"Desirable" Bodies, Choice, and Neoliberalism: The Fictional Romantic Marketplace
How do romantic narratives explore or influence our ideas of which bodies are "desirable"? Dr. Christina Fattore will introduce us to neoliberalism, and we'll discuss how the ideological focus on individual agency influences our ideas of which bodies are most desirable to acquire in romantic partners and how individuals must produce desirable bodies to create "value" in a romantic marketplace. CW: discussion of diet culture, body size, etc.
Guest: Dr. Fattore, associate professor of political science and romance reader and writer.
Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Shelf Love, a podcast and community that explores romantic love stories in fiction across media, time, and cultures. Shelf Love is for the curious and open-minded who joyfully question as they consume pop culture.
I'm your host, Andrea Martucci. And on this episode, I'm joined by Dr. Christina Fattore, associate professor of political science and romance reader and writer. Dr. Fattore introduce us to neo-liberalism and we'll discuss how the ideological focus on individual agency influences our ideas of which bodies are most desirable to acquire in romantic partners and how individuals must produce desirable bodies to create quote unquote value in a romantic marketplace.
Christina, thank you so much for joining me. Would you please share a little bit about your.
Christina Fattore: Sure, Andrea. Like you said, I'm Christina Fattore. I'm an associate professor at West Virginia university. I teach in the political science department and the international studies program. I am a huge romance reader.
Maybe not so much during the pandemic because it's really slowed down my attention, but I just devour romance and I love it. And thank you for having me.
Andrea Martucci: So happy to have you here. We've been talking for a long time about this and we were delayed because of circumstances. And so I'm glad that we are finally having this conversation.
It has allowed me a really long time to let it just stew in the recesses of my brain.
Christina Fattore: I'm glad.
Andrea Martucci: As I said, we're going to talk about neo-liberalism. You are a political science professor. What is neo-liberalism?
Christina Fattore: At its root neo-liberalism is an economic theory. It's based on this historical idea that people know what's best for them and the market will help guide them.
And so if we think about kind of Adam Smith, like that very early liberal viewpoint of the way economics should run, it's basically this idea of hands-off laissez-faire. The market will provide the choices and options that people want and people will help whittle down what is successful and what is not successful.
So when we think about people, we're really considering people as consumers. Not just as individuals, but consumers, people who are gonna buy because we're in this capitalist society. And so our democratic choices are best exercised through buying and selling. And we see that a big part of neo-liberalism also rewards efficiency and wealth. And so there are these natural winners and losers, which really as a person, not as a professional, that just makes me cringe so hard. And we expect that there will be inequality. So some people will benefit from the system. Some people won't, but that's just normal. That's what we expect.
There's also the assumption that everyone is getting what they deserve. So if you work hard enough you can have it all.
That's not true. We can talk about neo-liberalism's criticisms, or its critiques.
You can work hard hard and hard and never achieve something that you're striving towards.
Neo-liberalism has that bootstrap [00:03:00] mentality that if you work hard enough, you can become rich. You can be successful, but we also ignore all the structural advantages that the wealthy already have. And so what we see is that when people aren't successful, they blame themselves rather than blaming the system.
Andrea Martucci: And now you mentioned Adam Smith and liberal thought, can you just like contextualize that in time and space?
And when you say liberal, I don't think you mean it in the liberal conservative of American politics. Can you just explain what that means?
Christina Fattore: Sure. So Adam Smith is probably the father of modern economics. We'll just call him that. He wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Basically if you have taken any economics course at any point in your life, you have talked about Adam Smith.
I particularly study international trade. He gives us the idea of absolute advantage and how we should specialize in things to increase efficiency, which again is at the core of neo-liberalism. But that's a flawed theory. And we know it's a flawed theory today. Again, we're not looking at these structural reasons why people are poor. Why countries are poor. And when I say we I'm thinking about from like a American developed country perspective- We just are saying, they're not trying hard enough.
And so when I talk about theories with my students, I speak a lot to this idea that they're models, they're ideals. We see theory in action, which isn't what was written on the page. And the same thing with neo-liberalism. Neoliberalism and when Adam Smith writes Wealth of Nations, this is how he can see the world.
But it's very simplistic. It's not considering different characteristics domestically or internationally. The structural components that we're talking about. And so it's incredibly reductionist.
So this idea that, the government does not need to interfere with markets. That the market will determine, people will buy what they want and things that they don't need will just fade away.
That doesn't work, that doesn't work in our world. We don't live in a purely capitalist society, even though capitalism is the dominant lens through which we see our lives and society. But we don't live in a purely, like his word is laissez-faire right, that government doesn't intervene.
Government certainly does intervene in the markets. And so that's another part of neo-liberalism that is just incorrect because the theory has never really been put into practice. The countries that preach neo liberalism don't subscribe to it themselves.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And so we are coming at this today from the perspective of people who live in the United States. However, on top of that, though, we understand that the United States has outsized influence on the culture at large in the world because of its imperialism and cultural imperialism.
