Spotty-Handed Villainesses by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Another old speech from the pre-2009 syllabus for for Module B: Critical Study of Texts – Speeches.

There are actually a lot of notes already on Bored of Studies on this speech. I’ve noted 2 particular ones at the bottom of this page under Links.

Atwood’s speech is my favourite of the entire 2009 Prescription set. There’s so much going on it that you can talk about and it’s absolutely filled with literary techniques that I haven’t gone through and listed them off for you below.

Do other students/tutors like this speech?

I find that with some students (particularly those of a non-English background) hate this speech, because (a) it’s so long; and (b) it’s hard to understand.

But if you get half the references/allusions Atwood makes, then you’ll like this speech I think. I personally found it really witty and funny. Maybe this is because I’m doing Writing and Cultural Studies at UTS myself. So as a writer, I can relate to her predicament of “what is a novel” and “how can I write this character”.

Oh, I have not included a Glossary for this speech (because it would be too long I think), but I have gone through and put a list/explanation of all the literary/cultural references in a list below. Enjoy!

Also, here are some things to consider:

  1. This is obviously a very different feminist speech to Kyi’s Keynote Address at the Beijing World Conference on Women.  How is their perspectives on feminism different?
  2. Unlike the other speeches, Atwood’s is very humourous and literary. Does this make it more effective as a speech?


  • Margaret Atwood is a Canadian novelist, poet, critic and social campaigner born in 1939
  • She was a feminist campaigner in the 1960s – but was not an extremist.
  • She supports feminism, but criticises it for its extremism.


  • Mostly middle-aged, intellectual and literary women readers –  familiar with all the literary and cultural references
  • The speech was given at various events in 1994, for example the American Bookseller Convention and other women’s luncheons
  • Extreme feminists – criticised Atwood for misunderstanding feminism


  • Delivered in 1994
  • In the 1960s, there was a strong feminist push, known as second wave feminism. It focused upon fighting the oppression of women in society and the need for equal rights.
  • By the early 1990s (when Atwood made this speech), this had become third wave feminism. It was in a way a response to the backlash of second wave feminism.
  • There was a clash between extreme feminists and counter feminists. There was questions of what feminism meant and the changed roles of men/women.

Techniques by Page

Since this speech is much longer than the others – I’ll simply go page by page, instead of paragraph by paragraph. The page numbers are as they are on the PDF of English Prescriptions: Advanced Speeches on the BOS website.

I won’t do your analysis for you, but here is a general guideline:

  1. Identify where the listed techniques are in the speech.
  2. Explain their effect/purpose.

Page 5:

  • Allusion
  • Academic reference – Angel/Whore split
  • Personal/anecdotal
  • Satire – The Menopause
  • Colloquialisms
  • Rhetorical questions

Page 6:

  • Literary/cultural references
  • Extended metaphor
  • Colloquialism/humour – horses
  • Religious allusions

Page 7:

  • Irony – “We con-artists do tell the truth”
  • Repetition
  • Dashes (punctuation)
  • Direct address to audience
  • 2nd person
  • School imagery
  • Simile

Page 8:

  • Religious allusions
  • Humourous analogy
  • Dot point questions
  • Colloquialism

Page 10:

  • Antithesis/paradox
  • Play on stigma
  • Metaphorical imagery

Page 11:

  • Exclamations
  • Humour – Snow White

Page 12:

  • Humour – Virgin Mary
  • Simile
  • Diplomatic tone

Page 14:

  • Metaphor
  • Play on language – “many-dimensionality”
  • Quotation

Literary/Cultural References:

Here is a (rather exhaustive) breakdown of all the references made in this speech. The links of each are simply to Wikipedia pages if you require more information.

