TV UK, 3 April

Fat Girls and Feeders: an unpalatable documentary based on invented villains.

Dolan Cummings

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As a consequence of the war in Iraq, American and British advertisers have been advised to tone down any distinctively American or British aspects of their branding, and to emphasise ties with local cultures around the world (1).

But it is not specifically Americana that offends the ‘anti-American’ set, so much as globalisation itself, and its ‘culture of consumption’. And I don’t think we’re talking about the ‘Arab Street’ here, so much as the equally Western objection to that culture of consumption.

The current McDonald’s advert looks like a mistake to me. Instead of focusing on Big Macs they are promoting pasta salad, in some sort of ill-advised effort to win over the health-conscious. If anything this is even more ‘American’. The comedian Chris Rock does a funny routine about America’s odd relationship with food. We have so much food, we’re allergic to it, he says. Do you think there are people in Rwanda with fucking lactose intolerance?

Fat Girls and Feeders (Channel 4 last Thursday) was one of those overhyped documentaries that hovers between sensationalism and dodgy social science. As the title suggests, it was about very obese women and the men who feed them.

The women were impossibly fat. It occurred to me that maybe the whole thing was a hoax, and the women were actresses in giant rubber suits. We’re talking 800 pounds – too fat to walk, too fat to use a toilet, too fat to do anything. This meant that the programme actually couldn’t serve as an indictment of fat America. Yes, Americans eat a lot of junk food and have a tendency towards plumpness, but this was something different.

The villains of the piece were not fast-food companies and advertisers but ‘Feeders’, men who get themselves fat girlfriends and feed them up until they become dangerously obese and consequently dependent. Women that fat are incapable of having sex, so the sex aspect is complicated. It seems to be much more about control.

In keeping with the times, the narrator was at pains to make a distinction between respectable Fat Admirers (FAs) and the sinister Feeders. Real FAs, like real Muslims as it happens, simply like Titianesque, voluptuous women who don’t conform to the hegemonic body image promoted by the fashion industry. Feeders, like Islamic Fundamentalists, are sick monsters who hate everything we stand for, including individual autonomy and sensible height/weight ratios.

Fat Girls and Feeders deftly negotiated the political quagmire that is fat, if only by inventing a new group of villains that surely does not really exist. (The programme showed us one Feeder, and referred to two unnamed others.) But food is not the only cultural battleground of which advertisers must be wary.

Apparently many advertisers are reluctant to have their products associated with the war, and have been withdrawing their adverts from slots during the news. Car manufacturers are particularly sensitive, presumably because even the most robust four-wheel drive looks pretty feeble next to a M1-A2 Abrams Tank. Or is it because the image of an M1-A2 Abrams Tank tumbling into the Euphrates upsets the aura of invincibility that sells SUVs? That’s a whole nother culture war.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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spiked-issue: TV

(1) Agencies warn over ‘flag-waving’ ads, Claire Cozens, Guardian, 2 April 2003

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