Let Her Eat Cake: Marian as Both the Consumed and the Consumer
by Cajetan Sorich
From the ecofeminist perspective, the patriarchy consumes women by assigning them to the nature side of the nature/culture binary, which, by patriarchal standards, is considered inferior to the culture side. In her book, Feminism and the Mystery of Nature, Val Plumwood explains that patriarchy subordinates nature by contrasting it with rationality, the primary characteristic of culture: “Both rationality and nature have a confusing array of meanings; in most of these meanings reason contrasts systematically with nature in one of its many senses” (19). Patriarchy subordinates women by attributing nature’s associated elements—emotion, the physical body, and sensory experience—to the feminine. It attributes culture, whose elements are rationality, metaphysics, and technology, to the masculine and conceived as superior side of the binary. Patriarchy sets the nature/culture binary analogous to the gender binary to attribute nature’s physical aspects to women and, in turn, to subordinate, commodify, and consume their bodies. To survive, women need to either participate in the consumption of women or evade the binary altogether.
In her book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India, ecofeminist Vandana Shiva explains that the patriarchal approach to subordinate nature is a threat to both women and nature: “The devaluation of subsistence, or rather subsistence economies, based on harmony between nature’s work, women’s work and man’s; has created the various forms of ethnic and cultural crisis that plagues our world today” (64). In Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, Marian stops eating after accepting Peter’s marriage proposal. Her body parallels the crisis that Shiva describes; she is threatened by the patriarchal attempt to devalue her and loses her ability to sustain herself accordingly. She ultimately denies her fundamental method of subsistence, food. Patriarchy thrives on nature/culture dualism, and, in turn, Peter does, too. Marian’s emotions, sensory experiences, and her physical body are all tools for Peter to subordinate and consume her, even though she tries to escape him by evading her body through starvation. To have a female body under the guise of the nature/culture binary is to be subordinated, commodified, and consumed by men, but Marian cannot evade her body without dying. To survive, Marian has to sustain her body while mutually protecting it from being consumed, and the only way to do so is to evade the nature/culture binary completely.
Shiva’s idea that western culture disrupts the link between women and nature can be seen through Peter’s attempts in objectifying Marian through the structure of marriage. Marian’s loss of appetite is her attempt to escape the cultural dualism that exists in consumption: If she has no body, then there is nothing to consume. Peter represents patriarchy, and Marian stands in for the oppressed nature, attempting to avoid being consumed. Peter’s method of conquering Marian is through micro-aggression, which he carries out routinely in their relationship. During a night in at Peter´s apartment, he asks Marian to make him a drink. While she is up, he requests her to flip a record, calling her a “good girl” (Atwood 226). Later in the night, Marian lays next to Peter, and he places an ashtray on her back. Peter’s request is a reflection of his entitlement to use Marian, and through the ashtray that balances on her back, he objectifies her as a piece of furniture. Peter’s use of language like “good girl” subordinates Marian by speaking to her as if she were a child. Marian describes being objectified at the salon, which she visits per Peter’s request: “Inert; totally inert. Was this what she was being pushed towards, this compound of the simply vegetable and the simply mechanical? An electric mushroom” (230). Marian loathes the experience of having her hair styled, but she endures it because Peter suggests that she “might have something done with her hair” (228). Marian feels inert and “simply mechanical” like an “electric mushroom” because Peter insists she undergo physical discomfort to fit his ideal image. To please Peter, Marian must undergo mechanization. Peter covertly pushes Marian into the realm of the physical, the subordinated and abused nature realm of the nature/culture binary, and Marian starves herself to try to deny the part of her that is being subordinated.
The hair salon, instead of being a relaxing, feminine space for Marian, constitutes a space where Peter ignores Marian’s needs to commodify her: He manipulates her physical self to match his patriarchal image of femininity. As a woman living in the framework of patriarchy, Marian is, as Plumwood calls it, “backgrounded” by her association with nature through “the denial of dependence on biospheric processes, and a view of humans as apart, outside of nature, which is treated as a limitless provider without needs of its own” (21). Peter and the male hair stylist treat Marian’s body as if it had no needs and were a limitless provider. As Atwood puts it, “Though she’s asked him not to put on too much [hairspray]; but they never did what you wanted them to. They treated your head like a cake: something to be carefully iced and ornamented” (229). In this passage, the stylist ignores Marian’s request for minimal hairspray and prioritizes fitting her into the patriarchal ideal of femininity. The hair salon is supposed to be a space that serves women, but Peter and the hairdresser oppress Marian by ignoring her physical discomfort and, instead, placing her voice in the subordinate background realm.
