Jul 27, 2013

Their Bodies, Our Selves

Somewhere in between (one might even say “sandwiched”) recaps of The Daily Show and discussions of exactly how victimized we should all be feeling by Anthony Weiner’s penis, Salon managed to publish an interesting article this week on, among other things, the implications of a common type of personal narrative, the weight loss story.

As you might have guessed from the title, “I Choose to be Fat,” Laura Bogart’s piece is an affirmation of the author’s body type and an exploration of the cultural bias to constantly view the obese through the lens of weight management. Some of us might not think of shows like The Biggest Loser, or A&E’s delightfully trashy Biggest Loser/Intervention hybrid, Heavy, as being overtly fat-shaming (look at all those determined, hard working, sympathetic fat people!), especially when compared to the other ways the overweight are characterized in popular fiction (variations on Jabba the Hutt, or Melissa McCarthy) but would we be as accepting of a heartwarming reality show centered around gay conversion therapy? Or how about a team-style competition in which Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper use tough love and unrelenting stick-to-itiveness to train a bunch of Japanese people to pronounce the letter “r?” It’s apparently okay to insist that fat people dramatically alter themselves to meet societal norms because we have a general consensus that being fat is an undesirable thing to do, but part of what informs that consensus is the image, perpetuated by these shows in the first place, of fat people being made miserable by their bodies (and by our reactions too their bodies).*

And yet, I don’t actually think that shame is what weight loss narratives are really about. In a culture in which a majority of people are overweight and, to quote Bogart, “not interested in sacrifices,” there has to be more to the appeal of this type of story than reinforcing stereotypes. We are a nation of Honeys Boo Boo, fat and unrealistically proud of ourselves; we’re not going to watch something that tells us we should do better.

At their core, I think these are stories about control, and they use weight loss as a medium because it’s concrete, visual, and relatively quick. Life happens to us the same way that fat happens to us: confusingly, and seemingly without our awareness or consent. Life is stolen bicycles and infected ingrown hairs and riding a train to work, thinking about how you were supposed to be a supermodel zoologist who is friends with Bono, and then a homeless man throws up in your lap. (It is also the gentle laughter of children and the first sip of an ice cold beer on a summer afternoon, but mostly it is the thing on the train). In the face of this, we tell each other the story of the man or the woman around whose waistline some unwanted life-things had accumulated, and who, through sheer force of will and a few crunches, was able to wrest from the universe some small amount of control over it all. It beats the hell out of reading The Secret.

*I would also like to point out that many people do not have the luxury of choosing their obesity; they just happen to live in a country in which food manufacturers have more lobbyists than the poor.

Jul 9, 2013

Art, Artists, and Assholes

I am about to hop on a plane to spend a couple days on the other side of the country, but I thought I’d take a moment to briefly touch on a subject that is in the news today: Orson Scott Card.

For those unfamiliar, Card is the author of Ender’s Game, the hugely influential 1985 young adult science fiction novel, as well as a member of the board of directors for the National Organization for Marriage, and an outspoken critic of gay rights in general. In 1990 he wrote that gay people, “cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within society,” a comment that has stuck with him throughout the years, despite his efforts to distance himself from it. In March, DC Comics delayed indefinitely the release of a Superman comic book after Card’s involvement with the storyline prompted a fan boycott and the illustrator withdrew from the project.

Now a second boycott is planned for the release of the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in November. Card issued a statement this morning, saying: “With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state. Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”

In other words, it’s become clear that I’ve lost; I promise to shut up if you don’t wreck my career.

But Card has not (as of this posting) resigned from NOM, nor have the organizers of the Ender’s Game boycott backed off. The merits of the boycott have been hotly debated in the sci-fi community, which has been very heteronormative historically, but also prides itself on its sense of social justice.

I have heard a few arguments against the boycott, usually that we must “separate the artist from the art,” or that people should not be persecuted for their political beliefs (there’s that sense of social justice again.) But we must also put our decisions in a practical context. We might find Wagner’s views problematic, but he is quite dead and unable to act upon them. Orson Scott Card is alive and well, and if you decide to see his movie, you need to own up to the fact that part of your $11.50 will be going to fight marriage equality, and not in an abstract way. It will directly fund the legal defense of things like Prop 8, or the Indiana law passed this week that makes applying for a gay marriage license a felony. That is what NOM does with its money, and it gets its money in part from Card.

We also need to be careful about downplaying the truly repugnant nature of Card’s actions by labeling them “political beliefs.” Supporting filibuster reform is a political belief; Card has dedicated much of his life to marginalizing and dehumanizing a group of people.

At heart, arguments against a boycott rest on the assumption that I owe it to Orson Scott Card (or any other artist) to see his movie, and that by refusing to do so, I am acting unreasonably, when in fact the opposite is true. It’s my time and money; if anyone wants me to spend it on their project, they need to convince me it is worthwhile to do so. My reasons for seeing or not seeing a film are entirely my own, and I have no obligation to justify them to anyone. I decided not see After Earth because it looked terrible, and I have decided not to see Ender’s Game because fuck Orson Scott Card.