Fatphobia in movies and television series: “Some would prefer fat people not to exist in public”

If anything characterizes television fiction in recent years, it is a critical view of hot topics. From the dystopian drift of capitalism in severance (2022) to mental health problems in Euphoria (2019), the series increasingly incorporate social debates into their plot in response to a growing interest from the audience. Gone are the years of nineties escapism friends (1994) or the controversial joke of The office (2005). For a proposal to work, it has to be part of the current conversation. This is also reflected in industry awards such as the golden globeswhich this year recognized socially committed series such as Abbott Elementary (2021) or The Bear (2022). Despite the advances, most of them have not been able to break one of the biggest taboos in television fiction: the lack of body diversity and the low representation of fat characters.

Since the tiny seats from planes to comments (public or private) when someone gains weight, fatness continues to be a cause of discrimination, and fat people are mostly invisible. “Society doesn’t like talking to fat people, seeing fat people, believing fat people, or listening to fat people,” he says. Lyla Byers, a researcher in fat studies at Virginia Tech University. “Some would prefer fat people not to exist in public.” This rejection has serious consequences for the health of fat people. “As a child I suffered medical violence, I was ultra healthy but a pediatrician gave me 18,000 diets at a very young age”, recalls Laura Galán Montijano, actress and star of little pig (2022), a film awarded at the Sitges Festival and at the Feroz Awards. “I was obsessed with my weight, I was going to weigh myself every week.”

The problem emerges even in supposedly neutral terms, such as obesity either overweight personwhich can reduce body diversity to exclusive categories based on body mass index: a problematic metric. “Body mass index was never intended to measure individual health,” Byers says. “It’s too simple a measure for too complex a problem,” adds Jennifer Graves, author of Framing Fat, a book that questions the dominant discourses about weight in society.

“Lazy, stupid, gluttonous or with low sexual capital are several of the concepts associated with fat people,” says Jeanine Gailey, a sociology professor at Texas Christian University. “Being fat is the worst thing you can be,” says Gailey. These stigmas are picked up by series creators who, on many occasions, do not give space to diverse realities. “In the moment in wich [las mujeres] we are not desirable according to the established canons, we are not put on screen”, affirms Laura Galán.

The actress Laura Galán in the film ‘Cerdita’.

Furthermore, when fiction introduces fat characters, they are often reduced to hackneyed stereotypes ranging from the woman being mocked, as the character in debby ryan (2018) in insatiable to the idiot fat man played by Homer Simpson. “A lot of people watch these shows and internalize these representations of fat people,” says Ariane Prohaska, a sociologist at the University of Alabama. “This leads us to treat fat people differently, and leads us to believe that we have to constantly improve our bodies.”

The caricature of fat bodies especially affects traditionally ignored populations, such as women, racialized minorities or the LGBTIQ community. “Body size intersects with other dimensions of oppression,” says Prohaska. “Women of color, especially black women, face a lot of stigma.” Big Shirley, the recurring character from Martinthe famous sitcom from the 1990s, is one of the most classic examples of problematic portrayal of fat black women on television, as well as America Ferrera’s character on Ugly Bettythe American adaptation of I am Bea.

Fat white women, for their part, have managed to diversify their roles in American fiction in part thanks to the visibility of actresses like Melissa McCarthy either Lena Dunham, but the fatness accepted in Hollywood for leading roles still does not represent the reality of the country. Chrissy Metz, for example, revealed in 2016 that she hired her from the series this is us, where she played a woman who struggles with her eating habits, forced her to lose weight, although she later retracted it. “The gatekeepers“Those behind the scenes who decide which stories Americans will buy tend to be white, with money and men,” says Virgie Tovar, writer and body discrimination expert. “This causes the same type of stories to repeat themselves over and over in a loop.”

fat ‘queer’

In the case of men queerthe cult of the body present in a large part of the collective is transferred to fiction through Apollonian characters such as those represented in Elite (2018), smiley (2022) or in the last season of american horror story. “It really is paradoxical that the diversity that the LGTBI collective demands is not practiced within,” says Roberto Enríquez, Bob Pop, critic and creator of Lost Fagot (2021). In the series, Enríquez autofictions his own youth through Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González, actors who make visible the double discrimination that the director has suffered due to his sexual orientation and his body. “I was clear that if I did the series I would do it my way,” says Enríquez. “They had to be fat characters because it was the story that was being told, how they deal with life with those bodies, how they deal with rejection and desire.” In an interview for ICON, Gabriel Sánchez spoke of the danger of being typecast for having an unusual physical appearance: “If you are fat, then they force you to do fat things. ‘I fall and break the chair because I’m fat; I’m fat and I eat four buns in ten minutes of series’. The fat man always has scenes of eating a lot.

The actors Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González became friends preparing together for the role of Bob Pop in the series 'Maricón perdido'. They are part of a new generation that is overcoming stereotypes.
The actors Gabriel Sánchez and Carlos González became friends preparing together for the role of Bob Pop in the series ‘Maricón perdido’. They are part of a new generation that is overcoming stereotypes.Pablo Zamora

If the main LGBTIQ stories are still groundbreaking for a sector of the population, those that incorporate artists with non-normative bodies, far from the imposed canon of beauty and with plots unrelated to a constant physical obsession have a greater subversive impact. “Both the bodies queer as fat bodies are seen as excessive, and when you have fat bodies queerthere is a double destabilization,” says Jason Whitesel, a sociologist at Illinois State University and author of Fat Gay Men, a book that examines the stigma faced by fat people within the gay community. “Most of our programs are run by people who think the community queer it is better represented by thin or muscular people”.

Despite the fact that the criticized fat suit (suits to look fatter) are still awarded by the entertainment industry, television fiction has advanced from the canned laughter that Monica caused in friends when he remembered his fat stage. In The ones in the last row (2022)Mariona Terés plays Leo, a woman who travels with her group of friends after one of them is diagnosed with cancer. Terés, with a leading role far from clichés and victimization, believes that things have changed in recent years, albeit slowly: “We are seeing different bodies on screens, but clichés must continue to be changed,” says Terés. “The next step is for fat women to be able to make characters that they find sexy, that they can have a romantic relationship with someone and normalize that their body is beautiful, that they can eat whatever they want and that they can fuck whoever they want.”

From the left, María Rodríguez, Mariona Terés, Itsaso Arana, Mónica Miranda and Godeliv van den Brandt, in the first episode of 'Las de la ultima fila'.
From the left, María Rodríguez, Mariona Terés, Itsaso Arana, Mónica Miranda and Godeliv van den Brandt, in the first episode of ‘Las de la ultima fila’.JULY VERGNE/NETFLIX (JULY VERGNE/NETFLIX)

In addition to delving into a narrative complexity of the fat characters far from the clichés typical of tube television and the product of a culture that considers the consumption of carbohydrates at dinner as sacrilege, fiction must increase the range of roles, surpassing the obsession with physical appearance. “What I hope is that diversity expands in all senses,” says Carlota Pereda, director of little pig. To carry out projects like this, the economic support of the production companies for stories that include fat artists is essential. “When you are looking for financing, certain people are not going to bet on you because they consider it an authorial project due to the fact that you have put a non-normative character in the leading role.”

Despite the fact that fiction is in the wake of a society that largely reproaches the negative representation of fat characters in works such as The Whale, the television industry will end up accepting that bodies that are far from the Hollywood canon exist and deserve to be represented. With complex plots and without fat man costumes vexatious “I do believe that we are going to see more and more diverse people on the screen every time,” says Terés. “It’s a slow road, but we’ll get to another place.”

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Fatphobia in movies and television series: “Some would prefer fat people not to exist in public”

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