Another Installment of the Reader Guest Blog Posts.
Recently another Goodreads member, whom I’ll call Q, raised some interesting issues around my condemnation of author Scott Sherman because of the fat-hating language in First You Fall (2008). This is a light-hearted mystery novel, with a gay protagonist, and what I described as “vile and repulsive” fat-hating language. For example,
…[she] leaned out the [second story] window, her pendulous breasts reaching almost to the ground. Well, not really, but you get the picture.
In my review I criticised the author, personally, for including this language. I said, “Sherman should be ashamed of himself.”
Firstly, to be clear, Q critiqued my review with courtesy, consideration, and thoughtfulness. In no way was this a rampaging attack on a reviewer as we have seen recently. Also, I’m sure that he’s not alone in finding my criticism of Sherman excessive; maybe even perplexing. After all, almost no other reviewers even mentioned the fat-hating. It’s entirely possible they didn’t notice it. Why make such a fuss over a few words in a mystery novel, especially when it isn’t even to do with the main plot? Why assign fault with the author rather than just accept that some characters in books can be depictions of real life assholes?
I welcomed Q’s critique, because it’s great to talk about the ideas books raise. Our varied responses to the language in First You Fall highlight really interesting issues around the role of fiction, and its relationship to power in our society. Why this matters is because Sherman’s language in this book is one small example of a widespread trope that contributes to the denial of voice to women in Western society. That is not OK. How it contributes is the point of this post.
Q raised three main issues.
1) The fat-hating language is not Sherman’s voice, it’s the main character’s voice.
2) Fat-hating language is not indefensible.
3) Fiction represents reality, rather than the ideal.
These issues are universal and not particular to this novel. It doesn’t matter if First You Fall is m/m, gay fiction, or general fiction. My original review referred to the book as m/m because that’s the genre I rate and review on my Goodreads account. I read lot of other fiction and non-fiction, but I don’t review it. I accept that this book isn’t m/m, but that fact is truly irrelevant to this discussion.
And you know what? I think Q truly doesn’t know why the fat-hating in this book is important. Why it should be criticised. Q admits, “hey, I admit I’m not so perfect that I have never laughed at a fat joke myself even if I wouldn’t aim one at anybody.” I think that’s because he thinks a fat joke is just a joke. It’s harmless. Right?
The language is not character voice
Q stated, about my review, “it’s not what she’s saying about the book that bothers me, it’s what she’s saying about the author as a person based on her conflating the characters in the book with the author, which is just unfair and wrong.”
I criticise Sherman because I disagree that the hate-language in First You Fall is character voice.
The fat character is Dottie Kubacki. Fat-hate is expressed by every character who interacts with or mentions Dottie: Kevin, his mother, his father, and the women who frequent Kevin’s mother’s beauty parlour. It is Kevin who calls Dottie “Jabba the Hut with pubic hair” (loc. 2638). Kevin’s mother calls her a bitch, a pig and a heifer (loc. 2599). Kevin’s father, who is friends with her, drinks her tea, and eats her apple cake, describes her as a shit-load of lard (loc. 2833), and her vagina as un-findable (loc. 1290). Most of the customers at the beauty shop refuse to believe that Dottie was being spied on because “who would want to peep at Dottie Kubacki?” (loc. 2914).
This is not character voice. Rather, anti-fat rhetoric is embedded in the world of the book. Anti-fat, therefore, is a conscious decision Sherman has made.
It’s not as if the book is intolerant to difference. The deaf boy Kevin and Freddy encounter in a bar is sexy and desirable. It is a fat woman who is dehumanised and framed as inherently grotesque.
Fat-hate is women-hate.
By no means are only women characterised as fat in popular culture. However, woman and men are not characterised as fat in the same way. Transgender writer S. Bear Bergman (2009) notes that “whether I’m fat or not depends on whether the person or people looking at me believes me to be a man or a woman” and that “a man can be much, much fatter than a woman and still be viewed as comfortably within the standard deviation” (p. 139) (although this discrepancy is decreasing).
The way size functions differently for men and women shows up in Adam Sandler’s recent film Jack and Jill. In this trailer at 1:08 you can see Jill squish a pony with her weight. Jack and Jill are played, of course, by the same person. Jill’s weight is only excessive because the character is a woman. OnJack – same height, same build – that weight is fine.
Similarly, in the final scene in the trailer for The Lorax (2011) (from 2:17) the Lorax is not shocked that the objecting character is fat, he’s surprised that someone that size is a woman, rather than a man.
Fat-hate is women-hate, because women are still judged primarily by their sexual attractiveness.
Fat-hate as a tool of oppression: Fat-hating language is indefensible
Fat-hate is used to silence women.
Ray Filar blogged about the silencing of women’s voices, in a call to male bloggers to stop doing it:
“How does silencing work? . . . Suppose that Fictional-but-also-factual-John and I are having a discussion. I say that I think silencing is something that is usually directed against women by men in order to shut them up. John replies with, ‘ . . . yeah but you’re fat and ugly and therefore irrelevant’. My opinion is sidestepped; irony abounds. Next time, it is harder to speak. Silencing works by trivialisation of what women say, through mockery of what women say, through reducing-women-to-sexual-appearance.”
In a recent, and typical, example, Gary McCoy’s notorious cartoon (above) of Sandra Fluke portrays her as fat in order to dismiss what she is saying (of course, it attacks her sexuality too, but that’s not what we’re talking about, directly, right now). If Fluke is fat then her voice has no relevance and should not be heard.
The way fat is used to deny someone a voice is reinforced in Sherman’s book by the fact that, because Dottie is fat, few believe that someone was invading her privacy and peeking in her window. Think that’s hyperbole? Think again. At this rape trial the defence alleged that because the rape survivor was fat she was not raped, but might have been, instead “glad of the attention”. On a recent Tosh 2.0 post a commenter suggested that a pictured fat woman was eager to be raped (original post at Tosh 2.0 has been taken down, but there are screencaps on Jezebel).