And so I want to introduce [00:06:00] the idea of hegemony or hegemonic, because I think throughout this conversation, what we're going to be referring to are, quote unquote hegemonic, ideals of beauty or ideology. And I just want to acknowledge that we're not talking about what should be, or what is. We're talking about what is hegemonic.
So could you define hegemony?
Christina Fattore: Sure. So when we talk about hegemony, we're talking about this kind of dominant power. We're talking about this dominant viewpoint in the world. In the United States we big pink puffy heart democracy, right? But there's a lot of issues with democracy as well, but we sell democracy around the world. We say democracy will work everywhere. Everyone should be a democracy. That's the dominant viewpoint. That's the hegemonic viewpoint.
And so when we think about beauty standards and we think about the hegemonic beauty standards, I think about when I was a teenager and I used to read Seventeen Magazine those models inside. What were teenage girls supposed to look like? That's what they were supposed to look like: tall, white, thin, young, beautiful, blonde, probably. And so anything that's hegemonic is this dominant viewpoint that literally goes unquestioned, right? And that's, what's so radical and critical about body positivity is this idea that we are questioning, that we are saying, where did this come from?
Why are we okay with this? Why are we okay without diversity? That's basically what we're talking about. When we talk about a hegemonic viewpoint.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, and I want to start getting into some examples of this and in particular how this ideology is impacting our ideas of who we find desirable in and I'm using the term "romantic marketplace" very intentionally because we're talking about neo liberal rhetoric, basically framing romantic love as yet another location of the fair market. Where if you just laissez-faire, let things be as they are, this is who we believe are desirable, what traits we find desirable.
However, we have to acknowledge the ideology that's really under the surface there. And, when we start talking about physical beauty, this encompasses many aspects of many ideologies, really.
First of all, age, so what age is considered desirable and that I think particularly for people who can give birth, desirability is tied to fertility. So talking about being cis or trans and gender identity and sexual identity and socioeconomic class, there are a lot of markers in physical attractiveness to economic and social class. And what that says about one's self-discipline and how hard they work.
And able-bodiedness plays a role in here, whiteness and [00:09:00] white supremacy plays a role here. And then there's honestly even just a social dynamic of this of do you know your place, do you know your role in this hegemonic culture and are you adhering to the norms of your identity and how you fit into this structure and showing a lack of regard for knowing your role also basically shows that you are lacking in some way in this hegemonic structure.
So there's a lot of different ways we can go here. What we decided we were going to talk about today was literally bodies and how that plays into romantic love. And as we were going back and forth and teasing out what we wanted to talk about here, one thing you said was "I especially love the themes of what bodies recur the most or are representative of desirable." And so I wonder if you could say a little bit more about how you're framing this conversation around neo-liberalism and attractiveness of romantic partners.
Christina Fattore: Sure. I will start by saying I am a fat white, 40 year old woman. I think all those things you just talked about I think are really something that I've dealt with in my own life. I especially think as a fat woman and I've been different sizes through my whole adult life. But I've mainly been fat.
And so I think about w ho deserves love and what again, what we've been told about love. If we go back and I really want to go kick my 16 year old self for having spent my tween years reading all these different magazines, we think about, if you just lost those 10 pounds, that guy would be really interested in you.
And just focusing on like the physical aspects of what's attractive and what's not, in my own personal life, really mess with me for you really messed with me in and wrecked my twenties. Let's put it that way, until the point I got to a point where I was just like, that's enough.
I didn't start reading romance until my second child was born. So I've been like hardcore romance reader for the past five years. And I remember I would start reading these books and I don't want to thin shame anyone, so I'm trying to be really careful, but this traditional ingenue, right? This like 21 year old girl who's tall and willowy. I love that adjective. And she's just every guy's desire and how that plays out and I've read those books. And there's still a few of those books that I really enjoy. But I don't identify with them.
And so when I seek out romance, there are some books that I just won't read.
And especially as a fat woman looking for fat representation, I don't want to read books where people are talking about diets. I think about Bridget Jones' diary. And if I were to pick it up today, I probably would read about five pages of it and then get rid of it.
I think about what we are telling women is desirable and what do they need to do themselves to be desirable? And this is inclusive of all people who identify as a woman. I also think when we get down [00:12:00] to it, romance is written for art, right? People are creative and they come up with these stories and they want to share them.
But there's also the capitalism behind selling books. And I've written romance. I've never published it. So they're just quietly sitting in a desk drawer over here. But there's all these craft books about what a romance is supposed to do. And we all know about the tropes and the rhythm of books and the cheat sheets and all that.
But also what's going to sell? Are you going to sell a book where a 41 year old fat woman finds love? Without self-loathing. Talk about any representation, talk about queer representation. When we talk about writing Black or brown romance, all these different things, what it comes down to is it going to sell, right?
The perpetuation of this hegemonic ideal, not just of love and being worthy of love. Have you worked hard enough to deserve this love?
