Someone once said, “It’s not don’t meet your heroes, it’s don’t have shitty heroes,” and for many who woke up this week to news of notable Canadian author Margaret Atwood trending right above the words “TERFs,” that idea hit close to home.
There she was, the woman whose most famous work is a massively successful book — turned into a massively successful TV show — about a dystopian future, one where women were reduced to nothing more than their reproductive capabilities, retweeting a Toronto Star op-ed by columnist Rosie DiManno called “Why can’t we say ‘woman’ anymore?” a particularly specious question given how often we all still use the term “women” on a daily basis.
— Margaret E. Atwood (@MargaretAtwood) October 19, 2021
The article itself is a series of umbrages taken with the way some language has been modified to be mindful of transgender and non-binary people, for example, saying “pregnant person” in lieu of “pregnant woman” to accommodate pregnant trans men and non-binary people. DiManno sees the adoption of inclusive language as, somehow, the erasure of women.
But more than that, Atwood was amplifying a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, essentially women who don’t include trans people in their feminism) dog whistle, which, given her two-million-plus following on Twitter, is a dangerous proposition.
To some, this was a massive betrayal of someone they saw as a feminist icon. To a lot of people in Canada who have their ears closer to the conversation, this is simply another page in Atwood’s problematic playbook (she has previously put her support behind an accused sexual abuser) and this was more of a mask-off situation than it was a surprise.
The recurring discourse was to be expected. Despite scores of patient trans women explaining to her that the majority of the examples used in the op-ed were in fact misrepresented, as journalist Katelyn Burns pointed out, among other things, how British hospitals had not, in fact, banned the word “woman.” Despite evidence presented that the writer was arguing from a transphobic position, Atwood was unflappable. She retweeted two responses to her sharing of the article.
But Maggie’s opinions are not TERFed in a vacuum. There’s a history to consider, looking at recent examples where people like Dave Chappelle and J.K. Rowling came out as gender-questioning before being expedited to the gender-critical line. Both claimed to be just asking questions, which may be true, they just don’t really care much about the answer.
Still, people took umbrage with the framing of Atwood sharing such an obviously biased opinion piece as her leaning into her TERF years. Many rushed to point out the fallacy in the logic of mentioning Atwood dipping her toes into transphobic water given how recently she’s decried TERFs out in the open. But Atwood, like many other cisgender feminists before her, don’t see questioning the validity of transness or the language around it as invalidating, and one has to wonder if that stems from a lack of engagement with trans people as a whole.
None of the trans women in her mentions warranted so much as a second thought. She has supported the idea of supporting trans women in the past, but a glance at her feed sees little to no instance of her uplifting, supporting or even listening to trans people.
It seems to me women like Atwood don’t see trans people as people, despite posts to the contrary. We are objects, pieces on a chess board moved around when the narrative suits your own desire for media attention.
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You’ll have to forgive my cynicism on her support here being an accident when this is a road well worn. J.K. Rowling once tried to pass off her own arms-length support of transphobic politics as a middle-aged moment before being tempted by the unwavering love and support of the gender-critical set. After her subsequent “cancellation,” she was forced to suffer the slings and arrows of increased media attention leading up to the release of the latest book in her series of detective novels, which led to unprecedented sales of her last work.
Too often, trans people, women especially, are seen as aggressive when we stand up for ourselves and assert our right to understand when transphobia is being presented. We are experts in the subject, being on the receiving end of endless hateful comments online and off when we so much as whisper in support of ourselves. Margaret Atwood uncritically sharing TERF propaganda is just another brick in the wall built around us by people with far more power than we wield, all the while screaming from the top about how scared they are of us as we scramble to find so much as a foothold.
We can still say “women.” But the reality of the situation around the usage of gendered language is less enticing than an opportunity to question the validity of trans inclusion. Between inadequate medical care, high rates of unemployment and income disparity, trans people can barely see the ground from our high horses.
Modifying language to be more inclusive is just a small step beyond platitudes, and I’m left to wonder if maybe tweeting “trans women are women” is as far as anyone wanted their politics to go?
Editor’s note: The original title of this piece was “Margaret Atwood doesn’t see trans people as people, despite what she’s said in the past.” We have updated the headline to reflect the accuracy of the author’s opinion.
Niko Stratis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in places like Xtra, Bitch, HuffPost Canada, THIS and SPIN. Her writing tends to focus on issues pertaining to queer and trans people, something she, as a queer trans woman, is adequately qualified to do. She lives in Toronto with her fiancée and their dog and two cats. She is a Cancer.
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