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Fat-bashing in The Casual Vacancy

October 11, 2012

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.

34 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2012 1:29 pm

    This isn’t something I’ve ever personally perceived about JK Rowling, so maybe I’m not particularly sensitive to it. But her compass usually seems primarily moral to me. So the characters you mention – Howard (and I haven’t read this book) and Dudley – are for me examples of a kind of greed that arises from being spoiled or over-indulged, and it’s that (again for me) that Rowling is attacking. There is no necessary corollation between larger people and greed, but probably most people who are greedy are overweight. I can only talk about the Harry Potter books, not the new one, but there are plenty of very unpleasant characters who are not described in terms of weight or size. I do think though that Rowling has quite an old-fashioned fairy tale book mentality, so that evil often comes in ugly form. I don’t find her characters very nuanced, either. They tend to be good or bad and not much in between.

    I also think that both rich and poor are made up of people of all sorts of shapes and sizes. But here’s an interesting question: does this mean that categories of people who are perceived as placed outside the cultural gaze for whatever reason (skin colour, age, size, sexuality) should never be portrayed as morally unsound? Is it always unethical for a novel to portray a marginalised person with negative traits? I don’t have an answer. That just struck me as an interesting thing to ponder.

    • October 12, 2012 7:43 am

      I definitely do not think that it’s “unethical for a novel to portray a marginalized person with negative traits.” Novelists have to be free to portray the human condition as they see it. What I was saying is what you picked up on–that in Rowling’s fiction, evil is often ugly. The simplicity of that reminds me of Hogarth engravings from the 18th century.

      In fact, I have a personal anecdote about this–before my knee replacement, I was an unpleasant cripple. This is a stereotype–the old person who is always cranky, shaking a cane and yelling to kids to get off the lawn. That was me–chronic pain can do that to a person.

      But for a novelist, using that kind of stereotype to describe a character seems lazy. I think the fat-bashing is shorthand, and what I’m asking for is more characterization. What I feel like I’m getting is a quick caricature.

      • litlove permalink
        October 12, 2012 8:31 am

        Yes, I can quite see that and sympathise with it. I do think Rowling has a big tendency to caricature and whilst she can get away with it just about in a children’s book, it probably does shriek out uncomfortably in adult fiction. I’m also very sorry to hear about your chronic pain. I suffered chronic fatigue for over a decade and am very edgy about the stereotype of the lazy hypochondriac.

  2. October 11, 2012 3:08 pm

    Eh, the pig tail on Dudley did it for me. Do not agree AT ALL that “most people who are greedy are overweight.” Come on, that is crazy! You can be greedy for wealth, for sex, for power, for the World Cup, for nice clothes, for fancy cars, for the newest technology….greed doesn’t equate with fat! Also you can be greedy for the last doughnut and still be as thin as a rail (I have a few daughters who fit this category, naming no names!) Writers use people of all sizes, colors, and sexual orientation to be good, bad or indifferent characters…but with Rowling, there is a weirdly mean streak that comes out when she talks about her fat characters that is just not there when she talks about her other characters. And the meanness centers on their avoirdupois, not on their actions. It doesn’t ruin her books for me, but I notice it, and I always think it’s ugly.

    • October 12, 2012 4:10 am

      Oh I’m sorry, I only meant greedy for food, but I can see this is a very very sensitive topic and certainly didn’t mean to offend. I just hadn’t really noticed this about Rowling. If I ever read another of her books, I’ll pay closer attention next time.

      • October 12, 2012 7:49 am

        litlove, I think you have a good point about a particular kind of greed arising from being spoiled or over-indulged. I also think this is an attitude that British people have more than Americans do.
        The first place I remember noticing this was in a stage performance of Peter Pan, when Captain Hook says the cake is much too rich for children.

    • October 12, 2012 7:52 am

      Nancy, I notice it too (the mean streak), and find it. . . unkind. Incidentally, your word “avoirdupois” sets me off, as it’s a word my grandmother liked to use to describe fat in the same way she used euphemisms to proclaim her separation from people of another skin color. It makes my skin crawl.

  3. October 11, 2012 4:20 pm

    You know that I’m particularly sensitive to fat-shaming – I hated Divergent, for instance, because the main villain was frequently associated with her fat rolls and disgusting thighs – and I worried at the beginning that this was a fat-shaming thing. Then, however, I saw that Rowling gave a particularly nasty characteristic to pretty much all the characters, from the horrible acne of the abused kid to the leathery skin of the tanning bed addict. Howard’s bulk was part of him, but not necessarily a reflection of fat people in general. (Thinking here of Tessa, another fat person in this book who is, in my eyes, a much better human being.) I guess in a way, I’m also really sensitive to the opposite reaction in people – being unable to say anything bad about anyone because of their size/shape/color/religion/etc. Years ago, I wrote a short story that involved a heavy woman who was a very nasty gossip. The story took place in an office building, and every single character had negative points, as well as a physical description. I didn’t make the gossip lady fat because I associate gossiping and obesity – she just happened to be fat. Considering that I, myself, was obese at the time, I was definitely not making statements on fat people in general. The first magazine I submitted this story to sent me back a scathing reaction telling me that I ought to be more sensitive and realize that fat people read stories too. The second magazine I submitted it to gave me an award for it. So yeah, that’s why I’m particularly sensitive to people getting up in arms any time an author associates a negative personality trait with a person who has a sensitive physical condition (be that race or obesity or gender or whatever). It’s a very fine line, but i thought that in this case, Rowling did okay.

