Hopefully the last time we will discuss Kevin Smith

Why are you so similar to Haley Joel Osment? Dammit.

I loved Clerks and Mallrats when I was in high school, which makes thinking about Kevin Smith now particularly uncomfortable, like thinking about a bad ex-girlfriend. “How did I once love this person?” one asks, and the answer casts unsettling aspersions on the very notion of a self. It’s possible I’m overthinking this. My point is that Kevin Smith once seemed awesome and is now—for that reason and also because he made this and, Jesus, this—embarrassing. He is proof that anyone with enough gumption and perseverance can rise from obscurity to become a Hollywood hack, and that the things we love occasionally turn out to be, in retrospect, pretty awful—not that they remain wholly without merit. Also, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but he’s really fat now.

Smith was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight last weekend because his size ostensibly posed a “safety risk” to other passengers. The director insists that he was able to sit comfortably between his armrests and buckle his seat belt, which is apparently the gold standard for flyability agreed upon by airlines and (presumably coerced) fat people. While Smith normally buys two tickets, he was flying standby on this flight and only one seat was available. Smith subsequently mounted a Twitter campaign that addressed the issue with the depth of consideration that is his signet—sample tweet: “So, @SouthwestAir, go f*** yourself. I broke no regulation, offered no “safety risk” (what, was I gonna roll on a fellow passenger?)”—and Southwest apologized. A mediastorm has since ensued, possibly because the story involves both Twitter and obesity and thus sets various newsbots immediately a-whirring, and possibly because Kevin Smith has a new movie coming out. It appears to suck.

With fat people and airline regulations comes the tricky issue of fat acceptance, which this blog has already explored in perhaps the most flippant and relationship-damaging way possible. Seriously, the thin man should keep his mouth shut about fat acceptance. To do so, however, is to turn the debate over to whomever has no such compunctions, and the rhetoric has already become impossibly degraded.

Consider this broadside* from Kate Harding at Salon. (Props to lifelong fat-reducer Ben Fowlkes for the link.) In addition to setting up an invidious comparison between airline policy and the historical oppression of black people—beginning with coining the phrase “flying while fat,” in parallel to the classic traffic offense, “driving while black”—Harding offers no actual solution to the problem, or even any acknowledgement that not-fat people are entitled to their entire seats. Instead, she employs what is known to TA’s across the nation as the Dead Mother Defense, inviting us—for several paragraphs—to consider the situation from the perspective of a fat person who is flying across the country to reach her dying mother. That was the problem faced by Harding and her equally large siblings, who had to fly in order to reach their mother’s bedside “within hours of getting the call that she’d had a massive heart attack.” Irony unnoticed.

The bulk of Harding’s argument consists of imagined remarks from the height-weight appropriate people sitting next to her imagined bereaved, who regard the indignity of sitting next to a fat person as “pure hell” and complain about the event “for the rest of their lives.” The dramatic irony is excruciating, as smug, petty slender people express their outrage over the weight problem of a person whose mother has just died, “that disgusting creature who just booked a single seat without a thought to the people who would have to brush up against her monstrous bulk for a couple of hours, like she had to be somewhere so important it was worth inconveniencing strangers.”

If I may be permitted to speak for the one third of the Snidely Whiplashes in America who are not medically overweight—and also not imagined in direct quotation by Kate Harding—this is not the problem we are talking about. If it were, we could all shut up about fat people on planes and the larger consequences of culturally institutional obesity right now. The problem is not that I find fat people so gross that I can’t stand to see them. Fat people are not gross, generally, and I grew up in Iowa so I am well accustomed to seeing them. The problem lies in that widely accepted tenet of western democracy articulated by John Stuart Mill, that your rights stop where mine begin. The airplane, cramped and horrible though it is, provides us with an unusually clean line between my rights and yours: the armrest. If you break the plane of the armrest, you are in my seat. For the same reason you would consider it rude if I sat down and immediately lay my head on your shoulder and went to sleep, I consider it rude if—for reasons glandular or otherwise—your body is in my seat. Is it easier for me to stay in my seat than for you to stay in yours? Yes, and that is probably unfair, in the same way it is unfair that you can confidently* order at a restaurant, while I can’t get through the drink portion without getting nervous and making a joke about how I will die alone. We are each responsible for our own person, even though much of that person is arbitrary.

Let us put aside that Kevin Smith was not frantically trying to reach his dying mother on the other side of the country, but simply trying to get an earlier flight from Oakland to LA. Let us put aside the safety issue, which is hokum. If the plane crashes we are all going to be in an insanely unsafe situation, regardless of whether Kevin Smith can uncork himself from the aisle seat quickly enough for me to scramble out. The problem here is that your leg is touching my leg, and I do not like to be touched. In her indignation over the horrible injustice of what she imagines people to be saying about how fat she is—which she is totally okay with—Harding offers no solution to that problem. She does not suggest how airlines might make their seats larger to accommodate the growing number of obese Americans, or what system of compensation might ensure an equitable relationship between space allotment and fares, or how we might think about obesity in a way that acknowledges the problem without hurting obese people. Instead, she lambasts the people who can’t deal with her overflowing into their seats.

