Saturday, March 07, 2015

Two fat men: fictional bodies as metaphor and identity

I’ve been thinking about bodies, metaphor and identity, in the context of two very different stories; J K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies (the same story over two books). Both have been given recent BBC TV adaptations where prominent fat characters have been played by fairly slim actors, which is undoubtedly why they have been on my mind.

 This is how J K Rowling introduces the patriarchal character of Howard Mollinson in her novel, The Casual Vacancy:
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. Partly because his physique set off these trains of thought, and partly because of his fine line in banter, Howard managed to discomfort and disarm in almost equal measure, so that customers almost always bought more than they meant to on a first visit to the shop.
I like this, but you know, I don’t like it. Then, as the book goes on and we’re not allowed to forget how very fat Howard is, I like it even less.  Howard’s fatness represents his greed; he is a glutton and a lech, he is hungry for power and influence. He has a disgusting rash under his belly, he takes up space and tax-payer's money.

In much the same way, we know that Uriah Heap is ghoulish before he speaks or moves because he looks like a ghoul. Except even that was David Copperfield's own impression.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein
A large white bearded man
in regal Tudor costume, complete
with codpiece, in case you forget.
Another fat man with a game-changing penis is Henry VIII in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies. Mantel is at a great advantage with Henry on two counts. First of all, she didn’t – couldn’t – invent his body. She didn’t choose his red hair, his colossal height, his increasing girth or his gammy leg. Secondly, most of us have a fairly clear vision of what Henry VIII looked like. Thus, there is no passage where Mantel says, Here is a man called King Henry; here is what he looks like.  His appearance, however, is mentioned often:
How colourful Henry is! How like the king in a new pack of cards! 
When he sees Henry draw his bow, he thinks, I see now, he is royal.
A broad man, a high man, Henry dominates any room. He would do it even if God had not given him the gift of kingship. 
Is the king’s head becoming bigger? Is that possible in mid-life?
Henry is overwhelming. He is, both literally and figuratively, the biggest man around. His clothes and physical mannerisms serve to make him seem larger and brighter.

There are other important bodies in these books; the body of Catherine of Aragon is deemed too old to play her role of bearing children. The body of Ann Boleyn, so desired by Henry, is criticised by her enemies as undesirable; she is flat-chested, she is a “goggle-eyed whore”. Princess Mary is unsuitable as an heir, both as a woman, and because she is small; a “dwarf”. Even toddler Princess Elizabeth, sharing her hair colour with her father, is described as a “ginger brat”.

But all of this information is delivered in the words and thoughts of characters. Mantel never tells us what people look like but instead, how they are seen. Sometimes, how they see themselves.

When J K Rowling invented lustful lingerie-saleswoman, Samantha, and teenage sexpot Crystal, the two most sexual and sexualised women in the novel's universe, she also made them the only two women with notably big breasts (Samantha even has sexual fantasies in which she is conscious of what her enormous breasts look like to her lover). The romantically desperate social worker, Kay, has stocky thighs.  Lovelorn teenager Andrew, beaten by his father and exploited by his far more confident best friend, has extensive facial acne.

Rowling does sometimes place visual descriptions in the minds or words of characters, but often she uses the authorial voice. Most people see a fat man and think about his penis.

The character of Tessa, described as “overweight” (that's a BMI of between 26 and 30, in case you were vague about what that looks like), sits looking at Heat Magazine in a doctor’s waiting room:
She remembered telling a sturdy little girl in Guidance that looks did not matter, that personality was much more important. What rubbish we tell children, thought Tessa. 
Tessa has a point; in this universe, people’s looks are often physical manifestations of their vices and vulnerabilities*.

My body is part of my identity. I didn't chose my face, but if you see a photograph of it, you see me. My bodily experiences influence who I am. There are folks for whom their bodies are much more or much less part of their identity; some people go to great lengths to express themselves through their looks, while others are largely indifferent. Some people feel trapped inside their bodies, while others revel in every detail of their physical selves.

However, my body is not a metaphor for anything. And goodness knows, people see metaphor in me, in my gender combined with my age, my height, my weight, my breasts, my bum, the length of my legs. People see metaphor in a walking stick or a wheelchair (hardly surprising when it's pretty rare to read fiction where these things are not metaphorical). I know people see metaphor if I wear make-up or not, the length and style of my hair, my clothes and shoes.

I'm not especially worried about the plight of fat, middle-aged white men - they are not underrepresented in the highest echelons of power, they are not a vulnerable group who suffer widespread discrimination or abuse (although they suffer some discrimination and abuse, and the BBC cast Damien Lewis as Henry and Michael Gambon as Howard, presumably because they couldn't find high caliber fat male actors in the right age brackets, presumably because such actors don't usually get a lot of work).

Meanwhile, I am fascinated by the mechanism; I am fascinated by the way rational human beings seek out meaning in accidents of genetics and nutrition. I am fascinated the way that hated figures are seen as ugly - David Cameron is almost eerily unremarkable in his looks, the silver Ford Focus of men, who you wouldn't so much as glance up at on a bus or in a pub. Yet to many of his detractors, he becomes reptilian, his eyes are too close together, his hair is receding comically, his skin is plastic.

People need to tell stories about the way people do this.

We need to avoid telling stories as if this way of thinking is entirely fair.

* When we were talking about this, Stephen reminded me of The Singing Detective, which handles skin disease as perceived punishment for various sins - the body as metaphor, at some considerable length.  This is absolutely superb but it is all about how the protagonist understands his body and illness (other characters have different perspectives - other characters apply different metaphors).

1 comment:

Matthew Smith said...

I didn't watch all the way through Wolf Hall and I've never read the books. But I did see the TV series of The Casual Vacancy and I can only assume it was dramatised, and not some other work, because of who wrote it. The characterisation was dreadful. I didn't notice the fat bloke so much as the nasty bloke who abused his son, but so many of them were class stereotypes, both the toffs and the people from the council estate.

What most bothered me was that I couldn't work out what sort of place "Pagford" was -- the setting was mostly in west Oxfordshire, but I can't think of a single example of a chocolate-box English village with a large council estate on the edge with the same kinds of people living on it as on a large urban council estate like Rose Hill or New Addington (both in south London). (Many have a small one, or remnants of one -- as I learned when working for the ambulance service, the area round the ambulance station is usually the old council estate, but most have been sold off.