Atwood’s Bodily Harm: A Study of Gender Based Hierarchy and the Exploitation of Female Body in Patriarchal Society

Durga Patva

- Durga Patva

Margaret Eleanor Atwood is one of the most eminent figures of Canadian literature. She is a globally celebrated novelist, prolific writer, poet, social critic and cultural activist. She uses her writing skill as the weapon against male domination in society and doing so, she fights for the right and emancipation of women. In her work, Bodily Harm through the character of Rennie (the protagonist), Atwood attacks on the socially constructed and narrow minded of identity and gender. This Paper endeavours to provide comprehensive evaluation of the female problems like - their exploitation, suffering, splitting off, social violence and obliteration caused by male domination. Demonstrating men’s ill-treatment towards women, Atwood in her Bodily Harm also deals with the issues of female body which is used as an image to satiate the male’s lust, gender based discrimination, male-female affairs, social and domestic violence and humiliation of women in the patriarchal society.

Keywords: Female Body, Exploitation, Social Violence, Sexual Assaults, Gender and Hierarchy.

It is Margaret Atwood’s most politically feminist novel, immediately concerned with such issues as body image, female sexuality, male-female relationships and male brutality in a patriarchal society. (Roberta Rubenstein 259)

Effusive reactions to female problems related to a woman’s body therein have attracted much academic consideration across the world. At the close of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, a series of events befallen that would be known as the feminist movement. During this time, many women were starting to alter the way they thought of themselves and desired to change their societal parts. There are feminist theorists, philosophers, authors and novelist- Susan Feagin, Suzanne Keen, Molly Hite, Dorothy Hale, Helen Cixous, Lucy Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Catherine Climent, Judith Butler to name but a few who contributed for women empowerment. Margaret Atwood is also known as a creative and reverenced Canadian author who is popular as an activist. In her novel, Bodily Harm, portraying the depressing and miserable status of women, she delineates how women are exploited, troubled and bereft of their basic human rights in the patriarchal society on the basis of their body. The narrative shows that a woman has to make a greater struggle for achieving an individual identity of her own. Through the character of Rennie, the protagonist, Atwood emphasizes on the mistreatment, torture, mutilation and the demolition of the female body in the hospital and in jail.

Rennie, a Bold and Revolutionary Character
The novel, Bodily Harm is the story of a Toronto based free-lance journalist, Rennie Wilford whose father left her and her mother for another woman. Rennie was brought up by her grandmother. Since her grandmother was a very strict lady, she never allowed her to think, act, express and grow up freely. Her grandmother made her learn “how to be quiet, what not to say, and how to look at things without touching them. . . . According to her, it was bad manners to ask direct question” (Atwood 54), it throws light aristocratic restrictions which Rennie had to follow. Rennie resolved not to waste her life like her mother so she decided to make her own identity. As she stated, “I didn’t want to be trapped, like my mother. ..I didn’t want to be like her anyway, I didn’t want to have a family …I had none of those ambitions. I didn’t want to own many objects or inherit any. I didn’t want to cope” (Atwood 58). It throws light on the revolutionary nature of Rennie. In this way, Rennie is represented as a bold lady who rejects to fall a prey in a patriarchal society. For this she revolts against her grandmother’s old restrictions and decides to lead her life with her actual identity by choosing her career in journalism. She goes to Toronto and starts writing articles for two magazines, namely- Pandora and Visor, and she uses her pen to uncover the insignificance aspects of male-governed society. Doing this job, she encounters with many obstacles, but she never gives up hope. In the novel, through the character of Rennie, Atwood delineates that what hindrances come in a woman’s way when she chooses to lead an independent and free life. Demonstrating the mental and physical problems faced by the protagonist who is victimized at every step in her life by male’s ill treatment, in Bodily Harm, Atwood also describes that how Rennie survives in a patriarchal society in order to make her own identity. 

