Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hermione Granger and the Failures of Feminism

Hermione Granger is JK Rowling's feminist presence in the Harry Potter series, and she is a triumph. Hermione is a wonderful feminist character: smarter than anyone, brave and shrewd and assertive and just. As a Muggle-born witch, Hermione faces marginalization because of her birth and sex, but her concern about oppression extends beyond her own experience. Chally Kacelnik at Bitch wrote that Hermione "cares about social justice, as particularly embodied in her commitment to house elf rights where most of the wizarding world wouldn’t think twice about their status".

But Hermione is not just a reflection of the wonderful things about feminism. In her work on behalf of the equality of magical people, Hermione often flaunts her human privilege and unintentionally enforces the oppression of the house-elves, giants, goblins, trolls, and centaurs she claims to support.  In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in particular, Hermione ignores or minimizes house-elf and non-human magical beings' opinions and autonomy, though she claims to have their best interest at heart. With SPEW, Hermione participates in the grand feminist tradition of devaluing, disregarding and silencing oppressed classes while centering herself and her opinions on their marginalization.

Hermione isn't wrong to advocate for the rights of house-elves. Her interest in their oppression was ignited when she saw high-ranking Ministry official Bartholomew Crouch abusing his house-elf, Winky, at the Quidditch World Cup. Hermione identified this particular injustice while she was herself vulnerable to the rioting of the Death Eaters. On page 139 of Goblet of Fire, in response to Barty Crouch's dismissal of Winky, Hermione said: "The way they were treating her!... Mr. Diggory, calling her "elf" all the time … it was like she wasn't even human!" Though her outburst is brave, there is still an exercise of privilege here; she makes humanity the norm and standard for deserving fair treatment. However, Hermione does correctly identify the endorsement of abuse and mistreatment of house elves from magical humans who thought that it was their right to mistreat and neglect elves; she thought outside herself in a situation where she was personally in great danger. This is a just and good impulse delivered, as with many of her well-intentioned acts, without a whole lot of inconsideration and privilege.

Speaking out against her peers' devaluation of house-elves is a brave move befitting the best parts of Hermione's character. Hermione faces a lot of discrimination and danger because of her marginalization as a Muggle-born and a woman (though the latter is played down in the magical world, as I hope to discuss in the future) in the series. But in forming SPEW, she uses her oppression as license to act as an authority, as a leader for folks who experience oppression she did not. This is a grave mistake common to people of privilege in social justice movements: she centers and prioritizes her skewed and unsuitable vision of what house-elf protection means over the concerns of house-elves; in return, the elves reject her leadership and seek their own glory.

The formation of SPEW in Goblet of Fire is rotten at its core because it is led by a witch rather than an elf. A movement for the advancement of an oppressed class must be centered on and led by members of the oppressed class. Supporters can play a helpful and even vital role, but as with Hermione here, they can also be hurtful. Hermione fails to understand that as an ally, she must remain in a supportive role, promoting their protection and welfare without dominating the conversation. Though it is repeatedly demonstrated that house-elves have autonomy to an extent and have powerful magic of their own, Hermione considers them lesser creatures who need protection. When Ron compares the discrimination against trolls to that against elves in book four, she says that “goblins don't need protection”. This is a condescending and presumptuous idea that reflects her own biases and her own assumptions about the powers and possibilities of a race of creatures she doesn't bother to credit.

When Hermione formed SPEW, she crossed a boundary many feminists (including myself) find themselves on the wrong side of. Hermione goes from defending an oppressed class to appropriating their struggle. She goes from promoting the worth of Winky and Dobby to ignoring the wishes of the house-elves at Hogwarts. While trying to advocate for the equal rights and fair treatment of house-elves, she engages in rhetoric and behavior that devalued their autonomy and existence.

Had Dobby started SPEW and Hermione supported it, this would not be a problem - but Dobby's voice and contributions seem to matter little to Hermione except as an example of how some elves do want freedom. She devalues his often-successful support of Harry by saying that “Dobby's plans aren't always that safe” on page 388 of book five, attributing a human error of Lockheart's to Dobby. Her devaluation of Dobby, the only elf who actually wants what she seeks, is reflective of her erasure of the wishes and words of all house-elves.

