12 August 2011

Fatphobia in the visual language of the Left

I've written before about how sections of the Left have failed fat activism in the UK, and about how fat and class are depicted within this political visual rhetoric. It's truly depressing how opportunities to develop broad analyses of embodied oppression, as well as activist strategies and productive coalitions, are thwarted because fat is continually seen as laughable, trivial, and nothing to do with the real struggle.

Sometimes it is possible to take part in productive, if difficult, dialogue. Today, for example, I had an exchange with the usually fantastic Anarchist Media Project (AMP) over an image on their blog of a fat capitalist guzzling an innocent thin person in Children of Britain, Know Your Place: BORN POOR, DIE POOR. I left a comment and asked the project to stop using images of fatness to represent greed, capitalists and corruption and pointed out that fat people tended to be of low socioeconomic status. I said that stereotypes were hurtful and alienating, and I suggested some things that they could read to educate themselves about fat politics.

The good news is that the AMP said they would think about this stuff. They said that the image by saying it was from a famous vintage cartoon by a socialist artist called Robert Minor. I replied that I understood that there are historical precedents in the visual language of anarchism, and in the Left in general, of using fatness as a symbol of ruling class greed and corruption. However, the discourse around fatness has changed and is now part of a moral panic that also includes elements of classism, racism, fear and hatred of disability and difference. I said that it is not enough to use these vintage images without interrogating them or acknowledging that contexts have changed.

The annoying part of the exchange, reiterated by a later comment, was that "In fact we saw the suit, and nothing but the suit." There's something really weasely about this, it has a whiff of denial about it. They're offering a kind of fat-blindness that could be interpreted as "we don't care if someone's fat or thin, we don't even notice it," but is more like: "we don't see people like you, you don't exist in any meaningful way to us." Another commenter made a mean little joke at my expense, which hardly helped.

On other occasions I just want to throw my hands up in the air. This brings me to Martin Rowson, the man who has done more than any other political cartoonist, even Steve Bell, to associate fatness with everything that is disgusting. Here are a few charmers from his oeuvre, returned just by Googling his name. Will somebody please have a word with him?

My tolerance for the fatphobia in these kinds of images has evaporated because I read them as an ongoing betrayal by people who might otherwise be comrades. I am not proposing that images be censored, and I don't want a visual language of fatness that is reduced to a happy-clappy set of 'positive images'. I want to be able to look at whatever I want as much as anybody else does, and I want to be challenged by what I see. With Rowson it's not even about being squeamish over grotesque pictures. What I would like is for progressive, freedom-loving people on the radical Left to think more about the complexities of representing fat and to stop selling out on people's bodies. Liberation cannot be built on stereotypes.

09 August 2011

Riots in the UK and convenient scapegoats

This morning my mind has drifted towards the popular third wave feminist slogan 'Riots Not Diets'. Whenever I think of this slogan I imagine a cheerful group of determined people going something like "Rah! Rah!" in the street, a kind of carnival atmosphere of resistance. It's always peaceful when I imagine it, destruction is cartoonish and unreal, like "Poof! There goes Weight Watchers", or the bomb and the "ka-boom!" at the top of this page. I think the use of riot metaphors and the archetypal anarchist bomb image are valid, though they bear little relation to riots and bombs in real life.

Over the past couple of days there have been riots in parts of London, where I live, and in other cities in the UK. I'm going to write about this here, even though it's not typical fat blog fare, because it's a big thing that's affecting me and the people I know right now. As with all these blog posts, this is about my opinion rather than an assertion of fact.

I think these riots came about initially because the police shot a man and spread lies about him to cover themselves, and because this was not an isolated incident. They refused to give the man's family an explanation at a peaceful protest, pushed people to breaking point by making them wait for hours, and responded heavily at the first provocation, which escalated things.

This event was set against a backdrop of everyday police racism and arrogance, a long history of police abuse, systemic racism, and a lack of justice. It has also happened within a political context where working class people of colour are suffering the removal of social safety nets and the possibility of escape through education by a probably corrupt government, where young working class black men are widely demonised, and where the rich are doing very nicely. I should add that the riots are not just about race, however, it would be wrong to paint it as white versus black.

After the initial explosion of rage in Tottenham, violence spread to other parts of the city: generally to areas where the police had been responsible for previous injustice, places where there have been recent influxes of affluent white people and where gentrification is underway, places where there is a high street and shops where working class people go. The wealthy areas of the city, and middle class residential areas, have been untouched so far. As I see it, the rioters are small-ish groups of young men.

At this stage there is little that is romantic about the riots. Bystanders have been mugged, people have been burned out of their homes, many people feel frightened, vulnerable people are made more so. No one is burning down Harrods or Buckingham Palace, or other symbols of capitalism and hegemony, the violence is opportunistic and, to me, astonishing in its lack of ambition. The media is typically contradictory though narratives of 'mindless thugs' are emerging, obscuring the context for the riots, and further demonising the rioters. People within communities where there have been attacks are divided, some see them as inevitable and others are fed-up, sympathy is wearing thin, and I've heard a lot of dismay about how the riots don't address systemic inequality. There's a backlash in progress and it's depressing to see who is capitalising, like the far-right racist and Islamophobic British National Party. It's likely that the riots will result in greater surveillance and repression of people of colour, working class people, young black men.

Apart from statistical correlations between fat and race and class, the relationship between fat and marginalised experience, fat pops up in a minor, tangential and unexpected way in this story. I was reading about Cynthia Jarrett, who died when police raided her home in Tottenham in 1985 in search of her son Floyd. The police used unreasonable force against her but lied about this and circulated a story that she had a heart attack because she was fat. Fat – always the convenient scapegoat! None of the officers involved were ever brought to justice, although three men were wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a policeman in the ensuing riot, events which form part of the context for the current Tottenham riots and their spread elsewhere.

Edited to add:

I was thinking again about Cynthia Jarrett and about how incredible it was that people in Tottenham demanded an explanation for her death in 1985. I wonder if that would happen now in the context of Obesity EpidemicTM and fat panic rhetoric. I'm inclined to think that the scapegoating of her fatness would be more acceptable these days and that people would buy into the idea of her sudden death caused by being fat.