Wednesday, 24 February 2010

You Don't Have to be Posh to be Privileged - Charlie Butler


MRSA looks like a ball. Bacilli look like a rod. You can tell the difference between them using 100x magnification – the ‘Edu Science Microscope Set’ at Toys’R’Us for £9.99 will do the job very well (if you buy one, with the straightest face in the world, I recommend looking at your sperm: it’s quite a soulful moment).
This passage is taken from Ben Goldacre’s fascinating, important but occasionally smug book, Bad Science (page 282, to be precise). I quote it here merely as the most recent example I happen to have noticed of a widespread phenomenon – the assumption by writers that their readers are, in every way that matters, rather like them. Here, Goldacre is clearly addressing an audience of adult, fertile men – much like Ben Goldacre, in fact, though less well informed about microbiology. Women, children, and vasectomy veterans amongst others will not be in a position to carry out his suggested experiment, and if Goldacre had stopped to think for a moment I like to imagine that he would have realised this, and edited his sentence. However, he didn’t stop – he didn’t have to stop – and neither his editor nor anyone else involved in the book’s production seems to have brought it to his attention. Perhaps they were all men too?
Now let's look at another book. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses is set in a world in which white people are considered inferior to blacks. At one point her (white) hero Callum has to put on a sticking plaster. But all the sticking plasters in this world are brown, to match the skin colour of the dominant group. It’s a neat way of bringing to the attention of Blackman’s white readers the fact that, in our own world, the situation is exactly reversed, with plasters coloured pink to match the skins of white people. But how many white people have noticed this without prompting, or thought about its implications?
Obviously it would be better if they did notice, and were aware of the many ways in which the world was arranged to suit them, but when one is running with the grain of the world it’s hard to stay continually aware that it could be otherwise, and that for other people it is otherwise. How many right-handed people notice that the flexes of electric irons are designed with them in mind, but are hard for left-handers to use without scalding themselves? How many straight people notice that fairy tales only tell of straight romance? How many people who don’t use a wheelchair habitually take note of the height of doorbells, or the places in the street where the pavement is lowered? Why should Ben Goldacre need to remember that not everyone who's interested in science is male? And so on. Everyone is privileged in some way or other, and privilege means, to a large extent, not having to notice. Privilege is oblivion.
One corollary is that, when you notice your own privilege, or someone else points it out, it’s not a cause for breast-beating or melodrama, or ‘making it all about you’. Just note it, act on the knowledge, and try to be more aware in future. It happens to all of us.
Unfortunately, books can perpetuate and even entrench privilege, by making the privileged position appear right, natural and 'obviously' desirable. It’s easy to scoff at Enid Blyton for making her villains into aitch-dropping oiks – something far more visible to us than it was to her – but there are some similarly disparaging tropes at large today in the world of children’s books that are very rarely challenged. Fatness is one such. Too often, and too easily, fatness in children’s books is used as a marker for moral character. The fat are stupid, the fat are either bullies (like Rowling’s Crabbe and Goyle) or victims (like Piggy in the Lord of the Flies), the fat are filled with self-hatred – and of course, and particularly in books for Young Adults, the ultimate redemption for a fat character is to become thin. The growth of their self-confidence coincides with a shedding of pounds, a sudden looseness in the clothes and a re-notching of the belt. Losing fat becomes at once the sign of, the means to, and the reward for, a sense of self-worth.
It’s not only bad writers who do this. I yield to few people in my admiration, this side idolatory, of Diana Wynne Jones, but her latest book, Enchanted Glass, is guilty of casual fatphobia, being sprinkled (I almost wrote ‘larded’) with such phrases as ‘the fat of stupidity’ to describe someone who is, as it happens, both fat and not particularly bright. I should add that I didn’t spot this until someone else pointed it out to me. I’m privileged that way, you see.
On the other hand, literature can also help make us more aware of other people’s unprivileged realities. Blackman’s book does that, of course, but there’s no need to create a whole world for the purpose. I love the wheelchair-bound Sarah in Hilary McKay’s Casson family books, partly for herself, but partly because McKay gets exactly right the balance between acknowledging the realities and restrictions (and in some few cases the advantages) of being disabled, on the one hand, and on the other reducing her character to that disability - and her book to a patronising parable. Few writers are as deft. As for fat-friendly books, I’ll refer you to a list compiled by my friend Rebecca Rabinowitz, writing at the fat-politics blog Shapely Prose, and taking in both picturebooks and books for older children (all right, including one by me).
Could her list be extended? Can we at ABBA be part of the solution? Or have we added to the problem?