Using their engagement as a patriarchal tool, Peter covertly claims ownership of Marian’s body and attempts to shape her physicality according to his desires. Sofia Sanchez-Grant describes the patriarchal ideal of femininity in her article, “The Female Body in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle,” in which she also addresses Western culture’s treatment of the physical world—women and nature—and its connection to femininity, suggesting, “In fact, culture has, variously, valued supposedly ‘natural’ feminine bodily characteristics…which have required the most unnatural maintenance (corsets, foot-binding, products for straightening or detangling)” (79). Patriarchal culture does not attempt to ignore the “inferior” bodies of womankind but attempts to connect inferiority with the female body as a rationalization to conquer it.
Marian’s experience at the salon mirrors the mindset that drives the colonization of the frontier of the North American continent. Her body is backgrounded or reduced to an inanimate physical entity, and the hair dresser is entitled to mold her according to the desires of the male-dominated beauty ideal. Peter’s request for Marian to have her hair styled parallels the treatment of nature by Western colonizers: The needs and biospheric animation of nature is disregarded, and nature is reduced to a merely physical backdrop for men to conquer. Sanchez-Grant says, “The narrator’s clinical, somewhat violent description is incongruous with an experience that is supposed to be relaxing: this incongruity mirrors the incompatibility between patriarchal femininity and women’s own feelings” (85). This parallel between the colonization of nature and the modification of Marian’s body can be explained in terms of the nature/culture binary described by Shiva and Plumwood. Patriarchy perceives nature as a flat physical entity, and by Peter enforcing his expectations, Marian is flattened.
In response to the pressure Peter imposes on her, Marian loses her sense of agency over her body and, in turn, her psychological connection to it. For example, when Peter asks Marian if she wants to get married, Marian is unable to give her input. She says, “But instead I heard a soft flannelly voice I barely recognized, saying, ‘I’d rather have you decide that. I’d rather leave the big decisions up to you” (Atwood 94). Marian is surprised by her own response as if she has never spoken to him so submissively before. This passage marks Marian’s progressive subordination to Peter, and the language describing Marian’s voice indicates that she is separating her mental self from her physical body. Marian’s voice sounds “flannelly” (94). Her voice is being suffocated by the thick, heavy material and barely recognizable—as if she no longer knew her self, and her voice were now an unrecognizable ball of flannel that exists outside of her body. Marian’s dissociation is also shown later, when her roommate, Ainsley, demands that Marian mediate in an argument that she would rather avoid. Marian is unable to say no and feels like an inanimate object being pulled along by an external authority. Atwood points out, “Marian trailed after her into the living room, feeling like a child’s wheeled wooden toy being pulled along by a string, but she didn’t know on what grounds, moral or otherwise, she could base a refusal” (233). The string pulling her is the patriarchy, which has captured her physical autonomy through Peter’s commodification of her body.
Furthermore, because Peter disrupts the harmony between her body and mind, Marian is not aware of the reason why she cannot eat. She does not know that she is starving because she subconsciously fears to sustain the part of her that is in danger of Peter, which is her physical self. Because the woman/man binary is analogous to the nature/culture dichotomy, Marian tries to resist Peter by erasing her body through starvation and psychological dissociation. If she doesn’t eat, her body will wither, and if she dissociates, her mind is free from the danger that her body is in. As Shiva warns, the patriarchal forces of the West interrupt Marian’s relationship to nature, or her physical self respectively. She elaborates, “The forest is separated from the river, the field is separated from the forest, the animals are separated from the crops…the delicate balance which ensures sustainability and equity is destroyed” (65). Marian knows that her physical body is at risk of being consumed by Peter, but she is too dissociated from her self to be fully aware of what he is actually doing to her body and fights him by self-starvation. Without knowing it, she attempts to resist being Peter’s consumption by disengaging from her physical self and, in turn, her position alongside nature.
