Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Writing Prejudices

I didn't realize until my last in person writing group meeting that I had some serious body image issues. Of course, I'm well aware of the fact that I have a widening arse, and I fight valiantly against its expansion. The women in my family, both in-laws and my side, all have similar weight and dieting issues. My mother always cautioned against "getting fat" after eating something sugary, but it wasn't until just a few years ago that I realized it was her own feelings about weight that made her say that to me, which probably came as a result of things her father said to her about weight.

Anyway, something that came up in the writing group was that one of my supporting characters was overweight, and my main character didn't like her initially, and the weight was viewed as a negative characteristic. As well, a man the overweight supporting character eventually takes up with is also slightly overweight, and there was a definite a-ha moment with me and the group when we realized that the only reason it was okay for these two overweight supporting characters to be together was because they were both overweight -- meaning the male supporting character was not considered love interest material because he was portly.

Well, that was pretty crappy and definitely gave me pause for thought. Obviously I, and my main character in that particular story, have body image issues. So I looked for similar threads in my current WIP and noticed that it went the reverse. My main character is of average weight, but she is threatened by a woman who is thin and tall and blonde and leggy. Meaning, my main character feels inadequate because she is not those things. (However, she gets the guy in the end and the tall blonde doesn't, so it all works out for her.)

I was reading about Enid Blyton, beloved children's book author (and one of the most if not the, prolific writers of all time, producing about 800 books over her 40 year career), and a staple of my childhood. Many of you know her if you had some UK flava in your childhoods; her books are not published in the US. Anyway, many of Blyton's books fell under criticism for being racist or otherwise ill-advised in their language and views, which were largely seen as a product of Blyton's era and her upbringing. You can read about it on Wiki. Anyway, her opinions really came out in her stories and you can see she was prejudiced and ignorant about races, as well as sexist. (It's really unsettling actually and opens up the whole argument for editing offensive works for modern sensibilities, or preserving the author's words. I'm not sure what to do there, but I definitely am not into reading her racist stories.)

I would hope most of us think about what hang -ups or prejudices or violent views we hold and consider carefully how and why these come out in our stories, and whether they should be there at all. For example, my weight issues aren't really a problem in itself, but the fact that there was a negative connotation given to an overweight character IS a problem, and one I'm not comfortable with in my fiction. I'll be removing that aspect.



Lt. Cccyxx said...

I think it depends. Assuming your story is supposed to reflect real life and not some morals-heavy paean to the way we should all act, the truth is that many people (of both sexes) are less attracted to overweight people as romantic partners. Beyond that, some people do attribute other undesirable personality characteristics to overweight people. That your characters were doing this in unsurprising. For better or worse, it matches life.

But I think the real issue you've identified is your role as the author. If you were building this dynamic in unconsciously and your writing group helped you realize that, that's very important.

But now, as the author, the choice is yours. You can take that dynamic out, you can have your characters discriminate against overweight characters consciously, you can have them discriminate unconsciously, or think of other options. It all depends on what you're trying to accomplish.

The important thing is your new awareness of the dynamic you've set up. I think the better we all as authors understand the cultural and other biases we bring to our stories, the more artfully we can manipulate the stories.

DL Hammons said...

I think there is a fine-line between letting our own deep-seated bias leak into our writing, and simply using your writing to shine a light on other peoples prejudices. For me, I find a great parallel in humor based on ridicule that kids find so amusing. They may say they're only joking, but there is always a grain of truth behind every comment. How much of that truth is injected into your work, only you can say for sure.

Travener said...

Speaking as someone who's had a weight problem all his life -- and I do mean *all* of it, like from the time I came out of the womb -- I think the portly guy should wind up with the leggy blonde.

Just sayin'.

annerallen said...

Size prejudice is one of the last areas where people can express hate with impunity. It happens nearly every night on the evening news, when decapitated bodies of non-thin folks are paraded by to illustrate some new study (usually funded by the multi-billion dollar diet industry) to prove fat people are inferior and deserve to die young. Nobody ever says that size is 67% genetic and a whole lot of obesity is caused by the anti-depressants handed out to our children like candy.

That said, pretending that fat people have equal rights in our culture is ridiculous (look what recently happened to director Kevin Smith.) Ditto assuming fat people are regularly considered objects of desire (except for a few male sitcom stars.)

Speaking as someone who has become a person of size in middle age--I have what one of my friends calls "a traditional figure"--I can say that what works for me is not pretending that prejudice doesn't exist, but acknowledging it. If your character finds a larger man unattractive, have her question her response and think about it. And maybe learn something. Then your reader will too.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Great points, all of you...

Lt. -- you're right that it is the role of the author to manage these ideas.

Don -- yes, there IS a grain of truth behind words...which is why it startled me.

Trav - Different stories, but that's a good plot :)

Anne - It's that exact "allowed" prejudice that bothers me - I don't want to perpetrate it. And I will be doing just as you suggest - have my character question her response.

Amber Tidd Murphy said...

I gained and lost 70 pounds between the ages of 18 and 23. I like to keep it real on the subject of body image. When my mc, Laurel, gains a shite-ton of weight in a later chapter, it cetainly will cause her to lower her standards in the love-interest department, because she has issues, one of which is related to weight. She looks for love in the wrong places while she is overweight.

I don't want to feel bad about that part of the plot, because it's a valid experience.

I just think that there has to be a way to write about an overweight character without making it a "stock" character, like the stereotypical dumb blonde or ditzy cheerleader or nerdy bookworm, for instance.

I would advise you to take the criticism and strengthen your characters. Write about why the two characters are drawn to each other. Are they comfortable with each other because they have the extra pounds in common? Does one or the other feel more powerful in the relationship because he or she is "less" overweight than the other? Do they encourage each other to lose weight? Or ARE they negative characters, keeping each other down by enbabling poor eating decisions, lack of exercise or something like that?

Hmm. I am interested in why you put these two together. There has to be a deeper reason -- something beyond "he couldn't be a love interest" because of his size.

Do you think there is anything you could do to keep readers from seeing it that way?

Sierra Godfrey said...

Funnily enough, I never made it a point that two overweight people were together. They were together only because they had common interests (and no, it's not food). And I never made it a point to say they were overweight, just that he had a "round face" and she was "less than svelte."

Still, what matters is that people picked up on it. The deeper reason was that the man was never intended as a love interest for the MC - just as a red herring so readers would wonder if he would end up being the love interest. (I like to have three potentials, usually.) Nowhere do I overtly mention the weight, but it's the subtly that is disturbing because it's what isn't said....and as I mentioned in the post, I'm not comfortable with that because it assumes it's okay.

This is all coming from my uncomfortableness about my own weight.

I love your thoughtful and honest comments, guys. Thanks for posting and giving me and others things to think about.

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