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Margaret Atwood

Spotty-Handed Villainesses

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Born 1939
Nobel prize winning Canadian author
Poetry internationally acclaimed but best known for her
Feminist campaigner in the 1960s
Writing praised in the1970s by feminists
A feminist supporter but criticises extremism
Not a feminist author- distances herself from that
ideological position
Worked as English lecturer at University of British
Writer-In-Residence at numerous universities in the 70s
and 80s, e.g.
University Of Toronto, Macquarie Univ. and Trinity Univ.
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Well-educated readers of fiction
Middle-aged, intellectual, literary women
Informed about contemporary social movements,
specifically the role of feminism in the changing
position of women in life and art
Speech said at different events throughout 1994,
e.g. American Bookseller Convention
Atwood often invited to attend literary festivals to
speak about her work as well as the role of
literature in society.

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Context For Speech:

1960s: strong feminist push (second wave feminism)
Focus on fighting the oppression of women in society and
the need for equal rights
1990s: response to the backlash of second wave feminism
(third wave feminism)
Reacted to new thoughts about equality, social structure
and gender
Focus on accepting contradictions, as well as embracing
diversity and change
Questions of what feminism meant and the changing roles
of men/women
1994: Canadian debate about its national identity
Atwood universal writer
Faced with globalisation of the world economy and culture
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Central Idea/Argument:

The speech focuses on the representation of women in literature over the

ages, in particular the presentation of evil or bad women.
Evident in the title Spotty-Handed Villainesses

For this purpose she harnesses the personal anecdote of her young
daughters theatrical presentation, the help her illustrate what literature is
... Are you going to do anything except have breakfast? we said.
No they said. Then this isnt a play, we said. Something else
has to happen...

To rescue the representation of women in literature both from patriarchal

stereotypes and from ideological feminist stereotypes
Lets put a women at the centre of something-other-thanbreakfast, and see what happens....

Her purpose is not to push for one side of the argument but to critique
other agendas and propose certain suggestions as to how the question of
wicked women in literature might be framed.

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A large section of the speech deals with the more general

question of what fiction aims to do, and how it is created.
The word 'process' is very fashionable. All it really means, as
far as I can tell, is "how do you do it?" You have to
understand something about the form before you can do it at
all. (Atwood)

Atwood looks at the general question of fiction, its aims and

scope, and at the requirements of various genres of fiction. At
this point she moves to considering the women's movement:
part of the history we've had recently is the history of the
women's movement, and the women's movement has
influenced how people read, and therefore what you can get
away with, in art.

She negates this viewpoint with an overview of wicked women as

shown in the world's literature: the murderers, the seducers,
the espionage agents, the cheats, the bad mothers and
stepmothers. She concludes by claiming that as wicked
women exist in real life, so they have a place in literature; and
that the many-dimensionality of women needs to be given literary
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Values Explored
Literature should reflect the diversity of life
and its moral complexity
Atwood is portraying the notion that literature should
have characters that reflect the variety life offers as
that is what makes a story entertaining rather than
characters that are two dimensional
Create a flawless character and you create an
insufferable one; which maybe why I am
interested in spots spots refers to the guilt
Lady Macbeth felt after influencing her husband
to kill the King

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Women are capable of evil, and this

should be recognised
Atwood also emphasises that women too
can possess faults in terms of their moral
complexity and should not be stereotyped
within literature as being only virtuous
Evil women are necessary in story traditions
why shouldnt their many-dimensionality be
given literary expression?

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Evil characters in literature are the most

They are said to be the lifeblood of literature, meaning
no evil characters equals no literature
Atwood points out in her speech that literature needs
something disruptive to static order in order to make
the text more interesting, engaging and unique.
She further emphasizes on this point by using an anecdote,
turning out to be her daughters tedious play based on an
ongoing breakfast. Margaret then goes on to state that in
order to be literature, a novel or whatever form of writing
must consist of more than breakfast.
She also says that the difference between literature and
life is something else has to happen. Through this
anecdote and again her reference to literature having to be
more than breakfast, it is easy to conclude that she
means that literature in fact need characters who bring
something different and diverse to a novel or piece of
writing, such as the spotty-handed villainesses or in basic
evil characters.
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1970s feminism has been good for society

Margaret summarises within her speech the benefits
to literature that the feminist movement supplied :
the expansion of the territory available to writers, both in
character and in language; a sharp eyed examination of the
way power works in gender relations, and the exposure of
much of this as socially constructed; a vigorous exploration of
many hitherto-concealed areas of experience.

