By Jacqueline Bush
for the course Introduction to College English
Instructor: Irene Ogrizek
“Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing”: Objecting to Objectification
The objectification of women has been going on for centuries, gaining publicity as the roles and rights of women evolved and changed over the last several decades. As Margaret Atwood demonstrates in her 1996 poem entitled “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing”, objectification runs far deeper than women simply being demeaned by men’s desires. In the poem, Atwood appropriates the voice of Helen of Troy, an otherwise voiceless icon. In Atwood’s tale, Helen of Troy is an exotic dancer and a generally unpleasant woman. Atwood uses Helen in this context to convey a very important message: that objectification is a cyclical power struggle in which there is no winner.
The first stanza of “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing” establishes the starting point from which the cycle of objectification begins. Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, is put in a position in which all that can be seen of her is her body. What is significant about the first stanza is that it is quite clear that Helen is more than simply a hapless victim; she chooses this line of work: “Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way / you cut it, but I’ve a choice / of how, and I’ll take the money.” (Atwood l.17 – 19). Although it is not addressed in Atwood’s poem, the mythological Helen of Troy was an object of men’s desires from a very young age. Mythological Helen was also never given a voice, but Atwood has explored the effect of long term exposure to this type of attention on a young woman, and has created a bitter, disingenuous personality for her. Atwood’s Helen sees the power she has over men and chooses to capitalize on their weakness. Counter-dancing Helen knows that she will be objectified no matter what she does, and she therefore seizes control by objectifying herself first.
In the following passage from “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing”, Margaret Atwood inverts the roles of object and beholder for one of the most objectified women of all time:
Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. (Atwood l. 33 – 37)
Helen of Troy, a character noteworthy in her position as both pawn and prize, feels contempt for those who revere her so. This passage of the poem is a prime example of the cyclical aspect of objectification. In it, Helen uses synecdoche to figuratively dehumanize her audience while she dances. Referring to the men as only “rows of heads and upturned eyes” implies that they are not worth more than the sum of their parts, much as she is viewed by society. Her use of the phrase “ready to snap at my ankles” links the men to dogs, after having earlier referred to herself as “naked as a meat sandwich” (Atwood l. 11). The men view her as something to be consumed, whereas she sees them as nothing more than salivating mutts. This passage also alludes to her divine affiliations, earthquakes and floods having been explained by mythology in Ancient Greece. She claims that she understands these natural disasters, as well as the urge to crush ants (the mortal equivalent of a god’s power to destroy), because these phenomena are an assertion of power through destruction. Having men gaze at her arouses the need to impose her dominance through ruination. The rest of the second stanza continues in this vein of brutality and wreckage, comparing her workplace to the aftermath of political violence. Power, objectification and sex are inextricably linked in the poem, much as they were in Helen’s mythological life, although in this version, Helen has the upper-hand.
The third stanza of the poem explores Helen’s self-absorption. After describing global catastrophe, Helen brings the topic back to herself, as if she is of global importance, equivalent to war or terrorism. She explicitly begins comparing herself to her audience members, and is openly hostile in her descriptions. Her sense of superiority is evident, claiming that:
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods,
where meanings are lilting and oblique. (Atwood l. 55-58)
The men in her life have put Helen upon a pedestal, while completely disregarding her thoughts or opinions. Rather than crushing her self esteem, this treatment allows her ego to flourish, while her trust in and respect for men plummets. Towards the end of the poem, her duplicity is revealed as she openly admits to using feigned honesty to conceal her true self. In the last four lines of the poem, the reader for the first time truly gains a sense of sincerity in her words, and the emotion she is genuinely feeling is anger. Helen of Troy is powerful and she knows it, going so far as to end the poem with a warning:
You think I’m not a goddess?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn. (Atwood l. 80-84)
She uses the resentment she feels to fuel her passion and therefore gain control over her life, but without her objectification she is passionless and powerless. While Helen feels she has the ability to destroy anyone that may cross her, she also lives in a constant state of mistrust and the only emotion she can openly convey is anger. This is a direct result of years of abuse, praise and objectification at the hands of all the men in her life.
“Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing” is a cleverly written and very important poem about the dangers of objectification and how it can simultaneously build up and destroy a person. Atwood uses the mysterious character of Helen of Troy to point out that rather than breeding insecurity and degradation, objectification is a means of control that can work in both directions and may even harden its subject in very damaging ways.
Atwood, Margaret. “Helen of Troy Does Counter Dancing.” 1996. Introduction to College English. Ed. Irene Ogrizek. Montreal: Dawson College, 2012. 3-4. Print.
Helen of Troy. Prod. Jessica Taylor. Dir. Bill Locke. Perf. Bettany Hughes. Lion Television Productions, 2005. DVD.