Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Blue Shoes and Fat Prejudice

Like many people, I fell in love with Alexander McCall Smith's vision of Botswana in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It's been a privilege hanging out with Mma Precious Ramotswe, her mechanic husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, her feisty assistant Grace Makutsi, and assorted apprentices, orphans, and friends; drinking bush tea; making comments on the passing scene; and reminiscing about Mma Ramotswe's late Daddy, Obed (a good man and a fine judge of cattle). I've never been especially interested in visiting Africa, but Botswana sounds like a nice place to be.

Frankly, detection has never been the focus of this series, although the first couple of books are stronger in that respect. Inasmuch as any detectiving goes on, however, it is focused not on law but on justice and social harmony, what Smith refers to as "the old Botswana morality." Even without actively pursuing leads or questioning witnesses, Mma Ramotswe manages to apply her vast knowledge of human nature and common sense to bring problems to a resolution that offers satisfaction to all parties.

But after awhile, even the pleasures the books afford begin to grow a little thin and shopworn, particularly when there's no framework of plot to hang them on. For example, even if Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni doesn't care to reveal his names to the world, surely his wife doesn't have to address him as Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni every time she speaks to him (nor does he ever call her anything but Mma Ramotswe. Thank goodness at least Mma Makutsi calls her fiance by his first name). Speaking of Mma Makutsi, the author has switched from poking a little fun at how fiercely she insists on her score of 97 percent at the Botswana Secretarial College to insisting on it himself. Learning that Mma Makutsi signs her reports "Dip. Sec. (97 percent)" is funny; hearing Mma Ramotswe think of her as "Madam Ninety-Seven Percent" is stupid and unnecessary. And while it's a touching tribute that Obed Ramotswe was a fine man and a good judge of cattle and Precious thinks of him every day, I do not need to be told so FOUR TIMES in the same book.

The latest paperback in the series, Blue Shoes and Happiness, is the sketchiest yet in terms of both investigation and satisfactory outcomes. Mma Ramotswe starts off looking into a fraud in which the head cook of a government university is stealing food and soon learns of a blackmail plot. She successfully routs the blackmailer, but the old Precious would have made sure to stop the theft as well, not to mention informing her initial client and the blackmail victim that their cases were solved. She learns that the uneasiness at a nearby wildlife preserve has been caused by the presence of a wounded hornbill (she finds out from a cousin, although she later says that she learned it from somebody else, just one of many, many examples of sloppy continuity). However, before she can take action (for no important or plausible reason), her sad-sack employee Mr. Polopetsi (introduced in In the Company of Cheerful Ladies when she ran over him) abducts the bird and accidentally kills it. And she twice makes a resolution to speak to Mr. Polopetsi's uncle and straighten out their family situation without ever taking the slightest effort to do so. (She does effectively solve a complaint of medical wrong-doing, although her client tells such an unnecessarily long and overly complicated story that I really didn't know what the problem was.)

But none of this is what really upsets me. One of the things I have most enjoyed about the series is that while Mma Ramotswe is fat ("traditionally built," as she so famously puts it), she is depicted as an attractive, confident woman. In the first book, there are not one but two men who want to marry her. (I never understood why she picked Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, since she clearly wasn't that into him at the start of the book, but that's another story.) If Smith made the occasional gentle joke about her size, or her denial, it was in keeping with the spirit of the story, and I didn't mind.

In Cheerful Ladies and to a much greater extent Blue Shoes, however, all that has changed. Everyone from a client to a suspect to her husband feels free to make jokes or outright chastise Mma Ramotswe about her weight. That's just rude, and I want it to stop. (Nor do I believe that Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni would ever say any such thing.) As my little PSA for the day, I will say: being fat does not give you high blood pressure and losing weight will not necessarily cause you to stop having it. Eat your fruits and veggies, watch your sodium, and exercise a little.

How traditionally built is Mma Ramotswe? In one of the earlier books, we learn that she wears a size 22 dress, which would make her perhaps up to 250 pounds. That's large, certainly, but it's not large enough to break the springs in her tiny white van or the furniture at Zebra Drive, or to crush a man hiding under the bed. That kind of cheap and obvious fat joke makes it clear that like so many thin people, Smith knows nothing about what various weights are really like. This kind of writing perpetuates nasty, untrue stereotypes about people like Precious, of whom I happen to be one.

On her behalf and my own, I bitterly resent it.

And did I mention that Obed Ramotswe was a fine man and a good judge of cattle, and Mma Ramotswe thinks of him every day?

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