Monday 5 January 2015

Benefits: Too Fat to Work

Those lovely folks over at Daily Express TV have hit on a relatively untapped vein of hate. Marry together your idea of the undeserving poor sponging off the hardworking tax payer with fat people and you have the perfect scapegoat: someone who cannot work because they are obese. Channel 5's Benefits: Too Fat to Work is an exercise in demonology dressed up as concern porn, and befitting the quality publications of the station's proprietor the facts of the matter - such as only 12,000 people out of a population of 60m plus are officially deemed "too fat to work" - cannot be allowed to get in the way of an hour long exhortation to mock, condemn, and hate so we can feel better about ourselves.

There is Rachel Lacy from York, a 20 stone woman who's been unemployed since the summer. She is not in receipt of disability-related payments, really wants to work but states that her job-hunting is hampered by her weight.

Amy Johnston is an 18 year old woman who weighs in at 32 stone. She receives £120/week in social security support - £71 in what I can only assume is non-work related support group Employment Support Allowance and a top up from Disability Living Allowance. She's looked after by her mum, who was out of work at the time of filming.

Then there are the stars of the show, Stephen Beer and Michelle Coomb (pictured). Steve is 31 stone and has a number of health complications arising from his weight, whereas Michelle is 23 stone and doubles up as his carer. Both are unemployed - she hadn't worked for 20 years whereas Steve stopped working in 2008 after getting incapacitated by a stroke.

Because this is tabloid television, it makes every effort to portray our guests as utterly undeserving. And it does that by making them out to be shammers.

In Amy's case, it's the big bottles of coke stowed away in the cupboards. For Rachel, to save public money in the long-term she's elected to have a gastric bypass so she can slim down, be more healthy and find a job more easily. Yet the narrator refers to the £6,000 operation as "paid for by the state" and as a "tax payer funded procedure". This is prefaced by a "some people commit to diet and exercise" to lose the weight, implying - of course - that Rachel is but a sponger who can't be arsed to help herself.

The true venom is reserved for Steve and Michelle. They got what they call in Big Brother fandom a "bad edit". As the camera pans their living room, we notice the gadgets. Laptop, check. Tablet, check. Telly and cable box, check. Sauntering down the community centre for a slimming club weigh-in, he lost one pound and she five pounds in the previous week. How to toast the achievement? WIth a takeaway, of course. A large doner kebab for Steve and a mound of spicy chicken for Michelle. The narrator caustically notes, "£11.50 spent - best to keep it quiet". Later on, Michelle heads to the shop to buy bolognese and Steve is shown struggling to chop mushrooms. He collapses exhausted on to the sofa, and shows no such difficulty eating the meal and his ice cream dessert.

The narrator helpfully cuts in at all times with gems like "the taxpayer forks out £8,000/year for Steve's carer" - a woman who comes and attends to him twice a day. He gets about town on a mobility scooter "paid out of his benefits", and the £3,000 wedding the programme works towards (and ends with his hospitalisation because of a blood clot on his lung) evolves from "the wedding" to "the benefits wedding" to the "big fat benefits wedding". How we larfed.

Steve is ideal scapegoat fodder. He receives "£2,000/month in handouts" (he doesn't), he's profligate (because he orders one takeaway and spends £16 on some shopping), and doesn't help himself by not taking his diet seriously (more of which below). His, and that of his fellow guests, have had an image crafted carefully to enrage the audience, to make them objects of hate. Channel 5 took their characters and sliced and diced them for entertainment.

Too Fat to Work is condemn-a-little-more-and-understand-a-little-less in its almost purest (and most puerile) form. The show (to call it a documentary demeans the genre) doesn't explore why Amy, Rachel, Steve and Michelle people are obese. With Amy, her mum suggests it's because she was too busy with work to feed her properly when she was younger. Pulling 13/14 hour shifts were not conducive to family life, so she was fed convenience foods. With Rachel, there's a hint that depression might be the root of her weight problems. When we first meet her she talks about her pet rats and how feeding them means she has no choice but to get up in the morning. That sound like someone not struggling with depression to you? And for Steve, there is a moment, an almost a cast off suggestion that his difficulty with controlling his appetite is associated with his stroke. A struggling overworked and underpaid mum trying to bring up her kid. A woman coping with depression. A man whose impulse control was damaged by a stroke. Are these people worthy of your condemnation?

Weight and obesity in the UK is, if you forgive the pun, a big problem. 66.6% of men and 57.2% of women aged 20 and over are either overweight and obese. The obesity figures for the under 16s are 26% of boys and 29% of girls, up from 17.5% and 21% respectively in 1980. When one person in your community is obese, it's probably because of some medical reason or individual quirk. If there are masses of people who are and their numbers are growing, you've got a social problem.

People always make choices, of course. Choice, however, is always conditioned by circumstance. The obesity rates are up for all kinds of reasons - sedentary lifestyles, less physically demanding jobs, relatively cheap fatty/salty foods, convenience culture and dual income households, the increasing prevalence of depression and mental health problems, body image pressures, all these are doing their bit to make weight a social problem. Yet rather than look at these issues and learning how they conspire together, we have shitty programmes like Too Fat to Work taking a public health issue and using it to attack the "generosity" of social security provision and the individual moralities of people living with obesity. It's pure bait and hate, dividing and ruling.

Meet your new hate figures. Same as the old hate figures.


BCFG said...

The old argument was about whether the NHS should provide funding for drug abuse, they always pick a case where the moral high ground can be taken. I found the most effective way of arguing with this was to widen the spectrum, if no treatment for the affects of drug abuse then no treatment for abusing your skin by staying in the sun too long ( skin cancers projected to cost half a billion) for example.

My response to austerity is similar, ok we will assume we need cuts, let’s cut to the bone, let us have real austerity rather than this viscous attack on the most vulnerable. So let us start at the top and work our way down, get rid of every private swimming pool, nobody can live in a house that takes up a maximum level of space, no private helicopters or jets, no household can own more than 1 car unless there is a definite need and that car must be energy efficient, no person can have more than 1 foreign holiday in a year that requires air travel and 2 is the maximum come what may etc etc. And then if that doesn’t save enough we can start to look at meals on wheels, cutting in work benefit and cutting vital public services, but only after a ruthless austerity on decadence and extravagance.

There are people who live on a dollar a day don't you know!

singapore sling said...

And at the exact same time, BBC2 were broadcasting about Russian oligarchs in London! But it was Richard Desmond and his minions who succeeded in getting more people worked up into a rage.

Anonymous said...

Desmond sold C5 last year to Viacom but no sign of any improvement yet

Phil said...

Indeed not. And clearly there's some sort of sweetheart deal ongoing: The Star and The Express still have the insider "scoops" about C5's bullshit reality TV shows.