On Celebrity Platforms

Recently, a man was kicked off a plane for posing a “safety risk” because of his size, according to the crew members. When he got on another flight to go home, he ended up seated next to a young woman who was warned that she would need to buy a second seat because of her size, despite the fact that he had already purchased a second seat and was more than happy to let that be the buffer space between them. This experience infuriated him: From the humiliation of being escorted off a fully seated plane for being too fat to sitting next to a young woman who was cowed by fat hatred into repeating the line of the airline that she might make people “uncomfortable” by being fat.

The young woman, the man said, made him think of his daughter, and made him think about how angry he would be if someone did that to his daughter. He spent the flight home getting increasingly angry, and when he disembarked at home he was loaded for bear, as they say. He was ready to put up a fight with the airline. Not about his humiliation, but about their humiliating policies.

And he did just that.

This scenario plays out on a regular basis on planes all over the country. People are told that they are too fat and that they must buy second seats. Policies are applied unevenly; this man could buckle into his seat without an extender and he could lower the arm rests, which meant that under the policy of the airline, he shouldn’t have been required to buy a second seat. People miss flights, are humiliated, can’t fly at all because they cannot afford a second seat.

What made this case any different?

The man was Kevin Smith. Kevin Smith has over and a million and a half Twitter followers, and he made sure that every single one of them knew exactly how angry he was. He berated Southwest Airlines and their sizeist policies in his podcast and on his Twitter and a number of media outlets picked the story up. His situation wasn’t any different from that of oodles of fat people who are ejected from planes every year, it’s just that he’s a famous fat person.

And he made sure that people knew that he was fully aware of this fact. He told the airline that he wasn’t impressed with their attempts to placate him once they realized who they were dealing with. He sneered at their fauxpology in which the company line was repeated. He made it crystal clear that this wasn’t about him and his humiliation, that he could dine out on the story for years.

He said “so many people don’t have a fuckin’ voice” on his podcast, and said that it was this which struck him through this experience. He started thinking about fellow fatties who don’t have clout. He started thinking about the fact that he was a white man with a lot of followers, someone who could make noise and be listened to and respected, and he decided to¬† use that. Not just for his benefit, but for the benefit of future flying fatties. He wanted to enact a change.

He wanted, in other words, to use his platform to accomplish something.

A lot of celebrities are known for using their fame to push various agendas and goals and projects. Indeed, it’s almost expected in some regions, that celebrities should speak up and use their fame for a good purpose, while at the same time celebrities are criticized for speaking out, for being involved in politics, for having thoughts about social justice issues. It seems like a celebrity just can’t win, sometimes, doesn’t it?

Whether or not you are a fan of Kevin Smith, and there are a lot of reasons not to be a fan[1. For example, on that same Twitter feed, he berated Southwest Airlines as a bunch of “retards” and “fucktards,” which I could have done without. He also recently told his followers to go after a woman who questioned the content of a breast cancer awareness campaign he was involved with; she argued that it was sexist and exploitative because it was framed around language like “save the titties” as opposed to addressing women’s health issues, and he disagreed and chose to use his platform and clout for the opposite of good.], you have to give him credit for seeing beyond the situation he was in and thinking about larger implications. And you have to give him credit for deciding to speak up for fatties in general.

I think that this actually is a pretty adroit use of the celebrity platform. He identified a clear issue, size discrimination on airlines, and a concrete goal, getting Southwest to change their policy. He stayed tight and on message. The message was not perfectly delivered; he did make a point of stressing, over and over, that he’s not that fat and that some fatties might need to buy two seats. So I can’t say that I was 100% behind his efforts, but I do think he did a decent job of organizing and of trying to accomplish something.

He used his platform to raise awareness. I think that a lot of people hadn’t really thought about this issue, for a variety of reasons. He pointed out that “most of America looks like me” and warned people that they, too, could be ejected from flights. People got angry because Kevin Smith reminded him that this injustice happens, daily, and that it is a real problem. And they started responding. Again, not always perfectly. Some people supported size discrimination, some people concern trolled Smith about his health even as he pointed out that fat and health are not always coupled, and that weight gain can happen for a lot of complex reasons.

Kevin Smith spoke for those who are not able to, and that is how celebrity platforms ought to be used, in my opinion. Not for personal benefit by being associated with popular causes. Not for abstract and unclear projects with no clear end. For to the point, simple, easily understood campaigns which are designed to get people to think about the world they live in. Of course, he’s already tired of it, so let’s see how long the momentum lasts. It isn’t much fun to have to constantly defend your right to exist, is it, Kevin Smith?