Welcome to our Rewire roundtable on Mad Men, featuring staff
writers Pamela Merritt, Amanda Marcotte, and Sarah Seltzer. Sarah kicked
off our salon yesterday, and Amanda adds her thoughts below. After the premiere (August 16),
we’ll start a second round of conversation!
with Sarah that the mostly-female writing staff of "Mad Men"
somehow manages to make the uber-patriarchy of the 60s feel fresh and
I don’t know how they do it; it could easily have slipped into, "They
were bad then, but it’s all better now," but instead we’re forced
to contend with the fact that all these happenings are related to our
I think the moment for me on
"Mad Men" that made me realize the strong feminist bent of the show
was far from accidental was the opening sequence of the masterful episode
"Maidenform." You see the three main female characters Peggy,
Joan, and Betty getting dressed and see how even Peggy, who is low maintenance
by 60s standards, has to go through intense amounts of work just to
be considered worthy of stepping out the front door. You also
see Joan rubbing her skin where her bra strap cuts into it. True, second wave
feminists didn’t burn their bras–or
their girdles or their garters–but the show argues with this visual
imagery, that they probably should have. As the actresses on the
show have complained repeatedly, underwear for women then was a potent
symbol of how painfully restrained women were, how their personalities,
ambitions, desires, and very flesh and to be pinched and molded to fit
Indeed, for the rest of the
episode, female copywriter Peggy Olson fights to have her male colleagues
take her opinions on bra advertising seriously. You’d think
that a woman’s input on how to sell women’s personal items to women
would be considered valuable, if your main priority is actually selling
bras. But as the show demonstrates, with surprising subtlety,
the men especially don’t want to hear from women on the issue of how
women should dress. They can feel their control over female bodies
slipping, and want to hang on just a little longer.
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The male copywriters come up
with a campaign to sell bras that basically posits that all women are
either Jackies or Marilyns–that is, male sexual fantasies, complete
objects. Peggy quietly protests, asking which one she is, and
the men are baffled, because they have to admit that Peggy is not an
object, because she’s a colleague and for some, even a friend.
It’s only after you flick off the TV that you realize that Jackie
Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe weren’t Jackies or Marilyns, either, but
real people with careers, tragedies, and lives. That’s
the power of the show’s deft turn at storytelling.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how Muslim families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
This is the second article in Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series. You can read the other pieces in the series here.
When Virginia native Mariam Abu-Ali was 14 years old, her life abruptly turned upside down. It was 2003, two years after the September 11 attacks and well into an era of counterterrorism tactics that were systematically hollowing out Muslim residents’ civil liberties and constitutional protections in the United States. But the Abu-Ali family never imagined they would be caught up in the dragnet.
Mariam’s then-22-year-old brother, Ahmed Omar, had been studying in Medina, Saudi Arabia, when he was arrested in connection with a series of May 2003 terrorist attacks in Riyadh.
In an interview with Rewire, Mariam says her brother, who was born in Texas, was held in solitary confinement in a Saudi jail for nearly two years without ever being charged with a crime. During that time, Mariam tells Rewire over the phone, there is strong evidence that he was tortured. Although defense expert Dr. Allen Keller, director of the Program for Survivors of Torture at the Bellevue/NYU Hospital, examined Ahmed and testified at his U.S. trial to the evidence of torture, an appeals court eventually ruled that Ahmed’s statements to Saudi interrogators were “voluntary.”
When, after months of legal pressure from his family, he was finally returned to the United States, a court for the Eastern District of Virginia charged him with multiple counts, including conspiring with an Al-Qaeda cell in Medina to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. Following a trial that permitted the admission of what Mariam called “a coerced confession,” he was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison, and later re-sentenced to life.
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Yet as legal experts like Elaine Cassel, author of The War on Civil Liberties: How Bush and Ashcroft Dismantled the Bill of Rights, have pointed out, “Nowhere in the indictment [was] Abu-Ali tied to any terrorist event or action”—either in the United States or in Saudi Arabia.
Instead, his case fell under the shadowy material support statutes that have governed much of the United States’ counterterrorism operation in the years since 9/11, under the USA Patriot Act of 2001. This set of laws allows the U.S. government to preemptively prosecute individuals for engaging in terrorism based on their perceived predisposition toward violence, rather than their actions. Over the past 15 years, hundreds of Muslims have disappeared in a warren of these convoluted laws; they are currently locked up in high-security prisons around the country.
A constellation of families, scholars, activists, and civil rights organizations have long challenged the effects of material support charges, as well as the unfair trials and the lengthy and harsh prison sentences that tend to follow them. Over the past few years, they have come together in a campaign called No Separate Justice, an attempt to unite far-flung groups and individuals who are working to dismantle what they say is a parallel and unjust legal system for Muslim residents in post-9/11 America.
