Tuesday, 5 November 2019

On giving fat shaming stories a pass

The second season of Insatiable is now available on Netflix, and I, for one, will not be watching. I have better things to do than watch a show that promotes fat shaming, crash dieting, and revenge fantasies. I could encourage a goose to cause mischief. Teach my dog a new trick. Listen to yet another white man explain why free speech is a more important value than the heath and safety of  vulnerable people.

As a super fat person, I avoid media that subscribes to one dimensional fat characters that belly into fat stereotypes and tropes. I skip stuff with fat suits. I avoid media that reinforces fat stigma and oppression; as you can imagine, my options are limited. Sometimes it cannot be helped, and I love something that is incredibly problematic (looking at my 20yr old self who LOVED and could not get enough of Friends). Other times, I have no idea the fat hating material is coming my way (see my piece on fat hate in the Avengers from earlier this year). So the second season of Insatiable, like the first season, gets a “NO” from me.

One reason I can easily look away is because I’ve learned that it’s okay for me to say no to media that will be hurtful for me. I can look away from The Biggest Loser and Extreme Makeover Weight Loss Edition, New Girl and whatever Tyler Perry’s Madea is doing next; I can take a pass on This Is Us, whose fat actor was required to include a weight loss clause in her employment contract. This took a lot of work, and there are still slips. But another reason it has become easier is because the choices of seeing fat people on screen have expanded beyond sad fatty stereotypes. We’ve always had singular fat performers who have often been in roles that allowed them to be more than one dimensional (think Melissa McCarthy as Sookie St. James in Gilmore Girls or Danielle Brooks as Taystee in Orange is the New Black). But for everyone one of those, there were a dozen Dudley’s from Harry Potter and Eddie Murphy-wears-a-fat-suit again. With more providers of content, we are starting to see even more fat positive media representations.

If you are looking for a teenage story for this weekend, why not try Dumplin from Netflix instead? Dumplin’ a delightful film based on the YA story of the same name from Julie Murphy. Spend two hours with Willowdean “Will” Dickson, her mother, her BFF, their friends, a cast of drag queens, and a bunch of girls vying for the Miss Teen Bluebonnet crown. Will’s Mom, a former Miss Teen Bluebonnet herself, now runs the pageant and the only thing she’d rather have than that crown for forever would be a daughter who is not fat. It’s a familiar coming of age story, but with a fat protagonist at the heart. One who is not miserable about her size; who is not desperate to lose weight and be someone else. The film avoids many of the overplayed tropes of teen stories (she doesn’t take off her glasses and becomes hot; there is not a makeover in the film, nor is it all about catty female friendships or pining over boys). The story of Will and her misfit friends is full of heart, and relatable to people who felt they were often on the outside looking in during their adolescent years. In addition, all of the fat characters are played by fat actors (HELLO Kathy Najimy!), and have more than one dimension. Did I mention that Dolly Parton is the soundtrack?  It’s not to be missed.

If YA isn’t quite your bag, why not try Shrill on Hulu? Shrill is a six episode series on Hulu, staring Aidy Bryant as Annie, the protagonist of the story. We meet Annie as a young adult, and see all the ways that her life is shaped and molded by fat shaming and oppression. We are along for the ride as emerging writer Annie begins to shrug off the self-doubt and internalized fatphobia. Like Dumplin’, Shrill is based on a book (this time by author Lindy West) by a fat woman; the book was West’s memoir. West is a young American writer whose sharp observations of sexism, misogyny being a woman writing online, earned her bylines on the weekly The Stranger (Seattle) and magazines such as Jezebel and GQ. In 2011, she published a piece titled, “Hello, I am Fat” in which she came out as fat. And the rest, as they say, is herstory (and can be found in her memoir and the show, Shrill). The show captures some of the book’s best moments, including West’s first experience with a fat positive pool party.

These two stories of fat women living their life with minimal shame are groundbreaking. Fat people rarely get to be included in the story, much less as the center of the story. And even fewer fat people (no matter their positon) get to escape the sad fatty trope. Fat characters are usually presented as cautionary tales; if we’re lucky, we are spunky and hypersexual best friend. It’s important to note that usually the stories of fat people onscreen have been written by non-fat people and often played by non-fat people as well (see the aforementioned fat suits). These stories are different. They are stories about fat people written and performed by fat people. When all you see is the same tropes in the media about fat people, it’s easy to remember that fat people are much more than those representations. And that fat people are a monolith; we may share similar experiences related to stigma, discrimination, and oppression, but we are all individuals living our lives.

Will and Annie are both white fat women, which means they experience their fatness with white privilege. They are also abled bodied, cis, straight; they have a lot of privilege impacting how they experience their fatness and the world. They are also two of the few size affirming fat lead characters; see if you can count the number of size affirming fat people you’ve seen in television and film. I doubt you can get past a single hand. I want more size affirming stories in our media. I want stories of fat people of colour. Fat people with disabilities. Fat people who are neuro-divergent. I want us to get to place where size affirming fat people on screen are completely ordinary; where our stories can be told in mediocre ways and it not be seen as a blow to the fat liberation movement.

Positive stories of fat people are only a drop in the bucket of the fatpocalypse media we are drenched in, but I am glad to see more fat positive stories being a chance to be told. Especially by fat storytellers. Especially to more mainstream audiences. Fat positive stories are revolutionary; watching and enjoying them is an act of rebellion and an act of alliance. And fat people need that alliance; we are too often left on the sidelines in social justice. Individuals who are committed to liberation and justice for people based on gender, sexuality, ability, race, class, and more, are often ignorant or purposively evasive on the fight for fat liberation and justice (see this great piece by Ijeoma Oluo, and this one by D’Shaun Harrison, for more on this). If you believe that none of us are free until we ALL are free, that includes the fat community. Yes, even the fattest of the fat community.


Re-posted from The Spinoff


via Friend of Marilyn