You all saw the final episode of Seinfeld, right? (I liked it better than most people did). You remember: Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer are in small-town Massachusetts, and they spot an exceptionally fat man being carjacked.
[Cut to shot of fat man being carjacked in front of the group.]
Robber: Alright fatso, out of the car.
[Cut to shot of group. Kramer aims his videocamera.]
Kramer: I want to capture this.
Robber: Come on! Gimme your wallet.
Victim: Don’t shoot.
Jerry: Well, there goes the money for the lipo.
Elaine: See, the great thing about robbing a fat guy is it’s an easy getaway. You know? They can’t really chase ya!
George: He’s actually doing him a favor. It’s less money for him to buy food.
That scene may have been the most unusual series of fat jokes in movies and TV in the last decade. Why? Because jokes were being made at exceptionally fat character’s expense, and an honest-to-god fat actor appeared on camera, playing the fat person. This goes against the usual fat-comedy strategies.
What are the strategies? Let’s categorize the Absent Fatsos:
The Invisible Fatso. Think of Karen’s husband on Will and Grace, or “Ugly Naked Guy” on Friends – both fat characters who return episode after episode to be the butt of fat jokes, without ever appearing on camera. (Ugly Naked Guy did appear on camera – from the back – once. Tellingly, that was the character’s final appearance on the show.)
For some reason, those same shows also use the Ex-Fatso; the character that was fat years before the show’s narrative began, but is now thin. Will on Will and Grace and Monica on Friends are both ex-fatsos, whose friends make fat jokes at their expense (Jack to Will: “Men don’t make passes at men with fat asses”).
Then there’s the Animated Fatso, of whom there are too many examples to recount; but surely the king of them all is Homer Simpson. I don’t think any TV show has ever told as many fat jokes as The Simpsons:
Doctor Hibbert: Homer, this is a new body fat analysis test. What we’re going to do is jiggle the fat and measure how long it takes to stop.
Homer: Woo hoo! Look at that blubber fly!!
Doctor Hibbert: [activating intercom] Nurse, cancel my one o’clock.
(Oddly enough, what most offends me about how the Simpsons portrays Homer is that they think he only weighs 240-260 pounds. In one Simpsons episode, the writers suggested – with no detectible irony – that at 300 pounds, Homer would be so crippled by fat he’d qualify for a disability program.)
And then there’s the most famous Absent Fatso strategy of all – the Fat Suit. This device has been used on Friends, in the “fat Monica” flashbacks and alternate-realities, and also in movies like the Austin Powers series and Shallow Hal.
It appears that in comedy, fat people can be made fun of in any way at all – as long as there aren’t any fat actors in the room. The reason is pretty obvious: mocking real fat actors would make audiences feel uncomfortable. Audiences want to laugh at fat people, without the discomfort of wondering if a real person’s feelings might be hurt. As Marisa Meltzer, in a brilliant Bitch Magazine article comparing fat suits to blackface, wrote:
With a real fat woman in the lead, the movie wouldn’t be funny – it would just be uncomfortable. Watching actual fat on the big screen would be so authentically painful – because fat hatred is still deeply entrenched in American culture – that audiences would be unable to laugh. It’s not just the exaggerated dimply thighs and man-boobs that keep us buying tickets; the crux of the joke is not the latex suit’s physical fakeness but the ephemeral nature of the thin actor posing as fat. We all know that Julia, Goldie, and Gwyneth (and Martin, Mike, and Eddie) will return to their slender glory for the next part, and that’s comforting – because otherwise we would have to confront the mean-spiritedness behind the giggles.
This, of course, is why the final episode of Sienfeld showed a real fat actor pretending to be mugged: the writer wanted to make the audience uncomfortable with the cruelty of the main characters’ jokes. Hence, for once, a real fat person.
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Digression number one: The exceptions to the rule.
Pop culture is huge, and any generalization made about pop culture has its exceptions. Married with Children, for example, regularly included many fat actresses, whose generous curves were straight lines for Al Bundy’s jokes. This approach fit into the show’s “we’re delighted with our own crassness” shtick. Even so, the writers were careful to make sure the fat women scored some victory over Al at the end of the episode. The message seemed to be that Al might be mean-spirited towards fat women, but the writers and producers weren’t.
Another exception is the Drew Carey Show. This show relies on the “Jews are allowed to tell Jewish jokes” strategy; the fat jokes are mostly told by fat characters Drew and Mimi, at each other’s expense.
And of course, the show Ally McBeal was infamous for its pathological obsession with thinness and contempt for fat people; at least twice a season, a fat actor would be dragged onto the show for an episode of appearing pathetic and/or comedic. (Ally creator David Kelly was infamous for his unresolved issues about fatness and thinness).
Digression number two: The even more absent fatso
There’s an even more popular strategy for sparing audiences the sight of fat actors, show no fat characters, ever. In seven years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there have been virtually no speaking fat characters. One of the few exceptions was was a demon who embodied every fat-hating stereotype imaginable before he was electrocuted by the main character (the demon was, of course, played by a thin man in a fat suit).
In the absence of fat people (as with all appearance issues), Buffy is deeply conventional. Although we keep hearing about how fat Americans have become, you’d never know it by watching American dramas and sitcoms. Especially when it comes to fat women, most American TV shows pretend that fat women don’t exist (although there are a few honorable exceptions). According to a Michigan State University study (found via Big Fat Blog), 1 in 4 real-life American women are fat, compared to 1 in 33 television women. Also, “larger body types were more likely found among characters who were guests on the shows rather than recurring characters.” And, “larger characters were less likely to be [presented as] attractive.” And, “larger females were almost twice as often the object of humor.”.
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Conclusion: Why does any of this matter? Because pop culture is a major way all of us – but especially kids – learn our cultural norms. And what pop culture teaches about fat people is that they are objects of contempt. The MSU study press release mentions that “Obese children and teens are more often excluded from peer groups, are discriminated against by adults, report psychological stress, and have a poor body image and low self esteem.” As the underlinked blog Fatshadow said in another context, “the fat kids of the world pay the price for our unwillingness to excise fat hatred.”
The Absent Fatso reflects a desire to avoid cruelty – the fat character who is there without really being there exists because mocking real people would seem too mean. But in fact, the cruelty is still there, and so are the real-life fat people; they’re just in the audience, rather than on screen. The Absent Fatso strategy doesn’t avoid cruelty so much as it makes it palatable. Watching “Ugly Naked Guy” cause revulsion on Friends, Homer tip the scales on Simpsons, or Mike Myers cavorting in a fat suit, the same message is delivered. “Get your yummy fat-hatred without having to think of fat people as real people!”