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I’ve refrained from giving Trump more attention than he’s already getting, but I want to mention those awful statues in connection to political body symbolism.

Image from a 2016 Düsseldorf parade. From Wikimedia; in public domain.
Image from a 2016 Düsseldorf parade. From Wikimedia; in public domain.

I’m in complete agreement with Marissa Jenae Johnson who writes on The Establishment that yes, we understand the impulse to lash out at and mock someone who is so obviously full of bigoted and awful ideas. At the same time, Johnson writes:

But these statues and the joke around them aren’t funny. In fact, they’re harmful. And the desire to attack Trump on baseless, superficial, personal grounds—in conjunction with similar attacks on his base—seems to have more to do with privilege and posturing, than actually paving the way for a world where the marginalized are centered and cared for.

The fat-shaming inherent in those statues is problematic, in part because of the pervasive ways in which fatness is stigmatized and creates more problems than it solves. I’ve mentioned fat shaming in my “How Fat Is Too Fat?” series, concluding with the question: “Of all the senseless cruel bullshit happening in the world today, why would I waste my time judging someone based on how their body allocates calories?” In other words, we don’t have enough information about why some people’s bodies end up fatter than others to make it a meaningful thing to say that a politician’s body is fat; it could just as easily indicate a hormonal dysregulation as a lack of control.

However, we take an interest in the bodies of our leaders when they transgress certain norms. Discreet affairs are sometimes okay, but sometimes not. I’m less concerned by the sex than by the secrecy and hypocrisy, because as I put it in a blog post, “If we can’t trust politicians to have healthy, consensual relationships, why would we trust them to run businesses or national institutions?”

But the bodies of our leaders also matter thanks to a symbolic process that we’re still trying to understand. As Laura Kipnis observes in Against Love: A Polemic:

According to anthropologist Victor Turner, leaders often do emplot their lives in what he calls ‘social narratives,’ consciously or unconsciously acting in ways that allow them to become clothed with allusiveness and metaphor. The leader’s body signifies the dilemmas of the nation, and we choose as our leaders those candidates who manage to make themselves legible to us as a collective mirror. But it’s not only anthropologists who subscribe to this view or preliterate tribes alone who fetishize the chieftain’s body: this is the essence of the modern political campaign. (156)

Kipnis follows up: “Clearly leadership styles vary throughout history and in different parts of the globe. Some leaders are showmen, some are buttoned-up bureaucrats, but a leader’s body invariably condenses an array of meanings and messages, which may or may not entirely map onto political ideology–which may even complicate or contradict their official positions.” (158)

As a body scholar, of course I find this fascinating… but it’s problematic, too. No one person’s body can be “read” as a monolithic and cohesive metaphor for the rest of their identity. That is pretty much the main point of my keynote speech on the body in folklore: that culture gives us multiple lenses through which to view bodies, and folklore is an especially useful tool here, but that the equationbetween cultural concepts and physical bodies is always an incomplete and even flawed one. You can, if you know what you look for, learn a ton about someone by looking at their body art (clothing, hairstyle, makeup, level of muscle tone, etc.) and their kinesthetics (posture, movement, gesture), but you will never get the full story from their body alone.

Or, to bring in some sex ed tools, we know that trauma is often stored in the body. But at the same time, you need to involve the whole person, not just the body, in order to heal. We know that nonconcordant arousal happens for many people, where your body displaying signs of arousal is not the same as you subjectively enjoying the experience. And figuring out sexual communication in general means dealing with some awkwardness too, because we’re not mind-readers: “When it comes down to it, accept that in order to meaningfully interact with others, you must use your words.” So even when it comes to sex – which most people think of in terms of bodies coming together for pleasure, procreation, and any number of other things – the body is not the ultimate arbiter of meaning and truth.

So when we highlight or mock the bodies of our leaders, I want us to think about the messages we’re sending about the connection between body and identity. In both my fields of study (folklore and gender/sexuality), the connection between body and self is complex and nuanced, and I hate to see it reduced to statues either mocking politicians for being fat or having unappealing genitals. I do think it’s worth calling people out for their behavior, especially when hypocritical or nonconsensual in nature though, and it gets complicated when people enact those behaviors with/on their bodies (as with sexual affairs)… but yeah. At least try to keep it from being shame-y when we talk about bodies, whether they belong to our leaders or not.

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...