01 August 2008

Media: stereotyping fat activists

There's been quite a debate over on Fat Studies about Glen Gers' new film, Disfigured. It's the story of a friendship between a fat woman and a thin anorexic woman, and explores themes around – obviously – bodies and self-acceptance. Here's the IMDB entry for it, and the official site.

So there's been some discussion about the way the film depicts fat activists. As Rachel Richardson puts it in her review on The F Word, it is not "a valentine to fat people or to the [fat acceptance] movement," but nevertheless she finds it an interesting and thought-provoking piece. I don't know if this film has a planned release in the UK. I haven't seen it yet, but I am interested in doing so, despite other criticisms levied against it.

Meanwhile, I went to see Batman the other night. The film was pretty forgettable, but I was struck by an advert that played before the main feature. It was one of those VW Independent Cinema ads, part of the See Films Differently series, where apparently ordinary members of the public (who are actors working from a script) offer their own idiosyncratic readings of well-known films.

In this one, a fat woman offers her analysis of the last scenes of Titanic. I'm paraphrasing, but she says something about Leo slipping away from Kate meaning that if you're fat you can't count on blokes sticking around for you. The lines are delivered in a world-weary way, almost sarcastically, and it's supposed to be wry and funny. It's not on YouTube yet, I can't find a free version of it online, but you can pay to download it.

It's hard not to be obsessed by the way that fat people and fatness are represented in the media, and it's no wonder that these concerns underpin a huge amount of fat liberation energy. Now it seems that both Disfigured and the VW ad might be the beginnings of a new strand of representation and enquiry, that is: how fat activists are portrayed.

So far it's not looking good! Fat activists are crabby, out of touch, defensive, read too much into things, and are judgmental and laughable. I certainly know some people in the movement who are like this, though it's disconcerting to see them reflected on a screen as the whole of the scene, and I feel as though I'm witnessing the birth of a new kind of fat stereotype. Perhaps in time there will be more generous depictions of fat liberationists, but given the way that fat in general is portrayed in the media I don't hold out any hope for this, though I'm sure that fat lib media analysts will get on the case pretty sharply soon enough.

I'm not going to be depressed about it, it just seems like same-old-same-old to me, though I may roll my eyes from time to time. I'm glad to be in a privileged position where I am able to make my own thoughts about this stuff public without having to do it through someone else's distorting lens. Where the media casts such an unkind gaze over fat people of all kinds, here I am, here we fat activists are, looking straight back at them defiantly.


Whatnot said...

I had the good fortune of a speed catchup with [fat rights lawyer friend] over dinner in Oakland during the NOLOSE mtgs., and asked her about her experience at NAAFA.

Apparently NAAFA aired Disfigured as part of the entertainment, that people were excited about, but that it was really appalling and maddeningly offensive in the ridiculous simplification of fat activism. She said she was one of maybe 3 people she knew who were vocally appalled and that there was little to no time for discussion and critical analysis. Interesting/strange.

Charlotte Cooper said...

That's interesting, over on Fat Studies I got the impression that there was more of a discussion. Oh well. I would like to see it. I've managed to stomach some awful films in my time, so I think I can cope with this.

disFIGUREDmovie said...


I'm the writer/director of "disFIGURED". There was as much of discussion after the ASDAH/NAAFA screening as time allowed. About 1/4 of the audience disliked it, and once their opinions had been acknowledged and respected I'm not sure what more I could do to satisfy them beyond not releasing the movie.

I should point out that lots of other people at the show felt the movie was moving and funny and truthfully ambivalent.

It's a story - a fanciful situation created to let the audience examine ideas and emotions. As many other artists have said before me: if I could have put these ideas into a simple statement, I wouldn't have bothered making it into a movie.

In an effort to steer the audience to more information about the fat acceptance (and eating disorders) there is a 20-minute discussion "bonus feature" on the DVD.

The movie isn't about fat activism, but about a woman struggling to figure out what she believes about her own body and its place in the world. Some of the fat activists in the story take extreme and debatable positions - and the point is the debate. It ends with a strong statement about size acceptance, from a fat character.

The DVD is "all region" so it should be playable in the UK. Please let me know if you're having trouble getting hold of a copy. (contact@disfiguredmovie.com)

I look forward to your thoughts on it!

Charlotte Cooper said...


Thanks for the info. I will check out your film sometime.

Anonymous said...

I think it's sort of inevitable that as we work to dismantle the stereotypes and words that have been used to oppress us -- that the people doing this work of liberation will be stereotyped and labeled, so as to be more easily dismissed.
When people get angry, when they demand equality (rather than ask for it timidly), when their arguments make sense -- the easiest thing to do if you don't want to change how you think, and you don't want to take them seriously, is to call them crackpots or nags or "negative" or to portray them as "crabby, out of touch, defensive". It's very easy to go into ad hominem attack -- attacking the personality of the people rather than addressing their valid and important concerns and issues. And that's the backlash that we are starting to see, I think.
Our words are starting to get out into mainstream -- and they can't really argue with the legitimacy of our words -- so they attack us.