Troubling gender : bodies, subversion, and the mediation of discourse in Atwood's The edible woman
Bill Albertini, Advisor
This study focuses on the role of the body as a central factor in subverting gender norms.
Hypothesizing a model based in Judith Butler’s work on sex and gender performance that places
the body in an integral position as mediator of discourse and creator of identity, I posit that
bodily disruptions occur when the body re-cites patriarchal discursive assumptions of gender in
such a way as to emphasize the constructedness of gender identity, and in turn, of discourse
itself. By looking at the body as a type of subversive space, I uncover the hidden methods texts
use to undercut the gender norms of the mid-1960s. Using Margaret Atwood’s first published
novel The Edible Woman, I apply this theory to analyze the ways in which the body is able to recite
discourse to question the stability of gender identity. I explore the ways the text plays with
the construction of gender through the use of bodies, such as through performance. The role of
ironic language (in highlighting this construction) is also discussed, as are the different uses of
irony among characters, and irony as a type of bodily performance. I discuss the subversive
qualities of protagonist Marian’s eating disorder, abjection of food, and mimesis in detail as they
relate to the character’s (unacknowledged) questioning of gender norms. I stress the importance
of the disruptive body to Marian’s eating disorder, especially since previous Atwood scholarship
often speaks of her disease as either psychosomatic or conscious rebellion. The body is clearly
the central factor in this novel, re-citing discourse and questioning gender identity. While the
character’s bodies can be interpreted as questioning gender norms, the characters are either
unaware of it or are unable to express what their bodies are doing. Finally, I conclude with a
discussion of the role of language in the text, how it poses a complication to bodily rupture (as
language is capable of lying or manipulation), and how the body is able to step outside of
language. Since the body exists within but also prior to discourse, the body is unable to be
completely expressed through language, and thus leaves an excess of itself. This excess,
symbolized by the mess in Marian’s apartment, testifies to the lasting force of bodily subversion.
Because it is not limited by language, the body has a freedom to express itself in other ways (as
demonstrated by its excess) and thus provides a more successful disrupting force.
The Female Body is made of transparent plastic and lights up when you plug it in. You press a
button to illuminate the different systems. The Circulatory System is red, for the heart and
arteries, purple for the veins; the Respiratory System is blue, the Lymphatic System is yellow,
the Digestive System is green, with liver and kidneys in aqua. The nerves are done in orange
and the brain is pink. The skeleton, as you might expect, is white. The Reproductive System is
optional, and can be removed. It comes with or without a miniature embryo. Parental judgment
can thereby be exercised. We do not wish to frighten or offend.
—Margaret Atwood, “The Female Body”
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman. No biological, psychological, or economic fate
determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that
produces this creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine.
Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an Other.
—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
School:Bowling Green State University
School Location:USA - Ohio
Source Type:Master's Thesis
Keywords:atwood margaret eleanor body human in literature gender identity
Date of Publication: