Over in the comments of Kate Harding's "First, Do No Harm" post at Shakesville and interesting tangent came up about the fat negativity that crops up in the Harry Potter series. Now, I'm the one person in the world who doesn't read Harry Potter, but I have heard mention of the way it occasionally uses "fat as shorthand" literary devices that are sadly quite common. Fat is shorthand for laziness, for evil, for greed, for irresponsibility, for corporate America, for impoverished America, for consumption, for filth, for all sorts of things. So, what is a fat activist to do when confronted with an artist or work they generally enjoy indulging in this manner of fat negativity.
Honestly, I usually ignore it.
Well, not ignore it, necessarily. I mean, I recognize the stereotypes and I'm properly offended. It is offensive the way fat is used to convey all manner of negative traits. Its demeaning and dehumanizing. But ultimately, I feel I can't judge the artist or the work too harshly for it. Because what they expressed is almost certainly something every other artist I like thinks is true. Fat negativity is very privileged in our society. So privileged that few ever give much thought to it. Its just how things are. They didn't decided to be a fat bigot. Its our society that is fat bigoted. I can be frustrated by this without throwing out the artist who indulged in the bigotry. How I can I judge them personally for attitudes I know are so common? Attitudes so many of my friends and family surely hold as well.
Its wrong. Don't mistake me. And recognizing the wrongness is an important part of repairing our culture of fat hatred. But, in the long view I think I need to remember that there have been brilliant minds throughout history who still believed the prevailing casual bigotries of the days. The bigotry so ingrained in society that no one had to think about them. Racism, sexism, religious intolerance, they all were once what everyone believed. I'm not naive enough to think that a future society won't look back at our culture with shock that our great thinkers and artists could so readily believe what they do. I hope one part of what shocks them is the fat bigotry. But as I don't dismiss historical figures merely for being a product of their times, so too I don't feel comfortable dismissing artists for falling into cultural prejudices of our contemporary society.
Oh, it pisses me off. When Al Franken gets a little too pleased with himself for cracking supposedly satirical fat jokes, it pisses me off. When Friends indulged in fat-drag, it pisses me off. When Mike Myers created "Fat Bastard" it pissed me off. When Ben Folds uses fat as short-hand for over-consumption, it pisses me off. It should piss me off. Its cheap, unimaginative, and exploitative. Nevertheless, while I can't cut every friend or family member who holds fat prejudices out of my life, I feel like it would be unjustly indulgent to apply such standards to artists. I can enjoy what entertains me while still being pissed off at what offends me. Sometimes I wish we could wall off anyone who ever expresses fat prejudices, but its a luxury I just don't think would be fair.
I'm not saying its an easy thing to judge. Who is acting out of social conditioning and who is actively promoting that social conditioning? The line is often blurred so I can hardly blame someone for being less forgiving than I am. The progress we want is sharpening that line and prompting people to think about what side of it they want to be on. I hope we'll get to the point when individual fat hatred can be judged as harshly as it deserves, but right not the problem is first with our society and no single person is to blame for that.