Sex and Power Control in
Raewyn Alexander’s Fat
R. K. SINGH
of Mines, Dhanbad
Raewyn Alexander is a remarkable New
Zealand writer. A
poet, publisher, editor, novelist, an actor, Raewyn, with the publication of
her first novel Fat (1996), makes a path breaking entry into New
Zealand’s literary world of fiction. With her, emerges a new paradigm of
women's writing, which is not anti-male, but probably indirectly pities men.
Prior to her, no novelist has dealt with the issues related to both sex and
drug industry, the life of men under surveillance, and woman “living off the
earnings of a prostitute” (Alexander 1996: 52) with so much of boldness. Fat
reveals the unexplored life in a red light district of Auckland, New Zealand.
Raewyn, through her sharp vision, memory and senses, perhaps with a feigned
tribulation, brings into focus something real, to expose “a world New Zealand
keeps quiet about” (p. 51).
Raewyn Alexander structures several strands of the fiction about women
and men in the sex industry and its sub-culture that evoke a universal
condition through their particularity. (Singh 1998)
sequence to Raewyn’s work further light has been thrown on the industry of sex
and the life of “happy hookers,” in Being and Being Bought (2013) by
Kajsa Ekis Ekman (Croft 2014). Apart from this, there are few other novels
where girl power is taking on a whole new meaning in the reading world. That is
to say, Raewyn Alexander has made way for subjects which are otherwise kept in
darkness and hence, she may be called as a transitional author. The journey of Fat’s
protagonist from Candy to Poppy, which is revealed through first person
narration peel every layer of this hidden world of sex and power control. With
an excellent sense of objectivity and audacity, Raewyn peeps into the psyche of
women who are working as hookers, and into the psyche of men as their clients.
We encounter women who are “supposed to be confused...” (Alexander 1996: 113)
and who are “waiting, simmering, turning.” (p. 38), to open up. Fat
paints a new silhouette of women, releasing them from the patriarchal grip.
Poppy left Avondale for completing her degree, but enters the industry of sex
as she does not want to go back into the “desert life in Auckland” (p. 49). Her
entry to this world of sex, exposes the precarious life of women in leather
high heels, their freedom and fear, luxury and austerity, security and danger,
and affection and affinity. We meet women who are not only in control of their
own body but of everything that was earlier under the control of men. Through
Poppy, we see the world of porn parties organized by Sir Arthur, involvement of
the government officials, bureaucrats in the business of sex and drug industry,
the way pimps and drug peddlers work, the insight of the sex workers, the
estimation of men and her understanding of fellow sex workers. Through
nicknames, which are based on the client's activities on and off bed, she
ridicules the men of civilized society.
Drug Industry and Politics
novel is significant for yet another reason. She has taken a walk around the
Auckland's red light area and drug industry, when sex industry in New Zealand
was illegal and forbidden. Even after the publication of Fat most of the
novels written, for instance, LaidBare (2008), Naked Truth
(2012) by Rachel Francis, are based on story were women have
history, addictions, bills to pay, or a situation to come out off. There are
very few books out there written with a protagonist who has empowered herself
through prostitution, who has been an assistant to a hooker, worked with
bureaucrats, big businessmen, lawyers, doctors, judges, and yet has not had a
conviction, drug addiction or gang affliction or anything else society suspects
about a working lady, which in itself defines the uniqueness of Fat.
Contrary to prevalent and narrow stereotypes of young, drug addicted
prostitutes, most studies of sex workers comment on the diversity of those
working within the industry.
Moreover, in New Zealand very little research has
been conducted regarding drug use amongst sex workers, the client of sex
workers and the way whole set up of the sex industry is controlled and handled
(“Ministry of Justice” 2005). This study intends to investigate all that has
not been done before, in terms of sex and drug industry, the psyche of hookers
and their clients and the reason why women are willingly participating in this
world of sex, as viewed by Raewyn Alexander. Her novel is also about choosing
one’s identity, embracing one's inner strength, and do what to do, no matter
what others may think or say. Even if Fat is about women in sex industry
it is remarkable as they stay true to their conviction. Unlike the earlier
novelists dealing with the subject the characters of Fat, or for that
matter the novelist herself, do not have any moral qualms about what they do or
Fat delves into women's psyche,
explores their sexual power and demonstrates their ability to control. It
begins with the description of the Sex industry and the ways women enslave men.
