Zenia, the title character in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride, is a charismatic and beautiful woman who knows just what it takes to steal the hearts of taken men. The heroines of the book, Tony, Roz, and Charis, don’t quite understand what witchcraft she uses to cast a spell on their men and lure them to their deaths as a sea siren would to lovelorn shipmates. And because she remains enigmatic and elusive ’til the end, we know nothing of who she is either, as we are left to wonder what compels a woman to steal others and what does she possess that men willingly leave their loved ones for her? I have faced women like Zenia before, friends in sheep’s clothing, who are really wolves who bare their teeth when a man is introduced. This type of woman is broken, but also sure of who they are; so sure that they feel they can take whomever they want.
In the book, Zenia tells tall tales of what her past may have been, making the heroines feel as if they must defend and protect her, but what really is the past of a woman such as this? Women like Zenia steal their friend’s husbands because they crave love and acceptance and get a rush when a man leaves his wife/girlfriend for her because they feel it must mean they are better than them. These women feel as if they are just as good or better than them if they are chosen by the man, which is a false equivalency, but one they believe nonetheless. Typically, they know their worth because the outside world and men constantly barrage them with these things. They know their strengths lie in their beauty and their presence, so they use these tools to their advantage. However, they have no sense of worth internally, so they try to fill this chasm up with things that don’t belong to them. To take another woman’s man is to take her sense of worth and in it, boost hers; but it never lasts long because that chasm opened when they were young and is a separate issue. These women were hurt by the absence or neglect of their fathers, and as such, they seek a forbidden love when they grow up to try to replace it.
I know those girls didn’t really want my boyfriend. They wanted the promise of getting him, which entailed becoming someone who was loved, but because they didn’t love themselves, they could scarcely accept that same love in return. That is why Zenia never loved any of the men she stole, because she was never looking for love. She wanted to be loved, but she didn’t want to love. To love means to be vulnerable, and she knew she would never be vulnerable again because she’d been hurt so much in the past. And then the real question rears its head: What did she have that all these men wanted? What was her secret? She knew how to have them best fulfill their role as protector, which made them feel good about themselves. When you make a person feel as if they have succeeded in their role, they will adore you.
What is the role of a man in a hetero-normative relationship? Is it always to be the protector? Isn’t that misogynistic? It definitely is. Unfortunately, society has bequeathed the role of provider and protector unto men and nurturer unto women and this is something that we still need to contend with, but we also need to acknowledge that it deeply affects who we are as of today. In situations where one spouse falls seriously ill, more men than women tend to leave the ill spouse. In one case of study participants, the divorce rate was 21 percent for the husbands of seriously ill women and 3 percent for the wives of seriously ill men. I don’t think men have any less compassion than women. The issue here is that men have been conditioned to be protectors and when their wives are dying of cancer, they feel helpless as if they have failed their jobs, so they leave. It’s easier to be alone than it is to be reminded of your failures when you look at your sick wife. This is not a condemnation of men, but of what society has ingrained into us who we should be and what our purpose is.
Zenia, and women like her, know this. Perhaps they know more because they saw their fathers leave. Or they know that most people want to love, but they don’t care about being loved back. Because of their unique position where they can’t accept love, they can cater to the whims of their beloved without being beholden to them. They understand that their worth lies in how they make men and others feel about themselves. Zenia not only plays men, but also the women, making them feel worthy of tending to her. In the end, it’s simply not about what men want, but what everyone wants. The secret is to know what exactly it is that each person is looking for to feel better about themselves, and that is what Zenia knows.