Mamamia's treatment of Roxane Gay was cruel, but not unusual
OPINION: Roxane Gay's latest book is out today, and while the celebrated feminist author admits she expected the publicity for Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body to be a bit of a minefield, I doubt she expected it to go so wrong, so quickly.
Instead of riding high on launch day, Gay has found herself mired in a situation she describes as "cruel and humiliating". Interviewed for Mamamia's podcast No Filter while she was in Sydney last month, the website's eponymous founder Mia Freedman objectified Gay in her introduction to the podcast released on Sunday – reducing her to wide-eyed descriptions of her "heart-breaking" access requirements.
Freedman's failings in this incident are journalistic, personal and political. Firstly, she disclosed access requirements and behind-the-scenes negotiations. She said she thought a lot about breaching confidence, but she clearly didn't think to ask permission. She goes on to say she doesn't want to describe Gay as "fat", even though Roxane herself uses that word, so she medicalises her body by calling her "super morbidly obese". She says the phrase twice for dramatic impact.
Freedman's defenders would claim that she was empathising with Gay and merely responding to the author's own work. Indeed, Gay's new book explicitly explores the writer's relationship with her body. But Freedman's words reframe Gay's experiences through a lens of pity and concern in a way that is patronising and unhelpful.
As a fat woman I am all too familiar with this approach. It comes in the form of unsolicited diet advice (which Gay says she is even offered at book signings), of doctors always wanting to weigh you (when you've come in for a common cold), of friends constantly asking if you've lost weight or dismissing your own concerns about body image by saying "you're not fat, you're beautiful" - as if it is impossible to be both.
The way thin women speak about larger bodies is usually a cruel combination of fear, disgust and pity.
The amount of dieting advice I am getting via email is... shocking. Just wow. I knew it was going to happen but wow.— roxane gay (@rgay) June 12, 2017
The outrage in the aftermath of the podcast has been palpable, with many observers genuinely baffled at how Freedman got this so wrong. But in a broader context of her work (and of society in general) her behaviour is utterly unsurprising. This incident isn't remarkable because it's rare, it's just remarkable because it's occurred in such a public way.
Privileged people like Freedman consistently - pathologically - force non-normative bodies and identities to feel like a curiosity or imposition.
Whether you are transgender, a person of colour, disabled or – yes – fat, you will face thin, straight, able-bodied white folk othering you daily. They ask overly personal questions, querying trans people about surgeries, touching black women's hair without permission, suggesting miracle cures to disabled people, asking "how DO lesbians have sex?"
This unsolicited interrogation and/or advice focuses on the way one's body differs from the norm. It's objectifying and it's exhausting in its constancy.
Often internet outrage surpasses the original incident as people spiral into rage, but listening to the podcast now, after the "shit show" has been drawn out, is actually heartbreaking.
Gay is a generous interviewee and speaks about deeply personal things in a situation she'll go on to describe as "disgusting and shameful." It's a damn shame Freedman stuffed up the introduction so royally because Gay is thoroughly engaging. Freedman's lack of analysis shines through, but so do her nerves and admiration. Her intentions are good but she is out of her depth.
I can see how Freedman made the mistake she did. Not because it's a fair course of action, but because she centres her own experiences so strongly in everything she does. She considers herself an everywoman, representing the average experience.
But the world isn't full of Mia Freedmans. Most women aren't a combination of thin, straight, white and incredibly rich. So very many of us are fat, poor, black, disabled or queer and our experiences don't become fodder for fascination just because they are unfamiliar to those with greater privilege.
Likewise, the way a person describes the discrimination they face and the access barriers they deal with is personal: just because Gay willingly talked about her weight doesn't mean you get to speak about it for her.
The privilege and sense of entitlement that leads women like Freedman to regularly exclude and objectify women like Gay is deeply entrenched. But Freedman has ample access to education about privilege and discrimination.
She spends enough time online to take the opportunity to learn from oppressed minorities, to gain a basic 101 on language and respect. Bearing in mind such access, her actions seem an inexcusable grab for website traffic, rather than an innocent mistake.
Seriously, it's not that hard. Writing about a trans person? Don't reduce them to a product of their surgeries. Booked a wheelchair-user to speak at an event? Hire a ramp and don't make a fuss about it. Interviewing an esteemed person of colour? Maybe avoid saying the n-word and asking them if they had to "learn what it means to be black."
read more, listen better, try harder, learn from mistakes. this applies to all of us. there is no excuse to be tonedeaf in the internet age.— steph harmon (@stephharmon) June 13, 2017
Freedman's excuses tell us more about her and the business she runs than they do about Roxane Gay. Her insistence that her team had more than a dozen exchanges with Gay's people tell me that they were unable to follow simple instructions or that they replied with curiosity for detail rather than respect for accommodating their guest's requirements.
Her amazement that Gay mightn't want to be photographed despite having read a whole book about her relationship with her body showed a breathtaking lack of ability to learn from the texts she consumes.
Gay has tweeted about the incident with a depth of exhaustion and vulnerability. The sad reality of an incident like this is that the outrage cycle (which I concede this article is part of) forces the victim to relive their humiliation over and over.
Today was supposed to be about my new book. That is what I wanted. And then an Australian website made today painful.— roxane gay (@rgay) June 14, 2017
I highly doubt Freedman is going to learn from this, nor that she'll change a business model founded on centring the experiences of middle-class straight, white women. The best we can hope to come out of this is increased readership for Gay's work and the opportunity for all of us to consider our own interactions with those who experience discrimination we ourselves do not.
- Sydney Morning Herald