Gender Based Hierarchy
In the novel, Atwood lays emphasis that how the gender hierarchy works in the society. Simone de Beauvoir writes regarding the gender based discrimination, in  The Second Sex, “In actuality the relation of the two sexes. . . like that of two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, …whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity.. . .” (76). The gender based hierarchy rules over life for women, as men held a firm footing on the top rank in the society. In order to preserve the power men utilized sexsual assaults and a patriarchal mindset within their own families. In the novel, Remmie’s father left her mother for another woman. Her mother remained busy to look after her parents instead of paying attention to her daughter. For this reason Rennie is brought up by her grandmother who never allowed her to lead an independent life because of imposing rules of patriarchal society. Rennie has her own individual view, that is why she decides to be a doctor, but the beliefs of her locality never allow it as in her locality, “men were doctors, women were nurses; men were heroes, and what were women? The women rolled the bandages and that was all anyone ever said about that” (Atwood 48). Rennie, thus, decides to leave Griswold (her Homeplace) and moves to Toronto to lead an independent life. This shows that women cannot choose a profession according to their likings because of the gender based discrimination. The hierarchy kept in place by the patriarchal society where man is at the top and women are at the bottom. Patriarchal system is the underlying cause of violence against women in society. Margaret Atwood’s the female protagonist is a representation of “every woman” who is oppressed and underestimated by gender and politics. Indeed, the issue of gender seems her major concern through which she magnificently represents the sufferings of women who are confined to their feminine roles.

Exploitation of the Female Body in the Name of Love
In this novel, female body is represented as a symbol of weakness and ineffectiveness. Atwood describes that how a woman’s body becomes the cause of her problems. The protagonist, Rennie in the novel not only mentally tortured, but also faced physical problems on account of gender based hierarchy. She is a victimized woman, who struggles inwardly and outwardly to surmount the impediments in her life. Working for the magazine Visor, Rennie meets Jake, a designer in a packaging company. Rennie finds Jake a good fellow on whom she can believe fully. Being with him she feels protected and happy, “she loved Jake, she loved everything. She felt she was walking inside a charmed circle” (Atwood 72). But for Jake she is only an object of sexual gratification. His brutal act of love making is in the words of Rennie, “Jake liked to pin her hands down …He liked that, he liked thinking of sex as something he could win at. Sometimes he really hurt her, once he put his arm across her throat and she really did stop breathing” (Atwood 207). It shows that being a man Jake enjoys her pain. He treats her as an object of sex and that is why he adorns Rennie’s chamber with a naked picture of a “brown-skinned” woman, who is “wound up in a piece of material that held her arms to her sides but left her breasts and thighs and buttocks exposed” (Atwood 105). It shows that in patriarchal society women are constantly portrayed as wearing less clothing, which comes back to the issue of women being portrayed as a sexual object for men. So Rennie soon realizes that Jake is interested only in her body and for him she is, nothing rather, “one of the things Jake was packaging” (Atwood 96). Jake’s this act also shows that he has no respect for any woman. When Jake comes to know that she has been suffering from breast cancer, he abandons her.

Sexual Exploitation and Harassment of Female body in Hospital and in Jail
Atwood raises the issue of sexsual exploitation of women in hospitals. Rennie is diagnosed of cancer by Dr. Daniel. She has to compromise with his condition, that is to have an affair with the doctor in order to save her life. Rennie has no choice save – either to fall a prey to Dr. Daniel’s sexuality or die of cancer. She is raped by Dr. Daniel, who sexually exploited her in the name of surgery. Living on Carribean island Rennie involved in political activities, for this she is arrested and taken to jail, and there she meets Lora Lucas, who tells Rennie that she is the victim of her step-father’s lust. She also tells Rennie that she stabs her step-father as he tries to have a sexual assault on her. Thinking that now nobody will exploit her, she runs away from that place, but soon she realizes that there are so many persons like her father who are waiting to exploit her or to take an advantage of her body. When Lora goes to work on a boat she finds that all the all men expect her to have sex with them and the condition is either to yield before them or to lose her job. She tries to understand them by saying that, “..I ‘m for sale, I ‘d tell them, I am sure . . . I ‘m not for rent” (Atwood 214). Lora’s story shows that no woman is safe in this world. Being in jail, Lora has to gratify the prison guards by having sex with them in lieu of getting the news of her lover. At last Lora is sexually assaulted, beaten, mutilated and killed by the policemen. Thus Atwood throws light on the fact that women are exploited and used as a sexsual objects in the patriarchal society.

