Bodies of Knowledge: Fat Studies, Fat Stigma, and Citizenship in U.S. Media Culture
- Author: Dana Heller
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 20, Issue3, p157~181, 31 Dec 2012
This essay explores the representation of the fat female body in contemporary U.S. media culture. It argues that the burgeoning interdiscipline of fat studies ― as well as media images of fat women ― have emerged as salient flashpoints for debate about gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and the proper parameters of citizenship. In the iconography of the mass media, the fat woman has long functioned as a site of palpable public anxiety about changes in the gendered social economy and the citizenship contract. However, some media texts challenge the stigma that is associated with fat. This essay discusses two of these texts, the television series
Ugly Bettyand the John Waters film Hairspray, to argue that the recent establishment of fat studies, and the positive resignification of fat women in U.S. popular culture, provides literary and media scholars with a unique opportunity to track the emergence of a new burgeoning “body” of knowledge regarding the meaning of citizenship.
fat studies , citizenship , stigma , feminism , queer studies , subversion , U.S. mass media
In the summer of 2009, U.S. Fox television premiered a new series,
More to Love, a dating competition show from the creators of The Bachelorand The Bachelorette. The difference in this case was that the female contestants competing for the heart of single guy, Luke Conley, were all plus‐size women. Conley himself, who stands at 6’3 and weighs 300 lbs., claimed that his ideal woman is “full‐figured and comfortable in her own skin.” According to Fox’s promotion, the series would feature “real women” in an effort to “prove that love comes in all shapes and sizes.” The series trailer emphasized the pride these women take in their size, and their refusal to see themselves as abnormal or unattractive. However, when the series aired it told quite the opposite story, as the female contestants, all of them professionally accomplished and articulate, came forward one by one to confess their miserable experiences of heterosexual vulnerability and humiliation, their perennial failures with diets and weight‐loss programs, and their most intimate struggles with rejection and self‐hatred in a culture that encourages women to aspire to size.1 More to Loveis indicative of a contradictory cultural turn in media culture that generates narratives of “fat acceptance” ― stories consistent with a burgeoning activist movement aimed at renegotiating bodily norms and changing social perceptions of overweight people, who are frequent targets of derision and discrimination. The problem is that these narratives of acceptance remain tethered to an ethos of disciplinary enforcement, medicalization, and emotional injustice that invariably reveal the dire consequences of violating aesthetic conventions of body size. As Amy Edrman Farrell observes in Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture, popular television shows such as More To Love(along with The Biggest Loser, Mike and Molly, Celebrity Fit Club, Bulging Brides, and Honey, We’re Killing the Kids) exist “within a cultural context that not only abhors fatness and the fat person as a sign of degeneracy, but also one that has made the degradation of fat people a media ritual” (119). Indeed, in a global media marketplace that continues to equate slenderness with Eurocentric ideals of glamour, sophistication and desire, fat is framed negatively by popular health and medical discourses and continues to be comically depicted in mainstream entertainment culture as a sign of gender non‐conformity, racial and ethnic otherness, and the comic slothfulness of the lower classes. However, with two thirds of all adults in the United States now statistically considered overweight or obese, and with obesity rates continuing to rise in industrialized societies around the world, body norms ― in concert with the global food system ― are undeniably changing (Arnst). These changes are highly complex and have become the focus of scientific and humanistic inquiry, as scholars seek to analyze the causes of contemporary obesity, its effects on individuals and communities, and the public policy implications of what many have described in stark terms as a national crisis, one that is rapidly becoming a worldwide dilemma.
However, as the number of people who can be classified as “obese” has increased, so to has popular resistance against the tendency to treat fat as stigma ― a problem to be eradicated. This resistance has begun to register, in the United States at least, in the gradual yet discernible uptick in images of plus‐size women in the mass media ― in cinema, television, pop music, and even the fashion industry. I want to be careful not to overstate this development, as depictions of fat women remain the exception rather than the rule. But these exceptional images, I will argue, are doing some important cultural work as they negotiate the legacy of fat’s century‐long association with shame and stigma alongside the populist impulse to rewrite that history as part of a critical project that challenges the imposition of disciplinary norms on bodies that have been deemed, for a variety of reasons, “other” ― including women’s bodies, queer bodies, the bodies of immigrants and non‐whites, and working‐class bodies. I want to focus in this essay on representations of fat female bodies, since they have emerged as salient flashpoints for debate about gender, sexuality, and proper parameters of citizenship. In the iconography of the mass media, the fat woman is a site of palpable public anxiety about changes in the gendered economy and the social contract. The fat woman, one might say, is an embodied contradiction, on one hand seeming to rearticulate body norms, while on the other hand suggesting that she simply lacks the discipline or the inspiration to perform her proper gender role, since what woman would not prefer to be thin if she could? And while fat women can claim themselves to be comfortable with their weight, they are simultaneously mocked ― as
More To Lovebrutally demonstrated ― and induced to lament their elimination from the marriage pool, their erasure from the fairytale of heterosexual love and romance that every woman ostensibly dreams of.
