Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kaye Gibbons’s A Virtuous Woman as Guilty Pleasure: Humor and Overweight Women

Many reviewers have noted that Kaye Gibbons’s 1989 A Virtuous Woman is a page turner. Indeed, I read it in a single sitting, which is rare for me, given my often hectic life style. Even more impressive is that this novel had me laughing uncontrollably and then sobbing not 30 minutes later. For at least a couple of hours, this story and its characters came alive in my very own family room. As a reviewer in Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it, this novel is "[s]o true and so vital I would swear that there were moments when A Virtuous Woman actually vibrated in my hands.” What I didn’t fully realize until I had put down this engrossing read, though, is that not only did its characters come to life for me but also that these characters seduced me into putting aside my critical lenses. Indeed, what is sad about this book—besides its plot, which relates the tale of Blinking Jack Earnest Stokes, a hardworking tenant farmer, and Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes, the “virtuous woman” of the novel’s title and Jack’s beloved wife who has recently died from lung cancer—is that the funny scenes consistently utilize harmful tropes surrounding gender and race and ultimately hinge on stereotypical portrayals of overweight women.

There are two characters in A Virtuous Woman who bear much of the brunt of Gibbons’s gift for weaving outrageous humor into this otherwise poignant—and yet believable—love story. One of these is a white woman whom Jack and Ruby pejoratively label “Tiny Fran,” a title meant, of course, to mock Fran’s overlarge body. In their respective first-person narrative sections—Ruby’s set in the weeks leading up to her death and Jack’s set in the time period following Ruby’s burial—the two main characters portray Fran as somewhat of a monstrous personality, deserving of their scorn. Fran was born into the landowning family for whom Jack and his friend Burr have worked throughout their lives and who also used Ruby as a housekeeper for a time. As a teenager, however, Fran gained a reputation as the town whore, and when she became pregnant, her father offered her to Burr in exchange for a plot of land. Burr took the deal only to find himself burdened by Fran’s unreasonable demands and temper tantrums.

In a scene narrated by Jack, the two couples decide to get away to the coast together. When they arrive at the cottage where they will stay, Burr and Fran engage in a hilarious exchange. At the risk of not doing this scene justice by excerpting it from the rest of the book, I will quote the exchange in its entirety:
After we got everything unloaded and inside, Burr told me to let’s get the fishing mess ready and go buy some bait and go on out. Then listen and tell me if you hear something funny. Tiny Fran broke in and asked him where he’d put the folding chairs, and Burr said, “What?” and she said, “You know, my brand new folding chairs I got especially for this trip.” Burr told her he didn’t remember packing or unpacking them and he went on about his business. Then she got hot, she yelled at him, “Well, what do you expect me to sit on?” Then listen, he said, “I guess you can sit down on your fist and lean back on your thumb!” I laughed and Ruby laughed and I thought Burr was going to choke he laughed so hard. Tiny Fran told us all to go to hell and went on inside. (95)

When I read this passage the first time, the image of the mean-spirited, selfish, and overlarge Fran sitting on her own thumb was enough to make me burst out in laughter. When I read it today, I still laugh, but with a bit of a guilty conscience. Despite her numerous acts of maliciousness toward Burr, Jack, and Ruby, Fran is nonetheless a victim herself. As a young woman, she was used as an item of exchange between her father and Burr and thereafter dismissed as worthless by both her immediate family and by Burr and his friends. Furthermore, and disturbingly, her detestability is not only portrayed as caused by her despicable attitude toward others but also as linked to her body size. In a later scene also at the vacation cottage, Jack compares Ruby’s slender and firm body to Fran’s large and soft body, stating, “Tiny Fran getting into her feed sack of a bathing suit must’ve been like cramming mud in a glove” (96). The implication is clear: one of Ruby’s womanly virtues is her thin body. Just as she exceeds the spandex confines of her bathing suit, Fran, on the other hand, does not fit the mold of the virtuous woman of the novel’s title.

Another character who is used for comic relief is Mavis Washington, a black woman whom Jack reluctantly hires to help him with household chores after Ruby’s death. Jack describes Mavis as “the biggest, coal-blackest woman I’d ever seen” (127). Although, again, I fear that it might come off as simply insensitive when excerpted from the rest of the book, I will quote a long passage from the scene in which Mavis first enters Jack’s home:

She went on in and put this big old satchel down on the kitchen table and proceeded to take out all grades of mess and lay it all out over the table. She said, “I likes to be able to gets to my bidnis.” I stood watching her, wondering if I ought to’ve let her come here. Something was way, way off. Then here comes her business out of the bag. It was first a sack of hard Christmas candy, then orange jelly slices. She looked at me, slid both of them across the table and said to me, “I likes to have something sweets to suck on. You welcome to it.” I told her no thank you, and then she took out two all stretched-out-looking Ace bandages, lotion, two snuff cans, a white Bible, a big wad of rags . . ., two tall grape drinks, and a round donut pillow. About that last thing, she laid it on the table and said, “This is for when I sits.” (129-30)

At this point, Jack reports that he was “fairly well amazed” (130). He reaches a deeper level of disgust, however, when Mavis announces that she needs to wrap her knees before she can get to work and then proceeds to the bathroom:
. . . directly I heard something sounded like the whole toilet stool was tearing off the wall. I took and went back there and got by the door and hollered, “What are you doing? Be careful with my toilet stool!” She said she was just doing her business and to go on. She finally came out but she still had the bandages in her hand. She said to me, “You got a wobbly toilet. I can’t wrap on no wobbly toilet.” I told her it didn’t wobble ten minutes ago. (130)

