Women writers and themes have always proliferated in the works of Literature—The Bronte Sisters, Sylvia Plath, J.K. Rowling. However, throughout the years, the representation of women has changed considerably—in the past, women were mainly represented as housewives or governesses and later on, they are portrayed as women who can have careers, authority and power. This is perhaps due to the fact that women have fought for their rights and demanded equality—creating the feminism movement and their cause of wanting women empowerment. Women writers have used the power of the pen in letting their anger, contempt and disgust out into the open with regard to the way women are being treated. As such, Margaret Atwood is of no exemption to this fact and which is the whole point of this essay. This paper will focus on Margaret Atwood’s poem, Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing and the feministic themes that are reflected in its lines.
Feministic Themes in Margaret Atwood’s Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing
Margaret Atwood is a famous writer of novels, short stories and also a poet who is known to have her works to contain themes of feminism: “[her works]… reflect Atwood’s longtime interest in feminist issues…” (Zipp,14). It is safe to assume that many of her works reflect feministic themes, but not all of them do contain such themes. Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing is a poem which surprisingly alludes to the beautiful Helen of Troy of Homer’s The Iliad. This Helen is living in the modern setting and who has a profession of countertop dancing—which could be plainly translated to girls who work in bars, dancing to the fancy of men (and sometimes, of women) who pay so they can see the glorious bodies of the girls move to the music. This type of job is generally considered degrading by many people, as what was even reflected in the poem: “The world is full of women/ who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself/ if they had the chance/ Quit dancing/ Get some self-respect/ and a day job” (Atwood, lines1-5). However, the Helen of Troy in the poem defends her profession with such sarcasm (Right/ And minimum wage/ and varicose veins, just standing/ in one place for eight hours/ behind a glass counter, lines 6-9) that it reduces her identity to a state in which she is a poor woman who needs money (but I’ve a choice/ of how, and I’ll take the money, lines 18-19). Determining who the persona of the poem is is imperative in understanding the poem and the themes contained in it. As what the thesis statement of the introduction states, this poem contains feminism themes with regard to three things mainly: the female as seen as other females, the female as seen by the males and the female as she sees herself.
The Female As Seen As Other Females
The first stanza of the poem already shows how other women look at the Helen of Troy which was portrayed in the poem. The persona of the poem depicts not only women who do counter-top dancing, but those women in general who are judged by others as to have an inferior or lesser type of profession than them—they look at the women below them with disgust as the lines 1-5 of the poem shows, even stating that the persona “should be ashamed” (line 2) and that she should “Get some self-respect” (line 4). When the female herself is seen by the same gender with such contempt and vehemence, the female’s pride and ego is reduced to fragments—for whom else to better understand her than women who share the same convictions that she does? The unfortunate part here is that the opinion and conviction of women are actually created for them and they are just left to accept those pre-created conclusions. In simple terms, the scenes which the eyes of the woman see are actually eyes of created by the society: “…consider what it means to be a woman, …consider how much of what society has often deemed to be inherently female traits are in fact culturally and socially constructed” (Guerin, Labor, Morgan, Reesman and Willingham, 226).
The Female As Seen By The Males
The next stanzas in the poem are full of apparent malice by the persona with regard to how her customers watch her when she dances. Her choice of words in describing the scene before her is that of pure truth and honesty: “They gaze at me and see/ a chain-saw murder just before it happens/ when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple/ are still connected” (lines 27-30). When the person dances, she is reduced to the judgments of the onlookers, and this is where she is most disgusted—not with herself but with the men who are before her and watching her exquisite body sway to the beat of the music. The last and third stanza of the poem contains the most hurtful words that the persona is feeling; this is where she bares her thoughts, real feelings and emotions to the addressee (the readers). These words, in turn, become a mockery to her existence as a female:
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency. (lines 68-76)
Feminism was all about equality and women empowerment and when the persona is reduced “to components” by the mere judgment of onlookers, obviously then, it hoes against the belief or the cause of feminism.
The Female As She Sees Herself
The third and last theme and part is how a woman sees herself as a woman; again, there were allusions and metaphors on how the persona described herself as a person. She used words such as “naked as a meat sandwich” (line 11). Unfortunately, even if the persona considers herself as a beautiful goddess(“I come from the province of the gods”, line 57 and “You think I’m not a goddess? / Try me”, lines 80-81), it is meet with sarcasm and self-deprecation and judgment. Again, this can be traced to what was cited in Guerin et al., in that women are fulfilling the “constructed” image that was made for them by society, and it is very well known that majority (if not all) forms of society are actually patriarchal in nature—a male-dominated world. If women see themselves as what the world are letting think who and what they are, then it is but natural that women are reduced to inferiority complex and is considered as the weaker sex and not as an equal.
In conclusion, the poem does include feministic themes, which serve as an eye-opener to the things that Atwood wants her readers to know—that women are made into who they are and they do not want to conform to this image. The last line of the poem says it all, that if it continues and if a single person, most especially, the male as so much lays a finger on her—she would be the goddess that she wants to be. Being a goddess literally translates to the role and identity of the woman as a powerful entity, that she can be powerful, authoritative, a brave, courageous and smart person—which, in the end is really the whole point of woman empowerment.
Atwood, Margaret. “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”. 15 May 2009. <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/helen-of-troy-does-countertop-dancing/>.
Guerin, Wilfred L.; Labor, Earle; Morgan, Lee; Reesman, Jeanne C. and Willingham, John R. “Feminism and Gender Studies”. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. 222-234.
Zipp, Yvonne. “From feminism to fairy tales: the musings of Margaret Atwood ; Does the award-winning Canadian writer know how to draw? A chance to find out”. The Christian Science Monitor [Boston, Mass.]. 17 January 2006: 14.