The Black Woman’s Tale: Why Margaret Atwood’s Espousal of White Feminist Beliefs Shouldn’t Surprise You

Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

2018 is off to a pretty interesting start. At the conclusion of the painful year that was 2017, various women of assorted celebrity backgrounds assembled to simultaneously weaponize their privilege and latch onto the momentum and resurgence of Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” movement. This gave birth to a new movement on Jan. 1, 2018: #TimesUp.


#TimesUp, so far, seeks to arm women with the legal means to fight against assault and abuse in the workplace and is making tangible headway on pay disparities for women across different career fields.

The movement is still in its infancy and is most certainly not without fault, blemish or missteps. But the fervor, passion and audacious spirits of the women behind it—particularly black women and other women of color—burn so brightly that it’s clear to me (as it should be to many others) that this movement is not going anywhere anytime soon.

And this same energy has been brought into 2018.


For every action on this planet, there is a reaction. Its opposite. There’s always gonna be some Reverse Flash asshole waiting in the cut for the Flash to trip over his feet and fuck up so he can strike. Always.

What an annoying motherfucker! (Giphy)

And such is the case with Margaret Atwood.

To elaborate, Atwood was recently the subject of ire when she and many other (white) female writers came out in some head-ass letter last year to defend Steven Galloway, a former professor at the University of British Columbia and former chair of its creative writing program, against accusations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.


Atwood faced justifiable rage and backlash, and because of her presumably, and simultaneously, bruised and swollen pride, she opted to write her own op-ed about not supporting “witch hunts” and being a “bad feminist.” I opted to chuckle (like an adult would do over a wayward and insolent toddler) when I saw her op-ed, mainly because in her hubris-fueled defense of herself, she bit off the terminology of a black woman—who in this case is Roxane Gay.


This intrigues me because it punctuates a long and ugly history of white feminists co-opting (if not outright stealing) black feminist theory and terminology, and is also qwhite funny if we remember that Atwood is the creator of the (white) dystopic, feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale.

I know what you’re thinking. Why is that funny, Clarkisha?

Well, let’s see:

1. If you know anything about The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood’s recent white feminist comments or her appropriation of “bad feminist” should not surprise you.

Atwood’s public white feminist retort is oddly timely considering the so-called feminism of The Handmaid’s Tale and the fact that it is currently doing its little jog around the award circuit. Now, many assumed that because she is the creator of this alleged über-feminist work, her comments apparently came from left field. That they were unexpected. That there was no way to predict that kind of heel turn.


And ... I call shenanigans. Or, rather, bullshit.

Because to even have the privilege or unmitigated gall to be shocked by her comments, you would have had to assume that The Handmaid’s Tale is, without a doubt, an unapologetically feminist text. And of course, you would be wrong on both accounts, for one very big reason:

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a feminist text. It is a white feminist text. And this is specifically the case because it imagines a white-woman dystopia by stealing and reappropriating the historical injustices done to black women in America by way of slavery.


I know. I just said a mouthful. But stay with me.

The premise of The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopic in nature and, at its core, imagines a world where white women are stripped of all their modern rights—the chief among them being autonomy over their own bodies. But as you read more into what makes this universe specifically dystopic for white women, it starts to sound a bit familiar.


As this wonderful piece by Ana Cottle of The Establishment elaborates, white women find themselves being raped; being herded around like cattle and property; being forced to breed; being barred from coming and going as they please without some special note from their master, and adopting the name of said master as a mark of ownership; and being beaten or killed if they do not comply.

It is a nightmare, for sure, but it is a nightmare that black women have experienced firsthand in this country and still experience in some places abroad. And ironically enough, we are erased from Atwood’s fictional and narrative hellscape just so that our struggles can be cosplayed by white women.


Yep, that’s right. Putting on some long, red garment and a fancy white hat does not suddenly make the struggle of being both black and female yours, but that is exactly what Atwood has been allowed to get away with for this long. Still. The adaptation and its creators sought to address this pressing issue ... by sprinkling some black characters into the supporting cast. But considering that the main black female character swiftly vanishes to Canada (and is barely heard from again), I would say that the adaptation has laughably failed in that regard.


