Gender and the Edible Woman
In the Edible Woman, by Margret Atwood, the main character Marion MacAlpin feels she is being oppressed by men. Simone de Beauvoir argues this urge to oppress others is at least in part a result of treating the ‘other’ as though he or she is only a material thing, rather than a free and thinking human being. De Beauvoir argues in the Second Sex that women have historically been made the ‘other’. In the Ethics of Ambiguity, she emphasizes that we must recognize the dual nature of the human condition not only in ourselves, but also in those we perceive as other (Moore). In Western culture the male stereotype is the dominate figure in society. Typically this image is masculine, macho, and active in its connection to culture. This way of thinking has a propensity to sort society into groups in terms of class, race, psyche, and gender. The “logical” thought of domination has constructed prejudice in society (Warren).
One theory put forth a theory about the logic of domination is that people have developed beliefs about the nature of society. These beliefs are a form of law developed and put together by society as a product of ourselves and not reality. These beliefs included the idea that dualisms have been created and the logic of domination tells us which side of the dualism is superior. Society is structured by its own made institutions of power and each of us falls in one dualistic category, or faces punishment for being in between. The functions of these beliefs are hidden and people do not understand why or how these they came into being. Nonetheless, these beliefs lead to societal conventions. People are stigmatized for not fitting into one of these dualistic divisions and penalize for falling into the less dominate group. These societal oppressions of domination, place the white heterosexual male above everyone else, causing controversy and discrimination (Warren).
Atwood’s novel explores the oppression brought forth not only by society, but also from the protagonist Marian’s fiancee. The novel begins by painting a portrait of a woman dominated by the expectations of society who submits to the values and beliefs the predominate culture imposes women. The book assets woman are supposed to dress a certain way, be thin, weak and vulnerable. Atwood uses girdles as both a figurative and literal symbol of this conformity. Girdles shape woman into the accepted form, creating an image of sliminess. Despite the fact girdles are dangerous to a woman’s well-being, social conventions demands they be worn. These norms dominate Marian’s thinking and she finds herself wanting to be like an edible woman. Her desires to be sweet and enticing just like cake stem from her need to find herself the right husband.
Because of this Marian finds herself in an unfulfilling relationship with Peter and begins wondering “Who am I?” Her engagement to Peter propels Marian into what she perceives societies expectations of “the role of the wife.” Soon thereafter Marian begins struggling with eating and acting more feminine (out of character) due to the pressures imposed by the expectations of society. Atwood’s implication is that this expectation of femininity dehumanizes woman, restricting their potential to self-actualize and personal freedom. The author’s portrayal of Marian as feminine and weak indicates she is programmed to act this way and unable to consciously behave in any other manner. Marian is dehumanized by society.
As the story progresses Marian begins to grow into a stronger person. She begins to discover who she is and what she wants and take control over her life. Marion understands she does not want Peter and the life her has to offer. She takes her ring off places it in her change purse next to her nickels and dimes, coins of low value. Ultimately she overcomes the oppression of her culture, literally devouring a cake that she had made. Marian rejects the role she perceives society expects her to play, discarding her “femininity.”
This novel was written in 1965 and anticipated the feminist movement by several years. As Marion struggles with the role society has imposed on her and her personal definition of herself food becomes the symbol of that rebellion and her eventual rebellion. Atwood uses Marion’s struggles with eating as a metaphor of revolt and protest. Feminists of the time were beginning to reject the traditional roles of mother, wife, housekeeper, or lover that was imposed by the current culture. This circumstance and the inability to find a role model that was an alternative to the reality of the day resulted in frustration, anger, and feelings of inadequacy in many feminists.
The novel reflects this theme and the lack of a distinct identity for women who desire something more out of life. Trough this story, Marian examines and rejects the roles presented to her by society and also rejects the domination of social conventions in order to achieve self-identity and self-knowledge and self-awareness. Marion offers hope to these women by demonstrating the qualities of strength needed to protect her own individuality.
Atwood’s novel shows she believes all women have this inner strength, emphasizing the hardships that daily activities bring and underscoring the proposition that all women are able to stand up for themselves and not succumb to the preconceptions that they must be gentle, soft-spoken and submissive.
Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. New York: Warner Books, 1969. Print.
Moore, Charlotte. “The Ethics of Ambiguity.” Philosophy Now, March/April 2013. Web. 15 May 2013.
Warren, Karen. Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What it is and Why it Matters. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000. Print.
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