20 comments:

Elen Caldecott said...

Brilliant post, Charlie. Thank you. I had it pointed out to me once by a wheelchair user that one is not 'confined to a wheelchair', but that the wheelchair is actually a useful tool to give you more mobility. It was an eye-opening moment for me.

Brian Keaney said...

Really good post.

Nick Green said...

A few years ago I was part of a social circle that included someone with a lot of deaf friends, and from time to time we all went out together. It was then that I noticed the occasional advantages that they had. In noisy bars, drinks could be ordered by sign language from across the room (mobile phones often didn't work) and, even more frustratingly, the signers could carry on long, in-depth conversations while us poor ear-dependent ones had to sit and shout ourselves hoarse to say a few banal things. I found that reversal highly amusing.

Sheenagh Pugh said...

It's fascinating when you can use these markers to monitor social change. In C S Lewis's Prince Caspian, good dwarves smoke pipes, bad dwarves are non-smokers. Non-smoking=unsociability for Lewis, as does vegetarianism.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

An abolutely fascianting post Charlie... with lots for writers to think about. I like your challenge... can we at ABBA be part of the solution. And I'm going to be searching shelves for dark plasters from now onwards:)

Nicky said...

I have fallen into the fat unfit girl transforms to an athletically built fit one one trap in one of my own books though I don't think it was about fat being a signifier for worthlessness. Actually I am not sure I see fat/thin as being quite the same as the black/white, male/female,
differently abled/abled axis in any case. Fat/thin has different resonances depending on culture and thin people are often villains too thin = cold/meanspirited, miserly, frigid etc while plump/fat = generous, voluptuous warm. cheerful. I don't think the privilege issue is quite so straight forward in that case.

Charlie Butler said...

If you mean, Ursula in Warriors of Alavna, Nicky, I think you're right that in her case it's not a simple case of fat=worthless. And yes, fatness can have different connotations in different cultural circumstances: in *The Secret Garden*, for example, when Mary is called fat it's always a compliment! I also agree that there are some negative stereotypes associated with thinness - Aunt Spiker is as mean as Aunt Sponge, for example.

Nevertheless, thinness in general simply isn't denigrated in this culture the way that fatness is, and although there are stories in which an anorexic girl, for example, struggles to achieve a healthy body weight, these are usually framed in terms of illness rather than moral failure or general inferiority. So, while I agree that it's not entirely straightforward, I think it's clear that fat-prejudice is far more prevalent and corrosive than prejudice against thin people.

Nicky said...

I think there is some fat prejudice, though I think it is part of a wider body image/sexuality issue in our particular culture. I don't see that as being about privilege in the same way as your other examples.
In my writing I want to avoid stereotypes about how women or men should look but I'd be loath to suggest that being dangerously thin or clinically obese is not a problem. As a Mum I am acutely conscious of the crazy messages we are sending our girls and, increasingly, our boys about body weight.

Gillian Philip said...

Yes, Nicky, that's so. God forbid we should poke fun at fat children in our work, however subtly, or send out messages that any faults they have relate to their fatness. But nor would I want my own kids to get the message that excessive thinness or excessive fatness are anything to admire for their own sake. There's too much of both around. My little girl had a difficult, hungry start, and has been thin ever since, but I have to watch her like a hawk for hints she's thinking of 'dieting'. (She's eight.) But I wouldn't want her to be overweight either (I am, by the way). It's not political incorrectness; it's a health thing.

Charlie Butler said...

Every case is different, but I do think it's about privilege, in so far as prejudice against fat people has the same kind of invisibility as I was describing in those other examples. This is hard to demonstrate without playing oppression Olympics, but for the sake of argument let's say that DWJ (or someone else) had written "the blackness of stupidity" or "the Irishness of stupidity" or "the campness of stupidity", etc. I think it's fair to say that all these casual associations of stupidity with a particular appearance or manner would have stuck out far more. The fact that "the fatness of stupidity" passed unnoticed by me (and, I assume, by others) says quite a lot about how ingrained that association has become - and not least as a kind of literary shorthand for use by writers, which is where our particular responsibility comes in.

Gillian, I agree that there is too much concentration on body image generally. However, if we take an average group of girls - or women, or men for that matter - it is unlikely that many of them will be found wishing that they were heavier, even if they are actually underweight. The cultural pressure in our society is pretty much one-way.

Gillian Philip said...

I do understand what you're saying, Charlie, but I do think fatness is qualitatively different from those other things you mention. It's a controllable thing. Of course with children you can argue with absolute justification that it's down to their parents and in some ways not controllable, so fair enough. But I'm not fat because I'm some kind of victim. I'm fat because I eat too much and I'm hugely greedy. If I know what's good for me, I'll try to take some more exercise and lose it. I don't think that's a negative message!

