Monday, 30 July 2012

Brand New, Out of the Box, Female Body:Margaret Atwood’s “Hot Topic”

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Language is a nuisance. It can humiliate, irritate, aggravate, frustrate, and manipulate. Language is a friend. It can advocate, accommodate, cooperate, alleviate, and mitigate. Language is clarification. It can illustrate, demonstrate, elucidate, illuminate, and commentate. Language is an arbiter. It can mediate, consummate, consulate, adjudicate, and negotiate. Language is strong, influential, intimate, kind, mean, crude, and inspires creativity. Language has the power to excite us and inform us. It can help us and comfort us. However, language has the power to hurt us and destroy our dreams. It can insult us and make us angry. Indeed, language is powerful. Granted, these are figurative or metaphorical representations of language. Nonetheless, these are words that strike us at our souls. They provoke our thoughts and move our emotions. This is how language derives its power. Words can have an effect on social identity; they can shape attitudes and values. In her essay, “The Female Body”, Margaret Atwood uses language in a metaphorical sense in order to incite these different thoughts and feelings. She uses sarcasm and rhetoric to satirize the “traditional” view of the female role in society. In order to understand the point of her essay, one must identify the use of language, and what her word choice conveys. Atwood uses tone, imagery, and repetition to show how language shapes the traditional view of the female gender in society.

Before witting this essay, Atwood received a letter from Michigan Quarterly Review, asking her to write on the “topic” of the female body, the “capacious topic”. In the first paragraph alone, Margaret Atwood refers to the female body as a “topic” fourteen times, and once as a “topical topic” (407). This can be off-putting to a reader because they see the word so many times. When a word gets repeated enough times in discourse, it begins to lose its meaning. The word becomes a paltry sound without substance and definition. By doing this, Atwood is mocking the request that she received from Michigan Quarterly Review. It expresses her antagonism towards what was meant to be a simple supplication. The tone that comes from her overuse of the word “topic” allows the reader to see her ridicule. It is meant to provoke the reader as well. It causes the reader to get aggravated by the word topic. When “topic” begins to loose its conventional meaning in this essay, it begins to take on an offensive one. Atwood allows the connotation of the word to change from neutral to negative.

Visualization does not come easily for many readers, especially when they can not relate to the material. The use of words can help the reader visualize something, thus making the material more applicable. When a reader can see an author’s focus, they become more vulnerable to the solicitation, or the argument. Margaret Atwood uses words like, “plastic, illuminates,” and “it” in her essay to give visualizations of a stereotype (407-408). The word “plastic” attributes to the female body the qualities of an object rather than of a living, animate person. Inanimate words like “it” and “plastic” dehumanize the female body; even referring to women as “the female body” dehumanizes them. It sets them apart from mainstream society by classifying a woman as a mere “body”. Atwood sets up a sarcastic tone by using these words in her essay. This tone lets the reader know that she takes an aggressive stance against the female body as a “topic.” She is arguing that the use of these words construct a negative role for many women in society.

One interesting way that Margaret Atwood help the reader visualize her point is by setting up a part of her essay like an advertisement. She lists what a female body may come with as if it were sold in a store. “The basic female body comes with the following accessories garter belt, panti-griddle, crinoline…,” and the list goes on until she closes it off with, “lace teddy, bed, head” (Atwood 407). It is interesting how she uses the word “accessories” before going into this list. It directs the reader’s attention towards something that they would see on television. She sets up theses “accessories” as if the female body was a toy or tool that is sold. This evokes feelings of objection; it causes discomfort because people are not supposed to be things that are sold, they are human flesh. But, what is really striking is how she ends the paragraph with “lace teddy, bed, head” (407). “Lace teddy” and “bed,” in this list, seem to have sexual connotations. These words illustrate that Atwood does not just refer to the female body as an object, but an object whose objective is pleasure. In this way, these words demoralize women. The word “head” is added as if it were a luxury. Atwood refers to the head as an accessory, as if it did not come standard with the female body. This can tell society that women are not people, but things that have standard and optional features. In a way, this can communicate that women are more like dolls, and that they do not always contain a mind of their own.