Like the river from the forest, Marian separates from her body in an attempt to survive. Sanchez-Grant says, “As the feminine ideal becomes increasingly confining, they [Marian] imagine themselves disappearing” (85). Marian begins to disappear when she watches Peter eat a steak and loses her appetite: “Watching him operating on the steak like that, carving a straight slice and then dividing it into neat cubes, made her think of the diagram of the planned cow at the front of one of her cookbooks…[the cow] stood there quite naturally, not at all disturbed by the peculiar markings painted on its hide” (Atwood 162). Peter does not cut and eat the steak but “operates” on it, as if it were a living physical entity still attached to the image of the cow on Marian’s cookbook. As she experiences patriarchal inferiorization and commodification of her body through Peter, the flesh of the cow he consumes becomes symbolic of her own flesh.
By watching Peter eat “her flesh,” Marian peers into a mirror of her own crisis and speculates on a future, in which cows are bred pre-marked for butchering. Atwood describes her unease as “She sat twisting her napkin and watched the steak disappear into his mouth” (164). Subconsciously aware that she is aligned with the cow’s flesh by the patriarchal conflation of nature and woman, Marian is overwhelmed by the thought that she is part of a society that desires to mark and consume her female body. This is why Peter and Marian’s date ends with her inability to finish eating. The picture of the cow on the cookbook is synecdochical to flattening the living physical world, and Peter—being a male on the dominate side of the nature/culture binary—consumes the steak in blissful ignorance of its origins. She understands the meat of the cow in terms of her own position on the nature side of the binary as Peter reduces both she and the cow to inanimate physical objects meant for consumption. Marian’s loss of appetite is a subconscious attempt to fight patriarchy’s treatment of the female body. Her body knows that she is in danger, but her mind has dissociated from it, and she lacks conscious awareness of Peter’s attempt to consume her.
Marian’s body knows that it is endangered by Peter, and her mind perceives this danger as him trying to kill her. At their engagement party, Marian fears the flash of Peter’s camera after having seen an advertisement that used the image of a woman as “that tiny two-dimensional small figure in a red dress, posed like a paper woman in a mail-order catalogue” (Atwood 268). Similar to her fear of becoming flattened and consumed like the cow on the cookbook, Marian, who also wears a red dress (per Peter’s request), flees the party to avoid being captured. The picture of the woman in the red dress represents the ideal patriarchal femininity, and by taking Marian’s picture, Peter will convert Marian into an advertisement—a flat image ready to be consumed. She fears that “Once he pulled the trigger she would be stopped, fixed indissolubly in that gesture, that single stance, unable to move or change” (Atwood 269). Once Peter takes Marian’s photo, once the party ends and they are married, Marian will be permanently flattened and immobilized following his patriarchal image of femininity. With the help of his camera lens, Peter attempts to cast Marian to the realm of subordinated physical objects, where woman is reduced to reside in the photo. While Peter’s taking photos is not a threat to Marian’s life, her body knows that she is in danger of being reduced to a commodity, to an object that Peter can shape and own at will.
While both Shiva’s and Plumwood’s ecofeminist lenses provide articulate means for understanding Marian’s conflict in The Edible Woman, their theories take separate directions. Shiva argues that women’s placement on the nature side of the nature/culture binary is essential for sustaining human-kind, so that there is no issue with the binary itself but with the inferiorization of the nature side itself. In other words, Shiva supports the idea that women are inherently connected to nature, and that the resulting binary should be maintained and respected. In application to The Edible Woman, Shiva’s emphasis on the importance of women’s connection to their physicality is relevant; the progression of Marian’s eating disorder exemplifies Shiva’s idea that Western values take hold of living, corporeal knowledge (the body) and kill it. Marian, trying to defend her self against patriarchy through starvation, remains unable to sustain her self and is at risk of dying. But, as Atwood is a postmodern author who discourages the existence of cultural dualism, Marian’s body cannot be saved by embracing nature in terms of the nature/culture binary.
Plumwood, in opposition to Shiva, argues that the resolution to the oppression of women through the nature/culture binary lies in the deconstruction of its existence. “A major point of the critical ecological feminist position I shall develop, is to argue that we should reject the master model and conceive human identity in less dualistic and oppositional ways; such a critical ecofeminism would conclude that both women and men are part of both nature and culture” (Plumwood 35). Plumwood agrees with Shiva’s call to ignite a newfound respect for nature in the Western world because simply disengaging women from their connection with nature preserves the idea that nature is inferior but preserves the dualistic perspective of nature/culture being harmful as it maintains the corresponding subordination/domination binary (Plumwood 31). As long as binaries exist, a patriarchal system has tools for subordinating groups to maintaining its power. Marian cannot survive simply by living on the culture side of the binary as she will still be participating in a system that uses dualism to subordinate women. For a woman, rejecting the nature side of the nature/culture binary means to subordinate her body. As narrated in The Edible Woman, for Marian to reject her body leads to starvation. The maintenance of the nature/culture binary is unsustainable for Marian’s survival because Marian’s only way of avoiding the nature side requires her starvation. It is the only way through which she can completely withdraw from this binary and reject her physical self.
