Chubsters

The Chubsters is my fat queer girl gang. I wrote this in 2008 for a fat queer anthology that never materialised. Some things have happened since then, for example Invasion of the Chubsters, and Chubsters at the Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage Hamburg in 2009, but it gives some context for the project.

I’ve resisted coming clean about The Chubsters for some time, mostly because I wanted to preserve the confusion about whether or not the gang is real. But now it is time for a few explanations and reflections.

I started The Chubsters as an international girl gang, a fat girl gang, a fat and queer girl gang, actually, but Chubsters don’t have to be queer, female or even fat to be a part of it. The Chubsters are vicious and belligerent, they will do anything to tear down Narrow Fucks, Chubster-speak for narrow-minded fatphobes, or anyone else who gets in their way, and they are always itching for a dirty fight. Chubsters embrace idiocy and aggression, they love to cause mayhem.

The Chubsters are to be found on chubstergang.com, alongside a vague rationale for their existence, a gang song, gang signs, downloadable stencils and calling cards, instructions for getting initiated, and a few more bits and bobs. Sometimes The Chubsters hold real-life initiation sessions to jump-in new Chubsters and give them Chubster badges and membership cards. Sometimes a piece of writing or an event will be given in the name of The Chubsters. Other times The Chubsters is more of an idea than a reality, my idea, if the truth be told.

Beginnings

In 2001, or 2002, I watched a screening of Katrina Del Mar‘s short film Gang Girls 2000 at a now defunct dyke arts night called The Sewing Circle at The Ritzy in Brixton. The film charts a gang war in New York that may or may not be real between The Glitter Girls, The Sluts, The Blades and, my favourites, The Ponies, who are rumoured to keep horses in their apartments. Like that other great gang flick, The Warriors, the film ends with a rumble at, where else, Coney Island. Gang Girls 2000 is a stunningly complete vision of girl gangs, it parodied exploitation films, is a little bit porny, totally queer-dyke-punk and very rough and ready.

There are no fat characters in Gang Girls 2000 and this nagged at me. The film is not exactly lacking in anything, but I couldn’t help feeling that a fatty or two would have added colour and depth, just the right amount of factor x. I talked to my friend Kira Jolliffe about this one day, I wished out loud that I had a gang of fatties and I said that I would call them The Chubsters. At that time Kira was running an alternative fashion magazine called Cheap Date. She said to me: “Why don’t you start your own gang? We could do a photostory for the mag.”

In 2003 Kira published Chubsters vs Imps, a story about how The Chubsters had a gang war with The Imps. In real life The Imps are a young people’s motorcycle display team based in East London who tour their show around various festivals in the summer. Kira saw them perform and thought that they would make great foils for The Chubsters in a way that reminded me of The Sour Grapes Bunch from The Banana Split Show, the dancing children who were the Banana Split’s deadliest enemies, cute kids doing their own thing in a way that might be mysteriously maddening to The Chubsters.

Kira managed to set up a photoshoot with The Imps, and I sketched out a plot for the photostory and rounded up a bunch of my friends. We snagged some excellent shots of Chubsters being strangled by Imps, and Chubsters looking quarrelsome in the derelict landscape around the Imps’ training ground. Later, I built chubstergang.com to host a version of the Cheap Date story, it also seemed like the appropriate thing to do, to create a space that explained The Chubsters a little bit and to be somewhere our activities could be documented.

Amazingly, my fat friends were supportive, I had no idea how the project would pan out but we had a lot of fun making up gang girl personas for ourselves and mugging for the camera. The Beefer is an old nickname that seemed well-suited to Chubsterdom, so I picked that. Unskinny, Bill Savage and Sweetie Kolakube were the first Chubsters, alongside my lovers Butch Husky and The Weasel, and Kira’s friend Dawn Raider. For the most part our Chubster identities were snarky, mean and deadpan. Bill had a hard time looking tough for the cameras, and we decided that it was okay for Chubsters to giggle. I also figured that it was perfectly acceptable to include Chubsters who weren’t fat, basically we really needed the numbers, attitude is what really counts, I wouldn’t want to alienate any potential thinner allies, and so The Weasel skulked moodily throughout, and Dawn Raider became a useful plot device – a skinny girl who will do anything to be a Chubster.

Jumping-In

I wanted to build the membership and an opportunity for this presented itself at NOLOSE in 2004. NOLOSE is the more-or-less annual fat dyke gathering in the US. 2004 was the first time that my girlfriend Kay Hyatt and I attended and we wanted to present a Chubsters workshop to have a focus at the conference. Tubby offered to take photos of would-be Chubsters, so we set up the event as a jumping-in. Some of the NOLOSE board were nervous about our use of gang iconography, these concerns were hard to answer because we felt that if they gave us a chance to present our ideas then they would understand that we did not condone real life gang violence, or the misery that gangs can bring to people. In retrospect I think that what we should have said was that we were parodying pop culture gang iconography, which is different to saying that gangs are cool, or denying the social context of gangs in the US.

