The Unreliable Feminine Narrative Voice in "Rape Fantasies"
With her usual caustic wit, Margaret Atwood uses humor to examine women's power and powerlessness and to exploit the distinction between fantasy and fear in her story "Rape Fantasies." Atwood, through the voice of the narrator Estelle, shows readers how hard it is for women to laugh at themselves when they have been conditioned by the media to take themselves and their desires far too seriously and their safety not seriously enough. It is implied that only a rare woman like Estelle analyzes what her ''rape'' fantasies mean and how they have originated, suggesting that television and magazines help inspire a woman's fantasies of submis-siveness to a strange male. Estelle especially condemns magazines that
have these questionnaires like the ones they used to have about whether you were a good enough wife or an endomorph or an ectomorph, remember that? with the scoring upside down on page 73, and then these numbered do-it-yourself dealies, you know "Rape, Ten Things To Do about It," like it was ten new hairdos or something.
This playfully sardonic line suggests that women must suffer many subtle indignities and condescending attitudes that are publicly sanctioned. The magazines prey on women's feelings of inadequacy but in a seemingly inoffensive, snappy format. Yet Estelle reveals how her intelligence is insulted by the magazine's fashionable coverage of such a devastating topic: ''You' d think it was just invented ... I mean what's so new about it?" she asks. She recognizes rape is an ancient violation and exposes the sensationalist way the magazine article presents the issue. Estelle appears to resent the idea that women are often not in control of their own bodies, whether it is in preventing a forcible entry, or preventing society's forced perception of how that body should look.
Because of her awareness, Estelle realizes how different she is from her coworkers: Chrissy, the varnished receptionist, and gullible Greta. Greta and Chrissy are excellent foils for Estelle and she sums them up this way—"They're both blondes, I don't mean that in a bitchy way but they do try to outdress each other." Estelle's comment highlights the superficial values the two women have. Their fantasies reveal their acceptance of the magazine's views of women. Chrissy can avidly quote the magazine to support her views: "It says here all women have rape fantasies." Clearly, the magazine's generalization of "all women" is damaging since Chrissy accepts fantasy as fact. The magazine's pop-psychology can be dangerous when, for example, in Chrissy's fantasy she is attacked, but she does not defend herself, even by screaming. Chrissy mentions, "But who'd hear me? Besides, all the articles say it's better not to resist, that way you don't get hurt." It is significant that Chrissy is helpless in her fantasy since the magazine condones her helpless passivity. "I can't very well get out of the bathtub. The bathroom is too small and he's blocking the doorway, so I just lie there." Chrissy believes in the image of women as desirable only when they are defenseless.
Magazines are not the only medium to exploit women. When Chrissy discloses her fantasy about a man all dressed in black wearing black gloves, Estelle says, "I knew right away the [TV] show she got the black gloves off, because I saw the same one." Both TV and magazines encourage the idea that unreality is better than reality. Estelle finds her coworkers' fantasies impossibly silly after listening to one fantasy story about a man who climbs eighteen floors with a hook and a rope. The media can become a double-barreled shotgun aimed at women, especially when the fantasies seem like innocent little dreams; "and then he, well, you know," and the magazines and shows do not describe the violent, unwilling sex, but rather only inspire romantic fantasizing. Overall, though Estelle blames not only magazines and TV for their marketing-inspired nonsense, but also the women themselves who buy into the fantasy.
(The entire section is 6,449 words.)