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Sizism as Entertainment: How Much is Too Much?

June 19, 2012

I’m not the type to argue that there are any “last acceptable prejudices.” All forms of prejudice are acceptable in some circles. The most insidious forms of prejudice are often covert and sometimes are misrepresented as something positive.

That said, I will argue that some social justice movements have come farther than others. It is not common, for example, to hear racial slurs in entertainment from people we are supposed to identify with these days in mainstream media. When they are uttered, they are uttered by someone we are supposed to oppose, and the resolution of the story involves the repudiation of racist ideas and expressions.

Fat Acceptance has not come that far yet, and it’s still entirely acceptable, even encouraged, to portray explicit sizism in entertainment as a virtue. I don’t think I need to remind anyone here of the many ways in which fictional characters are drawn to reinforce sizism.

They include, but are certainly not limited to, portrayals of fat characters as symbols of moral evil; portrayals of fat characters as being sick, friendless, or otherwise defective; or storylines where weight loss is the desired resolution. Fat hatred is so pervasive that few people have been exposed to an alternative viewpoint.

As such, there is very little truly fat accepting entertainment out there. Until that changes, we need to either live in caves and forsake media altogether (not going to happen), or we need to make do.

So how much sizism is too much?

It’s whatever your personal threshold is.

An easy first step to establishing your personal threshold is tossing out any entertainment that seems to solely exist to mock, abuse, and shame fat people. A good example is, well, people like Daniel Tosh. Another personal preference of mine is to exclude entertainment that endorses a “kinder, gentler” fat stigmatization.

How many sitcoms have you seen in which a woman gains weight while her Loving, Caring Boyfriend™ insists that she is still beautiful and that there is nothing wrong with her, all the while telling her that she’s so special that she deserves to Take Care of Herself™. That, of course, is code for losing weight. She loses weight, she’s back on track. Show over.

Lots of books, movies, and TV shows depict fat stigmatization in passing. Harry Potter is a good example of this. With characters like Dudley, Crabbe, and Goyle, J.K. Rowling uses their ugliness and large size as proxy for their negative traits. At the same time, she includes positive fat characters, like Molly Weasley, as well as negative thin characters, like Petunia.

I certainly don’t condone reinforcing stereotypes in fiction, but someone might decide to read Harry Potter because, like all people, J.K. Rowling is only human and not immune to the prejudices of her time. Harry Potter is not nearly as rife with fat shaming as other stories, choosing to include positive fat characters.

In any case, the primary purpose of Harry Potter is to tell a fun fantasy story, not to send moral messages about bodies or health. As such, people might choose to read Harry Potter on the basis that the good outweighs the bad and that, unlike many books and TV shows these days, does not try to browbeat you about how you eat or look.

Plus, Harry Potter is a prime example of (unintended) anti-healthism, featuring high-fat foods and sweets galore with little time spent discussing the healthfulness of those foods or shaming those who eat them. That’s rare these days. I’m not the avid Harry Potter fan that I used to be for a number of reasons, but I still like it and consider it better than the average children’s/young adult fiction story.

Meanwhile, someone with a different threshold of personal tolerance of fat shaming might deem Harry Potter unacceptable, even if they otherwise like the story. They might instead opt for something that I personally wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

They might like seeing a sitcom in which a woman gains weight and is “loved” into weight loss because it depicts fat people on screen without ridiculing them and because it promotes behaviors that are healthful for everyone. It shows fat people dating and keeping a partner. Maybe that fat person is a kind person who is very successful in her career. Maybe that weight loss plot line is secondary rather than primary to that episode.

One of many things that sucks about being fat accepting in our culture today is that there are virtually no examples of truly fat accepting entertainment, and it is unlikely that you will find someone with whom you completely agree. That’s the nature of being a minority. When more people are exposed to Fat Acceptance, when more people explore fat positive entertainment, and when more producers decide to invest in creating it, then we can move forward.

