Writer to Watch: Mona Awad

Mona Awad’s debut book is 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl* (a play on the title of a Wallace Stevens poem); it’s a brief novel in linked short stories, rather as if all the connective tissue of a longer work has been winnowed away, leaving only a character study.

And Lizzie—variously, throughout the book, Elizabeth, Beth, and Liz—is quite a character. As the title suggests, she’s initially a fat girl, IMG_6213burdened by her own view of her appearance and the views of her friends, family, lovers, and the culture at large. But then she starts to lose weight, and keeps losing it until she is very thin, only to find that she is still miserable, still supremely conscious of the way her body is perceived in the world, still unable to rest for thinking about it.

There’s quite a bit to like in this book, besides its unflinching characterization and rejection of the fat-girl-gets-thin-and-then-becomes-happy-and-partnered-off trope: Lizzie’s voice is especially well developed in the early stories. Anyone who’s been self-conscious about weight will find some of her mundane struggles grimly familiar (trying to find a decent sweater without hideous cat appliqués, for example, or searching for the best camera angle for an online dating profile). Ms. Awad writes humiliation very well.

However, while 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl does savage the censorious, fat-shaming, beauty-obsessed culture we live in, the novel’s treatment of Lizzie, her mother, and Lizzie’s friend Mel suggests that women (and of course it is always women) who are fat at any stage in their lives are doomed to unhappiness for the rest of them; the lone counter-example in the book is a manicurist whom Lizzie is simultaneously repulsed by and fascinated with (and not incidentally, this character isn’t portrayed as particularly perceptive or intelligent). Essentially, I ended up feeling that the book participates in the very culture of fat-shaming that it’s attempting to push back against.

Lizzie’s defining personality trait is rage: even her quips (“I’ll be hungry and angry all my life but I’ll also have a hell of a time”) are just veneers for the anger that’s always seething inside of her. She’s right to be angry, of course; the deck is stacked against her, in more ways than one. Personally, I wanted to shake the book and yell “It’s possible to be both fat and happy!” or give Lizzie a copy of Dietland. In Ms. Awad’s novel, “fat” is code for “miserable,” and I don’t think the book offers any real hope or promise or indication otherwise, no sense at all that “fat” could be—should be—just a descriptor, like “tall.”

I think Ms. Awad has a real talent for voice and characterization, so I look forward to her next book, which I hope will be on a different subject.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

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What to Read While You Wait for the Magic Mike XXL Blu-ray: Dietland, by Sarai Walker

I’ll admit it: I did not believe the feminist hype about Magic Mike XXL that I kept reading on Twitter.

But then I went to see it.

There is a magic place where you can still see a movie after 6 p.m. for under 10 bucks. That magic place is Rhode Island.

There is a magic place where you can still see a movie after 6 p.m. for under 10 bucks. That magic place is Rhode Island.

In a tiny theater on a Tuesday night, my husband (the only man present, but let me tell you, men should see this movie) and I sat with about a dozen women, and all of us laughed and clapped and practically cheered. It was the most positive, enthusiastic, demonstrative crowd I’ve seen at the movies, bar none (this from a woman who saw the Lord of the Rings movies at 12:01a.m. on opening day, mind you).

Why, you ask?

Well, it’s not just the good looking guys dancing around, though that’s fun (for the record, I don’t find Channing Tatum particularly attractive. No offense, Channing—you seem like a nice guy and I’d be happy to chat with you over a beer, but let’s keep it to just friends, m’kay?). You can see the same kind of thing in the first Magic Mike movie, which was a Steven Soderbergh take on the guy-trying-to-get-a-break-and-start-new-life-gets-pulled-into-old-life story. It was a good enough movie, but it didn’t leave me with a grin on my face like this one did.

Nor was it the jokes, which were pretty good, but not Anchorman quality, if you know what I mean.

I think what made me (and the audience) so happy was that (1) this is a movie about men who are out to make women happy. Are they interested in sleeping with women? Sure. Does that drive the plot? No. It’s unbelievably refreshing.

And (2), in this movie, women don’t have to be afraid. No woman is killed, raped, beaten, harassed, pressured for sex, humiliated, called names, or treated as a passive object. Not one. Not a single one. It’s like an alternative fantasy world in which women are safe around men, period.

