Which computer would your character use?

ON TV, EVERYONE OWNS A MAC: one of the most glaring tropes in modern fiction. The more I notice it, the more I notice it.

Despite the prevalence of PCs in real life, most fictional characters — in novels as well as on TV and movies — are banging away on an Apple Mac. It’s completely disproportionate. I suspect it’s to do with the fact that arty types prefer Macs, and arty types are the ones sitting around creating fictional characters. On their Macs, I don’t doubt.

dell computer mac computer

THERE’S A CHARACTERISATION PROBLEM HERE, PEOPLE.

Some characters just wouldn’t be using a Mac. They would not.

I wonder if I’m falling prey to Apple’s marketing hype, absorbing the idea that Mac users really are different from the average PC user:

Apple’s popular commercials have painted the picture in stark terms: There are two types of people, Mac people and PC people. And if the marketing is to be believed, the former is a hip, sport-coat-and-sneakers-­wearing type of guy who uses his computer for video chatting, music mash-ups and other cool, creative pursuits that starchy, business-suited PC users could never really appreciate unless they tried them on the slick Apple interface.

– Popular Mechanics

This advertising campaign hasn’t really done a lot for those PC users who are by now well and truly sick of all those Mac Evangelists out there. (Have you seen them? They come knocking door to door, arriving on bicycles, carrying satchels with wholemeal sandwiches ‘buttered’ with hummus.)

Macs are glorified Fisher-Price activity centres for adults; computers for scaredy cats too nervous to learn how proper computers work; computers for people who earnestly believe in feng shui. [THE MAC USER IS] a superficial semi-person assembled from packaging; an infinitely sad, second-rate replicant who doesn’t really know what they are doing here, but feels vaguely significant and creative each time they gaze at their sleek designer machine. And the more deftly constructed and wittily argued their defence, the more terrified and wounded they secretly are.

– Charlie Brooker

Stereotypes are indeed useful, at least when it comes to painting a character in fiction. There are actual figures on the difference between Mac and PC users. Yes. There are actually people engaged in such meaningful research:

Mac users are more educated, eat more hummus, prefer modern art over impressionist art, and are 21% more likely than PC users to say that two random people are more alike than different.

– Mashable

Some more statistically  likely assumptions about Mac users, from Mashable’s infographic:

Mac users are likely to…

  • be younger
  • value being different and unique
  • be vegetarian
  • consider themselves pretty savvy with technology
  • watch indie films

On the other hand, if your fictional character is a 45 year old accountant who seldom throws parties, likes to fit in, would rather ride a Harley than a Vespa, snacks on sweets rather than salty chips, eats tuna fish sandwiches for lunch, watches Hollywood films and the History Channel on weekends, after consulting the TV Guide, then you’re stretching credibility when you have him typing away on an APPLE MAC.

Statistically speaking, this character needs to be on a PC.

Stereotypes can be challenged in good fiction, but Mac still only have round about 10 percent of the market share. So Macs are appearing way too much in fiction, whichever way I see it.

RANDOM EXAMPLES OF MACS IN FICTION

“…Vivi announced she wanted an outdoor party this year, so we need to have it before it gets cold. I’m doing the invitations on my Macintosh.”

– Caro, from Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Would Caro be using a Mac? Possibly. It’s prudent that this elderly woman calls it a ‘Macintosh’, feeling perhaps that ‘Mac’ implies too much familiarity (and familiar with technology she is not).

When Apple Macs – indeed, when any brand names — pervade a book, it gets to feeling like paid product placement, even if it isn’t. I got to feeling like this reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, in which both main characters own a variety of computers, with obvious preference for the Apple products:

In the second week of February Salander’s laptop fell victim to an accident… The rucksack tontained her white Apple iBook 600 with a twenty-five gig hard drive and 420 megs of R.A.M., manufactured in January 2002 and equipped with a thirty-five centimeter screen. At the time she bought it, it was Apple’s state-of-the-art laptop.

– Stieg Larsson

This obviously comes from an author who is into the latest computers himself, and who finds such detail fascinating, but there’s nothing quite like offering up specs of the latest computer to date your work. A kinder interpretation would be to say, ‘There’s nothing like offering up specs of the latest computer to place your work firmly in a particular year’. Which it does.

(I would also bet Stieg Larsson was a coffee lover. I’ve recently given up coffee myself, and noticed it mentioned on every second page. Perhaps the Swedes just love their coffee.)

As for my own computer preferences, any character assumptions will have to go on hold. I have a PC, a Linux running on an old laptop, and I’m currently typing on the Mac which lives beside the fire. I do love Macs, but PCs have their own advantages. They’re cheaper, for starters. And yes yes yes, you do still have to buy all the software, but you can build your own out of parts and use open source software. If it weren’t for the PC fewer people would be able to own a modern computer.

The Myth of Classlessness in Apple’s “Get a Mac” Campaign 

I’d like to see more fictional characters making use of a PC, or simply a ‘computer’, because I’m left scratching my head when I see certain unlikely characters making use of an Apple Mac.