Such compelling contradictions are the focus of fat studies, an emerging, interdisciplinary field of scholarship that draws on feminist and queer theories in order to critique the discursive construction of fat and fatness while taking into account the fact that the fat body cannot be wholly reduced to a product of language, symbol, or discourse. Fat studies thus bridges health and medical concerns ― the inescapable materiality of the body ― with the politics of language, visual representation, and cultural knowledge about bodies. And clearly one of the more salient questions facing feminist and queer fat studies scholars is how corpulence came to be regarded as a problem related not only to aesthetics (or the culture’s preference for super‐skinny bodies) and not only to health and medical concerns, but to politics. For indeed, as feminist and queer studies scholars have long observed and sought to analyze, the body ― in its material and symbolic permutations ― constitutes a field of volatile and contradictory political struggle over proper contours of sexuality, citizenship, and social capital. Homophobia and misogyny can be argued in the abstract; however, they have very real consequences for women and for LGBT people in a wide range of contexts ― in employment, in housing, in health, and in education, just to name a few. Similarly, as fat scholars point out, what medical experts and the multi‐billion dollar diet industry tend to frame as a “war on fat,” in fact often amounts to a targeted, discriminatory war on fat people. Scholars working at the intersection of fat studies and media studies tend to highlight the ways in which that “war” translates into fat narrative and to address the knotty question of whether these narratives are helpful or hurtful to the project of reframing fat as one of many physical differences that we can accept in ourselves and in others.
Fat studies, like queer studies, thus challenges some of the most common beliefs about bodies and their social meanings ― beliefs to which people in the United States and elsewhere uncritically subscribe even in the face of evidence that contradicts negative stereotypes of fat people as “other” ― or as unhealthy, immoral, lazy, gluttonous, and dumb. Like gender and sexuality studies, fat studies has a biological as well as discursive dimension that situates lived, embodied experience in dialogue with cultural representations. Moreover, like these “interdisciplines,” fat studies, as an academic field, retains a historical connection to the revolutionary anticapitalistic social movements of the 1960s ― the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, gay liberation, and in particular the activist movement for “size acceptance” that in the United States can be traced back to the 1960s creation of the Fat Underground. As a product of that history, fat studies retains at its core a socially progressive narrative of liberation that tends to be politically leftleaning and philosophically utopian in its aims. However, unlike these fields to which it is undeniably related, fat studies is the relative newcomer to the academy. It has not yet fully acquired the institutional legitimacy and clout that women’s studies, race and ethnicity studies, and LGBT Studies have acquired, albeit in their own hard‐won and on‐going struggles for resources and resilience against perpetually hostile political tides. However, fat studies is well on its way to institutional legitimacy, having recently consolidated its disciplinary identity through the establishment of a dedicated scholarly journal,
Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Societyand the publication of an omnibus reader, The Fat Studies Reader(Rothblum and Solovay). Nevertheless, because it challenges such commonplace contempt for fat people, and because it seeks in part to consolidate fat as a political identity ― as opposed to a health or beauty problem ― fat studies elicits a good deal of skepticism and derision. After all, why would anyone want to normalize fat? And how can fat studies avoid the trappings of an outmoded and discredited politics of identity that would render fat as moral or biological essence, to the occlusion of other critical vectors of subjectivity that make fat people ― or fat women ― impossible to lump together as one and the same.
