Margaret Atwood and Hats
If you were Canadian and coming-of-age in the early 1980s, there were few literary stars in the firmament. Alice Munro was just starting out and the giant of CanLit was the controversial and now largely forgotten, Mordecai Richler of Montreal. Robertson Davies was, admittedly, well entrenched in the school curriculum but he shared that stamp of approval with Canadian writers who really should not have been. In Toronto, there was only one writer. Young and photogenic, articulate and outspoken, Margaret Atwood was more demi-god than mortal. Maybe not globally – that was still to come – but locally she belonged to a higher celestial plane than the rest of us.
I met her once. Sort of. I was a scruffy teen living off my waitressing, reading everything I could, and protesting governments from around the world. My peer group was getting useful degrees like engineering or computing. I was auditing classes on poetry, Shakespeare, and Western Intellectual Thought.
At the only organic food store a few blocks from University of Toronto, a friend and I were buying a tub of non-homogenized, unsweetened peanut butter when a woman who could have been Margaret Atwood entered. She had Margaret Atwood’s wide-brimmed black hat that partially shielded her face, and for the briefest of seconds, I saw her profile. It could have been her. But this woman in the store was small, even tiny. She barely came up to my armpit and she couldn’t have weighed more than a 100 pounds. My friend and I laughed about how much she looked like Atwood except for her height, haha haha ha. I don’t how we knew this but everybody, I mean absolutely everybody knew Atwood was a tall imposing figure of womankind, someone large enough to leave a large impression.
As we were paying, the lady with the wide-brimmed hat stood beside us. Briefly, awkwardly because of the hat, our eyes met. Her lips lifted in a smile. And I knew I was looking at Margaret Atwood. I also knew she’d overheard every word we’d said about her puny stature.
Mortified, I fled.
Now I feel sorry for that teen and her toe-curling shame. The pathetic failure of my imagination. The unconscious imbibing of patriarchal values that power meant strength. The immaturity.
Now I’m impressed with Atwood’s sense of humour, the perfect timing of that one knowing smile. She couldn’t bear not to tease me, but it could have been so much worse.
I’m also impressed at how well she rocked that hat. The stylist tilt of it, the private, yet subtle disclosure it granted. The control. Her control.
Equally, she knew hats could be used against women. She understood how a hat could be a mechanism of controlling what women could see and how women could be seen. In her book, The Handmaid’s Tale, there are repeated statements that Offred couldn’t figure out whether or not Ofglen was part of the resistance or deeply committed to the status quo. Unable to talk face-to-face or even meet each other’s eyes, their communication was so truncated as to be pointless. Supposedly, only 7% of our communication is verbal. The rest, from stance to tone of voice to facial expression, is purely non-verbal. Take away women’s ability to see each other, and they become inarticulate. You want freedom? Then you must see and be seen.
Add to that is the hat’s overt announcement of a person’s status. Baseball caps, married Amish women wearing white caps, to the flat cap of the English working class, what you wear on your head says something about you. In the case of the Handmaids, everyone in Gilead knew what was appropriate behavior. If the women had turned to face each other, anyone could have reported them for their non-female, unnatural behavior.
A hat. So simple. But such an effective tool of oppression.
Apparently, Atwood took the inspiration for the white bonnet with its “wings” from the picture on the front of the Old Dutch Cleanser bottle. When she was a child, it frightened her. We also had Old Dutch Cleanser in our house. I recognize the label. It didn’t frighten me then (see above about lacking imagination) but looking at the label now, I can see why a child would find it scary.
It didn't scare me. So either I have the courage of a lion or limited imagination.
When Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale she went everywhere with a file folder overflowing with clippings about the oppression of women. She insisted on the reasonableness of her dystopian future. She wasn’t much believed. Sci fi was sci fi. Good fun, but let’s not take it too seriously. It was like Atwood was suggesting we’d soon all have little portable communication devices, like a phone but small enough to tuck into a bag. You know, like that gadget from Star Trek, the communicator.
I refused to buy a mobile until Nokia produced one that looked like a communicator.
Life imitating art. Here’s another example. On June 22, 2017 the state legislature in Missouri passed a bill permitting an employer to fire a woman if she is taking birth control.
You want scary? Skip the Old Dutch Cleanser and try that one on for size.