Culture  A Queer Slice of Life

A Review of Kat Verhoeven's Meat and Bone

Originally published as a webcomic, cartoonist Kat Verhoeven’s book Meat and Bone beautifully weaves together the social and personal lives of three women, highlighting their struggles, and personal growth. Verhoeven’s praiseworthy use of colour and light transitions the reader from one familiar Toronto backdrop to another, carrying them through dreamlike scenes and personal fantasies, and captivates them at critical moments of clarity and urgency.

Meat and Bone is a queer drama that follows Anne, a young writer who struggles with an eating disorder, and her growth alongside her friends Gwen and Jane. The story begins with Jane, a fellow writer and close friend from university, moving in with Anne and Gwen after spending two years in Switzerland and breaking up with her partner. Gwen quickly moves on from her ex-boyfriend, and begins to explore polyamory. The three women, all having recently broken up with their lovers, decide that this is a chance for a fresh start.

Gwen is still on amicable terms with her ex, Lawrence, and communicates openly with him about her new relationships and endeavours. However, she soon realizes that communication is lacking between herself and one of her partners, and must address her own dishonesty. Unfortunately, her dishonesty comes with messy consequences – consequences that she does not deserve, but must handle with maturity to move forward. In her exploration of polyamorous relationships, Gwen learns about herself, her needs as well as others’, and the importance of open communication in a polyamorous relationship.

Verhoeven’s illustration and narration of Gwen’s character development is refreshing; representations of healthy polyamorous relationships are rare, and often overly sexualize and sensationalize these relationships. While Verhoeven doesn’t shy away from depicting sex or a messy storyline, she gives Gwen opportunities to explore her own boundaries, as well as recognize and respect the boundaries and needs of her partners.

As Jane adjusts to life back in Toronto, she searches for employment, writes, and cares for her friends, but rarely shares her own troubles. Jane is nurturing, warm, and compassionate, and works through her own problems independently. She begins to go to the gym, encouraging Anne to do so as well; however, Jane and Anne differ in what they hope to achieve by exercising. Jane initially signs up at the gym to become “revenge skinny,” in order to spite her infidelitous and fatphobic ex-boyfriend, but soon realizes her goal is to build strength, both physically and emotionally. She develops self-confidence and self-love that Anne admires yet fears. As Anne reminisces about once having lost weight, she moans to Jane, “You remember how it felt, don’t you? The compliments. The attention.” Jane responds calmly, “and I wasn’t any happier. I don’t want it. I want to be strong.”

Jane asserts, “I’m fat. I have always been fat. It wasn’t news.”

A recurring entity that Anne fantasizes about throughout the novel is one of Barbarella – a fictional character played by Jane Fonda from the nominal film, about an astronaut from the 41st century. Barbarella is Anne’s model of ideal beauty, a symbol of sexual liberation, and her obsession; in incorporating the Barbie-esque character into Anne’s imagination, Verhoeven touches on the ways in which the media upholds unhealthy and fatphobic beauty standards. In an interview with Them, she connects Anne’s idol to Jane Fonda, who spoke openly about her experiences with an eating disorder and, quite problematically, her struggles to maintain her image as a “sex icon” in the 60s.

Then Anne meets Marshall. “Wow. Is she real?” As she sees Marshall for the first time, smoking a cigarette on her balcony one floor below, her hair billowing around her, “Could I date a girl that thin?” Anne ponders.

Marshall is a trans woman and model/actress struggling with an eating disorder and meeting cisnormative standards of beauty. Throughout the novel, she is portrayed as something of a “bad influence” on Anne, and Jane scrutinizes their relationship almost immediately. Marshall encourages Anne to take up a stricter diet, exercise, enforce self-discipline, and provides her with weight-loss drugs, all the while making critical comments about Anne’s “will-power” when it comes to food. Anne is enraptured by her, and they develop a dangerous co-dependent relationship. One day, while on a run together, Marshall stops to catch her breath and makes a pointed comment: “I know what you’re thinking… you want to save me.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Anne responds, “I want to be you.”

In many ways, Marshall, in Anne’s mind, is Barbarella. To Anne, Barbarella is seen as “perfect” in every way, embodying the Eurocentric ideal of beauty: blonde hair, skinny but curvy, strong, and able-bodied. In some ways, Marshall-as-Barbarella is reminiscent of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope. However, in Anne’s fantasies, Barbarella is immortal – she cannot speak, does not have feelings, and only exists for consumption. Marshall disrupts that ideal; as Verhoeven notes, Marshall is not a distant, fictional character or an object of fantasy that solely exists in Anne’s imagination but a human being with her own agency. She has moments of weakness, and though her true emotions are heavily guarded, in brief and tender moments between her an Anne we are offered a glimpse of her true nature.

Marshall is a complicated character, despite how quick the reader may be to antagonize her; she is defensive, distant, and deeply hurt, essentially human and flawed. Marshall’s relationship with Anne is unhealthy and rooted in trauma, no doubt, but their care and affinities for one another are deep. Their relationship, while platonic, sometimes hints at the potential of something romantic between them – Anne’s attraction to Marshall, however complicated her reasons, is undeniable, particularly in the brief moments they exchange affection. “Somehow she says the right things,” Anne thinks to herself after Marshall embraces her, “When she does this kind of thing, is she flirting? Is Marshall into girls?”

Anne’s uncertainty and angst likely resonates deeply with many queer women. “I’m so confused,” Anne confesses to her sibling, “she’ll hold my hand or hug me too tight. Then says stuff like – designed to be read as platonic. Then she’ll turn around and call me babe!”

Verhoeven’s captivating and gorgeous storytelling, as well as her unwavering representation of flawed, complex, and difficult characters, unabashedly address eating disorders, polyamory, and queer love in a powerfully relatable and accessible way. Ultimately, Meat and Bone shines light on the complexity of human emotions and on the sorrow and joy of difficult relationships. As we follow the trials and tribulations of Anne, Marshall, Jane, and Gwen, among many of Verhoeven’s other unique characters, we watch them struggle with self-image, confidence, and interpersonal strife, and we watch them grow and mature. Verhoeven is unafraid of exploring complicated and tumultuous friendships, and of depicting relationships that are messy and uncertain – trajectories very much like many of our relationships in real life.

Kat Verhoeven is an illustrator and cartoonist based in Toronto. For more of her work, visit her website http://verwho.com/about.php or follow her on Twitter and Instagram @verwho