Magical Computers: Computers on TV are not like computers in real life

The Ideology Of Fatness In Children’s Stories

Here’s a list of all the times I have felt like a fat female character was depicted + portrayed accurately in three decades of watching:

HAIRSPRAY
MY MAD FAT DIARY
YOU’RE THE WORST
SHRILL …this show is A LOT for me, pals!!!

Kate Hagen

FATPHOBIA AND THE DEPICTION OF FAT KIDS AS BULLIES

A fat bully character in a book implies that fatness is connected to bullying—because our culture already has that stereotype entrenched. A fat bully character in an individual book invokes the culture in which it exists, and brings all that to bear. Can’t help but.

diceytillerman

fatness blubber fatphobia

FATNESS AS CODE FOR GREEDY AND LAZY AND MORALLY CORRUPT

Rebecca Rabinowitz recently wrote a wonderful piece called, “Who’s that Fat Kid? Fat Politics and Children’s Literature” for the Children’s Book Council Diversity Blog. In it, she critiques the stereotypes and tropes of fat children in children’s literature: as either bully (ie. Dudley, Crabbe and Goyle in the Harry Potter Books) or a victim of bullying (ie. Judy Blume’s classic Blubber). Fatness often becomes code in children’s literature for gluttony, greed or other moral failings — just consider Augustus Gloop from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the Oompa-Loompa song says it all: “Augustus Gloop! Augustus Gloop! The great big greedy nincompoop! Augustus Gloop! So Big and Vile! So greedy, foul, and infantile.”

From the Mixed Up Files

 

FATPHOBIA AND CONCERN TROLLING ABOUT HEALTH

Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy by Bil Wright  is one example.

FATPHOBIA AND GENDER

Here’s a question for writers: How are you introducing your characters? Do you introduce female characters differently from how you introduce male characters?

Here’s an example from a New Zealand author from the 1980s and 90s — one of the main authors studied  in schools during that era. It’s from My Summer of The Lions by William Taylor. Our 13-year-old male protagonist meets his Samoan friend’s parents.  First, the mother:

Mrs Tulisi sailed towards me […] She did sail. She wore a long frock and seemed about fifteen feet tall with all her hair piled up in something like a crown on top of her.

Next, the father appears.

Mr Tulisi, the Reverend, appeared from behind his wife. It would be nice to say they made a good pair but they didn’t. He was as little as she was big. I had somtimes thought that there would be a horrible mess if she mistook him for a cushion, shook him, planted him down and then sat on him.

Later on, a female peer (later on, a love interest) is introduced. She has brought round a tin of baking.

‘Anyone ever tell you you’re ea right pain, Sharon-Mary? I said. ‘Sit down if you want to.’ […] Sharon-Mary looked at me for a moment. She had brown, nbrown eyes, a load of freckles and nearly as much dark red hair as Mrs Tulisi had black. She was short, sort of foundish and not quite plumpl. Very busy was Sharon-Mary. All the time. She had a face that laughed and smiled a lot. It wasn’t laughing or smiling now […] “make my coffee. One spoon of sugar and a drop, no more, of milk. I’m training to have it black.” She settled into her chair in a way that told me she was there to stay.

I knew I was about to hear something about myself and while I was all ears I was a bit scared, too. I gave her the coffee and cut the cake. She waved the cake away.

“It’s for you. Mum never knows when to stop baking at Christmas and with my weight problem…”

“You’re not that fat,” I said, nicely.

 

ACCEPTABLE WAYS OF BEING FAT

This piece — and other praises of Dumplin’ that I’ve seen — talk about the book as if it’s entirely fat positive. It’s not. The main character’s dearly beloved late aunt died of fatness. Really, of fatness. She died of deathfat. Watching TV. Alone. The book doesn’t imply that Aunt Lucy was unloveable, but it absolutely uses her to embody the equation of fatness with tragedy. If you’re deathfat, you’ll die, you’ll die alone, you’ll die watching tv, and your low income family won’t be able to afford a coffin to fit you in. Plain tragedy.

In addition to Aunt Lucy, there’s another secondary character, Millie, who waddles:

“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse. I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way”.

In Millie, fatness is pathetic. The phrase “Millie’s the type of fat that…” specifically calls her a “type.”Stereotype, archetype, not a full human. Readers are expected to recognize the type. Millie’s the icky “type” of fat, present for contrast, present so that Will, the protagonist, can be fat in a different way — a way that readers can like or feel fine about.

Why do we need to throw some fat characters to the wolves in order to offer a loveable fat protagonist? Is it a plea to the wolves? Is it bargaining? If we offer Aunt Lucy and Millie as sacrifice, can we be allowed to love the fat protagonist?

For Will, the protagonist, Dumplin’s message is mostly fat positive. But even for her, there’s this sentence: “For the first time in my life, I feel tiny. I feel small. And not in the shrinking flower kind of way. This feeling: it empowers me”. Why is power be symbolized as smallness? Why employ the equation of smallness with power? How does this not reinscribe hegemonic fatphobia?

