What is the overall theme and/or message in the poem "Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing" by Margaret Atwood? I think that the speaker here is a stripper justifying herself and explaining what she does, but I don't quite understand what her message is.

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The theme of Atwood's poem "Helen of Toy Does Countertop Dancing" is pride and resolution. The woman in the poem is clearly a stripper, but she is defending her career vehemently, lauding the benefits it serves and decrying the sad state of affairs other jobs offer. There is a clear...

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The theme of Atwood's poem "Helen of Toy Does Countertop Dancing" is pride and resolution. The woman in the poem is clearly a stripper, but she is defending her career vehemently, lauding the benefits it serves and decrying the sad state of affairs other jobs offer. There is a clear juxtaposition in the content of the poem—such as stating that she is "naked as a meat sandwich", which seems vulgar and demeaning—and the intent, which is to show pride and resolve to continue doing what she is doing.

This poem is written partly as a piece of feminist solidarity, where the woman, as a sex worker, is entitled to feel pride in what she does, while also deserving to have her rights and personage protected. Elevating this woman to a status that feels like a more legitimate career while also giving her the moniker of "Helen of Troy", a much-desired and lauded historical woman, gives the narrator strength and dignity which is typically restricted from sex workers.

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This is one of several poems by Margaret Atwood which attempt to re-imagine Homeric stories from the point of view of female characters. In this way, she is echoing Tennyson's poems that also use episodes described in Homer by an external narrator. Tennyson uses dramatic monologues or other forms of intimate narration to explore the interior states of Homeric figures. Atwood, who also uses the dramatic monologue, unlike Tennyson, is especially interested in the viewpoints of female characters.

First, it should be noted that this poem was written in the 1990s, when Canadian feminists were expressing solidarity with what was a nascent movement for protecting the rights of sex workers and exotic dancers. One major theme in the poem is Atwood's sympathy with this movement as part of her broader commitment to human rights.

Another major theme is economic empowerment of poor women. As the stripper points out, her job options are either stripping or poorly paid retail or service jobs. She suggests that there is more human dignity in being a highly paid stripper than in being a badly paid cashier or waitress.

Another theme is that of how strippers sell a fantasy, just as advertisers of consumer products, priests, and producers of films do. The Helen of Homer and the stripper are both objects of the male gaze who sell men's own fantasies to them. A final theme is the degree to which both the stripper and Helen are not victims but powerful women.

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On a literal level, you are right.  The speaker in the poem is a stripper who is justifying herself and her profession (the money's good, it's easier than doing retail work, etc).  But more that that, this is a poem about women and sexuality and the fact that these things make a sort of double-edged sword for a woman (something that can be a weapon to use against others but which can also hurt the woman herself).  This poem always makes me think of the debates in the 1990s (and which still continue) about how women should perceive their sexuality -- whether it was a source of power or something to be hidden.  The speaker in the poem is, to me, exploring this question.

On the one hand, the speaker's beauty obviously makes her into a piece of meat.  The men treat her like all she is is a body.  This is the degrading side of women's sexual attractiveness -- it makes them into object in the eyes of men.

On the other hand, however, the speaker clearly feels empowered by her beauty and her desireability.  She has power over men that other women do not have.  This makes her feel strong and  I think this is why Atwood uses this title since Helen of Troy had the power to "launch a thousand ships".

So this is a poem not just about one stripper's thoughts, but about the dilemma that faces women -- what is the meaning of their sexual attractiveness and how should they feel about it?

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