Fat-bashing in The Casual Vacancy
Yesterday’s discussion of my review of The Casual Vacancy (in the comments and on the other blog review I linked to in the comments) makes me realize that I didn’t think enough about leading the charge on an author for perceptions expressed by her characters. Perhaps Rowling herself doesn’t see a fat person as someone who is at best weak-willed and at worst repulsively evil. Perhaps she is merely using the old “fat cat” image as shorthand in her characterizations of smug and complacent male characters.
One of the things that makes me suspect this could be true is that her fat characters are usually successful men. In The Casual Vacancy it’s the rich guy who is fat, and the poor, drug-addicted mother living in public housing is thin, small and pitiful. Would you say this is typical? Today, at least statistically, rich people are much more likely to be able to keep their weight within normal limits, while poor people are likely to be comforting themselves with the kind of food that makes them fat and gives them health problems.
The characterization of Howard–who is the smug and complacent leader of small-town Brits in favor of their version of “welfare to work” in The Casual Vacancy— as a “fat cat” might be simply a piece of lazy characterization on Rowling’s part. It’s funny to portray Vernon Dursley this way in the Harry Potter books, because he’s a kind of cartoon villain. It’s less funny to put a pig’s tail on his fat son and call it fun, especially because, as the series goes on, we get just a smidgeon of sympathy for Dudley. But it strikes me as unnecessarily unkind to describe Howard’s fat folds and the rash underneath one of them in appalling detail as a way of showing him to be unsympathetic. And it’s really rubbing it in to invent the nickname of “Fats” for a very thin teenaged boy in the novel.
Now, is the use of fat to characterize Howard as repulsive the author’s choice, or is this part of her characterization of Parminder, the doctor who sees Howard as a symbol of everything she hates about her small town?
Here is the first appearance of Howard in the novel:
“He was an extravagantly obese man of sixty-four. A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.”
But wait, this explains why earlier his wife Shirley had woken up in a single bed next to Howard’s double bed, with a mattress that “still bore his prodigious imprint.”
I have already publicly agreed with Amanda that we don’t usually sexualize fat people, but it does seem that the author is going to some lengths in order to frame her readers’ first impressions of Howard in a repulsively sexual context. It’s not just fat-hating, folks. It’s fat-man-hating.
Howard is rapacious. Even when he looks at his small town, “he was here to drink it all in….” There are no limits to his capacity for consumption. The completion of his caricature comes on p. 348, right before the doctor’s public outburst of disgust, when The Villain Howard gets a few sentences of backstory as he rejects the idea that his weight is the cause of his health problems:
“Nonsense, obviously. Look at the Hubbards’ boy [Fats]: built like a beanpole, and shocking asthma. Howard had always been big, as far back as he could remember. In the very few photographs taken of him with his father, who had left the family when Howard was four or five, he was merely chubby. After his father had left, his mother had sat him at the head of the table, between herself and his grandmother, and been hurt if he did not take seconds. Steadily he had grown to fill the space between the two women, as heavy at twelve as the father who had left them. Howard had come to associate a hearty appetite with manliness. His bulk was one of his defining characteristics.”
Howard shows an unwelcome–and to the teenagers, ludicrous–interest in the loveliest of the teenagers, hiring her to work for him while thinking “he would teach her to use the till, and show her around the stockroom; there would be a bit of banter, and perhaps a little bonus….” He requires her to dress in “a figure-hugging black dress with a lace-edged white apron” which is unsuitable to his other two waitresses.
To complete the morality tale, Howard ends up with a “purple and vacant” face, lying in the hospital using up all kinds of expensive medical supplies, for the rest of his days. It’s no accident that his exposure as an adulterer comes in terms of mentioning his “salami.”
Perhaps it is unkind of me to call attention to the heavy-handed characterization of fat Howard in The Casual Vacancy. But no more unkind than it is to create such a two-dimensional behemoth. It is not just the doctor who finds Howard repulsive. His sexuality is purposefully interwoven with his excess flesh to repulse anyone who is introduced to him, in the fiction, or as a reader.