Women like Mariam Abu-Ali have been at the forefront of the movement—along with Zurata Duka and Shahina Parveen, whose stories Rewire has previously reported on—advocating on behalf of their loved ones.
In the second part of Rewire’s “Living in the Shadow of Counterterrorism” series, we look at how families, particularly women, are forced to confront state violence on a daily basis—from living with the stigma of terrorism, to repairing their broken homes, to navigating what they say is a brutal and biased prison system.
“Dangerous” Minds, Draconian Measures
Mariam Abu-Ali says her brother’s case represents many of the civil rights violations that have marred the decade and a half since 9/11, a sentiment that is echoed in the final opinion on Ahmed Omar’s case penned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
In its unanimous decision to uphold the guilty verdict on nine terrorism-related counts against Ahmed in 2008, the three-judge bench wrote:
Persons of good will may disagree over the precise extent to which the formal criminal justice process must be utilized when those suspected of participation in terrorist cells and networks are involved … the criminal justice system is not without those attributes of adaptation that will permit it to function in the post-9/11 world.
While the opinion does not explicitly state what these “attributes of adaptation” are, studies on counterterrorism indicate they could refer to any number of legal practices that have become normalized since September 11. In particular, they could refer to the use of material support statutes, which have played a significant role in the prosecution of Muslim Americans like Ahmed Omar.
As FBI Assistant Director Gary Bald testified to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in 2004:
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the material support statutes to our ongoing counterterrorism efforts. The statutes are sufficiently broad to include terrorist financers and supporters who provide a variety of resources to terrorist networks. The statutes provide the investigative predicate which allows intervention at the earliest possible stage of terrorist planning to identify and arrest terrorists and supporters before a terrorist attack occurs. [Emphasis added.]
In short, material support statutes have enabled federal authorities to prosecute people based on suspicion of what they might do in the future rather than any overt criminal act. The statutes primarily refer to “support” for terrorist networks as weapons, arms training, or direct funding. Prosecutors, courts, and juries, however, have interpreted the laws much more broadly to encompass the sharing of religious or political texts online, casual conversations between friends, or charitable donations to organizations in areas controlled by terrorist groups.
In many instances, material support charges have amounted to nothing more than thought crimes, in which law-abiding Muslim residents have been penalized simply for expressing their religious and political views.
According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch, material support cases rose sharply in the decade following the September 11 attacks. Prior to 9/11, just six individuals had been charged under these laws in the United States. In the decade following, 168 of 917 domestic terrorism convictions analyzed by HRW fell under such statutes, accounting for 18 percent of all terrorism-related convictions in that time period.
Even a cursory look at some of these cases is sufficient to grasp the breadth of these laws, which have pushed deep into Muslim communities, tearing through many layers of social fabric along the way.
In 2012, the New York Times published an op-ed by Yale professor Andrew March on the case of Tarek Mehanna, a Pittsburgh-born doctor and community leader who was sentenced to 17 and a half years in prison because his opinions about Islam, expressed online, were deemed a form of material support for terrorist causes.
March wrote in the Times:
As a political scientist specializing in Islamic law and war, I frequently read, store, share and translate texts and videos by jihadi groups. As a political philosopher, I debate the ethics of killing. As a citizen, I express views, thoughts and emotions about killing to other citizens. As a human being, I sometimes feel joy (I am ashamed to admit) at the suffering of some humans and anger at the suffering of others. At Mr. Mehanna’s trial, I saw how those same actions can constitute federal crimes.
March’s op-ed illustrates a frightening truth about material support statutes: They allow for the preemptive prosecution of individuals who have not yet committed a crime but whom the government deems capable of possibly committing a crime in the future.
Other cases, such as the Holy Land Five, demonstrate a pattern in which material support laws have essentially criminalized charitable giving. The case involved the founders of the Holy Land Foundation, a Muslim charity that provided humanitarian aid to the needy, including women and children in Palestine. Though the government concluded that the Holy Land Foundation never directly aided a terrorist organization, it nonetheless prosecuted five of its members for funneling aid through charitable committees into areas controlled by Hamas, a designated Palestinian terrorist group, thereby violating material support statutes. Journalists called the verdict an attack on Islam itself, particularly the practice of zakat, which mandates that Muslims allocate a portion of their wealth or earnings for charitable causes.
From its very inception, the No Separate Justice (NSJ) campaign has fought this flawed notion, with mothers and sisters of the accused becoming the movement’s most prominent spokespeople. NSJ initially coalesced around the case of a Muslim American named Fahad Hashmi.
Hashmi had been working toward a master’s degree in international relations at London Metropolitan University when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2006. In 2007 he became the first U.S. citizen to be extradited following the loosening of restrictions around the process after 9/11, according to an article by Jeanne Theoharis, a political science professor at Brooklyn College and co-founder of the NSJ campaign, who taught Hashmi as an undergraduate.