At the same time, it brings to notice the dubious and precarious life of
people, especially of those attached to this industry of Sex. From outside,
furnished and embellished with glitters, bright colors, flowers and “neon sun”
(Alexander 1996: 27) on the roof, it has a dark world inside, that “New Zealand
keeps quiet about” (p. 51). This world of Sex Industry is “...like an overripe
mango. You know, when the fruit looks firm, the skin tight, the colour strong, then
you pick it up and your fingers sink in and a rotten smell comes out” (p. 9).
Similar is this world of body. The novel exposes the bitter truth of the
industry where the prostitutes are thought as “a fruit cut for eating...” (p.
52). However, it is just one side of the coin, which brings forward the point
of view of the society, the customers and the illusions they remain in, where
they think that prostitutes are
undignified. “He” (Arthur) “... didn’t say lady, but then he wouldn’t, because
Iris was a whore through and through... just that Irish wasn’t one, therefore
wasn’t one either” (p. 12). While the other end comes with mockery and irony
and it tells us the story from a women’s point of view working in the world of
sex and drugs. It comes with a satire on the high class society and
politicians, enclosed with light humor where story moves with the moment.
The novel, through first person narration of Poppy,
reveals everything and everyone. Poppy, an expert on facades, is the
protagonist of Fat who begins her journey as waitress, enters into the
drug industry, packs wedding dresses, entertains tourists, sells dildos and
ends up as a hooker, Iris’s assistant. In this journey she meets many people
and lives many lives. She stands for all those new post-modern women, who
enters this industry not out of pressure, violence, or economic reasons but out
of boredom. As she herself says, “... I wouldn’t be back.... I hadn’t forgotten
the desert life in Auckland, and how hard it was to have fun” (Alexander 1996: 49).
About her job, where she lives off the earnings of a prostitute she admits, “My
life is interesting... I take a day and shape it according to my wishes” (p.
Poppy’s transformation from a university student to
one counting condoms re-defines this industry of sex and the workers. In real
life, the sex industry is said to be pretty murky world. Prostitution is
therefore marginalized in most of the countries, either illegal or on the
fringes of what is legal and what's forbidden. But for Raewyn’s heroine,
prostitution was a ticket to the world. It empowered and liberated her. She
goes with the flow and ends up juggling her life as a successful businesswoman
with a career pleasing and controlling rich and powerful men. A new pattern has
emerged: now hooker stories are about young women making choices that empower.
It's true that prostitution has a dark and seedy aspect, but perhaps it's best
looked at as a spectrum in this novel, rather than a single thing that can be
Good or Bad.
The first person we are introduced
in Fat is Sir Arthur, owner of factories, land and horses. In
Iris’s word “an overflowing cup” (Alexander 1996: 16). Through the character of
Mr. Arthur we are introduced to the world of porn parties, the drug industry,
tricky attitude of women and their presentation as an “object” of entertainment
and of course how sex is being used as a tool to tame men. His parties extended
across the reserved country life. Blue films and snuff videos from South
America covered the big screens. It sells sex. It has girls to entertain males
by their performances and curves.
