Time to Ponder Books: an epiphany about intersectionality and fiction (and mini review)

Dangerous Curves Ahead by Sugar Jamison is about Ellis, a fat women whose body is not described in any other way, used to date a lawyer who put her down. After she ditches him, Ellis quits her lucrative lawyer gig and starts her own business selling clothes to women who don’t have standard-sized bodies. The novel opens with Ellis getting a cookie from Hot Lava Java on a Tuesday. She never eats sugar or fat except on the weekends, so this is a risky move, apparently. There, she runs into her ex’s aunt, who tries to get Ellis to head to the aunt’s diet and fitness store to get this fat girl back on track to a thin, thin life.

Although Ellis fends for her dignity in this conversation, the man in line behind her jumps in, too. It’s then Ellis remembers who he is: a guy named Mike she knew four years ago from the neighborhood whom she privately had a crush on, even after her sister started sleeping with him. Ellis knows Mike, but he can’t place her. This game of nanny-nanny boo-boo, am I driving you nutty with the mystery carries on for at least two hours in the audiobook. That’s when I turned it off and marked Dangerous Curves Ahead DNF on Goodreads.

But why quit this potentially fat-positive novel? There were aspects that made me flippity-flop all over the place. I have no clue what Ellis looks like other than fat. Often described as curvy and soft, she’s potentially Lane Bryant fat, which feels so cheap to me. Authors, you don’t need to write a person who’s Not That Fat to have romance. But she’s still viewed as a person of worth, one who has a law degree, a business, loyal friends and employees, and now a police officer who has appeared from her past and seems to like her. Yay! But Mike constantly objectifies Ellis, thinking about her hips and buttocks and waist. Not great. Plus, I hate that Mike is smoking hot in that good ol’ fire-fighter, lumberjack, washboard abs way. Do fat women deserve love? Yes! Can they love fat men? Yes! Do they have to love fat men? No! Are many novelists simply writing the same shallow romance plot from the past and simply making the heroine “curvy”? Yes! Boooo.

I’m also not a fan of every fat woman having an obsession with fashion, being chic, crafty, and clever with clothes she often tailors herself. *sigh* Do fat women have to be fashionable? No! But lots of fat women love fashion… I hear my inner voice claim. Is that so bad? No.

And then, as if I had dropped a drug that opened my mind (I didn’t; I was commuting), I finally put together what bugs me about a lot of fat female characters: the authors have no sense of intersectionality. Let me break down what I realized:

Fat identity

Ellis does not have a fat-positive mindset. Yes, she stands up for herself when someone is demeaning her. But she’s also food restricting and thinks about how no one ever loves fat girls like her. Mike likes to say, “You’re not fat,” thereby erasing a part of her existence that she wears on the outside and can be seen by everyone. What we’re really hearing is, “Yes, you’re bigger than thin, but your not so fat that I wouldn’t have sex with you.” Fat people aren’t just fat. They live in fat bodies, which affects their experiences traveling, sitting, driving, shopping, working, and interacting with other people. A fat body isn’t just something we say; it changes a person’s whole existence. Jamison fails to acknowledge how Ellis moves through the world in Dangerous Curves Ahead.

from thisismeagankerr

female identity

Then, there’s Ellis’s gender: straight cis woman. When Mike objectifies her in an effort to prove that he’s attracted to her not-that-fat body, he’s breaking her down into components, which is sexist to all women. He can’t reject her fat body and pretend like he’s humanizing her by using sexist logic to patronize her feelings. Ellis also measures her worth by noting Mike wouldn’t sleep with girls who look like her four years ago, and the narrator assures us he’s different now. Women aren’t waiting for a man to have sex with them to prove they are worthy. As a woman, Ellis’s experiences are different from Mike’s in the sense that she may not feel safe around him, and that to be treated with dignity, he needs to see her as a woman, not as an order from Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Women hanging out together.

intelligence / able-minded identity

Furthermore, Ellis has a Harvard law degree, which readers are meant to read as “she’s brilliant.” After opening a clothing store that is struggling but not completely dead, we want to tune into her business acumen only to realize she’s so poor at math that she can’t balance her books and failed to obtain any money to advertise her store, choosing to decorate it instead. Why does she suddenly have zero preparedness, despite her background and goal-oriented mind? Ellis not only sells clothes, she’s a talented tailor who doesn’t come cheap. Somewhere in her life she learned a skill and mastered it.

And as soon as Ellis gets around Mike, she’s preaching about how he’ll only see her as a fat girl because he’s shallow then turning around to crush on him like a teen. This is a woman who is almost thirty. She also keeps a secret: she remembers Mike dating her sister, how Mike and her sister came to Ellis’s graduation party for passing the bar and ending up having sex on her bed. After two hours of audiobook, and several meetings between Ellis and Mike, her little “game” struck me as so juvenile that I realized the author failed to capture the intelligence of a woman who went to Harvard law, passed the bar, and litigated million-dollar lawsuits, surpassing her ex-boyfriend, who cheated on her because he was so intimidated. Where is that woman? Who is this lady playing high school games and forgetting how to add?

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

intersectionality

While Jamison gives Ellis some interesting attributes and makes an effort to contribute to the fat-positive fiction community with Dangerous Curves Ahead, she ultimately fails because she can’t write her character in a way that combines Ellis’s separate identities. She’s a brilliant, fat, talented women. Those things should never be separate, which causes a character to read as uneven. On the surface, Mike’s comments about Ellis’s body may seem romantic or sexy, but objectifying Ellis denies her intelligence and talent, and the inherent sexism in his point of view. When Ellis doesn’t defend herself, a verbal skill she should have mastered as a highly-educated former lawyer, the author forgets that her character really isn’t just a fat body to be socially measured. Plenty of romance writers craft stories that suggest men and women are always on equal footing, ignoring the dangers of dating and flirting in a female body.