My position is that the establishment of fat studies ― and the positive resignification of fat women in U.S. popular culture ― provides literary and media scholars with a unique opportunity to track the emergence of a new burgeoning “body” of knowledge regarding the meaning of citizenship. In other words, and to use Irving Goffman’s term for any body that bears the burden of social stigma, as “spoiled identities” that were formerly unspeakable becomes speakable, and as debased identities that were formerly invisible insist upon being seen, we can apprehend a transformation of the structure of knowledge about the body, as an individual entity and as part of the collective social formation. As Foucault did with sexuality, and as feminist scholars have done with gender and femininity, we can now trace a popular genealogy of fat that might provide us with insight into the contradictory processes through which not only fat people ― but women, queers, and racial and ethnic others ― seize authority on behalf of all those who are economically and politically disenfranchised. To begin with, the formation of fat studies ― its legitimization as a discipline ― requires the work of historicization. Although they employ different approaches to framing the question of fat, historians tend to agree that modern Western culture’s privileging of female thinness developed not only as a means of enforcing standards of feminine beauty but as a means of regulating behavior. As Catherine Gallagher has documented, with the rise of the industrial age, the growth of the middle classes in Europe and the United States, and shifts in the ideological division of gendered labor, the visible presence of excessive fat on the female body gradually lost its symbolic association with material abundance, leisure, and health (1987). In the Victorian period, it came rather to be equated with bodily mismanagement and a gendered bourgeois morality, part of which was the belief that women possess an innate capacity to control and transcend all base physical desires, including the desire for food. Women’s constricted legal and economic status became literally manifest in fashions such as corseting, which placed extreme emphasis on the proper distribution of fat on the female body ― slim waist, rounded hips.
At the same time, enlightenment ideals of individual liberty, freedom, and political reform fueled debates about women’s changing social status, as well as the status of the exploited industrial working classes, and the institution of African enslavement in the United States. The radical prospect of transforming the social body to fulfill the promise of human equality ― calls to change the order of gendered, racial, and economic relations ― was a source of great cultural anxiety, which found expression in a discursive obsession with the scientific dissection, categorization, and sequestering of the deviant body. To the extent that the exterior of the body was believed to reveal its inner nature ― its core predisposition ― the measurement of fat on both the male and female body became part of this interpretive process. Increasingly, female corpulence was read to suggest a loss of male control over female sexuality, threats to public health and hygiene, and open defiance of patriarchal authority. The threat of unrestrained female disobedience, the polluting influences of which were often politically linked to urban, African‐American, and immigrant women, was medically codified through the appearance of excessive fat on particular parts of the body, for example the buttocks, stomach, and thighs.
Thus, when we speak of the discursive history of fat we are speaking, wittingly or not, about the unavoidable confluences of racist, sexist, classist, and nationalist ideologies as they become morally, materially, and even corporally manifest at particular historical junctures. Susan Bordo’s watershed work,
Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body(1993, 2003), continues to be of central importance for scholarship on the body precisely because of her recognition that the body ― and in particular the female body ― cannot be reduced to a mere system of trope and effect, but needs also to be understood as a concrete product of the culture that shapes it and guides its everyday material practices. Bodies may be metaphoric, but they function as metaphors with real weight and force. The body makes flesh of history. It literalizes and naturalizes the longings and anxieties that arise out of contests for power and meaning.
And as Bordo trenchantly observes, nowhere are these contests more evident than in popular culture, and especially in the realm of film and television imagery. Take, as an example, the internationally successful franchise,
The Biggest Loser, a show dedicated to the dangerous “pathology of fatness” and its threat not only to the health of overweight contestants, who compete throughout the season to lose weight and attain the strength and confidence associated with “hard bodies,” but also to the nation and its ability to function as healthy and unassailable (Cardenas 2005). A thinner citizenry is a more desirable citizenry, the series suggests, and contestants must demonstrate fierce discipline, motivational team spirit, and theatrical emotional candor in order to transform themselves from objects of ridicule to agents of self‐control. The national ramifications of their metamorphoses are plainly expressed in the U.S. adaptation, with one fitness coach’s reference to himself as “America’s trainer.” The Biggest Loser, from this perspective, conveys a double meaning: Not only does it refer to the contestant who sheds the most flab, but also to all nonparticipants in the hyper‐militarized boot camp that redefined American citizenship in the post‐9/11 era, all those who are marked by the stigma of national disembodiment ― excessive fat.