Do pick up Dumplin’. Do read it. Do give it to teens. But this is a great chance to have analytical conversations about literary portrayal of fatness. Dissect it. We can praise and relish exciting aspects of fat positivity without ignoring hegemonic, fatphobic aspects from the same source. We must.

diceytillerman

IT STARTS WITH PICTURE BOOKS

Children’s stories are full of weird food messages, but perhaps the weirdest to me is the idea that a preschool market can — and should be able to — get jokes about dieting.

song-of-the-zubble-wump-dieting_800x600
from The Song of the Zubble-wump written in Dr Seuss style by children’s TV writer Tish Rabe

The obvious answer is that these jokes aren’t really meant for kids — they’re meant for the adult co-reader.

You’ll probably only find them in relation to anthropomorphized animals. Large animals such as elephants and mammoths are most likely to be the butt of this joke. Being built that way by nature, dieting simply won’t work, and that’s the root of the humour. In one of the later Ice Age movies Manny tells Ellie (both mammoths) that her butt is big. The joke is that Ellie doesn’t realise at first that he means this as a compliment. She takes offence, as all female characters must, because being fat is the absolute worst.

And that’s the message here, right? That being big is unacceptable, even if you’re naturally so.

It doesn’t take any experience with dieting to get that. Young readers get that.

IT GETS WORSE IN MIDDLE GRADE

There don’t need to be any fat characters in a book for the book to be saying something about body size. When a character is constantly described as slim/slender/size six etc for no good reason in the story, the ideology is that body size is important outside every other achievement.

If you read the Sweet Valley High series, you can probably tell me off the top of the head that the twins were ‘perfect size sixes’, because it was mentioned a lot.

Those who read the Babysitters Club series will remember that Claudia is always described as thin with good skin  — all this even though she eats lots of forbidden junk food, like the Gilmore girls.

 NORMALISATION OF EATING DISORDERS, OR A HOW-TO GUIDE?

Gossip Girl Take A Chance On Me

 

A series of Gossip Girl novels by Cecily von Ziegesar has recently appeared in stores. These stories feature a group of girls from New York City who live a pampered lifestyle and whose concerns revolve around fashion, friendships, and boys. Bulimia is framed as just part of the lifestyle:

Fudge-frosted brownies on little white plates sat temptingly on a shelf at eye-level. [Blair] picked one up, examined it for any defects, and then put it on her tray. Even if she actually decided to eat it, she could always throw it up later.

It wasn’t much, but at least she had that much control over her life.

For girls who are unhappy about their body image, this normalization of a symptom of a psychiatric illness is surely dangerous. This narrative privileges disordered eating as an expression of control and offers bulimia as as sort of twisted recompense for disappointment.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

FAT AS A SHORTCUT FOR BAD CHARACTER

YA fiction often positions fat as shorthand for countless negative qualities the writer is too unmotivated to develop – like presenting bullies as fat kids, which reinforces fatness as something sinister and deserving of scorn – or as the genesis of a butterfly story, which reinforces fat as a quality one must jettison to uncover the true self (which naturally is thin and beautiful). Of course there are other ways in which fatness is portrayed, but those two immediately came to mind.

Shapley Prose

 

If you’re fat, you’re the ugly friend. You’re the villain. You try too hard, and people pity you. You’re jealous of all the “pretty” girls. You’re the sassy best friend with a brain full of quips and no character depth. You don’t get the guy unless he’s also been presented as equally undesirable, and then you’re a loser couple to laugh at.

— Adventures in Storyland

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)

captain pirate parrot spatula

The Pirate Captain has the obligatory parrot on his shoulder, standing in as his ‘trophy wife’. The running joke is that the parrot is bigger than it should be. “She’s not fat — she’s just big-boned”, exclaims the captain defensively. This has the entire ship in fits of laughter, and is the turning event when the captain decides he must prove his worth as their true leader. This joke wouldn’t work, of course, if there were not the cultural assumption that powerful men must have beautiful women on their arms — or in this case, beautiful parrots on their shoulders. A man whose woman (or his female parrot companion) can’t possibly be fit to be leader unless he finds himself a female who fits the narrow constraints of acceptable body shape. A man’s status must match his woman’s beauty. Stereotype thusly reinforced.

Pirates Misfits Queen Victoria

Later, when Queen Victoria enters a room on a horse, the queen is exaggeratedly large (as she is always depicted) and the horse is ridiculously small: a visual joke about size which is as powerful as anything voiced. In another scene someone says, “A minute on the hips, a lifetime on the hips.” A ridiculous axiom in the first place. All it does is bring unhealthy messages about food guilt into a comedy designed for kids, who shouldn’t have to have to hear such rubbish.

THE FAT MAN BY MAURICE GEE

The Fat Man cover

This book is widely studied in Year 9 throughout New Zealand high schools.

