Archive for December 11th, 2012

December 11, 2012

On the body of Howard Mollison

A few years ago, J. K. Rowling wrote a blog post in which she ranted about the use of “fat” as an insult. Naturally, this being the internet, lots of people gushed at how wonderful this sentiment was- while others pointed out that Rowling’s treatment of fat in her own books was far from ideal.

I’ve been trying to make a list of fat people in the Harry Potter books, and these are the ones I’ve come up with so far:

  • Vernon and Dudley Dursley (and I think Vernon’s sister Maude). These characters are unpleasant. They’re also portrayed as greedy, particularly in Dudley’s case. Dudley’s parents are blamed for spoiling him by allowing him to indulge in unfettered greed. At one point the character is physically turned into a pig.
  • Crabbe and Goyle. Big, and also greedy. To the point that, in a castle filled with strange potions and mischievous poltergeists, it is easy to drug them with inexplicable chocolate cake. With that level of self-preservation I’m impressed they manage to survive till the last book.
  • Moaning Myrtle. At least, she claims to have been teased for being fat, and the text describes her as “squat”.
  • Hagrid and Madame Maxime. Both these characters are described as large; understandably, since they’re half-giant. Neither is “fat”.
  • Neville Longbottom. Has a round/plump face, to the best of my recollection. He either loses the puppy fat or Rowling chooses not to mention it as he becomes a stronger character.
  • Horace Slughorn. Fat, greedy, cowardly. Weak.
  • Molly Weasley. Plump, maternal, more concerned with her family than with her appearance.

 

So it’s not that (or not entirely that) the good characters are never overweight in these books, though they generally aren’t. It’s that when they differ from body norms, as they sometimes do, there are ‘good’ reasons. Hagrid cannot help being half-giant, and Molly Weasley’s plumpness both emphasises her difference from someone like Petunia Weasley and places her in a tradition of comfortable maternal figures (Lily Potter can be beautiful and ethereal, because she’s dead). But if you’re Dudley Dursley, or Horace Slughorn, or Crabbe or Goyle, your fatness is linked explicitly to your food habits and what they say about you. You can’t just be fat without its being a character trait; you can’t have thyroid-related issues (which St. Mungo’s could probably just magic away), or because you have a disability that means you can’t exercise, or because of genetics unless one of your parents was literally of another species. No one’s suggesting that Rowling interrupt the story and have Madame Pomfrey lecture the class about, say, PCOS. But she could treat fat as just another physical marker—like glasses or hair and eye colour, and not as an indication of a fundamental inability to avoid cake. She does not.

The Casual Vacancy’s Howard Mollison is a bit of a slughorn—if the world of Harry Potter had room for sexually creepy men. He’s a social climber, he’s smarmy, and he really loves food. He runs a delicatessen. Rowling’s first action is to inform us that he and his wife don’t share a bed, and that:

A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.

(n.b. this has never been my first thought upon seeing a fat person and I can’t imagine I’m alone in this)

Here are some reasons to dislike Mollison:

  1. He’s a bigot.
  2. He’s a snob.
  3. He pervs on schoolgirls.
  4. He cheats on his wife.
  5. He pays his daughter negligible sums of money to keep his cheating on his wife a secret.
  6. He thinks drug addicts should just go cold turkey and why are they choosing to do drugs anyway?

Parminder, Howard’s doctor, is convinced that his various health problems are a direct consequence of his weight, which could be fixed with “a few lifestyle changes”. Parminder does not share Howard’s views with regard to the continued access of people from the Fields to healthcare and social services. These people need state-provided medical care, she argues. You know who’s a real drain on resources? Fatties.

‘Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behaviour?’ said Parminder.

‘In a nutshell, yes.’

‘Before they cost the state any more money.’

‘Exact—’

‘And you,’ said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her, ‘do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?’

A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard’s neck into his cheeks.

‘Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital? And the doctor’s appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?’

As Parminder’s voice became a scream, other councillors began to protest on Howard’s behalf; Shirley was on her feet; Parminder was still shouting, clawing together the papers that had somehow been scattered as she gesticulated.

‘What about patient confidentiality?’ shouted Shirley. ‘Outrageous! Absolutely outrageous!’

Parminder was at the door of the hall and striding through it, and she heard, over her own furious sobs, Betty calling for her immediate expulsion from the council; she was half running away from the hall, and she knew that she had done something cataclysmic, and she wanted nothing more than to be swallowed up by the darkness and to disappear for ever.

 

This whole scene turned my stomach (which, theoretically, could stop me eating and make me thin again; thanks, Rowling!) Because at no point is it even a possibility that Howard’s weight might be the result of anything other than a fondness for cheese. Other people have legitimate problems that Howard is dismissing (and he is, he’s a piece of shit), but Parminder’s not arguing that Howard is failing to understand the complexities of addiction in the same way as others might fail to understand the complexities of weight. She’s arguing that he’s a fat, selfish parasite who is taking up resources he wouldn’t need if he would just eat less. The text doesn’t wholly endorse Parminder at all times (she is, for example, a terrible parent) but at no point does it seem to go against the content of this argument. Instead, towards the end of the book it mawkishly contrasts Howard’s time in hospital with that of a small boy.

In the theatre upstairs, Howard Mollison’s body overflowed the edges of the operating table. His chest was wide open, revealing the ruins of Vikram Jawanda’s handiwork. Nineteen people laboured to repair the damage, while the machines to which Howard was connected made soft implacable noises, confirming that he continued to live.

And far below, in the bowels of the hospital, Robbie Weedon’s body lay frozen and white in the morgue. Nobody had accompanied him to the hospital, and nobody had visited him in his metal drawer

Robbie is a small child and a victim of circumstances. Howard is alive, receiving decent medical care, and somehow this is a travesty because Howard’s illness is his own fault.