Fictional Fat Admiration

So, I've watched the Glee episode that saw one of its main characters find himself pondering fat attraction to a fat character. Its always tough to judge a TV show by a single episode, but at least thus far I find myself pretty apprehensive about how this is being developed. It can still go in a lot of different directions, and while it didn't go anywhere really bad, it was also steering very clearly of anywhere really good, too.

My concern is I felt like the arc of the episode had the man in question consider the possibility that he was attracted to a fat woman, try this one for size, and conclude that nope, he's not attracted to the fat women physically, just emotionally. Everytime we hear him pondering his feelings, he is weighing being physically attracted or emotionally attracted, as if this were sort of binary decision. And the turning point for him comes when he stops weighing the two options and commits to being attracted emotionally. This kind of concerns me as a message.

Mind you, the idea that fat attraction is bad is, at most, subtext, so things could have gone much worse. And genuine romantic interest in a fat partner is a pretty radical thing for TV regardless of physical attraction. Still, I think its fair to be sensitive to how attraction to fat partners gets portrayed. While subtext, I got a strong sense that the character was being chided for expressing physical desire for a fat person. Every time he tried to convey that, he gets slapped down. Granted, his expressions were pretty uniformly artless, but its not like the resolution was to express the desire better. It was to not express the desire at all. So, we only every see expression of fat admiration as something clumsy, blunt, and more than a little objectifying. Except, this has a powerfully stigmatizing effect by implying that there is something necessarily wrong about being attracted to a fat person.

There is a real problem in how our culture tends to depict fat attraction. Fat characters are often left with a binary choice. Be objectified by someone who desires you or enjoy the righteous tolerance of someone who'll love you "in spite of" your body. Which, to me, sounds like two shitty choices but always plays out as good vs. bad. And guess which side gets to be good. Fat attraction is a deviation. Something othered. This doesn't just impact fat admirers, though. Indeed, the brunt of this kind of perspective is felt by the fat people since it their body being othered. Their body that is stigmatized as deviant. The admirer is shamed for how they relate to fat bodies. The fat body is the point of difference.

The truth, I'd suggest, leaves both of those binary choices as being really lousy. Better options would be someone whose physical desire was just a part of what drew them to a specific fat partner, or a person who doesn't identify with any specific physical desire who can still incorporate physical attraction into their relationship with a fat partner. Those two scenarios are the cause of happy endings. Not the partner only interested in one's fat body or the one who tries to disassociate one's physical presence with their emotional engagement.

While Glee definitely had a subtext of showing the fat attraction to be foolish, it still wasn't the text of the show and there is nothing to contradict either non-binary scenario. I'd hope that he can recognize that he does desire fat partners, but that he's looking for more than a body, mostly because fictional fat admiration is pretty rare and it'd be great to see better examples of it.

Which got me thinking about other examples. One showed up tonight on the new Matthew Perry sitcom Mr. Sunshine. A young, conventionally attractive female references an as yet unseen character as "gorgeous" in a fairly breathless delivery. When the character is revealed as the identifiably fat Nate Torrence, its obviously played as a gag of misplaced expectations. THIS is gorgeous? Doesn't help that she's already been established as possibly mentally unstable, meaning her attraction might not be meant as a quirk but as a "symptom".

The quirk aspect reminded me of Dr. (Jo) Mahoney, the late addition to the cast of Scrubs. She's established as being interested in fat men, but this attraction is immediately regarded as necessarily suspect. It's "explained" as enjoying their insecurity and desire to please her. This actually worries me about Glee, too, as it often seemed to be trying to justify the attraction to a fat woman. Though with a more positive justification ("She's confident!"), I don't like the idea that wanting to be with fat partners always needs to be justified. Frankly, a lot of fat admirers themselves do this, deluding themselves into thinking fat women are just better people and not just fatter people. At any rate, she also had a totally meaningless fat attraction since she never really acted on it and entered a relationship with a thin male as soon as the plot demanded it.

Something also seen on "American Dad" where the CIA chief voiced by Patrick Stewart declares an interest in fat women to establish him as being a deviant, and then quickly forgotten about it. Less quickly forgotten was Debbie, the fat girlfriend written for Steve, the son on the show. Oh, it got forgotten about, but briefly it was actually a pretty decent way to show a character who isn't specifically interested in fat partners going beyond "in spite of" in their attraction. Steve is fully attracted to Debbie even if her body was not relevant to that. He wasn't shown as martyring himself and his interest was actually treated very respectfully. When they broke up several episodes later, her size was a total non-issue. Shame it was introduced and dispensed with so quickly.

