Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shows about big people: step in the right
direction or more jokes about fatness?

Glee's new hot couple: Puck and Lauren.

If you haven’t noticed, there has been a drastic increase in the amount of big people on TV lately. There are still very few medium-sized people (which is a problem), but the rise of big people is worth noting.

We now have numerous shows about obese or overweight people: Mike & Molly, Huge, The Biggest Loser, and Dance Your Ass Off are the most obvious examples.

The question is, are these characters being presented in ways that are helping us a society or hurting us?

My favorite of these shows is Huge, a smart and moving scripted drama about teens at a fat camp, which I've written about before. Not only does this show avoid the usual fat jokes, it also treats each character as a unique and interesting individual, something I’d like to see more often with characters of all sizes. Unfortunately, this might be the only show on television that regular depicts big people as real people.

I don’t watch the reality shows about losing weight, and I’ve only seen one episode of Mike & Molly, and that was enough to turn me off. As Slate's Daniel Engber says in his outstanding photo and video essay, “Tele-Tubbies: The Rise of the Obese Actor on TV,”Each episode [of Mike & Molly] delivers an onslaught of rim-shot-ready, anatomical putdowns. (Hey, this shirt looks like it was made in an awning store, ba-dum-bum!) After [several] months on the air, the scripts still vacillate between sweetness and fat shame. So what should we make of Mike & Molly? Does the show reflect some new phase of size acceptance in America, or just the opposite—a growing appetite for weight-based minstrelsy?”

Engber raises a good point—are shows about big people just a way for us to laugh at fatness? And if they are, is it still good for us to see people of different sizes on television or not?

The answer is ultimately that the jury is still out.

The most recent episodes of Glee have brought an obese character—Lauren, played by Ashley Fink who also has a supporting role on Huge—into the spotlight, but I still haven’t decided if Glee’s treatment of Lauren is good or bad.

Lauren joined the show last fall, but her character has taken center stage since one of the show’s main character’s—Puck—started pursuing her this winter.

On the one hand, it's nice to see someone Lauren’s size being depicted as the object of desire.

On the other hand, it’s disappointing and frustrating that a show as envelope-pushing as Glee still falls back on so many clichés—Lauren eats all the time, she’s loud and a bit crass, she has attitude to spare, etc.

Still, probably the most off-putting thing about the introduction of Lauren as a major character is that Puck sang Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” to her while he was trying to seduce her.

Thankfully, Lauren told him what she thought of that, explaining that though she’d always wanted a boy to sing to her, she never thought it would be a song like that, adequately expressing her—and our—disapproval. And, as some people have suggested, maybe that’s WHY the writers chose to have Puck sing that song, to demonstrate how insensitive and cruel people can be.

So, yes, the show is laughing a little bit at the “fat” thing by including such a song and showing Lauren as a lover of chocolate, but her character isn’t taking the abuse either, and just by doing that, she’s pushing the envelope.

As Lauren explains, “I look like America. Deal with it.” One of my friends called the war between Lauren and Santana (Puck’s on-again-off-again super fit girlfriend) "a fight between ide0logies": raising the question, what makes us happy? Having our bodies worshipped by men or accepting ourselves the way we are?

Ultimately, Lauren is intelligent, mature, and thoughtful, and not just there to make us laugh, and since Huge is the only other show on television with obese characters depicted this way, that makes her characterization a positive to me.

Like I said, the jury is still out on whether the increase in big people on our TVs is a good thing or a bad thing, but I think we can all agree, we’ve got to start somewhere.

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