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think that every single person is deserving of love.
One does not need to do anything, attain anything to be worthy of love. There are probably things individuals do to have successful relationships, right? Like we're all in control of our own behavior and partners are also in charge of their own behavior. But everyone is deserving of love period.
And that also includes the ingenue. I think the problem is that when we see the same archetype recurring over and over again, and it's the vast majority of representation, however, it's a much smaller percentage of actual representation like in real life, it starts to reinforce those hegemonic ideals that certain people are desirable, certain bodies are desirable.
And I think that it's really important when talking specifically about body positivity is to acknowledge the appropriation of body positivity by white feminism, consumer feminism.
I wanted to share two sources to frame this conversation. And one of them is an article from 2013 written by Eva Chen in the European Journal of Culture Studies. And the title of her article was Neo-liberalism and Popular Women's Culture: Rethinking Choice, Freedom and Agency.
And this was such an interesting article talking about how the ideas of I am choosing this. I have agency in this and I just want this, how that really is appropriated by Neo liberal rhetoric to avoid engaging in why we make the choices and the invisible hand guiding our choices, all the things that you talked about when you were explaining neoliberalism, how there are all of these things underneath the surface that limit our choices, depending on how much privilege we have, or the ideologies that we live in.
I want to share this one quote in particular from here.
" Neo liberalism is not simply another form of direct [00:15:00] disciplinary power exercised by the dominant discourse over passive female subjects. As a new form of self-governance where the only guiding principle is marketization and self-interest, neo-liberalism encourages individuals to willingly and freely choose to follow the path most conducive to their self-interest, the path, which often turns out to be the normative one, the one for which the state has provided the best conditions."
And then this continues that it operates not through traditional disciplinary power, but in its seeming tolerance or openness. So "it impacts the conditions that make these choices desirable and voluntary."
And so when we think about the reasons why people in stories say they desire something, the reasons why are almost just as important as what.
I think that lens is like really important as we start to talk about bodies. And particularly in texts is that there is a way that texts and that could include a literal text, like a book, or a film or a TV show, or what have you, that the way they talk about things, sometimes they may be representing a body that does not conform entirely to that hegemonic beauty standard. However, still reinforces the exact same ideology because all they do is just switch what is included in what should be acceptable as beautiful.
I did want to make sure that we brought into this given that body positivity so often is appropriated by middle-class white women. I wanted to bring in the perspective of bell hooks. And I think that she hits this Neo liberal rhetoric extremely well. And I think it's like a good framing for talking about examples.
This is from Black is a Woman's Color. And it's an essay that begins with,
"Good hair. That's the expression. We all know it, begin to hear it when we were small children, when we were sitting between the legs of mothers and sisters, getting our hair combed. Good hair is hair that is not kinky, hair that does not feel like balls of steel wool, hair that does not take hours to comb, hair that does not need tons of grease to untangle, hair that is long.
Real good hair is straight hair, hair like white folks hair. We pretend that the standards we measure our beauty by are out own invention, that it is a questions of time and money that lead us to make distinctions between good hair and bad hair. Getting our hair pressed is an important ritual. It is not a sign of our longing to be white. It is not a sign of our quest to be beautiful. We are girls. It is a sign of our desire to be women."
And I just thought that this succinctly captures how we convince ourselves under neo liberalism in that ideology, to believe that these goals are our goals, that they have nothing to do with these other ideologies, that this is just what we are choosing to do.
And also encapsulates that project that we undertake in forming our bodies to be, to fit a certain standard and to not question or elide questioning [00:18:00] of how we formed that ideal to begin with.
So we said we're going to bring some specific examples from pop culture, romantic narratives to dig into. What did you bring?
Christina Fattore: I brought too much
Andrea Martucci: always.
Christina Fattore: So my number one on my list was Olivia Dade. And I'm going to hopefully not get emotional here.
The day I discovered Olivia Dade was the day that literally my life changed. And it sounds so ridiculous, but I had never to that point, read a book where. And I don't want to say where the woman looked like me, but the woman was my age. She was in her late thirties at the time. And I was in my late thirties and I was like, oh my God, it's a fat woman in her late thirties who has a life and has a career. And has other things going for her other than going to the gym? This is awesome. Because I had read fat romance before, but when I finally read, I think it was Teach Me, I remember reading this book and being like, yes. I don't think I was 40 yet. I think it was like 38 or 39. And just yes, that is me.
My mom read Harlequin all through my childhood. And I remember being so very much against it and not even from my young teen understanding of feminism, but also like none of those women were from an adult viewpoint, they weren't my age.
And I hear so many women my age saying I don't wanna read about 20 year olds and I don't want to read about skinny 20 year olds. And I said, okay. And I always pull out Olivia Dade. I think I actually have the book here because I love it so much. It's her latest. She has another one coming out in October, but it's Spoiler Alert.
