On Saturday, Margaret Atwood wrote an essay asking whether she was, in her words, a “bad feminist.”
The literary icon has been losing her feminist lustre for many millennial feminists (and feminists of other generations, for that matter) since November 2016, when she signed a petition calling for an independent investigation into the University of British Columbia’s firing of Steven Galloway, the former UBC prof accused of sexual assault and harassment by a student.
In this weekend’s Globe and Mail piece, she gleefully recalled, “other things [she’s] been accused of since 1972, such as climbing to fame up a pyramid of decapitated men’s heads (a leftie journal), of being a dominatrix bent on the subjugation of men (a rightie one, complete with an illustration of [Atwood] in leather boots and a whip) and of being an awful person who can annihilate—with her magic White Witch powers—anyone critical of her at Toronto dinner tables.” But, it’s also clear that the recent criticism she has been facing rankles.
It’s the age of #MeToo, after all, and Atwood is the mind behind the feminist show of 2017, The Handmaid’s Tale—and the less flashy, but equally timely Alias Grace, the Sarah Polley-directed adaptation of Atwood’s 1996 novel, which centres on a young woman who has been accused of killing her employer and his mistress. If you’re looking for feminist credentials, Atwood seemingly has them in spades—which has made her something of a millennial hero. (We at FLARE definitely thought she was pretty damn cool.) But let’s look a little closer, shall we?
Reminder that Margaret Atwood signed a letter that supported a man accused of sexually assaulting his students. Her words have no place in the #TIMESUP movement.
— Stephanie Edwards (@stephanieadele_) January 8, 2018
The first time many Canadians heard about the Steven Galloway incident was an open letter penned by Joseph Boyden (who is… well, let’s just leave it at problematic), which made the argument that UBC had improperly handled an investigation into the allegations against Galloway, which meant the author may have been unfairly punished. It was signed by basically the entirety of CanLit’s elite, including David Cronenberg, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, Alice Kuipers and, yes, Atwood. (Authors Madeleine Thien, Miriam Toews and Sheila Heti, among others, have since removed their names.)
Many women, myself included, had a hard time reconciling Atwood the author, who contextualizes the main character’s actions in Alias Grace with the circumstances of her life—abusive father, exploitative work and being “constantly forced to negotiate her own safety with little to trade,” as Sophie Gilbert writes in The Atlantic—with this Atwood, who couldn’t seem to understand how signing an open letter supporting a man accused of predatory behaviour could hurt survivors of sexual violence and deter other young women from coming forward.
For her part, Atwood maintains that signing the open letter wasn’t about believing or disbelieving anyone. Instead, it was about calling attention to what she believes was an unfair and opaque investigation. “My position is that the UBC process was flawed and failed both sides… Those accusing Joseph Boyden, Madeleine Thien, and all the other signatories of the letter in question, of rape culture and intimidation of young people because they have objected to a university’s flawed and high-handed process should give some thought to the consequences. And they should note that the university’s flawed process, if not amended, could well—in future—be applied to them,” she wrote in The Walrus.
To be fair, I’m sure Atwood does see herself as an advocate for truth and justice. But when people on Twitter tried to explain that her understanding of the UBC situation could be wrong—and, more importantly, that the negative impact of her actions might far outweigh any benefit to Galloway—she doubled down. She used her very powerful platform (she has 1.85 million Twitter followers) to troll those who disagreed with her, including activist and writer Julie Lalonde, who wrote an open letter that criticized Atwood’s decision to “sign onto a deeply, deeply problematic letter that prioritized a broken system over broken people” and “place [herself] squarely in the willing arms of the same intellectual community that spent its early days defending Jian Ghomeshi.” Her reply? A tweet that purposely misunderstood Lalonde’s point:
: Convenient to be accused in secret + then thrown into a mental institution on the sayso of @UBC?
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) November 16, 2016
Fast forward to January 2018, and some Globe and Mail editor decided it would be a good idea to have Atwood weigh in on #MeToo. (But why?!) The resulting essay characterizes the movement as, “symptom of a broken legal system,” which, true. We wouldn’t need a movement if police, courts and other institutions took women’s—and men’s—complaints seriously. But then Atwood goes on to suggest that #MeToo has lead to (or maybe will lead to? I’m unclear) some bizarre world where, because the legal system hasn’t historically been very friendly to people who come forward about sexual harassment, people that she characterizes as “good feminists” (a.k.a., those who disagree with her) will… abolish the legal system? Honestly, very little of this essay makes sense. But I guess that’s because it’s really about Atwood doubling down on her claims that she’s being unfairly attacked, not actually engaging with any of the criticism coming her way.
1.Let’s fact-check the errors of @MargaretAtwood‘s defense of #UBCaccountable in the @globeandmail. Because the ethical use of the power and privilege to instantly access a national newspaper requires an unbiased, well-researched reporting of fact. #CanLit #Canlitaccountable
— Dorothy Ellen Palmer (@depalm) January 14, 2018
But engaging with criticism is something millennials want from their heroes. It’s why we put so much stock in authenticity, why we hold our favourite celebrities accountable for their missteps and why so many stories about millennials at work mention our desire to join organizations that demonstrate trust and integrity—two things Atwood hasn’t exactly been demonstrating recently.
“I’m so scary!” she wrote in this weekend’s Globe op-ed. “And now, it seems, I am conducting a War on Women, like the misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist that I am.”
Clearly, she didn’t learn anything from the many, many people who have tried to explain why her support of UBC Accountable hurts more than it helps. Instead, this essay was a spectacular example of self-involvement and hurt feelings, in which she nodded at the notions of fairness and accountability, but was more concerned with explaining why her actions were right and her critics short-sighted.
So yeah, Margaret. You are a bad feminist. And it’s time I hit “unfollow.”