But SPEW in and of itself is downright harmless when compared with Hermione's malicious actions towards house-elves in the name of their protection in Order of the Phoenix. In this book, Hermione finds that house-elves do not regard her as their glorious liberator witch, better than all the other witches. Dobby and many other house-elves directly tell her in books four and five that they do not want or need her help, saying “they do not care for clothes” on page 385 of book five. They could care less about her vision of their liberation; they are happy where they are, in a place where they feel safe and where their work is appreciated, where they do work they enjoy.

When Hermione realizes that house-elves are not sufficiently appreciating and participating in the movement she so helpfully designed for them*, she decides to remove them from their homes and employment by force. In the HP universe, house-elves are set free when they are given clothes. So, Hermione decides to take up knitting so that house-elves can be freed, by her ignorant definition. Hermione's past-time - her hobby - is trying to eject house-elves from their lives against their consent.The house-elves roundly reject this;  those who find her clothes refuse to accept her direction of their life and simply avoid Gryffindor castle. Once again Dobby proves a knowledgeable and enthusiastic foil to Hermione's plans, even as she's trying to make him her justification. Dobby tells Ron and Harry, “[other house-elves] find them insulting” on page 385 of book five, but he is happy to take the clothes he loves for himself, having already gotten his freedom and needing no help from some human girl. This complete erasure of the explicitly expressed wishes of the house-elves is the most striking and most hateful example of Hermione's bossy nature; the assertiveness that serves her so well throughout the series she uses here to violate the safe space of the creatures who have done nothing but support her.

*Big sarcasm here.

House-elves - who want to work for no pay and at time desire enslavement - are not parallel to actual people who experience real oppression. House-elves are a problematic metaphor for actual oppressed people because the eagerness of the house-elf to be servile robs actual people of their very real agency. Furthermore, the larger spectrum of non-human beings are often used as points at which to explore oppression. Rowling also examines privilege through magical humans, obviously, but her more nuanced exploration of inequality is often focused on non-humans: this is rather dehumanizing to the actual people who experience the exploitation and discrimination she metaphorically describes. While goblins and giants push back actively against human oppression and privilege, Rowling's focus on house-elves creates a straw oppression that adds depth to Hermione without raising too many difficult questions about the many different forms oppression can take.*

*This is a bigger issue than a single paragraph can really acquit, and one I haven't totally grasped yet. Apologies for the lack of nuance.

Hermione did not only exercise her human privilege against house-elves, but also against giants, centaurs, and goblins. When Firenze is hired as a teacher in Order of the Pheonix, Hermione reacts by saying she “never really cared for horses” on page 599 of book five – a serious insult to Firenze, who is frequently called “horse” or “nag” as a slur by those who seek to de-legitimize his authority. She is less obvious about her devaluation of giants: she assumes that Grawp, Hagrid's brother, is unable to learn English, and mocks his attempts along with Ron and Harry.She frequently speaks out against giant and half-giant oppression, which is valuable - but again, that doesn't really make up for anything. She uses another creature's perceived stupidity as a slur, calling Pansy Parkinson “thicker than a concussed troll” in book four. Her transgressions against non-elf non/part-humans are less aggressive and more rhetorical, but they are still there.

To Hermione's credit, she seems to recognize the error of her ways and correct her actions without abandoning her efforts. She never discusses abandoning SPEW, but her mentions of it taper off after Order of the Pheonix. When Kreacher tells her not to touch him while telling of Regulus Black in book seven, she respects his space. Though Kreacher invokes her oppression by calling her “Mudblood”, she does not make it all about her, but instead continues to listen to his story; she recognizes and vocally critiques his mistreatment and devaluation by Voldemort. In her after-Hogwarts life, JK Rowling said that she went into magical law and advocated for laws to protect Muggle-borns and non/part human magical beings. This is an appropriate use of her privilege; she has prioritized non/part human being oppression as she does oppression she experiences firsthand, making a difference through existing power structures without invading spaces and conversations that are not hers to inhabit.