This, and Atwood’s blatant disregard for history, truth, intersectional feminism and black women, should have been the biggest hint to Atwood fans that ya girl is not really ya girl. But in case you still have lingering doubts, there is one more reason that Atwood’s “double cross” should have been expected all along:

2. In the context of #MeToo and #TimesUp, white women have shown that they are all too comfortable with defaulting to—and protecting—(white) patriarchy. 

What many of you are finding out as this #MeToo and #TimesUp conversation continues is that women like Atwood are very much frozen in a different era of (white) feminism (think second or third wave), when it was considered taboo or “not as important” to discuss things like sexual assault and coerced consent.


Plainly speaking, this disconnect puts Atwood and her ilk in unfamiliar territory. And since the height of her feminism rested on theft from black feminists and rebranding it as her own praxis, she’s probably not sure how to adjust to a big change like #MeToo or #TimesUp, and thereby defaulted to the next-best thing:

Whiteness. Or, in this case, white patriarchy.

There are many levels to this, just as there are to the optics of a gaggle of “feminist” white women openly caping for an accused white male sexual assaulter. Internalized misogyny is probably the first thing to come to mind, but that would be letting Atwood and women like her off too easy, since you’d be assuming that Atwood was simply ignorant and misguided in her response—which is not the case.


It is well-established that Atwood subscribes to white feminist politics. And the goal of white feminism itself is to simply emancipate white women from white men. Meaning, in simpler terms, that white women want to be able to get out from under white patriarchy (and throw the rest of us under the bus to accomplish this), but do not necessarily want to get rid of it, because doing so would destabilize white supremacy—and then boom! Suddenly, even they would be left with no power or privilege when the dust settled.

Let’s put it this way: Tiffany wants to get her neck from under Chet’s boot AND have a shot at getting her OWN boot. Not get rid of the boot entirely. Tif just wants a fair shot, y’all.

Typical (per Giphy)

So perhaps that’s why the backlash from all these Margarets, Caitlins, Susans, Tiffanys and Lenas is so strong. Sure, #TimesUp and #MeToo do white women a service by taking out abusive and predatory trash and keeping them out of harm’s way. But if Atwood’s defense of Galloway, or Dunham’s defense of Murray Miller, from rebuke is any indication, they are implying—whether they realize it or not—that these movements are “doing too much” in coming for people they like or the people they have aligned themselves with in order to access as much adjacent power as possible. Which, in this case, happens to be white men—their ticket to said power.


Atwood and the rest of these women recognize that the abuse being dragged into the light is problematic and emblematic of a larger, systematic issue within white supremacy, but they don’t want to expose all of that if it’s gonna a) take down all of their powerful friends in high places or b) be the thing that disassembles a system that they’d rather keep around as long as they have equal access to it and remain unharmed by it.

In short: Whiteness is a HELLUVA drug. And Atwood and women like her are most certainly hooked.


Which is why it would be to the benefit of fans shaken by her white feminist comments to cease the unfounded shock and confront the realities and contradictions of their continued support of her. In the interim, that time would be better spent lifting the black feminist voices that Atwood has continually stolen from AND amplify all the black feminists and other feminists of color who denounced her support of Galloway to begin with. Instead of, in this case, allowing her to publicly vent about being a shitty white feminist.

But, you know, that would make too much sense, since it would require you to give a fuck about black women.



Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to put into words the blank stares, the denials, the sour faces and over the top slightly hysterical enthusiasm I’ve seen from white women as WOC have taken centre stage in these movements. With a few exceptions, I see you Reese, Alyssa, the muted seethe has been real. They don’t know what to do with themselves. It was only confirmed to me this week when these French women came forward with their bullshit letter, that I know these half these Anglo-American actresses would be co-signing if they could were they not surrounded by all that beautiful blackness.

They thought this would be their fight, as all things must belong to them. But as Tessa Thompson alluded to in that Lena Dunham post, I know these white women didn’t show up to do the work, and of course our women did. This time though, none of those queens are gonna let these bitches claim the credit for their blood, sweat and tears. Let’s see them slowly try to undermine it.