To wit, in
Fat: A Cultural History of Obesity, Sander L. Gilman demonstrates that the contemporary “war against obesity” frames the issue as a threat to the health of the nation‐state, noting that “health” in this context functions as “a code word for a positive range of qualities that any given society wishes to see in its citizens: from beauty to loyalty to responsibility to fecundity” (3). Fat studies scholars aim to expose the stigmatization of fat ― and the sociallyacceptable oppression of fat people ― that hides behind such rhetoric. However, there is much more that fat studies, in combination with feminist and queer critical methods, can achieve apart from perennially lamenting the debased citizen status of fat people. I argue that fat can also figure as a subversive critical tool for rewriting the rules of citizenship and for appropriating cultural authority on behalf of ethnic, gender, class, and sexual outsiders, and it is precisely this possibility that I shall engage with for the remainder of this essay. To begin, we might consider Ugly Betty, the U.S. adaptation of the Columbian telenovella, Yo Soy Betty La Fea. Starring America Ferrara as Betty Suarez, a Mexican‐American first‐generation college graduate from Queens, New York, the American Betty fused two familiar television genres, the sitcom and soap opera, into an hourlong weekly comedy with a quirky camp sensibility, a large, multiracial cast of actors, and an apologetic willingness to champion, discretely and indiscreetly, a number of what we could call “fat” themes, including the collectively debased status of women, illegal immigrants, non‐whites, and queers.
Discourses of national and sexual otherness ― immigrant minorities and LGBTQ minorities ― became increasingly central to the series’ narrative arc. It achieved this by championing “outlaw bodies” as figures of denaturalization. These “spoiled identities” are strategically linked throughout the series to the ongoing U.S. “culture wars,” specifically to debates over same‐sex marriage, President Barack Obama’s nomination of the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, the rash of anti‐gay bullying in schools, and the controversial construction of a series of concrete barriers along the 1,951‐mile U.S.‐Mexico border, purposely aimed at preventing the illegal crossing of Mexicans into the Southeastern United States. Against a steady fulminating talk‐radio backdrop of homophobic, anti‐abortion, and anti‐immigrant (read: Mexican) politics,
Ugly Bettyhighlighted time and again the extent to which ideologies of misogyny, racism, and the demonization of sexual minorities become damagingly interwoven at critical moments in U.S. history. By connecting Betty’s story arc to other “ugly” characters, the series became, in many ways, a commentary on an oppressive system of bodily segregation whereby certain manifestations of otherness are construed as “fat,” or as inappropriate to the proper fashioning of gender, class, and ethnic embodiment, and potentially transformative of the social contract.
Betty Suarez herself offers a case in point. In the series pilot, frequent reference is made to the fact that she is not only stylechallenged in the eyes of fashion industry employees, but overweight. Rejected for an interview with
Modemagazine because of her looks, she pleads with the supervisor to give her a chance based on her extensive knowledge of their publications. “I know most of your magazines inside out,” she explains. “I try to devour all that I can.” “Clearly,” the supervisor responds sarcastically. Betty’s size is a significant register of her homeliness, or her incompatibility with the botox‐crazed denizens of the corporate fashion world. It is also an indicator of her homeyness, or her status as an ordinary young woman from the working‐class boroughs outside of Manhattan. Additionally, Betty Suarez’ ostensible girth is a trait that sets her apart from other Betties around the world, most of whom ― including the original Betty (Ana Maria Orozco) ― have been played by slim actresses. And this would include the Korean actress, Shinhye Park, who has reportedly been cast as the ugly but kind and good‐hearted, Cho Betty Jae in a South Korean series adaptation, “Nan Chuaghan Betty Ojeon,” (literally: I Am Ugly Betty).2
Now to be honest, America Ferrara’s articulation as a plus size girl requires considerable suspension of disbelief, since her curvaceous figure can, in fact, hardly be called fat. However, here we need to understand fatness not so much in its materiality, but in the perplexing context of the rapidly changing ethnic composition of the U.S. social and political body, as well as recent census data indicating that children from racial and ethnic minorities now account for more than half of all births in the United States (Tavernise). And we should not assume that Betty Suarez’s coding as a chubby chicana is merely a source of cheap amusement or abject spectacle. Quite to the contrary, it was one of
Ugly Betty’smore potent progressive tropes. Betty’s weight, in the context of a storyline that traces her rise to power in the world of high‐fashion publishing, marks both a shift in the formal composition of female citizenship, and a shift in consciousness regarding bodily discriminations. It was also a core component of the series’ distinctive deployment of popular camp, the pleasurable properties of which ― irony, hyperbole, and inverse valuations of good taste ― constitute a comprehensive critique of the category of the ‘natural’ that drew on the aspirations of queer theory and politics, gleefully upending categorical distinctions between surface and depth, naturalness and artifice, normalcy and queerness, beauty and ugliness.