The use of fat-hate to deny women’s voice is widespread. This is what happens when women speak. Notice the way the same themes pop up in trollish and violent reponses to women bloggers? You’re fat, you’re ugly, you deserve to be raped, what you have to say doesn’t matter.
Le’a Kent (2001) points out that “The self is never fat. To put it bluntly there is no such thing as a fat person” (p. 135). Sexual violence against a fat woman isn’t really sexual violence because a fat woman isn’t really a woman. A fat woman isn’t a real person at all.
There’s this thing in Western culture called the patriarchal bargain. This means, as Lisa Wade notes, deciding to “accept gender rules that disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power one can wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage.”
The patriarchal bargain has a cool secondary function too. When a woman gets angry that her voice isn’t being heard, you can point to Kim Kardashian and say, “Women get heard fine. Women have power! It’s you that has the problem. If you were a better women then you’d be heard.” (Of course, the patriarchal bargain can also backfire, as it did for Tila Tequila).
Be pretty: you count. Be thin: you matter. Be feminine: you’re credited with being a real person. Refuse to conform, or be unable to conform, and you no longer count, you no longer matter, you’re no longer real.
Fiction does have a responsibility to balance freedom with social justice
Q stated, “An author is under no obligation to correct or even point out every injustice in the world. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to portray vile nasty behavior as a fact of life rather than an idealized version of reality even if they have no specific purpose in doing so, simply as an aesthetic choice in a work which has no greater purpose than pure escapist entertainment. And I don’t think it’s fair to draw any conclusions about the author [or reader] as a person based on that choice.”
I disagree. I think portraying vile nasty behavior as an aesthetic choice, for the purposes of pure escapist entertainment, is indefensible.
I come from a humanist point of view. If you reject modern humanism then we are going to agree to fundamentally disagree. I think people “make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values. We take responsibility for our actions and base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfilment. We seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves, individually and together” (British Humanist Association.)
Therefore, including hate-language in a book — language that perpetuates disempowerment — to no broader purpose, is unacceptable.
Saying that, portraying vile nasty behavior for the purposes of highlighting or questioning cultural assumptions, behaviours, and privileges, or exploring our darkest selves, is not just OK, it is one of the purposes of fiction.
Martin Weinreich (2004) discusses how Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is not just a flat, nauseating, explicit depiction of pornography and violence, but rather “a cultural critique of the social conditions of postmodern consumer capitalism.”
Paul Booth (2012) describes how the Saw transmedia torture-porn franchise both explores narrative through a “complex reworking of temporality” and functions as “a Rabelaisian exemplar of bodily celebration” (p. 73).
Even the controversial Girls (Scream) Aloud fantasy extreme-torture-mutilation-murder-dismemberment fanfic about the real life members of pop group Girls Aloud says something about public feelings of ownership, and media dissection, in regards to contemporary celebrity.
What, then, does fat-hating language add to Sherman’s mystery novel? The fat-hate scattered throughout the text doesn’t function as characterisation. It doesn’t highlight the human condition. Rather, fat-hating is there for comic relief. Asking us to laugh at the ridiculousness of both Dottie herself, and Kevin’s mother’s fears that Dottie will replace her, plays to the long-established trope of fat woman as a figure of fun. Dottie combines the tropes of the Fat Girl, the Abhorrent Admirerer and the Fat Bastard.
As a reader I have an obligation to speak out where I see injustice being affirmed for the purposes of a quick laugh. Kevin Connor didn’t say these words. He didn’t buy into those tropes. Scott Sherman wrote them into the book, as an easy out.
The fat-hating language in Sherman’s book functions as a warning to Western women about what will happen to you if you don’t make the patriarchal bargain. Be unpleasing to the eyes of others, and you will become a figure of fun, the butt of every joke. You won’t matter in the way a real, pretty, woman matters. No wonder teenagers skip meals.
None of this is new. It was 1978 when Susie Orbach wrote Fat is a Feminist Issue. We don’t seem to have come very far, though, do we?
The reason why the language in First You Fall is so damaging is precisely because it is so trivial. It’s a few lines of minor dialogue in a minor side-plot in a minor book. It’s one tiny tile in the mosaic of Western culture. One brick in the wall. The fat-hate in First You Fall is important because it is unimportant.
Yes, Scott Sherman should be ashamed of himself. He reinforces the silencing of women to add amusement to his story. Dennis Dugan and Adam Sandler should be ashamed of themselves too, but I don’t review films. I would feel the same way about authors who use language to demean a belief system, a culture, or a skin colour.
Sherman should be ashamed of himself. He chose to add fat-hating language to an entertaining novel because he abdicates any responsibility to support the voices of all people being heard. It’s just a book. Just a joke.
Sherman should be ashamed of himself. He made a deliberate choice, and it’s the wrong choice.
Q concludes his critique by saying, “I’m not sure I’ve conveyed what I wanted to say well, I could probably do it more clearly and concisely if I spent some more time thinking about it, but I’d rather go read something. :)”
Q, I’d rather read something too. But you know what? As a woman I have to deal with hate-speech, or the anticipation of hate speech, every day. You’re articulate, intelligent, and I’m sure, a really nice person. I think you didn’t know that, like any woman who writes a blog, plays an MMORPG, eats a chocolate bar in public, or walks out the front door, I don’t ever get to not think about it.
Yes, Scott Sherman should be ashamed of himself.
Emma is a New Zealander who reviews m/m romance and erotica on Goodreads. She loves to discuss books and popular culture. You can follow her reviews here.
Thank you for the post, Emma. Leave your comments for her below.