I was instantly intrigued by the title of Margaret Atwood’s first published novel. “Edible” looms threateningly over “woman” like a predator sizing up its prey. ‘The Edible Woman’ in question is Marian MacAlphin, a young woman who works a normal market research job in 1960s Toronto and is engaged to the similarly normal Peter Wollander. As Marian surrenders to the soul-destroying regularity of her conventional social role, she descends into an identity crisis and becomes unable to eat.
Margaret Atwood´s The Edible Woman
Atwood cleverly conveys Marian’s departure from her identity by allowing her narration to slip into unreliability before omitting her as a narrator. Starting with meat, she finds herself identifying with anything remotely edible. In the same manner that Marian gradually dissasociates, men can undergo a gradual radicalisation upon immersing themselves in the ‘manosphere’ (internet outlets promoting misogyny, masculinity, and anti-feminism).
In her 2020 novel Men Who Hate Women, Laura Bates explores how men grappling with sexual rejection and a sense that they are emasculated turn to incel (involuntary celibate) communities to seek comfort in the presence of others who feel the same way. Here, they are told that they are heroic survivors of a society possessed by evil forces favouring women over men. Their insecurities are preyed upon as they become indoctrinated into an increasingly radical ideology and grow desensitised to justifications of r*pe and violence (12-13).
Marian’s subconscious is similarly frustrated with the state of her surroundings. I traced the roots of her torment back to the novel’s opening chapters where food related imagery flows through Atwood’s descriptions of Marian’s workplace. The consumer-oriented market research firm is “layered like an ice-cream sandwich”, with the men superiorly placed in its “upper crust”, the machinery in the “lower crust” and Marian’s all-female department situated in the “gooey layer in the middle” (13).
Women are symbolically placed halfway between human and machine, inferior to men and superior only to robots. The female workers remain locked into their jobs unless they decide to marry, in which case they are discarded like disposable goods. An immediate connection is made between food and sexism, suggesting that Marian’s identification with food is founded upon her subconscious awareness of the way her female sexuality causes her to be perceived as a consumable object.
The notion that women are somehow ‘less than’ human persists today. In Men Who Hate Women, Bates details her experience investigating forums and threads utilised by incels. She writes, “It’s ironic that I battle, horrified, through reams of threads about the idea that women are robotic or unfeeling. We are discussed interchangeably with sex robots, which many incels feel could represent an end to their problems” (29). Women are perceived by manosphere extremists as mindless sexual machines. Like food, we are objects of consumption, purposed only for gratifying the sexual and reproductive needs of men suffering from chronic entitlement.
Marian first identifies with her food when at a restaurant with her fiance Peter. Whilst watching Peter eat, Marian recalls that during intimacy he touches her “almost clinically” (183) and shortly afterwards she notices that Peter appears to be “operating” on his steak (184). The repeated use of a medical metaphor indicates that Marian has begun to relate to the meat, perceiving herself as Peter’s prey.
The image of Peter as a predatory surgeon cutting Marian’s helpless body into pieces before devouring it foreshadows Marian’s future as his unemployed housewife – a future that will eat away at her identity. The concept of women as prey and men as predators is predominant in the manosphere.
Laura Bates writes about how certain manosphere members known as ‘pickup artists’ use aggressive tactics to hound women and pressure them into sex, encouraging fellow men to persist through any resistence they may encounter, advocating sexual harrassment, and even describing instances of r*pe as if they were valuable pickup lessons (69-70 & 80). Their sense of sexual entitlement overrides any presence of a moral compass and causes them to perceive women as merely bodies, hunting us like animals.
At the end of the novel, Marian impulsively eats a woman-shaped cake she has baked and decorated. The cake is initially intended for Peter as a substitute for Marian’s body, which she accompanies with the accusation that he has been trying to “destroy” and “assimilate” her (344).
Disturbed, Peter refuses to eat it and complicates the neatness of Marian’s intended symbolism. Resultantly, Marian tries the cake and finds herself able to eat it. The narrative shifts back to Marian’s perspective and she conveys that her engagement to Peter is “all off” (350). By eating and therefore erasing her symbolic body, Marian can regain control over it, suggesting that rejecting the body is a way in which women can escape the confining clutches of the patriarchy. However, the reality to which Marian emerges is not vastly different from where she was at the start of the book.
She is still oppressed by the restrictive decisions faced by women in 1960s Toronto: to establish a career or to marry. It’s not exactly a satisfying ending, but I believe this is what makes the novel so powerful. Even after rejecting her body and reclaiming her identity, Marian remains helplessly (and realistically) enchained to a patriarchal system.
Although the reality of the 1960s is not the same reality we are accustomed to today, the female body is still sexualised, dictated, and brutalised. The manosphere increases in toxicity and continues to grow. Specifically, at the time of writing Men Who Hate Women, Laura Bates describes how one popular incel website has over 350,000 threads with over 3 million posts (36) and how a horrifying 51 murders have been committed by men with links to misogynistic online communities (48).
It is important to acknowledge that the manosphere is predominantly representative of the western world. This is most likely due to its ties to white supremacy and replacement theory: where a privileged group (white men) are led to believe that they are being discriminated against by the group who are really facing prejudice. This group is then portrayed as the oppressors. As society becomes more left leaning, diversification is perceived by privileged groups as a conspired attempt to make them a minority, to which they react with anger and frustration (22).
- Atwood, M. 2009. The Edible Woman. London: Virago Press.
- Bates, Laura. 2020. Men Who Hate Women: The Extremism Nobody is Talking About. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd.
- A special thank you to my sister Polly for all her knowledge and help!