Interviewer: “What would you say is your worst quality?”
Candidate: “I have to admit that I am brutally honest.”
Interviewer: “Why, I don’t think that honesty is a negative personality trait at all!”
Candidate: “I really don’t give a flying fuck what you think.”
Oh how we laughed, recognizing ourselves—especially me—as the candidate. Not that my partner gives any kind of fuck about what others think of him; he just cares so little that such an aggressive response would never occur to him. It would be a waste of time better spent doing something else, like sleeping. He is really good at that. Me not so much. I require little sleep and am a bit more confrontational in my self-assuredness. In any case, I have begun this post with a joke in order to introduce the topic at hand: the politics of comedy. More precisely, in what follows I will address fat politics and comedy.
Fat people have long been the butt of jokes, subject to stereotypes that label them clumsy, stupid, gluttonous, or jolly. I have long wanted to write a post about how “fat” male and female comedians use different strategies to reinforce and contest these stereotypes. But I have since found a more compelling comedic critique of the so-called obesity epidemic, made by a contemporary American artist named Rachel Herrick (http://www.rachelherrick.com). She has created The Museum of Obeast Conservation Studies (MOCS) and it is, my friends, sheer genius. Using herself as a model “Obeast” creature, Herrick mimics the methods of anthropological museums to relate the history, habitat, and mating habits of this large, fascinating, and mysterious creature, now imperiled by climate change and human misunderstanding. In deadpan fashion, Herrick recreates museum dioramas, placards, and informational diagrams that point both to the current objectification of people of size, and the scientific methods used to legitimate the unwarranted attack against them. Basically, the artist aims to expose what Stephen Colbert would call the “truthiness” of current conceptions of obesity. And like him, she uses irony and sly humour to do so.
Herrick explains her project: “Being fat is nothing like what the media or cultural stereotypes portray—a steady, impulsive gorging fueled by ignorant self-loathing and melancholy laziness. I have been some version of fat most of my life. Growing up on a farm handling cows and pigs, size and strength were an advantage. However, in my post-farm adult years my physical dimensions (coupled with a proportionate personality) have at times marked me for ridicule and stigma, especially in the yellow glow of the recent media-fueled panic concerning the obesity epidemic.
My recent work stems from exasperation with the identity I felt was being culturally ascribed to me as a fat woman. The wearing dissonance caused by my self-perceptions existing at odds with the cultural treatment and portrayal of fat people frustrated me to the point where I could no longer simply navigate within the system of fat discrimination: I needed to examine it with the tools available to me as an artist. At a genesis moment for the project, I remember thinking, ‘Ok, fine. I’ll be fat just the way the world thinks I am. I’ll live the stereotype.'”
Herrick’s clever creation is part of an ongoing reconsideration of museums, which includes questioning how, when, and why these institutions have produced certain kinds of knowledge for the benefit of some people—mostly rich and white—at the expense of “others,” mostly poor and non-white. As a specialist in critical museum theory, I have published widely in this field, focusing on the politics of natural history museums, which is no doubt partly why Herrick’s project appeals to me. The artist uses the kind of taxidermied specimens and explanatory diagrams displayed in such institutions as the Canadian Museum of Civilization—soon to be decimated by the neo-con agenda of Prime Minister Harper—and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Referencing the evolution of man from beast, she positions the Obeast as a creature that is not fully human; as a separate species, the Obeast is a wild animal awarded the kind of careful scientific study that will ultimately destroy it.
In a similar critique of the powerful production of knowledge within museums, the Pooyukitchum and Mexican-American performance artist James Luna displayed himself inside a glass box, inviting museum visitors to approach him as an “artifact.” He thereby alluded to the nineteenth-century belief that Native Americans were naturally pure primitives worthy of appropriation, but also necessarily doomed to become extinct because of their inability to adapt to modern civilization. Encouraging viewers to examine their own participation in oppressive structures, Luna asked “Why is a living Indian man considered threatening, whereas a motionless and apparently dead one is worth preserving?”
Herrick places the obesity epidemic alongside other forms of knowledge production that have debased and objectified people in the past. Some of her installations in the Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies allude to the capture and display of Aboriginal and African peoples during the early modern period in Europe. The most famous case involves the Hottentot Venus, the stage name for Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa who was enslaved and put on display in England and Ireland during the early nineteenth century. Despite Baartman’s high intelligence and ability to speak many languages, Europeans focused on her large buttocks and labia, considering her to be more ape-like than human. After her death in 1815, Baartman’s excised genitals were preserved in a jar and exhibited in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, remaining on display until 1974. Herrick reshapes this shameful history when she produces diagrams of the Obeast with arrows pointing to its “urogenital slit,” and includes rather hilarious images of its preferred “straddle” mating position.
In my opinion, Herrick’s approach to fat politics is sophisticated and has more potential for encouraging change than does that of Ragen Chastain, discussed in a previous blog about her book, Fat: A User’s Guide. Obesity is not simply denounced as a myth, declared “perfectly natural,” or considered a personal choice by Herrick. Her museum intervenes in dominant discourses by revealing the mechanisms that produce truth, allowing visitors to engage directly with funny and potentially alarming materials. The target audience is not positioned as ignorant and hateful; instead, the “general public” is asked to reconsider the means by which some people become more valuable than others. Still, I am made slightly uneasy by the way in which Herrick’s work links fat oppression with other forms of oppression, including the genocidal efforts that decimated Aboriginal populations in North America and the enslavement of Africans. Herrick places the obesity epidemic within the framework of colonial conquest, and I am not sure about the appropriateness of this strategy. Obesity and its interpretation are definitely informed by conceptions of race—among others, Lauren Berlant has produced a strong cultural analysis of this issue—but I am not convinced that fat people have been dehumanized as a group along the same lines as Indians and Africans. I am made equally uneasy by calls for fat people to “come out of the closet,” which implies that fat phobia and homophobia are congruent and have similar effects on people’s lives. I think not, but would welcome responses to these thorny problems, as well as suggestions for better ways to challenge the supposedly threatening and dangerous obesity epidemic that we are currently enduring.