  • Dr Jekyll-Mr Hyde: novel which portrayed a character with a split personality (good/evil personality)
  • Lady Macbeth: female character in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who convinced her husband to kill the King then goes insane with guilt
  • Ophelia: female character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who is innocent but goes insane and commits suicide
  • Ibsenian: Ibsen was a playwright. He wrote plays exposing issues in normal, everyday life.
  • GB Shaw: also a playwright, who wrote about social issues
  • Pinter: another playwright
  • Ionesco: I assume she’s talking about this playwright. He wrote plays that ridiculed the most boring of situations.
  • Andy Warhol: artist and filmmaker. His films were abstract – one was of a man sleeping for 6 hours, another of a man eating a mushroom for 45mins.
  • Emily Dickinson: American poet
  • Pride and Prejudice: a classic novel by Jane Austen about life, love etc.
  • Keats: English poet
  • Iago: villain in Shakespeare’s Othello
  • Imogen: character in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline (which I have never heard of…)
  • Art for Art’s Sake: refers to the idea that the purpose of art is simply “to make art”, not necessarily to deliver a message etc.
  • Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw: novella about a governess who sees ghosts
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula: original novel that introduced Count Dracula
  • Miss Marple: crime novel character. She was an old woman who did amateur detective work.
  • Harlequin: large publisher that specialised in romances and women’s fiction
  • The Perils of Pauline: 1914 serial film that famously examples the “damsel in distress”
  • Anna Karenina: famous Russian novel, where the main character has a love affair and later commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train
  • Mephistopheles: a demon in German legends
  • Jezebel: female Biblical character, who was characterised as evil and manipulative
  • Medea: female character in Greek mythology and Euripides’ play, who is an enchantress and eventually murders her 2 children
  • Medusa: female character in Greek mythology, who had snakes instead of hair and turned people who looked at her into stone
  • Delilah: female Biblical character, who is famous for being a betrayer and temptress
  • Regan and Goneril: female characters in Shakespeare’s King Lear, who betray their father and then eventually die when they betray each other
  • She: Rider Haggard’s novel in which there is a white queen, who is a all-powerful female – both desired and feared
  • Sula:  Tony Morrison’s novel in which the female protagonist, Sula, is portrayed as “bad”
  • Queen of the Night: character in Mozart’s opera, Magic Flute
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales: collection of German fairy tales, which were the origins of many Disney films. The collection was unsuitable for children – much more violent with sexual references.
  • The Youth Who Set Out to Learn What Fear Was: a story in the Grimm’s Fairy Tales
  • Virgin Mary: female Biblical character, who was the mother of Jesus
  • Euripides: playwright, who wrote Medea. In that play, Medea is betrayed by her husband. It is seen as a sympathetic, feminist play.
  • Beloved: novel by Tony Morrison, in which the main female character Sethe, a slave, kills her daughter
  • Tess of the D’Ubervilles: novel by Thomas Hardy. The main protagonist is Tess.
  • Time: an American newsmagazine
  • Mata Hari: an exotic dancer and courtesan, who was a double agent during WW1
  • Judith and Holofernes: Judith is a female Biblical character, who gains the trust of the enemy general, Holofernes, and later decapitates him in his sleep
  • The Scarlet Letter:  novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which the female protagonist, Hester Prynne commits adultery with a priest and fall pregnant
  • Madame Bovary: play in which the female protagonist, a doctor’s wife, has many adulterous affairs
  • Vanity Fair: novel by William Thackeray, in which the female protagonist, Becky Sharpe, who tries to attain social status through manipulation
  • The Custom of the Country: novel, in which the female protagonist, Undine Spragg, tries to climb the New York social ladder
  • Felix Krull, Confidence Man
  • Jane Eyre: novel by Charlotte Bronte in which the female protagonist stands up to her oppressive aunt
  • Jungian: refers to the psychological theories of Carl Jung
  • Tales of Hoffman: opera by Hoffman, in which his own character gives his shadow to a courtesan
  • Point Counter Point: novel by Huxley in which a female character, Lucy Tantamount is both abhorrent and attractive
  • Dame Rebecca West: a feminist writer and journalist


11 comments for “Spotty-Handed Villainesses by Margaret Atwood

  1. Kym
    October 24, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Sorry if this is a bit far-fetched of me to ask, but do you happen to know where the audio segments of any of the 7 prescribed speeches can be found? Surely, since these were read aloud, recordings can be found.

    But my search has been unsuccessful. 🙁

    • tutortales
      October 24, 2009 at 9:59 pm

      The only one I know of is Keating:
      The rest I haven’t been able to find – also Sadat’s speech isn’t in English.


      • Kym
        October 25, 2009 at 6:39 am

        Thank you so much!

        (I can’t believe you’re a tutor…tutors usually aren’t willing to divulge their secrets. You should be an anti-tutoring, FOI-promoting vigilante!)

  2. Kym
    April 23, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    I think you should include references to Andre Gide and. Marshall McLuhan.

  3. jimmy hendrix
    June 6, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    i’m about to fail an english assesment, i can see the techniques but can’t write much on them but thanks i think you may have helped me get a few extra marks

  4. Anthony Catanzariti
    November 28, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    I like this speech. I especially like the analogy of the “eternal breakfast”. It does present some issues though, like the fact that it was presented on a variety of occasions and the lengthy digressions as to what a novel is. It is very entertaining though.

    • Your Fave Student
      March 6, 2011 at 11:48 am

      Allllll right mateee

  5. jen
    November 13, 2011 at 10:50 am

    I understood about half the allusions made in this speech but still did not like it. To me it just seems to begin talking about feminism and then go off on a tangent talking about the relationship between art and life before finally linking that back to feminism again. :/

    • tutortales
      November 17, 2011 at 6:10 pm

      To each their own. 🙂 Which is your favourite speech? TT

  6. richie01
    June 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Hi, I have an english essay to right, about the opening paragraph of Atwood’s speech and how it establishes the social ideas of the speech. What could I write and what speech could I use in conjunction with Atwood?

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