Most of the time on TV, fat characters are only allowed love "in spite of" being fat and this is routinely seen as a good thing. Having someone "look past" one's body is a display of extreme nobility in this world. I remember several shows when I was a kid introducing a fat girl for a male lead to learn to woo in order to be a better person. And they never even had to do anything about it after the episode, either, so win-win. It was a textbook example of the lionization of "despite". If someone actually was into fat partners, they were always a deviant and more than a couple times portrayed as necessarily a feederist with the implication that desire for fat partners and feederist interests were one and the same. This is a backdrop that gives me a lot of room for caution with Glee's still being written treatment of the subject. I could see them going in several different directions here. Some good, some bad. I'm hoping to go for something really radical and let a main character be genuinely attracted to fat partners, but I'm apprehensive that he'll be another person just learning a lesson by dating fat partners.


Lillian said...

I've been on both sides of this game. I've felt so fat that I had trouble believing that anyone could find me attractive. I said felt because I wasn't even overweight at the time. I also believed for a long time that I must be close to asexual because I didn't find the men that other women found attractive. I found fatter men attractive and that cause me cognizant dissonance. It was like I was finding no one attractive because I didn't find the conventional movie stars and the guys on the street attractive that other girls did. The men I found attractive were invisible to other girls and therefore seemed intellectually invisible to me.

Emotionally, there weren't invisible because heavier men were the men that I dated, but I didn't understand that I was attracted to heavier men. It just seemed that I always found heavier men even when I was in surroundings were heavier men were the rarity. It seems so easy now. I feel sexy myself and I know what I find sexy. It wasn't easy when I was in my late teens and early twenties.

Samantha C. said...

"Despite" is such an awful word.

I haven't watched any of these shows (Couldn't stand Glee after a couple episodes, and American Dad....) but the Scrubs example got me hardest. I hate the conflation of fat bodies with low self-esteem. Even if it tends to be true - to hear so often that you're SUPPOSED to have it just makes everything much worse. It's not like there are skinny people who are desperate to make their partners happy. Maybe it's worse because I HAVE been in that whirlwind of desperate pleasing, and my partner had to work very hard to draw me out of that and let me see that I could have desires, too, even ones that conflicted with his.

Heather said...

If this is the only episode you've seen I'd suggest watching the episode where Lauren was originally introduced. Puck was trying to recruit her so that they had enough people to sing at sectionals.. and she only agreed to do so in exchange for candy. later, before sectionals, she's kind of portrayed as this fat candy munching monster who will kill someone if she doesn't get her sweets. Now.. if she were just a normal character who loved sweets that'd be one thing.. but I can't imagine they'd write in constant eating for any other character. In fact, I'm fairly certain there is never an episode where she has speaking lines where she's not shown eating.

Anonymous said...

Brian, I really love this post. Over at Lesley's twowholecakes blog, I got the vibe from many of those commenting (and I don't mean to oversimplify) that they would never want someone "to only see their body" and so it's important that he "looks past it" on this episode. This seems to me extreme. I really don't get why someone couldn't like a person's body and the rest of them at the same time. That certainly isn't looking past it. Do most people in the world have love relationship only based on personality? It's just weird to me, and I'm not articulating it nearly as well as you did, so I'll stop now.

Anonymous said...

I haven't watched Glee. I am wondering if anyone else remembers that Rose is Rose used to show Jimbo fantasizing about Rose getting fat?

(This was back when Pat Brady was doing the strip by himself. The magazine Radiance did an article on it, even.)

Brian said...

I think a big part of the problem is that many real-world Fat Admirers have not acquited themselves well in demonstrating a capacity to see a partner as more than a fat body. Enough to make the impression of this is a major cause for concern reasonably valid. The problem comes when this swings too far in the other direction. What worried me the most in the Glee episode is that it was abandoning his exploration of his physical desires that lead to a breakthrough romantically. It wasn't balance that got rewarded.

I do recall the Rose is Rose strips and eagerly awaited those fantasy sequences. My years since enduring self-pitying FA's in relationships with thin women has, perhaps, changed my perspective on them, however. :D

Frances said...

You're spot on with that 'binary choice' thing. So many fat people (and people outside the beauty ideal) are taught one way or another that our hope for love is someone else seeing our inner beauty. Fuck that. I've got outer beauty to spare. Just as I don't wish for my body to be fetishised, I don't want my body to be looked over.

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