Hermione's exercise of oppression is not immediately apparent. She herself is the most major character who experiences the focal point of oppression in the books: as a  Muggle-born, she is in constant danger because of her birth. She is also a woman, and though sexism seems to be a less-than-significant problem in the magic world, as a girl raised partially in the Muggle world she is acutely aware of sexism, and she frequently counters Ron and Harry's sexism. But she confuses the authority with which she speaks on these experiences with authority on all oppression, and uses that confidence to silence house-elves. Like many of us who experience and fight both sides of inequality, she uses her privilege to enforce another form of the system of oppression that implicates us all, kyriarchy.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Why I Expect More from Parks and Recreation

As much as I love television (and you know I love me some television), I don't often push shows on my friends. I'll casually recommend an episode of 30 Rock or a show like Party Down, but I don't mention it again. I'll make a Hank Hill or "that's what she said" joke, but I won't make them all the time. People have different tastes, and I can't make them like something, right?

But I tried to make all my friends like Parks and Recreation.The closer of my friends, I conned into coming over to my house and watching several season two episodes on Netflix. The rest of them got spammed on their facebook feed. One quote or another is always my GChat status (currently: "It's your basic dogs playing poker, with an everything's on fire theme"). And my dear fiance's begrudging acceptance of it as pre-bed or during-dinner watching eventually turned him into a somewhat enthusiastic fan.

I'm a Greg Daniels nerd - two of my other very favorite shows are The Office and King of the Hill - so it's natural that I would get real enthusiastic about his most pro-woman creation. And what's more, I can actually like it from a feminist perspective, which is quite rare for me. Almost every show I like is in spite of its political implications, including the occasionally socially insightful shows cited above. But Parks and Recreation is awesome. I love all the characters and the relatively diverse cast. There are few jokes predicated on the marginalization of people (though there are definitely some).

And best of all, there's Leslie Knope. Knope is someone I actually like, rather than tolerate, guiltily identify with, or laugh at. She is funny, and she's good, and she's many of the things I am at my best: competent, hard-working, respectful. She's a big feminist, too, and it's framed not as a flaw on her part, but as a part of her enthusiasm for herself and others. Sady Doyle articulated this better back in April of 2010 at Feministe:
You [Leslie Knope] have only the most cursory understanding of what “feminism” means. It’s “feminist,” for example, for ladies to do well in politics, and so in your office you have several inspirational pictures of female politicians, selected with no regard for their actual politics whatsoever. Clinton, Condoleeza Rice. Madeline Albright, Margaret Thatcher. I could probably find a Palin picture in there somewhere, if I had TiVo and HD. You just love ladies! You just want them to do well! That’s “feminist,” right?
And yet, although you have no understanding of the theory, your practice is continually good. You are the girl who can’t fake it: You see the entire world as an intrinsically fair place, where people who do well are rewarded, and so you just continually act out of this understanding that everyone is a person deserving of respect, and you should try really hard and be really nice, and then you will of course become President, because that is how things work, in this just and moral universe we live in. Even though everything and everyone continually informs you this is not the case, AT ALL, you keep acting on principle and only on principle, because that is who you are.
Leslie Knope, and the rest of the characters on the show, are good people who despite their various privileges try their best not to hurt people, except for Jerry. They try, for the most part, to treat people with respect and care, except for Jerry. They make mistakes and need to apologize sometimes, even to Jerry. It's a show I can watch where people won't make lots of jokes about rape, or make a lot of jokes at the expense of people with disabilities. Parks and Recreation is, in short, something of a safe space for me.

But despite this honest faith effort to not hurt people with their comedy, the writers, producers, and performers still have some major ongoing issues that I begin to notice after the nth time rewatching the amazing second season on Netflix. Stalking is a humorous plotline, a sign of affection rather than a threat. Heterosexuality is a norm that goes mostly unchallenged. Fatness is depicted as unhealthy and gross. Cissexism and essentialism are often present as punchlines. Knope frequently trumpets her feminism through slut-shaming whorephobia shaming of sex workers (edited for a more specific and non-ableist term), and the show presents this uncritically. These are just the major threads that I've been able to articulate; there are also issues with racism, sexism, and other branches of the kyriarchy.

