As I mentioned earlier, I started a Book Club on Facebook.
I’m currently re-reading the work of Silvia Moreno-Garcia, including her debut novel Signal To Noise. The second paperback edition of the book came out in 2016, with a pretty cool new cover. In the corner, there was a blurb that compared the book to the popular Netflix horror series Stranger Things, which got me thinking.
I found this an interesting observation, and it rings true in some respects–Stranger Things is about being a child or teenager in the early 1980’s in suburban America, and Signal to Noise is a similar story about kids growing up in urban Mexico.
The book and the show cover some similar territory. Normal kids weather an encounter with the Weird, and are transformed by it. Similar exploration of their relationships with each other, peers outside their group of friends, and parents.
Signal to Noise has a smaller cast of characters, which is understandable. But I definitely saw some parallels, particularly the presence of the character I’d tag as Disposable Fat Girl. She’s the voice of self-care, common sense, or maturity in a lot of stories about young women growing up, but she’s never the protagonist or a romantic rival, and far too often she is fridged/butchered without much thought.
In Signal to Noise, Daniela is that character. She is not the sharpest knife in the drawer where magic or academia is concerned, but she has a wealth of emotional intelligence. And for a wonder, she is not thoughtlessly killed. The epilogue of the book finds her a successful wife and mother, who has made a career out of her impulse to nurture other people–she’s a cook. Recognizing the value of Daniela’s friendship in childhood is actually one of the signs of the protagonist’s growth as a human being:
“Well…” Meche said, grabbing her arm. “Thanks. I don’t think I ever said thanks to you.”
“For what?” Daniela asked.
She thought about all the times that Daniela had put up with her, showing kindness when Meche was a bundle of nerves and impatience. Smiling at her when Meche made a sour face. Listening patiently when Meche ranted. Meche had just accepted all this as fact, never questioning Daniela’s devotion.
Daniela smiled, drifting towards the other end of the room.
Comparing the role of Daniela in Signal to Noise with the role of Barbara Holland in Stranger Things is a grim exercise. Barbara is a very similar character in a similar role–the BFF of the female protagonist, a de-sexualized and underappreciated support system to a young woman coming of age and making choices about boyfriends etc.
But Barbara’s fate in Stranger Things is much, much darker than the life that SMG envisions for Daniela. She doesn’t get to step gracefully aside to make room for the drama between the romantic leads, letting them work out their problems as adults. Instead [spoiler!] she is brutally assigned to serve as the show’s only significant Monster Chow.
I didn’t like this aspect of Stranger Things, but it certainly felt “true” to me in some respects. This was definitely the fate that was assigned to me as a young woman in the America of the early 1980’s. The fact that I rejected the role and refused to be the weak, disposable sidekick of a more conventionally attractive girl definitely limited my social opportunities in junior high and high school. Sometimes if you refuse to be a wingman, you don’t get invited to the airshow at all.
I don’t particularly see myself as Daniela OR Barbara in reality, but I feel a sense of truth to these depictions because I recognize that this is the way the world WANTS to see me… and the way people want me to see myself. A fat girl or woman is a comfort doll, a supportive and unthreatening doormat, a ritual sacrifice, etc.–but she’s never a romantic protagonist, a hero, a sex object. In other words, she’s not a valid human being or a complete woman with all the dimensions that a female protagonist in fiction should expect to have.
When you reject the few limiting positive tropes for plush female bodies, the only other roles that are really common in horror are the Scary Fat Ladies that you see in Stephen King, Clive Barker and their imitators. Essentially, the message that the genre delivers to plus-sized women and girls is “YOU WILL BAKE ME COOKIES AND GIVE ME HUGS OR YOU WILL BECOME THE MOTHER OF ABOMINATIONS IN MY STORY”.
Speaking for myself–gonna pass on both options, and see what’s behind Door Number Three.
At any rate–these are just a few random thoughts about minor characters in two works of art that were linked by the marketing department. Signal to Noise is a rich novel that opens a lot of subjects for reflection, and I’m engaging with all of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s work this month. I would recommend that all of you do the same.