Indeed, without the institutional mainstreaming of queer cultural studies, which developed largely out of feminist debates concerning the socially constructed nature of gendered and sexual identities, it’s hard to imagine fat becoming a critical nexus or object of serious scholarly discussion at all. One of the earlier and more valuable of these discussions, despite its occasionally opaque argument, is written in dialogue form and co‐authored by pioneering queer theorist, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Michael Moon. In “Divinity: A Dossier, a Performance Piece, and a Little‐Understood Emotion,” the writers’ meditation on the body of film director John Waters’ iconic muse, Divine, involves, among other things, recognition of a certain dynamic connection between a fat female sensibility and a gay male sensibility, a connection that the actor’s performance enunciates in Waters’ infamous “trash trilogy” underground films of the 1960s and 70s, as well as in his everpopular 1988 cross‐over masterpiece,
This recognitions merit some attention here, and not simply for the reason that Divine (whose real name was Glen Milstead) was fat and gay. Rather it is because, like gay sexuality, corpulence is revealed to have “a closeted sensibility, a coming‐out process” and ― especially for women ― a stigma stemming from the social construction of gender and sex (Staves 2008).3 Divine’s “queering” of corpulence became a core component of Waters’ distinctive use of camp, which communicates a number of complex aesthetic and political meanings. Moreover, as a focal point for analyzing the aberrant body’s revolutionary potential, Divine’s corpus of performances is relevant to a more general discussion of mainstream popular culture’s ability to strategically subvert heteronormative cultural values, while at the same time supporting the culture that generates those very values.
Sedgwick and Moon are not the only queer critics to have noticed a striking consistency between essentialist discourses of corpulent and homosexual identities. In another essay that seeks to revalue fat bodies by shifting the terms of their analysis from pathology and causation to politics and resistance, Kathleen LeBesco calls for the queering of fat as a strategy of generating new conceptual spaces for the liberation of “spoiled” bodies from their categorical subjugation. This shift is necessary, she explains, since it would recognize “the ability of human actors to participate in the creation of meaning (including the meaning of material bodies) through the discursive processes of communication and politics” (2001 84). And although the archive she draws upon is philosophical rather than cinematic, I believe that Waters’
Hairsprayinitiates precisely the kind of interrogation of fat body politics that LeBesco urges while staging a critical dialogue about gender and sexuality not unlike that in which Sedgwick and Moon engage. Hairsprayis a film that champions fat women and their power to positively resignify the meanings of citizenship and the composition of the national body. It is a film that demands to be interpreted through a hermeneutics of the anti‐authoritarian body, the body that openly transgresses proper social boundaries. It highlights, in particular, the corpulent female bodies of Tracy Turnblad, Edna Turnblad, and Motormouth Maybelle, characters who are fiercely resistant to limitations, questioning of authority, and who ― taken together ― might be said to constitute a Holy Trinity of identity linkages that cross and confound the boundaries of many dense (and condensed) spoiled social bodies: The working class Mother as biological male; the “hair‐hopper” Daughter as agent of social change; the Spiritual Mother of Black Baltimore, in a blond wig. Hairspray’s fat politics, it appears from these contradictions, does not simply interact with the politics of race, gender, sexuality, and class. The film actually offers a useful critique of an identity politics that often reinforces “separate but equal” vectors of oppression, when in fact those vectors are never pure and never stable.