Upholding social injustice shouldn't be surprising from a show that revolves around the functioning of a branch of government. Government is generally about upholding existing systems of power; while the Pawnee parks department involves some deviation from norms, they uphold them just as frequently. But I trust Parks and Rec. I trust Leslie Knope. I engage critically with things I love - that's how I express my appreciation for it as a story and as a piece of comedy. And so, I will speak my truth of the flaws of this show even as I continue to be a huge freaking fan. I expect more and hold them to a higher standard.

But I wanted to take a moment to explain my deep love of the show the show. Because if there's one thing I've learned about writing about television on the internet, if you say one thing or another's not funny, people will take that to mean you hate everything about the show and erase all the awesome things you've said about it. And I want to be able to point out how much I really love it, because, as I've already said like five times already, it's basically my favorite show ever.

Where have I been? South by Southwest, Beyond the Panel, Hell Yes Happy Dogs

Hello readers! It has been a while since I rapped at ya - specifically, since January! This does not mean that I'm abandoning Deeply Problematic or any such stuff. It means I've been busy preparing lots of different things!

Most exciting of these things is my upcoming speech at South By Southwest! Longtime readers may remember pleas that y'all vote for my proposal, titled Dealing with Internet Drama in Feminist Discourse, back in August of 2010. In late January, I got the news that my panel had been accepted! And I was like, "WOOO!"

I've asked the funny, fabulous, insightful Garland Grey of Tiger Beatdown to join me for this Core Conversation, and he accepted. And so, we've been chatting up a storm, getting ready to do this thing in.... less than two weeks!

If you are attending SXSW, please shoot me an e-mail - we may be arranging a meetup for various feminist readers across the Internets. If you would like to help me out with the various expenses of the trip - SXSW isn't covering expenses beyond a badge - it would be much appreciated. I also need a new computer - I have been on a netbook for two years and I am starting to get some chronic headaches from the eyestrain of a tiny screen. Click here to donate, but, you know, no pressure.

Other news! I've published several more interviews for my Bitch series Beyond the Panel since last we spoke:
More to come from that series very soon!

If you've been missing my daily writing, you might want to check out my tumblr. I post original and pretty raw (i.e. not heavily edited) writing there just about every day. I've also started a very silly stress-relief blog, Hell Yes Happy Dogs, which is all pictures of happy dogs. Here's a sample:

[A happy white brown-spotted pitbull running in the grass! By maplegirlie]

Expect a whirlwind of posts about Parks and Rec, more on Harry Potter (if you missed it, check out my previous post on the topic), and various other things in the next two weeks!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stalking is Hilarious on Parks and Recreation


One of many qualities I love about Parks and Recreation is its complete lack of rape jokes. It's a safe space from the kinds of quips about sexual assault that pepper other favorites of mine, 30 Rock and The Office. Though Aziz Ansari has been known to tell a rape joke or two in his solo act, Tom Haverford's sleaziness is mostly benign. Sex is not made into a big production, and consensuality is an assumed responsibility of all the characters.

But not all of performances of romance on Parks and Rec are consensual; a major second-season plotline showed Andy Dwyer intruding on Ann Perkins in deeply personal and problematic ways. Andy's stalking, harassment, and unwelcome attention directed at an ex are not taken seriously, as a thing that hurts people, particularly women. After Ann dumped him and kicked him out of her house for taking advantage of her, he did not find another place to live and respect her distance. No, he persisted in bugging and (by some definitions) stalking her: living outside her house in a pit, showing up naked at her house, and harassing her and her new boyfriend.

I hate to write this, because I love Andy. I think that Chris Pratt may actually be the funniest person on the show; his line readings and facial expressions never fail to crack me up. He is generally a very sweet and well-meaning character, and I like that someone who is explicitly not traditionally smart is shown to be of great value. I love the growth of consideration in his character. I love him and April. I just love him.*
*I did not love the cissexist gag with him in the first episode of this season, but I will talk about that a little later.
But I do not love the way that he treats Ann and her new boyfriend Mark after she dumps him, nor do I love the way that the show frames his actions as cute, affectionate, and distinctly nonthreatening. Andy's continued harassment and monitoring of Ann is not violent, but a big man following someone around and refusing to leave a former partner in peace carries the baggage of domestic violence; just because Andy is a "nice guy" does not mean that he cannot be violent. This refusal to take Andy's creepy and unwanted attention as a seriously flawed pattern of entitled behavior that goes beyond his goofy, ditzy personality reflects a cultural desire to re-frame a scary and dangerous pattern of behavior disproportionately targeted at women as an affectionate and romantic way of showing concern.

