Look at the fat girl

Is plus-size programming like "More to Love" and "Drop Dead Diva" empowerment, exploitation -- or both?

Published July 28, 2009 10:28AM (EDT)

Brooke Elliot (left) and Margaret Cho in "Drop Dead Diva."
Brooke Elliot (left) and Margaret Cho in "Drop Dead Diva."

Fox's new reality show "More to Love" might as well be called "The Fatchelor": It's an excruciatingly typical dating competition with the single twist that both the catch of the day and the women competing for his attention are all larger than average. With weight as the show's central focus, the editing plays to as many fat stereotypes as possible: In the first episode, which airs Tuesday night, we get women weeping about their dateless pasts, one unironic use of the phrase "big-boned," a debate on the merits of Spanx and, of course, umpteen conversations about food -- one of which includes the fatchelor flirtatiously declaring, "I like anything thick and juicy." (And cheesy, apparently.) The show's marketing and promotion campaigns claim a message of empowerment, but for the larger romantics among us, "More to Love" does little to dispel the myth that fat people's lives are built around dessert and desperation.

Along with Lifetime's "Drop Dead Diva" and Oxygen's "Dance Your Ass Off," "More to Love" is one of three shows premiering this summer that has everyone from CNN to the Onion puzzling over why pop culture is suddenly fascinated with fat. Are we looking to ridicule these people and feel better about ourselves? Do we need "thinspiration"? Are the 60-odd percent of Americans classified as overweight or obese just psyched to see people they can relate to for once?

How about all of the above? This culture has long been obsessed with weight, so it's a little ridiculous that Hollywood is only just noticing what news outlets and women's magazines have known for years: Fat sells. Bigoted jerks, self-loathing dieters and fat folks dying for a shred of positive representation will all check out fat-related programming for their own reasons, which the producers of "More to Love" and "Dance Your Ass Off" seem to have figured out, since they're simultaneously playing to actual fat people and mean-spirited gawkers. Finally, people of size can see themselves represented on TV -- shot from the most unflattering possible angles, while acting like idiots. There's a little something for everyone.

But as the co-author of a book on body image and self-acceptance, I'm less interested in the question of why larger people are suddenly storming prime time than in whether it actually represents progress for us. Over 20 years ago, "Roseanne" theoretically blazed a trail for women who wear double-digit sizes, proving that a show with a fat female lead could not only find a solid niche audience but also utterly smoke the competition. In the show's final season, echoing Roseanne Barr's own struggles to get her vision on the air, a producer looking to make a TV movie about the Conner family tells her character, "Nobody in their right mind is going to want to look at you" -- to which the New York Times responded in its postmortem of the series, "Proving guys like that wrong for nine years may have been Roseanne's sweetest revenge." Unfortunately, it seems to have been hers and hers alone. "Drop Dead Diva" is the first remotely watchable show starring a fat woman since "Roseanne" went off the air 12 years ago (no, I don't count "Fat Actress"), and as I watch that woman -- the charming Brooke Elliott -- go apoplectic over a plate of doughnuts and suck on a can of Easy Cheese, let's just say I'm not bathed in the warm glow of empowerment. The thinking seems to be, "Sure, people in their right minds will want to look at fat chicks -- just as long as they're not overburdened with dignity."

Willingness to look is one thing I can give "More to Love" credit for: Luke Conley, the 26-year-old bachelor, surveys the 20 contestants vying for his affection -- ranging from a tall 179 pounds to a relatively short 279 -- and pronounces them all gorgeous, beautiful, exactly what he's looking for. For all the show's flaws -- and they are legion -- and for all the obvious issues every show like this raises about the objectification of women, I couldn't help being a little flabbergasted by seeing a real, live heterosexual man on television repeatedly extolling the hotness of these particular women, one of whom was wearing a dress I'm pretty sure I've tried on at Lane Bryant. Even if a portion of the audience is tuning in to point and laugh at the fatties -- and let's be real, they will be -- the bachelor in question won't be laughing with them. "Every girl in this mansion is totally my type," Luke drools.

Which is why, when people ask me, "Why do fat people need their own show? Why can't they just throw some fat girls on 'The Bachelor'?" I actually find myself defending Fox's decision to ghettoize the "More to Love" participants. The fact is, if you included a couple of fat contestants on "The Bachelor," they would almost certainly be axed in the first round. It would be one more instance of exclusion and humiliation, without even the balm of increased visibility to mitigate it. As dehumanizing as the stereotypes that riddle the show may be, adding a token fat chick to "The Bachelor" or continuing to ignore us entirely would do nothing to rehabilitate the image of fat women as fundamentally interchangeable, lonely doughnut hounds. And there is something to be said for the simple fact that Fox has put 20 different larger women on one show, in something other than a weight loss competition, and actually expects people to watch. Sure, many of those women have personalities that are deeply unpleasant, highlighted by editing that is impossibly unflattering, but that's a function of the genre. For better or worse, "More to Love" does treat fat women just like everyone else -- at least, everyone else who's ever gone on a TV show in hopes of knocking back 19 others to earn a proposal from a man she's never met. Which is to say, the show makes most of them out to look like the total fools they probably are.

That's not to say I'd recommend watching, mind you, just that I don't believe "More to Love" is a more offensive representation of fat women on TV than virtually no representation at all. "Drop Dead Diva," on the other hand, is actually worth a look. Like "More to Love," it conforms to the conventions of its genre -- in this case, lady-network shows about flawed but plucky heroines learning to stand on their own two feet -- which might not be everyone's complicated Starbucks order. And as someone who spends half her life reiterating the basic concepts that "fat" does not necessarily equal "unfit," and that no one over the age of 5 actually goes incontinent with glee at the sight of fried dough, I could do without the stereotypical food and exercise (it's haaard!) details. But the refreshing thing about "Drop Dead Diva" is that those really are mere details, and on the whole, the show actually sends the body-positive message it advertises. In the second episode, attorney Jane takes on a weight-based employment discrimination case and delivers a closing argument in which she explains why "fat" is not a dirty word. As Carrie Padian of the Fat Rights Coalition blogged, "I mean really, when have you ever seen that on entertainment TV?"

And there are other indications that the tyranny of skinny might finally be losing its long-standing hold on pop culture -- from plus sizes at Forever 21 to trend pieces about fat acceptance in the New York Times to body-positive policies and posts at popular lady blogs like Jezebel, which, unlike old media for a female audience, have somehow figured out how to cover fashion, beauty and relationships without constantly returning to the fundamental thesis that most of us are too ugly to be loved. Hell, even Weight Watchers co-opted the language of fat acceptance with its "diets don't work" campaign last year, and Dove has had astonishing success with selling beauty products by telling women they shouldn't feel like they need beauty products. TV may only now be catching up, but young women have been making it clear for some time with their page views and purchases that they're fed up with being told their bodies aren't good enough.

Margaret Cho, who plays Jane's assistant on "Drop Dead Diva," knows all about that, having struggled with disordered eating and addictions she attributes in part to poor body image, exacerbated by being told time and again that she was too fat for TV. She found a vast and loyal audience only after she stopped trying to be what producers thought would sell and started being herself -- smart, weird, queer and usually a couple of sizes bigger than the average woman in Hollywood. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Cho said she hopes that "Drop Dead Diva" is a sign that things are getting better. "I think maybe a show like this makes things get better," she said.

At the very least, I don't think it makes things worse. The people who tune in to this summer's fatty programming to point and laugh may not appreciate what they're seeing -- an acknowledgment that fat people are real human beings who have careers, relationships and sex, and occasionally throw themselves into pools for attention, just like thin people. But some kid who's been starving herself into a size 0 just might.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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