Margaret Atwood on Woman-Crushes, Feminism and Advice for Her Younger Self

How are you planning to celebrate international women’s day?

First, by wondering why it’s just one day. International Women’s Day, Groundhog Day — something out of balance here? Second, by proofreading Angel Catbird 3, which has two Goddesses in it — the two main divine protectors of ancient Egypt: a lion goddess, a vulture goddess. Third, by lighting a candle to the fact that we are not yet living in The Handmaid’s Tale. Or that we are not yet living in it again because the human race has been there before.

Was there a woman who helped you get to where you are today?

Many! My mother, who never interfered with my various messy projects, even the one involving a skirt ornamented with Trilobites; my aunts; my high school English teacher, Miss Bessie Billings, who said of an early poem, “I don’t understand this at all, so it must be good.” Several older Canadian

poets of the 1960s. My first agent, Phoebe Larmore (pictured left). And my friends over the years, for their help and support. To be fair, there were men in that group as well. It helps to have a supportive male parent.

What are your thoughts on the role of the media in shaping young female minds? As a creator, how do you combat some of these reductive and negative stereotypes that can lead to low self-esteem, body negativity?

I think you’d have to ask some younger (very much younger) women, such as those putting together the Nasty Women anthology in the U.K. Their challenges now are quite different from the ones I faced at their ages. But in general, nobody looks like a model or a movie star in real life, including models and movie stars. And nobody is well-behaved all the time. (Women are expected to be better-behaved than men are, even by women.) Showing human beings as they really are — warts and all — gives people permission to be themselves, and removes a bar that’s so high nobody can jump it. Good fiction does that, in my opinion. But I do believe the world of films and TV has made steps in that direction — certainly since the age of high glamour.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Focus! Learn to type! That would have been so useful. Take up Pilates or weight-lifting so your twisted little spine could get somewhat untwisted. Cut back on the work ethic, it’s bad for your neck.

What book do you go back to again and again for inspiration?

Shakespeare. Whatever the plot, he was probably there first. The 1001 Nights and One Night: many models for storytelling structures. The King James Bible, for the language, but also for some very odd stories. At the moment, Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld, so suggestive.

How do you define feminism? What do you say to people who claim they aren’t feminists?

Let us begin with a premise: That women are human beings. Once that is affirmed, all else follows. Human being status is not a total plus; i.e. women are not angels or superior beings, and do not always behave well. But men aren’t and don’t, either, and that does not limit the understanding of their legal and civic rights.

If we can agree that women are human beings (rather than, for instance, objects, merchandise, or possessions), we can then debate the details.

But the mere fact that such debates are taking place is entirely due to the gains made in the past by women and men who fought, century by century and decade by decade, for the right to discuss such matters at all.

What would you say to a young woman questioning her worth, value, or place in the world?

That would depend on her story, and the particular reasons she may have for such questioning: everyone has different circumstances. It would also depend on whether or not this theoretical young woman has asked for my opinion. An old biddy swooping in from nowhere with glass slippers and pumpkins and maxims, or whatever, is not always the most welcome of interventionists. Most of the time people have to work things out for themselves.

In the spirit of the ever-popular Instagram hashtag #WCW (Woman Crush Wednesday) — who’s your #1 woman crush right now? And why?

I’m not good at crushes. My wartime-baby generation was generally not. We were smart-mouthed and skeptical, and big on stiffening the upper lip. Crushes were too mushy for us.

But I do confess to a weakness for being carried onstage in a huge plastic egg, like Lady Gaga. (Something to do with birds? Hatching? Who knows?)

And Tina Turner has been an inspiration to us all. Still beltin’ it out, and to hell with age labels! And now she’s working on a musical, with Phyllida Lloyd.

Margaret Atwood (right) with Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro

Alice Munro, but that’s a friendship rather than a crush.

If dead people were allowed I might have some of those, however.

In the many generations younger than mine, there are a lot of women who are very talented — as artists, as scientists, as businesspeople, as spokespersons. “Crush” wouldn’t describe my feeling about them, however. More like “cheering them on from the sidelines.”

Read more of Kobo’s International Women’s Day interviews here.