Transformation narrative and the representation of class and obesity

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2010 by chr1sr0berts

One of the best things about my job is talking to students about contemporary issues, themes, ideas and, in the case of ‘our’ subject, how said ideas, issues and themes are then circulted and disseminated in and by media. I had an idea about reality television, class, dominance, dominant orthodoxy and the transformation narrative texts that figure on our television screens. At this point, I need to make clear that I am not the only academic to have such ideas, see for instance the work of my own wonderful colleagues Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn: further,Gareth Palmer; Laurie Ouellette & James Hay ; Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray and of course not forgetting the extraordinary Bev Skeggs. … and countless others. Anyway, partly because at a time when govt is dispensing with all public spending for university teaching for “non essential” academic disciplines, it’s important to remind ourselves and others just how important the research/teaching/teaching/research “feedback loop” can be. Research really can (should) directly impact on undergraduate teaching but sometimes overlooked, undergraduate teaching and the discussions lectures and seminars provoke, should also feedback and help research develop. Something like the following is a rough approximation, but nevertheless still a fairly good example of precisely how academic research can work:

1) Have ideas about particular topics; 2) Read other academic writers in the field; 3) Read the philosophical background and develop the critical ‘model; 4) Undertake analysis of data (often textual analysis in my case) locate data within, and read through the developed critical model; 5) Write lecture and present to students; 6) Discuss ideas in seminar; 7) Hone the ideas based on further reading, exploration and important feedback from students; 8. Write up lecture into more formal academic document for publication….and hopefully, given time, space, necessary intellectual rigour and luck, the ideas then become established in the field.

Admittedly that’s not necessarily an exhaustive nor comprehensive list or approach, and there are different ways of working but I try and apply this model loosely to my work at university. Based on this ‘method’ I then wrote a lecture that was part of a series for one of my undergraduate modules. Prompted by a few friendly discussions with my students, and then some additional chats with friends over the last few months, I then developed the lecture into an academic article. The article in question *should* be published next year – hopefully in the journal: Media, Culture and Society…I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here are some snippets and thoughts.

We begin with yet another methodoligcal rationale for the field of media and cultural studies itself.
Those popular cultural forms not considered overtly political in nature are nevertheless frequently those in which normative assumptions are most readily reproduced. The critical discursive approach to popular cultural forms, seeks to examine popular contemporary texts and genres in order to discern how ‘‘relations of power and domination are ‘encoded’’’ (Kellner, 2003, p. 12) and ‘‘social practices are produced, circulated, enacted . . . and given meaning and significance’’ (Giroux, 2000). Reality television texts need to be apprehended as embodiments of power relations with a significant impact on social order, the social formation and self identity. (Shudson, H: 2006)

Based on this key component of cultural analysis, I constantly remind myself and my studentst that (one of) the task(s) of critical thinking scholars, academics, students and journalists – those with a degree of cultural and social capital – is to always ask: “what are the dominant explanatory formats; or the dominant narrative and discourse? Then further; OK what is the plausible story I/we can write about [insert event, theme, issue] that is not any of the above, or at least not wholly in the realm of the dominant narrative” Based on the increasing number of Channel 4; BBC 3; LivingTV transformation narrative shows that ‘concern’ themselves with obesity, I began to question exactly why obesity is now considered “endemic” and why it recieves the attention it does on our screens, and more importantly: the nature of this attention and coverage. There is a symbiotic relationship between (some) tabloid journalism, dominant themes and narratives in contemporary culture, and reality television. Based on assumptions and lazy stereotypes there appears to be a growing (no pun intended) problem and growing number of lazy fat, workless, scrounging, ill-educated obese people in the UK. Now firstly, one doesn’t need to *completely* absolve these people for their own condition, but to singularly attach blame to the individual is a failure of imagination; a failure to see beyond the dominant narrative(s); and an internalisation of normative values. One could argue that it is also a failure to make links between historical precedents and contemporary conditions. Historically speaking for instance, the bourgeoisie regarded being fat as being healthy. The contemporary narratives and precedents at the very least need to be partly seen and located within the conditions of the neo-liberal economy: economies of scale and over production/supply – Buy one get one free offers in supermarkets (why never buy ONE at half price?); similarly a fast food “culture” etc. There is not the space (nor do I necessarily possess the requisite skill or knowledge) to develop these points individually here, but I maintain that it is surely a failure of imagination and a failure of political critique to see obesity purely in terms of personal failure without taking these things into account. Culturally, “Fattism” as an issue as we know it emerged when a substantial part of the proletariat and the oppressed became fat. So we have a contemporary bourgeoisie making snippy comments about ‘trailer trash’ watching TV and eating hamburgers. Some of the “make-over” shows we have today normalise obesity as a sign of failure and an outward reflection of one’s character, “If the body fails to adequately express [the correct] identity, then it must be changed.” [Foucault] It’s not too much of a leap of imagination to see the potential ‘classed’ nature of this fattist *critique*. To return us to the task and method of those involved with and interested in the critical interrogation regarding the cultural (re)production of normative “common sense” values, to singularly attach all responsibility (or blame) is a fundamental dereliction of intellectual duty and a failure of critical scholarship.

Anyway, this post, although sketching out the approach was only really concerned with an initial lecture. I will post again later on a similar topic, but this time one that had received ‘seminar feedback’ from previous years – a sort of workshopping; then 1) Altered to take account of some feedback, 2) Altered so that its concern was more contemporary and current. Not about obesity, but on the representation of class in different reality TV texts. “Fairy Jobmother” and “My Family’s Crazy Gap Year”…

*The approach can also be applied when presenting papers at conference, which I have also done, but I was interested here, in the interractions and feedback one gets from undergraduates*

**I cannot publish the actual article yet, as even though the work/words are mine, it would be subject to copyright.**


One Response to “Transformation narrative and the representation of class and obesity”

  1. In the late nineteenth century there was real concern that the nation’s Imperial stature was about to fall apart because so much of the work force was poorly fed. Theories circulated that children’s malnourishment and in turn family poverty was caused by mother’s being poorly educated in cooking techniques and were using cans/powdered foods rather than fresh produce because they were either too lazy or too time-poor. Domestic economy was introduced into school lessons, where girls would learn how to cook in model artisan houses and some teachers and social campaigners wrote tracts on making money stretch and encouraged working class mothers to give up their jobs, as without a good meal the male breadwinners couldn’t sustain employment. In her 1911 study of Lambeth’s working class families, Maude Pember Reeves’ “Round About a Pound a Week” revealed that in reality it wasn’t a lack of education, nor a working mother that lead to malnourishment, but why the mother was woring in the first place: a lack of money. Mother’s knew full well the benefits of cow’s milk over powdered, but few could afford it, nor could they afford wuality meat or bread, nor the dinners being taught in school, which relied on argours rather than a fire or a hob.

    When teaching I find myself discussing such histories in the context of the current media/political obsession with obesity, encouraging students to think about how programmes such as Jamie’s Ministry of Food, (although have increasingly been concerned with making meals on a budget) rarely touch upon the parent’s own knowledge of food and the reality of their budget/home life. Whilst programmes such as Kirsty’s Home Made Home, rely on the idea that one should invest in items to save money in the future, which obviously relies on having a decent budget from the outset, not to mention a home that is outrightly yours for refurbishing. As a result those who do not follow the “advice” are left in the defualt position of lazy or stubbonly selfish. By drawing such comparisons between today and the Victorian and Edwardian period it has encouraged the students to critically assess not just the sources they read within their studies but the media they encounter in their daily lives, a great assett for them as individual’s and evidently a great concern for those writing the narratives.

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