For now? We’re on our own.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. vesta44 permalink
    June 19, 2012 10:41 am

    There are a few authors who are writing books with larger women as the main characters, and these women love themselves the way they are right now, have adventures, have love lives, etc. This was news to me until I got my Kindle for PC app and started finding all the free books that amazon has to offer (and then I bought a Kindle so I could take those books with me when I travel). I don’t know how new this is in the area of fiction, but to see that there are books out there with female characters like me in them? To me, that’s revolutionary and needs to be supported. I buy these books whenever I can afford them, and I get them when they’re offered for free (it’s a way of finding new authors I’d otherwise never get to see or read). Amazon will even let you search for that kind of fiction, which is amazing and wonderful (yeah, I know amazon has its drawbacks, but when it comes to books, I love shopping there).

    • Happy Spider permalink
      June 20, 2012 8:14 pm

      Hey, Vesta, how do you search Amazon for books with larger women as the protagonists? I tried going to the search bar and typing ” fat acceptance” but that just seems to have given me a list of nonfiction books. What genre of books do you end up with? I think I mostly see larger women in cozy mysteries. I always thought that was because the writers tend to be middle-aged women so they make these characters as a reaction to all the fat hatred they’ve experienced? I figure younger women tend to still be buying into the diet industry brainwashing.

      • vesta44 permalink
        June 20, 2012 9:06 pm

        I searched “fat fiction” and “fat women in fiction”. Then I checked out a few of the books that looked interesting, and looked to see what else those authors had written. Usually if an author has one book with fat characters in it, she’ll have more books with fat characters (and if she’s written them the same way other characters are written, and her books have interesting plots and keep me interested, then that’s an author I’ll keep reading and keep looking for her books).

  2. kaodell permalink
    June 19, 2012 11:12 am

    Mike and Molly (sitcom) hopefully is or was on the right track. I hadnt watched it and am not sure if it is still on. The actress who plays Molly publicly tells people that she loves her body and will not diet.
    Drop dead diva had a few fat things in the beginning (as she was a super skinny omgmykneesarefat model dropped into a fat lawyers body. They also had an episode where she eats like crap(they still show her eith donuts reinforcing the fat people eat bad food) but other than that, she is awesome and fights for things like bigger sized clothing and not firing waitresses because of agism or body changes.
    Not perfect, as you said. Thus the reason I refuse to watch George Lopez.

  3. Happy Spider permalink
    June 19, 2012 11:09 pm

    So you say some people will read Harry Potter on the grounds that the good outweighs the bad and sone people won’t. Some people will enjoy a sitcom where a character is “loved” into losing weight and some people will loath it. So your point is: different people like different things so you should read things that you enjoy and avoid things you don’t enjoy? I don’t see where you are going with that. Don’t people just naturally gravitate to the things they like and avoid the things they dislike?
    I do read things I dislike. It’s a love/hate thing where part of me objects but part of me feels compelled. Is your point that this sort of behavior is bad and I should figure out what sorts of things I have mixed feelings about and avoid them? I do feel that I sometimes read things that are bad for me.
    Is the “threshold” your main point? Do you find that formally thinking in terms of thresholds usefully organizes your thoughts? My thoughts are pretty chaotic. I like to just reach out and grab a book according to any whim that crosses my mind. What is the benefit of setting up rules about what I should read? It sounds like a drag. Hey, is it that defining categories makes it easier to find good stuff? There are limitless numbers of books lying around so it makes sense to try to seek out good ones but it is hard to search for something unless you’ve defined it somewhat. That’s a general rule that applies widely; I think in a social activism context it used to be called “conscious raising”. For example, it might be hard to object to fat hatred when it is just the sea that you swim in and you haven’t really described it as a distinct entity.

