Biology and Bad Guys


Mario Puzo: The Godfather, first edition

There’s an Oil of Olay advert on British television claiming that women check the mirror several times a day “to see what’s changed”. Part of me understands it’s a reference to regular maintenance: does my lipstick need reapplication; is there food in my teeth; has that pimple taken over my face or am I just imagining it?

Part of me reels in disbelief every time. What the actual flipping heck does “what’s changed” mean? Have I grown a second head? Has my third eye come through? Did I get my wish: am I finally Ava Gardner’s lost twin?

Or, given that the product touts its ability to disguise the “seven signs of ageing,” are they suggesting that women rush to the mirror throughout the day to see if a new wrinkle, pucker, or droop has arrived? Who has time for that nonsense?

The message, as always, is: You’re a woman, you must be broken. And even if you’re not, you think you are. (And we are here to perpetuate and to profit from that anxiety.)

Score me no points for originality here. I wasn’t even going to mention the advert. That’s why there’s a picture of The Godfather at the top of this post. I was looking in the mirror the other day – flossing, if you must know – and up the novel popped, in my mind’s eye. Notably the subplot about the bridesmaid who is bonked by Sonny Corleone against a door early on, and who, much later in the novel, is discovered to have the wrong size of vagina, necessitating a tightening operation.

How many readers, I wondered, spent years worrying that their vaginas might be too big? Rather than wondering if men’s penises weren’t too small? Or if it was perfectly natural that these things might come in a variety of sizes, which was neither a good thing nor a medical issue requiring surgery, but just the way of all flesh?

I know that worry crossed my mind on more than one occasion. It shouldn’t have. It would have been far more profitable to focus on the fact that Puzo had provided a clear example of bad writing: the subplot was an unnecessary and unhelpful digression that should have been edited out by the author or his publisher.

Only the more I thought about Mario Puzo’s blockbuster, the more it occurred to me that what I retained, what really stuck with me over the decades and sprang to mind whenever I thought about the book (and film), was biological rather than criminal. Michael blowing his nose into the street in Sicily. A man evacuating his bowels as he was strangled in the back of a car (his brother, right?).

And, tangentially, the fact that our family went to see the film on day two of my first period – which, though longed for (all my friends had theirs), I hated on sight and tried to send back, though it would take another thirty years for that to happen.

I trembled with anticipation while the horse’s head scene played out. Having read the book, I was prepared, even eager to see how they did it, a willing participant in the gross-out session.

They peeled back the covers inch by inch, revealing blood and then more blood, and then even more blood. And without thinking, without remembering that I was not home in front of the television, I blurted: “I know just how he feels!”

I also remember doing a class presentation on organised crime around that same time. Mostly I remember my nerves, and how they obscured any intelligent message I had to impart to my peers. But I’m certain that my bullet points concerned money laundering, “front” businesses and drugs, and did not include a five step guide to successful garroting with piano wire (which presumably includes: wear thick gloves so you don’t lose fingers in the process).

Is it Puzo’s fault that I can’t recall any of the big crime plot points? No. I think it more likely that having seen gangster films over the years, I felt familiar with the bones of the story, so what stuck with me were the items that my young self found entirely new – and surprising: You can blow your nose without a tissue?! My vagina might be XXL? You poop when you’re strangled?!

All these years later, what have I learned from these demented memories? 1. If I ever hang myself, I will have a pre-emptive enema (see what I did there?) and wear a diaper. 2. Always carry tissues. 3. I am not broken by virtue of being female (having Crohn’s is another story).

And so I leave you with this, one of my favourite anthems by a woman whose live show is sensational and earned five out of five stars from me years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe.






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