[DWJ] Bad Mothers (was HP)

deborah.dwj at suberic.net deborah.dwj at suberic.net
Thu May 17 10:08:21 EDT 2007

On Thu, 17 May 2007, Jadwiga Zajaczkowa / Jenne Heise wrote:
> What's interesting is that we're obsessing over a single example,
> because it fits a cultural stereotype. Logically, of course, some
> people in a given group are going to fit the stereotype, and some of
> them will be nasty. In this case, the failed feminist writer. Is it
> possible for someone to  include a negative character who fits a
> stereotype safely? How?

It's a very tricky proposition. The problem is that the book
exists in the world, and even if, within the book, the character
has the best of reasons for being the way he or she is, the book
is still going to exist outside of the character's fictional
universe and will take its place in a canon that is chock full of

I'm going to use fat instead of feminism as the example here,
mostly because it's what is on my mind right now. (But also
because society as a whole has mostly overcome the equation
"feminism equals evil and bad mother", but has not at all
overcome the equation "fat equals lazy and slob", so it's easier
to see the damage that even the well-written stereotypes do.)

Can you never make a fat character lose weight any young adult
novel without showing weight loss as an essential part of
character development and perforce showing fatness as a character
flaw which must be rejected? It's hard to say. Of course it makes
sense that the kid in Hatchet loses weight; he's starving in the
Canadian bush. Of course the boy in Staying Fat for Sara Byrnes
ends up losing weight; he's a competitive swimmer, and he can
barely keep the weight on at all even when he is trying to. But
those books exist in a canon which also includes The Perilous
Gard*, which includes the standard young woman coming of age
trope that her fat at the book's beginning has transformed into
breasts and hips by the book's end. In The Perilous Gard,
therefore, we are reinscribing the unexplored notion that fat is
equivalent with flawed & undeveloped characters, youth, and
sexlessness; character development brings maturity, sexual
identity, and lost weight.

These are only three books, of course, but there's an unending
pile of parallel examples.

So can you never have a lazy, evil fat character; or a
hypocritical feminist who doesn't mother her children; or a
terrorist Muslim; or a greedy Jew; or a criminal
African-American? Of course not. Good fiction can include all of
these things. But at the same time, if the book isn't ideological
in some way, isn't exploring and deconstructing and questioning
the stereotypes that it uses, then we have to acknowledge that
book -- no matter how good! -- has entered the pool of
contributing to character stereotypes.

*Note about The Perilous Gard: first of all, I do love the book
(and hate Hatchet, incidentally). Secondly, how on earth does
Dragon NaturallySpeaking know how to spell "gard"?

What does it matter whether we hang,
If we've learned a little wisdom?	-- _Jade_, Sally Watson

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