Our workshop was scheduled early on Sunday morning, a bit of a dud slot because everyone had been up late the night before, but folks arrived bleary-eyed. Butch and I presented the proceedings in Chubster-form, derisive, spoiling for a fight and as confrontational as we could muster. Actually, because we are English weeds at heart, our aggression was somewhat laughable, but people went along with it and it was thrilling to hear Chubster epithets delivered in rich, American, tough-girl accents.

During the workshop we encouraged people to invent Chubster personas for themselves. Initiation involved yells of “Up against the wall, motherfucker!” and “Chub shall not dis chub!” whilst Tubby snapped portraits for the website. El Assesino high-kicked and created an image that became instantly iconic. (An aside: I continue to worry that someone might point out that the background to Chubster headquarters in people’s portraits looks a lot like a meeting room in a Marriott hotel, but so far this has not happened.) Butch drew people’s pictures on membership cards and I handed out Chubster badges. This was the session where we invented Donut Hands, the Chubster hand sign; Chub-chub-chub-chub-chuuuuuub, the Chubster call and response; the Chub-shake greeting; and it was where our symbol, The Screaming C, was first drawn by Big Blu and Yeti. In just over an hour we created a load of fat culture collectively.

This description of what we did doesn’t quite capture the feeling in that room. By the end of the workshop I was pogoing up and down with joy and Apple Hard, who was superfat in those days, did a cartwheel across the floor. We were all high on laughter, and screaming. These are the things that fatphobes never get to see or enjoy.

A number of things made the workshop special. Firstly, it was a complete departure from fat liberation workshops I’d attended before, which tended towards the earnest and, in queer spaces at least, suffered from identity segregation and insularity. Here, we were all together, being surprisingly egalitarian for a gang.

We presented aspects of ourselves that nice girls are not supposed to value: talking about how to use our bulk and physicality to advantage; how to fight; how to enact revenge; how to upset people for fun. We stopped trying to be pretty or good, and it was fun! Our Chubster portraits showed us at our fat worst, we tried our hardest to look demented and out of control, and that was fun too. Somehow, embracing fat stereotypes enabled us to subvert them, and perhaps rob them of their power over us. This might not work in all situations, but it felt really good to do this together with people who understood. The jumping-in gave us permission to laugh at ourselves and refuse to play the game, to stop being good activists, respectable fatties, or right-on queers. At this jump-in it was as though we were all participating in a group fantasy, testing the limits of a fat and queer imagination together and trying to conjure a future where no one fucks with us.

What stays with me from that gathering was how readily and easily we adopted freakhood. Later, I had a discussion with Beelzebubba about loving and finding power and pride in freakiness. She reminded me of that excellent scene in Tod Browning’s incendiary film Freaks in which the cast of outsiders chant: “Gooble gobble, gooble gobble! One of us! One of us!” It occurred to me that The Chubsters is connected to that chant, about finding your people. Furthermore, the way that The Chubsters champion freakhood is also a means of questioning assimilation within fat activism, it creates new and radical possibilities for fat people and shows that there are choices available to us beyond those in which we struggle to be normal and acceptable in the straight world.

Not surprisingly there were plenty of people who were sorry that they didn’t make the workshop so Butch and I held another jumping-in session at NOLOSE 2005. We pestered the group to come up with a Chubster strut as well as strategies for picking fights with people. Jumping-in involved the initiate being simultaneously belly-slammed by the whole group. You don’t forget that in a hurry.

This is where I lost steam

Following the second jumping-in there were questions about the gang’s purpose. I was happy for it to be a funny little website with occasional real-life appearances, but people started to clamour for more, they expected The Chubsters to be like a democratic group. It started to get serious.

One idea was to leak Chubsters stories to the press, to take responsibility for fat-related headlines and have fun with fake press releases and pranksterishness. Another was to create an online community where people could share their Chubster worlds. People seemed disappointed that The Chubsters existed mostly within our imaginations and that there weren’t gangs of badass fat bitches roaming the streets, righting wrongs. I am also disappointed that this isn’t part of my everyday reality, yet some people expected me to make it happen by some mysterious Chubster magic. Alas, I do not possess that power. The reality of the situation was that nobody took up the press releases, nobody ever posted in the online community and no one ever answered my emails. I did not know how to combine ownership and control of the gang as my own project with a more democratic spread of power, or even ask for help with it, and this freaked me out. Then Beelzebubba died.

