The Burden of Representation – Or – Jeez, you people really hate a kill-joy!

Posted on February 27, 2012 by Stacy Bias | 16,914 views | 19 Comments

My last blog post on the Geico commercial ruffled some feathers. I had to laugh this morning when I deleted yet another snarky comment (this one told me I must have Daddy Issues. You don’t even know, Troll from Portland, Tx. You just don’t even know…) about the fact that, while it took me 37 years to get here, I’ve finally earned the title of humorless lesbian feminist. I’m considering celebrating this by temporarily dubbing my home “Womyn’s Land” and holding an induction ceremony that involves smudge sticks, quinoa and an overt lack of penetration. (Hey look, I can stereotype, too!) My sisters in feminist media analysis, I join you in embracing my newfound kill-joy nature. But, I’m still going to sneak-watch episodes of Desperate Housewives, because that’s how I roll.

So, for you naysayers, let’s dig in to the Burden of Representation. If you’re not familiar with the term, essentially it means that, for any marginalized group, the pressure on the individual to represent the whole is greater. If you’re a white, able-bodied, lower-middle-class, thin, heterosexual person of moderately good looks, you’re cool. There are myriad media representations of you to choose from. You see yourself or someone kinda like you everywhere you go, so if ten representations of you are unflattering, there are hundreds, thousands, bajillions more that are not to counteract it. In the minds of the masses, you are a multifaceted people and if they see one of you behaving stereotypically on the street, they don’t immediately think “Geez, all white, able-bodied, lower-middle-class, thin, heterosexual persons of moderately good looks are jerks to their kids.” They think “That guy’s a dick.” and they move on with their lives.

However, for any marginalized or oppressed group, media representations are far fewer and much further between and are often very stereotypical. For every positive, well-rounded media portrayal, there are dozens more that pigeonhole or negate. This means that the burden of the individual to represent his or her identity group in real life and/or in art or media is significantly increased because their actions are far more likely to be seen as representative of the whole group. Because there aren’t enough representations in popular culture to choose from to give the general population a well-rounded perspective, every public action or interaction carries the risk of being labeled as “what __________ people do” or “how ___________ people are.”

For this reason, critical media analysis is important around Fat issues. There are not enough positive, well-rounded representations of fat people on the media to let even subtle stereotyping slide. With a deluge of “headless fatties” in news media with constant looming threat of the OMGZOBESITY EPIDEMIC writ large across their bellies, with the public shaming of Mike and Molly for daring to kiss on TV, with Georgia posting fat-shaming billboards targeting children, with Disney shaming fat kids on vacation, with fat kids being taken away from their parents — this is no small issue. Fat bodies are under attack. My body is under attack. If you’re fat, your body is under attack. A “war on obesity” is a war on my body and on the bodies of many of the people I love.

The argument that it’s “just a commercial” and the advice to “stop taking shit so seriously” is really just utterly and completely inadequate in contrast to the looming media monolith that is fat hate. And not the least important point here is the fact that the subtle use of stereotype is often MORE successful at naturalizing myth. Blatant stereotyping confronts the audience member, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. It requires acknowledgment and thus, a choice. To believe or not to believe. To agree, to dissent or to ignore. In either case, action is required. Subtle stereotyping, however, often passes unnoticed. It, as Roland Barthes (the original kill-joy) states, “transforms history into nature.” It makes the myth ‘normal’ to such a degree that we don’t even think to question it. This is how stereotyping works. This is how myths about any marginalized group get passed, absorbed, carried forth into society.

Railing against those who point out the myths being passed through the media serves no purpose but to shield your own self from the responsibility of critical thought. By minimizing the truth of myth, you excuse yourself from the requirement to take it seriously. If you don’t want to do the work, you don’t have to. But maybe ask yourself why it makes you so angry when others do.