He was initially held in pretrial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correction Center (MCC) in downtown Manhattan. MCC’s notoriety was cemented in a 2010 New York Timesarticle that quoted a former Guantanamo detainee, who was also held at the MCC, as saying the Cuban military prison was “more pleasant” and “more relaxed” than the federal detention facility in New York City.
Hashmi was also subjected to special administrative measures, government restrictions on a terror suspect’s communications that amount to a gag order on the case and their conditions of confinement. Advocates say these were drastic measures relative to the charges against him: Hashmi’s only crime, according to Theoharis’ article, was allowing an acquaintance to spend a night in his apartment, an acquaintance who would later deliver a suitcase of raincoats and waterproof socks to Al Qaeda members. This same acquaintance would later become a cooperating witness for the government in exchange for a more lenient sentence, and testify against Hashmi in a trial that ended with a guilty verdict and a 15-year sentence.
Stunned by Hashmi’s conditions of confinement, a group called Theaters Against War linked arms with Educators for Civil Liberties and the Muslim Justice Initiative to host weekly vigils outside the MCC in 2009. These gatherings, which continue to this day, form the nucleus of the NSJ movement.
“We wanted to build a coalition so people from different backgrounds could bring their institutional expertise and moral conscience into the same arena as family members, and create a space where people could express outrage at what was happening,” Sally Eberhardt, one of NSJ’s earliest organizers, tells Rewire.
At first, larger civil liberties groups kept their distance, possibly because “this isn’t exactly the most funder-friendly issue in the world,” Eberhardt suggests. But advocates persisted, holding candlelight protests even on the bitterest winter nights, singing songs and chanting poems in the shadow of the detention center. Those intimate gatherings formed the basis of what is now a national movement, encompassing multiple organizations and dozens of families.
Two outspoken leaders are the Sadequee sisters, Bangladeshi Americans who have been among the strongest advocates of prisoners’ rights and the most public critics of the government’s targeting of Muslim men—including their brother, Shifa.
From the Streets to the Prayer Rug: Pushing Back Against State Violence
Ehsanul “Shifa” Sadequee was born in Virginia and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of four siblings in a Bangladeshi-American family. According to his sisters, he was a curious and exceptionally kind child, who by his early teens had grown into a devout and diligent religious scholar.
In 2005, when he was just 18 years old, Shifa traveled to Bangladesh. In April 2006 he got married, but 12 days after his wedding, Bangladeshi authorities took and detained him, apparently at the behest of the U.S. government, for allegedly making false statements to the FBI at John F. Kennedy Airport on his way to Bangladesh the previous year.
Shifa’s sister Sonali, who is based in Atlanta, tells Rewire that this initial charge and arrest, which the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh later deemed a violation of international laws, was a terrifying process for the entire family. For days after Shifa was taken they had no news of his whereabouts. Fears that he would somehow wind up in Guantanamo, ensnared in the web of the “war on terror,” gnawed at the edges of their minds but the family pushed these aside, telling themselves that because Shifa had done nothing wrong, they had nothing to fear. With the phone ringing off the hook and the television on 24/7, they gleaned what scraps of information they could from CNN news reports.
It transpired that upon his arrest in Bangladesh, Shifa was stripped naked, wrapped in plastic, and flown via Alaska to New York, Sonali says, where he spent over three months at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. Shifa spent more than three years in pretrial solitary confinement before ever being formally charged with a crime, his sister said.
Once Shifa was inside the criminal justice system, Sonali explains, federal authorities quickly dropped the initial charges against him and began to build a case around allegations of material support.
At the heart of the case was Shifa’s renown as an Islamic scholar with a larger-than-life online persona—he had studied classical Arabic and the history of religion as a student in Canada and was a gifted translator, often sharing interpretations of Islamic or political texts on the internet. The Sadequee family says Shifa’s trial was riddled with shortcomings, including the use of previously classified evidence and the selection of jurors who admitted to having anti-Muslim bias—which Human Rights Watch says is a common problem. In addition, the prosecution used Shifa’s ideology as a brush with which to paint him as a fearsome radical, on the verge of carrying out a violent attack on U.S. soil.
Although Shifa, according to Sonali, never engaged in any actions beyond practicing free speech, he was found guilty on four terrorism counts in 2009 and, at the age of 23, sentenced to 17 years in federal prison. He represented himself at the trial, making him one of the first Muslim youth to do so in a national security case, according to his sisters.
Both Sonali and Sharmin Sadequee, who is based in New York, have been mobilizing on his behalf for over a decade. After years of shielding themselves from the backlash of isolation and Islamophobia that invariably accompanies charges of terrorism, the young women have turned their advocacy into an art form.
In an interview with Rewire, Sonali explains that when her brother was arrested, the women in her family developed an organic division of labor that allowed them to form a united front against the horror and uncertainty that had descended on their lives.
