24 November 2011

Stereotyping fat and capitalism

I went down to St Paul's last week to visit Occupy London. There are places where my politics and the general politics of Occupy diverge, but I'm glad it's there, hope it continues, and felt happy, inspired and moved by it.

One of my favourite things about Occupy London is the way that the street has been appropriated as a giant noticeboard. Pictures, letters, rants, conspiracy theories, stickers, were all taped up on the pillars at the side of the encampment. I enjoyed browsing, there was such a muddle of compelling stuff. Amongst everything were some posters advertising a new film, and a leaflet about the scummy business of carbon trading. Can you guess what drew me to them? Yes, that's right: their use of fat capitalist stereotyping.

I have written elsewhere about how the left has failed fat people, progressive, enlightened, anti-capitalist, pro-planet people and their fatphobia, and about political cartoonists' use of fatness to denote the greed and disgustingness of capitalism (alas top fatphobe cartoonist Martin Rowson never replied to my email about that). I'm becoming more and more interested in what I see as a contradiction: the left supports the underdog, yet fails to see fat people as oppressed, and instead reproduces us as visual stereotypes of the oppressors. Fat cat capitalist imagery is a travesty when you understand that the fattest social groups are also the poorest and most marginalised.

Similarly, I'm fascinated and annoyed at how fat activism is ignored, denied, belittled within apparently progressive leftist circles, even though it offers radical possibilities for understanding and challenging oppressive practices. This was brought home to me this week when my partner got an email from a vegan anarchist café in London declining her proposal for a regular fat crafternoon-type event on the grounds that they were concerned about promoting obesity within the context of a global obesity epidemic.

In both cases people on the radical left are failing to see fat, that is, they are failing to understand fat as something with which they should be politically engaged in a critical manner. Instead, they rely on lazy thinking and stereotyping, refusing to acknowledge the radical work by fat activists that is going on right in front of them.


greenbean said...

I have a theory that a lot of people who go against the mainstream in some way are less likely to be interested in going against mainstream ideas in other areas, because if you question too many major assumptions about the world you live in, you won't have much certainty left about anything in your life.
Like if we SA activists lived in the middle ages, most of us wouldn't be very likely to question the prevailing 'knowledge' that the sun revolves around the earth, etc.
I'm not sure if that makes sense, but from what I've observed it does seem like somewhat of a pattern.

JeninCanada said...

You're not the only one to notice the sad fat bashing that happens through Occupy Wall St and other movements. Check out Fierce Fatties from Nov 3rd for more! :)


romham a bear said...

"on the grounds that they were concerned about promoting obesity within the context of a global obesity epidemic."

Holy fucking hell, batman. That is so messed up.

Kerri said...

The most insidious and brutal aspects of the neoclassical form of capitalism (and its political offshoot - neoliberalism) that we currently serve are hidden because they are in full view and so seem natural.

Posters and art that present the reality of the slim capitalist (although of course some are fat) would subvert the fat capitalist stereotype.

Anonymous said...

not to forget that the nazi portrait jews very often as fat capitalists.
so not only is it fatphobic it also has a very anti semitic undertone.

Anonymous said...

The answer as to why we do this is quite simple. Originally, back in Teddy Roosevelt's Trust bustin' days, only the rich were fat... because they were the only ones who could afford to be well fed. Most of the men that were satirized and represented in cartoons of the day were in fact fat. The language we use to denigrate them cam from back then "fat cat" etc.

Today the situation is reversed. as someone here noted, most of the fat people are the poor. However, with the corporations messing with our ideas of health and body size, we've really not noticed the reality. The metaphore of the fat, selfish rich bastard is ingrained in society and the media has vilified fat as well. It's a really tough situation, especially for cartoonists who work with recognizable metaphors to make strong points.

Nevertheless, the use of the fat as stingy and selfish in the OWS movement has nothing to do with a conscious effort to shame fat people. They, like the cartoonists, are working with recognizable metaphors. The good lot of them probably don't even think to use the ultra skinny, ultra botoxed Real Housewives as a metaphor because that sort of imagery isn't specific enough to make a solid point in the hands of an average OWS protester.

Maybe people like you and others who have direct contact with OWS and their offshoots could work within the general assemblies to make a focus group to start identifying other powerful imagery for selfish, rich, jerks besides the ancient fat cat one.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

What the last Anonymous said. The fatcat imagery of the capitalist pig is unfortunate and overused, but it's in fact part of the current repertoire. Let's work to remove it and to ridicule it when used, as it is as inappropriate for our times as Little Black Sambo and tar baby imagery, which those of us over 38 years old may remember seeing as pretty mainstream cliches when we were growing up.