In Rufi Thorpe’s novel The Knockout Queen, two high schoolers from undeniably opposing social and economic backgrounds share a fence and foster a powerful friendship. The nature of their relationship is chaotic and deep, having each survived the nightmare of ostracization at a young age. When the rest of the world casts them out, they seek love from each other, but they each learn that to rely on one person is dangerous. Bunny Lampert skyrockets past her peers during her developmental years, getting so tall that her father enlists medical advice, while Michael learns how to hide behind thick mascara and long hair. Like everybody else, they both ache to be loved and to be beautiful, all the while working against uncontrollable forces. Thorpe tackles delicate issues of teenage social exclusion, unwelcoming family homes, and body dysmorphia with characters who live on in our thoughts long after you put down her book, and leaves readers questioning the moral relativism of the social and legal world.
The Rumpus: What was the inspiration for the characters in The Knockout Queen?
Rufi Thorpe: Bunny Lampert is a character who has been kicking around in my head for at least ten years. I wrote a shelved novel about her titled Bunny Lampert before I ever finished The Girls from Corona Del Mar. She was different; she was not exactly the same character by any means, but she has always been big, and she has always been an athlete. In terms of where she came from, I guess that in some sense she is a fantasy. I was really tall when I was a child and then I stopped growing entirely when I was ten. So, at ten, I was a full-grown woman size and all the other kids were child-sized. I thought that I was going to be a giantess, and I was ready for it; I was even excited for it. And then it didn’t materialize, and now I’m kind of short. I also think that one of the big scary moments of reckoning with my own gender was understanding through my twenties that men were a lot more physically strong than I was. I theoretically knew that, but I still didn’t really understand that even the weakest man was stronger than me. Understanding the extent to which we are always physically at their mercy. It’s a fantasy to not be.
Rumpus: That’s interesting that you say you were excited to be a giantess because in your novel, Bunny is ashamed of it or convinced by her peers and family that she should be ashamed of her height.
Thorpe: For sure, I think that if I had stayed tall through junior high it might have been an entirely different story. When I was ten, kids were barely figuring out how to be effectively mean to each other. I think that a lot of that worrying about not fitting in, especially in terms of your gender, is more of a puberty thing. Also, it was different because both of my parents were very short, so it would have been a miracle or some sign of my specialness. Whereas, for Bunny it’s not totally insane that she’s tall.
Rumpus: Speaking of the female body, now that it is less taboo, body image issues are becoming easier and easier to talk about. But even though that might be true, the discussion doesn’t always allow for much variety. Particular as females, the language around body image issues is very black and white. Do you think the difficulties Bunny faces in regard to her height fit in with the larger discussion about body image and eating disorders?
Thorpe: I never got to be the tall version of big; I just got to be the fat version of big, and so I had frustrations and anger with my body. I think that, in some sense, projecting these feelings onto the issue of tallness instead of the issue of fatness made it not only more distant so that I could effectively approach it, but also gave me a different angle so that I wasn’t stuck in the same shame and faux-validation. We already have narratives about what it means for women to be fat, and they’re wrong. They’re stupid narratives and they need to be rewritten. But I didn’t try to rewrite them here. I did take on violence and bodies as actors and not just bodies that are acted upon. Looking at the female body as something that’s not just laying down on a canvas for the painter. Not just being seen or being presented but the female body doing stuff.
Violence and particularly female violence was definitely where I started. I had a close friend that worked at a hotline for battered women, so she was full of stories of the actual problems of dealing with domestic abuse and I think that that together with my own experience with abusive relationships made me really want to talk about violence not as it is far away, not as it is in a video game or an action movie, but how it is in our houses, in our intimate lives.
Rumpus: And something you expanded on is not only the narrative of that violence but also how people react to it. The way people in town reacted to Michael’s mother was so different than how they would react to the same story if she had been a man.
Thorpe: Yeah, there was some tweet about skincare being a scam on Twitter, and someone said, “you can always tell it’s a lie if they don’t tell men to do it.” The fact that skincare is only marketed to women is a sign that it’s fake. It’s a helpful litmus test; to flip genders and look at whether a supposition is reasonable.
Rumpus: On the other side of the coin, Michael is counting calories, eating salads without dressing, and worrying about his weight in a way that doesn’t ever seem to cross Bunny’s mind. I found it interesting to read about the narrator’s eating disorder, while watching, through his eyes, the life of Bunny play out so differently. The issue of disordered eating is just as real for men as it is for women, and I think your novel exposes that. Could you talk about this dichotomy between the two characters?
