16 June 2009

How the fashion world treats Beth Ditto

I find it hard to write about Beth Ditto. You'd think it would be easy, she's the epitome of rad fatness in so many ways, not just as a singer in a great band but in the way she uses her voice to put fat (and other stuff too) right at the heart of things. She speaks up beautifully to a mass audience without preaching and she does it with style and equanimity.

Beth's path and my own have crossed a few times, mostly long ago, and she is friends with some of my friends. I love her and feel protective of her, I want the best for her, I am one of many people who feel this way. Sometimes I find it hard to think about her achievements because they are so far beyond what anyone (or maybe just me) would expect for a radical fat dyke, she has truly pushed the envelope, who will follow or better her? Could that even happen? Beth enables people whose dreams have been robbed from them to dream big. Kids may be growing up during a war on fat, but they are also witness to Beth as a powerful role model, and this gives me a lot of hope for the future. My generation had next to nothing.

For these reasons, it feels difficult and disloyal writing about her here, but as I write I realise that it's not Beth that I'm writing about but the circus that surrounds her. Carrie Brownstein, the music blogger and ex-Sleater-Kinney guitarist, a thrilling role model in her own right, helped me realise this today with her excellent post about the British media's consumption of Beth, Beth Ditto: Eaten Alive. Reading this post I felt reassured that Beth herself is sovereign, and in a funny way it's not her that we should be looking at, it's the reactions she inspires.

Some of these reactions include the rush by the fashion industry to appropriate her. I used to wonder who was playing who, but now I think that Beth is just being her own sweet self as usual. It's nothing to do with her that she represents everything execrable to high fashion – that shit is not her fault! – she puts herself in that milieu and of course those fashion people are going to go crazy! Why wouldn't they? They're the ones who have really helped create this mess.

But instead of accepting that Beth might mean that all fat people can be as cool, everyday and incredible as anyone, something they've refused to consider, the fashion world has responded to Beth by trying to turn her into a Magical Fatty. Like the racist Magical Negro, oppressors use this exceptional and mystical figure to help them feel better about themselves. Thus arch fatphobe and diet book author Karl Lagerfeld feels no inhibition about cosying up to Beth, her mere proximity absolves him of any sin. Beth is special, she's amazing, but in this context she is Special, a state that tries to strip her of humanity.

With this in mind, it's no surprise that the things that have been bugging me about Beth recently are the things that relate to the way that the fashion world is trying to represent her and her body. First it was Katie Grand's Love magazine shoot. Beth's nipples were airbrushed from the cover, she was mostly nude in all of the pictures and she looked ghostly and unreal, far unlike the sweaty pumping presence she is onstage, where she inhabits her body completely.

Which brings me to the Evans doll version of Beth, which is being used to promote the range of clothes that her name is being used to sell this coming summer. I hate this doll and I am suspicious of the clothes. Where a fat body has movement, flesh, bumps and rolls, this doll is hard and smooth. The Beth-doll's breasts look stuck on, like an afterthought on a thin frame, the thin body that resides within every fat person perhaps. The doll has Barbie-style legs, nothing like Beth's own chunks. It has flinty, cold facial features. It creeps me out. And Evans sells shitty quality, poorly-fitting clothes at premium prices to a pretty-much captive consumer-base. The mark-up between manufacturing and sales price must be beyond belief, and I can't bear to think what the people who make this stuff are paid. Will the range named after Beth be any different?

I could go on about this at length but I won't. My point is that the fashion world and its related media are trying to appropriate Beth but they don't really know what to do with her. They're trying to fit her into stale formats (crappy plus-size fashion) and, as Carrie Brownstein points out, they cannot get over their own projections of fatphobia. Beth's circus is trying to make something of her and it is entirely ill-equipped to do so. Those people don't know how. The thing is that Beth doesn't need doing-to, she's fine as she is, she's magnificent, and we should remember this because we too don't really need doing-to by rubbish experts who apparently know better, who want to fix us, sell to us, improve us, or make us into dolls, or render us Magical.


wonderful woman said...

wow - great post as per! As a BethDittoStudies writer I too am so interested in how she's written about. What I also see is that whilst she is the Magical Fatty and the only one around really (has the same attention to size been put onto Adele? I don't know because I haven't paid attention)her very lone presence can create such hysterical backlash about her size. "She's a bad role model, why are we glorifying obesity, why is it ok to object to 'anorexic' celebrities but fine to glorify the 'other extreme', she obviously has health problems and doesn't take care of herself" etc etc... these are all things written over and over. I find the polarities of this adulation and fatphobia completely unsurprising but fascinating nonetheless. And yes, it's totally her radness and her openness that has led to this continual frenzy.