And I love Spoiler Alert and I'm going to be honest. I love everything Olivia does, but towards the end of the book she has a girl stand up in front of a crowd of people, which I think is really impressive. The main character here is April. So we're going to be listening from April's point of view.
She says, ""oh, good. Are you two still dating? Because it," the microphone picked up a little catch in her throat. "It would mean a lot to me to see you two together." When April met the girl's eyes, she saw pain and need there. The same pain and need that clawed at her for decades and the same pain and need that had drawn her inexorably -I can't even say that word -into the fandom. Please tell me people who look like us can be loved. Please tell me that people who look like us can be desired. And please tell me the people who look like us can have happy endings."
And I think, I read that and I remember crying the first time I read that and I actually emailed Olivia and was like, oh my gosh, she just destroyed me there because teenage me needed that. Teenage me needed that. And I never got it.
And so that essay by bell hooks. I think about why it's so important to see black beauty and not just represented in ads. There's the whole discussion on lighter skin and hair. And that's what we see in ads. That's who we see modeling. But when we think about women who have 4C hair [00:21:00] getting represented in ads, women who deal with dyspigmentation, women of all sizes and shapes and shades, I think that is what young girls need to see.
And so that questioning of what is our preferences. And does the state lay that out for us?
Of course. Of course. It's from the very moment you are born, there are these expectations of who you should be as a woman.
A friend of mine and I talk a lot about growing up with moms who are constantly on a diet.
Both of us like our, I think our moms were like clones of each other living far away. But like in the eighties, like your moms were always drinking, like shakes, it was diet shakes. It was aerobics. If you weren't working out, you weren't losing weight. If you weren't drinking these shakes and eating bland chicken for dinner, you weren't losing weight.
And it was all about the pursuit of losing weight, because it was what was tied to our mom's self worth. And that is what's passed on to us. So when we think about who deserves success, who deserves love, not the people who can't control themselves, that eat too much.
I actually have a quote here it's an article on Obesity, Neo-liberalism and Epidemic Psychology by Lee Monagan, Andrea Bombak and Emma Rich from 2017 in Critical Public Health. " We can talk about neo-liberalism in relation to fatness." It's explained that "in a neoliberal context, citizens are defined as personally responsible for resisting the obesogenic environment and health problems caused by their fatness. There's an assumption that fat people are lesser than, do not have control, and therefore are unworthy of love as they are right now."
And so it's what we're told, right? It's how we're raised. Like I have a big nose,
Andrea Martucci: So you said I have a big nose. Big compared to what? Compared to what the hegemonic beauty standard believes the appropriate size nose is. Even the rhetorical framing of big compared to what?
Christina Fattore: Yes. And so that's exactly it. I've had doctors when I've gone for cause I do have a deviated septum. I've refused. I said, I don't want you to change anything about my nose. And they said, why not?
Andrea Martucci: Obviously, while I'm in there you want me to quote unquote fix you?
Christina Fattore: Yes. And so it's no, you're actually going to fix it, but you can leave my nose the way it is, because this is who I am. But I also, I struggle with that because I noticed you have makeup on, I have makeup on.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Christina Fattore: I love makeup. Okay. I love makeup. If it was truly a chore for me, I would not spend as much money on fun colors as I do.
But do I really love makeup? Or is that something that I've been told I have to do by society? Whether it's been like, you're not professional unless you have makeup on. You're not professional if your hair is big and curly. I straightened my hair. My hair is naturally curly, but I straightened it for family pictures yesterday because I didn't trust it enough.
You think about all the [00:24:00] things we have been taught, like women wear makeup, it makes them look professional. The fact that you have to look professional, rather, than just be professional. We have to consider, again, this idea of agency, and who's really making the choices and I can sit here and probably think about this for the next few hours.
Do I really love makeup or is it that internalized
Andrea Martucci: Yes. Yeah. I was thinking about that very question in relationship to bodies and let me just echo. As I was putting makeup on, before we got in here, I was like, isn't it funny how the makeup that I am choosing to put on happens to create the illusion of long eyelashes. And when I put highlighter and bronzer on my face, what I'm doing is creating the illusion of stronger cheekbones or greater variation in the contours of my face. Like I'm creating a visual illusion. Not just any visual illusion, but a very specific type of visual illusion.
And I was thinking about that with agency, and this is what the article that I was talking about earlier, really focuses on how a lot of the framing has been: I chose my choice. And if we focus so hard on the agency and don't examine what we are choosing and not just like why we are choosing, but what we are choosing as well.
If it just so happens to you know, conform to the hegemonic, beauty standard, we go right to "no, oh, I choose makeup for myself!" I too have spent a lot of time thinking about that. Do I really like, just enjoy doing this? Or do I like the idea that when people see me, like my face is played up in a very particular way that adheres to this.
And when it comes to like body size, what you were talking about earlier with the moms who are always on a diet, the goal there is to be small. And so the behavior is to achieve a particular goal that when you actually think about that goal, you're like, why is it better to be smaller or to be a particular prescribed size, right? Like why is that the goal?
