Faux-acceptance and representation of fat people in media

Today my sister came over. I came downstairs to find her talking with my mom about some Disney channel show they were allowing my niece to watch. The way they were talking about it, I was wondering why they were letting my niece sit in front of it.

They were talking about the fat character in this particular show (I have no idea what show it actually was. I don’t watch that channel). My sister commented on how all the fat, or even just not skinny girls, were always the dorky friend. Or they were awkward, or just absurdly dumb. Or all the jokes made at this person, or even just the jokes this person made about herself, were either food related, or fat related.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be an isolated case with whatever Disney Channel show this was.

Is it too much to ask that there be a fat character, or characters, that are just…normal people? Or at least treated like normal people? It seems like the way fat people are represented in movies and tv is less about accurate representations of people with larger stature, and more about constantly reminding the audience that “HEY!! Don’t forget! This character is FAT.”

Take, for example, this new movie “Pitch Perfect.” The character “Fat Amy” says she calls herself that so she can get to it before the skinny girls do, because she thinks they will call her fat anyway. So right off the bat, we have a character that straight up gets introduced as FAT before anything else. She’s not Amy, she’s “Fat Amy.”

And not only is everyone shocked that Amy, this fat person (don’t forget!) is actually able to sing, but she’s damn good at it. The message here is clearly “don’t judge a (fat) book by it’s cover,” which is a good message indeed, but it’s lost among all the jokes about Amy being out of shape, awkward, or obsessed with food. And it’s supposed to be so “empowering” and”progressive” that all the skinny, pretty girls let the fat girl join. …Do they want an award or something? And here I was thinking that anyone with talent and singing skill should be let into a choir group regardless of what she (or even HE) looks like. So congratulations to them for doing what they should be doing anyway.

Or, for another example, Bridesmaids. Don’t get me wrong, I like this movie. But lets look at the character Megan. She’s introduced and set up as boisterous, loud, unfeminine, and of course…likes food (there is a food fetish sex tape that she makes at the end of the movie a short way into the credits that references an earlier food fetish tape in the movie). She is pretty much the only fat female character. (It should be noted, that there aren’t a whole lot of fat male characters anyway.)

There is a scene where she comes to one of the other women’s houses and tells her to suck it up and get back on her feet after a falling out. She tells her how she was fat and awkward as a child and got teased a lot. So she worked hard in school and now has a very high-ranking government job. The message being don’t let snooty people get to you, and again, don’t judge a book by it’s cover. Again, a good message, but would it have the same level of importance if this character were not fat? Why does the media seem to have such a fascination with fat people achieving things in their lives? Is it really THAT hard to believe that fat people can actually do the same things that other people do? Like…y’know…do well in school and have good jobs?

One other example I can think of is kind of older, but the small side character of “Big Rhonda” on that 70’s show. She was a some-time girlfriend of the character Fez. She had been mentioned in the show before she actually made an appearance. Made out to sound like an absolutely enormous girl, when she finally appeared, she was no taller than Donna, and no wider than Hyde. She looked pretty normal to me. She was put in clothes that hid her figure, and turtleneck sweaters that came up to her chin. But despite the unflattering clothing, “Big Rhonda” wasn’t all that big at all.

I think if we are going to move toward a more realistic view of fat people and even just people with average bodies, we need to have better representations of them in the media. It’s not enough to just have a fat character in your show or movie. Because that point pretty much disappears if you turn them into a caricature. It’s not progressive if your fat character is shown always having food in their hand. It’s not accepting if your fat character is always shown as out of breath or making jokes about how they can’t run without needing a soda. And it’s not open-minded to have an average sized person be depicted as “big.” Especially when she really isn’t, even when wearing figure-hiding clothes.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley

    I fail to understand part of your argument.

    “Why does the media seem to have such a fascination with fat people achieving things in their lives?”

    What is the alternative? It seems to me that ‘the media’ have done exactly what this and otehr sites have preached; namely, to show fat people in a postive light.

    Certainly, Hollywood is hardly subtle when it embraces a cause, but pointing out that fat people can achieve things is hardly bad, is it?

    Would you prefer:
    1) no fat people in films,
    2) fat people doing normal things, and nothing being mentioned,
    3) fat people doing normal things, and it being pointed out,
    4) fat people doing bad things.

    Your choice!

    • http://feministing.com/members/veronicacharl10/ Veronica

      I feel like you either didn’t read the rest of the blog, or completely missed the point.

      Thin people are far and away more, and better, represented in media. When a thin person in media achieves something, it’s expected. It’s no surprise. The audience knows that was going to happen anyway and the audience is not constantly reminded that the character is thin.

      But when a fat person achieves something, it’s like there’s shock and amazement. The assumption being that this is abnormal. Like I pointed out with “Pitch Perfect.” Everyone is shocked that the fat girl has talent. Why should that be a shock? Why should the other girls be treated like saints for allowing the fat girl to join their group when it should be expected that they let a talented person join regardless of her size?