I am so glad she is out there, doing her thing but I also wonder about this obsessive attention - that I'm totally part of myself - being thrown at her. What will this all look like in 5, 10 years time?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Right! How sustainable is it? Probably not very. I guess she already has stalkers.

Also, I've left out speculating about Beth's agency with the Evans stuff. It's a bit too difficult for me to articulate at the moment. I wonder what the relationship between her and the brand is like.

Bri said...

Oh that doll is dreadful!!!! How dehumanising...

I feel sort of sorry for Beth Ditto because I think she has become someone that the FA movement is hoping will represent them whereas Beth just wants to represent herself. I guess it is the same for any public figure really.

Charlotte Cooper said...

I don't feel sorry for her at all, I think she's as rad as can be.

Why should she be a poster girl for anyone else? That's dehumanising too.

Bri said...

Not sure if you misinterpreted what I meant (hard to tell with text!). I think she is rad too. Awesomely rad. I just wish people would stop trying to make her something other than what she is, the doll being a case in point.

Charlotte Cooper said...

I hear you.

Frances said...

It has flinty, cold facial features. It creeps me out.

I heard an interview with her on a local radio station where they asked her about the doll and she had the most hilarious response:

Beth: I didn't take it home.
Interviewer: Really? Why not?
Beth: NO! I don't want to be strangled by a doll that looks like me!

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget something else.

Beth Ditto is not a dyke.

She is yet another fat femme who is dating a trans man. To call her a dyke is to deny her boyfriend's identity as a man. Beth has no right to call herself a lesbian. To do so is to be trans phobic. She is in love with a MAN. She is not a dyke.

I have met many fat femmes who pretended to be lesbians because men didn't like them...so they dated the butchest dykes they could find, therefore living up to straight males' views on lesbians...that we are either "too ugly" (read: too fat, interesting, beautiful in a way other than pamela twit anderson, and/or not attracted to the unfair sex) to be with a "guy" or that we were too traumatized (due to rape, molestation, or the other horrid things that men regularly do to women) to realize our "proper" place as beneath a big tough man. And, as much as i hate to admit it, this stereotype ended up being correct. So when many courageous female borns began transitioning (i wish i could, but i could never look like the beautiful tall big-dicked faggot i see in my head, so i'm stuck being female)to male, this was perfect for females who didn't go lez because they loved women, but because they were REACTING to the fact that they were told men wouldn't like THEM...women like Beth Ditto.

I am genderqueer, not cissexual. Like famed "lesbian" author Michelle Tea, who also is in a long term relationship with a trans man, it is an insult to both Beth and Michelle's partners to ever call them lesbians. Beth may be bisexual, but her relationship with a trans man means that she most definitely loves men. To declare otherwise is to deny the true gender of her partner.

The longer I have seen of the "lesbian" community, I conclude that a "lesbian" is not someone who is desperately turned on by tits and pussy and repelled by boys, but rather someone who is not content obeying the limited and often pathetic role of the heterosexual female. Women who find solace there do so not because (like gay men) they are made wild by extreme versions of their own gender/sex (and repelled by the genitals of the opposite sex), but mainly because they realize the limited and lame role of what a heterosexual woman must be in this society. This makes me very, very sad, as I realize that "lesbian" is not a sexual ACTION (the way gay men and straight men and bi men have sexual actions--ie concrete arousal towards both or either gender/s), but a mere reaction. The ultimate evidence is that when gay men dress up as women--in drag shows--it's to laugh at how stupid women are. When lesbians become men, it's considered the hottest thing in the world. Is it any wonder that female=being miserable if most admitted the truth?

Charlotte Cooper said...

You are so wrong it's hard to know where to begin.