The scene continues humorously from here. Upon deeper consideration than that which I gave it the first time around, however, I argue that this scene depicts Jack’s perception of Mavis as lazy as linked inextricably to his disgust for her overlarge, black, female body. Indeed, Mavis’s body is portrayed as grotesque: big and swollen and in need of extra cushioning when she sits and added support when she works. For Jack, Mavis is a horrendous cross between the mammy figure and the welfare queen. She is dark in color, fat, and acts dumb like a stereotypical mammy, but she seems unwilling to work and self-indulgent like a stereotypical welfare queen. What seem to be lost on Jack, though, are the historical and social circumstances that probably caused Mavis’s grotesque bodily state and, relatedly, her inability to perform traditional housekeeping duties for Jack. We could deduce, for instance, from the fact that Mavis came highly recommended by Burr, who used her for a time as a farm laborer, that she was once a good worker but has damaged her body over the years by performing physically taxing tasks. It seems also probable, given Jack’s horrified description of the shack in which Mavis lives, that she takes the position with Jack despite her known physical ailments in an attempt to earn much-needed funds for her family and herself. Certainly, Mavis has gone through life significantly limited by her race and gender, not to mention by the maladies of her own body.

Although Gibbons certainly provides enough background information regarding both Fran and Mavis that a discerning reader might pick up on the unfortunate shaping of their lives and personalities, she clearly positions these women as outside the realm of ideal—or virtuous—womanhood, a realm inhabited by thin, beautiful, kind, and industrious women like Ruby Stokes. In this way, she not only portrays the fat bodies of Fran and Mavis as worthy objects of humor and even scorn but also constructs these overlarge women as valueless to reflect Ruby’s great worth as a virtuous woman.

In conclusion, I’m not sure what to make of my reaction to this book. I fell in love with Jack and Ruby and their love story, and it seems that I allowed my feelings for these charismatic characters to preclude an in-depth analysis of their limiting portrayal of disturbing race and gender stereotypes, and, especially, widely accepted stereotypes of overweight women, at least initially.

Works Cited

Gibbons, Kaye. A Virtuous Woman. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1989.


  1. I didn't read this before I commented on Facebook, so I will say that I enjoy the critique you have here. I am torn, because I probably would have laughed at the first quote when I was reading the book, too.

    One of the problems that is highlighted in fat studies is that fat characters generally have stereotypes that are placed on them and very rarely are those characters allowed out of those types. You have highlighted one of them in the character of Tiny Fran: fat people are mean, vindictive, and victims. Surely her life circumstances have made her mean just as they would have a thin character, but hers happens to be highlighted by the jokes that others make at her expense.

    The question in my mind is would you have laughed at the scenes if they were not about fat people, because if it was the fat you were laughing at, then it's about like laughing at a Minstrel show, or a comedian who does "foreign" accents as his punchlines, or a person with a disability, or a person who is GLBT just because they are different from you. If you still would have laughed if the character was skinny, then I suppose it's okay. In other words, if you laughed at the humor of the situation and not because the person was fat, then I suppose it's okay. I do like, though, that you later put on your critical lens and have wrestled with this.

    So what made both of us laugh: the fact that Burr schooled Tiny Fran by messing with her about the folding chairs, or the fact that the folding chair, dwarfed by her immensity, no doubt would have resembled the fist she was told to sit on? I am unsure, and who am I to tell other people what to laugh at.

    Part of my problem with this is that it perpetuates the fact that we assume fat people look funny sitting in spaces made for "normal people," like people pointing at fat people smashed into a booth at a fast food restaurant, or people commenting on what fat people eat, etc. and that we can be the butt of a joke, carry our vicitmization in our fat, and be vindictive because our lives have obviously been difficult (either because we are fat or causing us to be fat).

    This is really interesting. Thanks for always making me think. :)

  2. And, of course, Mavis seems to be the epitome of the mammy/welfare queen, which you already address, and which complicates the role of fat by involving ethnicity and class.

  3. I've been thinking about how to respond to your comment, Corby, especially the part in which you questioned your own authority to tell me what I should laugh at. It seems to me that humor is a really tricky thing. I mean, don't most of us laugh at things in private or in certain circles that we really "shouldn't" laugh at? I'm ashamed to write that and therefore declare it publicly, and I hope that I'm not alone here. Or, for the sake of humanity, maybe I hope that I am alone and that I'm the only horrible person in the world.

    So, assuming that I'm not the only horrible person, what makes us laugh at inappropriate things? Is is cultural or psychological, or both? Like did I laugh at the fat scene because I feel gaining weight on a personal level or because I feel the need to fit in with a culture that hates fat? Did I laugh at Mavis because I'm a racist or because I have some psychological need to feel better than others? Or are these two things the same? It seems like there is so much that could be said about what we laugh at and why. I'm sure that people have studied this, right?

    I am thinking of one example of something that I do not think is funny. Jeff Dunham. I am completely turned off by his ethnic jokes and accents. Plus, puppets are just dumb, right? So, is the reason that I dislike Dunham's routine because I am more educated than those who like it about ethnic minorities in the US or because I don't have a personal need to feel better than people of other ethnicities or because I just don't like puppets?

    I return to my original statement, which seems to get me no where, that humor must be a really complicated thing.

    To your comment about fat and public spaces: this is a great point that I did not discuss in my analysis of Fran. So, maybe the scene is so funny because we imagine her size in comparison to the size of the chair. I hadn't considered that at all. Thanks, Corby.

  4. I have just started the book. I thought Tiny Fran was so named to distinguish her from her mother Frances.