In keeping with my last three posts, I am once again jumping on the media bandwagon, hoping to get more hits and comments by writing about a viral news story. You are no doubt especially tired of this one: “the crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford.” My initial response to the relatively recent events is one of sadness and dismay, not for the buffoonish mayor, but for Toronto. I happen to love that city and know it very well, having visited it hundreds of times, often for lengthy periods. As someone born and raised in London, Ontario, Toronto was nearest “big city,” where we regularly went to see concerts, visit the Canadian National Exhibition, barf at Canada’s Wonderland, or catch a flight headed for somewhere else. I actually feel more at home in Toronto than I do in Edmonton, my current place of residence. That is why I feel sorry for Toronto and for those thousands of dwellers, most of them living in the city’s centre, who did not vote for Ford. In fact, many were alarmed by his campaign and lobbied against him with great vigour. Why, then, is Ford seemingly more popular now with a significant portion of his supporters? Instead of rehashing the usual narratives about his career, analyzing his outrageous statements and behaviours, or considering the efforts of Toronto city counselors to curtail his power, in what follows I want to focus on his mass appeal, which, I will insist, has a lot to do with his body.
Before I move on to that monumental topic, however, I cannot avoid discussing how Rob Ford got elected as mayor in the first place, a subject that finds resonance with the arguments made in the previous guest post by Kick and Glide. When elected as mayor in 2010, Ford won 43% of the vote, gaining a large majority in all of the city’s suburban areas, and a mere 20% of the votes in its centre. Ford deliberately cultivated this division, describing his dedication to the average beer drinking guy, while alluding to his distaste for downtown symphony goers obviously familiar with communist principles. In other words, Ford adopted the standard conservative strategy of reinforcing stereotypes of “us” versus “them,” associating well-educated, left-leaning individuals with useless whiners who liked to ride “the gravy train.” Ford campaigned on the usual promise of “no new taxes,” cutting such wasteful social services as libraries and parks, while defending the right of motorists to drive without encountering annoying cyclists on paths beside them. In short, Ford rose to power by endorsing an anti-intellectual stance that is now visible everywhere. Just the other day, I was watching a local news story about the recent sale of three painted studies by Francis Bacon for just over 142 million dollars. The “anchor woman” boldly declared: “I never even heard of the guy” before questioning the anonymous buyer’s taste in art. I was flabbergasted, but not because she was unaware of one of the most famous international artists in recent memory—Bacon died in 1992. I was shocked that she did not even bother to google Bacon’s name or pretend to know something about his work. Instead, she wore her ignorance like a badge of pride. In what other areas of life would this brazen lack of knowledge be acceptable? I suspect that this anchor woman asked someone to locate Syria on a map, for example, before reporting on the atrocities there. I too know very little about Syria, but I consider that lack of knowledge to be a personal defect that reveals my limitations, not something to brag about. Sigh.
Back to the subject at hand: Ford is in no way akin to the “common man.” His family owns a multi-million dollar corporation and is incredibly wealthy. He comes from and remains tied to privilege. His main claim to being an “every man” rests solidly on his appearance. His large size, ill-fitting suits, and unruly bodily outbursts—not to mention his indulgence in drugs and alcohol—make him relatable. Just read the
letters to the editor in his defense which baldly make this claim. I first contemplated this puzzle while taking a taxi to one of my obstetrical appointments, way the fuck over by the West Edmonton Mall. The driver was a feisty Polish immigrant eager to debate political topics, and I was game. After discussing his view of immigration policy—he argued that there
should be two tiers of Canadian citizenship, with immigrants forever positioned lower than those born in Canada, while I disagreed—we moved on to the topic of our new mayor, Don Iveson. “I would never vote for that guy,” the taxi driver fumed. “He looks too pretty and dresses too nice. I want someone who will take care of the roads because that’s what matters to me.” While agreeing that our new mayor looks like he just walked off the set of Mad Men, I replied that I had indeed voted for him, for various reasons, including his support of heritage preservation. “In any case,” I countered, “Iveson promised to increase the road budget by 25% whereas the old white guy that you preferred only said that he would cut taxes without explaining how he would do so.” By the way, this older white guy looked a lot like Rob Ford, though was slightly less fat.
Obesity is one of Ford’s greatest assets as a politician. It transforms him into a media clown, a role he clearly embraces. Ford seems likeable in the same way that Homer Simpson and Peter from the Family Guy remain likeable even when they are being racist, selfish bullies. There is a long history of the “asshole” male character on TV, arguably starting with Ralph Kramden from the Honeymooners. Remember that 1950s guy? He was always threatening to beat up his wife. Hilarious! In each case, the argument is that this type of man is simply a harmless dumbass who does not know any better; he is ultimately good, solid, and true at his core. A real man. I doubt that Ford would have been elected had this longstanding stereotype not been in place. Like these cartoon characters, Ford appears to be uneducated, with poor speaking skills and judgment; he is impulsive, driven by bodily pleasure, and regularly out of control. This makes him human to a certain segment of the population, one which fears dapper men in expensive suits (perhaps quite rightly) while assuming that elections are popularity contests rather than important civic events.
I don’t mean to criticize the supporters of Ford, much as I find their continued defense of him completely unethical. I even have a little sympathy for them, for I too have found myself identifying with the larger-than-life mayor, especially in the past few weeks. Try to visualize the following: The other day while 31 weeks pregnant, I donned my white fluffy robe and waddled quickly down the hallway, shouting “Here comes the Great Whale of China!” Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I suddenly saw… well you know who. Like Ford, I have increasingly lost any sense of bodily shame. As my large bulk makes wearing clothes too restrictive, I am often entirely nude while in my condo, regularly greeting my partner at the door wearing nothing but a gigantic smile and fluffy pink socks. Oh how he laughs, every single time. That’s right, being a huge tired asshole with unpredictable bodily boundaries and no sense of personal pride feels rather great. Maybe I should run for office. Watch out Don Iveson.