Walking the Talk

By | July 24, 2008

Ever since I wrote that article about people of color and the Fat Acceptance movement, I’ve been thinking more about what it is I’d like to see the white members of the FA community do to start working towards a truly intersectional analysis and framework.

Yesterday, when someone linked to this right-on analysis (go read it, STAT!) of a photograph from a recent photo shoot with Beth Ditto in Nylon magazine, one reaction that I witnessed really crystallized, for me, exactly how some of the underlying racial tensions have played out in the FA community.

Ingredient #1: First, we have the fact that there is a paucity of fat icons in the media for us to look up to. We are starved (no pun intended) to see ourselves represented in popular culture, so it is like a mini coup when there is someone, anyone, who we can claim for our community.

Ingredient #2: Many people, myself included, are calling for the FA movement to incorporate a truly intersectional analysis into their analysis and framework, because it is never just about fat.

Where these two ingredients collide is when a fat icon like Beth Ditto fucks up. Really, the article says it all, but to sum it up: using a working class woman of color as a “prop” in your photograph to make you look is not ok.

This tension plays out when someone who reveres Beth Ditto reads this article or sees this photo and immediately becomes defensive of her actions. My guess is that they feel betrayed and sad and maybe even desperate because all of a sudden, one of their icons has fucked up. And because there is such a dearth of fat cultural icons, they cling, because holding that person accountable for their choices probably means that they should reconsider their support of that artist/actor/performer/etc. And I ventuer this guess because I can imagine exactly how *I* would feel if one of my icons did something that betrayed my values.

For example, a year or so ago, I went to see Dirty Martini perform at the Sex Workers’ Art Show. But, right before the show, I found out that she was a supporter of Shirley Q. Liquor, a white gay man who does drag in blackface. Before I had learned this, I was a huge fan of Dirty Martini, but I was absolutely crestfallen when I found out this piece of information from her. After the show, I blogged about it, and a huge debate exploded. And not only was the discussion disappointing, but I was even further disappointed when someone wrote Dirty Martini a letter about this, and she wrote back defending her support of Shirley Q. Liquor. She said,

I completely understand the argument against Shirley Q. Liquor and I simply don’t agree with it. I believe her to be a very talented comedian who modelled [sic] her southern character with love and wit. I don’t view her performance as blackface and I don’t believe that she does either. Her comedy is a reflection of our times and it would be very anti american to censor a performer without seeing the actual performance or finding out if it comes from a place of love and respect. I think it is very important to remember that this comedian is a gay man in the south and he may know a thing or two about predjudice [sic].

Well, that was the nail in the coffin for me. No matter how much I had loved her before, I made a decision that because my personal values did not align with her support of a racist performer, I had to let it (my support) go. But not everyone felt that way. Some people felt that because Dirty Martini was supporting Shirley Q. Liquor vs. performing in blackface herself, it was ok. Similarly, some people have expressed that maybe Beth Ditto didn’t know that the image she put out was problematic, so maybe we should be more gentle on her.

But I have some questions that I think we, as a community, need to seriously wrestle with.

What does walking the talk of intersectionaly look like? Is it “ok” to give fat media icons a little more leeway because there are so few of them? Is the willingness to lower the bar proof that the FA movement isn’t taking race and the racism in our community seriously? How do we hold a media icon accountable for their actions when we can’t always engage or interact with them?

In short, how do we plan to walk our talk?

Comments are closed.