The Chubsters was always a back-burner project for me, something fun to do in my spare time, something that I owned. Yet throughout this period I felt that I wasn’t good enough, that I was letting everybody down, that I wasn’t enough of a fat activist, that I should behave as though the gang was like a proper group.

On top of this, Beelzebubba’s death was devastating and felt across real-life fat and queer networks. Beelzebubba embodied the best Chubster characteristics, I cherish the memory of her posing for the camera with a confrontational glare, sulky donut hands, a chemo head and devil horns. But immediate, raw grief is not a good foundation for fun-packed activism, her death was a traumatic loss that knocked the wind out of me and many others.

The Chubsters was not what it might have been, no doubt there could have been ways to exploit the idea further, but I never had the time or the inclination to develop them. Writing this now, it seems crazy that I was so down on myself for not fulfilling people’s fantastical expectations, my shame is ridiculous given the circumstances, especially when others were not forthcoming in helping with the work. Now I see that The Chubsters is what it is, and with no apologies.

What is this thing called The Chubsters?

I have been taking a class about social exclusion recently, and thinking very much about how it affects fat people. Our lecturer introduced us to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, which I take to mean the little bubbles that people live in, the world around us that we think of as normal and the beliefs and experiences that we use to construct our everyday lives. I think that fat people in 21st century Western culture have a habitus that is limited. Even though many of us fight them, we internalise many social messages of being second class, not good enough, ugly, stupid, worthless, all that crap, and our lives sort of reflect those things, often in convoluted ways. As queers it’s likely that we are a little bit more advanced that we are better able to reject homophobia, or question assimilation. So as fat queers we have this contradictory thing going on, shame in our fatness and pride in our queerness. The Chubsters takes that shame-free queer or punk approach to life and applies it to fat. It expands our fat habitus and enables us to think beyond the usual expectations, it suggests: life does not have to be like this, there are other possibilities.

This reminds me of Homocult. A few years ago I interviewed my friend P for my zine at the time, Kink. In the early 1990s P had been one of a small bunch of co-conspirators who created a thing, for want of a better word, called Homocult. The group did some real-life activities, a couple of club nights, and they came out in support of the Miner’s Strike, but their main legacy was in a series of posters, t-shirts and flyers they designed, which were later DIY-published as a book. More specifically, they had a prodigious talent for sloganeering. Deliberately provocative and offensive, Homocult plastered Manchester and London city streets with copy-lines such as: “Everything you make a freak will infect and make you weak”. Moreover, Homocult’s fly-postering activities created the impression that they were a mass movement, a notion that P and his friends did not discourage. He told me: “People used to say ‘Oh, where are the rest of Homocult?’ and it was basically three mad speed-freaks!” Even though it was not a “real organisation” with a management committee, a mission statement, a registered membership, or any other legitimising features, Homocult created a feral and furious vision of queer sexuality within the context of a gay scene that was safe, cautious, complacent and sold out. People took that idea and ran with it.

Like Homocult, The Chubsters want to push people’s buttons with subversive situationist humour. Fat people are traditionally associated with comedy, as friendly figures of fun or passive punchlines in a joke, but The Chubsters humour is deadpan and aggressive, unsettling; Chubsters stare back. There are other similarities with Homocult, the mixing of fantasy and reality, and the creation of a mythical organisation that people believe to be real and from which they take inspiration. Both Homocult and The Chubsters are jokes for insiders, and both express the profound pleasure in behaving badly. Moreover, Homocult and The Chubsters embody a DIY approach to the creation of new fat or queer representation and performativity, but where Homocult used posters, The Chubsters have a wider repertoire that includes a song, magazine articles, chubstergang.com, a film, events, objects. My hope, too, is that people will take the idea of The Chubsters and use it to create more expansive options for fat and queer people.

Where next?

I am getting over the anxiety that The Chubsters should be more than it is and I am giving myself permission to do fat and queer activism in any way I choose. I think I have fallen prey to the pernicious idea, common among fat activists, that I am not doing enough in the face of a monumental war being waged against us. The Chubsters clearly has limitations, a pretend/real gang is unlikely to instigate any legislative change, for example, or banish fatphobia, but fat liberation is a pluralist movement, and interventions do not have to be all things to all people.

So I am coming to the conclusion that an imaginary girl gang is still viable as a tool for fat and queer activism. Imagining new ways of being is the first step in any revolution, if we can’t even imagine alternative possibilities to the lives we live then how can we ever hope to create change? The Chubsters demonstrate that mixing fantasy and reality, opening up imaginative activist possibilities, is a political act, even if those possibilities cannot be made real on a broad scale at this time.

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