Next, we meet Iris, a woman with “more attitude and
less personality” (Alexander 1996: 10), who fell pregnant to Arthur for
security and later sold as fresh for
years by Ho. Various shades of modernization and commercialization are seen
through the character of Irish. She knows well, how to flatter and handle her
She’s creamy, voluptuous marshmallow. It’s obvious she does something
dodgy, I think. So few woman look as confident as she does. When she sulks, a
real two-year-old’s pout, she crosses her arms and sinks into her chins, her
breasts almost up to her face, she’s a courtesan opera star. (Alexander 1996:
it is Ho “Auckland’s most notorious madam,” who is the real controller and the one who keeps her
work and people attached to it well hidden. Her staffs enter from the back
door. The house has a brass plaque carved with “LANDSCAPE CONSULTANTS. By
appointment only” (Alexander 1996: 57). She serves the money men. The customers
who have been visiting Ho for years, feels like home at Ho’s place, because of
the environment mixed with fantasy and mess. However, her entry to this world
also brings a new side of this profession. Her access to this world of Sex and Prostitution
itself re-defines and lay bare the transmutation the industry is getting
through. It proves the point that it's
not the people who are impoverished or underprivileged enters to the world of
body. Daughter of the Harbour Board Chairman, Sir Horace McLaughton, Ho was not
intended to be a street girl. “Procuring women wasn’t something she did
knowingly, the first time.” As accepted by Ho herself in presence of Poppy,
One of their bigwigs asked me to make a party of girls up to go out for
the evening with the officers. There were all these old school friends of mine,
all from good families. We dressed up and spent the night quite wild, some of
us. When I got home I found an envelope on my table, from the captain. He
thought I was a woman of that type, you see. Word got around the South Pacific,
about this woman who could find company, and, well Poppy, the phone's not
stopped ringing since. (Alexander 1996: 107)
Other important characters are Gary, who has been
Irish's boyfriend for some time, and is later murdered, Henry, with whom Poppy
has an affair and a child (Carson) and Harold, the caretaker of Sir Arthur.
Poppy has made money by selling drug for Henry and Tama, though later Henry
ends up in jail for selling drug to an undercover cop. Then we meet Rachel in a
Chelsea Cafe. It is Rachel who introduced Poppy to Irish and Ho as an “asset”
(Alexander 1996: 51) and to the “business of sex,” and the exploration of the
sex industry, and all sort of organized crimes, control begins from here
Sex is a domain of life,
theory and research, particularly in the case of female sexuality, constantly
torn between danger and joyance, between objectification and empowerment.
Social, gender and erotic justice have been de-constructed. In Fat we
see a complete set up of sex industry. From entry of the workers to the
clients, all are shown in a systematic way, every little step is organized,
monitored and controlled by women. After all the “body loves routine....”
(p.57). We see group of three stakeholders in this industry: those who produce a sex industry products
(adult entertainment retailers, brothel owners, sex workers, porn parties
organizers, strip club owners), those who consume a sex industry service
(consenting adults), and those who regulate the sex industry (government and
high officials). We see Poppy being interviewed before her entry to sex
industry, Ho has collected every details of her and asked for her CV and
passport. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a diversity of discourses
on sexuality in the fields of criminal justice and social work emerged. This
occurred as sex become increasingly an object of administration and management
through government inquiry as well as a tool to control and procure. In the
novel we have plenty of instances where this power of body and its language has
been used by women. Men are flattered and lied and laughed at. The girls at
work are always protected, the activity of sex inside the “velvet rooms” is
always under surveillance. Fire extinguishers and cans of mace are kept under
the bed to hit a trouble making man.
There’s a quick control in fear. Our clients know I’m always in the
flat somewhere, anytime they start to grow fangs or they discover a carving
knife in their briefcase, I’m in the room... turning into a werewolf.
(Alexander 1996: 114)
That is to
say, men are under the authority and empire of women’s world, where they have
to follow the rules as prescribed by women. To quote, “... We pretend we’re
silly girls but we're Medusa monsters and we turn men to stone...” (Alexander
1996: 53). It is in fact Poppy's job to listen out the clients, their desire
for sex, monitor the client’s sex sessions on the screen, and tape their talks-
it is important for every client to speak about themselves, their real identity
before seeing Iris. Men have to follow each and every rule.
If they don’t stop, I make them stop and we don’t see them again. We
may send their description around town. The fear of discovery stops them,
usually. (Alexander 1996: 114)
we see various tricks through which women befool men. Clothes fool people.
“I’ve approached the clients in the street. With my hair down, no glasses and
my severe suit cut to show my waist... I test them.” (Alexander 1996: 112).
