Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Paula Deen has Diabetes: Judgment and Public Personas

The above video gives a pretty good summary of what's going on with Paula Deen. She announced yesterday--after much internet speculation--that she does, indeed, have type 2 diabetes. In fact, she's known about the diagnosis for three years, which has led many to criticize her decision to publicly announce it only when it accompanies her new gig as spokesperson for  pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk and the face of their new Diabetes in a New Light program. 

As you might expect, this announcement has been met with harsh criticism. For one, Deen adamantly insists that she's not changing the way that she cooks (even though her Diabetes in a New Light promo does promise ways to make lighter versions of her favorite dishes). She is also shying away from implications that her recipes (which include things like the Lady's Brunch Burger--a hamburger patty, two slices of bacon, and a fried egg sandwiched between two glazed donuts) have anything to do with her diagnosis. She insists that she has always told her fans to "practice moderation" and that--as she told Oprah years ago--"I'm your cook, not your doctor."

The criticism turned ugly in a hurry. Nerdy Feminist gives a run-down of many of the comments Deen has been getting, noting that they tend to fall into two camps: "the first being that Deen got diabetes because she is fat, the second being that she is so gross." Many of the comments in the first camp indicate that Deen deserved to get diabetes because of her lifestyle choices. The people commenting on how gross Deen is tend to fall into standard fat-shaming. But, as both Nerdy Feminist and Renee from Womanist Musings note, we don't know what Deen's personal life is like. We have no way of knowing that she ate the food that she cooks on television at all, let alone on a regular basis. And, more importantly, her personal decisions to live her life and manage her disease are just that, personal. It is not our place to judge people's individual life choices, and Deen has the right to eat how she wants and manage her diabetes in whatever way she chooses. 

I want to be 100% on board with this stance because I agree, completely, that fat shaming is wrong. No one deserves to get diabetes, and dismissing someone's diagnosis so nonchalantly because of her body size is mean-spirted. Furthermore, size is not necessarily an indicator of health (Kate Harding has a great overview of this here). And, regardless of whether someone is making healthy choices or not, people deserve to be treated with dignity. Paula Deen is a person, and she has the right to privacy and respect. 

But something else that Renee said as well as the timing of this announcement have complicated this view for me. Renee goes on to say:
How is what Deen doing any more unconscionable than any fast food corporation, or any company that makes pre packaged foods? How many deceptive labels have you read over the years of so called healthy products?  I'll say one thing, Deen's food may not be healthy, but at least you can pronounce every single ingredient in it, and that is far more than I can say for the many of the items on todays grocery store shelves.  Obviously, I am not advocating that one consume food loaded in butter and to deep fry mac n cheese, but I do have a problem with a single woman being set up to look like the great Satan so that others can sit in judgement of her, when several corporations are guilty of so much more.
And I agree with the overall sentiment, for sure. Deen is not the sole contributor to unhealthy food in America (far from it). However, doesn't the fact that we can even compare her to a fast food corporation or a packaged food company mean something? What I'm saying is, I think that these attacks on Paula Deen the person are unwarranted and cruel, but what about the attacks on Paula Deen the brand?

And make no mistake. She is a brand. 

You can go into Wal-Mart and buy a box of Paula Deen cookware. She collaborated with Quality Food Brands in 2009 to produce her own line of spices and food items.  You can have some Paula Deen coffee that you made in your very own Paula Deen percolator and drink it out of the Paula Deen mug that you purchase from her online store.

If you have any doubts about Paula Deen's identity as a brand, take a look at this clip of her interview with Al Roker on NBC's TODAY show. Around the 54-second mark, she seamlessly moves from talking about her personal diagnosis to talking about the program Diabetes in a New Light. At this point, she directly talks to the audience, saying "you can go to our website. I'm going to be there for you and help you manage everyday of your life with this because it can be done." Bizarre. It's a clip that's presumably about her diagnosis, but she's spending it talking about the help she'll give you in managing your diabetes. Roker, noticing the scripted language she's fallen into, points out that she's a paid spokesperson, at which point she says "Absolutely. I have been compensated just as you are for your work." 

All this to say that, while I think that celebrities are entitled to their privacy and space to navigate their personal lives, these lines are blurred when celebrities intentionally create a public persona and then use elements from their personal lives to flesh out those personas. 

Deen was chosen as Novo Nordisk's spokesperson because of her familiarity and popularity, but also because of her diagnosis of diabetes. I fully believe that I have a right (and even a responsibility) to criticize products that I feel are dangerous, unhealthy, or misleading. Even on this blog, I've called out sexist advertisements, Lego's gender segregation, food labeling practices, ads that promote unhealthy competition between parents, and more. So, what is Paula Deen: person or corporation? Human being suffering from a private disease or mascot in the public eye? One of those deserves privacy and compassion; the other deserves scrutiny and criticism. 

There is probably a way to walk this line, but it is difficult. I think that it's possible to criticize Paula Deen the brand without falling into personal attacks on Paula Deen the person, but this requires a level of nuance and analysis that many people talking about this are simply not going to give. And it leaves us all worse off.

There are some very legitimate concerns to be voiced with Paula Deen the brand. The decision to act as if cutting out sweet tea and taking a few walks is a fine way to combat diabetes as long as you take your daily injection of medication ignores the holistic lifestyle changes that medical professionals recommend. The decision to ignore the fact that a diet high in fat and sugar has been strongly correlated with diabetes contributes to a culture where the disease is on the rise. These are things worthy of criticism when they're coming from a pharmaceutical or food company, and--in some capacity--Paula Deen is now representative of both. 

Paula Deen is primarily recognized as the brand that she has created, but the line between brand and person is further complicated when celebrities lend their personal image to a brand for a limited time. Where do we draw the line between personal and brand criticism then?

Consider Jennifer Hudson, who is the new face for Weight Watchers. When she appears on TV and does things like sing to her former (heavier) self, where does Jennifer Hudson the brand and Jennifer Hudson the person disengage?

I don't think we should ever have the right to judge someone else's body. However, it's hard to argue that position when Hudson herself seems to be asking for the judgment. "Look," this commercial says, "I used to be larger, and now I'm smaller. . . and better. Compare the past and present me." When are we no longer allowed to make that comparison? If, in six months or two years or ten years, Hudson gains weight, do we have the right, as consumers of the Weight Watchers brand, to be critical of her life choices because she placed herself into the role of that brand? 

A similar complication played out for Kirstie Alley, an actress who has constantly been in the public eye over her weight loss and gain. But did she move that criticism to a different level when she chose to be a spokesperson for Jenny Craig? And what about when she left the company? Does that shut down Kirstie Alley the brand and return her to Kirstie Alley the person?

I don't know the answers to these questions. But I do know that (despite what Mitt Romney might believe) corporations are not people. Corporations should be held to a higher standard of accountability and scrutiny. But what about people who align themselves with (or even become) corporations? 

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