Maurice Gee’s description of Muskie’s obese body in The Fat Man evokes disgust and abjection. His gross rolls of fat seem to provide evidence of contamination by the (unhealthy, fat-laden) foods he has eaten. He embodies excess; his body shows that he has consumed more than his fair share, suggesting that somewhere, someone has gone without. Obesity is, in Western culture, indicative of exceesive appetite, of a lack of self-control, of laziness, and of an unwillingness to conform to accepted paradigms of beauty. Arguably it also signifies a lack of morality. Susan Bordo argues that the firm, developed body has become a symbol of “correct attitude;” that one “cares” about oneself and how one appears to others. While muscles express sexuality, it is a controlled, managed sexuality that is “not about to erupt in unwanted and embarrassing display.” In contrast, the obese body signifies the wrong attitude and a lack of care about body image. It connotes voracious and uncontrolled (sexual) appetite.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

FAT PHOBIA IN THE WORK OF ROALD DAHL

Fantastic Mr Fox (film adaptation)

Roald Dahl did not like fat people. (I wonder what he made of his granddaughter becoming a plus-size model.) The man himself was ‘rakish’. I mean, he looked like a rake, which is what ‘rakish’ should probably mean. In fact it means: Having or displaying a dashing, jaunty, or slightly disreputable quality or appearance. But I’m not going to let common definitions stand in my way here.

One could argue that Roald Dahl didn’t much care for little people either, or any kind of person at all, really, especially short men (‘You might say he’s kind of a pot-bellied dwarf of some kind’), but Dahl makes sure to specify that Walter Boggis is fat because he eats three chickens at every meal, perpetuating the erroneous message that fat people are fat because they eat a lot. (The descriptions of the farmers are what makes Fantastic Mr Fox what it is, and Dahl’s descriptions are quoted verbatim in the film.)

The science behind weight-gain is complicated, this simplistic view of overweight and obesity — the view that fat people get fat because they eat a lot — is simplistic and flat out unhelpful. Robert Lustig, who knows a lot more than most people about this topic, being an endocrinologist, takes a far more modern approach toward cause and effect when it comes to obesity: fat people eat a lot because they’re growing. If this is true, then blaming fat people for eating too much is like blaming a strapping teenage boy for eating too much.

Back to the film, Badger’s voice over explains: ‘He’s unbelievably fat — which may be genetic — but he also eats three boiled chickens smothered with dumplings every day for breakfast, lunch, supper, and dinner. That’s twelve in total, per diem’. The phrase ‘which may be genetic’ smacks to me of self-consciousness, since the filmmakers understand full well that this is not a very nice thing for Badger to point out. These filmmakers steamroll right over the complexities, however, and sure enough, Boggis is a greedy, unpleasant man. His overweight body correlates with general slovenliness: ‘never takes a bath’. The audience sees him picking his ear.

But then of course we have Farmer Bean, who provides comic effect by being the opposite. So are Dahl and the filmmakers really poking fun at fat people, if they’re equally willing to have a go at skinny ones?

Well, I don’t know if they’re having a go at skinny ones, or at the eating disordered. Badger’s voice over explains: ‘He’s probably anorexic, because he never eats anything. He’s on a liquid diet of strong, alcoholic cider, which he makes from his apples’.

Sure, ‘not eating’  is technically the definition of ‘anorexic’ (babies are ‘anorexic’ when they fail to drink milk), so Farmer Bean is unquestionably anorexic, but I squirm a little at this, because the popular interpretation of ‘anorexic’ is of ‘anorexia nervosa’, a serious mental health disorder which is more deadly than any other mental health disorder. Especially for young women.

So was that line really necessary? Really? When food related disorders are at an historic high? And if it’s really a case of sticking to the original story without politically correct modifications, is this really the sort of story that we need to bring back to life from 1970? As it turns out, I’m a big fan of modernising classic tales. Politically correct re-written versions of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five? Gimme that any day. I loved those tales, but I don’t want my daughter to think that boys and ‘tomboys’ have all the fun.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book)

Charlie wins the golden ticket

Roald Dahl believed that adults have a relentless need to civilize “this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” His story, Charlie and the Chocolate Factor, drives home his views. Charlie is a polite, passive child. He respects his elders, is hard working, unselfish, thoughtful, and he knows how to control his appetite. Every year on his birthday, Charlie receives from his poverty-stricken family “one small chocolate bar to eat all by himself”.

He would place it carefully in a small wooden box that he owned, and treasure it as though it were a bar of solid gold; and for the next few days, he would allow himself only to look at it, but never to touch it. Then at last, when he could stand it no longer, he would peel back a tiny bit of the paper wrapping at one corner to expose a tiny bit of chocolate, and then he would take a tiny nibble — just enough to allow the lovely sweet taste to spread out slowly over his tongue. The next day, he would take another tiny nibble, and so on, and so on. And in this way, Charlie would make his sixpenny bar of birthday chocolate last him for more than a month.