“I was already plugged into the social justice community in Atlanta, so I saw my role as tapping into that support network, bringing resources to my family to make sure we all understood the human rights issues involved, ensuring we had the skills to confront the media, which was bombarding us at the time,” she says. Her sister, meanwhile, dealt with the prisons, navigating bureaucratic visitation rules and ensuring Shifa had what he needed on the inside.
“Sharmin and my mother also reached out to the Muslim community, to mosques and other groups,” Sonali continues. “And the rest of the time, my mother was on the prayer rug. I don’t know how many hours she spent kneeling and praying.”
They built a website that is always fresh with the latest news about Shifa’s case and serves as a hub for their activism—they recently announced a letter-writing campaign to mark Ramadan, inviting more than 1,000 followers of a Justice for Shifa Facebook group to send greeting cards to Muslim prisoners. Countless hours are eaten up attending rallies, speaking on panels, or sitting with reporters, patiently unpacking the messy details of Shifa’s case.
The irony is that while the Sadequee sisters make a powerful team, they are constantly called upon to do what they say is the hardest thing of all: relive a time in their lives they would rather forget.
“I don’t like to do these interviews,” Sonali says bluntly. “I don’t enjoy them at all—but I recognize they have to be done. Only by sharing what happened to us, by talking about it, will others learn from it.”
They say they have been trying to create collective responses to state violence resulting from the “war on terror,” and hope to combat the government’s tactics of fear and isolation by building community power and resiliency. But this is easier said than done: Not only must the Sadequees contend with the lingering stigma of Shifa’s trial, but they also, until very recently, had to deal with the trauma of visiting their brother in a prison unit that has been described by former detainees as “Little Gitmo.”
CMUs: “A Religious and Political Quarantine”
Between 2009 and 2015, Shifa was imprisoned in the Communications Management Unit (CMU) at the federal detention center in Terre Haute, Indiana, a segregated portion of the prison comprised almost exclusively of Muslim men that has been the subject of a legal battle since 2010.
This past March, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) urged the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate a lawsuit the group first filed six years ago challenging CMUs, which the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) quietly ushered into existence under the Bush administration—the first in 2006 in Indiana, and the second in 2008 in Marion, Illinois.
Conditions in these units, which house 60 to 70 prisoners combined, are harsh, according to the CCR: Although inmates are not held in isolation, they are banned from having any physical contact with family members during visits, and their calls are restricted to two per week, each for 15 minutes. By contrast, other BOP inmates are allowed 300 minutes worth of calls every month.
CCR claims the CMUs violate prisoners’ procedural due process rights, and argue that placement in these units is both arbitrary and retaliatory, with Muslim prisoners vastly overrepresented.
“Between 2006 and 2014, about 170 individuals filtered through these units and 101 of them—about 60 percent—were Muslims, even though Muslims only constitute 6 percent of the general federal prison population,” CCR Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol tells Rewire in a phone interview.
CCR reported in 2010 that in Marion, 72 percent of current CMU prisoners were Muslim, a 1,200 percent overrepresentation, while two-thirds of the CMU population in Terra Haute was Muslim, 1,000 percent higher than the national average of Muslim prisoners in federal facilities.
“We are challenging the lack of procedural protections before prisoners are placed in the CMU and also alleging that placement is in retaliation for protected political and religious speech,” Meeropol says, pointing out that inmates in the CMU are seldom given reasons for why they were moved into the units, and are routinely denied opportunities to earn their release into general population.
“CMUs are essentially a religious and political quarantine, the same kind of segregation that has supposedly been outlawed in this country,” she added.
In response to multiple requests for comment about these allegations, Justin Long with the Office of Public Affairs at the Information, Policy and Public Affairs Division for the BOP said in an email to Rewire, “The Bureau of Prisons cannot comment on matters currently in litigation,” and directed Rewire to the Bureau’s web page on CMUs.
In addition to being hard on inmates, Meeropol says CMUs are also “debilitating” for families, especially those with young children who cannot communicate with their fathers through letters, and often cannot understand why they are forced to speak to them through glass, using phones that are monitored by prison staff.
“Several mothers have told me that they’ve stopped bringing their children on visits because it was just too devastating,” Meeropol says.
The Collective Trauma of “Supermax” Prisons and Solitary Confinement
The alternative, some might say, is even worse. All over the country, Muslim prisoners are serving decades-long sentences in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has recognized as a form of torture. Advocates and relatives of terror suspects, or those incarcerated on terrorism charges, have long cried foul over these conditions of confinement, which they say is a form of collective punishment on entire families.
Zurata Duka, whose three sons, Dritan, Shain, and Eljvir were arrested in a manufactured terror plot by the government in 2007, is well aware of the toll of solitary confinement. Her sons have spent dozens of years between them in complete isolation, including long stints at the maximum-security facility in Florence, Colorado.
