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Portrayal Of Social Issues Faced By Women

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5505 words Published: 11th May 2017

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The aim of this extended essay is to analyze how Patience Agbabi portrays the issues women are faced with in her poem cycle ”Seven Sisters” from her poetry collection ”Transformatrix” and examine the different viewpoints of the main themes presented in the seven poems from the perspective of the poet.

This is done by first distinguishing three main topics in the seven poems which are:

Teenage pregnancy and prostitution

Adolescence and fairytale stereotypes

Sexuality, sexual abuse and gender expectations

These topics were then thoroughly analyzed by detailed investigation of the poems and additional external sources. With the purpose of understanding the message behind the poems more adequately, an interview with the poet, Patience Agbabi, was organized first by contacting her through www.patienceagbabi.wordpress.com and later by email. The correspondence is attached in the appendix.

After an in depth research of the main topics, it was possible to conclude that Patience Agbabi portrayed the women and the social issues in a more unconventional manner by highlighting the virtuous as well as the unpleasant characteristics of the main characters. This is different for example from the media which, influenced by society, typically only presents only one point of view and thus disregards the opinions of the people who actually suffer from the social issues discussed in this essay.


Patience Agbabi is a British poet born in London in 1965 to Nigerian parents. She was educated at Oxford Univeristy and published the poetry collection, named ”Transformatrix”, in 2000. This extended essay will analyze seven sestina poems from that collection, suitably called the ”Seven Sisters”, which are a truthful interpretation of the poet’s view on women and the many challenges they go through. With each of the seven women representing a different time and type of life, Patience Agbabi has given a very interesting depiction of the transformation of women through time. The issues in the poems vary a great deal. The main topics discussed are teenage pregnancy and prostitution, adolescence and fairytale stereotypes, and sexuality, sexual abuse and gender expectations. In her poems Patience Agbabi tries to break the stereotypes of women that have formed from years and years of misunderstanding and lack of interest to know the other side of the story. It is interesting to see that even though a feminist, the poet does not depict the women in the seven poems in an extremely positive or ideal manner; the characters are all authentic and with flaws, as it is in real life, which is exactly the reason why they are so intriguing to read. Instead of the worn out depictions of the topics in the poems, Agbabi tries to explore a different viewpoint and widen the understanding of for example transvestites, lesbians or rebellious teenagers. The poet uses one of the most difficult forms of poetry to master, the sestina, to emphasize the most important aspects in each poem. A sestina is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by its envoy. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the stanzas, but in a different order each time [1] . The six repetitive word are time, girl, end, child, boy, dark – each of these representing the central themes of the poems and combining the ”Seven Sisters” together. In whole the question this essay aims to answer is: How does Patience Agbabi portray the issues women are faced with in her poem cycle ”Seven Sisters”?

Teenage pregnancy and prostitution

Teenage pregnancy has been a problem throughout history, the only difference being that nowadays it is much more talked about and there are actual measures taken to relieve the situation. During the Second World War however, which is also the time frame for the first poem ”Martina” [2] , the situation was much worse and the problem was ignored or denied. As described in the poem, the war had a horrific effect on people as most were living in constant fear, thinking only about the outcome of the confrontation. With the men sent to battle, the women had to provide for themselves and for many it meant getting a job and working long hours for the first time in their lives. It is to no surprise then, that some women resorted to easier ways to keep their previous lifestyle and at the same time help the war-effort. The so called ”victory girls” or ”khaki-wackies” provided respectable companionship for military men: they wrote letters, played cards, danced with them and eventually ended up carrying their children as a result of imprudence. [3] In the poem ”Martina”, the difference between the two manners of behaviour is described by the fact that in the time of fear and despair, when women had to work hard and food was in very short supply, the so called ”khaki-wackies” had a much more glamorous lifestyle, at least on the outside:

”.. But we were weekend

disciples, evacuees scared of dark

nights pierced with blitzkrieg pyrotechnics, child-

like, clinging to mother’s skirt. She found time

to party in new nylons, good-time girl

growing voluptuous from man and boy,

on chocolate and plum brandy. I was tomboy…” [4] 

In reality they were non-professional prostitutes, girls who resorted to more straight-forward measures to survive the turbulent and uncertain times. In the last three stanzas of the poem, Agbabi describes the very typical outcome of such behaviour, which was pregnancy. As the V-girls were in majority young girls raging from the age of 12 to 17, teenage pregnancy rate was for example in the United States higher in the 1940’s than it is now. [5] 

” ….