Katherine Langrish said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Charlie!

Charlie Butler said...

Well, Gillian, I agree that to encourage healthy eating is always to be encouraged, of course! But there are two assumptions embedded in what you say that I'd at least question. One is that weight is controllable, and the other is that it would generally be better to lose it. Putting those two together is what forms the underlying logic of the attitude that sees fat people as somehow lacking in willpower and moral fibre generally. If they had any gumption they'd pull their socks up (supposing they could reach them) and become thin!

But are these ideas actually true? It is generally the case that if you eat less you will become thinner. But the lived reality of millions of people is that lost weight comes back, and this isn't necessarily because they are deficient as people: it may be that their body shape doesn't match up to the ideal body shape prescribed by this particular society. (There are all kinds of reasons for distrusting the procrustean measure of BMI as a one-size-fits-all barometer of health.) Maybe it matches up the ideal prescribed by Rubens's society instead!

Which leads to the other point, which is the association of thinness with health. I'm not expert enough to have this debate with any authority, but I'd recommend anyone reading this to look into the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach to healthcare, which has shown impressive results in terms of sustainable improvements in health outcomes - and rather better than that obtained by dieting.

Gillian Philip said...

Oh, I know very well how ill-thought-out and exploitative many weight loss programmes can be! And I'm well acquainted with the phenomenon of putting it all back on, and then some.

I also agree some people are not built to be skinny; it's not their natural size. But no-one's natural size is 'clinically obese' - there's a difference between that and Rubenesque. And honestly, Charlie, I'm not trying to make moral judgements on anyone here. If someone doesn't want to lose weight that's fine. It's a choice. But on the whole it is a *choice*. (In reality there are very few people who have a health issue that means they literally can't lose weight). I simply believe in personal choice and personal responsibility, where it can be fairly assigned. Yeah, I know dieting is hard and weight loss often reversible. I also accept my responsibility for the fact I have other things to do and think about, so sometimes I don't want to do it.

Of COURSE we should not mock people or do people down for their weight. But nor should we turn them into powerless victims. That wouldn't give them a lot of credit for independent thought, would it?

Nicky said...

I agree with Gillian on this. Weight/body size is a complex issue and I don't know that the thin are actually privileged (unless they are also young and beautiful too.)
I completely see that published writers of colour are in a minority as women scientists once were and that there is a unseen benefit in belonging to the pervading cultural elite as it might be defined by race, colour, class, education etc Perhaps when we write we do tend to assume that we are writing for 'people like us' and that this inevitably produces a bias. However, as writers we come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. I think there is a case for saying that we need to think about how we represent body shape in fiction, and avoid lazy stereotyping but I'm I'm still not buying the privilege argument for this case. I think the concept of 'privilege' is enormously useful but it is in danger of being rendered meaningless if we attribute every writerly oversight and unwitting manifestation of prejudice to it.

Catherine Johnson said...

Shapely prose is fab. Great post Charlie x

catdownunder said...

As I was reading this I remembered my mother saying, of me, "If she gets a typewriter she will never learn to write." She did not see the 'wheelchair' in the terms that I did or the person Elen was talking to did. I had to wait for years before I was actually allowed to have the thing I needed in order to write! If you can turn the thinking around or upside down then you are halfway there. I recommend it.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

What a wonderful post. One thing I think more people would also think about is that power can also, and often does, equal privilege as well. This is something that I notice many academics* don't see, or perhaps are unwilling to admit, especially when we may not have privilege in other aspects of our lives. Power dynamics, and the privilege attached to them, are often very contextual, and I think it does us all good to remember that.


*mentioning academics because they are the group where I see this most, and where the issue of unexamined privilege is especially striking, given that we are supposed to be good at critical thinking.

Andrew Strong said...

Excellent blog. Making any judgement becomes risky, and suspending judgement almost impossible, especially if we consider ourselves involved in the business of creating a character. How can we create a character with a few brushstrokes, if, at the same time, we know it is morally suspect to expect the reader to draw conclusions from those few marks?

Charlie Butler said...

Andrew - yes, I think that's a really important consideration, from a writerly point of view. Mostly, I think that we simply have to be aware of the baggage is carried in whatever words we do choose. A particular person I know might with equal accuracy be described as "athletic, tall and lean," "bespectacled, donnish and hesitant" and "hook-nosed, swarthy and in need of a haircut". Different strokes - same bloke!