Monday, February 28, 2005

Fatphobia on TV

After watching the most recent episode of CSI I mentioned to several people that I had now officially seen one of the most fatphobic depictions of fat women I've ever seen on TV (and that's saying something). Sure, the writers tried to make the main characters come off as more "open-minded" and "accepting" than most people, but frankly, I felt it was a half-assed attempt and couldn't override the fatphobic premise of the storyline (fat woman smothers thin man by passing out on top of him).

Paul from Big Fat Blog didn't see the episode, so he quotes BFBer Natalie's take on the show.
In a nutshell, a man was found dead and it was determined thta something heavy basically smothered him. It did turn out to be a fat woman; she'd passed out on top of him. (The actress was really quite good--she was a real fat woman and not what passes for fat in Hollywood.)

Lots of shots of fabulous fat women, comments that people can be pigs and that it's difficult being a fat person, and only *one* hint that fat is unhealthy--the woman who'd passed out had type 2 diabetes and hypertension and she shouldn't have been drinking in the first place.

There *were* some problems with the show--there was a bit of a freak show ambience about it, but I've noticed that on other episodes, so I'm liable to chalk that up to being a quirk of the show and not anything specific. I was also irritated that the way the guy died was due to the woman passing out on top of him and smothering him with her fat (le sigh)--I would have been much happier if she did kill him because she was pissed at him for wanting to have sex with fat women but not wanting to be seen with them in the elevator, if she'd killed him for being ashamed of his desires.

Overall, it was much much much better than I was expecting. The lone fat joke (something about a stampede) was promptly shot down as totally inappropriate and discriminatory and wrong--and the women were apologized to for the statements. Definitely wasn't perfect, but it could have been much, much, much worse.

After having read this, I'd have to say that I'll stick with my original opinion. The problems with the episode (some of which Natalie covered) outweigh the positives about the episode.

Some of the other commenters summed up my objections better than I could:
from 2dayis4me:

Carolyn, you are not the only one who doubts whether that cause of death is actully possible. Yeah, I know, its fiction.

It _is_ what thin folks (especially men) fear though.

What is that observation about the more power women get (through various feminist movements) the smaller women are supposed to be (physically) in order to be deemed "fashionable?"

Which goes into a lot deeper cultural analysis of why there is so much fear of women actually taking up space, having body mass, etc.

The cultural fear is that if women actually occupy more than a minimal amount of space it will result in the death of men. Y'know, men'll be smothered, crushed, killed, etc. You see this fear articulated in men's (hate) speech about fat (women) and airline seats too... (note, you don't see hate speech about NFL linebackers "taking up too much space on, or 'crashing' aircraft" due to their body mass...)

Now THAT would be a cultural fear worth exploring in a plot line. Maybe. If done well.

All I can say is yes! exactly!

From pani113:

Well, I would have to respectfully disagree. To me, I saw very little improvement over the same old stereotypes. The perpuation of the fat woman is dangerous myth - she can kill you if you sleep with her. Enchanced of course by the fat she was diabetic, seen by our culture as a punishment for being fat, and then she got drunk on top of it.

And you are right, the whole thing is improbable. Posters on other SA boards have made the point that they failed to take weight distribution into account in their lame test. She would have to be standing on his chest for that premise to work. Someone else also asked how come we never see plots where the 280lb linebackers never crush their 110lb dates? (Cause we don't irrationally fear large unless it is associated with women.) Most of my partners have been ample (at least the ones worth remembering), some at least 260lbs and I haven't come close to being suficated.

Another stereotype that always makes me cringe is the desparate fat women which was also present in the episode. This stereotype is very dangerous. I internalized it as a young girl and have always acted in exactly the other direction. It had a very detrimental effect on my career because I was perceived as being almost rude to men in general. Well, this is a huge factor in where my attitudes came from.

True, there was some modest progress but not enough for me to outweight the damage.

Skeptyk said:

Ambivalent. I mostly did not like it, since the fat women were presented as caricatures, or, as in the case of the one "whodunit", as a tragic, lonely loser.

Though I think a lot of folks had hopes that Grissom would be a more active advocate, with his usual nerdy philosopher lines, he only had a couple, and he did some doubletakes which seemed out of character for the "respect-all-beings" attitude the character usuallytakes. As for Greg, I can only hope they were setting him up to have a fat girlfriend soon.

I wish there were some social/political activism evident at the conference, but it was presented as a place to buy pretty things in X-sizes or get laid by guys who wouldn't be caught alive with you.

