reject society’s purported ideal female physicality and that she experienced feelings of disgust to the point of being compelled to mutilate and defile the doll. From this we may also infer that the author’s viewpoint on these matters is the product of many years’ consideration, and is a matter quite close to her heart.  


Section 5: Knockers and Nut Crackers

To further dehumanize and objectify the feminine, the fifth section lists the myriad uses for The Female Body, such as “door-knocker, bottle-opener, a clock with a ticking belly” and “nutcracker (491).”

“Just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut (492).”

This particular phrase conjures more than one vision in my mind, the mildest of which is a metaphor for childbirth.

Atwood takes a more positive approach then, and glorifies the female form’s abilities, extolling its purported talents for bearing torches, lifting victorious wreaths and raising aloft “a ring of neon stars (492).” This allusion to the Statue of Liberty and other iconic artwork could be interpreted as proof of the history of using women and female bodies as icons for glory. Atwood seems to say here; our beauty has not always been taken for granted. This suggestion is followed directly by examples of the exploitation of the female form in modern commercialism: “It sells cars beer, shaving lotion, cigarettes,”

“It does not merely sell, it is sold (492).”

In one swift move, Atwood denounces the exploitation of underdressed, under-aged models so commonly found in popular sales campaigns. She concludes this section with a wry, and distinctly uncomfortable assertion, declaring that it’s fortunate that The Female Body is a renewable resource, because these “shoddy goods” “wear out so quickly (492).” It seems she is aware of the way women have lost their innate value through this dehumanization of them and capitalization on their beauty.


Section 6: Sex.

This is the shortest section of all seven. Her opening sentiment “One and one equals another one (492),” seems to indicate the self-perpetuating nature in cycle of sex. Children have children, who in turn have other children. It’s inevitable, she says, and pathetic: “Pair-bonding is stronger in geese (492).”

The final paragraph closes the section a bit strangely, stating “Snails do it differently. They’re hermaphrodites, and work in threes (492).” At times like this, I yearn for illustrations to make sense of what the author wishes to convey. It could be some of Atwood’s characteristic artistic meandering. My only distinct impression was that this may have been a bit of wishful thinking on her part.

I believe this section is the shortest one because Atwood felt that much of what she might have said about the topic of sex already goes without saying. Also, isn’t sex the main factor that she claims has contributed to the downfall of our gender? It would follow, then, that she would avoid inadvertently contributing to that detestable, sex-crazed facet of society by contributing to it in her essay.


Section 7: Why Mars Needs Venus

In the final, and longest section of her essay, Atwood really gets to the meat of her argument. Beginning in the form of a casually academic narrative, she delivers a description of the female brain. It’s interesting to note that Atwood neglected to capitalize the noun form of “the female brain.”

Like the previous discourse on feminine accessories, Atwood saves her poignant whispers on the female brain for last. She tells us flippantly how “handy” this female brain is, complete with “old popular songs and bad dreams (492).” The sarcasm is thick here, especially in her comparison of the male and female brains. She asserts that the entire trouble with the male brain, and, consequently why they are so sad, thinking “of themselves as orphans cast adrift (493),” is that their lack of a proper corpus callosum to connect the right and left hemispheres of their brain causes them to think too objectively.

She claims that whereas a man is merely goal-oriented, a woman, by virtue of her increased ability for “neural pathways” to “flow one to the other,” is better equipped to listen. “She listens in (492).” As frustrating as this may seem to the “stringless” male, “cast adrift” into the “deep void (493)” of existence, he cannot bear to have her away from him.

This is where Atwood ventures off and enters into a story-like cadence that closes the piece with an emotional account of a man’s fear in losing The Female Body.

“Look! It shines in the gloom, far ahead, a vision of wholeness, ripeness… like a watery moon, shimmering in its egg of light (493).” I admire the way Atwood defies conventional composition methods, redefining the sentence and its components for more effective and evocative prose.  She then ridicules the male, and his need for trapping the female, like Cinderella or Rapunzel, saying, “Catch it. Put it in a pumpkin, in a high tower (493).”

“Quick stick a leash on it, a lock, a chain, some pain… so it can never get away from you again (493).” In these harsh sentences, Atwood is protesting the conventions of monogamous commitment and marriage, as well as all the ownership that they traditionally entail. She points out, also, the paradoxical nature of this need on a man’s part for the woman who exceeds and exacerbates him. This, in turn, leads to the understanding of why women were made to be manipulated for man’s pleasure and objectified by society in the first place: Men were afraid to be alone, and in the face of a complicated enigma, opted for a simple solution by means of containing her.


True to form, Margaret Atwood’s “The Female Body” delivers truth without compunction. Her distinct formula of contrast, irony and humor illuminate a difficult topic in an amusing way.  Her refreshing views on feminism are delivered in a way that is more palatable – and more fun – than a more direct assigning of guilt in the battle between the sexes without really compromising the sense of depth that the subject matter deserves.

I strive to emulate Atwood’s style of (for lack of a better term) poetic prose, which uses words in new ways to evoke emotion and give meaning to phrases more effectively than conventional forms. I like to think of myself as a free-thinker in terms of finding new ways of using the same old words to convey my unique take on the world, and Margaret Atwood is certainly one who doesn’t mind bending the rules of word-smithing to accomplish her literary prowess. This makes her, in my mind, a master worth emulating.

2 thoughts on “On Margaret Atwood's "The Female Body"

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