This passage exemplifies the qualities Dahl apparently appreciates in a child: civilized manners, frugality, and, most importantly, restraint and control. It is interesting to note, however, that Charlie finds his golden ticket to the Chocolate Factory through an act which is ostensibly transgressive. When Charlie’s father loses his job the food situation at home becomes “desperate. Breakfast was a single slice of bread for each person now, and lunch was maybe half a boiled potato. Slowly but surely, everyone in the house began to starve.” “Every day Charlie Bucket grew thinner and thinner…The skin was drawn so tightly over the cheeks that you could see the shapes of the bones underneath. It seemed doubtful whether he could go on much longer like this without becoming dangerously ill”. Charlie finds a fifty pence coin in the snow and, instead of taking it to his parents so that they can buy food for whole family, he goes straight to the nearest shop and buys a bar of chocolate. (Incidentally, the shopkeeper strikes Charlie as being particularly “fat and well-fed”. Charlie “crams large pieces” of the chocolate bar into his mouth. Significantly, he is described as “wolfing” it down. “In less than half a minute, the whole thing had disappeared down his throat”. Charlie buys a second bar, reinforcing his transgression, and it is under the wrapper of this Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight that he discovers the Golden ticket. Roni Natov points out that questing heroes often have to “break some taboo” and “revolt” against the familial/social structure in order to create change. Tradition must be subverted so that evolution can occur. This, she reveals, is at the heart of the hero’s quest. It is significant that Dahl carefully constructs Charlie as being in extremis before his transgressive act takes place.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Charlieandchocholatefactory

In contrast, all the other children in the story who find golden tickets, have excessive appetites and desires, and show the deleterious influences of consumer-media culture. Veruca Salt is an acquisitive, impulsive and selfish consumer of material goods. She is acquisitive, impulsive and selfish consumer of material goods. She screams at her fahter, lying on the floor for hours, “kicking and yelling in the most disturbing way” until she gets what she wants, producing the ultimate display of “pester power.” Nine-year-old Mike Teavee, on the other hand, is described by Dahl as a “television fiend”. He is an avid consumer of gangster films, the more violent the better. He wears “no less than eighteen toy pistols of various sizes hanging frombelts around his body” and indignantly resists being deprived of the TV even for a short time. He thinks that gangster movies are “terrific… especially when they start pumping each other full of lead, or flashing the old stilettos, or giving each other the one-two-three with their knuckledusters! Gosh, what wouldn’t I give to be doing that myself! I’ts the life, I tell you! It’s terrifice!” The Oompa-Loompas’ song provides the vehicle for Dahl’s critique: television is a “monster”; chldren should be kept away from “the idiotic thing”. It hypnotizes them, making them lethargic and mindless to the point of being “absolutely drunk”.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Daniel points out that Dahl was an early writer to hold this view, which has since become a lot more common. Though Mike Teavee is an example of an over-consumer of media, it is Augustus Gloop of course who is an overconsumer in the most literal sense — he eats too much.

Gloop’s body, and his face in particular, seem to embody the food which produced it. His head is a currant bun! Furthermore, reference to Claude Levi-Strauss’s raw-cooked dualism, which he aligns with nature/culture, suggests that Augustus’s doughy face evolkes notions of precultural primitivism and irrational mindlessness.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Also of note: Dahl blames Gloop’s mother for overfeeding her child and making him fat.

In psychoanalytic terms, it could be argued that Augustus has failed to properly separate from his mother, signified by his insatiable and transgressive desire for food. He is stuck in the oral phase, the phase of maternal influence. Food is the wrong object for his deire; he ought to have turned to the father/phallus in order too achieve proper masculine subjectivity. Augustus is connoted as monstrous and denied agency by his inappropriately directed and excessive desire.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The more modern version of Augustus Gloop is of course Dursley from Harry Potter.

Issues of Class

With regard to Dahl;s construction of these characters…notions of class and race are also implicated. Although Charlie has middle-class manners and mores, he is an idealistic representation of the British working class. Veruca Salt belongs decidedly within the despised nouveau riche category and is presumably American, since her father is “in the peanut business”. Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee are also affiliated with America; Violet by her incessant gum-chewing and Mike by his penchant for American Westerns and gangster movies. Augustus’s last name suggests he might be German. The class and race issues implied here are significant in relation to the nuances of excessive and vulgar appetite and childish monstrousness. There are marked differences between historical notions of childrearing in britian and America. The austere diet of British children was deemed to have character building properties while, in contrast, American childrearing methods were seen to be vulgar and overindulgent and associated with the nouveau riche. Dahl’s cultural conservatism marries with Dick Hebdige’s claims that populist discourses about culture and taste in Britain in the 1930s-60s tended to focus on the “leveling down” of moral and aesthetic standards and the erosion of fundamentally British values and attitudes. This perceived decline in standards was believed to stem from “American ization” (an influx of American mass culture encompassing good,s production techniques, music, etc.), and reflected fears of the homgenization of British society.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The modern reader can even make the link between the hammering down of Gloop’s body in the story and the American trend for plastic surgery, which has also crossed the Atlantic.

