There are few feelings comparable to learning that your fave is problematic.
On Jan. 13, 2018 Margaret Atwood asked the world whether she was a “bad feminist” in an op-ed published in “The Globe and Mail.” My answer was yes. And that broke my heart.
I have always loved Atwood. Idolized her, even. I adored her historical fiction novel “The Blind Assassin,” watched her interviews with starry eyes and, like many, considered “The Handmaid’s Tale” to be one of the greatest feminist texts of the modern age. She was the badass feminist prognosticator, and I was a lowly commoner who gladly took her word as law.
But oh, how quickly the mighty fall.
Two years previous to that fateful day in January, Atwood signed an exceptionally disturbing letter titled “An Open Letter To UBC: Steven Galloway’s Right To Due Process.” Her op-ed, titled “Am I A Bad Feminist?,” was a response to the backlash she received for this.
To fully understand the situation at hand, you need some context on a man by the name of Steven Galloway. For both of our sakes, I am going to keep my explanation of Galloway’s involvement short; however, if you want something more thorough, I encourage you to check out these articles from The Walrus and The Globe and Mail.
So, who is Steven Galloway? Career-wise, he is not only an exceptionally successful author (his novel “The Cellist of Sarajevo” sold over 700,000 copies), but was until recently the University of British Columbia’s golden boy: a tenured professor and chair of the creative writing program.
Spanning from the years 2012-16, Galloway underwent several allegations from both his colleagues and students. These allegations, which ranged from bullying to sexual assault, resulted in the University suspending Galloway’s employment, even though only one of the allegations was “substantiated” by retired Supreme Court judge Mary Ellen Boyd’s report.
On Nov. 14, 2016, in response to Galloway’s termination, the open letter to UBC was published. This letter claimed that the University “acted irresponsibly” and chose to go about the allegations in a manner that was “severely damaging Professor Galloway’s reputation and affecting his health,” denying Galloway of his right to due process.
Now, I want to make clear that I do not think the University is completely innocent in this case. Their communication was messy and their procedure clumsy. That being said, I found this letter extremely disturbing. It painted Galloway as the sole helpless victim of a process that, in reality, has always unjustly protected people like him and failed to address the wellbeing of his complainants. Writer Alicia Elliott expressed it perfectly in a Twitter statement: “In cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment & rape, the criminal justice system (and society) centre the accused and his comfort, while ignoring the victim’s needs. The UBC Accountable letter did the same thing. It wasn’t calling for systemic change; it was upholding [the] status quo.”
There is also something to be said about how Galloway’s notoriety further complicates this case. So many in Galloway’s network who signed the letter, Atwood included, hold immense cultural leverage — the “names of significance,” largely belonging to other Canadian authors, are put in red and bold. Therefore, countless people will read the dangerous sentiments expressed in this letter and blindly agree (“If Smart and Successful People agreed with this, then I should too!”). This is a quintessential example of how power can protect you and how the perpetuation of rape culture can be accelerated.
“Am I a Bad Feminist?” was written in response to the backlash Atwood received for signing the UBC Accountable letter. She opens the essay by claiming that she can add “misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist” to the list of things she has been accused of over the course of her writing career. Atwood continues defending her stance on the Galloway case with the “fundamental idea” that “women are […] not angels, incapable of wrongdoing.” She then implies that the individuals who choose to believe Galloway’s accusers are childish, overly susceptible to groupthink and “are giving the opponents of women yet another reason to deny them positions of decision making in the world.” By labelling these people as “Good Feminists,” she belittles not only Galloway’s accusers and their supporters, but also the entire feminist movement. Do not get Atwood’s use of “good and bad” feminists confused with Roxane Gay’s; while Gay used the terms to both address her initial misconceptions of the movement and her inevitable deviations from its principles, Atwood weaponizes it, proclaiming herself as a “Bad Feminist” in order to push the idea that true feminism is not something one would want to associate themselves with.
After this, she defends comments she previously made comparing the Galloway case to the Salem Witch Trials, on the basis that, in both, people were “guilty because [they were] accused.” She then gladly offers up a list of other historical events that she sees as parallel to the Galloway case, which included the “French Revolution, Stalin’s purges in the USSR, the Red Guard period in China, the reign of the Generals in Argentina and the early days of the Iranian Revolution.” Comparing the system that allowed for the Great Terror to a system that allows a university to fire an extremely affluent author from his teaching gig on account of assault accusations is unacceptable. In addition to being generally insensitive, it also indirectly compares the people who choose to believe Galloway’s accusers to some of the most widely scrutinized political regimes in history. She is unafraid to not only invalidate the testaments against Galloway, but also unabashedly villainize them.
She then implies that the people who disagreed with her signing of the UBC Accountable letter are nothing but unhinged radicals, writing that, “In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn’t puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated.” This surprised me because her comparison of the people giving her valid critical feedback on her actions to some of the most hated political entities in history is a great example of the extremist rhetoric she seems to be bashing.
What made “The Handmaid’s Tale” so powerful was the intimate view it gave us of the psychological trauma that an oppressive regime can have on the people it silences. Throughout the story, we are made to feel in awe of the few that chose to rebel against the system, like the characters Moira and Ofglen. Atwood is famously hyper-aware of the systems in our society that are built to silence the trauma of women, and yet, through the Galloway case, we see that she does not hesitate to perpetuate them.
This article by Erika Thorkelson brings up a great point: good writers are often exceptionally strong in their convictions, relying on their words to “crawl into hearts and change minds.” Therefore, Thorkelson says, “The most radical thing those with powerful voices can do in times of conflict is listen.” Atwood has proven time and time again that she lacks the humility or thoughtfulness to simply take a step back and listen — a fact that is not only deeply ironic due to the nature of the dystopias she writes about, but also exceptionally harmful when dealing with cases of sexual assault which, more than anything, require listening ears.
The melancholy of learning that your celebrity “fave” is not who you thought can often feel inescapable. However, it is possible to emerge out of such disappointment with greater moral standards and a personal sense of responsibility.
Speak carefully, choose who you support thoughtfully, receive criticism with an open mind and take moments to listen to voices you might be drowning out. Let us all strive to be the feminist that Atwood failed to be.