ELAYNE RIGGS: This is for all the fat girls
The most recent flap in the blogosphere, probably since wiped out by the twin blog-fodder hurricanes of Wizard World Philly and Heroes Con, concerns some ill-considered remarks made by the magician wife of one of DC’s current star writers. Can you tell which of the following statements she made?
Quote #1: "And you know, also, someone raised the point in, I don’t know if it was in a forum I was reading but it’s something I’ve heard a million times before – but usually, the strongest and loudest protest over sexy things come from ugly fat girls. And now I don’t necessarily agree with that and I’m probably going to get some awesome flame mail as a result of this, but as somebody who’s relatively secure in her sexuality — I don’t think I’m the hottest broad out walking around — I definitely don’t think I compare to some of these comic book chicks — but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to look at ’em. I find the feminine form very appealing and I’m not at all offended by that."
Quote #2: "My pretty-girl allies stick out like a sore thumb amongst the corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie-chick pie wagons they call ‘women’ at the Democratic National Convention."
Okay, that was pretty easy. The second quote was from professional crazy pundit Ann Coulter, and it, among other gems, got her fired from covering the 2004 DNC for USA Today. Aside from acting batshit insane most of the time, Coulter is also what’s known as a useful ally, someone who will dutifully say intentionally outlandish things about people she doesn’t like and groups to which she ostensibly belongs (like "women") for the purpose of pleasing her masters in the far-right corners of the Republican Party, a cadre that would probably find her (as an independent woman) near worthless if she didn’t serve their purposes.
Now, I’m certainly not comparing Misty Lee to Ann Coulter, just pointing out the similarities in their methods here. In each case we have a woman who seems to believe she’s in a position to speak to the way all women should be (i.e., in her self-image) by smearing the physical appearance of any women who don’t conform to that "ideal." In both situations the ad-hominem attacks (in which an argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the person presenting that argument) seem unprovoked; in other words, they’re not a response to anything which had personally affected the attacker.
In addition, the Lee statement also constitutes an attack against a straw-feminist, where the attacking statement simply ignores a feminist’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position against which to argue, naturally with success since the argued-against position was never stated by the feminist in the first place. (And it’s compounded by the passive-aggressive addition of "Now, I don’t necessarily agree with that," in which case, one wonders, why even state it in the first place? "Something I’ve heard a million times" is kind of like George Bush’s "some people," a way of not accepting responsibility for the words one chooses to use to cut others down.)
The important thing to note here is that it’s almost beside the point to try to defend against or even respond to ad hominem straw attacks, because the rhetorical devices defined above ensure that the attacker is the one setting the ground rules (and moving the goalposts!), and you cannot win a game that has been rigged against you from the start.
For instance, it does no good to respond with the truth — that plenty of women of all shapes and sizes and along the full spectrum of attractiveness (and what a subjective word that is!) read and enjoy superhero comics and just want them to be better, to include a paper mirror of their fantasies as well as boys’ and men’s fantasies.
It’s also beside the point to observe, as Tamora Pierce says, that "White male entitlement is nasty when it comes to pretty women. It’s thuggish for plain ones, and vicious for pretty ones. Let’s forget savaging each other, and go after that." That may go a ways toward gaining good karma for forgiving one’s attacker, but it’s closing the barn door after the genie’s escaped the bottle; the attack has already been successful.
It’s even wasted breath to answer the attack by pointing out, as Lisa Fortuner does in one of her more brilliant essays, that "It amazes me that it never occurs to certain people that the problem is not one of jealousy or lack of attraction, but of identification with the character." After all, you can’t get a much deeper sense of identification than Misty Lee apparently has for Zatanna. (Besides which, Lisa’s train of thought here doesn’t take into account that, to most of the people who create comics, they’re heterosexual male heroic fantasies, which usually go something like, "I want to be like this guy and have this woman." Presenting a female character that readers want to be like violates the idea of the male fantasy. Presenting a male character that readers want to have also violates it, which may be why yaoi — thematically all about the "guys readers want to have" — has such appeal to women. But I digress.)
No, nothing can really answer an attack like "You’re fat and ugly and your mother dresses you funny!" because it’s designed, whether consciously or not, to shut out any intelligent discussion of underlying assumptions. The only way to "win" this flailing bid for attention is to rise above it and point it out for what it is, a foolish tirade which says far more about the attacker than her targets. As Alton Brown likes to say at the end of every Iron Chef America competition, "Walk away — just walk away!"
On the other hand, because we all love to hear ourselves talk, this past week’s discussions about the aforementioned underlying assumptions have been terrific anyway, as they’re applicable to so many other situations besides the pointless idea of responding to foolishness. For instance, my personal launching point for this column is the stereotypical pairing of "fat and ugly," and with good reason.
