Fat people have long been the objects of entertainment; we all know what to expect when we see a fat character on screen or in a book. These are roles played for laughs, humour, amusement. We are supposed to find the very existence of fatness funny, and it’s added to with ‘comedic pratfalls’ that accentuate the comedy of the fat state, while also underscoring the tragedy. After all, no one wants to be an object of humour, so the takeaway from the depiction of fat people is that you wouldn’t want to be fat, because everyone will laugh at you.
There’s a whole slew of television shows these days that seem almost specifically dedicated to entertaining viewers by having them watch fat people. All these weight loss shows that are touted as inspirational are really about laughing at fat people. About being amused by fat people. About pointing at fat people as an example of something we do not want to be, we should distance ourselves from. We’re all too thin to need intervention on network television in a humiliating television show where our very identities are leveraged against us. Pass the popcorn.
But there’s another layer of the way fat is played for entertainment in the media that I’m finding particularly interesting right now. It’s the use of fat hatred itself for laughs; not fat jokes and references to fat characters, where again it is the fatness we are supposed to be laughing at, but fat hatred as a separate entity and something comedic. Either we are laughing with the fat hatred, because, of course, making jokes at the expense of minorities is funny, or we are are actively laughing at it because bigotry is bad and thus the character is ludicrous, at the same time that we still find fatness a despicable state.
We are supposed to read these characters as mean and over the top when they make their contempt for fat people clear, and in some cases we are supposed to find them funny because they are bigoted[1. See Sue Sylvester and Glee.]. But even as we find their bigotry funny and praise ourselves for identifying it as wrong even as it is an object of humour, we still secretly support the underlying attitudes espoused by these characters. After all, so and so really is fat, even if he didn’t say it very nicely. She really could stand to lose a few pounds, someone ought to tell her, but, you know, not in a mean way.
It’s an interesting schism for me to watch, as a viewer, because I just find these characters and their bigotry painful, not entertaining, but other viewers seem to be getting something out of it. Fat hatred becomes a parody of itself in these storylines, sometimes in a ‘progressive’ framing, but the underlying attitudes and assumptions are never challenged. We find it ‘mean’ that a character goes on about how fat people eat too many doughnuts because of the way it’s played, but, you know, everyone knows that fat people really do eat too many doughnuts.
It seems to be a case of having cake and eating it too. We can laugh at bigotry to feel good about how progressive we are, while also laughing at fat characters. It’s a subtle and odd reinforcement of fat hatred and I really have to commend television creators for picking up on the fact that some people feel uncomfortable laughing at things that ‘aren’t PC’ because it means they’re being ‘bad,’ but they still want to be able to laugh at those things anyway. Let no one say that the creators of pop culture are not hip to social trends and the rising demand for media that will satisfy the taste for hipster -isms. Enter fat hatred for laughs.
The idea of playing bigotry for laughs while reinforcing it is hardly new, but it seems to be on the rise these days, and I attribute a lot of that to the ‘PC’ backlash and the desire of television shows to project themselves as earnest and sensitive and attentive to the concerns of minority communities, while still playing hackneyed stories for entertainment. They can pay lip service to the idea, depicting characters in slippery ways that make it difficult to pin down the problems with them, allowing themselves to please their audience and its engrained hipster -isms while leaving critics with little traction, nothing to grasp when attempting to engage with the text.
Sue Sylvester, they tell us, is played as a bigot because it’s funny. We’re supposed to laugh at her because the things she says and does are so very ludicrous. No one really thinks that way, or at least no good, progressive, socially responsible person, so it’s funny, you see. Except that it’s not, really, because how many viewers secretly believe the things she says? How many viewers find her lines about ‘she-males’ funny, rather than awful, read them as humour rather than as part of the overall bigotry of her character?
It’s brilliant, really. You can point at a bigoted character and say you’re laughing at the fat hatred the character spouts because it’s so over the top and ridiculous, while still believing in the core ideas behind it. And it makes it so hard to tackle, because saying ‘this promotes fat hatred’ will result in ‘well, but it’s supposed to be funny, don’t you have a sense of humor?’