Yes, it’s been awhile and I’ll update this website later, but for now, I’m attending the Modern Language Association convention in beautiful Austin, TX, and I want to provide the full text of my presentation, along with my slideshow link, here. Enjoy!
[SLIDE 1] “black and fat”: Deviant Gendered Bodies in Patrick Ness’s More Than This
[SLIDE 2] Quote from “Fat Amy” character in Pitch Perfect: “Even though some of you are pretty thin, you all have fat hearts, and that’s what matters.”
I begin with this quote because it succinctly sums up Richard Klein’s statement in Bodies out of Bounds that [SLIDE 3] “There will come a time, if civilization lasts, when fat again will be beautiful, and thin will be hated” (20). I’m sure you’ll agree with me that in the current moment, rarely does popular media or culture (including current fictional texts, both YA and “adult”) privilege the fat body. As Kathleen LeBesco claims in Revolting Bodies?, [SLIDE 4] the fat body is often simply invisible next to the thin body, for years forgotten in advertising and “strictly limited to comic or tragic roles” in fiction” (66). LeBesco reminds us that “fat is the antithesis of the beauty ideal of the day: tight, lean and toned” (1). She goes on to claim that [SLIDE 5] “In a modern capitalist society such as the United States, fat is seen as repulsive, funny, ugly, unclean, obscene, and above all, as something to lose” (16). So Fat Amy’s doubled comment is a notable one: that a) thin is not a desirable state of being; and b) if you have the bad luck of being thin, you can at least be in the possession of a fat heart as an alternate desired state. Here fat is large, as Whitman suggests: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” To be large is to notice more, feel more, include more in one’s being and in one’s embodied experience. In this light, large is what we should all aim for.
But large, or fat, is simply not what we are given as model citizens, as appropriate consumers, as worthy heroines. Instead, we are given this: [SLIDES 6, 7, 8]. I read YA novels voraciously, and I several years ago I began to notice deviant bodies everywhere, but bodies that nevertheless conformed to certain stringent parameters. For example, [SLIDE 9] Karou in Daughter of Smoke and Bone has blue hair and tattoos on her palms… but is thin and white. Blue in The Raven Boys series amplifies psychic powers and is extremely short … but is thin and white. Neither of these texts are dystopians, to be sure, so turning to dystopians: Katniss in The Hunger Games is a tomboy and uses her body in ways that females often don’t (shooting those wicked arrows) … and she is thin and white. Tally in Uglies has frizzy hair and squinty eyes … and is thin and white. It was the same story everywhere I looked: [SLIDE 10] Tris in Divergent, Cassia in Matched, Darrow in Red Rising, Cassie in The 5th Wave, [SLIDE 11] Austin in Grasshopper Jungle. All thin and all white (or, in the case of Darrow from Red Rising, red and then golden as he assimilates into different dominant people groups). Even the heroine in Say What You Will, who has cerebral palsy, is thin, white and attractive. Where are all the big bodies? Where is all the colored skin? Why are these bodies allowed to be deviant in certain ways, but NOT in these two very striking ways? Certainly there are more fat bodies rather than bodies with naturally-occurring blue hair. Certainly there are more bodies of color than red inhabitants of Mars. Many of these YA protagonists are allowed strikingly deviant behaviors: many fall in love across socio-ethnic kinship boundaries, and many are fiercely, proudly gay when the dominant climate in America arguably continues to be heterosexual policing. It seems important in these YA texts that the main characters stand out physically in some way, that they deviate in some way—but NOT when it comes to the weight of their bodies or the color of their skin. In an age when diversity is given much lip service, there remain specific elements of diversity that do not often appear.
[SLIDE 12] To return to the dystopian: A dystopia, according to the OED, is “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible” (dystopia, n., OED.com). The prefix dys– stems from ancient Greek for “hard, difficult, bad,” from Old English “to break,” and all ancient forms have a connotation of “destroying the good sense in a word, or increasing its bad sense” (“dys-, prefix,” OED.com). Dystopian literature, that which is rooted in the nightmare and in fear, allows the reader to fix a critical lens on the construction of hegemonic societal systems and their many failings. [SLIDE 13] It makes space for “previously disenfranchised characters to gain power and influence based on their special skills or revolutionary leadership qualities” (Rachel Dean-Ruzicka 53). It additionally allows the reader to focus on the prevailing dichotomy of the binary heteronormative sex and gender system, as in a world turned upside down, only one thing is constant: the lived reality of a boy, the lived reality of a girl, and often the inevitable love that springs up between them. This love can sometimes mean that the female must be passive in some sense, waiting for the more agential male to rescue her and steal her heart in the process. More recently in YA fiction, however, young women have become empowered to demolish their preordained societal and literary roles and “do as the men do.” The positive uptick in the portrayal of female soma should not be dismissed wholesale. Yet, significantly, the dominant female type in this trope continues to be a thin, attractive, white young woman successfully taking on the world ([SLIDE 14] most recently, we see this in Rae, who is currently burning up the pop culture pathways but is notably absent from the toy aisles — #WheresRae). Does this strict positioning and shaping of the female body mean that the female gender must still be at root traditionally attractive (conscribing to restrictive cultural regulations)? Does it mean that the female gender as popularly constructed still operates in direct correlation to its ability to inspire attraction in the male sex? Does it mean that “fat and black” bodies simply cannot be powerful or attractive or successful?