FAT PHOBIA IN YOUNG ADULT FICTION

Sometimes the dis/approval of body type is quite subtle. It can be achieved in a single word. In the young adult novel Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan (2011), the main female character is described as ‘slender’ in the introductory thumbnail description. When the mother is introduced, we are told that mother and daughter look similar, but the mother is ‘not as slender’. Then again, at the beginning of chapter five we’re told:

One moment Kieran had been staring at Waverly’s slender back, imploring silently, Don’t go. Get off the shuttle.

Not only is the ‘slender’ thing mentioned again for no good reason to the plot, the reader is treated to yet another vision of a girl through the pervasive male gaze. Even in fiction — stories set in wholly imagined futuristic worlds, no less — girls can’t escape this constant judgement on their bodies.

THE MAKEOVER TROPE

At TV Tropes you’ll find a breakdown of various types of makeover scenes which are very common in ‘ugly duckling’ stories. Many of these are coming of age stories.

[Many narratives feature] the transformation or makeover of children’s bodies so that they comply with accepted paradigms of beauty or, in the case of the younger children, properly controlled childhood. John Stephens has shown that, semiotically, the trope of the makeover, so often used in contemporary teen fiction, is frequently framed as a central metonym of growth and a movement toward subjectivity and maturation. It supposedly demonstrates to the character concerned that “she can transform her life and thus realize her full potential.” On the one hand, such discourses reiterate the notion that bodies, especially female bodies, are transformable, and on the other, they act to endorse cultural beauty paradigms and the imperative that female bodies should be transformed. … The changes… reflect the individual’s movement toward a more mature self. Thus “what appears inscribed on the body’s surface [is seen to] function as a pointer to the depths within. In countless movies, magazines, and teen (or young adult) novels, aimed at girls, the make over is shown to be the way to transform the self and notably, to achieve agency and happiness through social acceptance. Most significantly, even when a range of body morphologies is confirmed as “natural”, it is always the slimmest body types that are valorized.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

HAVE THINGS CHANGED LATELY, THOUGH?

Not a lot.

fat phobia gilmore girls
Rory and Lorelai are disgusted by a fat man i the Gilmore girls reboot.
  • Logan (2017) — the script forces Hugh Jackman to call a woman a “fatass”
  • Bill Burr routine (2017) — he rants for 7 minutes about fat people

The Modern Taboo

Anorexia seems to be considered an acceptable topic for young readers. Obese children, on the other hand, are rarely featured in contemporary children’s literature and are unlikely to be explicitly condemned as they often are in the classics. …Dudley Dursely…proves to be an unusual exception.

— Carolyn Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

Voracious Children was published 10 years ago, and in good news, the fat acceptance movement and some exciting new authors seem to have had a positive impact on the young adult landscape in particular. Until recently the standout examples of fat characters in children’s literature were:

  • Blubber by Judy Blume — fat bodies used as learning tools for others
  • The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger — but the sequel completely undoes any fat-positive messages
  • When Zachary Beaver Came to Town
  • Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade by Barthe DeClements
  • The Fairy Rebel by Lynne Reid Banks
  • Madeleine L’Engle only ever has fat characters in her books who are bad

Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is the best YA novel I have had starring a fat protagonist* because:

  • Eleanor is still fat even when she doesn’t get enough to eat, which to me reads as a sign of poverty, which it is in the real world, rather than a symptom of greed or bad character
  • Eleanor is not depicted as a ‘beautiful girl’ but in a fat body and there is never any ‘If only she lost weight she’d be hot’ sentiment
  • She ends up in a romantic relationship with someone who does not have body image issues. It’s not a Shrek-like ‘Know your level’ sort of message.
  • Eleanor has a fulfilling teenage sex life and her overweight is a non-issue when it come to that.
  • [SPOILER ALERT HIGHLIGHT TO READ] Rainbow Rowell also avoids that thing where every fat girl has to find her true love by giving us a bittersweet ending.
*It is never actually clear in the story whether Eleanor is genuinely fat or if she just thinks she is, which might be seen as problematic.

Eleanor & Park is a part of a new wave of YA novels written by (mostly female) authors who have a much better handle on fat politics than authors who came before. Some examples from around the Internet (which is probably mostly to thank for fat acceptance in the first place):

  • Sweet by Emily Laybourne
  • Dumplin‘ by Julie Murphy
  • The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
  • Looks by Madeline George
  • Earthly Delights by Kerry Greenwood
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero
  • My Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
  • Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell
  • Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have by Allen Zadoff (about a boy rather than a girl)
  • Nimona, a graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson
  • Big Fat Manifesto by Susan Vaught
  • Hungry, Crystal Renn’s memoir
  • This Book Isn’t Fat Its Fabulous by Nina Beck
  • All About Vee by C. Leigh Purtell
  • Fat Hoochie Prom Queen by Nico Medina

One of the problems with the marketing and packaging of books about fat girls, though, is that the book covers often depict food, whereas almost every YA novel with a beautiful protagonist shows the protagonist, or at least a part of her body on at least one of the cover versions. (Often headless, admittedly.) Where are all the headless fat girls on book covers?