I would have liked to see someone reading a flyer with names of workshops like "Gastric Bypass: the Mutilation Market".

There were some minor characters who looked like they were going to be solid SA-types, but then displayed some fatalistic "better-get-laid-where-I-can" stereotype,presented as icky pathetic, not as women in charge of some sexual fun. And the one woman who dissed this activity in her sisters looked on THEM as pathetic, and broke ranks with the other purple lingerie buyers at the police station.

If a TV story line has typical hardbody android types shtupping everything in sight, that is treated as normal, healthy, minor sluttiness, but if a some of the folks are fat, doing essentially the same scene, they, and anyone who sleeps with them, are seen as mockingly pathetic or sick.

I'm so sick of the disgusting display of fatphobia that exists on TV. I'm not going to happy about a few crumbs of "good" treatment enmeshed in a horrible premise. What we need is better television.

Hell, even Television Without Pity had problems with this episode.


Amerikat said...

"Definitely wasn't perfect, but it could have been much, much, much worse."So, what, we should be happy because it wasn't absolutely horrific? I don't accept that argument as a feminist, when I'm told to be grateful that I can even vote. As if I'm being greedy for wanting men to treat me as an equal.

bean said...

Yup, I hear ya!!

Terry said...

Besides deeming those women nothing more than fat bodies with no "person" attached, that episode reduced men who love women of different sizes to the role of fetishists. In fully developed human beings, love and sex is far more complex than either partner's appearance. Sadly, on "disease of the week tv," all we get cute sound bites and over-simplification.

judykay said...

nd would observe that the themes she(?) mentions play out in other ways in sexual politics. I think some men worry about being consumed by women (in both senses of the word). They obsess over women at the same time they fear being overwhelmed by them. They seem to feel powerless over the relationship, believe women are dictating men's lives, especially in recent years (i.e., the political correctness antipathy now which extends of course beyond just sexual politics). I dated a man who couldn't sustain an erection during fellatio because he feared literally being "eaten" alive! But a therapist told me that's not unusual. I've been both very slim and what I'd call hefty. And the culture sure does a job on our self-perception when we're fat. But it's all internalized in our psyches. But let's cut the script writers a break: they are only externalizing what the culture believes at its core. Thanks for the post thought--helps me feel a little less "unseen."

Tish Grier said...

Thanks for the great post!

I usually like CSI, although I do find the writer's knowledge of the fetish world to be very, very limited and sometimes completely wrong. I know they might be trying to promote some understanding of "chubby chasing" as a fetish, but they couldn't skirt the wink-wink-nudge-nudge factor. The episode had a certain mean-spiritedness that reinforced the fat jokes the main charater protested she was personally trying to avoid.

Fat, though, is an issue that goes beyond feminism. It is also a socio-economic issue. We suffer from a tyrrany of the body in our culture (check out the lack of foundation garmets on most of the Oscar nominees) takes money and idle time to be able to spend several hours a day in a gym, pay a chef to cook the proper low-cal meals, and afford Demi Moore-inspired plastic surgery. It doesn't help either tha most desingers, and the upscale stores that stock them, do not carry anything made in the "average" size of 14. What is considered "classy" and "worthy" is defined in these narrow, money-based parameters. Our inability to afford to make dramatic changes in our physical stature and lack of clothing selection sends the message that we are of a lower socio-economic status and are thus easily exploitable and expendable.

But until television and movies begin to make the change towards showing women who are of average size in roles beyond the downtrodden mom or fetish object, very little is going to change.

JennHi said...

what's more insulting about the episode is that it's been done before; somewhere, some genius said to himself, "Wow! Since it worked on Picket Fences, let's do it on CSI!" Huh. I've never been so glad to have gotten rid of my tv.

Anyone remember Darlene Cates? She was the "perpetrator" in the Picket Fences episode, which I didn't see. But I did see her first role as the mother in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and I can tell you that NOT ONE person was laughing during the scene where she went to get Leonardo DiCaprio from the police station. Dignified, you know? Where'd all that go?

Chloe said...

You're talking about a show where the supposedly sexy quirky main character is overweight & waddles whereas his female co-stars have model figures. (One actually WAS a model.) (Mind you, I'm talking about the original CSI series.)
That said, I don't think anyone or anything is spared on that show for a freak-show humour twist. I find it to be more an irony usually.
I haven't seen this particular episode. But I don't really see this as any worse than TV in general. THIN WOMEN SELL ADVERTISEMENTS.
THe fat phobia problem isn't with CSI or television... the problem is with our society. Let's lay blame where it belongs.

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