    • vesta44 permalink
      June 19, 2012 11:48 pm

      I’m an avid reader, and have been for years. I’ve probably read upwards of 15,000 books in my lifetime, and in that time, I can tell you that there were maybe less than 1/2 of 1% of those books that had fat heroes/heroines in them. And that’s not because I wasn’t looking for them – I was, and my reading tastes run the gamut from horror to science fiction to fantasy to paranormal romance to mystery to true crime (you name a genre, I’ve probably read at least a couple of books in it, and in some genres I’ve read hundreds of books, if not thousands).
      I used to read magazines, but I no longer do simply because I’m tired of having diets hawked at me while they’re also pushing calorific recipes and telling me I need to look “hawt” for my man. Mixed messages like that are guaranteed to fuck with your self esteem and that I don’t need. The same goes for prime time television – I quit watching it for the same reasons (I really can’t afford to replace television sets because I’m throwing things at them when the commercials piss me off – “Look at all this yummy food, eat it all up, but be thin while you’re doing it, be ‘hawt’ for your man, that’s the only way you’re worthwhile as a person, all you females out there.”). Movies are just as bad, with their lack of good roles for fat actors/actresses (and I’m not talking about being the fall guy for fat jokes, there are more than enough of those roles around and that needs to end).
      So yeah, if you want to keep your sanity, your self esteem, and be able to love yourself, it only makes sense to me to filter what you read/watch and be aware of that sea of fat hatred you’re swimming in so you can find ways to counteract it. Every book I read, I’m aware of how it’s lacking fat characters, and how what’s going on in the book doesn’t relate to any experience I have as a fat person. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the book, it just means I would enjoy it more if there were characters in the book that were more like me and other people I know.

    • June 20, 2012 6:58 am

      My point is that in a world with very little fat positivity to be seen in entertainment, no one should be attacked for liking something that exhibits fat hatred. Just about everything in our culture exhibits fat hatred and we need to let people make the decision for themselves what they can tolerate. I actually have seen people attacked because they enjoy Harry Potter or something else that someone thought was overly fat hating.

      Quite frankly, just as you can’t see the point of my post (which most people, including myself, found blindingly obvious), I can’t see the point of this comment. If you find my writing and my thoughts so woefully inadequate, feel free not to read and not to comment. And please don’t try to hide behind “just trying to understand.” Your tone makes you condescension crystal clear. This is not the first time you’ve made comments on my posts of this kind and my advice to you is to stop wasting your time.

    • Happy Spider permalink
      June 20, 2012 9:47 am

      I liked this post. I commented on it because I liked it. I liked the stuff about sitcoms with “kinder, gentler, fat stigmatization”. I thought the capital letters and the little TM symbols were funny.
      I liked what you said about Harry Potter. I’ve read those books and seen the movies so I enjoyed your references to the various characters.
      I liked your examples of how people with the same ideological view (fat acceptance) will draw the line of what is acceptable in different places.
      It was nice of you to expound further in your comment to me and explain that what was interesting you about the idea of thresholds was not that a person should be doing something in particular with her own threshold but that she shoudn’t judge other people’s thresholds. It was interesting to hear that you’d witnessed some unpleasant behavior by judgmental people. However, your additional comment was just a bonus. The post was interesting just as it was.
      I’m always particularly happy when I bring up this website and see that there is a new post by you. Your posts are thought- provoking. You observe sharply.

  4. June 20, 2012 3:22 pm

    I agree completely. You have to set your own tolerance level. If I banished every kind of fat hating show or music from my library, I’d have nothing left. Ben Folds and Jon Stewart can be incredible asshats, but I’ll always adore their work.

    Even our entertainment heroes are flawed, but I won’t hold those flaws against them. Anyone expecting perfect entertainment is going to be awfully bored.


  5. June 29, 2012 3:38 am

    I went through a phase of reading Guy de Maupassant in high school the minute I stumbled on to “The Necklace” during my usual read-the-book-and-ignore-the-class thing. Thanks to a generous neighbor and her shelf full of classics I met Boule De Suif or “Butterball” : A fat courtesan,who was all the more sexy for it. Now I need to read it all over again 😀 Definite recommended reading if you’re looking for fat-friendly fiction.

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