We all knew she was expecting a child.

In those days we all expected the boy

to marry her. But it being wartime,

too soon his two-month leave came to an end.

Her father threw her out into pitch-dark

November’s clutches with words ”No girl

of mine…” She gave birth to a baby girl,

Martina. They wanted to put the child

up for adoption. …. ” [6] 

In these lines the poet also explains the misconception people had about the lifestyle of such girls.

It was expected that the soldiers would marry the girl they got pregnant, but the reality was quite different. Majority of the men had no intention to take responsibility, and even when they did walk down the aisle, the marriages usually ended when the war was over. The girls were left behind, pregnant and rejected by the society, with no other option than to resort to illegal abortion, give the child up for adoption or try to raise their newborn alone. [7] The women could not expect help from their families as it was considered unforgivable to have a child born out of wedlock. The media portrayed them as people who only had themselves to blame for their situation, but the poem ”Martina” evokes rather sympathy than dismay for the character, especially with the last lines:

” …. In time,

she got married for the child’s sake, a boy-

next-door type; and in time I met a girl

with sloe-dark eyes and loved her till the end.” [8] 

Patience Agbabi herself says that: ”The conversational first person narrative invites the reader to identify with these women, to enjoy their spirit and wit, to empathise with them in spite of their morals.” [9] Throughout the poem and especially in the end, the narrator is more intrigued and fascinated by the victory girl, rather than being appalled. In my opinion it reflects that in many ways the V-girls were envied for their seemingly glamorous lifestyle and their free-spirited nature, by other, more conservative, women during that time.

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The other poem in the collection, that has the central themes of teenage pregnancy, prostitution and also sexual abuse is ”Samantha” [10] . Unlike ”Martina”, the life of ”Samantha” takes place at a more modern time. The poem deals mostly with prostitution, but once again it is not from the very typical viewpoint, as the woman’s positive characteristics are equally emphasized with her short-comings. The poem also gives more insight to one of the reasons behind prostitution and from that also teenage pregnancy.


They can’t see my bump in the dark.

I work Stamford Hill mostly. My first time

was 96. We was really broke. Boy

from the local estate. Dealer. The girls

put me up to it. Once I got over the taste it was child’s

play. Sucked him like an ice lolly in June. We call it ‘making ends

meet.’ ” [11] 

In this stanza, the prostitute is talking about why she first got started with her line of work, and as for most girls, it is usually about financial problems and a lack of education or opportunities to find a proper job. According to Claire Sterk: money, history of sexual abuse, having grown up without love from the significant adults in their lives and being enticed by a male of female friend or by peer pressure from a group of friends are the main reasons behind prostitution. [12] All of those are also mentioned in the poem ”Samantha”. When comparing ”Samantha” to ”Martina” then their one similarity is pregnancy, what is different, is the two women’s perception of the situations.

In ”Martina”, the girl is punished for her situation and considers putting the child up for adoption. In ”Samantha”, the prostitute has a much more positive attitude towards the fact that she has a child.

”..I’d die if anything happened to my kid. A child

keeps you sane. ..” [13] 

Even though only taking place 20 to 30 years later, the outlook on the situation had transformed, and prostitutes at that time felt like they had the right and freedom of talking about their lives without shame of what others may think. What is interesting about the poem is the fact that Samantha herself does not seem to be too disturbed about the way her life has turned out, she seems foolishly hopeful that things might change for the better. The fact is however, that the reasons that first dragged the woman into prostitution are not likely to just disappear. In an interview with the Guardian journalist, Emine Saner, a long-time sex worker told Saner that she would like to be able to stop working, but does not know how else to manage financially [14] . The importance of this poem and also ”Martina” is the fact that even though both women have a distorted sense of morals, the reader can not help but feel somewhat sorry for the characters and therefore enabling them to see teenage pregnancy and prostitution in a different light than usually portrayed by the media.

