The Barely Disguised Discrimination of Pack Panels
The moment a man spits his beer isn’t usually the time he has a life-changing epiphany. But that is what Adam Hunt, director of the advertising agency the Foundry, has claimed. His mate made a ‘fat chick’ joke about a passing large woman and as Hunt laughed he realized he was being discriminatory and his beer ‘went everywhere’.
Sound implausible? You see, Hunt had been thinking hard about fat pride. This was the brief the Gruen transfer gave him to make an ad to sell the impossible – fat. He decided ‘shape discrimination’ was no different to any other, went to the ‘darkest web sites’ and used 4 jokes, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and fat chick in turn, to make his point.
His ad was so successfully offensive the ABC pulled it from the Gruen transfer, but allowed it, and a lengthy panel discussion, to be aired on the web. And since we can count on prohibition to incite desire, people have since flocked to the site like bees to a forbidden honey pot.
The comments have proven fascinating. They ask whether shape discrimination can be equated with incinerating Jews, gay murder, or terminating black babies to purportedly solve the crime rate. Fatness, some of them argue, is a lifestyle choice, and it has the ignoble distinction of leaving a deeper carbon footprint. Unlike race, or even gay identity, it has been chosen and can be altered.
Who would chose fatness in a world where young men sport bumper stickers that read, ‘Harpoon Fat Chicks’?
Overweight results from a skewed relationship to food, perhaps starting in childhood overinterest, that, due to bullying and damaged self-image, quickly develops through adolescence into an eating disorder. The compulsion to eat more than your body needs come from losing touch with your appetite. Food becomes friend. As social isolation and despair expands with girth people become locked into abusive relationships with food, as their source of comfort seems to turn on them to create guilt and self-hatred. Eating becomes addictive, compulsive and a means to cope with depression and/or anxiety.
Gruen was right that it will never be possible to cultivate fat pride. Even if we successfully ended all shape discrimination, and celebrated large sexy women stars such as the gorgeous Dawn French, people who eat too much are being told by their doctors, and countless new studies reported daily in the mainstream media, that their eating habits are unsustainable for their health. Overeating in that knowledge is self-destructive.
But something else went out of Hunt’s head when he spat his beer and it was gender. His friend was a male who made a joke about a passing large woman. Somewhere in his deftly but overdrawn equivalence between shape discrimination, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism he lost sight of the simple fact that these jokes are mostly fat chick jokes – they are mainly directed at women.
How did this crucial understanding of the nature of the discrimination he wants to end get lost? Let’s turn to the panel and ask them. Hey guys …. Oh, you are all guys.
This was a panel of intelligent and sympathetic men. They thoughtfully argued the perennially tricky question of whether it is justified to recirculate vilification and offence even if the intention is to criticise and undermine it. Since not even the most astute and cashed-up advertising agency can control the reception of the meanings they create, that question remains unresolved.
But, smart and critical as they were, they were still men. Sure, that is no reason for them to miss the connection under their noses between gender and shape discrimination, but my point is they did, and they were less likely to if there were women among them.
What is it with these pack panels with token women? It is an entrenched cultural habit that commentary panels from The Panel, to Insiders are comprised of men with one woman present to offset their overt discrimination. I take my hat off to the women who participate. What audiences miss is that, no matter how fairly these panels are chaired, a lifetime of gendered conversational dynamics first mapped out by Dale Spender, in her Man Made Language, means that women talk most freely among themselves.
But in this particular panel, the Gruen did away with women altogether, with searing irony, to discuss discrimination. And unsurprisingly they missed gender altogether as one of the main conduits through which discrimination of all sorts, from shape to homophobia, gets expressed.
This is not to make the absurd claim that when it comes to discrimination women are always worse off. Here I am safely installed at my desk while traumatized Sri Lankan and Palestinian men are grieving on piles of rubble. But it is to say that if we want to end discrimination we have to understand how it is expressed and circulated. If we remain gender blind, we’ll overlook a principle field of power asymmetry that overlaps with all others.
There is another strained equivalence that can be drawn here. In the same way that the rate of sexual violence has been shown to decrease in countries where women take up high-level positions, such as parliamentarians, maybe another way to end shape discrimination that is mostly directed at women, is to end the phenomena of pack panels.
This article first appeared in The Age, 16 May 2009