“My sons are strong—they never let us see them cry, even when their daughters are crying on the other side of the glass,” she says to Rewire. “But once my son Dritan told me he nearly lost his mind in isolation.”
Before his arrest, Zurata tells Rewire, Dritan had been very close with his youngest daughter. Every night he would put her to sleep, stroking her hair and singing lullabies. In those early days after he was taken away, the little girl would lie awake at night, calling out for her father. Unbeknownst to the family, thousands of miles away, Dritan was experiencing something similar.
“He told me, ‘Mom, I don’t know what happened. For three days I just lay there, stroking my pillow, thinking it was [his daughter]. I didn’t know who I was and I don’t know how I came back,’” Zurata recalls him saying.
His daughter was so desperate to see him that one day she penned a note to the president. It read: “Dear Mr. Obama. Today is my birthday. I am five years old. Please, if you can, bring my father back just for one day, so I can hug and kiss him, and then, if you want, you can take him back again.” Zurata says she mailed the letter to the White House. She never heard back.
Almost every family has a similar story. According to Mariam Abu-Ali, conditions of confinement often come up at annual gatherings of affected families, which she organizes in her role as director of the Prisoners and Families Committee at the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms.
“About 90 percent of the attendees are women,” she says in a phone interview with Rewire, “and they bring a lot of pain and anxiety into the room. But I’d say the meetings are cathartic,” she adds. “It’s the place where we build bonds with the only people who know what we’re going through.”
Several women who’ve attended the conference in the past tell Rewire they are powerful spaces, offering families a rare chance to speak openly about their lives without fear of being misunderstood, judged, or pitied. It is also a moment for families, particularly women, to share in the collective nature of their trauma, especially the pain of incarceration.
In the 13 years that her brother has served, Mariam says she has come to the painful realization that prisons don’t just lock up individuals—they are a form of bondage on the entire family.
Because Ahmed Omar is imprisoned 1,600 miles from the family’s home in Virginia, in one of the BOP’s maximum-security facilities in Colorado, they only see him once or twice a year. Visits are limited to three family members at a time, meaning Mariam has not seen Ahmed in two years. He reserves his two monthly phone calls for his parents, so she can only hope to talk to him when she visits them. Even these calls are a source of enormous frustration. As she wrote in a recent op-ed:
My mom has spent every Tuesday and Thursday of the last decade, at home, sitting by the phone, patiently waiting for a call that sometimes did not come. And when the call does come, what can one even discuss in 15 minutes? Do you ask him how he’s doing? How can you even ask him how he’s feeling? Do you discuss his prison conditions? His legal case? How do you break the news to him when his aunt or grandfather has passed away?
“What you have to understand is that my brother’s case wasn’t just one devastating ‘moment’ in our lives—it’s a lifelong struggle,” Mariam tells Rewire. “This is not something you ever get used to, or accept. It’s about learning new ways of coping every single day, like living with a chronic illness.”
Each day brings fresh challenges, and tough decisions. For instance, Mariam used to maintain a website, manage a Facebook page, and post daily updates on a Twitter account all relating to her brother’s case. One day she felt she just couldn’t do it anymore.
“At a point you have to ask yourself—do I work full time and provide for my family or do I advocate full time on behalf of my loved one?” she asks. “This work, it’s emotionally draining, it’s a daily struggle and it doesn’t necessarily get easier with time.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the officials whom Shifa Sadequee had been accused of making false statements to. It was FBI officers, not immigration officials.
Rewire recently spoke to Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman, who are crowdsourcing funds for Fattitude, their documentary about fat prejudice. The filmmakers discuss the core principles of Fattitude, the harassment they've experienced while making the film, and much more.
So often in pop culture, fat is used as a symbol of immorality.
From Colin Farrell’s fat-hating boss inHorrible Bosses to “Fat Monica” on Friends to Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, fat bodies frequently are a substitute for something disturbing, somethinglaughable, or something that’s villainous. Even if the fat-shaming is not overt, as in Lifetime’s series Drop Dead Diva, there is still an underlying message that fat equals impiety.
Yet, despite widespread acceptance that pop culture drives and defines how we feel about our bodies, there has yet to be much acknowledgement of how society is not only rife with fat discrimination, but is complacent about it.
That’s where Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman come in. Through their feature-length documentary, Fattitude, the Florida-based filmmakers and long-time friends are taking a concentrated look at the ubiquity of fat prejudice through media analyses and interviews with some well-known activists—like Marilyn Wann, author of Fat! So?, and Sony Renee Taylor, founder of global movement The Body is Not an Apology. They also plan to develop an educational activist campaign around the film, much like those related to the documentaries An Inconvenient Truth and Miss Representation, that centers on raising awareness of fat discrimination.