Adolescence and fairytale stereotypes

According to Patience Agbabi herself, exploring childhood moving into adolescence is one of her favourite themes. As every person has been a kid in the past and can say that puberty is a very emotional time of a person’s life, it is therefore no surprise that adolescence is an interesting topic for all writers and poets. In a life of a usual teenager, adolescence is the time of first love, discovering sexuality and for most girls the realisation of the truth behind fairytale stereotypes. One of my personal favourites, Agbabi’s poem ”The Tiger” [15] is an excellent portrayal of a rebellious teenage girl who is just on her journey of discovering what life as an adult is actually like. Majority of young girls have a huge misconception about adulthood, mainly concerning romance.

” Tracy loves Darren. It was girl

power, 1979. He was my aerosol boy

and the swelling inscription, my lifebuoy.

We lasted a month.” [16] 

In the poem, the young girl gets a tattoo with the name of her first love. It is a very truthful depiction of young people’ s understanding of love, as they think it will last forever just like the tattoo. The reality of the situation hits youngsters usually when they gain more independence and responsibilities, which also marks the end of their puberty. ”The Tiger” shows the ordeal in an emotional and familiar way, thus making the reader feel the angst of puberty once again. In modern society, adolescence is widely discussed, as parents seem more and more clueless of what to do when their child is behaving in a rebellious matter. By giving the reader an insight to the girl’s point of view, Agbabi once again enables people to see the problem from a new angle.

” It takes an hour to obliterate girl meets boy

a minute for childhood to end,

and for dark blue to fade to grey, a lifetime. ” [17] 

With the final stanza of the poem, Agbabi emphasizes again the fact that emotions and situations that all seemed so important during years of puberty, mean very little when compared to the rest of a person’s life. The second poem in Agbabi’s collection that also deals with the problems of fairytale stereotyping and more generally, youngsters misconception of the life ahead, is ”Leila” [18] . This poem is mostly depicting the usual dream of a little girl, in her early years of adolescence, when she dreams about charming princes and extraordinary weddings. This delusion has been created by entertainment industry, as children are exposed to more and more cartoons, films and toys in a very early age. The idea behind this is to influence the children into wanting all sorts of consumer goods, but in addition these movies and toys give the young children a distorted view of life which in later years may prove to be a major obstacle on their way of living a fulfilled life. Developmental psychologists have long identified the fact that playing has a crucial affect on a child’s development. During play children communicate with their world and internalize elements of society, such as norms, values, and adult roles. Children’s toys have a huge effect on their development of self-image and their concept of the society – one of the fundamental tasks of childhood and adolescence [19] . It is to no surprise then, that the poet has chosen this topic as it sheds light and explains another group of women, who are suffering from some kind of social issue.


dreaming all night of her shoe-shine boy,

their diamond wedding, that happy end-

ing. If she were a time

she’d be midnight, when each child paints the dark

with fantasy, when girls become women, boys

become men and Once upon a time … becomes The End.” [20] 

The last stanza of the poem is showing exactly Agbabi’s point that eventually all people grow up and with that they also have to grow out of fairytales. No fairytale ever shows the life of the protagonists after the happily ever after, and therefore having unrealistic expectations in one’s adulthood to, for example, have a relationship that can be compared to a classical fairytale, is a dream that in reality will never come true. The two poems of adolescence and fairytale stereotypes are not only instructive for the young girls and women who are faced with the issue, but also for those who as observers may not have completely understood or recognized it as a social issue before.

Sexuality, sexual abuse and gender expectations

Sexuality is most definitely the most controversial and most covered topic that the poet has examined in her poem collection ”Seven Sisters”. Patience Agbabi, being a bisexual herself, gives a very interesting and somewhat perceptive portrayal of a vast variety of different women and their sexualities. Not only does she discuss the sexualities of the women themselves, but also gender expectations amongst mothers, who also wish for their child to be of certain sex. According to researchers children are increasingly more aware of their sexuality from an early age, for example according to the research of 2004 by the Guttmacher Institute, 46% of teens in the United States between ages of 15-19 have had sex at least once [21] . It is to no surprise then that sexuality is such a talked about topic around the world these days. The problem with young children and their sexuality is briefly discussed in the poems ”Martina” [22] and ”The Tiger” [23] . In the poem ” The Tiger”, Agbabi writes about the protagonist losing her virginity at a very young age, and thus also losing her childhood. In ”Martina”, the main character is presumably around the age of 16, but has to grow up fast, and therefore get in touch with her sexual side, because of the war. ”The more controversial part of sexuality in ”Martina” is the fact that even though the character is heterosexual, the narrator is a lesbian,” as said by the poet. [24] Sexual orientation has a very big part to play in our sense of who we are and exactly where we belong. Even though no-one chooses their sexual orientation, there are still millions of people who are strongly against homosexuality, or bisexuality for that matter. As a close to heart topic for Agbabi, she chooses a very different angle to express her feelings about the social issue concerning sexuality. In her poem ”Ms de Meanour” [25] , the narrator who is also the main character in the poem, is a drag queen and in lively fashion talks about her life of behaving like a woman, even though actually being a man.