    • October 12, 2012 7:59 am

      I agree 100%. As I said above, I think novelists have to be free to portray the human condition as they see it.
      I do think that in the case of fat men, Rowling could describe their characters in a more nuanced way. Yes, the characters of the people in this novel are partially described by their physical characteristics, and this is what I’m calling caricature. Tessa is a good example of a character who gets more description, and so most people wouldn’t remember her by a single physical characteristic.

      • October 12, 2012 8:32 am

        Yes, I could definitely agree with that. I did think she over-emphasized Howard, particularly in the part you quoted, which I mentioned in my review too. I don’t know if that particular section was helping to caricature him, or if it was a case of “let me say penis another couple times because this is an adult book,” but either way, it was cringingly bad.

  4. October 11, 2012 8:09 pm

    I’m not going to reads this until I am done the book so I’ll be back then.

  5. October 12, 2012 5:20 am

    I haven’t read the book, so it’s perfectly possible that the context would change my perception of the passages you shared. However, judging by the excerpt alone I agree with this: “His sexuality is purposefully interwoven with his excess flesh to repulse anyone who is introduced to him, in the fiction, or as a reader.” It’s this interweaving that seems so ugly to me, to use MumsyNancy’s apt word, and that made me cringe when I read that bit.

    • October 12, 2012 8:05 am

      “That made me cringe” is a phrase that makes me realize the full extent of my didactic purpose here. What most irritates me about the laziness of describing the fat men as repulsive is that it makes them “other.” I’m not like that, the virtuous reader can say, and walk away, off the hook for ever thinking anything like what Howard thinks about funding for public housing or addiction treatment centers.
      Making the evil character so physically repulsive is like the kind of thing that goes on in this country on talk radio or certain TV news channels–it ends up making your message only accessible to the people who are already convinced of your point.
      And I do think (to really bury the lead, here) that Rowling has a message in this work of fiction.

  6. October 12, 2012 10:42 am

    Rowling can be very 18th century sometimes I think, as you said. Certain kinds of outward appearance often reflect inner morality. That’s still fairly common in a lot of fiction when it comes to the way villains are created and it drives me bats, because…it’s a step away from phrenology or a belief in the idea that physicality determines destiny and that’s really close to stereotype.

    Like Ana I think it’s partly the inter-weaving of fat with repulsive moral traits that makes me unhappy, as it leads to the implication that certain ways of non-mainstream living are still things that society is right to disapprove of.

    Characters can be fat and evil, or a sexual lady and evil, or gay and evil. Although, I still think people should be mindful of subvering stereotypes in these situations, but subversion doesn’t automaticaly mean ‘no typical villains in villain roles’, it just means including empathy and perhaps making these villains less twirling moustache, most awful villains in the world type characters. However, once someone links the evil of a character with the characters way of living (for example making an evil, large character greedy, or an evil sexual lady a sexual corrupter of men’s morality) or appearance (making a character physically repulsive in particular ways because they are evil) it feels like an author is commenting on the deplorable nature of a particular way of living/appearing, rather than simply calling out the bad moral trait of being evil. Attempt at an example – if an author makes their evil character fat, probably not the best idea to dwell on that person being fat and describe their body as repulsive. Why not just mention their physical appearance as a fact and move on to talking about the important things (their evil), rather than making their appearance so central to the way they are presented and so obviously intended to provoke dislike among readers?

    • October 12, 2012 12:59 pm

      I think I always want more in this kind of situation–more characterization, more dwelling on what the person looks like, how that person acts in different situations, whether they kick small dogs when no one’s looking, how they treat their little sisters, everything. I mean, there are loveable characters who are fanciful, squashy cream puffs full of fat–it’s all in the perception (what fun is a thin Santa? And, aside from Ursula the sea witch, how many wicked witches are fat?)
      For a character in a realistic novel to come alive, we need more than just the physical description and one paragraph of backstory.

  7. October 13, 2012 10:21 am

    I do remember thinking that Rowling had problems about fat people in Harry Potter. She belatedly slightly redeems Dudley, but it still made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t that all the nasty characters were fat, so much as that the fat characters were almost all nasty. But it’s tough to say if it’s a problem in Casual Vacancy too, because as others have pointed out, everyone in this book (not just the fat ones) are perfectly loathsome.

    • October 13, 2012 9:53 pm

      The more I think about it, the more I think Rowling’s fat-bashing is about the kind of people who want everything their own way, and that the Hogarth comparison is a good one. I could make an argument that The Casual Vacancy is a political cartoon novel.