Why did it take me so long to recognize where an author had failed at intersectionality? Probably because most writers talking about intersectionality are aware of their different identities, what burdens and benefits come with each, and how they are seen in society as all those things at once. With fiction, my brain is more willing to say, “It is what it is.” But while listening to Mike and Ellis banter like a grown sexy man trying to cheer up a little girl, I nearly swerved my car off the road in an effort to turn off the audiobook.

19 comments

  1. I followed most of that, I think. Authors are trying harder not to say you have to be a young skinny blonde woman to be attractive, but they often still make their female protagonists aim at those things or apologize for not being them. I guess it is very difficult to write I like you so much as a person that I wish to add having sex to our relationship. We are so used to pointing at strangers and saying I like that one, I don’t like that one, which can only be on the basis of appearance. Keep up the good work.

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    • I absolutely cannot fathom dating in the age of apps and just judging a person’s photo. Firstly, the photos are never accurate. I’ve seen enough of that in my days when I had Facebook. Secondly, maybe I’m a super weirdo, but personality is the most attractive thing to me, regardless of what the person looks like. I don’t understand people who say they have a “type,” meaning a physical appearance they prefer. This isn’t picking out a Christmas tree, it’s human beings!

      I think what I was trying to say in my post is that just because the main character is a fat woman doesn’t mean she should fall down over a compliment about her body when she’s also intelligent. And she shouldn’t be treated as an object because she’s a fat women, because objectification is a problem for all women. Fat women are not the exception, etc.

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  2. Oh no, it sounds like there were some major discrepancies here between what the author was saying about the character and what she was actually presenting the character’s personality to be. I hope there were good intentions here underneath the issues, but it seems like the author may have slapped some labels and background details on a character to make her more appealing to certain readers and then didn’t bother doing the work getting to know her protagonist in a way that would’ve made the story successful. People contain multitudes. For characters to feel believable and worthwhile, they need those multitudes as well. Great review/discussion!

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    • Thanks, Emily! One thing that bothers me to no end is authors who write a fat woman and then shows everyone how valuable she is by telling her frequently how sexy she is. A woman’s worth is not measured by how good she may be in a sexual situation, and to suggest as much is really demeaning to fat women.

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      • I completely agree, and I love how you use your reviews for books with fat characters to dig into representation issues like this! If no one complains, it won’t get fixed. I do think it’s nice to remind readers that fat women can be sexy just like anyone else, but it is certainly demeaning to anyone to present sexiness as the basis of their worth, and moreso to fat women who already fall under heavy criticism just for existing as themselves.

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  3. In my time teaching nursing I have met an astonishing number of very bright people who cannot do very basic arithmetic, so that part is believable to me – though it often transpired that they just weren’t bothering to do the revision and wanted me to just tip the drug calculation knowledge into their heads somehow! If Ellie is a tailor, though, she must be good at basic arithmetic – making clothes is all maths and engineering.

    I don’t really know what the right approach for authors is when they are writing about people being attracted to fat women – obviously physical attraction is important, even if it’s not everything, but romance novels are often guilty of reducing people to their component parts. That’s not the main reason that I don’t tend to like then, but it does play into it.

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    • Overall, for me, it comes down to bad writing. It feels like authors who objectify characters, fat or not, don’t know anything about their characters. I’ve read science fiction in which a reptile/bird type character was more believable. But if an author is going to choose to have a fat character in their book, they need to understand how that person navigates the world. It’s a little different, and those differences make the character come to life.

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    • It does! And I have to wonder why I see so many thin authors who write fat characters. Perhaps they think they’ve “always struggled with their weight” and thus should write a fat girl book. Hating your body and being fat are not the same thing, authors!

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  4. This is an interesting analysis. It makes me wonder whether the author shares Ellis’s fat identity. I often find that authors who write about identities they don’t have end up creating caricatures. Or maybe they’ve internalized too many of society’s views to provide an genuine portrayal.

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    • I only found two photos of the author online, which makes me sad, but she does look like a larger woman, which makes me happy! However, so few pictures to me suggests maybe she’s not comfortable with how she looks.

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  5. Oh wow, this is really interesting, and I like . It sounds like Jamison had good intentions, but poor execution. It’s so disappointing when writers (of books or TV or movies) take a smart and interesting woman and then reduce her to the trope of someone who needs romance/male attention to validate her self-worth D:

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    • I could have read a whole book about this woman and her business. I feel the same way about the movie You’ve Got Mail. Take out Tom Hanks being a dirty liar and you get the charming story of a female business owner who loves her mother’s bookstore.

      However, it’s super common to see romance/”smut” books starring fat women. I think there was a time when fat women wanted to prove their were worthy of love by being available for sex. We’re moving past that. We’ll get there.

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  6. This is a really good point Melanie, and now that you point it out, I can’t un-see it! Curvy characters are always portrayed in a very specific way, and their body type always seems to overshadow everything else about them, including their other, wonderful characteristics. This makes me ‘harumph’

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    • There’s also this period of fat romance novels in which a hot man wanting to have sex with a fat woman is supposed to be “good enough” for her, that fat readers should cheer triumphantly for someone being willing to have sex with them. Ugh, no thank you. There are so many other aspects of people that should be celebrated and appreciated.

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      • Yes, and your point about fat men wanting fat women is a good one. Like, is a fat woman’s ultimate fantasy having sex with a guy with washboard abs? Is that all she should aspire to? it’s silly…

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