19 Responses to The Burden of Representation – Or – Jeez, you people really hate a kill-joy!



  1. Renee Bianchi

    Thank you so much. Thank you for being on the front line. The bombardment of negative imagery is overwhelming. Living the life (aging fat lesbian) in the eye of the public (own and work full time in a retail shop) can feel threatening. Requires a bit of extra energy to get through the day. Every day. Every day for all of my life. Fat kids have it tough. It is hard enough to stand up for yourself. To take on the self serving media in such a public way, to make yourself a target in this war is such a fiercly loving thing to do. The entitled do not often see themselves as such. How easy to point and shoot at those who are already someone else’s target. Thanks for all you are doing.



  2. Peggy Osborne

    I love you Stacy! You are awesome! The part about the “Daddy issues” really shows how people say things in TOTAL IGNORANCE that if they knew the truth, they should feel like total fools for saying it (which they are). Keep doing what you’ve been doing every since I met you online years ago. You are amazing.



  3. Patsy Nevins

    Great post & so true! And this total, unthinking acceptance of & belief in stereotypes is so widespread that most people take it for granted, believe it is mostly true, & no big deal. And you never know when you be broadsided by a casual, complacent reference to fat myths & stereotypes as if it is the absolute truth being spoken. I was at my son’s house this morning, where I spent several mornings every week, walking home in good weather but having to wait for my daughter-in-law to give me a ride when it is icy. I get my granddaughter ready for school & on the bus, then putter around, cleaning, & sometimes doing some reading. MY dil likes James Patterson’s Alex Cross mysteries. I have read a few of them over there & noticed that most of the positive characters are ‘thin & fit”, but then, so are a lot of the villains. However, in the one I read today, Alex was talking to a childhood friend, a female doctor, who had dropped in to check on his elderly grandmother. The doctor started going on about the fact that she had trouble keeping weight ON, but said she would rather be that way than like so many people in the neighborhood. “We have so many overweight & obese”, she said, then laughed, “And they think it’s genetic.” No shit, Sherlock? The poor, uneducated people in the neighborhood you serve have the nerve to think that body size & shape might be genetic, that it might be natural for them to be built like their grandmothers or aunts? The NERVE of them! Meanwhile, Alex Cross & his family, all thin people, are shown regularly eating & enjoying large, definitely non-diet meals & he is shown sneaking large chunks of cornbread late in the evening. But that’s okay, he is thin.

    Absolutely, stereotypes are reinforced & myths repeated as fact everywhere, but we are being humorless, taking things too seriously, if we speak up, or, as with me in this case, decide that this author is not worth any more of my time.



    • Stacy Bias

      Ugh. I’m sorry you had that experience. I hate it when our favorite authors or tv shows or actors/actresses come out with something fatphobic. It ruins something. I was invited to dinner by Jeanette Winterson once during the course of a small email interaction we had. Now, she’s one of my favorite authors of all time. Just having a reciprocal email exchange with her was enough to send me into fits for a week. But, when she invited me to dinner, I thought back to all of her character descriptions of fat women. They were always such a grotesque metaphor for something else, or were described in such grim and terrible terms that, in the course of accepting her writing, I realized I’d been accepting those definitions of fat as a matter of course. I started to think of what it would be like to sit across from this woman whose writing I loved so much, and whose mind I was absolutely intrigued with. And then I thought about her, sitting across from me — a doe-eyed, adoring fangirl, and also a fat woman. I wondered if she would be disappointed. If she would judge me. I wondered if, in my excitement to meet her, I would be able to hold my power – to meet her as an equal. I felt I wouldn’t. I felt that if she judged me, I would be crushed, that it would ruin her writing for me forever. I decided then that I wouldn’t meet her, that I wouldn’t pursue it further. It was a hard decision but I don’t regret it, even now, several years later. I have to admit, though, that I haven’t read another of her books since.