Preserving the idea that women are connected to nature is problematic as it requires maintaining the nature/culture binary but, also, because it supports the idea that women have innate qualities that relate of nature. In The Edible Woman, for example, Marian’s roommate Ainsley believes in women’s duty to procreate. Ainsley plans to raise a child as a single mother because she understands it as her feminine duty: “Every women should have at least one baby. . . It fulfills your deepest femininity” (Atwood 39). Shiva shares Ainsley’s belief and says that childbearing and femininity should remain linked: “Women are not owners of their own bodies or the earth, but their cooperation with their bodies and with the earth in order to ‘let grow and make grow’” (63). While Shiva’s idea that women are meant to grow life through their bodies is accepted by Ainsley, it constitutes a source of suffering in Clara, Marian’s pregnant friend, and even loathing in Marian who describes Clara as sounding like she “was being dragged slowly down into the gigantic pumpkin growth that was enveloping her body” (Atwood 121). In this passage, Clara does not embrace a natural process, and she is being consumed by her lack of agency over her body. The connection of women to nature is considered an inherent dimension by Ainsley, but, as an authoritative narrative, it causes suffering in Marian and Clara.
Clara’s husband, Joe, exemplifies this authoritative narrative when he says that Clara should not have gone to school. He reflects, “Maybe women shouldn’t be allowed to go to university at all; then they wouldn’t always be feeling later on that they’ve missed out on the life of the mind” (Atwood 260). Joe, like Ainsley, assumes that having children is an inevitable part of being a woman and that, despite the fact that women are allowed to receive an education, domestic life will always take precedence in the female role. By suggesting that women should avoid college altogether, Joe discourages the melding of the nature/culture binary as childbearing represents nature, and education represents culture. The binary allows Joe to practice exclusive thinking and control women by maintaining the idea that they cannot participate in both sides. As long as there is duality in Western culture, women like Clara will be confined by an authoritative narrative. Whether women adhere to their physicality through childbearing or participate in the culture side of the binary by going to school, the two sides cannot be reconciled as long as they are cultivated as separate. To maintain the binary is to preserve dogmatic categorizations that limit women.
While Peter represents the threat of patriarchy, and Ainsley and Joe represent the status quo of the nature/culture binary, Duncan’s character stands for a space that is free of subordinating structures. For example, his analysis of Alice depicts Marian’s crisis of being forced into structured roles: “One sexual role after another is presented to her [Alice] but she seems unable to accept any of them. . . She rejects Maternity when the baby she’s been nursing turns into a pig, nor does she respond positively to the dominating female role of the Queen…” (Atwood 212). Alice, like Marian, is trying to escape set feminine roles by opposition. Alice is not satisfied in the position of being a mother, nor in the contrasting position of a person in power. She rather wants to escape duality and its corresponding roles altogether. Duncan’s analysis is a prolepsis to Marian’s finding a way to reject the nature/culture binary while maintaining her physical self.
Marian is attracted to Duncan because he transcends the nature/culture dichotomy and its analogous gender binary. He is not thriving but provides Marian with a space where nature/culture are abandoned, where the binary is dissolved. Physically, Duncan is “cadaverously thin,” his ribs sticking out “like those of an emanciated figure in a medieval wood-cut” (Atwood 47). Like other men, he is distanced from the nature side of the binary but not by subordinating it. He is distanced from nature because his physical body is withering. Duncan, being thin, weak, and mentally erratic, transcends the expectations of masculinity of being large, strong, and rational. Despite being distanced from nature like other men, his position on the culture side is not a typical one. In fact, Duncan does not inhabit the culture side like other men. He describes his disconnect from culture to Marian: “You read and read the material and after you’ve read the twentieth article you can’t make any sense out of it anymore, and then you start thinking about the number of books that are published in any given year, in any given month, in any given week, and that’s just too much. Words. . . are beginning to lose their meanings” (Atwood 101). In the same urgent and spinning manner in which Marian reflected on the steak, Duncan seems disturbed by the emptiness of words meant as the building blocks of the rational human mind. By rejecting words, he rejects culture but, also, language as the fundamental structure for making meaning. Duncan is a radical denier of structure, and, with him, Marian is finally free of the nature/culture binary.