      Point being, it should not be such a huge shock that a fat person could be talented, or work hard, or achieve a great career. In the case with Pitch Perfect, Amy’s ability to sing has nothing to do with her being fat. But it’s treated like it’s amazing that she can despite being fat. Well, I think it should just be amazing that she can sing, I don’t see why her size should have to be dragged into the subject.
      It shouldn’t be considered great that a person achieved something despite being fat, it should be considered great because they did something great. When a thin person achieves something great, that’s just what it is. There is no attention called to their size. Why is it when a fat person does the same thing as a thin person (or even something greater), is there a bunch of attention called to their size?

      I don’t see what’s so wrong with treating characters equally.

      • http://feministing.com/members/veronicacharl10/ Veronica

        To simplify my point, fat does not mean incapable. And it shouldn’t be assumed that a fat person is incapable of being great just because of their size. It’s never assumed that a thin character is incapable because of being thin. So why should that negative assumption be placed on a fat person?

        • http://feministing.com/members/smiles/ Smiley

          Veronica,

          If I may!

          I did state that failed to understand PART of the argument.

          I agree; achieving good things should not be a shock, or surprising. My quibble is that Hollywood always goed overboard. At the moment, H. is going overboard in being nice.

          Pointing out, underlying, making sure that people understand, that fat people are alos nice, reliable, have feelings, can do things, and so on.

          My point was that poor H. seemes to be taken to task for doing what many people ask them to do; namely, show fat people in a good light. H. is going overboard, I beleive, but the criticism levelled at H. in your post seems to me to be a little unfair.

          Again, Ia sk you, what would you prefer? Anonymity for good actions by fat people, or highlighting?

          • http://feministing.com/members/mollie89/ Mollie

            Veronica,

            I found this piece very interesting. I’m very sorry to say I’ve never really had an eye for this- but your piece really sheds light on some of the HUGE problems in representing fat (I don’t like saying that word… IDK if it’s okay though) people in the media! BTW every time I’ve posted in the Community blog I’ve had people leave comments that really bothered me and made me not want to post anymore. I love that you’re getting this out there… it was great and it’s something others could build off! :)

          • http://feministing.com/members/veronicacharl10/ Veronica

            I don’t think it’s being “nice” so much as throwing a bone with a condescending pat on the head.

            I don’t see how being treated like a normal person is the same as anonymity or nonexistence. I don’t really understand where you’re getting that idea here.

            What I mean is, why can’t it be “This person achieved something great” and not “this fat person did something great.” I don’t see what would be so wrong with treating a fat character like a normal person without having to point out their weight all the time.
            Drawing a whole bunch of attention to the character’s weight suddenly makes everything about their weight. Even if it has nothing to do with body weight at all. It’s like the character cannot be considered a human being with traits and qualities aside from their body shape. Everything gets tied into that.

            Which I also think is part of the reason we are so obsessed with size in our culture. Constantly drawing attention to someone who doesn’t have an ideal body almost makes them into a different species. Making a big deal out of someone being fat singles them out and they are treated differently, most often in very negative ways, than everyone else. No one makes a big fuss about a thin person’s weight, so it’s considered normal. Make a big deal about a fat person’s weight, and then they are set up as being abnormal.

            I believe that a way to create more, real acceptance of people with different body shapes is to not make a huge deal out of body shape in the first place. Whether the character is thin or fat. Give them praise for doing something great, regardless of body size. Even if the character is thin, I don’t see why body size or shape needs to be called to attention, especially when it’s something like getting a good job or getting the best grades in school. What does that even have to do with either of those things? Not much. So why is it so important that media singles out a fat person? Why can’t they just be considered, and treated, like a regular human being like everyone else?

          • http://feministing.com/members/veronicacharl10/ Veronica

            I guess it feels more like Hollywood writers that do this are trying to get praise and attention for themselves more than anything else. Like a kid who got an A on a math paper and bragged to the whole class about it. “Look at us! We included fat people in our scripts! Look at how special and progressive we are!” When in fact, these characters are turned into the butt of many jokes about being fat rather than actually writing decent and realistic lives for them.

    • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      I think because it’s still focused somehow around the character being fat like “hey! She’s a great singer DESPITE being fat! She beat the odds! What a surprise!” (despite the fact that I can think of plenty of well known overweight singers of any gender)

      • http://feministing.com/members/veronicacharl10/ Veronica

        Exactly! Being fat should not be presented as an obstacle to being a good singer/getting a good job/doing well in schooling. When a thin person does things like that, no one calls a bunch of attention to them being thin. They are just treated like a regular person who did something good for their lives. But if a fat person does the same thing, it’s “beating the odds” and their body size and shape is pointed out relentlessly.