02 November 2010

Jennifer Love Hewitt's fat suit is problematic

One of my friends posted pictures of Jennifer Love Hewitt's unfortunate Halloween costume and it got me thinking about a few things.

That Jennifer Love Hewitt would want to present an ugly stereotype for laughs is emblematic of the way her own body has been presented in the popular media. She's been called a 'lollipop' in the tabloids on account of her skinniness, and has also been harassed for weight gain. No wonder she appears to be obsessed with fat. Her behaviour is disappointing, but then again she's a hack actress whose actions have little bearing on my life, I don't really care what she does, and maybe she just doesn't know any better. It's vile but I'm mostly indifferent.

One of the things about carnivals and holidays is that they represent a time where the usual social rules are relaxed. The appeal of a holiday is the potential for freedom and anarchy. It also means the gloves are off, politeness doesn't count, it's the rule of the Id. I think this is one of the elements that convinces white people to think it perfectly appropriate to wear racist Halloween costumes, for example. But I think it also helps explain the interest in sex and death that is so central to this holiday, and the lampooning of upright society.

Fat is clearly part of this. If fatness represents all that is reprehensible, no wonder attention is drawn to it during a festival of all things gross. Jennifer Love Hewitt's costume reminds me of the ways that fat women's bodies are both invisible and hyper-visible, we're public property, a site of cultural entitlement to know us, unknowable freaks that we are. Show your fat body! Jiggle it around! Make a spectacle of your flesh! That's what it's all about.

This has led me to think of other contexts where the social rules about fat and propriety are skewed in terms of having a public body. I had a conversation recently with another fat woman where we talked about how our nieces and god(less)daughters, and other girl children in our lives, were fascinated by our fatness. I've had experiences where I'm poked, where my shirt is lifted to expose my belly and tits, my belly button is of major interest, and some kids seem to want to grab my arse. The boundaries around this kind of bodily contact are really unsettling and it's a constant fight to maintain them and ensure everybody's safety. I don't always like being touched like this, and it can be hard for a child, especially one who has little contact with fat people, to hear me say "No." Yet I also want the children in my life to grow up without a mystified concept of fat as Other, I want a fat body to be real, knowable and acceptable to them. Plus it's fun to play with the full fat heft of my body, I like to wrestle.

I have no conclusions to make about this at the moment, it's hard to talk about because it involves policing a boundary between that which is fun and safe and that which is dangerous and improper. I'd welcome your thoughts.


Lillian said...

I think part of the obsession with fat is fear. Dressing as homeless people is very popular with teens this year. We're in a world of economic depression. Our teens know that we're only one step away from being homeless ourselves.

I don't know if dress like the homeless because they know it could happen to them or if they are afraid it will happen to them. Still, I didn't feel my son was mocking the homeless when he thought about going to the salvation army, tearing the clothes and wearing that for halloween instead of a boxed costume.

Jennifer said...

So she wanted to look fabulous one day in her life. And the fat suit's even wearing a dress that's in style right now. Lady Gaga would be proud anyway.

Cara said...

When I first saw the pics, I thought "Oh look, the fat suit is the new blackface," because it has such a minstrel show quality when thin actresses ham it up in fat suits (I remember Courtney Cox donning one on Friends years ago). Then I wondered if she did it as an ill-conceived lampooning of how the tabloids made fun of her own body in a bikini recently.
I think you have a point with fear being a motivator for these types of costumes - as we lampoon death on Halloween we also lampoon fat, which is a fate worse than death for some women, sadly enough. As for public bodies, I feel like all women's bodies are considered public property, which often angers me, but fat women even more so. The costume itself isn't as upsetting as the society that birthed it, but I would expect a little more from someone who was attacked for the crime of having cellulite herself. I guess I'm too optimistic.

Katie said...