Hairspray, the fat female body provides a structural flashpoint of oppressive power relations as well as a ferocious emblem of the wish to overturn them, as East Baltimore teenager, Tracey Turnblad, becomes an unlikely agent of histori cal change when she is chosen to appear on a popular television dance show, The Corny Collins Show. Before venturing any farther it needs to be said despite John Waters’ claims to historical accuracy, in reality there never was a fat girl on The Buddy Deane Show, the actual show upon which the fictional Corny Collins Show was based. When I interviewed him for a book on Hairspraythat examined, among other things, the film’s relationship to the historical record, Waters explained, “Well, it was the only thing that wasn’t true, that didn’t really happen, there was never a fat girl . . . a black girl could have gotten on easier than a fat girl.” Waters makes it very clear that in his view, to be fat is to be vulnerable to one of the few forms of outright bias that remains socially acceptable, in large part because of the visceral contempt that it arouses. “Fat people have it worse than anybody,” he said. “Fat stands for every outsider, I think . . . . [A]nd the outsider always wins in my movies. The underdog is the star. And the star isn’t traditional in my movies. Normally, the fat kid or the ugly kid, or the gay kid is the sidekick in the movies, never the star. But that kid is always the star in my movies” (Heller 53‐4).
Of course, long before he began working on
Hairspray, Waters had already firmly established a reputation for flagrantly distorting the representational contract between the film star ― in his or her classical Hollywood articulation ― and the public. If, as Richard Dyer famously argues (1986, 2004), film stars variously embody contradictions that deeply matter to all of us ― contradictions produced by their dichotomous positioning as public spectacles and private persons, working individuals and cultural commodities ― Divine, whose 300‐pound cross‐dressed body appears repeatedly and defiantly in Waters’ movies under the banner of “the most beautiful woman in the world,” triumphantly sanctifies the condition of defective embodiment in a culture that equates industry non‐standards, including gender, sexual, class, and racial non‐standards, with monstrosity and terror. The result, which draws equally as much from the commercial and material excesses of American celebrity culture as it does from Jean Genet’s notion of criminal beauty, is an assault on all conventional ideologies of moral and aesthetic embodiment, or in Sedgwick’s words, a savage “reassignment of equations between filth and value” (1993: 236).
Thus, when local television darling, Amber Von Tussel, taunts Tracy during her audition for
The Corny Collins Show, “Aren’t you a little fat for the show? Corny, Tammy, can’t you see? The girl is a trash can,” it is a clear message that Waters is having his revenge against the cultural marketers of “clean teens” ― incarnations of the cultural myth of passive, white, bourgeois feminine embodiment ― by positively resignifying the meanings that attach to the concept of human “trash.” However, the question before us now concerns the critical revisionist turn, wherein Waters writes a fat heroine into a cultural memory where she had not, in fact, played a part. What are the aesthetic and political stakes of such a move? How does Waters’ discursive deployment of female corpulence onto the scene of civil rights debates over the limits of media representation ― the prohibition on African‐Americans shown dancing with whites ― establish, in Angela Stukator’s words, a “revolutionary cultural politics . . . that releases the body from the restrictions of socially sanctioned gendered, racial, and sexual roles?” (211).
For answers to these questions, we might turn to Edna Turnblad, who awakens to the integrationist cause in the course of the narrative, initially chiding her daughter for her weight and recoiling when she first sees her dancing on television. “Big as a house,” Edna cries, underscoring her own comically grotesque size, and her allegiance to the ideological tyranny of female slenderness, shown in her preoccupation with pharmaceutical modes of weight and appetite management. “Didn’t you take that appetite suppressant I gave you on Dr. McKenzie’s orders,” Edna asks at the dinner table when Tracy reaches for the macaroni and cheese. Waters draws on the alleged threats posed by uncontrolled female desires for gratification and pleasure, threats that have traditionally been embodied in the image of the fat woman. “I’ve got nothin’ but hampers of laundry to do and my diet pill is wearing off,” Edna growls, acknowledging the linkages of domestic drudgery to the ever‐looming force of female hungers and desires. Edna’s abject status as a conventional, lower‐class wife and mother is hyperbolized in the image of her outrageously excessive body hunched over an ironing board, draped in a house dress the size of a tarp, surrounded by piles of dirty clothing, a faint five o’clock shadow dimly yet unmistakably covering her jowls.
The iconic power of this image in the annals of Waters’ and Divine’s long‐standing cinematic partnership rests on its ability to encapsulate their signature denaturalization of the body tyrannized by the social and economic organization of human needs and desires.
Hairsprayperforms this denaturalization not only on behalf of the comically grotesque female body, which Tracy and Edna Turnblad most literally emblematize, but on behalf of all bodies ideologically marked as heterogeneous, wasteful, and filthy: fat bodies, working class bodies, dark‐skinned bodies, queer bodies. And in this way, Hairspray― like Ugly Bettyand a number of popular culture artifacts that can be said to constitute an emerging fat archive ― achieves through comedy and innuendo something that many overtly political films do not: It effectively extends the progressive aspirations of a post‐structuralist feminist/queer practice to all those who might benefit from a critique of the modern “micropractices” of bodily administration, social demarcation, and participation in the reformation of the nation.
