And Now For Something Completely Different: A Roundtable Project on Paula Deen?!

Occasionally, some event in pop culture will tickle my brain in such a way that I become consumed by it.  I have to push pause on longer term projects and write something about this event or else it will echo around in my mind until I go mad.

Such was the case with this summer’s Paula Deen scandal.

For those who haven’t been following the case, it began back in March of 2012 when Lisa Jackson, one of Deen’s former employees, filed a lawsuit against the Food Network star and her brother, Earl Hiers, accusing them of racist and sexist discrimination in the workplace.

From The Hollywood Reporter:

Among the allegations, Deen is said to have made racially offensive comments, including one regarding the desired dress code for servers at her brother’s wedding.

“Well what I would really like is a bunch of little n***ers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around,” Jackson claims Deen told her. “Now, that would be a true Southern wedding wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”

For his part, Hiers is said to have downloaded pornography onto his computer in the office that he shared with Jackson. He also allegedly printed out photos of women having sex with each other with a caption reading, “Why Gay Marriage Should Be Legal.”

Jackson left the restaurant after five years because — she claims — management failed to take action despite her multiple complaints of sexual harassment. She is suing both Deen and Hiers individually, as well as Deen’s companies Paula Deen Enterprises, The Lady & Sons, The Lady Enterprises and Uncle Bubba’s Seafood and Oyster House, Inc.

Some of the other accusations made in the lawsuit include the following:

Black staff had to use the back entrance to enter and leave restaurant;Black staff could only use one bathroom;

Black staff couldn’t work the front of the restaurants;

Brother Bubba stated his wishes: “ I wish I could put all those n*ggers in the kitchen on a boat to Africa”;

Bubba asked a black driver and security guard “don’t you wish you could rub all the black off you and be like me? You just look dirty; I bet you wish you could.” The guy told Bubba he was fine as is;

Bubba on President Obama: they should send him to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, so he could n*gger-rig it;

He shook an employee (Black again) and said” F your civil rights…you work for me and my sister Paula Deen;

Paula’s son Jaime’s best friend managed the Lady & Sons restaurant. He threatened to fire all the ‘Monkeys’ in the kitchen. When Paula found out…she slapped him on the wrist and suggested that the employee visited Paula’s $13,000,000 mansion so he felt special and could be massaged.

But it wasn’t until May of this year, when, in her deposition, Deen admitted to using the N-word and to telling racist and anti-semetic jokes, that the media really started paying attention to the case.

The consequences for Deen were swift and immediate: the Food Network opted not to renew her contract, and many companies with whom Deen had business relationships announced that they would cut ties with her including Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Sears, Kmart, Walgreens, J. C. Penny, Caesars Entertainment, Novo Nordisk, and Smithfield Hams.  Random House dropped her forthcoming cookbook and canceled her five-year contract.  QVC also announced that they had “decided to take a pause” from Deen in the wake of the scandal.

By now the scandal has pretty much died down, just in time for the courts to dismiss the racial discrimination case on the grounds that the plaintiff, as a white woman, had no standing to sue.  The sexual harassment portion of the case, likewise, was dismissed with prejudice, and the remains of the lawsuit were finally resolved in a settlement agreement on August 23.  But the damage to the Deen brand was already done.

The aspect of the scandal that I found most fascinating as it unfolded was the way that nominally liberal commentators weighing in on the the case continually evoked Deen’s fatness in an attempt to recruit viewers and readers into seeing her as a villain.  I found this curious.  Believe me, I have little sympathy for Deen’s admitted nostalgia for Civil War era “obedient slave” aesthetics.  But why was it that critics who were so up in arms about Deen’s body-based discrimination so eager to engage in body-based discrimination of their own by constantly evoking her fat as though it were evidence of her wrong-doing in this case?  Were these pundits simply afraid that an apathetic population would remain unmoved by accusations of racism and sexism such that they felt the need to recruit those viewers by playing into fat hatred?  Or were they detecting that their liberal audience members would be glad to hear that Deen had offended liberal sensibilities so that they could have an excuse to pillory her for committing the sin of being an unapologetic fat woman in public?

Obviously, these questions do not lie in my area of specialty.  But my brain would not let me put them away!  So I sent out a call on Facebook and recruited three of the smartest people I know: Ashley Hetrick, T. J. Tallie, and Kaitlin Marks-Dubbs.  Together, we are just now finishing up a roundtable discussion project on the Deen scandal.  My awesome collaborators made some amazing connections between how racism and fatness are both conceived of as individual issues of self-control and discipline and how the media is complicit in upholding these constructions in order to hide their systemic, power-driven components.

I hope to find a home for this piece soon, but in the meantime here are some video clips exemplifying the kinds of discourse we are investigating.

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