Outside the rooms too the hookers are protected. Some defense moves have been
taught to them. To quote Poppy:
One of the snotty young men Iris was dealing with put his hand up my
dress one day while we were waiting in a basement for the others. I had his
fingers bent back and my knee in his face fast. Rachel's bouncer/ minder had
taught me some defence moves. Hercules had muscles and training, he would've
laughed to see the smart-arse restaurateur groaning. (Alexander 1996: 68)
“queer” itself defines the strangeness of this sleazy world, where the body is
at the centre of everything and sex and sexuality are both rhetorical aspects
of communication and power. So it is not just sex and action but also the
language that is used to communicate their action and need. Irish deops cheesy
hints to get what she wants.
Oh, I just adore a liqueur after dinner but who can afford it... Oh,
not a present for me, how fabulous. Look Poppeee, a marvelous bottle of brandy
from dear Poopsie... if i eat choccolate you know I’ll do all sorts of naughty
thins, aphrodisiac... oh look, Poppeee, a sumptuous box of... (Alexander 1996:
apart from this world of women power, we visualize a different world as well
where, people giggle on the death of a woman, a world where women are auctioned
and men “buy their kids plastic guns and laugh when little Kevin is caught
throwing some girl down for kiss, all good fun and just the way it should be”
(Alexander 1996: 103).
In terms of Queer theory, the physical body becomes
the sight of meaning, that is the meaning that you are communicating is
communicated through the body and the language that is used to present the body
or the act of physicality. It’s often
said that sex or, more precisely, a woman’s ability to grant or neglect it is
the source of a woman’s power over men. And we see this power in hands of all
these sex- workers. Moreover, so far, we have looked at various concerns
regarding the wrongness involved in objectification. A number of thinkers,
however, have challenged the idea that objectification is always morally
problematic. Alan Soble questions the widely held Kantian view
according to which human dignity is something that people have. He argues that
objectification is not inappropriate. He writes:
The claim that we should treat people as ‘persons’ and not dehumanize
them is to reify, is to anthropomorphize humans and consider them more than
they are. Do not treat people as objects, we are told. Why not? Because, goes
the answer, people qua persons deserve not to be treated as objects. What a
nice bit of illusory chauvinism. People are not as grand as we make them out to
be, would like them to be, or hope them to be. (Papadaki 2010)
order to analyze the sexuality of consumerized society, we need to understand
how consumer capitalism operates in the market. Queer theory is gendered in
consumerism and capitalism. Body is expressed in terms of language or emotive.
To quote Poppy:
Some customers told variations according to who they were dinning with,
some embroidered a little extra with each drink. (Alexander 1996: 31)
commercialization of sex and drugs is probably one of media's most striking
attributes. Of all these forms of new media, the internet is considered as the
most addictive medium. The commercialization has always thrived on women's
bodies, from skimpy clad cocktail waitress to the iconic images of show girls.
Before this era of ultra modernization women and sex have always been shown as
something violating, raw and angry. Although money is often the driving force,
sex workers do not emphasize only the financial returns of prostitution.
Interviews with women in the sex industry have revealed, for instance, that
some have left well-paid jobs to work in the sex industry because it brought
other benefits. Amongst those cited have been the relative freedom to work
their own hours; the overall autonomy and independence they experience on the
job; greater flexibility of hours to accommodate child care or study
responsibilities; and the high levels of companionship they experience in their
relationship with other workers. Some also mentioned the advantages of being in
a position where they feel they have control over men, as opposed of being in a
position where sexual harassment is a part of the terrain (“Ministry of
Justice”). So for many, this world is not only for money, but for the freedom.
“My various jobs before I met Rachel and Iris, didn’t stretch me at all. They
were tedious and depressing” (Alexander 1996: 82)
Moreover, for many the nature of sex work promotes the
development of dissociative mechanisms designed to assist sex workers’ survival
within the industry. Learning how to “switch off” while engaging in sexual
practices with a client is a trait which enables the worker to distance herself
from the sexual acts being performed by mentally removing herself from the
situation. That is when she is touched, she just feels like a piece of meat.