I personally don't feel there's any gray area here--my body is not a Halloween costume, full stop. Nor is the bodies, cultures, ethnicities, or races of any marginalized or minority group. There are PLENTY of costumes out there for privileged people to wear that don't make fun of, make light of, co-opt, or otherwise harm oppressed persons. These things don't exist in a vaccuum. I appreciate your (Charlotte) analysis of how Jennifer Love Hewett's experiences may have informed her decision, but at the end of the day this is a conventionally attractive thin woman putting on a costume that co-opts, ridicules, and dehumanizes my body. And that's not okay, even if she has her own body issues.

I fleshed this out more in my own blog here: http://kataphatic.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/my-body-is-not-your-halloween-costume-edited-repost/

Charlotte Cooper said...

I don't think what she's doing is ok either, but it's happening within a context that I can only guess at and which deserves some attention so that the choices of people like JLH can be understood and addressed.

RachelB said...

One of the things about carnivals and holidays is that they represent a time where the usual social rules are relaxed. The appeal of a holiday is the potential for freedom and anarchy.

And that's one of the things that I don't understand about costumes that appropriate marginalized identities. Making fun of people who are regularly made fun of actually reinforces those social rules, rather than messing with them. It squanders an opportunity for freedom, anarchy, liberation.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Yeah! So true.

Moe said...

I've seen these photos before, they are at least five years old. She kind of reminds me of the flag from the computer game Fat Princess (except I don't think it's been out that long)?

While I don't care for the whole movie fat suits (especially the ones in Eddie Murphy films), I'm not bothered by this one at all. She doesn't offend me and she doesn't come from the viewpoint of trying to offend. At least I don't see it.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Oh wow, they're old? How interesting that they should still be doing the rounds. I wonder what that's about.

eli said...

Please don't say that wearing a fatsuit is the same as wearing blackface. It's definitely not the new version of blackface, since white people still keep doing the blackface thing.

But as a black woman and a fat woman, I feel uniquely poised to assure you that it is not the same.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks eli.

I don't think fatsuits are the same as blackface. They have completely different genealogies.

I think the association comes from an essay that came out a couple of years ago:

Meltzer, M. (2006) 'Are Fat Suits the New Blackface? Hollywood’s Big New Minstrel Show', in: Jervis, L. & Zeisler, A. (eds.) Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 267-269.

I think your comment highlights the problems in comparing oppressions. To me, it's useful to draw analogies between different kinds of oppressive practice, it shows how hatred operates in broad ways and helps people get a handle on the wider dynamics of hate, but I'm not interested in doing that when it obliterates someone else's experience.

eli said...

Thanks for your response Charlotte. I really appreciate it.

And I should have made it clear that I was responding to Cara, because nothing you said personally lead me to believe you were making the comparison.

I've just downloaded that article and am looking forward to reading it.

Anonymous said...

I think Eli hit the nail on the head, but this trend of dressing up as a stereotype isn't limited to fatness: middle class people might dress up as "chavs", for example, and able-bodied people might pretend to be Lou and Andy from Little Britain for a laugh.

(For what it's worth, I'm disabled myself and have mixed reactions to this last "outfit." Lillian might have a point about people dressing up as a fat or a homeless person because of fear, but I don't think people fear becoming seriously disabled because it's often simply unimaginable, which is why it becomes so trivialised.)

I think Jennifer Love Hewitt lives in the strange world of the celebrity, and maybe wearing that fat suit is a statement about how her own body is public property. She isn't just a person: she is a product, and while no person should ever be a thing I wonder why exactly she's decided to package herself this way for Hallowe'en.
Considering how much pressure celebrities are under to look good, it's remarkable how few of them positively and productively speak out about it instead of resorting to a cheap trick like this.

I couldn't help but imagine someone dressed up in the same fat suit turning up at a Hallowe'en party and meeting and engaging with an actual fat person, because I think they'd be pretty embarrassed.

Faycin A Croud said...

Jennifer Love Hewitt's costume choice is sad. I would venture to say that the silly twat didn't bother to think about the fact that she might have plus size fans, who she has probably lost due to her idiotic choice of costume.
As to the children doing the grabbing and exposing of your body, I think a polite "please don't do that" is the best response.