Bodies do the talking in
Hairspray.And as these bodies talk, they disarticulate the dominant discursive construction of fatness ― and by extension homosexuality ― as having some essential pathological cause or origin in failure. In the process of becoming a Corny Collins council member and civil rights activist, Tracy essentially “comes out” as a fat girl, using her body to publicly refuse cultural invisibility and silencing. As mother and daughter, Tracy’s outspoken corpulence is visually linked to Edna’s. However, Divine’s presence in the film, and the physical traces of gender nonconformity that mark Edna suggest even to those not already “in the know” that this mother‐daughter nexus is queer at the root. And this knowledge destabilizes the foundations of gender and sex, dethroning Oedipal relations and casting a skeptical sidelong glance at the fault lines of human biology. By fashioning Rikki Lake into a smaller, mirror image of Divine and by costuming the two at critical narrative junctures, such as the Pre‐Teen Day broadcast, in garish identical mother‐daughter outfits from Mr. Pinky’s “Hefty Hideaway,” Waters invites us to suspend disbelief even as he gently explodes the myth of individual ontogeny, a narrative that takes for granted the natural role of the heterosexual family in creating a proper alignment of gender identity and sexual object choice And as Tracy’s suspect body becomes positively aligned and allied with a queer maternal body and the unruly bodies of African‐Americans in revolt against dominant cultural definitions of blackness as aberrant and dangerous, Hairsprayeffectively establishes a playful yet productive site “for reconstructing citizenship practices through a lens that examines the corporeal alongside the material, the racial, and the sexual as mutually constitutive elements” (Lebesco 84).
But how then can we make sense of the seemingly unremitting tendency to wrest misery and tragedy from the lives of fat women? What lessons, if any, can we learn from
Hairspray’spositive representations of deviant bodies in a film made almost twenty‐five years ago? And has Hairspray’sholding power, meaning its continued vibrancy in mass culture franchising through processes of adaptation and globalization, advanced its original message? To this, I would say yes, it has. And perhaps what we’ve learned in the process is that to call a movie or television series “popular” is by definition to admit that it is neither, in any pure sense, radical or resistant nor defensive of the status quo. Rather, popular film is “the ground upon which the transformations are worked” (Hall 228). It’s where negotiations between resistance and acquiescence, dominance and subordination, margin and center, and cultural outsider and cultural insider take place and become organized within specific social, national, and historical contexts.
Hairsprayopened as a Broadway musical, John Waters conceded, “the real reason I’m praying that Hairspray. . . succeeds is that if it’s a hit, there will be high school productions, and finally the fat girl and the drag queen will get the starring parts” (165). Here, Waters speaks not only to the visceral contempt that both fat women and gay men arouse, but to the idea of “residual subversion,” or the belief that social disruptions of the sorts enacted through art and ritual are never entirely ameliorated. They do not leave the world unchanged. Rather, the spirit lingers on, like “Gangnam Style,” or like a melody that remains stuck in your head long after the music video has ended. Similarly, fat sticks in our heads as one of the great intellectual challenges of 21st‐century humanities scholarship. Fat studies promises to channel the inevitability of ongoing transformations in the field of “normal” social relationships into national and transnational contexts, and as such, fat citizenship may be just what we need to reinvigorate the progressive spirit of democratic popular resistance to bodily stigma and its global corporate management.
1Although FOX has not announced plans for a second season at the time of this writing, promotional copy remains accessible on the network’s sponsored website (http://www.fox.com/moretolove/). 2Rumors of the adaptation, which would reportedly star the popular South Korean film stars Park Shin‐hye (as Betty) and Jang Geun Suk (as her boss),circulated in the summer of 2012, with expectations that the series would premiere in October 2012. However, as of this writing, the series has yet to materialize, despite the continued circulation of rumors and fan chatter on social media websites. 3I want to express my gratitude to Dana Staves for producing a research paper on the 2007 Adam Shankman adaptation of the Broadway musical, Hairspray, which helped me establish a theoretical frame for this section.