Stalking and other harassment through unwanted contact is not a joke only in Parks and Rec; indeed, stalking is rarely taken as seriously as it actually is. Stalking is actually a criminal offense that describes a campaign of fear, of forced unwanted contact or constant watching of someone's activities. It is a very real violation of a person's sense of safety and privacy, and it happens to at least eight percent of all women in the US - but it's vastly underreported. It is not a cute thing to do, and it is not something that everyone participates in, but you wouldn't know that from stalking behavior's defanging in online culture and romanticizing in popular media from Say Anything to Twilight. This form of abuse is, like many other, framed as either anonymous online attention or uptight bitches rejecting the honest appreciation of men.

Ann's concerns about Andy are frequently delegitimized. In the episode "Beauty Pageant", where Ann discovers Andy's home in the pit right outside her house* with her new boyfriend Mark Brandanowitz, he not only laughs it off, he informs her that he invaded her privacy by peeking in her medicine cabinet, and then pressures her to invite Andy into her home to share dinner. This is framed as Mark showing compassion for Andy rather than completely disregarding Ann's feelings, and it's typical of the tone of that arc; another episode, Kaboom, features Andy misunderstanding a text from Ann and showing up naked at her house - because flashing unfriendly ex-girlfriends is totally charming and harmless.
*This storyline also has some classism issues, given that homelessness is treated as a joke.
Andy's harassment of Ann continues after he moves out of the pit and gets a job at City Hall, and coincides with Tom Haverford's ongoing and frequently rejected advances. Andy begins to pester not just Ann but her new boyfriend Mark in an obnoxious fashion; trying to "trick" her into dating him by winning a game of pool against Mark or to humiliate him by mentioning STI medication that he pretends Mark requested from the shoeshine stand (absurd but also ableist). Eventually, after a few talking-tos from Mark, he desists and refocuses his attention on April, whom he has treated with a great deal of respect and deference. Only when a man becomes involved in and begins protesting this unwanted attention does Andy stop; he sees no reason to desist in harassing Ann before Mark steps in. Ann, the target of this unwanted attention, goes completely unheard by her friends unless she is backed up by a man. She even responds to his advances belatedly, kissing him at the end of the season. In this way, Parks and Rec validates his unwanted attention and makes it seem like it was actually wanted after all.

The show is not exactly endorsing Andy's actions; by my standards of critical humor, some instances of this pass. Mark occasionally recognizes his actions as bad, but they are only bad insofar as they are an annoyance to him. Ann's reactions to Andy, though, are never validated; they are framed as unreasonable or ignored by characters who are not Andy. Occasionally Leslie expresses shock or mild concern, but being a rather self-centered character, Ms. Knope usually then turns the conversation back to herself - she doesn't really hear Ann's concerns when she hires Andy for a dinner party. Other jokes make it clear that Andy is being a doofus, thought they do not meet my critical standards linked above; in "Beauty Pageant", he says that "there's all kind of creepy people in this neighborhood"; though his action is not reinforced by others as uncool, it's still a tacit recognition of his unsavory behavior.

However, I don't find mild and barely-expressed disapproval to be quite enough in this case. This joke runs throughout most of the (stellar) second season, and it is almost never taken seriously. When Leslie Knope engages in her own creepy and intrusive behavior by photographing and surveilling Mark and Ann on a date, she comes close to facing criminal charges, and she never does it again. But unlike Leslie, Andy never faces any kind of real critique or danger because of his actions. No one calls him out other than Ann, and no one backs her up when she calls him out.