And (3) I’m talking about women of all colors and all sizes. The fat (which I am not using in a pejorative sense) women in this movie are happy and beautiful and sexy—and being treated that way by extremely (conventionally) attractive men. And those men rely on women—including a woman of color—for help of all sorts.

To see depictions like these in a mainstream movie is like some kind of feminist fever dream. Naturally, I loved it.

Which brings me, at last, to the book you should read while you wait to watch the movie at home.

Magic Mike XXL is a movie fantasy that’s explicitly about men trying to make women happy. Dietland*, by Sarai Walker, is a fantasy in book form about women making themselves happy.

IMG_4255Plum Kettle is convinced that her real life will start once she has weight-loss surgery and becomes thin. Then she’ll be Alicia, her true self—the self who won’t be stared at, or mocked, or judged simply for moving through the world. In the meantime, Plum works for a teen magazine, answering the agonized emails of teenage girls in the vapid persona of the magazine’s editor.

Then one day, she realizes she’s being followed by girl in combat boots and bright tights, and eventually she’s drawn into the orbit of Calliope House, which is a quasi-radical feminist collective funded by Verena, a diet guru’s daughter who completely rejects her mother’s work. Plum gets to know the women who filter in and out of Calliope House (artists, activists, the occasional spy at a beauty magazine) and finds her eyes opened to what’s expected of all women, fat and thin, in the culture around her: that they make themselves attractive, by any means necessary, for men. Diets, waxing, shapewear, contouring, lingerie ads, high heels, porn: all part of the world that normalizes and encourages the objectification of women.

As Plum undertakes a difficult challenge (to live as she thinks Alicia would before she has the surgery) something darker is afoot. It’s a literal feminist conspiracy, if you will: A mysterious vigilante group called Jennifer starts to fight back, worldwide, against male oppression. Rapists are dropped onto freeways. A male editor is kidnapped and forced to replace topless female models on page 3 with nude male models. People who make hard-core porn that glorifies rape are killed. Athletes and film directors who got away with rape (thinly-veiled analogues for real people), along with a revenge-porn website founder, and several other despicable men, are kidnapped.

And then other women start to fight back. Women at a “prestigious Connecticut university” (ahem) destroy the fraternity house of a group of men who walked around campus shouting an abhorrent slogan—when “in previous years, this type of misbehavior would have been handled by a tweedy disciplinary committee in a conference room” (231). Men start to think twice about what they do or say.

Now, would you believe me if I told you this novel is hilarious? It is.

While these two plots aren’t always perfectly woven together, reading a book in which genre tropes are turned on their heads and in which every ridiculous thing women are asked to do to be beautiful is laid out and subjected to scrutiny is so rare, so exciting, that I turned pages with glee. Plum is a wonderful character with a rich interior life; she feels real, and she holds this cri-de-couer of a novel together.

Think of every rom-com you’ve watched in which the happy ending depends on the woman becoming pretty and getting the man. When was the last time you saw a mainstream movie in which a fat woman was happy, sexy, confident, and treated as such (see, there’s Magic Mike XXL, standing  in not very much company)? Think of every diet ad you’ve ever seen. How many were marketed to men?  How much time out of our lives do women spend thinking and talking about what will make us thinner, or what will make us look thinner? Think of all the professional women you know—how much harder do they have to work to get ready in the morning than their male counterparts, not because they want to, but because their company and coworkers silently expect them to?

There’s a difference between getting gussied up because it makes you feel fabulous, exercising because you dig the endorphins, or eating food that makes you feel good—and working to change your appearance because if you don’t you’ll be embarrassed or shamed. Dietland lays out those differences in technicolor.

Dietland makes the point that if we didn’t have to waste our time on the expectations a male-dominated (and often women-enforced) culture has for us, we could not only grant ourselves more time and space to be happy (to read a book, play with our kids, visit with friends, watch a Channing Tatum movie, whatever) but also tackle the really big problems without needing Jennifer’s approach, problems like violence against women, human trafficking, and suffering in its myriad forms.

Now that’s a feminist fantasy.

P.S. Speaking of which, I also highly recommend Feminist Ryan Gosling to while away the hours. Hilarious.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.