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“Our media tells a lot of lies about fat bodies and about the experience of living in fat bodies,” Averill told Rewire. The film project is “close to both of our hearts because we both have lived in bodies of changing sizes throughout our lives and we both battled how fat discrimination functions, how fat hatred functions, how fat-shaming functions.”
Fattitude is still in the production phase, though, and Averill and Lieberman have turned to the community to help fund their project through a Kickstarter campaign, which ends on Sunday, May 25. Funds raised through the drive will go toward travel costs for the crew and production team to shoot additional interviews, equipment purchases, revenue for an illustrator/animator and sound editor, and costs of film festival applications.
So far, their Kickstarter campaign has more than exceeded its goal, bringing in nearly $5,000 more than the original $38,050 they set out to raise. With only a few days left, the duo is now pushing for $50,000, hoping to raise enough for additional production items such as professional color correction, original music composition, and a fair use lawyer.
But the entire process has not gone smoothly. Earlier this year, Averill and Lieberman became the victims of a horrible online attack. Shortly after launching their Kickstarter, a YouTube user by the handle “GODBLESSADOLFHITLER” posted the Fattitude trailer under the title “Cakes: The New Comedy Hit,” which Averill immediately reported for copyright infringement, and YouTube removed it. Apparently angry about being reported, the YouTube user began to harass Averill, Lieberman, and their supporters on Twitter, posting their contact information online—or “doxxing” them—and soliciting his followers to also stalk and abuse the filmmakers. In a matter of days, Averill and Lieberman were receiving rape and death threats, hate mail, and frightening phone calls. The abuse continues to this day. (The incidents were reported to local police, which subpoenaed Google, YouTube’s parent company, but the filmmakers have yet to hear back.)
While the experience has left both Averill and Lieberman shaken, they say it’s validated the importance of both the film and their work in exposing fat hatred. “I feel more aggressively determined that this is an absolutely necessary film,” Averill said.
Rewire recently spoke with the filmmakers about the core principles of Fattitude, the latest episode of Louie, the importance of featuring diverse voices, and more.
Rewire: Fattitude aims to educate about “the harsh and very real realities of fat shaming and fat hatred.” How so?
Lindsey Averill: We felt that there wasn’t a strong documentary that really looked at how popular culture intensifies fat discrimination in everyday life. For us, we believe representation plays a huge role in how we formulate our ideas about the culture we live in. What we did is really examine popular culture and say, “How is the everyday experience of media representing the fat body?” So our film [is] really delving into that. We’re saying, “In our culture, when we talk about fat bodies, it’s in a negative context, period.”
Viridiana Lieberman: And using pop culture as a lens is very accessible in conversation because everybody can relate or has seen one or all of the forms of media we’re discussing—whether it’s a show you really like or a story that you read about in the newspaper, or just reality television that is just in your ear all the time, even if you’re not watching it.
LA: For us, we feel that [the first step in] educating the populous about fat discrimination is opening people’s eyes to the reality of the fact that they already are complacent in fat discrimination because it’s so acceptable in the media that that message is imbedded in our lives. Our film is our first action item. It’s the first space in which we put forward, “Open your eyes. Realize that this is one of the invisible cultural assumptions that you’re not paying attention to, and you’re not realizing how cruel, how frugal, and how aggressive this assumption is when it plays out in everyday life.”
Rewire: You write on Fattitude‘s Kickstarter that, through this journey, a lot of your own views about fat prejudice and how it is to live in a fat body evolved. Can you talk about that?
LA: I became really conscious of where my failures of body acceptance were. Yes, I was already an activist saying everyone should love their bodies, but [being] in front of these people who so totally have taken on the reality of that, I realized I hadn’t yet. There were moments where even if I wasn’t saying something negative about my body, I was looking in the mirror and assessing it in my own mind. There were these very subconscious whispers that I was able to figure out how to dispel.
On top of that, an academic argument makes sense, but it’s very different seeing it crystalize in real life for you. A lot of the arguments I have seen people make, I hadn’t formulated my own opinions about, per se. Even with regards to “How do we manage this airplane [seat size] issue?” Through the process of listening to all these academics and talking with them, all of a sudden I was like, “No, no this is totally serious. The corporations need to be responsible for this. This is just flat-out discrimination.” Whereas I hadn’t thought deeply about it until I was listening to others really talking [about it].
VL: The pop culture reference we used to like to say [in women’s studies] is that you got unplugged from the matrix—the whole idea that all of a sudden you can see it everywhere, and in everything. That definitely happened to me right when we started working on the project with different aspects of fat activism. But the biggest thing for me, personally speaking, is when interviewing people, I remember walking out of those interviews and thinking, “How did they unplug [from the matrix]?”