This perspective on dolls is expanded upon when Atwood introduces a dialogue between a man and a woman. “He said, I won’t have any of those things in my house… She said, If we don’t let her have one like all the other girls she’ll feel singled out. It’ll become an issue… Repression breeds sublimation” (408). This is suggestive of a girl’s role in society. These words play on the stereotype that little girls should have the Barbie dolls. But, Atwood’s words are not truly suggestive until she introduces the “pointy plastic tits… wardrobes, and that stupid male doll” (408). This is where the language evokes illustrative thoughts. They go far beyond the description of a doll; they become the description of how women are “supposed” to be. These words are words that are associated with the ideal female body in a male-centric/dominated society. They suggest that a female’s role in society is to look attractive in the eyes of males, accumulate a gorgeous wardrobe, and be a trophy to the man that “finds” her. “Pointy plastic tits” makes the female body representative of sexuality. These dolls are not merely dolls; they don’t always serve their illusionary purpose of being toys. They have indirect uses; they tell girls how to be girls. They tell them what to look like, aspire for, and act like.

Although these dolls may have their own underlying uses, so does the female body itself. Margaret Atwood argues that the Female body in society is used as a tool, sells, and is sold. “The female body has many uses. It’s been used as a door knocker, a bottle opener, as a clock with a ticking belly…” (408). This list carries on, explaining the established uses of women in society. In other words, the female role in society consists of being used, used for whatever the male-dominated society can mastermind. The phrase, “the female body has many uses,” implies that women are versatile tools, like a Swiss Army knife- when there is no need for one of its purposes, society can close the tool and open a new one to serve another purpose. This is the illustration that a reader can obtain by observing the manner of the words. The words, “It sells,” in this paragraph are particularly strong as well. It asserts that women are ads, meant to appeal to an audience. To understand the true power of the words “it sells,” one must understand who the audience is, who “it” is appealing to. So we ask the question, “who does the female body appeal to, who is it selling to?” Women? Maybe, but a more general answer would be men. Although this is probably assumed by most, further analyzing of the words reveals that the society that uses women to sell and sells women is indeed male-centric. When Atwood uses phrases like “It sells,” and “It is sold,” she objectifies the female body. She does this to show the reader what society has turned women into a tool. Do words have enough power to turn a human being into a tool? It would seem so.

Although Atwood does use this consistent tone of sarcasm, it does reach a peak. This happens when she refers the female body as a natural resource. “She’s a natural resource, a renewable one luckily, because those things wear out so quickly. They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Shoddy goods” (408). This is arguably the most powerful point in the whole essay. This line dehumanizes the female body more than any other sentence in the entire essay. The word choice and phrasing can seem appalling to an audience. This evokes emotions of pure dissidence with the “traditional role” of the female gender. A “natural resource,” first of all is something that is often taken for granted, much like the true value of female human beings, as opposed to the value of any other male living person. Additionally, Atwood tacks on the word “renewable” (408). This is the epitome of sarcasm in this essay. By saying that the female gender is a renewable resource, she is saying that one could always be replaced by another. It raises the questions “humans are not like throw-away tuber ware, can someone really be replaced so easily?” and “does this place a value on human life?” The word “renewable” answers affirmatively to both of these questions. It tells the reader that once a female is overused, obsolete, or generally unfashionable, it can be simply thrown out and replaced by a new one. It is much like a car, valuable with low miles while it is in its prime, but worn and cheap once it reaches, say, 100,000 miles. Even worse, Atwood illustrates a declining value and a loss of longevity when she says, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” This not only places a value on the female gender, but a diminishing value. It almost applies basic economics to women; they have a sort of diminishing marginal utility. This is a prime example of how language can yield so much power. It has the power to show that women can lose value in time. Atwood illustrates how society can easily replace a woman that has lost value with time with a younger, or more valuable one.

What is language? It is an adjective ending in ‘ate,’ and ‘ous.’ It is noun for something that is provocative. It is support for an argument. It is the whole argument. Language conveys meaning, vision, evokes emotion, and shapes views. In her essay, “The Female Body”, Margaret Atwood utilizes language to its full extent. Atwood shows how language shapes the traditional view of women in society using tone, imagery, and repetition. She uses controversy to mock social stereotypes, her words tell us so. She shows the role the female gender in the male-dominant society using sarcasm. The relationship between her word choices and her meaning are very direct in the sense that they make it clear that the female body is not a mere “topic”. Atwood shows that language choice can make or break a topic, undermine or support an idea. Language can do all that? Language is powerful, indeed.

Atwood, Margaret. “The Female Body” The Anteater Reader. Eds. Carla Copenhaven

and Ray Zimmerman. 7th Edition. Boston Pearson, 004. 407-40.

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