To hone in on one text to further these considerations, [SLIDE 15] let me turn to the 2013 dystopian YA novel by Patrick Ness, More Than This. Ness is a 44-year-old author who lives in London but was born in America. He is best known for [SLIDE 16] his Chaos Walking dystopian series (2008-2010) and [SLIDE 17] for A Monster Calls (2011). He just published [SLIDE 18] The Rest of Us Just Live Here in Oct. 2015 to good reviews; it’s about those kids who aren’t superheroes or vampires but are just average and ordinary…and have value and purpose anyway.
[SLIDE 19] Ness’s More features a trio of heroes: Seth, Tomasz, and Regine, two young men and a young woman. Seth is the main character, a boy struggling with his latent homosexuality and reeling from the recent betrayal by his lover, Gudmund, and the ensuing condemnation and judgement from his family and his peer group. (I will return to Seth’s homosexuality, which is another prominent feature of “deviance” in contemporary YA novels, in a moment.) Tomasz is a young Polish boy traumatized by the recent murder of his mother. And the third character in our little trio is Regine, who is empowered to become a key agent in the triple threat of the three friends, banding together to topple the restrictive world regime that enslaves them. More importantly, Regine is fat and black, and she carries (even embraces?) this aspect of her deviant personality even as she expresses revolt against the oppressive Foucauldian regime that would keep her body docile. [SLIDE 20] As Cecelia Hartley suggests, Regine’s refusal to acquiesce to dominant cultural norms that women be “physically passive, taking up little space, and [be] non-self-nurturing” (71), is incredibly powerful.
Seth, Tomasz and Regine have recently died in violent ways that included head trauma. This causes them to wake up in England and eventually discover that sometime in the recent past, presumably everyone in the world entered into a virtual reality that replaced the “real” so effectively that everyone forgot they had switched from an embodied to a virtual reality. Hitting their head in the exact location of their brain’s upload into the mainframe caused them to be spit out of the system, [SLIDE 21] much like Neo is spit out in The Matrix. They discover that they their physical bodies have been housed in coffin-like structures with tubes to feed them and remove waste. They seem to be alone in a landscape blighted with emotional ruin: dust, storms, and weeds prevail. The main antagonist, other than the prevailing online system itself, is a humanoid robot which they call “The Driver”: a single-minded and violent figure who roams the streets in a van and coldly attempts to reinsert the adolescents back into the mainframe at any cost. [SLIDE 22] The title of the book, More Than This, therefore triply alludes to 1) waking up and discovering one’s life has been a paltry Benjamin-esque copy of “the real,” [SLIDE 23] 2) achieving rich and lasting friendship (there is more than this horrific hatred that these characters have experienced), and [SLIDE 24] 3) realizing one’s life has been severely limited and even handicapped by the complicit adoption of the judgements of others.
I want to take a few moments to analyze the modality of Regine’s non-normative body in this dystopian novel, asking what function the character who goes against normative gender type has. How can reading with an eye for ethnicity and “fatness” augment our understanding of the message about gender? This project could take me all day, so let me limit my observations to [SLIDE 25] four key points: [SLIDE 26] 1) each body in the trinity of heroes is notably deviant in some fashion; [SLIDE 27] 2) each body is notably able-bodied—able to run, escape, forage for food, fight; [SLIDE 28] 3) each hero’s deviance is linked to the white, middle-class, European definition of pollution (pulling both from Mary Douglas’ notion of pollution, and Joyce Huff’s discussion of fat as pollution); and [SLIDE 29] 4) each hero is not sexualized in the construct of friendship that prevails in the novel. There is romantic love in Seth’s numerous flashbacks to his time with his lover, but romantic love is importantly not a force that topples the Driver’s regime. Friendship is. There is productive tension between the gendered subject operating as a vulnerable sexual being (an important aspect of Seth’s character) and the gendered subject operating as a strong, able body. In the face of some element of their ethnic, sexual or class identity that renders them [SLIDE 30] “perverse, excessive, unnatural and a threat to the social order,” these bodies are importantly able, strong, successful (that last quote was from Jackie Wykes in Queering Fat Embodiment 3).
To put it simply: in Ness’s book, it doesn’t matter much which character is a boy or which is a girl. Is this gender or female empowerment when both bodies, male and female, equally fight and strive against the Driver? Is it gender or female empowerment when critics trumpet that Rae is a successful Jedi mostly because it doesn’t matter that she is a girl? What might female or gender empowerment look like in YA texts and in popular films? This is an honest question.
Regine is an important character unlike any I have encountered in literature. She is female, fat, and black, but she is unperturbed by these characteristics that normative society often judges to be so demeaning and worthless. She corresponds to Spivak’s triple construction of a woman who is voiceless: she is poor, black, female, AND black. But, again, both the novel and Regine herself are untroubled by these characteristics. Regine is simply presented as a human being, one worth of love and respect, one who is able to be powerful and kick some serious ass. She rides bikes without considerable effort, although she is sometimes “out of breath” (but aren’t we all?). She consumes food with no discussion of her weight. She simply is, and this is refreshing.