No, Andy's entitled attitude towards Ann is worse than Parks and Rec wants it to be. His pattern of behavior reaffirms the often-romanticized image of a nice guy as one who doesn't respect clearly set boundaries; Andy's stalking is seen as affection rather than menace, as stupidity rather than disrespect. It's shown as annoying and silly and goofy, and that does not reflect Andy's serious violations against a woman he professes to care about. It's not rape, but it's part of the conditioning that creates rape culture - it suggests that women should see continued harassment and monitoring from ex-lovers as romantic rather than threatening, and that these actions are nothing to get really concerned about.

One or two of these jokes would not have phased me much, particularly given my liking for Andy. I would take it as more reflective of his benign and adolescent inconsideration than a reflection of how society frames unwanted contact from former romantic partners. As individual jokes, they suggest the growth of a stunted man stumbling on his way to some form of maturity. But taken as a pattern of unwelcome behavior that strongly resembles stalking, it looks like a man threatening his ex-lover to achieve that growth. Andy's behavior is not precisely evil, but the show's affectionate attitude towards the unwanted contact he forces on Ann and its framing of his behavior as endearing seems entirely too light an approach to a subject as fearsome, cruel and misogynist in practice as stalking.

I am thankful that Parks and Recreation has left this story behind in its third season, and I hope that this framing does not return. But this will always be a stain on Andy's character for me: a reminder that the nicest of guys can turn menacing on a dime, and a sign that even my favorite shows will trivialize serious issues and participate in a culture that denies women agency and privacy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Harry Potter and the Neutrality of Fatness

This post is based just on the books. I have not seen the movies. I'm assuming a certain familiarity with the books, but have included links to wikis where-ever necessary.

It doesn't need to be said that JK Rowling has exercised a lot of power over the imagination of millions of fiction lovers, young and old, in the last decade. I would not be surprised if the Harry Potter series turns out to be the longest lasting and most consequential work of literature from the turn of this century. And she has often used her wide audience to decry injustices. In “For Girls Only, Probably”, she states eloquently, “is 'fat' really the worst thing a human being can be? Is 'fat' worse than 'vindictive', 'jealous', 'shallow', 'vain', 'boring' or 'cruel'?”. This post on her website is not perfect – there is some troubling devaluation of thin bodies and ableism around eating disorders – but in places, it's a very well-articulated argument against the veneration of thinness.

In re-reading her Harry Potter series, I was initially discouraged by her explicit early associations between fat and evil and fat and lazy and fat and unhealthy. But as the series progressed and Rowling found her voice, I found an interesting evolution of her attitude towards fatness. Though there are very dim notes in her characterization of fat bodies (the Dursley family in particular), Rowling usually presents fatness as neutral and natural – some bodies are fat, some bodies are thin, and none are worth less for it.

In the early Harry Potter books, I was initially struck by the rampant sizism in her description of the Dursley family. Rowling echoes tired media tropes when she reduces prominent fat characters to one-dimensional comic relief, using many other harmful stereotypes in the process. Harry's cousin Dudley is dehumanizingly described as “the size of a young killer whale” and “a pig in a wig”, and his uncle Vernon is “beefy”. Petunia, too, is targeted because of her size: her thinness is as grotesque in characterization as Dudley's fatness. Their size is also explicitly connected to harmful stereotypes about fat people: Dudley is lazy and eats in an exaggeratedly unhealthy fashion, and he uses his size to menace people up through book five. Dumbledore, the most authoritative character in the series, even describes Dudley's appearance in book six as “abuse”.

However, these insults are softened considerably in the later books (the above quote from Dumbledore notwithstanding). After book five, Dudley's body is no longer a point of mockery, but a sign of his maturation and growth as a person – though he is still big, his size is connected to his physical ability and activity in boxing, rather than his laziness. This is tempered by Rowling's portrayals of Horace Slughorn and Hepzibah Smith. The size of both are painted in exagerrated terms, and in both fatness is connected with luxury. Neither depiction connects fatness with lack of health, which is something, I guess. But neither are particularly positive: both are slightly grotesque because of their fatness, and Smith's lack of beauty was noted several times. Aside from this, the later books treat people of size much better. I believe this is because of Rowling's growing awareness of the impact of her words; the social relevance of the series grew considerably in the later books, and I hope that Rowling reread these early characterizations and cringed and changed.