” Time

for boy

meets girl

in the mirror and wild child

bitch with a dick from Crouch End

becomes Wild West End

diva with dark

luscious lashes. ….” [26] 

In my opinion the poet is trying to draw a comparison between transvestites and gay people, as both are hiding their true personality and sexuality for the benefit and content of others. Drag queens dress and act as women, for the purpose of entertaining or performing. Homosexual people, on the other hand, need to sometimes hide their preferences from other in fear of public condemnation. In the beginning of the 21st century, violence against homosexual population was increasing, even the only ”wrong” they have done is just have the courage to show difference from the majority [27] . Fortunately during the last couple of years, the situation has improved, as for example in many countries and in some states in Unites States, same-sex marriages are allowed and recognized by the government. Very closely connected with this topic, is gender expectations which is another theme in Agbabi’s poems. Centuries ago, it was crucial for a family to have a son, for the very obvious reason that a son is stronger and was more helpful around the house. Not only are there expectations about the gender of the child before it is born, but also after. Parents assume their children to grow up and follow the manner of behaviour that is acceptable by the society. For a heterosexual couple, who have certain expectations for their child, depending on the kid’s sex, it is probably quite disturbing to accept if the child turns out to be homosexual for example. The poem ”The Earth Mother” [28] , is set in a fairytale time of ”Once upon a time”, where an old woman craves for a son and is initially disappointed, when the child she had already named ”Boy’ turned out to be a girl.

” … Old Woman named it Boy

and dreamt earth, wind and fire, better times…

And here the tale would end

if little girls could truly tame the dark

and little boys were really boys, not girls.

Old Woman woke and saw her baby Boy was girl

and being wise, gave praise and raised this girl-child

….” [29] 

The poem is a fascinating approach to the subject, as the Old Woman represents most parents who wish their child to grow up a certain way they have imagined. It is also educational, as in the poem even though preliminary shocked to find out that things had not gone as planned, the Old Woman still raised the child without any complaints or regrets. In my opinion, Agbabi is trying to convince the reader that even when a child does not grow up according to certain gender expectations, it is no excuse to repel person’ s own flesh and blood.

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A more terrifying theme of sexuality in Agbabi’s poems is child sexual abuse, which she writes about in the poem ”Samantha” [30] , where the character is a young 14 year old girl, who was raped by her step-father and consequently became a prostitute. Sexual abuse between adults and children, and moreover between siblings, is unfortunately not a passing issue in today’s society. In 1994, 46% of all rape cases reported, were victims of their family members. [31] 

”… Pervs. Like my stepdad. I was still a child

when he did it. Told her I was sleeping with boys

but she walked in on us that lunchtime,

and called me a whore. Jealous bitch. I left that weekend.

Fourteen, and still scared of the dark.” [32] 

One of the most disturbing facts about child sexual abuse is that in some occasions, the parents of the children don’t believe when their child tells them about the rape or accuse the child of being seductive and asking for being raped. In those cases, the parent is usually more concerned about the relationship with the abuser than the well-being of their child. Therefore it is no surprise, that after such ordeal, these children end up running away from home and when reaching adulthood suffer from low self-esteem, sexual dysfunction, difficulties with having a healthy relationships, depression, substance abuse and so on. [33] The frankness of the main character in the poem, shows the reader the outcome of sexual abuse without any buffers, in its purest form which has proven to be the most efficient way to get people acknowledge the seriousness of the situation and do something about one of the most horrific problems women have to go through in their lives.


