Just last week it was announced that punk icon, queer club kid superstar, and “plus sized” queen Beth Ditto would be teaming up with fashion legend Jean Paul Gaultier for her new line of clothing for bigger women. While the news made the rounds rather quickly on a handful of fashion and gossip sites, it quickly faded into the background of our cultural consciousness.
Ditto has been on the scene for a while now, catching eyes and ears as the singer for the band The Gossip, with their breakout international single “Heavy Cross” often cited as one of the more influential and important rock songs of the early 2010's. Ditto has since been employed as a model, activist, and entrepreneur in her own right – yet she somehow manages to remain on the fringes of culture, known only to those with a particular knowledge of fashion, queer culture, or rock music.
Ditto's team-up with Gaultier is correctly being hailed as a success and a triumph for the fashion industry, which rarely focuses on creating chic clothing for larger ladies.
But why isn't it a bigger deal? What Ditto's lack of mainstream success points to is three things: 1) mainstream media's infatuation with thinness and body fascism isn't going anywhere anytime soon 2) the lingering homophobia in mainstream media and 3) the failures of LGBT media to embrace both women and body diversity.
It seems like we're only ready to take certain risks when it comes to our mainstream media icons: you can be alternative but not too alternative, big but not too big, queer but certainly not flamboyant -- and certainly never all three at the same time.
Our cultural fear of people outside of the parameters of certain conservative ideas of respectability or acceptability points to much larger societal problems that, although getting better, certainly need to be scrutinized.
Despite small steps forward (see: Clementine Desseaux Louboutin capaign, Adele's undeniable popularity) all aspects of media (fashion, art, TV, film, video games, etc...) still seem to almost fetishistically obsessed with thinness. This, of course, is paired with an ever-growing and insanely profitable dieting industry that preys on the anxieties of women (and men). It's easy to congratulate brands like Louboutin or Gaultier for their progressive gestures towards body inclusivity, but sometimes doing so obfuscates the entrenched body fascism which permeates our culture entirely.
Similarly, it's easy to point towards various openly gay celebrities and say that our culture has become a bastion of peace and tolerance for various people in the LGBT rainbow. While certainly the presence of out celebrities is a step in the right direction, most of these stars (Neil Patrick Harris, Matt Bomer, Cheyenne Jackson, Zachary Quinto) are generically attractive white gay men, which doesn't do much to expand our notions of beauty or acceptance – they still reap the pleasures of their various privileges. Meanwhile, less traditional LGBT icons struggle for media coverage, often overlooked in favor of either straights or gays with more mass appeal. The fact of the matter is, our media landscape is still largely homophobic, making it hard for openly queer ladies like Ditto to ever be taken seriously by bigger audiences.
The third point is perhaps the most nuanced. If mainstream media has trouble with big queer ladies, it seems disappointing that LGBT magazines and blogs haven't picked up the slack. The problem of white men dominating the discourse of media is not unique to the mainstream. Earlier this year, I wrote the following for Contrast Magazine: “In a way, queer media has recapitulated the obsessions of straight media – with almost pathologic attention paid to body policing and an incredibly narrow and usually retrogressive standard of beauty in mind. This kind of aesthetic fascism, with its implicit racism, sexism, transphobia, femmephobia, and fatphobia, is precisely the thing that queer culture should be undermining.” In the case of Ditto, this certainly applies as well.
The intersections of homophobia, misogyny, and body policing have made it hard for someone like Ditto to succeed, and she's certainly done marvelously in the face of these considerable obstacles. The solution then? Rather than treating the presence of queerness or largeness in our media as something to congratulate (thus rendering queer and/or plus sized celebrities as tokens), we should be attempting to question and tear down the often repressive beauty standards rampant in all aspects of our culture.
In the mean time: keep kicking ass Beth, we're on your side.