  4. tanz33

    I think the labels ‘humourless’ and ‘killjoy’ and the ever popular ‘PC’ are thrown about when people begin to understand that there is another level to the ‘humour’ they’re being fed… they don’t like being treated like a patsy and they hate the idea that they’ve been happily swallowing crap. But rather than get angry at themselves or those who have been feeding them that crap they turn their disappointment and upset onto the person who talks openly about what’s going on and in so doing doesn’t let them continue to hide and kid themselves.

    Bravo to you :)



    • Stacy Bias

      Thanks for your comment, Tanz33! I agree that some of it is definitely misdirected anger. Some is also willful ignorance. And sometimes, people are just jerks. ;) Thanks for your kind words and understanding!



  5. nycivan

    wow, I really feel bad that there was such a negative reaction to what you wrote. I found what you wrote enlightening. When I first saw the commercial I laughed, thought of how clever it was and even emailed a link of it to share with my brother. I was completely unaware of the significant stuff going on under the surface (well maybe not under the surface to a media student) but to me. Everything you pointed out wreaked of truth and was food for thought for me. I was actually uncomfortable realizing that I was being complicit in my own oppression by enjoying the commercial. I recall that some of the comments said something to the effect of that even with all that going on, we could still appreciate the humor there although after being educated about the implications you pointed out I just felt sad about he state of our culture every-time I saw the commercial after that.

    What I do not understand is why people are so hostile to a simple media analysis blog. I am glad you delete the hateful comments. I just am sad that the folks that make them are so angry and also cowardly by hiding in their anonymity.



    • Stacy Bias

      Thanks, NYCIvan! *nod* It’s so much the *job* of myth to sneak in unnoticed that it really becomes complex to point it out. I think Tanz33 (below) makes an excellent point regarding feeling anger around being duped and either railing against that by refusing to believe it’s happening, or misdirecting anger to ‘shoot the messenger’, as it were. Some people just refuse to take things like this seriously. And that’s OK. Sometimes people have bigger battles to fight in their own lives and that means that they just can’t really muster up the energy to give a crap about a geico commercial or about fat activism in general. I don’t expect everyone to be as passionate about this as I am. What’s *not* OK is the troll behavior, but that speaks more to their own unhappiness than anything else. Thankfully, though, there are lovely people like you who make it worthwhile. :)



  6. greenbean

    Telling anyone to ‘stop taking things so seriously’ is like a big signpost for ‘you have a point and I want you to shut up about it’. I’ve seen it used and heard of it used so often it’s become an extremely obvious cliche. And in this case I don’t feel bad for stereotyping when I say that anyone who uses lesbian and feminist as insults is a huge misogynistic ass.
    I thought you provided a great explanation of all the stereotyping in that commercial. It’s hugely important to point out things like that; especially because, yes, the commercial was funny. That it was funny doesn’t negate the very problematic nature of what it depicted; it does mean that too many people didn’t look past the funny to the other stuff that was there to see. That’s what makes it especially vital to point out any negative stereotypes in media that is otherwise well-made and funny.
    (This opinion comes courtesy of a white, able-bodied, lower-middle-class, thin, mostly heterosexual person, in case any of the trolls care.)



    • Stacy Bias

      Thanks for your comment, Greenbean! Got another winner of a comment today. I actually posted it (and a response) on the other blog because I couldn’t help myself. Ridiculous.



  7. Danna

    Well, I already commented on the previous post, so I’ll say this. If you’d like any other temporary denizens of “Womyn’s Land,” I’d volunteer. I’ll bring the quinoa (if I can find it fair trade) but I’m allergic to some smudge sticks. :-P

    Your post reminded me of one which also rang true for me recently. http://tigerbeatdown.com/2012/02/22/when-anger-is-all-i-have-and-why-anger-is-my-feminist-stand/

    Earlier today I was talking to my husband about why I don’t feel entirely comfortable with Appreciative Inquiry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appreciative_inquiry). The main thing is that sometimes you need to explicitly articulate what is shitty that exists right now in order to raise people’s awareness (make them examine their privilege, as an example) which doesn’t really come out if you’re only talking about the good things.
    Anyway, I’m with you as a member of the angry feminists club.



