fat activism: a radical social movement
Charlotte Cooper, HammerOn Press, Bristol, 2016, 312pp., ISBN: 978-1-9108-4900-2, £16.00 (Pbk)
female bodies on the american stage: enter fat actress
Jennifer-Scott Mobley, Palgrave Macmillan, London and New York, 2014, 252pp., ISBN: 978-1-1374-3066-3, £57.50 (Hbk)
In Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement and Female Bodies on the American Stage: Enter Fat Actress, Charlotte Cooper and Jennifer-Scott Mobley respectively grapple with concerns around the widespread marginalisation of fat people in contemporary Western culture and examine strategies that have been developed to counter this prejudice.
Fat Activism serves as a genealogy of fat activism as a social movement rooted in the histories of the US Civil Rights Movement and a fat feminism that emerged in the US and was concerned with a ‘feminist activist analysis of fat’ (p. 103). Cooper traces fat activism’s labyrinthine origins and development through its links to radical lesbian separatism both in the US and UK at different times, as well as its shared history with the less politically motivated and unfeminist fat appreciation movement through organisations such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. Through this historicising, Cooper is able to provide a rich account of fat activism that convincingly positions it as a significant social movement worthy of recognition and examination as such, whilst also providing incisive critique of the movement itself and some of the more broadly applicable structures and concerns arising from movements for social transformation.
Cooper’s writing style is refreshingly accessible, in a conversational tone that will ensure this book manages to appeal to activist readerships well beyond the narrow scope of academia. Taking issue with the elitism of ‘ivory tower’ academic knowledge communicated through rarefied language, Cooper deliberately positions this book as a ‘para-academic’ (p. 8) project, and her use of footnotes and clear definitions of academic jargon work as an effective activist strategy in this sense. It also functions as an example of fat activism in itself, and one of the predominant contributions this text makes both to fat activism and scholarship is arguably through its thorough citation of existing work in the field. The extensive footnotes outlining references to previous writing, web publications and other sources serve as an indispensable repository of prior work.
After introducing her aims and approach, Cooper opens with a long chapter on ‘Undoing’ fat activism, which acts both as a broadly sociological methodology and a caveat for those who may think they know what fat activism is through limited knowledge of a set of assumptions about it, which she identifies as unhelpful ‘proxies’. Unpacking the vague rhetoric of body-positivity, feminist analysis of the politics of food, and discourses of obesity and health, among others, Cooper argues that these stand-ins overwrite the true breadth of fat activism, creating a reductionist image that is then easily dismissed. Countering this in the section on ‘Doing’, she sketches out the breadth of the field of fat activism as ‘potentially limitless, beyond boundaries and control’ (p. 94). Various ‘types’ of activism are defined, ranging from the recognisable political process activism and community building to cultural production and the more diffuse forms of what she terms ‘micro’ and ‘ambiguous’ fat activism. The latter provide particularly useful insights into how to understand and think about social movements and activism in general that will be of interest to a broad range of scholars, activists and cultural workers interested in social justice. Activists, Cooper claims, have a tendency to distinguish from what they consider activism proper, the ‘small, understated moments’ (p. 78) of everyday activism—as enacted through a conversation, for example—and yet these moments are sometimes the most powerful and most accessible forms of activism.
Mapping her personal trajectory of fat activist realisation, Cooper uses the chapters ‘Locating’ and ‘Travelling’ to both set out a genealogy of fat activism and raise questions around the importance, particularly for feminists, of practices of citation and historiography. Her call to other fat activists to participate in naming the encounters with previous activists’ work that enabled their own activism is a counter to the erasure feminists and fat people themselves have suffered in the existing documentation dominated by the various ‘proxies’ she outlines at the beginning. Through these and the subsequent chapter on ‘Accessing’, Cooper again draws out questions that resonate far beyond fat activism itself by addressing tensions within a social movement and the stagnation, privilege, assimilation, gentrification and co-option by neo-liberal consumer capitalism of a radical movement, issues that are pertinent to all movements for social transformation. It will be of particular interest to feminist scholars how Cooper manages to develop sharp critical analysis of what she identifies as problematic elements of the movement, including cultural imperialism, white supremacy, homogeneity and moralism, whilst still championing its value and necessity. The nuance with which Cooper navigates this thorny terrain is valuable for thinking about ongoing conflict within feminist debates on how we can reconcile the varied and often contradictory strands of past and present feminist thinking.
