Saturday, January 26, 2013

Sexual Politics and "Atonement"

(Let's use a different cover image to match today's topic, shall we?)

After finishing Ian McEwan's Atonement, I was perusing the reviews on Goodreads just to procrastinate doing the dishes or some other household task. Near the top of the list was a one-star review that blasted McEwan for, among other things, being on a "tireless crusade against little girls. Little girls who tell on men." The reviewer argues that McEwan has portrayed the young girl in the story (who has the nerve to call Robbie on his sexual misdeeds) as the villain, and that constitutes one more step in the long journey to villify women who resist or speak out against male sexual dominance. In a comment added to the review, the reviewer goes on to say, "The story is very much about sexual politics...Briony represents something that ought to be defended more in literature. What Robbie and Cecilia represent never really needed defending at all."

I think this reviewer is looking at the story through a particular set of glasses, and that is distorting what she sees. As the saying goes, "When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Let me say right off the bat that I'm not anti-woman and I'm not an apologist for male dominance. But I believe the reviewer is making the same error Briony made in interpreting Robbie's behavior--she begins with the assumption that Robbie is a "maniac."

Sure, during the chapter in which Robbie writes his infamous note, he is thinking a lot about sex and about Cecilia. But there is more in the narration of his thoughts in which he is concerned about what Cecilia thinks about him and in which he is thinking about her mind and personality than there is narration of his thoughts about her body. I don't read that section as describing a man obsessed with sex; I read that section as a man in love with a woman, body and soul. The draft of the note in which he put his fantasies into words was not meant for anyone to see. How many of us have written an email message in which we tell the boss exactly what we think about him/her, just to get it out of our system, and then delete it? Robbie rewrote the note in a more socially acceptable form, and that was the version he intended to deliver to Cecilia. The fact that the wrong version ended up in Briony's hands was simply an accident, just as it would be if one accidentally hit "send" instead of "delete" on that email to the boss.

So what is the reviewer condemning Robbie for? Is the reviewer saying Robbie is wrong to have passion for Cecilia? That natural sexual desire is wrong (because what Robbie thought and wrote wouldn't seem to fall within the parameters of deviancy)? I find myself more upset with Briony for interpreting everything she saw as signs for a "maniac" (which wasn't even her word - Lola supplied the label) and for choosing to "tell on" Robbie in a setting with such high stakes and that gave him no opportunity to refute the accusations. If Briony was so concerned that Robbie was a menace, why didn't she mention any of her concerns earlier in the day to someone - if she didn't trust her mother enough, why didn't she say something to Cecilia? Part of me believes it's because Briony wanted the power that comes with watching and knowing and with being able to use the information to suit her purposes at the right time. Remember, she felt Robbie was a male threat who was going to disrupt the order of her family, so she felt entirely justified in stretching the truth a bit to eliminate the threat. I'm convinced Briony knew Paul Marshall was the man she saw at the scene of Lola's attack - how would she later know he was the one when Lola is marrying Paul? But Briony wanted the blame to fall on Robbie. "Suddenly, Briony wanted her to say his name. To seal the crime, frame it with the victim's curse, close his fate with the magic of naming." There's sexual politics for you.

Yet I can't entirely blame Briony. She was a child, and a sheltered, indulged child at that. Her only vision of love was the fairytales and weddings that made up the stories she wrote about. And yes, Robbie was a male threat who would have disrupted her family had he wooed and eventually married her sister. Briony's peeks at the note and at the scene between Cecilia and Robbie in the library were glimpses of something she didn't know anything about, and like any normal human, she tried to make sense of it by labeling it. Unfortunately for Robbie, the label Briony ended up with - "maniac" - had connotations that became all too serious, given the events of the evening.

Speaking of the events of the evening, was Paul Marshall's attack on Lola (for which Robbie was blamed) definitely rape? I'm not saying that because I'm trying to blame the victim or excuse the attacker. I'm genuinely curious because there are things that don't make logical sense to me. First - what happened in those five years between the attack and the wedding between Paul and Lola? Where did Lola go? If Paul raped her, why would he come back around and allow himself to get in a position to marry her? If Lola knew Paul was the one, how did she get him to marry her? By blackmailing him and threatening to expose the truth? But why would there be a five-year interval? And would the courts have believed her, when such a big deal is made of the unlikelihood they would believe a retraction if Briony made one? I can understand why Lola and Paul might have married later if their encounter was consensual and Lola said nothing at the time to spare herself the shame of being discovered. But the story calls it rape and I have to trust it, although, in my opinion, this is one of the weakest points of McEwan's plot.

I don't want this post to be taken as an excuse for the mistreatment some women suffer at the hands of some men. And as a rhetorical critic and teacher of media criticism, I see plenty of ways in which the mass media subordinate women and try to belittle or silence their voices. I read a good blog post the other day about a film festival that focuses on women as leaders, since there are so few mainstream films that give women any substantive role at all. But I think we are making a mistake when we allow our sexual politics, like our governmental politics, to become so partisan that the normal attraction between lovers is seen as another sign of the political struggle.

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