This isn’t to say that there is no discussion of Regine’s bodily condition in the text. Her body does matter—all bodies here do. Regine is first presented to the reader as a “tall, heavyset black girl” who is “much stronger” than Tomasz (168-9). Any perceived negativity of her bodily condition is immediately counteracted with a positive, and more important, bodily attribute. While she is “heavyset,” a term that fat studies scholars take issue with because it projects some sort of target weight, whereas the term “fat” is simply an unweighted descriptor), she is also strong.
Later on in the novel, when Seth comments that he doesn’t date girls, [SLIDE 31] Regine’s “face drops immediately. ‘You mean you don’t date fat girls. … I can see you thinking it. How can she still be so fat in a world where there’s hardly any food? How fat must she have been to start with?” (204). Here Regine gestures towards a commonly held suspicion that fat people are to blame, that they do it to themselves through not regulating their own caloric intake, that they are not proper citizens because they refuse to acquiesce to the patriarchal gaze that would keep them slender. [SLIDE 32] “Fat equals reckless excess, prodigality, indulgence, lack of restraint, violation of order and space, transgression of boundary” (Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco 3).
But when Regine introduces the idea of her fat body as unable to be sexualized, the narrative swiftly moves from a discussion of her sexuality (or lack thereof) and her purported deviance, to a discussion of Seth’s deviance: his “cardinal sin” of homosexuality. (Here I want to mention the argument in Queering Fat Embodiment that “compulsory heteronormativy works to regulate fat bodies and subjects” (1). In other words, the state of fatness and the state of homosexuality are inextricably linked in that they each experience the same cultural policing.) So, to rewind, the text touches on Regine’s fatness, then jumps to Seth’s homosexuality, then leaps to a mention of the “little Polish person,” Tomasz, thereby highlighting the different yet significant deviance of all three characters. Together, these three represent almost every way that you can be “bad” or deviant in white patriarchal heteronormative Foucauldian dominant Western society. They represent the “wrong” sexuality, the “wrong” ethnicity, the “wrong” class, and the “wrong” body size. All that we are missing is a disabled or differentially-abled body and the picture would be complete. (Here I need to mention that according to Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, the fat body IS the disabled body because it is “vehemently imagined as failed or incorrect” (qted in Queering Fat 103).
[SLIDE 33] Ness’s novel therefore provides a complete picture of all the ways a body can be deviant in his average, ordinary characters. But what, in the end, is this a picture of? I mentioned before that the construct of male vs. female is not given as much weight in the narrative as the concept of human (the three heroes) vs. inhuman (the Driver), or that of real (which includes both embodied existence and love) vs. the unreal (which includes both virtual reality and hatred and bigotry). Perhaps Ness is pointing out the speciousness of ALL of our binary constructs: male vs. female, black vs. white, eastern European vs. Western, middle-class vs. poor, skinny vs. fat, etc. These constructs, so prevalent in the virtual reality world which is the same world the Driver so ruthlessly guards and therefore represents, melt away in the chaos of the awakening of Seth, Tomasz and Regine as they scramble to survive. It doesn’t matter what sexual organs you have when you need to elude the Driver and find something to eat. It doesn’t matter what size you are when you gather as friends. Divisive constructs, Ness is saying, are not what we need in a healthy society and, indeed, they are a prevalent marker of a dystopian society. Dystopian texts are fundamentally texts of division, texts that highlight societies that insist on labeling, containing, fixing, and naming. Ness’s bodies are “revolting” – that is, they politically trouble the prevailing hegemonic construct in order to overthrow “authority, rebel, protest, and reject” (LeBesco 1). Yet remember the quote I read awhile ago, [SLIDE 34] that dystopian literature makes space for “previously disenfranchised characters to gain power and influence based on their special skills or revolutionary leadership qualities” (Female Rebellion 53)? It is important that Ness’s heroes don’t have any special skills. They are intimately “normal” in spite of their “deviance” – in fact, because of their deviance. Deviance is normal. Deviance is human. Deviance merely means difference, and we are all different, and we are all human.
[SLIDE 35] What matters in Ness is the human, and the human in any and every incarnation is a beautiful thing, something to be celebrated and nurtured and loved. In a paradox, then, Regine is important because she is a fat and black hero (something we need to see much more of), and also she is important because her fatness and blackness do not matter. She is human, a child of God, and therefore worthy of the gifts of friendship and respect.
I don’t want to end sounding like a Hallmark card, so let me reiterate that the primary purpose of being fat and black in Ness’s More Than This is to show the reader that there is indeed more than this. Dominant Western society has made a totem out of the “right” kinds of appearances, and the “right” kinds of behaviors. Regine and her friends exist primarily to point the way to another modality of being and of seeing. Ness renders the fat (and the “Othered” and the homosexual) body “visible and present, rather than invisible and absent: seen, rather than unsightly” (Braziel and LeBesco 1). And that’s a beautiful thing.