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.


Alexie said...

This is a hugely interesting post. What springs to my mind are questions about the way historical images are embedded in today's political discourse. The Fat Capitalist is as iconic an idea as the Capitalist in a Top Hat. The Fat Cat, the Pig and so on, and the images used in the cartoons, directly link contemporary ideas with historical struggles.

Of course, in today's world, it's thinness that's associated with being at the top of the social hierarchy.

But can you erase a historical image? Or discard it as not being relevant today when, strictly speaking,it's not only not irrelevant but misleading - but when it nevertheless has resonance because of its historic associations? When it remains instant shorthand for a whole series of ideas and associations?

This post raises a lot of questions. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the issue.

heavyaura said...

Depictions of capitalists as fat always interest me because so many times actual images of poor (or at least coded poor/lower middle class), fat people are used to illustrate the "crisis of obesity." I've never seen an "obesity crisis" advertisement showing a well-groomed, fat white man (or woman) in expensive-looking, "well put together" clothing. That's not to say that all capitalists are thin by any means, but that to show a fat entity bursting with class/gender/white privilege whose only ambition is ceaseless, but absolutely intentional, consumption seems really odd next to the popular image of what the "obesity crisis" looks like and who is "at risk."

Katie said...

Only minutes ago, someone I know who is very into the urban farm movement posted a link on social media saying that "something must be done" about obesity. It's not exactly what you are addressing in this post, but that kind of lefty panic really angers me. (It hurts me, actually.)

I was glad to run across your post just now because I was feeling so frustrated by the breakdown among groups that would make strong anticorporate allies. Thank you for calling out the "ongoing betrayal by people who might otherwise be comrades."

NewMe said...

I live in Toronto, Canada. It's an "interesting" time for our city.

In Nov. 2010, Torontonians elected Rob Ford mayor. This hard-right reactionary's election slogan was to "end the gravy train". He succeeded in convincing a majority of voters (well, actually not the majority of the old city of Toronto, which the right-wing provincial government of the time amalgamated by force with the surrounding--and much more reactionary--suburbs in the 1990s) that there was lots of fat to trim in the municipal government and he was the man to do it.

Since taking power, he has launched an all-out attack on libraries (which he calls "lieberries"--yes, that's how he pronounces the word), artists (Google Margaret Atwood and Doug Ford--his brother and the power behind the throne), social programs (he refused the province's offer of FREE public health nurses, on the pretext that eventually the city would have to pay their salaries)--you get the picture. The guy is a monster.

Now why am I telling you all this?

Because Rob Ford is fat. As is his evil brother, Doug. And sadly, many on the left are having a field day with this fact. Clearly, many people do believe in the stereotype of the fat capitalist monster, a stereotype that Ford fits to a T (his family runs a very successful company--he's basically a trust-fund baby).

I have blogged about the fact that, though I would dearly love to see Ford turfed out of city hall ASAP, his girth has nothing to do with his evilness. It was hard defending this loathsome man, but I did, at least with respect to his weight.

Anonymous said...

I love the way you name it "ongoing betrayal." Thank you, bless you, and wow, this is excellent! --diana

BeccaTheCyborg said...

NewMe, I'm in TO too, and I'm also getting really disgusted with the fact that I hear more criticism of the Fords' weight than their reprehensible policies.