Modern Books To Avoid (due to problematic/conflicting messages)

I have not read many of these. Some I have tried reading and given up partway through. Others I do appreciate as stories, but when I look more closely at the fat politics I definitely know what people are talking about. If you’re looking quickly for a book a fat kid might love, perhaps make use of this list as a rough shorthand?

  • Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky
  • Everyday by David Levithan
  • Sugar by Deidre Riordan Hall
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Huge by Sasha Paley
  • Artichokes Heart by Suzanne Supplee
  • Looks by Madeleine George
  • The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
  • Shrink to Fit by Doner Sarkar
  • Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green

IS IT POSSIBLE TO WRITE A FUNNY FAT JOKE?

There are some guidelines. I personally steer clear of reference to body size, as does Daniel Handler on principle — and did anyone even notice that he leaves it right out?

Would this be funny if the character wasn’t fat?

Incorrect response: I also laugh at skinny people so I can’t be fat phobic.

A comedy which does fat jokes well is Roseanne. The age of that show is telling — good fat jokes are rare as truffles.

Just Friends is also apparently a healthy representation of a fat character because the characters’s fatness is a part of their backstory and character arc. We can’t steer completely clear of depicting fat characters either, because that would be ‘symbolic annihilation’.

RELATED

If you’re au fait with the film of Tim Burton, check out: 10 Examples Of Tim Burton Hating On Fat People from Film School Rejects

They say one of the gifts of getting older is you don’t care as much what other people think of you. And as I come to the end of my 30s this does seem true, with one notable exception. All the women I know, and I include myself, still spend far too much time engaging in ”confessional” food talk.

– SMH, Would You Like Some Stigma With That?

Calling Melissa McCarthy a “Female Hippo” isn’t being a critic; it’s being a bully, from Hello Giggles

Where Are All The Fat Female [American] Politicians? from Jezebel

Fat Jokes & Chris Christie: What If He Were a Woman? from The Broad Side

James Gandolfini: An “Unlikely” Sex Symbol? Yup; Men Get Fat-Shamed, Too from Bust Magazine

Self-acceptance has become a new form of defiance on television, especially among younger female comedians. Partly that’s because it’s refreshingly unusual. From Women on TV Step Off The Scales

FAT BODY POLITICS: THIN PRIVILEGE VS. “THIN SHAMING from Fuck Yeah Feminists

Are Thin Women The Enemy? from BBC News

Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity, an abstract from PLOS One

Fat from The Rumpus is a long read written about the experiences of being a lifelong overweight male.

Body Size Stereotypes.

Obesity Campaigns: The Fine Line Between Educating and Shaming from The Atlantic

The truth about fat women and self control from Live Science

The Privilege Of Assuming It’s Not About You from Sociological Images

Characters Named Richard In Children’s Literature

Few names in history shine with so consistent a lustre as that of Richard; at first the little Duke, afterwards Richard aux longues jambes, but always Richard sans peur. This little sketch has only brought forward the perils of his childhood, but his early manhood was likewise full of adventures, in which he always proved himself brave, honourable, pious, and forbearing. But for these our readers must search for themselves into early French history, where all they will find concerning our hero will only tend to exalt his character.

Charlotte M. Yonge 1872), pious children’s writer

aux longues jambes = long-legged

sans peur = fearless

The name Richard is a French baby name. In French the meaning of the name Richard is: Powerful; strong ruler. A Teutonic name from the European Middle Ages. England’s King Richard Coeur de Lion was a crusading knight.

SheKnows.com

Dicks

Spotted Dick And Custard

See: How Dick Came To Be Short For Richard.

In children’s literature from the 1900s and the first half of the 20th century, Dick was a fairly common name for a boy character. Obviously the word then grew another meaning and started to be avoided by children’s writers, and at the same time embraced by adults’ writers.

I Love Dick poster

Children’s writers also started avoiding the names Titty and Fanny, as did parents.

Take Dick from Famous Five. He is the beta-dog, second-in-line to Julian, who has the more regal name, but still above the girls in the pecking order.

There’s another Dick in Blyton’s Faraway Tree series. He comes to visit from the city in the second in the series. Although he’s a bit hapless and incredulous, he is treated with far more empathy by the author than Connie, who is depicted as a prissy, spoilt brat in Folk Of The Faraway Tree. In an updated version, the characters Dick and Fanny have been updated to Rick and Frannie. While Frannie seems to work still, Rick is a glaring anachronism; were any Richards shortened to Rick until recently?

Dick from the Dick and Jane series, 1940
Dick from the Dick and Jane series, 1940

There’s a Dick in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Dick Callum is similar to the Famous Five Dick. He is a young astronomer, scientist, naturalist and master of the Scarab. Dick and his sister Dorothea Callum are often mentioned as a pair, the Ds.

Moby Dick

Related

Do you know who Poor Richard was?

In adult fiction there’s the Martha Grimes detective series, with the title character named Richard Jury.