That is the one rhetorical tack that the person who is causing the problem is not allowed to pursue. For all her insight into my unspoken thoughts, Kate Harding seems unaware of any real discomfort she might be causing me. Whatever the problem at the heart of fat acceptance is, “too much empathy” does not describe it. I’m willing to talk about how American culture can be more accommodating of fat people. I think we should start by admitting that being fat is not quite like being black, and forcing me up against the window because you can’t close your legs is not quite like me finding you disgusting. I’m ready for fat acceptance, but it’s not because I’m ready to accept anything.

8 Comments

  1. I think another missing point of Kevin Smith’s story is he was flying back from speaking at Macworld in San Francisco. I frequently fly out of SFO and Oakland and know that Kevin Smith chose the further away (but cheaper) of the airports and chose the more busted (but cheaper) of the airports and airlines to get home.

    This is a person who I assume was paid to speak at Macworld and who is paid enough to regularly buy two plane tickets. And as you pointed out he wasn’t rushing to see his dying mother, he just wanted to get home sooner. So we have a fat person who is willing to inconvenience others to get home sooner/fly cheaper.

    In air transportation, there are so many ways for people to be rude and this is Kevin Smith’s path I guess.

  2. I did a lot of assuming in that last comment. Maybe it was the only direct flight available. Maybe he likes the festival-ness of the seating of Southwest. Maybe he was trying to get inspired to write an airline oriented comedy for Jason Mewes to sell drugs in.

    Anyway, I disagree with my above comment already, but I agree with this post. How do you do it? I also agree with Southwest’s policy.

  3. Also, I read Kate Harding’s Broadsheet. Since when is Boston 1000 miles away from Toronto? And why does it take two days to get there? Google Maps says it is 550 miles.

    Now I’m questioning a woman who’s talking about a dying mother, but I imagine the 8-9 hour drive could be done in about the same amount of travel time as booking the flight, waiting for the appropriate flight departure time, arriving in Toronto on an international flight and getting the rental car.

    Sob stories work better when they have truths in them.

  4. So I read Kate Harding’s piece (of shit) and it got me so pissed off that I decided to write a comment. However, when I went to post it, it said the thread had been closed. For what it’s worth, here’s what I wrote:

    No Kate Harding FUCK YOU! I’m sure you’ve never considered this… few people have. But put yourself in the shoes of someone with a disability. Obese people are a walking (barely if at all) offense to people with real disabilities. Why? Because they effectively disable themselves by not being able to put down the double cheeseburger and supersize fries. Disabled people don’t have a choice. For most of us there is nothing we can do about it. But imagine for one second if it were up to us — if we had a choice. If a Dr told me I could have a healthy normal body if I consumed nothing but vegetables and water the rest of my life, it wouldn’t even be a choice. But fat people do have this choice. To compare flying while fat to driving while black… as if it’s a fucking civil rights issue? Seriously go fuck yourself! That’s like a crack addict arguing that the police unfairly discriminate against them. It’s like saying we treat pedophiles unfairly when they hang out at playgrounds or have a run in with Chris Hansen. When you have a choice you have to live with the consequences… it’s called being a mature and responsible adult! You can’t eat like a pig and then expect that the rest of the world to conform to your fat ass! It is a free country and if people want to disable themselves with obesity fine… but they have to live with the consequences! If you can’t fit your fat ass into a single seat on a plane you should have to buy a second. Do you know that weight dramatically effects the amount of fuel a plane requires (it’s why most airlines charge for baggage and limit weights)? I weigh 100 lbs so either I get a discount or obese people should have to pay extra. They should have a scale right at the gate — a big one that everyone can see. Everybody gets weighed in and ticket prices adjusted accordingly. We actually need MORE shaming of fat people in this country. Maybe then people will try harder to lose the weight. Fat is not beautiful… it’s gross and unhealthy. I do hate obese people and I’m not going to apologize for it. Do you know why I can say this and be totally justified??? Because if I could trade bodies with anyone of them I would do it without a second thought… and guess what I would do next? I’D LOSE THE FUCKING WEIGHT AND ENJOY A HEALTHY BODY!!! Go fuck yourself you self righteous fat BITCH!

  5. Whoa, take it easy.

    I like the post, though, Dan. There is, however an interesting issue related to your free will/determinism post yesterday: what happens when a fat person walks into McDonalds and hears Whitesnake?
    Now we have an epistemological dillemna!

  6. I think at least some of the anger from both the thin and thin-at-heart crowds should be redirected toward airlines. They’ve packed progressively more and more seats into planes just as Americans have packed on more and more pounds. It’s just not realistic for them to assume real people are going to fit into these spaces.

    Sure, it would be nice if people lost weight, but that’s not likely. By the same token, it would be nice (according to some) if teens waited until marriage to have sex, but that’s not likely, so realistically, they need to learn about condoms. Likewise, realistically, airlines need to make their planes usable by people as they are proportioned in real life.

    United and American are the ones throwing us into these little boxes, and then we end up elbowing each other (literally and figuratively). So, I’ll say this for Kevin Smith–his anger seems more logically placed than does Kate Harding’s.

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