Who SHOULD be an activist? on Paula Deen & health advocacy

A few days ago, celebrity chef, mini-empire owner, and Smithfield ham spokeswoman Paula Deen simultaneously announced on the Today show on NBC that a) she’s had Type 2 diabetes for the last three years and b) she is promoting Victoza, a diabetes drug from Norvo Nordick, which costs about $500 a month.  My first reaction to the news was: umm, surprise?  Of course she has diabetes. What do you expect from someone involved for so long and to such a degree with such “yummy” food, like her infamous idea to use Krispy Kreme doughnuts as a hamburger ‘bun.’

The blogosphere has since exploded (a NY Times article garnered over 1000 comments) with people calling out Deen’s hypocrisy for promoting food that makes people sick and then making even more money for promoting an expensive drug created for that particular disease. There are plenty of Deen-defenders out there, as well – people who are saying she’s just an entertainer who is friends and family oriented, that shouldn’t be in the hot seat, and that people are being overly critical and that she’s under no obligation to cook diabetic-friendly food on her show.  It’s turned into an identity issue for Southern women, who are being protective of a fellow Southern woman with a traditional persona who cooks, who didn’t start out rich, and who views what how she cooks as ‘Sunday dinner,’ not everyday, cooking.

I think that, together, this back-and-forth (but especially the critiques of her new gig as a pharmaceutical spokesperson) raises some noteworthy questions for thinking about who should, or should not be, considered an activist and why we expect some people to become activism-oriented in this type of situation.  Two thoughts for the Mobilizing Ideas crowd:

First, celebrity chefs and celebrity foodies have become activists in the last decade in unprecedented numbers.  Not all of them have, of course.  But there’s a shifting paradigm in seeing people in the public eye who cook and entertain taking on activist-like-roles: Jamie Oliver’s campaign for bettering school lunches in Britain and fighting obesity in the U.S.; Emeril Lagasse promoting an Edible Schoolyard in New Orleans; well-known local chefs who visibly associate with farmers markets and local farms; Dan Barber being Dan Barber and Alice Waters being Alice Waters.

This is important because Deen’s announcement literally adds fat to the fire regarding national debates about rising obesity levels, the contingent role of the market, and what we’re doing about it.  This past summer, food writer Jane Black wrote in the Atlantic that Deen herself, because of her cultural power, could be a ‘magic ingredient’ in helping create a healthier food culture.  That this food, this drug, and this disease are class issues – and political issues – is obviously true. A recent separate, but related, issue is controversy over potential stigma in anti-obesity PSAs featuring and targeting kids.

Second, perhaps more importantly, is the prominent role of celebrity and celebrity-awareness campaigns in health related campaigns and movements.  Think of Magic Johnson and AIDS, Lance Armstrong and cancer, Stephen Hawking and ALS, Elizabeth Edwards and breast cancer, or Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s.  Each used his or her celebrity to bring discussions and knowledge about diseases into the public arena. We’ve come to expect people with this cultural power to attempt at least a veneer of honorable – or at least not hypocritical – behavior in this type of situation.  It’s created a normalized and morally uplifting story arch of finding the positive in the pain.

But Deen is not following this prescription.  She is trying to play down her food’s responsibility, saying on Today that she has “always encouraged moderation” and telling Al Roker “I’m your cook, not your doctor.”  I guess you don’t build an empire based on deep-fried fat and sweet things and then expect to keep it together if you tell people not to eat them.  It is her blatant attempt to capitalize on the situation that is really getting people riled.  By becoming a paid spokesperson for this particular drug, she is doing the opposite of what we have come to hope for from people who could use their public personas for ‘good’ – certainly this is something “yummy” to offer those of us interested in questions of who becomes an activist, and why we expect certain people to step up and do so.

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