And I've talked about like my body stuff on the podcast before, but I think that as I have worked towards having a literal healthier relationship with my body, I actually really wanted to resist that. Why do I have to be smaller? Why do I have to do particular things to adhere to a beauty standard?
And I actually had to take that resistance and say, you're right. You don't have to do it for those reasons, but there are other reasons to take a walk. If you change the goal of, I need to punish my body for eating something by doing this with the goal of getting smaller. That's a very different frame of mind from, if I pay attention to my body, when I take a walk, I feel better. My mind clears because I have ADHD and a little bit of physical activity helps me think more clearly. So [00:27:00] it's about the goal. It's about why
Christina Fattore: So it's all about the framing there. Cause I've struggled with the same thing in my life. And connecting exercise with weight loss and doing exercise for weight loss is again how it has been framed for so long.
I actually will say that. I feel like things are changing with that. And I see that with my kids will come home and talk about how strong they are. And like they did this on the playground at school or something like that. And so I feel like maybe it's changing a bit.
There are so many other health benefits and we have this problem where it's societal fixation. On weight and especially obesity and BMI. And we don't really think about other indicators of health, right? So like you said, you can go for a walk to burn calories, or it can be a stress reducer, or it can help you focus more.
It helps your cardiovascular health, right? All these different things that we are relearning at our age because when we were our kids' age, it wasn't about that. Like the eighties and nineties were all about, oh, America is getting fatter and we need to not eat eggs because of our cholesterol.
And we need to not eat fat because fat is bad. And so we're going to come up with all these alternatives that make you poop your pants. There is no fat in it, so it's okay.
Andrea Martucci: But pay no attention to the vending machine filled with processed foods that the corporations are profiting from, and that are being sold to you as a convenience and that's where like the underlying issue there is, is the issue that we have no self control and we just need to work harder at this, or is the issue that there are food deserts where all you can get are packaged foods in dollar stores or convenience stores. And there aren't great groceries with produce or affordable produce, or even affordable frozen vegetables or whatever, right? There's all of these sort of like structural issues that don't get addressed in that.
Christina Fattore: The flip side of that is there's the inequality when it comes to access.
But when you do have access the absolute capitalistic overwhelm of any grocery store or Sam's Club, Costco type places, my goodness. Like they were developed to overwhelm. They're literally developed to overwhelm. We're overwhelmed with choice in our day-to-day lives, whether it comes to what you put on your cereal, the toilet paper you use, your makeup that you put on your face, clothing you wear, we are overwhelmed with choice every single day. Capitalism wants to provide the illusion of choice, but they're telling us what to choose from.
Andrea Martucci: Oh yeah. Exactly. Exactly. Wow. Look at all the choices you have pay no attention to the choices that you don't have or the choices that are made less attractive or [00:30:00] the choices that are prohibitively expensive or out of reach for you as an individual.
That actually comes b ack to the idea of romance as a marketplace, where the illusion of all of the choice actually turns us into consumers of romantic partners and as producers of ourselves as a product in that romantic marketplace. And so that too really reinforces this idea that we need to make ourselves as valuable as possible in this romantic marketplace.
And also that the people that we form romantic partnerships or relationships with, that we should always seek to optimize and make the most rational choice. If you have two possible romantic partners that you want to choose between, because you're interested in a monogamous relationship and you can only have one at a particular time you got to got to acknowledge that you don't always have to choose.
Christina Fattore: Although that is the hegemonic viewpoint. So go on.
Andrea Martucci: Yes. The hegemonic viewpoint is that you're going to engage in a heterosexual monogamous relationship that you are allosexual, I E that you are interested in a sexual relationship with your romantic partner.
And you had talked about Spoiler Alert earlier, and as I say this, I just want to like preface this I heard the meaning that you got from this book. And I have seen so many people on Twitter or in bookish conversations talking about how meaningful this book and this story is.
And so I wanna say I totally respect that, but I want to problematize something about Spoiler Alert respectfully because I think that this actually gets at the conclusion of this article, that I quoted from earlier by Chen and talking about this "constructive approach that can start by recognizing that there's this inner tension and layers within these genres." That we're not passive dupes. We do have agency, but also that these relationships are incredibly complicated.
What I wanted to talk about with Spoiler Alert is, her love interest is Marcus in this and he is like an A list Hollywood actor.
And I think that what is interesting about this book is that it really deconstructs the beauty standard for women in terms of size. I think that it's important to note that the heroine is hegemonically conventionally attractive by every other aspect. Like she is white. She is able-bodied. She is upper-middle-class. Her body is shaped in a way that I think is considered to be more conventionally attractive, like big boobs and I think like more of a waist and, so we have to acknowledge that.