I remember I used to wait to do things. I really gauged a lot of big moments in my life on the concept that I should wait until I reach a goal weight or I’m more fit or blah blah blah. And that was such a weird concept to sit back and be like, “Wait a minute, not only is this perhaps the way my body will be no matter what I do, but on top of that, you should never wait.”
What a terrible reason to wait to do things! [laughs]
I remember sitting back and I felt so much more free. [But I] also became very conscious of what people were saying around me from what they ingested in pop culture, and how they feel about their bodies—when we eat and they feel guilty.
LA: The other thing that was amazing to see was that a lot of the people we met [who] totally embraced body positivity and fat positivity have literally unplugged from popular culture. They said, “I’m no longer going to look at these images that tell me my body is not OK because that is totally detrimental to me.” And they had no television, didn’t see movies, just totally unplugged from the popular media because they felt popular media was constantly harassing and torturing them.
VL: We’d start rattling off the list of shows that we want to hear their input on, and they’ve never seen it. “Oh I’ve heard of that one, never seen it.” “I don’t own a television.” I mean every single person [laughs] and that was a huge revelation.
Rewire:In last week’s episode of Louie, the character Vanessa, played by Sarah Baker, made a speech about dating as a fat woman, which was praised by media outlets. Critics, however, like Willa Paskin at Slate, question the scene’s intent. How does that scene challenge or propagate the perception of fatness in pop culture?
LA: That moment on Louieis rife with both the good and the bad. For example, it is amazing to see someone on television acknowledge the fact that the way we lie about the reality of a person’s body size is insulting and demeaning. Regularly when I refer to my body as fat, people try to tell me it’s not. Obviously, they are lying to me because they believe that being fat is something to be ashamed of, something ugly, something awful. Of course, in reality being fat is just a fact. It doesn’t have to have moral or aesthetic resonance—and the attempt to “hide” me from my fat points out that they believe that if I know I’m fat then I can’t possibly like myself. So I think the fact that this character is on television pointing out the ugliness that is intrinsic in dismissing the reality of a person’s body size is amazing and also really unheard of in mainstream media.
That said, [the speech] also relies on popular cultural lies—like the idea that fat women are not desired or that men are “ashamed” to be seen with fat women—and it makes some really limited assumptions about the issues that fat women struggle with and in turn obscures the systemic reality of fat discrimination. I think the conversation about fat discrimination is more concerned with the reality that fat people make less money than their thin counter parts, that they often receive sub-par medical care, and that they are assumed to be lazy or stupid.
Arguably, this scene gives fat men an edge over fat women—which is debatable. It’s true that historic understandings of femininity have relegated women to the role of object and therefore “beauty,” and long-term relationships are understood as defining and significant factors in a woman’s life, but not a man’s. Of course this is an archaic idea, and yet popular culture still perpetuates these stereotypical gender concepts. That said, ultimately fat men and fat women suffer. We can’t sit around comparing oppressions. Instead we need to work on eliminating the causes of discrimination.
Rewire:What I find interesting, though, is that some outlets, like Flavorwire, are hailing it as this moment that’s given a voice to fat people, which seems dismissive of fat activists. How does that response play into what you’re discussing in Fattitude?
LA:One of the things we can always say is that on some level, anytime we’re having a conversation about fat discrimination—even if it’s problematic—we’re starting a conversation. I feel that the conversations are not being had enough in general, so while the conversation might be problematic, there’s a part of me that feels joy any time the conversation exists at all.
VL:I totally agree with that point.
LA: While there are activists on the ground, and there are amazing people out there saying amazing things, at the end of the day, the way our culture works—and the way it sort of worked for decades—is when you have someone famous as your spokesperson and you have someone famous start the conversation, the conversation is heard. Versus when you have activists having the conversation, it often gets relegated to, “Oh, those are activists talking. I don’t know if that’s important or not.”
And I say that with complete sarcasm, because while the activists are doing amazing and unbelievable things, they’re often shown as the far left or the far right. I’m saying that we can bring the conversation to center and enable it to happen.
VL: Right. You don’t need to mediate that, though. At the end of the day, if that person may have opened the door, it’s still giving access for people to finally be heard.
Rewire: As seen in Fattitude’s trailer, you feature a lot of diverse voices from cultural, wellness, and academic fields. How important was it to tackle this issue from those different viewpoints?
LA: We entered the sphere of making this film with the belief that diversity and diverse voices were extensively important, and one of the current flaws with the trailer—which will not be true of this film—is that it is all women’s voices. It is our goal, by the time we complete this film, that it is a film about fat men and fat women of every race, creed, sex, color, all of the above, because we believe only in that space can you truly have a conversation about what’s being experienced.
Rewire: Were there any issues that you were surprised to learned about as you conducted these interviews?