  8. aartichapati permalink
    October 13, 2012 4:29 pm

    I am glad you posted this, Jeanne. It provides much more context, and I understand much better where you’re coming from. Thanks for that.

    • October 13, 2012 9:55 pm

      Thanks. My biggest fault as a writer has always been to leave things unsaid. I think in conversation I imply more than I say, so I have to write reams and reams to get more of my meaning across.

  9. October 15, 2012 4:33 pm

    What an interesting thing to notice about the new book. I haven’t read it yet, but I had a feeling it would bring about some interesting reactions because it will inevitably be different from Harry Potter. I would never have thought about her kind of telling the Dursley’s story in a detached way.

    • October 15, 2012 5:11 pm

      I don’t see the fuss about someone who wrote a great series writing some very different books before or after. C.S. Lewis, for example, wrote a lot of things besides the Narnia books.

  10. October 28, 2012 5:11 am

    I just clicked over from Jenny’s post on The Casual Vacancy and am again reminded of how smart book bloggers are and how I love these kinds of posts and their insights. It does make me even less likely to ever read this book.

    I have nothing very intelligent to say, but I did want to leave a comment to thank you for such a well thoughtout post.

    • October 29, 2012 7:55 am

      Thanks, Iris. It’s knowing who my audience includes that makes me more able to write about what I think, from my small-town American perspective.

  11. October 29, 2012 7:59 am

    For a different perspective, try out Sophisticated Dorkiness, who says that the grotesque characters might remind readers of Flannery O’Connor. An interesting point, I think.

  12. November 2, 2012 5:51 pm

    I always found her pokes at fat people to be hilarious but I myself have never been fat so I guess I don’t get how people can be hurt… I have noticed how she likes to describe main characters stuffing their faces, eating a large variety of unhealthy foods all at a pace fast enough to be comical/unpleasant all while the characters don’t gain an ounce. Every time they are described they are tall/lanky/geekish… never fat Lol The way Ron eats you’d expect him to roll around on a wizard version of a Hoveround, maybe a deluxe broom with branching ends for wide loads or something Lol.

    • November 3, 2012 8:52 am

      I think Ron’s greediness is an example that supports LitLove’s perception that Rowling is ridiculing self-indulgence. Ron has always had a mother who cooks for him, and when he’s away from her, he misses that. He’s “softer” than Harry, who has never had that (except when he visits The Burrow). It reminds me of the parents in the anime movie Spirited Away who are turned into pigs for eating a banquet they come across, which is supposed to remind me of fairy tales where people are transformed for not being able to resist food.

      • November 3, 2012 1:51 pm

        Yeah, I got that from Ron too. When he had to rough it on the run he complained and you could kind of see it coming from the way he was written up until Deathly Hallows. Spirited Away was great, still my favorite Studio Ghibli film.

  13. June 18, 2013 4:06 pm

    The amount of self-loathing experienced by people who get a rash on their torso this summer is measurable in parminders.

  14. March 25, 2015 2:46 pm

    I agree. Rowling hates fat people and has made it clear on so many occasions, even though she says she supports them. She’s mean and horrible and people don’t see it because she sells.

    • March 26, 2015 10:43 am

      Maybe the author hates fat people, or maybe she’s an old-fashioned and very British moralist.
      I think people do see the fat-bashing, but we have different interpretations of what it means.
      I know that I continue to think of Parminder’s revulsion whenever I take a shower–that is, daily.

  15. August 7, 2018 4:44 pm

    Character and shape are connected by correlation, not causation.

    There are heavy people who are wonderful humans – and heavy people who are horrid. Same for everything.

    So I object to authors using stereotypes (have you noted the exact opposite to every stereotype usually exists?) of things humans have little control over in some cases (size, skin color, shape of eyes, height…) as somehow representative of moral character, because it is lazy. Authors who are lazy do all kinds of things just to get the book out the door; some are behavioral, others appearance-related.

    I want to find out from writers who make the effort to be fresh and insightful and observant.

    • August 7, 2018 5:08 pm

      It does seem that the question of how much control we have over how fat we are is the issue. Certainly no one would choose to be fat in our culture, but the people who argue that it’s a choice point to daily portion and exercise choices, as if we’re not bright enough to see how those choices add up (and as if everyone is able to exercise, which is not always true, as you and I can testify).

      • August 7, 2018 5:28 pm

        Have you heard of hunger? And the discomfort of eating too much? Those are the natural controls, and they work for me now, after a lifetime of battling. Never thought it would happen, and it took its own sweet time.

        We are battling changes we haven’t evolved for, like ripe fruit being available all the time, so that the mechanism for gorging on sugar when it’s available (wild honey, ripe fruit in short seasons locally), to create fat stores to survive the winter, is now perverted by people who think eating ‘healthy’ means lots of fruit. Fructose is the most fattening sugar.

        I don’t eat much fruit, but have noticed oranges and strawberries, for example, are now available the whole year in very nice conditions.

        Food supply has changed, but humans can’t evolve to handle it that quickly.


  1. Does JK Rowling hate fat people? Fat bodies in Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy | COOL BEANS

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