Atwood also goes on to speak about the new kinds of

behaviours that were available to female characters,
exclaiming it to be yet another benefit of the Womens
Movement in the 1970s:
The Womens Movement has influenced how people read, and
therefore what you can get away with, in art

She also again summarises the benefits that she

thinks that have come to writing from feminism such
as expanded subject matter, the critical examination
of power relationships and the introduction of the
notion of the social construction of gender.
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Structure Of Speech
The speech opens with an introduction of the title and sub-title of the
speech and a Margarets use of first person opens the speech up to the
central idea and purpose; The portrayal of women in literature, in
particular evil women
Atwood then moves the speech forward and introduces a personal
anecdote of her daughters play in order to define what literature is not
Paragraph 11, is where Atwood begins to describe what a novel is, and
begins to criticises those who attempt to define what exactly a novel is
only a very foolish person would attempt to give a definitive
She then goes on to further explain what a novel is but stating what a
novel is not
Paragraph 24 introduces the notion of women in literature, and Atwood
focuses on female protagonists
Lets put a women at the centre of something-other-thanbreakfast
Throughout the remainder of the speech Atwood makes reference to
other example of literature to further highlight her intentions and ideas on
women in literature and the different roles that they can and have played.
Henry James The Turn of the Screw and Bram Stokers
Dracula ... Both revolve around notions of female sexuality

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Rhetorical Devices and Examples:

villainesses Title

Allusion to Lady MacBeth she
seemed to see spots (symbols of
guilt) on her hands after she
influenced her husband to murder
the king

When my daughter was Personal anecdote

five story of her
daughter putting on a
play that consisted of
the two characters eating

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Witty and lightly toned way of
saying evil women
introducing her argument that
the advent of feminism has
made a problem of the
presentation of evil women in
The eternal breakfast
functions throughout her
speech as part of her system
of reasoning becomes a
motif that serves as a symbol
for the static order that she is
critiquing (illustrates through
the anecdote that in literature,
something has to happen

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flogging a few dead horses
Metaphor, imagery
galloping around as vigorously as

The extended metaphor creates
an image in the audiences head
of deceased horses galloping
indicating that the dead horses
(settled arguments) are not dead
(settled) at all

Only a very foolish person would Self deprecating irony

attempt to give a definite

She is using humor and wit to

lower her status and appeal to
She also uses this technique to
undermine her own logical
arguments and therefore she is
able to expand the context of the
speech to apply to a long
standing issue of the limitations of
applying logic alone to
understand reality

What kind of something... How do Hypophora, metabasis

I know this... first let me go over
What is a novel, anyway?

The beginning of three

consecutive paragraphs are
hypophora and along with the
metabasis (Let me go over)
guide the listener through the
steps of her argument leading
off from the tail end of each
previous paragraph to the next
rhetorical question

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If you want power you have to Sententia
accept responsibility, and
actions produce

Conveys broader and more
philosophical truisms that go
beyond the scope of the critique
she is making on the orthodox
feminist position (referencing the
well known correlation between
power and responsibility)

Closed-off road

The metaphor of the closed-off

road refers to the lack of evil
women in recent fiction literature
keeps with the perspective of
Atwood in that she is not
suggesting, she is merely
curious just like the closed off
road that raises curiosity


Angel/Whore Women who

wore high heels and makeup
were instantly suspect, those in
overalls were acceptable

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Challenges the stigma attached

to women who wear high heels
and makeup who are seen as
counter feminists, whereas
those extreme feminists dress
in overalls to escape from that

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Women too have multidimensions, why doesnt

literature portray this?

Rhetorical questions

She is able to criticize the

collision between anti feminists
and extreme feminists and the
way literature portrays these
polarized views, it makes the
audience ponder on the
question and allows her to
influence their answers

We have not enough evil in


Quotation from Dame Rebecca The quote sums up her views

throughout the speech and
allows her to directly link with
the female audience leaves
the audience with the lasting
impression of her speech

Novels are not


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Allows her to engage in a

process of elimination wherein
she describes what novels are
not to therefore arrive at a
description of what a novel is

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Link to other Speeches

Margaret Atwoods speech hold strong ideals
and values that link to those presented in
Aung San Suu Kyis Speech
Aung San Suu Kyi expresses her main view of the
empowerment of women in society through the
removal of intolerance and prejudice.
In a similar way Atwood approaches these values,
however expresses them through the medium of
literature, through which one can gage an
understanding of the changing nature of literature
and women.

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Critical Commentary:
Engaging in discussion of feminist ideas, some
ideas particularly through the use of literary
Necessity of evil (and often interesting) characters in
Some of them will be women

Topics discussed as once being non-literary or

sub-literary have become even more prominent
over past 17 years
Still relevant as women are still portrayed in a
variety of (sometimes conflicting) ways

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