Male’s Heinous Treatment towards Female
Being on the Caribbean island Rennie perceives the pathetic condition of women that the women are still considered as non-entities and are brutally tortured, mistreated and troubled. An incident which took place on the island, shakes Rennie’s heart and soul. It was the vicious treatment of a campaign manager, named- Marsdon who pitilessly tortures his wife in an oppressive manner, “He made her take off all her clothes” and then “he covered her with cow-itch”  after that “he tied her to a tree in the back yard, near an anthill, the stinging kind. He stayed in the house, drinking rum and listening to her scream. He left her there five hours, till she was all swollen up like a balloon” (Atwood 214-15). In the novel, Atwood highlights the male inhumaneness against female.

Advertising of Naked Female Body
In the novel, there are several instances of female nudity and/or sexualization of women. This is most likely to draw attention to the stereotypes, but there is still exposure of the sexualized and naked female body. In the novel, through Rennie’s visit to Toronto Museum Atwood exposes the villainous attitude and victimizing nature of the males. When Rennie reaches at the museum she finds there the film clips of naked woman and nude pictures of women which show the brutality of males who have converted women into an object meant for display. These things make a show of women’s body to satisfy male sexuality. In one of the most loutish and atrocious scenes she witnesses “the head of a rat” (Atwood 210), moving in and out of a woman’s vagina. Atwood delineates this horrible, miserable and humiliated condition of women in a male dominated society. In narrativising male atrocities towards women in patriarchal society, Atwood has shown a parallel concern expressed by Susan Brownmiller in her article titled “Pornography Hurts Women” wherein she states, that “Pornography, she believes, invariably presents women as victims and as subordinate to men” (36). Brownmiller has a legitimate concern− the current view of women in our society is flawed, and women are harmed by this. She believes that criminalization of pornography would end the culture’s exposure to sexist, violent imagery. This is unfortunately not so” (38). It is such a society where men use the nude image of the female body for advertising in a way that depicts sexual acts.

Negligence of Female Voice
In the novel, Atwood delineates that how a woman’s voice is neglected in patriarchal society. For instance, she gives the reference of an intruder who enters Rennie’s room and leaves a coiled rope on her bed. This event of a “faceless stranger” (Atwood 90), haunts Rennie throughout the novel. She has frequent nightmares and hallucinations of that “faceless stranger” in bed with her: “She began to have nightmares; she woke up sweating” (Atwood 23). When she makes a complaint against it to the police, instead of showing any sympathy for her, the police accuses her of provoking the intruder and implies that she changes cloth in front of her windows. It shows women’s voice remains unheard in patriarchal society. As a concerned author Atwood uses her writing skill for the sake of female human right. She gives voice to the issue that female voice remains unheard or neglected in patriarchal society.

To conclude, it is worthy to quote here lines, said by Gloucester, a character of famous a tragedy named- King Lear written by William Shakespeare, “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods/ They kill us for their sport” (web np). These lines, well define women’s condition in patriarchal society where men treat women like flies on account of derive pleasure from them. Realizing the pathetic condition of women in patriarchal society Rennie resolves to use her pen as a “weapon” to depict her bitter experiences of life in her writing. She decides to write for women. In this regard Helene Cixoux has made a praiseworthy remark that, “Ronnie puts women into the text-has into world and into History-by her own movement of travelogue...” (875). In the novel, Atwood delineates that women are everywhere dominated and oppressed by men. They are always considered as the weak and submissive in nature. Through the character of Rennie, Atwood conveys a message that the main reason behind women’s pathetic condition in patriarchal society is their dependency on the men, and to overcome this condition women should be independent, and they should revolt against such patriarchal society for which they are an object to satiate men’s lust. To get a better and honourable place in society women should be independent. They should not rely on their male counterparts for survival. In order to survive, they should raise their voice against the inequalities of the patriarchal society.
Atwood, Margaret. Bodily Harm. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. 1981. Print.
Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Martin Secker and Warburg, 1975. Print.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Hammondsworth: Penguin,1983. Print.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Choen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1.4 (Summer 1976): 875 – 93. Web. 

Dworkin, Andrea. Intercourse. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1987. Print.
Malin, T., and Birch, A. Introductory Psychology. London: Macmillan, 1998. Print.
Rubenstein, Roberta. “Nature and Nuture in Dystopia: The Handmaid’s Tale.” Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms. Carbondale: Illinois University Press. 1988. 102.Print.

Author’s bio: Durga Patva is a PhD  Research Scholar at Department of English & MEL, University of Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. She  can be reached at 

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