I guess we get conditioned...
We get these imposed ideas all the time, at school, from TV, and we stop
following our instincts and do so we’re told. So, soon we have no real
reactions or feelings except for what we’ve been told. Operating in a void,
robotic... (Alexander 1996: 46).
So, it is not the woman, but just the body with whom
the client is having sex. And with this body she slaves men. “Dominica takes
her slave to the leather club...She has a man in a hood chained to her wrist.
He crouches at her knee like a runner waiting when Dom's still, follows her
walking. The slave fetches her drinks, cigarettes and chair. He does all this
silently. There's a zip over his mouth, on the hood... Dom’s a dominatrix in a
dungeon, she spanks people for money, ties them up” (Alexander 1996: 96).
the most vexing and contentious issues regarding sex work relates to issues of
power and control. It is a difficult quandary trying to ascertain the degree of
control any worker can have in a situation where the client is paying money to
procure services that are potentially so invasive of another person’s body and
space. The emphasis on prostitution as work is one which many sex workers
emphasize in order to encounter depictions of them as deviants, sinners or
sexual slaves. To quote Poppy:
Outside my circle, I’m stared
at or ignored. The world gets further and further away until it’s a TV show I
haven’t seen and often don’t want to watch, but given time I’d fit in. The ones
at the top, or who think they're king of the castle, are the most untouchable.
Living with the illusion the world’s got barely enough for them and pushing
people away unless they’re crown polishers, makes rulers into armadillos.
(Alexander 1996: 95)
in Fat has been presented as an organized work relation in ways it is
not markedly different from how other kinds of women’s jobs are organized,
particularly those of working class women.
To survive in the business and to flourish it, they
blatantly use their sexuality as power. Moreover, they become skilled in the
manipulation of masculine power. Female prostitution has become a situation,
within the society where women have more power over men and sexual interactions
than in any other circumstances involving both sex interacting. The novel
chronicles the life of Poppy in different shades, and the way sex has been used
by other workers including Dominica, Rachel, Celine, Athena, Billie, Kitten,
Penia, Katy, Cheryl and Tamara. It represents and redefines the industry of sex
from both the sides, that is from the point of commercialization and violence,
freedom and anxiety, power and fear, protection and murder. It is a profession
which is ignored “I think he’d (Poppy’s dad) be ashamed of me if he knew what I
did and then I’d despise him” (Alexander 1996: 114), spat on and judged by the
very people who seek its services; a profession that many women , including
Poppy herself, entered into by choice and one that she is neither ashamed of or
embarrassed about. Rather, it is their body that provides the basic of their
identity and profit. The work does not define morality. It is neither
supporting sex-workers nor is negating the wide developing sex industries
throughout the world. It is only presenting the world of sex industry as it has
Alexander, R. 1996. Fat.
Auckland, N.Z.: Penguin.
Croft, J. 2014. Being and
being bought, by Kajsa Ekis Ekman. 11 May 2014.
Francis, R. 2008. Laid Bare.
11 May 2014. New Zealand: Penguin Books New Zealand.
——. & Larsen, M. 2012. Naked
Truth: Lifting the Lid on the New Zealand Sex Industry. New Zealand:
Penguin Books New Zealand.
Ministry of Justice, New
Zealand. Ministry of Justice - Tāhū O Te Ture 12 May 2014.
——. 2005. The sex industry in New Zealand: A
literature review. 11 May 2014. Available online:
Papadaki, E. 2010. Feminist
perspectives on objectification.Available
online: 12 May 2014.
Singh, R. K. 1998. New
Zealand Literature: Some Recent Trends. New Delhi: Bahri Publications.
M. Phil (English),
Dept of Humanities &
Indian School of Mines,
R. K. Singh
Dept of Humanities &
Indian School of Mines,
Published in CREATIVE FORUM, Vol. 27, No.1, Jan.-Jun 2014, pp. 17-28