Fit, Fat, Feminism, and Carnivale

Season One of Carnivale — SPOILERS





Watched the episode of Carnivale the other night where Dora Mae, one of the dancers/part-time prostitutes is raped and killed in the mining town of Babylon (a violence done off screen, thankfully – I’ve been wacky with violence-against-women on screen since South Africa; it tends to scare the crap out of me).

She has the word “harlot” inscribed on her forehead, and we’re told that the reason she was killed is because all those who are killed in Babylon… stay in Babylon. And the miners killed in Babylon, who only appear at night… were lonely.

Sampson, who runs the Carnivale, goes into town and does in the guy who killed her, and then walks out as the sun is setting…. and he sees Dora Mae standing naked in the window of one of the barracks-like houses, half-obscured in darkness.

They chose an actress for this part who looks the part of a woman; she’s not one of those androgynous “beauties” of the 20s, wearing girdles to mask hips, or one of the “tits, ass, but no fat anywhere else” ideals today. She’s fleshy, big in the hips and big-breasted (real breasts). It’s a good “beauty” choice for the time period – the 1930s, during the Great Depression – when being well-fed and womanly meant you were likely very healthy and well-off. Women who looked the most “like women” were the ideal.

And this very classicaly woman-shaped woman stares lifelessly out of this window as the sun is going down, and one of the coal miners comes up slowly from behind her and hooks his arm around her throat… And he slowly pulls her back away from the window and into the darkness.

And there’s this look of pity and sorrow and terror on Sampson’s face, and he walks away, knowing there’s nothing he can do, knowing that she’s been co-opted by this place; a woman, a thing, to be owned, to be used.

It creeped me the fuck out.

I kept thinking about that scene all night, again that morning, again on the train, and after watching another episode last night, Jenn brought it up. I told her it freaked me the fuck out, which she found funny, because at the time when we watched it, I had gone utterly quiet and still and hadn’t commented on it. It was one of those fear responses that was so intense I literally could not speak for fear of the sound of the terror creeping out in my voice.

It’s men viewing this woman, this human being, as a thing, an object, that they can kill and keep for their own pleasure. Really creepy.

And it got me to thinking about my own love/hate relationship with my own body image. Because, as I’ve often talked about, I look like very much like a woman. If I wear baggy clothes and put my hair up and go into a butch walk, people might wonder a bit if I went by fast, but mostly, I’ve always had that woman’s body – fleshy in the hips and thighs, pulled in at the waist, and though I’m not big-breasted, I am broad-shouldered, which means I do have an hourglass-type thing going on.

I remember Jenn coming into my room one day, bitching about a shirt that was too big for her, as it made her body look tube-like – she’s small-breasted as well, and narrow in the hips, so if she wears a shirt that’s too big, she looks a bit boyish.

I laughed at her and said, “I love finding pants and shirts that make me appear tube-like – then I know that I’m thinner, as I’ve gained the ability to hide the fact that I have hips.” In fact, the most prized pants I own are pants that pull me in at the hips instead of accentuating them.

I’ve talked before about how the two times in my life where I was adamently trying to dissuade male attention were the times when I put on the most weight, thinking that would make me less attractive. This works in the US, now that our beauty standard isn’t a fleshy one. It didn’t work so well in South Africa. Being a fleshy woman is a desirable thing in Zulu culture, and is also a sign of health in a country rapidly watching its people waste away with AIDS. The couple of times I was hit on there, it was by Zulu men.

So though I was certainly operating on a “What makes an attractive woman” template both times, it didn’t work so well the second time, because beauty standards are different in different places and change constantly. We’re very much conditioned about what “beauty” is. So all that insulation only made those humid 105-degree days in Durban all that much more unbearable.

But watching that scene in Carnivale, I was reminded of why I fear having this woman’s body, and why there’s so much angst about it. On the one hand, I’d certainly like to be seen as attractive, as desirable, but I don’t want the unwanted attention that comes with such desirability. I don’t want even more people harrassing me on the train. I don’t want people seeing “sex” on my body – by sheer virtue of the way my body is made! – and assuming that gives them a right to get up in my personal space.

One of the ways I’m combating this association of greater attractiveness (ie being thin, being fit; in this culture) with more harrassment is by taking self-defense classes, and teaching myself that being thinner doesn’t neccessarily mean being weaker, and just because I start to get a more socially acceptable shape doesn’t mean I’m somehow inviting more trouble. It doesn’t mean that I owe anybody anything.

Sexual power is a funny thing to contemplate for somebody who has never really viewed themselves as attractive. Yet I know I’ve driven at least a couple of people crazy, and been desired enough to convince people to do things they knew they shouldn’t have done. I’m not gorgeous, I’m not traditionally beautiful, but there is something that attracts certain sorts of people, and I’m aware of it. I’ve heard the Greek goddess talk one too many times.

So when I see this incredibly powerful woman getting co-opted by these men because they desire her, because she bears the body she was born with, I can’t help but feel a stinging fear as I watch her get pulled into the darkness. It’s not so long ago that women were considered things to be bought and sold, and in some places, we’re still considered commodities, and hell, Jessica Simpson gave her dad a “virginity vow.” We’re not that far removed from woman-as-thing or woman’s-worth-is-her-untouched-cunt. It’s scary shit.

There are a great deal of things that keep drawing me back to Carnivale, the portrayal of women and men and the relationships between and among them being part of it. They’ve got an incredible bunch of character actors. Nobody’s plastic-beautiful; you become attracted to them by sheer virtue of their actual characters, by the quirks, by watching those things about them that aren’t so beautiful and finding the things that are.

I’ve ranted about other shows that keep fucking up their gender dynamics, whose actors appear to be deeply confused about what it is they’re trying to say. With Carnivale, you start out with archetypes: the psychic, the bearded lady, the midget, the strongman, the snake charmer, the girls who dance “the cooch”… and every single one of them walks into the scene with their own set of issues, their own histories, their own power dynamics and relationships with the other characters, and at every point along the way, the ways that they interact feel true.

I realized during yesterday’s viewing that I was watching a lot of sex scenes, this being an HBO production, and that in fact, they were all really great sex scenes. I didn’t feel like anybody was being taken advantage of, or that women’s bodies were being shown off just to be shown off (though I’d like more male nudity, at least on par with that of the women, but that’s me). These feel like real people to me, drawn to each other for their own individual reasons, and it’s not cheap and brainless. You can watch these people circle one another, and watch the ramifications of their actions play out.

It’s not so much about eye candy as it is about telling a damn good story – and sex is part of life, and part of this story.

It’s this place where nobody’s perfect and you manage to fall in love with nearly everybody on some level; which, perhaps, was why the co-option of Dora Mae by men who saw her not as a real person, but a thing, was that much more powerful.

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