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Representation of women

The ambiguous representation of female characters in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake is unusual for Atwood’s often acclaimed portrayal of authentic female relationships as the story features a male protagonist, the first whom Atwood has written which makes the novel provide only unreliable information on the female characters portrayed in the novel. Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake is the first book of a dystopian MaddAddam trilogy. A critical concern for Atwood that is demonstrated in the novel is the environment. Arguably, the feminist lens, however, is perhaps one of the most interesting lenses to apply to the novel as the text does not purposely handle ‘women’s issues’ it introduces more stereotypical attitudes towards women. The post-apocalyptic society seen in the novel is different, but it gives us all too familiar reminder of our own. Since her first published book in 1969, The Edible Women, her work has always been characterised as ‘feminist literature’ with her feminist concerns still resonating today. Her inspiration for creating strong female characters is suggested to come from the strong women influences she was surrounded by at a young age as she was born at the start of World War II. Her first perception of women, Atwood saw women in typically masculine roles, as they assisted in the war effort. Compared to the ideology that a ‘woman’s choice of marriage partner .. determines her happiness and fulfilment in life’. Presenting the concept that femininity did not constitute weakness. The novel Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood is undoubtedly divergent from the rest of her novels as while Atwood frequently presents women in Oryx and Crake as enigmatic and overtly rebellious, the character Jimmy arguably reinforces the cultural stereotypes of women, specifically for the character of Oryx, who is portrayed as simply a possession to not only Jimmy but the desires of other men such as Crake, Jimmy’s childhood friend, Uncle En and Jack who both used Oryx as an enslaved sex-worker. Margaret Atwood’s female characters are described by Deya Bhattacharya as having ‘rebellion, anger, misery, and litost.’2 Thus, the representation of Oryx as relentlessly positive and peaceful embraces a new form of women for Atwood even though Atwood has not always established herself as a supporter of the feminist movement and how it influences literature. The novelist disputes when interviewed ‘the first thing people said was why did you choose a man? And it just gets so tedious”,’3 suggesting that as her readers sympathise and are empowered by the women that Atwood constructs, they should feel no inferior connection when reading from the experience of a man especially as her other novels such as the Handmaid’s Tale are not just about the oppression of women but how men are also not all superior in the regime. Acknowledging that Atwood wanted to advance from writing from the perspective of women to expanding to men. However, the disappointment becomes paradoxical as to narrate from a man’s viewpoint implies to come to the expense of women being well-rounded characters in the novel. By creating Oryx, a perplexing, ethereal character that intertwines in the text, Oryx is a character who both embodies and eschews conventional feminine attributes in a patriarchal society For many, Oryx is seen as completely rejecting female stereotypes as Jimmy cannot manipulate her, so he is forced to appreciate her as a real human being. To some readers, Oryx could have been the quintessential female ‘victim’, but Atwood depicts her as a strong, resilient type which seems to have come to terms with her past, rather than conforming to negative repeated female cultural stereotypes, such as the representation of women as fundamentally ‘cute but essentially helpless’, or dangerous due to their power over men. However, the relationships depicted in the text by Atwood are very uninspiring and negative which can be seen to fit the idea of the ‘eternally dissatisfied shrew’, such as Oryx can conform to female stereotypes as for some readers she merely shifts from one stereotype to another by being Jimmy’s obsession, she is portrayed as ‘an immoral and dangerous seductress’, ‘was that the hook – that he could never get from her what the others gave so freely? Was that her secret?’ but inevitably an unworldly, self-sacrificing angel as ‘Oryx had neither pity for him nor self-pity.’ can also be presented as the dubious, oppressed feminine figure with her commodified and sexualized body defining her in the novel, is only associated with sex as she is passed from man to man throughout her lives. Nevertheless, Atwood has yet acknowledged the benefits the movement has had on literature as ‘a sharp-eyed examination of the way power works in gender relations … a vigorous exploration of many hitherto-concealed areas of experience’ 4 is revealed although regressing to a stereotypical view of women through the eyes of Jimmy. Oryx is the key character in understanding how women are represented in, Oryx and Crake, as Oryx’s earlier years before she met Jimmy are ambiguous the reader finds it harder to relate to Oryx as a character as she came from an underdeveloped eastern country as a slave, her attitude is to be understated and complaint to the men presented in Oryx and Crake. This is an unrelatable and unrealistic stereotype to the typical readers of Atwood’s novels who usually read her novels to be empowered by the females shown. Due to her attached childhood, this has affected Oryx’s development into adulthood, as her lack of socialisation and understanding of typical male and female relationships makes her describe, love as ‘undependable, it came and then it went, so it was good to have a money value, because then at least those who wanted to make a profit from you would make sure you were fed enough and not damaged too much.’ Arguably, this quote can suggest Oryx is a character that defies gender stereotypes as regardless of her harsh constricting childhood in which she was primarily used for her body, she debatably remained positive and refused to be manipulated by Jimmy, making him dependant on her as in Jimmy’s past relationships women were merely disposable, using them for his own happiness. Oryx defies being pigeonholed as an invisible female in a male-dictated society by having a relationship with Crake and Jimmy coincidentally who are both in love with her, ‘Crake is my boss, you are for fun.’ Margaret Atwood’s representation of the character Oryx epitomises women’s repeated familiar cultural stereotypes, including an interpretation of the trope ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ shown through Jimmy’s perspective, recognised by feminist criticism and initially coined by Nathan Rabin in 2007 who later disowned the term as it began to be too broadly used, however, there are ways of appropriately applying the trope without falsely stereotyping. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a one-dimensional character and term is described by Rabin as it ‘exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures’ 5. The focal point of the ambiguous archetype, Oryx, is her idiosyncratic behaviour, her ability to not dwell on her apparent horrifying past and maintaining a composed peaceful nature to the extent of frustrating Jimmy when he questions her past, ‘Why do you want to talk about ugly things?’. Additionally, Oryx wants to maintain the illusion that she is a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ and repress her own needs and emotions to act as a crutch to men such as Jimmy and Crake whether it be sexually or financially, without ever seeking any independent goals herself. As it is this mystery that motivates him to care about her. To the reader, the character Oryx has more progression than being a typical trope however as a result of Jimmy’s flawed narrative Oryx lacks depth, Oryx’s entire life revolves around learning how to please men. As Atwood is a literary critic herself, some critics are disappointed in Atwood’s representation of women, ‘what strikes the novel’s only really duff note, oddly, is its main female character, Oryx.’6, even though this is usually more apparent with male writers in general, female writers have also ‘succumbed to the lure of stereotypical representations’.7 Analysing the novel from a feminist approach it can be disputed that Atwood writes for an indirect female audience, suggesting Oryx is only a deconstruction of a ‘Manic pixie dream girl’, and in reality dislikes being treated as only beneficial for the main character and admired as the stereotype they are not. On the other hand from the third person narration and Jimmy’s perspective female readers unintentionally take up a male reading viewpoint and it becomes challenging to oppose the dominant reading of the text. Criticised by Natasha Walter as that Oryx is primarily ‘Jimmy’s wet dream … the effect is bland as candy floss’.6 This claim is further strengthened as Oryx is shown to be an unintelligible character whose ambitions are blurred, quoting John Berger, ‘Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’8 The character, Oryx, is virtually a plot device in men’s lives as it is uncomplicated and advantageous than assuming victimhood in a patriarchal society. Another prominent female character in Oryx and Crake is Jimmy’s mother, Sharon. Despite, arguably being subordinate to the novel Sharon is significant in showing how Women are represented in Oryx and Crake, due to her stark disparity to all the other characters. Sharon is presented as being despondent with her behaviour being abnormal and volatile, resulting in Sharon having a significant impact on Jimmy’s childhood thus Jimmy’s disregard towards women initiated with his relationship with his mother, for example, ‘days when she appeared brisk and purposeful … she was like a real mother … but those moods of hers didn’t last long’. On first glance, Sharon fits a version of the stereotypical ‘eternally dissatisfied shrew’. However we later learn her distance, depression, and distraction stem from the work she did as a professional microbiologist, which typically should make a progressive, positive statement about women’s achievement of equality. However, her work ultimately threatens her sanity as the company she worked began introducing diseases into the population in an attempt to profit for their cures overwhelming her with guilt. This discovery provides Sharon as having an understandable motive furthering her character than just Jimmy’s ‘immoral’ mother as through Jimmy’s narrative presents his internalized ideas about ‘the mechanisms of the patriarchy’ in a way that connects mothers to safety. After a long period of no contact, Jimmy catches a glimpse of his mother on television protesting with a group of environmental activists, ‘Jimmy saw her clearly—her frowning eyebrows, her candid blue eyes, her determined mouth. Love jolted through him, abrupt and painful, followed by anger. It was like being kicked: he must have let out a gasp.’ Sharon’s change from a subservient housewife to an ambitious protestor shows her ‘process of self-discovery’. Sharon’s abandonment of Jimmy played a prevalent role in his growth of manipulating women, on the contrary Jimmy was shown to never cared about his mother’s feelings as with age he began to get a reaction out of his mother, ‘he was also gloating, congratulating himself, because he’d managed to create such an effect’ as wished only to manipulate her as well. The main antagonist, Jimmy, has a complicated detachment from others, his use of child pornography and his poor relationships with his girlfriends makes him comfortable with manipulating women. Resulting in him having no respect for his mother, his girlfriends, or any other women in his life and sees women as toys he can play with for fun. In many ways the negative influence of pornography, which had become desensitized in Jimmy’s society, is reflected in Oryx and Crake, as at a young age on Jimmy and Crake were exposed to hard-core pornography which had an impact on their sexual development, resulting in affecting their capability to build a genuine relationship with women. Atwood indicates that pornography has developed from uncomplicated coition to an exceedingly sadistic and explicit degree, and suggests that pornography has become more than an amusement. Recounted by Jimmy as, ‘far beyond his control’ 1, to the extent, they watched executions and porn at the same time, ‘If you switched back and forth fast, it all came to look like the same event’ 1. In that regard, pornography also serves as a way for young men to educate themselves, still, Atwood disputes pornography instigates a power trip in men and ‘incites real people to do really awful things to other real people’ 4. Atwood appeals to society to scrutinize the harm pornography can cause and how it presents women as their sexuality being constructed by males and merely an object of male desire, thereby contributing to gender inequality.

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