The Man with a Load of Mischief cover

But otherwise, it seems to me you’re far more likely to find a Richard as a writer, illustrator, historical king or movie director than as a fictional character in a book these days.

Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by diCamillo and Van Dusen

If you’re looking for a chapter book to bridge the gap between beautifully illustrated picturebooks and pictureless novels, the Mercy Watson series is a great option, because the illustrations are just as enticing as any found in a high-production picture book.

MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE COVER

STORYWORLD OF MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE

1960s American suburbia.

Children’s authors and illustrators seem to love this era — in hindsight it feels so safe, with the housewives cheerfully putting on endless spreads of food. For every happy housewife we probably had a Eugenia and a Baby, sisters forced to live together because there was no pay equality, a dearth of husbands after the world wars, and no freedom for a full life outside the confines of marriage. However! This image of suburbia, illustrated in bright, sunny pastel colours by Chris Van Dusen, is a genuine utopia. You’ll find nothing rotten in the basements here. This is a parody of the era, in which everything can be fixed with hot buttered toast.

The pink cadillac convertible seems to be a 1959 model. This is an iconic car that you would’ve seen in the movie Grease. And Elvis had one. 

Pink Cadillac
the pink cadillac from Pink Cadillac

The breakfast spread prepared by Mrs Watson includes a coconut bunny cake, from Betty Crocker. In sum, this is a Betty Crocker (General Mills) version of utopia.

picture edition published 1956
picture edition published 1956
1966
1966

STORY STRUCTURE OF MERCY WATSON GOES FOR A RIDE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Mercy is a hedonist who enjoys good food and simple things in life, such as driving at high speed with the wind in her ears. But, like Mr Watson, she needs adventure outside the domesticity of a suburban house.

DESIRE

Mercy wants to drive the convertible.

OPPONENT

Mr Watson is in love with his convertible and won’t let her drive it.

Mr Watson’s opponent is the policeman who wants to give him a ticket for speeding, and for letting a pig drive a car.

Baby’s opponent is her older sister, who has babied her her whole life. This relationship is well-understood simply from the fact that her name is Baby.

PLAN

Since Mercy is an impulsive pig, and simply plonks herself on Mr Watson’s lap when she wants a go at the wheel, diCamillo created a personified Mercy in the form of the old maid Baby, from next door. Henpecked by her elderly older sister, Eugenia, Baby craves freedom and adventure herself, so she plans to stowaway in the back seat one Saturday so she can go on a ride in the convertible with Mr Watson and the pig.

BATTLE

When Mercy takes over the wheel we have a high-speed chase scene. It ends with Mercy flying into the air and landing hard on the ground.

SELF-REVELATION

Mr Watson gives Mercy a lecture about pigs driving. “Mercy sighed. She was glad the ride was over. She felt a tiny bit dizzy. And a little bit dazed. She wanted, very much, to go home.” Mercy has had enough adventure, for one day at least. But because this is a series, we don’t want Mercy to stop having adventures altogether!

Baby, perhaps for the first time in her life, saves the day by stepping in and taking action. “Hooray!” said Baby. “She is fine!” But I’m sure she’s pleased at the discovery of her own cool headedness, too.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

After Mrs Watson offers Officer Tomilello hot buttered toast he decides not to issue any tickets. The pig and the policeman look at each other as if they are now firm friends.

Eugenia has softened just a little towards Baby and admits that the toast has been ‘expertly buttered’, and so they stay for supper at the neighbours’.

PIGS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Johanna

There are 4 main types of animals found in children’s literature:

  1. Those portraying animals in their natural environment and only partially allowing them human-like abilities
  2. Those portraying anthropomorphic animals–talking, wearing clothes, thinking and behaving like humans–in separate communities, with or without contact with humans
  3. Those portraying anthropomorphic animals living among humans, as friends or intelligent pets
  4. Those which are humanized or semi-humanized

LET’S NOT MENTION THIS BUT…

One enduring problems with pigs as characters is that many humans eat pig meat. A Saturday morning feast for Kate diCamillo’s semi-humanized pig, Mercy Watson, does not include bacon and eggs.

Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo
Chapter One of Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride by Kate diCamillo

Charlotte’s Web is a different matter. From the first chapter the young reader is keenly aware that the lovable pig is for it.

FLYING PIGS

If the story is a funny one, it’s highly likely that at some stage the pig character will end up airborne, making use of the English idiomatic expression: “And pigs might fly!”

Mercy Watson Goes For A Ride_600x846

POLICEMEN AND PIGS

There are a number of dual audience jokes going on in this book but one of them is the ‘pig = policeman’. You can often tell when a policeman is going to be kind/lenient in a children’s book — he’ll be plump. (Another example is the policeman in Make Way For Ducklings, who has an enormous pot belly and a pocket full of peanuts.) Like Mercy, the policeman here can be won over with hot buttered toast. On the final page we see a mirror image of the pair — the policeman’s blue uniform reflects off Mercy’s ears, and Mercy’s plate is blue. They both have the same rosy cheeks. These are kindred spirits.

Mercy and the Other Pig