And the book asks us to question why that has made her feel that she is not worthy of love in the romantic marketplace. However, I think that when it comes to Marcus he happens to adhere very closely to [00:33:00] male conventional standards of beauty. And I think that the narrative, what I think becomes problematic is that it creates this situation where he is considered highly prized in the romantic marketplace, not only for his celebrity and wealth, but because of how attractive he is. Like he has like a six pack of abs and spends a lot of time in the gym and this kind of becomes a a point of, let's say, miscommunication, that she believes he must expect her to adhere to the same things he does with his body. She thinks that he is going to judge her for this.
I think it's interesting that that is almost the point of conflict, is who would believe that an attractive specimen such as you, Marcus, would be with me. And it starts to create that, like you're a 10, I'm a whatever number that is less than 10. And this idea that he is more highly valued and that is going to become a problem because she is considered less valued in this romantic marketplace.
So it's just one of those things that like, as I was reading, I was like, I feel like we're really breaking down body stereotypes and expectations for women here, but are we doing the same for men or are we reinforcing the value of certain male beauty standards in this story?
Christina Fattore: I think there is a bit of it, but not as much, because Marcus is hiding a learning disability. And he calls this persona, the golden retriever, but he knows he's a pretty face and he knows that because of his kind of hyper-masculinity and this masculine idealness, he can control situations where people are just like, I hate saying in awe of him. But kind of like I'll follow this guy. He's exactly who I want to be. So there is the discussion of, I love the idea of the golden retriever, right? The shiny happy man, but because he spends so much of his energy hiding this learning disability, I think that he's presented as not perfect, there is a flaw. In political science we talk about how studying gender isn't just adding women as a variable. I think we can talk about it in relation to books and it's a totally fair criticism of, okay, April still conventionally pretty right. And she's just fat. Is that enough?
Marcus is gorgeous and he's this Hollywood star, but he needs to listen to an audio version of a book in order to read it, in order to process it. Is that just changing one thing or adding one variable to the equation?
There's number of books that I've read over the past few years I'd say that really have shown that representation both on the male side and the female side. Marie Lipscomb writes these fantastic books about fat men and their partners. And I think it's just, number one, I think it's wonderful because when we talk about fat [00:36:00] representation, it shouldn't just be for women. It should be for everybody. Because that is really what's reinforcing it. And that's what we're talking about. There is some really great fat rep out there, but again, is it add an ingredient and stir. Like, is that enough?
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And I think that essentially we're talking about like intersectionality, right? It's like that bodies are not just size that there are all these other elements and if representation is just one thing, you're allowed one imperfection, like you can have one flaw. It's like you go into your job interview. You have to admit to at least one fault. So you choose one, you don't lay out like every single thing that could make you like undesirable for this position. Or could create challenges for you in this position.
If the narrative focuses exclusively on like the one, you can have one flaw and God forbid that, in the hegemonic beauty standards when thinking about sort of intersectionality you are a fat Black woman who is socioeconomically less privileged. Is that too much? Can we not handle that as a romance community? Are editors who are acquiring these stories, and I don't want to just talk about like romance novels, cause I think this really extends to all romantic narratives, like writing a script with a film or like creating a character in a TV show or casting actors, literal people in visual representations of these fictional stories. Even advertisements, usually there is like a narrative to an advertisement. And so if the casting of literal people, it's okay, great. We're going to do the Dove ad and we've got our Asian woman, we've got our size, whatever. We've got some stretch marks, that in itself becomes problematic as well, it becomes like a checklist.
Christina Fattore: You're that person. Perfect. I have been paying a little more attention to this as I read, because books that I really enjoy, like Olivia Dade or Talia Hibbert the depth is there.
The depth is there.
What are my choices? What kind of book would be either sold or self-published? Who would write the story? We think about, feminism and romance, and I know you've had these conversations before. what is the limit?
What is allowable? What is palatable? How far can you go?
Andrea Martucci: You're talking about palatability. When you define a character by their otherness -their point of otherness, and they're only allowed one, becomes their entire essence. Like an ingenue character is allowed to be defined in this deep way. They have many characteristics that we talk about. Whereas if we define our characters by their otherness, we "allow" it but only if we distill them down into that otherness - we're buying into the same ideology, right. That, that is other.
Christina Fattore: Yeah. And I struggle in talking about this regarding romantic novels. But if you think about [00:39:00] movies and you think about TV shows, it comes down to, what's going to sell, what's going to sell, what will people watch? Is the investment worth it.
And so I think about how many shows , we have more representation today than we ever have. But we also are being told the same story. So for instance Shrill. I love Aidy Bryant, but I also, I look at Aidy and she's probably, she's probably taller than me. Everyone is taller than me. I'm five one.
But like her body shape is very much like mine. And so you're large on top with those fun, short legs. And so that is not the typical traditionally accepted fat body type. But at the same time we're accepting of it because it's Aidy and we know her from SNL and she's acceptable.
We're not looking at someone new. She's comfortable. We know her. And so when we think about comfort, right? I think that's one thing. When we talk about novels, when we talk about television shows, they're supposed to bring comfort. They're not supposed to disturb us.