Though the early books in the series are more frequently plagued by sizism, there are some positive depictions of fatness early on. Most radical and normative of these (to me) was the presence of the Fat Lady as the guardian of the Gryffindor common room. The Fat Lady is a minor character most often used for texture comic relief, but she is still a major presence throughout the first six books. Like many peripheral characters, she is given a good deal of shading throughout the books; she is friendly, dependable, and sometimes a little bit irritable. Though fatness is her distinguishing characteristic, it is not a judgement on her value or attractiveness; much like the bloodiness of the Bloody Baron or the state of Nearly Headless Nick's neck – though I will note that it would have been nice if she'd gotten an actual name, like Sir Cadogen. She is fat, and she is funny to the reader. But what's funny are her quips in replies to students seeking entry – not her size. Most appealing to me is the use of fat as a neutral adjective in its application to her. She is fat, and that's how she's distinguished, and that's okay.

Another strong positive depiction of fatness throughout the series is Molly Weasley. Her plumpness is neutral to positive; she is described warmly, and her size is part of her appeal as a mother figure. Mrs. Weasley's constant busyness as a member of the Order of the Phoenix and a mother of seven are also a counter to the connection of fatness and laziness. The association between fatness and maternal qualities is not exactly trope-busting, but it's positive nonetheless – full-time motherhood and fatness are often devalued, so I was happy to see them embraced in this series. Mrs. Weasley is also an opportunity for Rowling to explore sizism; she is negatively described as “fat and ugly” by  Draco Malfoy, and this is seen as a part of his distasteful and hateful character.

The Weasley family as a larger unit does a great deal to disassociate size from health and eating habits. Ron, who is described as slender, eats a huge amount of food, particularly sweets; he is always eating Chocolate Frogs and Cauldrons and reaching for yet another helping of treacle. This gluttony from a thin rather than a fat character is a helpful counter-example to the blatantly sizist descriptions of Dudley Dursley mentioned above. When Mrs. Weasley is described as “thinner”, it's not seen as a triumph of weight loss but instead a sign of her ill health. This characterization of thinness is repeated throughout the series; it's also applied to Tonks and Lupin, particularly in book six. Lupin's thinness throughout the series is a sign of his inability to gain employment because he is a werewolf. Tonks' size is a matter of illness – she is sick for love with Lupin. Women losing weight for unrequited love is a well-worn cliché. But both of these examples present thinness as not a matter of will or a matter of morals, and that contributes to Rowling's disassociation between thinness and health and worth in her later books.

“Fat” is not quite the right word for Hagrid, but he is certainly relevant to discussions of size in this series. The clearest description of him as “twice as tall and three times as wide as a normal man”, which suggests that he is fat as well as tall. Again, his size is seen as neutral and just a fact of who he is. Unlike Dudley, his size is not threatening – he is one of the sweetest characters in the series. Like Mrs. Weasley, he receives discrimination for his size: Professor Umbridge and others openly question his competence because of his size. Though the discrimination that he receives is more about his birth and not solely his girth, his oppression is relevant to sizism.

The magical intersection of fatness and part humanity also brings about my favorite writing of fatness in the series by far: Madame Maxine, headmistress of Beauxbatons. Maxine is, explicitly, both huge and beautiful. She is introduced alongside the most emphatically beautiful woman in the series, Fleur Delacour; in many writer's hands, this would be an opportunity to achieve comic relief through making fun of the fat lady. But Maxine's comparative body is presented as complementary to Fleur rather than contrasting. Maxine's attractiveness and polished presentation are consistently emphasized alongside her size (she is described as “handsome” and “well-dressed” repeatedly). Her comparative size is not a point of mockery, but a fact of her existence.