I’ve had to deal with fatphobia my entire life. The most recent example is the assumptions still prevalent in the medical community, which should know better about the complex relationship between health and weight and food. I’ve just had my annual checkups. My low-dosage meds are keeping my BP and heart rate under control so well that the docs have cut the dosage even further on one of them. In other words, all the "higher risk" things assumed by many to be weight-related appear, in my case, much more attributable to genetics and job stress — the things one can’t see just by looking at someone, but which doctors can discover via the right tests and questions.
As fat acceptance activist Kate Harding notes, “Weight itself is not a health problem, except in the most extreme cases (i.e., being underweight or so fat you’re immobilized). In fact, fat people live longer than thin people and are more likely to survive cardiac events, and some studies have shown that fat can protect against ’infections, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, osteoporosis, anemia, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes.’ Yeah, you read that right: even the goddamned diabetes.” It infuriated me when my doctor referred to me as “borderline diabetic” because a reading that she took two years ago was a tenth of a percentage point too high (and was right back into the normal range last year). My godson’s brother is diabetic, my dad was diabetic, don’t go throwing that word around if it doesn’t apply to me just because your prejudices about my physical appearance lead you to assume it should.
Kate further points out that “obesity research is turning up surprising information all the time — much of which goes ignored by the media — and people who pride themselves on their critical thinking skills would be foolish to accept the party line on fat. Just because you’ve heard over and over and over that fat! kills! doesn’t mean it’s true. It just means that people in this culture really love saying it.” (I can’t recommend highly enough Kate’s posts here, which deal with everything from the anti-fat messages given to kids to how this sick mindset even affects things like cartoon characters. Kate was the one who found the Bingo card reproed above.)
I’ll grant you, I do have mobility problems, as a result of a sprained ankle which led to a sciatica flare-up. But even as my doctor wrote me a referral for physical therapy so I can start exercising again without pain, all she wanted to talk about was diets and nutritionists (the day after I rang up over $50 at my local veggie store!) and the fact that I’d gained four whole pounds in a year (pretty good considering my enforced inactivity). It wasn’t about the health at all with her, it was strictly about the physical appearance and a random scale number of what our current society has decided is healthy. And when I checked with my much thinner brother to see if he got the same sermon for his sciatica, I was surprised to find that he not only did, but he agrees with it and he took the chance to add insult to injury by starting to lecture me about how excess weight affects joint health and how I should know better than to believe everything I read on the internet (as opposed to, you know, what my own body and life experiences tell me). I can’t believe, after almost five decades, I walked right into that trap again — heck, I was the one who gave him the opening to spring it!
It’s no wonder fat women have an extra-large helping of self-esteem issues to battle. But the good news is, there are lots of confident, healthy fat women fighting this claptrap and winning. Perhaps Lee had trouble finding an example in southern California, so allow me to suggest one of my favorites, actress Camryn Mannheim. You may know Mannheim from TV shows like Ghost Whisperer, The L Word and The Practice, but I know her mostly from the buzz about her 1996 one-woman Public Theater show, "Wake Up, I’m Fat!" which played to sold-out audiences. And I’ll never forget her Emmy acceptance speech, "This is for all the fat girls!" This is one amazingly beautiful fat woman.
And she’s not the exception to the rule. By and large (pun intended), there are probably more pretty and beautiful fat women than there are ugly ones, but we live in a society (southern California even more so) where "fat" is always paired with "ugly" (and "lazy" and a whole bunch of other epithets) in the view of far too many. Anti-fat stereotyping is so ingrained in our weight-obsessed and "obesity epidemic" scare-story culture that you can’t really even blame these people’s minds for being where "ugly" really resides. You just have to try to understand that they’re coming from a place of rigorously enforced narrow-mindedness and, again, move on, just as you’d move on from the "hirsute, somewhat fragrant" nonsense.
In other words, consider the source. Then dismiss the baiting, ad hominem straw-statement as the idiocy it obviously is. And then concern yourself with what’s really important. Like how long it’s taken some of us to move beyond the "no fat chicks" attitude and remind ourselves we can be as beautiful as anyone else, regardless of size. And how many of us are finally there in that beautiful place, making a difference just by existing and demanding better entertainment that shows us our paper mirrors in full-length and full-width size.
So yo, this is for all the fat girls.
Elayne Riggs is ComicMix‘s news editor and is pleased as punch that her husband Robin will be inking fellow ComicMix contributor John Ostrander’s new Suicide Squad miniseries.