There aren't many people on television who look like me. Odds are good that if you're built like the majority of people in the US today, there aren't many people on television who look like you either. Just for the moment, let's set aside the ubiquitous argument that obesity is a heretofore-unknown fifth flabby horseman of the fatapocalypse. Let's also postpone the inevitable observation that there are other problems in the world of greater relative importance than what kinds of people we get to see on American television. This is an issue worth discussing, and I'm going to tell you why.
Last month, CBS debuted a new sitcom called Mike & Molly. The show has been promoted as the story of two "normal" people meeting and falling in love. The thing is, Mike and Molly aren't normal, at least not in the narrow universe that television depicts. Mike and Molly are fat.
Now, Mike & Molly is not a great TV show. In fact I would call it a terrible TV show, but I have this annoying habit of expecting sitcoms to be funny. That said, Mike & Molly is important because it is currently the only series on television featuring characters and actors who look like me, and like people I know and love. Oh, but this is not a matter of "glorifying" obesity. Glorifying obesity would take multiple TV shows depicting fat folks riding unicorns and devouring warm pies whilst counting the bags of money they've gained from being fat. Indeed, if simply putting fat people on television was enough to "glorify" obesity, then The Biggest Loser should have done the trick years ago. It hasn't, because The Biggest Loser is a show built on the humiliation and punishment (self-inflicted or otherwise) of fat people. When we say that putting fat people on television will "glorify" their bodies, what we really mean is that we are uncomfortable giving fat people any attention that is not overtly negative. Because fat people need to be told: don't be fat. Being fat means you are not entitled to a normal life. Being fat means you are not entitled to love. Being fat means you are not entitled to humanity, much less dignity.
What Mike & Molly does right is portray fat people as sympathetic individuals, as capable of falling in love and being loved by someone else. It's a sharp contrast to weight-loss reality TV that focuses on the alleged tragedy of fatness, and more than that, Mike & Molly's depiction is simply true: despite what you've heard, every day there are real-life fat people out in the world falling in love and flying to Paris and riding rollercoasters and feeling good. After all, your life does not need to stop just because your body does not look the way you think it should.
Unfortunately, where Mike & Molly fails is in its insistence on making the size of its title characters the most important thing about them, the axis around which their entire lives revolve. Real-life fat people have jobs and friends and hobbies and relationships and families and some of us have whole days that go by where we don't really think about being fat. Where are those characters? Ideally, putting fat characters on television would not glorify obesity, but rather normalize it. And normalizing it is okay, because fat people exist. We work with you and take the train with you and we see you at the gym and in line at the grocery store, and we're not always crying about being fat.
Arguing that fat characters should not be seen on television is making the statement that fat people do not have a right to be seen -- or even to exist -- in media or in life. It suggests that fat people should hide themselves away in shame and not burden the public with having to look at them; by extension, it suggests that fat people are less valuable individuals than thin people. This idea harms everyone: it makes fat people feel terrible about themselves, and it makes thin people terrified of becoming one of those disgusting fatties. Everyone's humanity is lost in the equation.
Over the summer, there was another television series that depicted fat characters in a way that neither glorified nor condemned them: that series was Huge, a show set at a fat camp and featuring a nuanced set of individual stories and experiences, plus a wonderfully diverse cast. ABC Family has since declined to give Huge a second season, ostensibly as a result of insufficient ratings. It's possible that people just aren't ready for this kind of diversity yet; after all, there have been lots of underrepresented groups who were once absent from television screens and are now commonly seen. But that change didn't happen overnight -- it happened because people who believe in showing life and humanity in all its stunning variety fought hard for that visibility. The world we all live in is truly astonishing, not to mention beautiful, in its diversity; our media, television included, should reflect that. No one should be left out. Not even the fatties.
Check out more of what Lesley Kinzel has to say on her blog at Fatshionista.com.
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