Patience Agbabi is a true-hearted feminist, who in her poem collection ”Seven Sisters” writes about some of the most common social issues women are faced with, without taking sides. In her own words: ”As a feminist, when I started out as a writer there was a political pressure not to let the side down. Women were seeking equality and you had a duty as a writer to show women in the best possible light. But by this second book, I let art rather than politics lead the way.” [34] Even though there were many bigger and smaller issues discussed in the poems, the themes that prevailed and seemed to be most close to heart for the poet, were teenage pregnancy and prostitution, adolescences and fairytale stereotypes and lastly sexuality, sexual abuse and gender expectations. The way of portraying issues that are exceedingly talked about, making them sound innovative and interesting, and in addition finding something new to teach in all of the situations is what makes the poems beautiful and absolutely worth reading. Patience Agbabi draws the reader in with writing in first person narrative and therefore lets the reader to identify with these women and the difficulties they face. Teenage pregnancy and prostitution are often discussed from the viewpoint of the general media but what a regular person does not hear often about is the other side of the story, the truth about the situation. As the poet mentioned herself, she is not trying to idealize these women or justify their behaviour and morals, but rather give the reader a change to make up their own decision about the characters. This applies to all of the themes and characters discussed in ”Seven Sisters”. As a whole the collection serves as a quick study book for anyone interested in women – their problems, their views on society and how the society views them and most importantly it allows the reader to analyse the information without any outside influence, thus coming to a conclusion that has its bases on the person’s own views rather than the views of someone else.


Patience Agbabi – ”Transformatrix”

Edinburgh: Payback Press. 2000.

Marilyn Hegarty – ”Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies and Patriotutes: The regulation of female sexuality during World War II”

New York: NYU Press. 2007.

Claire Sterk – ”Tricking And Tripping, Prostitution In The Era Of AIDS”

New York: Social Change Press. 2000.

Ken Moore – ”Anti-lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual Violence in 2000”

New York: National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.2001.

Kluft – ”Incest-Related Syndromes of Adult Psychopathology”

Washington: American Psyhiatric Press.1990.

Penelope Maza – ”Adoption Trends: 1944-1975”

US Children’s Bureau.1984.

Emine Saner – ”You’re consenting to being raped for money”

Guardian.11th December 2007.





Seven Sisters Unveiled


I discovered the sestina quite by accident. I was well known for being a Janis Joplin fan, the 60’s rock star who lived fast and died young of a heroin overdose. I was particularly mesmerised by her rendition of Ball and Chain, a blues number she performed at the Monteray pop festival in 1967. The friend gave me a copy of a poem called You Can’t Rhumboogie in a Ball and Chain (for Janis Joplin). It was written by Alice Fulton, a poet I’d never heard of. The poem really captured Janis’ spirit and I loved it. I also loved the way the words seemed to dance around each other. Of course, what I was responding to subliminally was the form of the poem, the form known as the sestina.

So what is a sestina? Like many poetic forms it has musical roots. It was invented by Arnaud Daniel (whom Dante considered the best wordsmith). The form was originally sung by the top class troubadours, those who could master the intricate form. The sestina is still seen as the most difficult form to master in modern How to Write Poetry books. Basically, you have six words which appear in a set order at the end of each line. You have six stanzas of six lines each and a final stanza of three lines. It makes more sense when you see it on the page so here’s one I prepared earlier, the first one I wrote:


A poet friend from the US, Samantha Coerbell, reintroduced me to the sestina by giving me the six end words, time, girl, end, child, boy, dark. They immediately suggested to me a poem about the passing of time, adolescence, coming of age with dark undertones. I didn’t analyse it too closely. One day I went to the Poetry Library in London with a couple of hours to spare. I decided to write a sestina. It was supposed to be difficult but I believed it couldn’t be that hard. I managed to write something I was reasonably pleased with in that two hours. It made sense and it has a story line. I knew it was a first draft that needed more work but it was a pretty good first draft as first drafts go. Like the Alice Fulton poem, I also adhered to 10-syllable lines. Traditional English sestinas are written in iambic pentameter.

I enjoyed the writing experience, using the word repetitions as a form of rhyme and thought:

WHAT IF 100 people got given the same six end words. Imagine the difference in the poems they’d produce. Yet each poem would have a relationship to the next due the set repetition of the end words. Each poem would perform the same dance to a different tune. I then decided to embark on the ‘Seven Sisters’ project. I gave myself a year but eventually found myself writing one sestina a month. I wanted sufficient gaps between poems so they’d be very different.


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