Fat Activism aims to be many things for many different audiences, and it is predominantly successful in achieving this. As with any account of such a broad movement, there are things left out that some will find conspicuous in their absence, but for those unfamiliar with the movement or its feminist beginnings, it provides a rich, if necessarily partial, overview. For activists and scholars already working in the field, it develops some pertinent critical questions and challenges that may assist us in moving forward and countering the capitalist co-option and loss of radical political energy Cooper identifies. Moreover, the nuanced and thoughtful examination of the various difficulties and conflicts inherent in doing activist work and scholarship tied to a movement for social change means that its contributions go well beyond the specificity of fat, making it a useful resource for anyone, inside or outside of academia, who is interested in activism, social movements, feminism and intersectionality.
Jennifer-Scott Mobley takes a very different approach in Female Bodies on the American Stage. Her intention is to examine how the fat female body on stage and screen has come to act as a signifier for a range of qualities stemming from deeply entrenched anti-fat prejudice and sexism. She argues convincingly and with ample evidence that an image of a fat woman in a play, film or television programme is never simply a woman who happens to be fat: fatness inevitably imbues her with certain (pejorative and highly gendered) character traits. To support this argument, Mobley analyses a range of theatrical, televisual and filmic examples from 1947 to the present day featuring fat women, combining detailed textual analysis of the plays themselves with examinations of specific productions, their casting choices, reviews and reactions, as well as broader discussion of particular actresses.
Chapter 1 provides a historical account of how America came to ‘hate fat people’ (p. 1) and fat women in particular. She outlines the social, political and economic context for the emergence and expansion of anti-fat culture in the United States, and particularly how this laid the groundwork for the ways in which fatness would come to signify over the following decades. The remaining three parts of the book examine the representations of fat women that most concern Mobley: ‘Fat dramaturgies’ addresses the ways in which playwrights use fatness either for plot development or to indicate a character type; ‘Fat subjectivities’ examines fat identity as a lived experience of otherness; and ‘Reclaiming fat’ and the conclusion provide a hopeful look at some of the ways with which fat writers and actresses have worked to subvert or critique this stereotyping and how this challenge might be nurtured and developed.
Unfortunately, Mobley’s argument is couched in a number of problematic and unhelpful assumptions and claims. The text opens with the supposed aphorism that prejudice against fat people ‘is the last remaining acceptable social and legal bias toward an individual or identity group’ (p. 1), a sweeping generalisation that vastly minimises and simplifies the complexities of prejudice, marginalisation and discrimination. This quite limited reading of intersectionality is further played out in the chapters discussing ‘Fat black miscegenation’ and ‘Queering fat’, both of which rest on a somewhat underdeveloped analysis of fatness, queerness and blackness as linked through their connotation of ‘otherness’ and position outside of white American heteronormative beauty standards. Another limitation of this text is its lack of clarity in how it is delineating what exactly constitutes ‘fat’. Mobley acknowledges the disparity between unrealistic Hollywood slimness and how fatness is attributed in the ‘real’ world, stating that she is concerned with a more general category of women who are seen as somehow ‘more-than’ (p. 3). This claim falls apart when considering the breadth of her source materials, both historically and in terms of medium, as it is difficult to read coherence between the various levels and kinds of fat embodiment discussed together in the book. Elizabeth Taylor, Lena Dunham and Melissa McCarthy, for example, simply do not signify as ‘fat,’ ‘other’ or ‘abject’ in the same way, and Mobley’s failure to address this ultimately weakens her argument.
Despite these limitations, Mobley is able to develop some insights into how we can make sense of and critique representation of fat white women in theatre, television and film. Her concepts of ‘fat performativity’ and ‘fat behaviour’—the ways in which certain forms of conduct become coded as fat regardless of actual body size through highly gendered expectations of feminine constraint—are likely to be useful to scholars in fat studies as well as feminists analysing the construction and reproduction of gendered norms in media and popular culture. After the overwhelming onslaught of fatphobia in many of her examples, Mobley closes on a hopeful note, identifying a possible sea change for contemporary fat actresses carving out their own space outside of these narrow and hateful stereotypes. She also incites further change from the ground up, calling for a reprogramming of these associations through a consistent commitment to what she calls ‘body-blind casting’. I expect we can all share her hope that this strategy might manage to oust the existing norms using the very same tactic through which they were established.