09 April 2009

Conference Report: Fat Studies at the PCA - 1

I'm blogging from the 2009 Joint Conference of the National Popular Culture and American Culture Associations, which I'll abbreviate to PCA for Pop Culture Association throughout. It's being held in New Orleans, and I'm a long way from home. The reason I've travelled so far is that amidst the vast programme of events (400 pages long and counting) are six Fat Studies panels. I could be wrong but I suspect that this is the heaviest concentration of fat scholarship on the planet, pun intended. 2009 is not the first time that the PCA has hosted Fat Studies panels, but the range of subjects on offer within the panels this year made the event irresistible to me, and some generous funding from the University of Limerick and the PCA's own Madonna Marsden endowment for foreign travel made it possible.

It's hard to give a sense of the scale of the conference. It runs for four days, with panels from 8am – 10pm. There are over 130 panel series, including Automobile Culture; Collective Behaviour: Panics, Fads and Hostile Outbursts; New England Studies; Stephen King; Vietnam; plus a handful of special events recognising and responding to the incredible host city of NOLA. Some panels are wacky, some reflect more traditional areas of academic enquiry, but it seems as though a huge chunk of American and academic life is here. The conference is open to a broad range of scholars, students rub shoulders with professors, it is geek central, and fully amazing.

So, it's my intention to try and blog about the Fat Studies panels. I'm anticipating burnout by about 3pm tomorrow afternoon, so can't promise much, but let's give it a whirl, eh?

Fat Studies I: Reading the Fat Text: Fatness in Popular Media
Chair: Julia McCrossin, The George Washington University

Socialising Young Readers: A Content Analysis of Body Size Images in Caldecott Winners
Linda Wedwick, Illinois State University

Linda contextualised her paper within discourses of how children are socialised through media representations. Her co-authored study looked at the 71 winners of the Caldicott prize and analysed representations of fat characters in children's books. Fat was defined in relation to thin characters in the picturebooks. She found that there were relatively few fat characters, and that the jolly fat policeman was the only theme found in these depictions. The study prompted questions about whether increased exposure to fat characters would help children be more accepting of body sie diversity.

Blues Legacies and Punk Politics: How Beth Ditto Envoices the Fat Body
Alexandra Apolloni, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper explored the amazingness of Beth Ditto. Alexandra talked about how Beth is written about in the music press, and also in some areas of the fat acceptance movement, basically about how people can't handle her fat and queerness. What I liked about this piece was that it placed Beth within a tradition of Blues singers who also embody queer fat sexuality and whose voices are "instruments of salvation," and did so critically. The presentation considered the voice as a means of expressing identity, and offered possibilities for musicology and fat studies crossovers.

Tracing the Roots of Kit Reed’s Pro-Fat Body Ideals: An Examination of “The Food Farm” and “The Last Big Sin”
Brenda Risch, University of Texas at El Paso

I'd never heard of Kit Reed, but now I want to read all of her works. Brenda's paper offered a critical evaluation of some of Reed's short stories, which have really complex fat characters and representations of fatness. She suggested that Reed goes further than merely "flipping the script" and making fat good and thin bad, that the narratives themselves move beyond simplistic readings of fatness. Bring on the complexity!

The Future is Fat: WALL*E and the Fear of a Fat Planet?
Julia McCrossin, The George Washington University

Julia wrangled a discussion about how fat is represented in WALL*E, based on a disconnect between what the film makers said they were representing (people in the future will be as helpless as babies) and what filmgoers themselves understood ("those fatties should stop eating and then the planet will be okay"). The discussion exposed some of the contradictory representations of fatness, eg there is no diet industry in the future, and also about consumerism, which is acceptable when contained within a nostalgic past. I wondered if the contradictions in the film echoed the contradictions within fat panic rhetoric, which seems to me to be the base on which WALL*E is pitched.

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