Though there are problems with Rowling's depiction of both ends of the size spectrum, the Harry Potter series is generally successful in communicating that there are not defined relationships between weight and health, or weight and beauty. In general, Rowling treats both fatness and thinness as neutral adjectives that imply different things for different kinds of bodies. This is not a radical act, but for a writer with the audience of Rowling, it is a positive and a productive one.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Beyond The Panel at Bitch Magazine: An interview with RJ Edwards of Riot Nrrd


I have an apology to make! I came down with a cold last Thursday and I forgot to let y'all know about my awesome interview with RJ Edwards of Riot Nrrd! [trigger warning for misgendering on Tuesday's comic] You should also check out my two-part interview with them!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why I am an able-bodied person with disabilities

In the past couple of years, I've become more acutely aware of the discrimination I receive because of my anxiety, OCD, and ADD. The non-neurotypical parts of my brain impact my work, my health, and the way I interact and the way I'm perceived. Knowledge of the ableism I receive has helped me to better deal with the challenges I face because of my disabilities, and has improved my perception of myself. Instead of trashing myself for being lazy or crazy, I've learned to love and live with the parts of myself that aren't up to kyriarchal codes.

However, I am not quite comfortable with the unqualified identity of “person with disabilities.” Because I benefit from ableism, every day.

While my mind may not be up to code, my body and its ability level are. Though my fatness puts me outside the ideal, my body faces no barriers and brings me no unwanted attention based on my ability level. There are no spaces that I cannot access because of my form of movement. I do not receive stares or unwanted questions because of my disabilities. I do not have to worry about the content of my food and what ingredients might attack me. These are only a few of the experiences I can have without fear of retribution because of my able-bodied privilege.

No, the form of my disabilities, their presence in my mind and not my body, has been a major privilege for me, and so I'll use it as a qualifier. This is also described as "passing privilege", and that is certainly part of it - I am passing as a person with full able privilege. But it's also a reflection of a specific privilege and ability level that my body has, that my mind does not.

This is not universal: many people who experience mental illness that is not visible or physical face extra stigma; many have to undergo additional scrutiny to prove their disability, and others are seen as “fakers”. I am certainly vulnerable to this, but I have not had many of these experiences so far. Able-bodied as a general term to describe all people with disabilities can silence people who have non-physical disabilities. Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone, the director of advocacy at Autism Woman's Network, wrote, “Us[ing] "PWD" and "non-ablebodied" interchangeably.[erases] of broad swaths of the population with disabilities, from those who have mental health disabilities, to those with developmental disabilities...Additionally, for a number of PWD we live in communities that only think non-ablebodied people are "really" disabled.”

I am not saying that my disabilities have no relationship to my body; they are intimately connected, and in some cases, my disabilities do have a big impact on my ability level. Care of my body through exercise and the eating of awesome food is a major part of my mental self-care. I cannot take birth control because of my disabilities, which has an impact on my physical expression of sexuality. Taking time to combat intrusive thoughts can monopolize my spoons. My trichotillomania causes splotchy skin and ingrown hairs. Disabilities impact my body. But though I must constantly work with and on my mind's quirks, my body is by comparison a intermittent and faint challenge.

It took a long time for me to recognize that I have disabilities, that I am hurt by ableism. The sometimes weary functionings of my mind give me my share of trouble; I face obstacles that are presented not by my disabilities but by the insistence that bodies and minds must live up to a certain standard. This is why I will continue to describe myself as a person with disabilities.

But, it is dishonest to omit mention of one of the major ways my body is normalized by society – alongside my whiteness, cisness, and relative size privilege, to list a few. I need to take responsibility for this facet of my privilege. My disabilities and the advantages given me by ableism are not mutually exclusive; they are both part of my experience of ableism in a kyriarchy.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Beyond the Panel at Bitch: Interview with Danielle Corsetto

A cartoon self-portrait of Danielle Corsetto, a thin white woman with short brown hair.


On another note: if you're eager for new non-comic content from me, you don't have long to wait! I am polishing up pieces on Harry Potter, leggings, language, and Parks and Rec for your reading enjoyment.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Beyond the Panel at Bitch: Interview with Dorothy Gambrell

A self-portrait of cartoonist Dorothy Gambrell from Donation Derby. Gambrell is in glasses at a checkout register, holding a bag with a bird on it.

Today at Bitch is the first entry in my new series on webcomics, Beyond the Panel. In this installment, I interviewed Dorothy Gambrell of Cat and Girl. Check it out!
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