They're not supposed to make us think deeper thoughts. They're supposed to be entertaining. And so when we think about female characters, and even the ingenue, right? Especially if the ingenue is defined by a man and written by a man, they're still stunted, right? We never get that depth because capitalist society tells us that you know, we can tolerate a little bit of change, but not a whole lot.
And the one thing the system doesn't want us to do is think critically, right? They don't want us to ask these questions. And so when we think about neoliberalism and we think about profit efficiency behind a profit. Retelling the same story, making characters that could have so much depth, so shallow, or only about one thing.
That's how they, that's how they control us. Get your tin hats out. But that's how, that's what society wants us to think.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. And the question of comfort is so complicated and definitely something that I find myself coming back to over and over again, and really mulling over because I think what we're talking about essentially is can you escape the ideology?
Can we convince ourselves that we're escaping the ideology, even though we're not really, we're just making an allowance that happens to allow us the power of the dominant culture? Do you know what I mean? If we're just allowing ourselves to be at the top of a hierarchy, we haven't broken the hierarchy, it's still there.
We're just saying no, no make room for me at the top, too.
And I think that like essentially comfort is in contradiction to those goals. Because comfortable narratives are ones that don't challenge our worldview, like you just said. And so if we want to challenge the dominant ideology around beauty [00:42:00] standards and bodies and all of that, we have to not only be aware of what we're consuming, what we think we are choosing to consume out of free choice and agency and really question, am I choosing this because it's comfortable and is it comfortable because it makes me feel better about my choices. And it's the easy choice within a system that wants this to be the easy choice for me.
Christina Fattore: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: And when we talk about capitalism I work in marketing and one of the things I have done in my career is I worked in direct marketing.
And that is basically what some people would call junk mail. And, And basically like the, one of the tenets of direct mail is how do you make it as easy as possible for somebody to make the choice you want them to make? So you do all of these things to guide people, to not only take action that you want them to take, but you incentivize them to make the choice that you want them to take.
It's not always like super insidious. I have like ethics when it comes to marketing. I truly believe that there is a way to do marketing where you're just helping the right people find the thing that they are looking for.
However, those same tactics, those same strategies can be used, they are used against us all day, every day. And I think that if we want to pretend like we're not being guided, that's, that's the problem. And I think that the more we as consumers of pop culture and romantic narratives if we hunker down into that, " I'm choosing this because I deserve it. And this makes me feel better. And if it makes me feel better then you can't criticize it. And there's absolutely nothing problematic about this," then we are, we are dupes. We are saying, I'm choosing this and therefore it's good. Instead of acknowledging that the choice is easy because of neoliberalism and capitalism and all of the ideologies that form our world.
Christina Fattore: I think there's number one, that whole discussion about choice reminded me of that scene in the Devil wears Prada or Miranda Priestly basically tells her, you chose that sweater because of a decision I made three years ago. And so I like, that's what I think about when we think about what we're consuming, like I, I can go on Netflix and decide between way too many choices or I can also recognize that someone made that choice for me a long time ago. And they're the ones who determine what my choices are.
I also think about the neo-liberalism behind authenticity because you have the idea of selling authenticity and convincing us that we are living our truly authentic lives.
It is it's mindblowing. I think when you think about how everything has been co-opted by the system it's just amazing. And I love the discussions that have come out of there, but like you said, [00:45:00] everything has problems, right? Everything has problems and you have to acknowledge it.
My husband and I watched two college football games yesterday, and I have a lot of problems with college football in general, but throw in a pandemic. And I have super problems with college football as I sit there and I watch it and I enjoy it.
And so we almost like numb ourselves to those problems, right? Like I'm not seeing 60,000 fans shouting at each other's faces and some of the lowest vaccinated states in our country. No, that's not what's going on TV right now. And so we numb ourselves, which is again, what the system wants,
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, if we believe that we are making these choices of our own free will we feel like we have autonomy.
Christina Fattore: Yeah. And it feels freeing. So there's always that approach. When we think about people and choices and democracy, what are we choosing? What is the point of all this? What is the point of consumerism?
Consumerism isn't about feeding the people what they want, but it's about making money, right? It's about making profit and selling people. Like, I love that that's the ethics of marketing right. Is are you truly giving people what they want and what they need, or are you making people go get interest loans for something that they probably don't need, but also can't afford.
And so what is your end game? What is the goal of capitalism and of neo-liberalism it's about making money?
So I wrote a novel and I queried some agents. And when I say I queried some agents, I think I queried like upwards of, as many as you can possibly think of, over 50 easily.
And I got some interest, but I never got an offer and that's fine. I'm okay with that. I'm okay with that. (pretends to cry) But what makes a story good in their eyes? Is it one they can sell or one that really touches them, and so I think a lot about, not the romantic marketplace in like choosing partners. But the capitalization of literature, whether we're talking about romance or horror, anything. When we talk about stories that need told right, when we talk about art.
Because that's really what we're talking about. We're talking about art. TV is art. Like I think there's so much more to art than what we think of, but again it makes me sad.
