Gender and Intersectionality

Speaking Through 'Lard-Slicked Lips': Fatness, Racism, and Narratives of Self-Control Encircling the Paula Deen Scandal

By Megan Condis, T. J. Tallie, and Kaitlin Marks-Dubbs, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

1Paula Deen is an American celebrity chef, best known for her collection of extensive collection of cookbooks and popular cooking television programs, most notably on the Food Network. Deen’s unique brand of Southern-style cooking began as a small home business in the early 1990s that developed into the popular Savannah, Georgia restaurant, The Lady & Sons. Deen’s high calorie culinary creations were popular with tourists and local residents alike, and her particular type of Southern-style “comfort foods” earned her a significant following. By 2002, she had joined the Food Network with her show Paula’s Home Cooking. By 2013, Paula Deen was a well-recognized fixture on American cooking programs, food magazines, and on bookstore shelves. Yet legal troubles involving former staff members put Deen’s eatery empire in jeopardy and brought discourses of race, fatness, and bodies directly in the public eye.

2In March of 2012 Lisa Jackson filed a lawsuit against Food Network star Paula Deen and her brother, Earl ‘Bubba’ Hiers, accusing them of racial and sexual workplace discrimination. 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.” (THR Staff)

Other accusations made in the lawsuit included:

Black staff had to use the back entrance to enter and leave restaurant; Black staff could only use one bathroom; and Black staff couldn’t work the front of the restaurants. (Washington, 2013)

Despite the gravity of the allegations, however, it was not until May of this year when Deen admitted to having used the N-word and to being fascinated with the image of a plantation-themed wedding complete with waiters playing the role of slaves in a deposition for the lawsuit that the mainstream media started paying attention to the case (Duke).

3The consequences for Deen were swift: the Food Network opted not to renew her contract, and companies like Wal-Mart, Target, Home Depot, Sears, Kmart, Walgreens, J. C. Penny, Caesars Entertainment, Novo Nordisk, and Smithfield Hams announced that they would cut ties with her (cf. Gennis and Bhasin). Random House dropped her forthcoming cookbook and canceled her five-year contract (Moskin), and QVC announced that they had “decided to take a pause” from their business relationship with Deen in the wake of the scandal (ABC News).

4By August, the scandal died down, just in time for the courts to dismiss the racial discrimination case on the grounds that the plaintiff, a white woman, had no standing to sue (Bynum). 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 23rd (Severson, "Settlement in Lawsuit Against Paula Deen"). But the damage to the Deen brand was already done.

5This article represents the efforts of a disciplinarily diverse group of scholars (a pop culture critic, a historian who works on issues of race and ethnicity, and a feminist scholar who works on body image) to decode the multiple nasty turns we saw taken in conversations around Paula Deen scandal. We are invested in combining the perspectives of our various areas of focus to determine how and why Deen’s own body came to be used to rebuke her for her remarks, how sizeism came to stand in for a condemnation of racism.

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