Along with representing the possibility that the nature/culture binary may be deconstructed by abandoning aspects of both sides, Duncan relieves Marian as he does not attempt to subordinate her in any way. She says, “Of course Duncan was making what they called ‘demands’ if only on her time and attention; but at least he wasn’t threatening her with some intangible gift in return. . . But when Peter, with his mouth in approximately the same position, would whisper ‘I love you’ and wait for the echo, she had to exert herself” (Atwood 200). The intangible gift to which Marian refers here is the tether of marriage and the domestic expectations and physical subordination that comes with it. Peter says ‘I love you’ in order to reinforce Marian’s role as a women in their soon-to-be domestic partnership that is structured in terms of the nature/culture binary. Duncan, while brash, is more direct with in his reasoning for spending time with Marian. Instead of having abstract and long-term expectations, Duncan simply wants her. He says, “Because really…I don’t want you to think this means anything. It never sort of does, for me. It’s all happening really to somebody else…you’re just another substitute for the laundromat” (Atwood 156). The time that Marian and Duncan spend together does not mean anything to Duncan and, therefore, does not impose a specific meaning onto Marian. Duncan and Marian’s relationship is divorced from meaning and Western culture structures, where Marian would be subordinated according to its binaric meanings. Their relationship is refreshing to Marian and provides her with a feeling of agency as she wonders what Duncan is a substitute for in her own life (Atwood 156). In the relational structure between Duncan and Marian, there is no subordinate and dominant position but a mutual utilization of one another which results in a mutual satisfaction of their individual and specific needs. By blurring the nature/culture binary that Plumwood discourages, Duncan relieves Marian from her oppression, and she sets out on the course of rejecting the binary altogether. She ultimately stops denying her body and eats again, and she abandons her engagement to Peter.
Ironically and deliberately, the first morsel of food that Marian eats comes from a cake that is shaped like a woman. Before consuming it, Marian uses the cake as a prop in her first protest against Peter since their engagement: “You’ve been trying to destroy me, haven’t you. . . You’ve been trying to assimilate me. But I’ve made you a substitute, something you’ll like much better. This is what you really wanted all along, isn’t it” (Atwood 299-300). In this passage, Marian confronts Peter’s attempts to objectify and consume her by offering him a reflection of his own desires, a literally edible woman. “Suddenly she was hungry. Extremely hungry. The cake after all was only a cake. She picked up the platter, carried it to the kitchen table and located a fork. ‘I’ll start with the feet,’ she decided” (Atwood 300). After rejecting Peter, Marian no longer fears being grouped together with the physicality of food, and the cake represents simply a cake, despite its female shape.
The cake is a significant symbol of sustenance for two reasons: First, it is the first food Marian is able to eat again, and second, it is shaped like her own body. Sanchez-Grant says, “Theoretically, by erasing the body, women can evade patriarchal control. As Marian comes to learn, however, the body will not be disposed of so easily” (81). Realizing that she cannot dispose of her body, Marian reclaims it by symbolically consuming it herself. In Marian’s circular journey from a single woman to a woman dying of starvation and back again, we see Shiva’s idea that Marian’s acceptance of her physical body results in the sustenance of her life. In the examples of Clara, Joe, and Ainsley, we see subordination still occur by categorizing this acceptance within a binary structure. By creating and consuming the woman-shaped cake, Marian symbolically blurs the nature/culture binary. Through eating something that is shaped like her, Marian is both the consumed and the consumer; she embraces her physicality and transgresses the nature/culture binary that separates her physical body from her agency in society. Atwood writes the events leading up to Marian’s liberation from starvation and Peter’s oppression as a deconstruction of the nature/culture binary, exemplifying that the only way to survive in Western society is to dissolve its structures that function as traps.
Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. Doubleday, 1998.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge, 1993.
Shiva, Vandana. Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India. Zed Books Ltd., 1988
Sofia Sanchez-Grant. “The Female Body in Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Lady Oracle.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, 2008, pp. 77-92.
Cajetan Sorich is a senior at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where she double majors in English and Philosophy, and is writing a hybrid, narrative text for her senior thesis. Caj loves fiction and poetry, creative nonfiction, and academic essays.