It makes me really sad. And I'm not just in relation to my own rejection, but again, if you're not seeking out like indie books and again, you have to spend the energy to seek those out because they're not being advertised in the same way that a traditionally published book would, what are we missing?
What is not in front of us right now that could be changing?
Andrea Martucci: I saw this tweet the other day that was talking about investing in infrastructure for trains and somebodies response was basically like, it would not be cost-effective, we'd never make any profit from [00:48:00] it, blah, blah, blah.
And the person's response was something like, oh, imagine doing something for the good of people, unrelated to profit.
And I think that, like that is essentially what we're talking about, is if literally every choice boils down to profit and loss and you never make a choice for the benefit and wellbeing of the human beings that are involved in, I hate to use the word transaction here, involved in that transaction. And this is why we don't have universal healthcare because how would the insurance - this is why we have the mangled system that we have with health insurance, where everybody's got to make a buck in it.
And it's not actually, how do we provide healthcare for people and compensate healthcare providers effectively so that they are not paying off student loans forever. And then that gets into the racket that is education as well. But, I digress. What if we made choices actually for the good of people and you can then bring that to pop culture where, you asked the question, the agent, was it because they thought they couldn't sell it.
Yes. It's because they thought they couldn't sell it. So first of all, their incentive is to sell something. They literally don't have a job if they can't sell the manuscripts. So therefore they are then dependent on this preconceived idea about what sells. And this reminds me of a tweet I myself put out into the Twitter verse fairly recently about this idea of like when publishers say something doesn't have a market, what they usually mean is either they have never acquired a thing like this. And so they have no sales data. They have acquired something that has some element in common with this, and they chalked up its lack of success to this one thing. Rightly or wrongly.
They only got one thing like it, and they're pinning all of it to this token representation of like, well, we tried a book with a fat character once and it didn't do well. And we're not gonna, we're not gonna pay attention to the fact that we didn't market that book effectively. We didn't put any budget behind it. That particular story maybe didn't resonate with people as well as another story with a fat character could. Blah, blah, blah. The list goes on.
So publishers have certain preconceived ideas about what consumers would purchase which then trickles back as feedback to agents, which then trickles back to authors, which then impacts what is created, what is produced in the marketplace.
And essentially, really what it comes down to is - and this is what you're often going to find more diversity in self pub work, is because the economics are different with self pub where a publisher making an investment, there's a lot of people that are getting paid along the way, and there's a whole infrastructure that has to get supported by this, which means that you have to sell something at a particular scale.
And so a story that has interest, but perhaps more niche interest, why would they do that? It's not going to make economic sense. And why would you publish it if it doesn't make economic sense, in this structure. Whereas an author doing self pub they can control the cost [00:51:00] of what they put into this.
And if they can find an audience, it could be worth it for them to write the story. But imagine if the arts were funded in such a way where - but honestly, it's hard to imagine. Are there any industries in America, can we even imagine anything?
Christina Fattore: I'm telling you about my utopian ideal? That's the thing about theory. That's the thing about all these different ideals. It makes no sense. When we think about the system we live in today and about the close relationship between innovation and capitalism: you want what sells. You're not, I that's the thing do you want to be a starving artist or do you want to make money in your lifetime?
And can you find a happy medium? And I think about this while you were talking about. I was thinking about how basically liberal arts is dying. I went to a liberal arts school. And so I can't imagine my education any different, but we're literally killing off these foundations by which we critique and question society.
Andrea Martucci: Thank you so much for being here today, Christina, this was a fascinating conversation. We could go on and on about this for hours, bringing in even more examples.
What projects are you currently working on that we can watch out for? And where can folks find you online?
Christina Fattore: Okay, well, you can definitely find me on Twitter. My handle is @cfattoreWVU. And I tweet about romance, I tweet about politics and I tweet about my kids and my cats. So come for whatever attracts you.
Project-wise I am working on a project right now, which I think will become a book-like manuscript on how romance and the idea of romance as feminist affects women's political behavior. And so I did a series of interviews with some women last fall that participated in a phone bank that was sponsored by a romance podcast.
And so I have an article that is under review relating to that. But I also think the idea of digging deeper into how important romance as feminism is to a reader as to an author and then analyzing like top reviewed books to see how representative they are.
And if they truly are a feminist and defining feminism in a way that can be quantified. That's where I see this book going. And so I'm really excited about it. I think I'm at a point in my career where I need something fun and a passion project.
Andrea Martucci: That sounds really fun. I'm looking forward to it.
Andrea Martucci: Hey, thanks so much for spending time with me today and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast app to get updates when new episodes are available. That's Shelf Love, two words. You can also sign up to get my free email newsletter, find recommendations and blog posts, and get transcripts for every single episode going back over a year at this point, all on my website, Shelf Love Podcast dot com. If you'd like to get in touch with me, you can email [00:54:00] me at Andrea at Shelf Love Podcast dot com.
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