    • Stacy Bias

      Glad to be in the ranks with you, Angry Sister! ;) And yeah – The truth is always in the middle, I think. You can’t solely focus on the good and you can’t solely focus on the bad. So much of life is in the grey spaces. xox



  8. Shelley

    I just wanted share my opinion because it’s the internet and everyone wants to do that but I found the advert offensive. I’m not a fat activist, I am fat but I’m not happy and have several complications because of my weight, complications I would very much be happy to lose weight and overcome. Having said that I am very passionate about the fact that anyone considered overweight by a doctors scale shouldn’t be subject to ridicule, whether it is by choice, acceptance or by things such as eating disorders or other. I feel passionately about the fact that attacking every other physical difference in a person is seen as a no no by most of society but being fat means you are open to anything from gentle mocking to extreme hate and violence. So what I’m saying is keep pointing out these facts because even though there are many out there that will disagree, you are patheing the way to acceptance of all body types, no matter how the individual feels about their body and that will never be a bad thing.



  9. Kim

    Hi! I just found your blog tonight while searching for the Geico commercial, and read that blog post and skimmed this one. I’d first like to say that I am in no way intending to be rude or start a fight, I earnestly would like to know where you are coming from as a “Fat Activist”. I think we agree on the fact that people should not be discriminated against for their body, whether that be weight, skin color, etc. Actually, we probably agree that discrimination is wrong for any reason. But here is where I think we differ and where I have a question for you, while it is not ok to discriminate against someone for being overweight, I don’t think that means being over weight should be accepted. There are too many health risks associated with obesity. So I’m wondering why you would be fighting for acceptance of something that, ultimately, is harmful for you and the people you love? Also, I am overweight, so I’m not trying to sit on a high horse and judge “those fat people” I am one of them and I understand the risks associated with being overweight and I am trying to change my choices because of that.



    • Stacy Bias

      Hi Kim – Thanks for your comment. I do understand where you’re coming from though, it must be said, I wholeheartedly disagree with it. I had a similar reaction to fat activism when I first heard about it. I was angry that anyone would dare suggest that people should stop trying to lose weight. Didn’t they know they were basically KILLING PEOPLE? I was irate. And it took me several years to really understand what was going on within fat activism. To understand how much false information was being perpetuated, how much of the loathing of fat bodies is a moral panic rather than a medical one. I am not in a place any more with my individual activism where I want to debate on this level. There are far better resources than myself available if you really do want to understand what fat activism is about. I’d suggest starting with Paul Campos’ Obesity Myth book, and Linda Bacon’s HAES (Health at Every Size) book. I’d also suggest reading some of the latest reports on medical studies which have shown that fatness isn’t correlated with fitness. And if you’re interested in learning more about how to be an ally to fat people, I’d suggest reading this article: http://fatheffalump.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/genuine-concern-vs-concern-trolling/



  10. Michelle

    I know his is an old blog post, but thought I would give you a shout out, since I have quoted from, and linked to your blog in at least 3 different private Facebook groups . You description of burden of representation in second 2 paragraphs is the most accessible and entertaining exampleI have found to explain the idea of “burden of representation” for those not familiar with theories of oppression.

    I have used it in discussions (oddly enough) amongst budding feminists in progressive Mormon fb groups. (Mormonism is extremely patriarchal, with a mostly white, upper- middle class male perspective, and heavy emphasis on traditional gender roles. Those minorities within the minority of Mormonism are quite misunderstood and stereotyped in the faith.

    Whether referring to a minority due to race, body, marital status, sexual orientation, class, etc,this is all really relevant stuff. So thanks!



    • Stacy Bias

      That’s really nice to hear, Michelle! Thanks so much for taking the time to let me know that it’s been useful for you in other contexts. Sounds like quite the uphill battle you’ve got there!

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