Thorpe: Well, in a certain sense I feel like Michael’s desire to be attractive is so much the same as anybody’s desire to be attractive. My husband was a wrestler and so he would get big for football and then have to lose fifty pounds in a month in order to get ready for wrestling. So, he got really used to manipulating his body weight and also totally effed his metabolism in the process of doing that. He would go on these crazy diets in undergrad where he would only have a giant Pepsi and that would be his food for the whole day. It doesn’t matter your gender or your sexual orientation; you can disorder your eating. I think that experience is pretty universal. But I do think that the number of women that diet is higher. Female beauty is seen as such an asset, such a commodity, it’s almost like free money. It’s a form of power.
Rumpus: They both want to be beautiful; Michael admits this when they are doing facial masks. That the desire to be beautiful unites the two of them. But like you just said, everyone desires to be attractive. In what way does their desire to be beautiful differ from those around them. Or in what way is it unique to them?
Thorpe: As a woman who has struggled with whether I feel good about wearing makeup or bad about wearing makeup or whether I feel good or bad about my body, there’s something about the obvious falsity and artistic creation of drag that has always been really compelling to me. And also, you know, drag queens are wonderful and very funny. For both of these characters, there are ways in which their unique situations are making it so that any easy, natural manifestation of their gender and sexuality can’t just be unconscious and effortless. They’re both in this position of needing to fake it, in lots of ways, even once Bunny starts having sex with men. She’s still kind of faking it, because her desire is not there. She’s performing the sex more than she’s actually having it. I think that that sense of trying to craft this illusion together is part of the bond of their friendship
Rumpus: Bunny and Michael have such a deep, beautiful, and, at times, troublesome relationship. Their desire to be loved in a romantic way drove them both to dark places, but their desire to be loved by each other was ultimately just as important. Just because platonic relationships don’t concern sex or sexual intimacy doesn’t mean they can’t have similar pitfalls. Where do you believe platonic relationships can fail?
Thorpe: One of the major things about platonic relationships is that our society is set up in such a way that we don’t really categorize them as being as important as our romantic relationships. If you get to the point of needing to move across the country because your romantic partner has to move, you will do it. If your best friend moves across the country, are you going to uproot your whole family and place your kids in a new school? Nope. You’re just going to have to start talking on the phone. There is this way in which we de-prioritize them even though those relationships are profound and intense and important. That’s always bothered me.
I’m a very messy, blurry person. Trying to navigate my own bisexuality while having platonic friendships with women is really complicated; trying to figure out, did I want to have sex with someone or did I want to be them, or did I want to be friends with them? How are all of those things related? I still haven’t really figured it out. Because friendship is this less central relationship as it’s defined and socially constructed, you can let a friendship that’s dying limp on, you can end a friendship and then start it again ten years later and there’s just not the same pressure on those decisions as there are on romantic decisions so you get really interesting case studies, weirder structures, longer time scales, and that makes friendship a lot of fun to write about.
Rumpus: You deal with very interesting questions about morality in your novel. In particular, I love to think about the question of intent versus consequence. If someone were to drive drunk and manage to get home safely, they could get away with their bad choice entirely. But if another person were to make the same choice and accidentally hurt someone on their way home, the ramifications would be entirely different. Should both people in these hypothetical situations get the same punishment? In your novel, without giving away too much, I see a similar question posed. Do you have a stance on this question?
Thorpe: My simple answer is no because I always write about questions that bother me, that I don’t think have one answer. We live in a consequentialist moral structure. If you drive drunk and you make it home safe, then you don’t get punished. But if there are these terrible consequences, you do get punished. I think the problem is that punishment itself is sort of an odd idea. The oldest form of punishment is probably shunning. In a way, that’s what motivates Michael and Bunny the most, is fear of being shunned by their friends. Shunning is the most ancient, primordial, you’ve broken a taboo and now the group has cast you out. In a sense, prison is just a physical manifestation of shunning because there is no longer enough space to send people away, so we just put them in a box. It’s always so wildly imperfect and misaligned with true moral character. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things and I think that you can be an absolutely horrible person your whole life and cheat people and be a Ray Lampert and never get in trouble. You can be a kid who just reacted badly in a wrong moment and you spend your whole life paying the consequences. There is this obvious injustice to consequentialism. And yet we don’t really have any other way to do it. We can’t weigh people’s hearts against a feather; we don’t have the technology to weigh people’s moral character! So we have to work with this very broken system.
Photograph of Rufi Thorpe by Nina Subin.