LA: The reality is that I was so well-informed before we even got to this because I am writing a dissertation of fat activist and fat-shaming. So most of the time, it was about the nuance of the argument, not that an argument popped that [we never thought about]. You look at an argument that you’ve defined for yourself, but then you start listening to [Fat! So? author] Marilynn Wann or [author and activist] Virgie Tovar explaining why they’ve come to the reasoning about a particular argument, and you think, “Oh, that’s incredible.” Then you talk to someone like [Seeking the Straight and Narrow author] Lynne Gerber, and you go, “Oh my God, holy, that’s incredible too.”
You knew it was wrong that someone on the airplane was being kicked off for their body size, but you didn’t take the step forward to realize that the corporation must fix that. The fact that people didn’t think [about it as], “We’re telling you you deserve to be punished. You deserve to be kicked off this plane because your body size is too big,” the fact that people aren’t recognizing that’s prejudice—that was the kind of nuance that became blatantly clear.
VL: That’s why we love that quote where [Gerber] says, “We can land a person on the moon, but we can’t figure out how to get airplane seats for a human being,” because it’s true. Even “thin” people complain about those seats being too small [laughs]. There’s no relevance, there’s no acceptance of any form of spectrum in body size in the human body. Like Lindsey said, it’s just thought to be absolutely OK, undeniably OK, to discriminate and make that assumption.
Rewire: In the process of promoting Fattitude, you’ve also experienced incredible anti-fat abuse and harassment on- and offline. Tell us about that.
LA: It definitely happened to both of us. I think my household experienced the brunt of it, but I was not alone. [“GODBLESSADOLFHITLER”]got very angry and started harassing me on Twitter, initially. My reaction to his harassment on Twitter was, “This is someone who is ridiculous,” and I blocked him. Then he proceeded to go from there to calling my house and sending things to us in the mail, calling my parents’ house, calling my husband’s business, sending Mormon missionaries, having other people send horrible letters that said frightening things, death threats, rape threats. Viri got very aggressive rape threats. We got pizzas delivered to our house. Two days ago, I got a cola. It’s ongoing. It doesn’t go away. It has an anti-Semitic [element], which I think is just part of his online persona, but most of it is “fat bitch cunt” kind of stuff. It’s really anti-woman. It’s really anti-fat. It’s anti-gay, absolutely.
Rewire: Are both of you OK?
LA: I think we’re OK. That’s the best I can say. Our alarm went off the other night, and you feel like cowering in a corner because for the first time in your life, it’s not your instinct to be like, “Oh, that’s our sensitive alarm [that goes off] all the time.” Instead, you’re like, “Oh my God, who’s outside my house?!” There’s definitely a certain level of paranoia I could do without.
VL: The day after my information got out on the Web, I remember getting really nervous, looking over my shoulder. Any time our phone buzzes when somebody would come to our apartment building, there was always a hesitation, even if it was our friends or someone randomly calling the wrong apartment. But it’s where your mind goes first, which is bad.
LA: You feel more cautious and more anxious. But we’re making this film for a reason. It’s an absolutely necessary conversation, because I have now not only experienced the bullying that was experienced by living in a fat body in the world, but I have also experienced this intense level of fat hatred in the culture that I haven’t felt. The reality is, activists like Amanda Levitt [of] Fat Body Politics get this kind of trolling on a regular basis. They get this kind of brutal ugliness coming at them as they try to fight this. I contacted all the people in our film right away when this started, and activist Substantia Jones was like, “Hey, this is my life. This happens to me all the time. We are human, we are strong, and we won’t be quieted.” There’s a huge part for me where I have to remind myself that the activists now, and who came before us, experienced this, and that’s a part of it. That’s what happens, because you’re striking a nerve and you’re having a conversation that is obviously compelling, but also important.
I think at the end of the day, are we OK? Yeah, we’re OK. Is it great? Not always, but we’re OK.
Rewire: What has this experience showed you about the work you’re doing with Fattitude?
LA: We’ve seen the ugliest version of fat discrimination. Fat discrimination is that someone thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to come up to me, and go, “Oh, I’m on this great new diet, I should tell you about it,” because that person is assuming that I want to know about a diet, that I’m interested, that I’m unhappy with my body as it is now. That’s a version of fat discrimination. And, obviously, so is someone sending me hate mail and threatening my life, and calling my documentary cancerous because I am trying to tell people it’s OK to live your life even if you’re fat.
That’s what it showed us: It’s not just something subtle. We know it’s systematic. But we just looked at the brutal version of the hatred.
VL: And the hatred that happens at a time of change.
Rewire: In the end, what is the number one thing we should know about Fattitude?
LA: That each person’s body belongs to them. One of the things we like to do in this world is to think we have the right to judge other’s choices, and that’s one of the ways we quickly justify body prejudice. Everyone’s body is their own, and everyone’s body deserves the right to live free, equally, and with love and acceptance in this world.
VL: I couldn’t have said it better.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.