[This is a new blog post series of mine. The idea for this series is partly from Tyler Cowen’s blog where he does informal series such as That was then, this is now or Markets in Everything. The idea is to have an ongoing discussion through blog posts tied together by the Latin phrase Nihil Sub Sole Novum – There is nothing new under the sun. Each day is a new day, but so many of the problems we face have deep roots and historical precedence. We constantly face new challenges and it can feel as if no one has faced what we or society face today, but the reality is that much of what we deal with has been part of humanity for centuries, and this series will explore that long past.]
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In 1901 Frank Andrew Munsey purchased a newspaper in New York called the Daily News. Around that time Munsey was purchasing a lot of newspapers in an effort to compete with Pulitzer and Hearst, two titans of the news industry. Michael Tisserand writes about Munsey’s purchase of the Daily News in his biography of George Herriman titled Krazy because Herriman had recently started at the paper as a cartoon artist and illustrator. Herriman was born in New Orleans to mixed black and Creole parents, but passed as white, giving him a precarious position in a newspaper industry that was brutal toward its employees. To demonstrate this brutality, Tisserand shares a quote about Munsey who purchased the paper which employed Herriman:
Tisserand quotes Allen Churchill in writing, “As soon as Munsey purchased a newspaper, he ordered all fat men on the staff fired, for he considered them lazy as a breed. Munsey even demanded that no smoking signs be put up, as he considered smoking a waste of time.”
Tisserand offers this quote to show that Herriman, who would not have been able to get his job if he could not pass as white, was always on edge about his identity and appearance. What I want to focus on, specifically for this article, is the idea of fat shaming in the quote regarding Munsey.
I am a fan of Marvel’s movies, and I admit that I found Fat Thor from the Avengers Endgame movie pretty funny. I am guilty of repeating the line “You look like melted ice cream” which was issued to Thor to criticize his appearance. However I am able to recognize the fat shaming, prejudice, and mockery which takes place in that scene and with Thor’s character through the movie. I recognize how an innocent joke can be quite harmful to individuals who find themselves in a similar situation in real life.
In our world today, we put a lot of emphasis on our weight and appearance. One aspect of Neoliberalism, a term used characterize the general political and philosophical approach of most people in the United States today, is a sense of hyper-responsibility of the individual. The individual is responsible for maintaining good health, for being productive at all times of the day, for paying taxes, walking the dog, playing catch with their son, attending every dance recital, and having an opinion on all current events. Society is not expected to provide anything, the individual is expected to be responsible for all of their affairs. Thor, facing PTSD and survivor’s guilt, couldn’t handle the personal responsibility that his failures placed on his shoulders, and his outward weight gain reflected his inward tragedy, but was played for laughs more than it was used to really explore the pressures he was crumbling beneath. Thor was fat shamed rather than counseled and supported by society.
Fat shaming is receiving more attention today (the name itself is relatively new) but it has existed for a long time. Munsey’s quote shows that fat shaming and the personal responsibility of Neoliberalism were present at the turn of the 20th century. Being fat was taken as a projection of laziness by Munsey. A person was judged from their body shape and weight, without regard for who the person was, what factors contributed to their health, or how hardworking the person actually was. Munsey may not have had anyone around to call his behavior fat shaming, but that is clearly what he was doing by firing the fat people at the newspapers he purchased – nihil sub sole novum.
We will see in future Marvel movies if Thor returns to being the muscular manly-man that he was prior to Endgame, or if he retains a body weight and shape that is not typical of superheroes. Either way, Thor can help teach us that our weight and body shape doesn’t just reflect how worthy we are but is influenced by trauma, by challenging life circumstances, and by complex social factors. Fat shaming is something we should be aware of and something that we should recognize has been a problem for a long time. We can continue to display coarse prejudices against fat people, or we can think about what being healthy really means and requires, what our body shapes say about us, and work to build more healthy communities that integrate healthy spaces for activity, healthy communities to appropriately work through trauma and stress, and healthy systems for eating. These are complex areas, and the struggles around them and resulting fat shaming is nothing new.