Spotty-Handed Villainesses

By Margaret Attwood

Summary

In this speech, Atwood urges introspection by feminists, as she reflects on resistance by the feminist movement to ‘negative’ depictions of women in media. Specifically, Atwood presses her audience to confront the question of why, after pressing for greater representation in media and society more broadly, it is that feminists are now protesting depictions of women as evil or manipulative. She proposes that such representations of women are justified, in that women are as capable of all forms of human behaviour as men are, and that to avoid such portrayals would be to undermine the cause of feminism – to achieve equality with men. It follows that feminist writers should not write all men as being inherently evil, and that women characters should not be conceived of with their gender as a starting point, but rather their humanity. Atwood uses humour to communicate this message, as well as references to literature, such as Lady Macbeth, who is widely considered to be the paradigmatic evil woman.

Analysis

Through a wide-ranging exploration of feminism, literature, writing, and personal experience, Atwood examines the representations of women in literature, and its underlying paradigms, and ultimately advocates for women to reflect the spectrum of human nature. Atwood’s case studies throughout this speech are primarily from literature, as is her title, as she explains it comes from Macbeth as ‘it recalls that most famous of spots, the invisible but indelible one on the hand of wicked Lady Macbeth. Spot as in guilt, spot as in blood, spot as in “out, damned”.’ This intertextuality evokes a physical blemish representative of Lady Macbeth’s guilt, which mirrors the form of gender representation that Atwood aims for.

 

Throughout, Atwood engages with literary conventions and structures, such as in ‘It cannot do without a conception of form and a structure, true, but its roots are in the mud; its flowers, if any, come out of the rawness of its raw materials.’ In metaphorically imagining the novel as flora, Atwood exposes the impurities of literary inspiration, regardless of gender. Atwood conveys the opportunities provided by a variety of female figures in literature, illuminated in ‘But female bad characters can also act as keys to doors we need to open, and as mirrors in which we can see more than just a pretty face.’ By positioning these characters as ‘keys’ through a simile, combined with the visual imagery conjuring conventional ideals of femininity, Atwood highlights the ways literature can depict more than beauty and extend to ideas of human nature and feminism.

QUOTE TABLE

Quote
Technique
Effect
‘Note where she locates the desired evil. In us.’
intertextuality, collective pronouns
directs listener where to find inspiration for female characters
‘According to a recent Time story, the average jail sentence in the U.S. for men who kill their wives is four years, but for women who kill their husbands - no matter what the provocation - it’s twenty. '
logos - use of statistics
linkage of literature to real-world concerns
‘But female bad characters can also act as keys to doors we need to open, and as mirrors in which we can see more than just a pretty face.’
visual imagery, simile
multifaceted opportunities for exploration and representation that literature enables
‘It cannot do without a conception of form and a structure, true, but its roots are in the mud; its flowers, if any, come out of the rawness of its raw materials.’
metaphor
illustrating the sources for literary inspiration are not ‘clean’
‘Instead it recalls that most famous of spots, the invisible but indelible one on the hand of wicked Lady Macbeth. Spot as in guilt, spot as in blood, spot as in “out, damned”.’
literary intertextuality, tricolon
explanation of title and subject and signposting literary focus

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