I recently started watching ‘Foundation‘ – a series based on a set of books by the same name by Isaac Asimov. I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi movies and novels, but I’m really feeling this new one. I like the premise of it – the prediction of the ultimate demise of a civilisation. I haven’t read the novels yet, but after having seen the series (at least the first two episodes) I think I know my next book purchase. I’ll admit, the fact that Lee Pace plays Brother Day (the emperor) is a big reason why I’m enjoying the show so much.
I still haven’t gotten over my obsessive need to research books and find out what everyone else thinks about them before I buy them – and so I’ve been on forums discussing this series too. While going down the rabbit hole, I landed on a book club discussion with Margaret Atwood on her book Cat’s Eye. A bit of a jump from science fiction I know.
Now Atwood is a favourite of mine, and I finished reading Cat’s Eye very recently (I think I mentioned it on this blog as well). On the fact of it, the novel is about friendships and bullying, and how often the two coincide in the same person. More than anything though, the book is about time, and specifically what it does to our memory. The things we remember. This is how Atwood describes it, and honestly, now that I’ve heard her say it, it makes a lot of sense. It is a book about the ravages of time. What seem like huge crises when they are happening are barely remembered later on. Especially the childhood stuff.
I don’t like how a lot of people insist on talking about childhood as the happiest time of our lives. I don’t know about the rest of you, but the only reason I look back on my childhood with any fondness is because I have forgotten most of it. This is not to say that I had a bad childhood – on the contrary, my parents did everything they could to make sure I have a good one. But, I also think that experiences are a lot scarier as a child because everything is happening to you for the first time. You have no precedent for any of the stuff that happens to you, and while this makes your enjoyment in the new more pronounced, it also makes the bad things really bad. And the thing is, as a child, not many of your concerns will get taken seriously. Everyone else is a giant, and they seem (or at least seemed to me) to be very unconcerned with things that go on in a child’s life for the most part. I speak for myself here, but I think I have only become happier as I have grown older.
When asked to talk about what the book is primarily about, Atwood responds by saying it is a book that shows that little girls are not “sugar, spice and everything nice.” There is a great line in the book which sums this sentiment up, “little girls are only cute and small to outsiders, to each other they are life sized.”
A question Atwood gets asked quite often is how she reconciles the character of Cordelia (the antagonist and childhood bully) with the feminist aspects of her writing. The response – what does feminist aspect even mean? If you think about it, for the longest time, women have been allowed to inhabit one of two characters according to Atwood – the whore or the angel. All the grey area in the middle is usually reserved for men. Male characters are allowed to have layers because they are treated as human beings. Atwood says her characters are simply human beings, and so it is more than natural that some of the women might be grey. I’ve heard this sentiment before too, when a lot of people were asking George R.R. Martin how he manages to write female characters so well and give them so much depth. His reply was similar – he said he treats them like human beings. And thank god he did. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the absolute joy of a character that is Cersei Lannister.
But I don’t think this discussion on the kind of spaces females are allowed to habit are limited to fiction. Even in the treatment of real women, I’ve seen mainstream media try to fit them into one of these two moulds often. Like the discussion on Elisabeth Holmes (of the Theranos fame). I remember how the discourse on this woman went from all positive (a genius) to all negative (the worst kind of scam artist, someone who would intentionally get pregnant in the middle of a court case to delay the proceedings). But if you contrast this with the treatment of men who have had a similar fall from grace you’ll see what I mean. Take Dominic Strauss-Khan for example. I saw the documentary on his case (available on Netflix I think) a while back. Throughout the documentary, numerous people, whenever they mentioned his predatory behaviour (let’s be polite for a minute) would almost always mention how he was a great economist, or how save for this one fault he was a great man. You see what I mean? Layers and complexities of character that are so readily accepted in a man seem unfathomable in women. When in fact, it should be the opposite if anything. In the words of Granny from Downton Abbey, “I am allowed to be contrary precisely because I am a woman.”