Quote 3

“Some of the women have a Watchbird beside them . . . “This is a Watchbird watching YOU.”
I see that there will be no end to imperfection, or to doing things the wrong way. Even if you grow up, no matter how hard you scrub, whatever you do, there will always be some other stain or spot on your face . . . somebody frowning.”

Elaine comes to this conclusion in Chapter 26, when she stays at home sick, looking through women’s magazines. Elaine fakes being sick in order to avoid the bullying she suffers daily, and as these magazines provide advice for women, we can conclude that she reads them in order to learn how to be a girl correctly. Here, Elaine discovers that society sets impossible standards for women and that she can do nothing to avoid failure. The inherent wrongness of being a woman is echoed throughout the novel, such as when the other art students explain that “lady painter” is synonymous with “bad painter.” The very association of a painting with femininity makes it bad. Elaine attempts to dodge this fate by constantly aligning herself with boys over other girls, such as when she joins her art school classmates in mocking Susie or Babs and Marjorie. However, even though Jon initially appears to grant her the privileges of aligning herself with him, calling her smart, the minute their relationship becomes romantic, he labels her as a mother figure, nagging and unreasonable.

This quotation also introduces the idea that womanhood means being under constant scrutiny from other women. Feminist theory generally focuses on the “male gaze,” the objectifying gaze that men give women, but Atwood here conceptualizes a policing female gaze that enforces patriarchy. Not only do women write these critical magazines, but we can read the phrase “Watchbird” as referring to a woman who calls out other women because “bird” can be slang for woman. Watchbirds define Elaine’s experience of girlhood. Cordelia and Grace order Carol to surveil Elaine in class and report back on her flaws, and Grace plays the same role at Sunday school. In this quotation, Elaine receives confirmation that women police each other and that female friendship revolves around judgment. She takes this confirmation into the rest of her life by assuming the worst of every woman she meets, such as when she lashes out at Andrea during the interview or thinks of Susie as a scheming siren.