101: Thoughts on Intersectionality, Or, Why There’s No Dark-Skinned Fat Black Women on More to Love

By | July 31, 2009

[Hey kids, it’s International Blog Against Racism Week! For more information, please go here. The following post is my humble contribution to the proceedings.]

Race, fat, and class are inextricably tangled up together, and whether you personally realize and experience that entanglement or not, it exists. The recent events taking place between Henry Louis Gates and a Cambridge police officer are a great illustration of this entanglement, but not necessarily in the ways you might expect. In this scenario, you have a well-off black man who’s been successful in academia, a field culturally-marked as being that of a very elite group of people. Take said black man and face him with a white police officer, who, by virtue of his chosen career, is living in a very different socioeconomic and cultural world than Gates. This is a sure-fire recipe for conflict, productive or otherwise.

At some point during Gates/Crowley debate, I read a quote made by a friend of Sgt Crowley who said (paraphrasing) that Crowley is a quiet and unassuming man in private life, but when in uniform he expects his profession to be respected. When Crowley asks Gates to step out onto his porch, Gates may assume Crowley is unfairly targeting him because he’s black. When he says as much to Crowley, Crowley may assume Gates believes himself above having to respond to a request from a police officer, by virtue of his class position (try googling the term “uppity negro” for a sense of the extreme complexity of how folks in Gates’ position fit, or don’t fit, into American culture). Even removing race as a factor for a moment, over the past year, the news has been filled with tales of well-off individuals who actually did break the law, and then seemed incredulous that they would be expected to atone for their trespasses – even if that atonement takes place in a totally different prison than the one “real” criminals go. By this reckoning, the law is something that applies only to those people – those who are often not white, not moneyed, not educated, not protected by social status – and justice is something that happens to criminals too poor to avoid it. The Gates/Crowley story is just one possible illustration of many of the way our thinking and expectations are influenced by our own race and class, as well as by our understanding of the race and class of those with whom we interact in society.

As a culture, in the US, we view body size and weight and “health” through a lens colored by race, class, and gender, simultaneously. Though many of the culturally-imposed negative connotations may be similar, the fact is that a fat black woman does not read the same way to the American eye as a fat white woman does, nor are the experiences of fat people of different races universally similar. If I can be forgiven for quoting myself, I made a post on this site about a year ago that gives some specific examples of how race intersects with my experience of being fat:

White folks may be harder on me for being fat. They may be harder on me for being fat, and louder about it, than people of color are. They may be ruder; they may be more unabashedly disgusted and unforgiving. This isn’t because people of color aren’t also subject to fatphobia (participating in it or suffering from it); this is because institutionalized systems of oppression are such that white folks as a group have more cultural and authoritative oomph than people of color do. A person of color who openly disparages a white person for any reason in space that is dominated and controlled by white folks (that is, almost everywhere, and certainly everywhere that white people tend to go) is playing a very dangerous game. I shouldn’t have to extrapolate further on the potential outcomes of such behavior. Use your imagination.

White folks may also be harder on me, a fat white woman, for being fat than they would be on a fat person of color. This is not because it’s somehow more acceptable for people of color to be fatter, but because people of color are often invisible to white folks – othered, distant, ugly, inferior – and as a result when white folks see a fat person of color, I would argue that it’s somehow less a cultural affront. It’s less personally-identifiable. White folks see a fat person of color and know, conclusively – “That’ll never be me; no matter what happens, how I let myself go, that’ll never be me.” White folks see a fat white person and think, “Shit, if I’m not careful, if I don’t watch myself, that could be me. That could totally happen to me.” White folks see me and my body and it works for them like a cautionary tale; culturally, I represent the result of a lack of self control; I represent a horror of their own body.

Applying this idea to More to Love, here we have a situation in which that body-horror is being candidly exploited for (fun and) profit. It’s clear that the initial expectation is that people will tune in for the sideshow factor – the self-conscious, semi-ironic placing of fat women (and a fat man) into a scenario typically reserved for people meeting a generalized beauty standard. Emme, the show’s host, acknowledges as much in a behind-the-scenes interview for the show, while stating that she hopes the show will also have positive effects on how fatness, and fat people, are perceived. Some viewers may come away from the experience with a more positive impression of these women specifically, or even fat people in general, but the broader cultural contribution of this show – ultimately, a piece of throwaway television that few people will remember in a couple years – to how we as a society think about and see fat people remains to be demonstrated.

When we look at this show from a critical perspective, especially though the lenses of gender, race, and class, More to Love, like its predecessors, is attempting to appeal to a specific audience with a specific fantasy. A critical piece of these Bachelor-type shows is their use of luxury: a group of people (fat or otherwise) are placed together in a luxurious environment, typically some kind of mansion or other exotic location, for an extended period of time. While there, they don’t have to work; they don’t have to worry about the mundane tasks of paying the electric bill or buying groceries, much less about where the funds will be coming from to support themselves during this time. Whatever the behind-the-scenes real-life worries of the individuals involved, these locked-in-a-house dating shows create an idealized TV image of what life must be like for the idle rich: sitting around the pool all day, going on extravagant adventures, and, when things get dull, engaging in petty dramas with one’s peers. The punishment for not succeeding in this environment? Getting sent home, away from that sparkling world of luxury and back to the rigamarole of buying paper towels and mailing the car insurance payment on time.

For all of the social changes humanity has seen, the lives of the extraordinarily wealthy haven’t really evolved much at all in the past couple hundred years. There is also an important old-money component here; so-called “nouveau riche” people often have to work to maintain their wealth, which is partly why “nouveau riche” is considered a bit of a derogatory term; those people didn’t have the random fortune of being birthed directly into a bassinet lined with hundred dollar bills, and as such are less worthy, less deserving, less…. classy. More to Love and similar shows attempt to reproduce the ultimate life of old-money leisure, in which work and cash flow simply aren’t things one has to concern oneself with, and thus the ultimate luxury (or burden, depending on how you look at it) is having the option to focus all of one’s attention on forming or destroying intimate relationships. Uncountable numbers of novels have been set in this world over the centuries; clearly this is a setting which draws us in, either for being so attractive or being so repulsive, or both.

So: why are there no dark-skinned fat Black women on these shows, even the one which is intended to be a fat-girl shake-up of the wannabe-model standards of the original? Because broadly speaking, the only dark-skinned fat Black women in the lives of the old-money rich and their bright and shining world are the ones cleaning the toilets. This is not an archetypal figure that is considered appropriate in the luxury environment except in a service capacity. More than that, this is not an image of a woman that is considered “uplifting” or sexually-appealing, even in an unconventional way, as the many fat white ladies in their Spanx and their Donna Ricco cocktail dresses might be, maybe, if you squint and don’t think about it too hard. This, simply put, is not a woman to romance, but one who washes your dirty socks and puts you to bed. For all the social progress the United States in particular may have made over the past fifty years, this is one example of a racist imposition that has not changed, not one bit. The fat black woman, omnipresent though she may be in the behind-the-scenes casting videos, could not be taken seriously, not by the producers, not by the audience they’re trying to capture, an audience generally not interested in having their stereotypes and assumptions challenged except in the most gentle and non-confrontational ways, and as a clever and entertaining twist at the end. It’s dramatic enough to set out this group of non-skinny women as possibly, maybe, desirable to somebody, just as they are. Asking that audience to reconsider race as well as thin-focused cultural beauty standards? Inconceivable. People don’t watch garbage TV like More to Love because they want to think. They watch it so they don’t have to think at all.

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