How Fat Characters are Portrayed in the Media Part 1

tv with blank scree and food on bed
Photo by KoolShooters on Pexels.com

An Introduction

Unless you live in a remote mountain village or intentionally get off the grid, you probably consume media all day long. Even if you are in those situations, you’re almost certainly exposed to at least some form of media, be it newspapers, books, and the like. Sadly, fat characters are portrayed in the media in many horribly negative ways.

The messaging that various forms of media use matters because it shapes how we view ourselves and the world around us, both consciously and unconsciously. Seeing a documentary about the plight of children in Africa can change our perspective on our own lives, or reading a news story about a person with a completely different life from our own can help us empathize and understand what it might be like to be them.

Like most people these days, I grew up consuming media through television shows, books, the internet, magazines, and social media. Now, I binge podcasts and audiobooks, and if I could read and listen to interesting conversations all day long, I would do it in a heartbeat.

But of course, the media has a dark side. It can distort facts, misrepresent people, and take things completely out of context. It also has potential to make us view certain groups of people in a certain way through story-telling, especially in movies and TV shows.

This post will cover how fat characters are typically portrayed in the media, how that affects our own perceptions, and why that must change moving forward. This post will be a two-parter, as I found that I had much more to say than I originally thought. 

Well, let’s get to it!

General Observations About Fat Characters

When you picture an ambiguous, figurative person or character in a larger body, what sorts of attributes come to mind? Which adjectives would you use to describe this person? What kinds of work would they do, or which hobbies would they be interested in?

Evidently, when presented with a character in a larger body, most TV or movie writers picture fat people as lazy, dim-witted, slow, and indulgent. They enjoy sitting on the couch watching TV, playing video games, or eating themselves sick. They often look unkempt, greasy, and they wear ratty clothing that could use a good wash.

Typical portrayal of how fat characters spend most of their time: video games

Even children’s shows and movies many evil or dim-witted characters are fat, potentially creating an unconscious bias that fat people are inherently evil, bad, or stupid. 

To some, these comments may present a relatively benign issue, and that those who have a problem with these very regular character tropes are simply too sensitive. I get that argument. TV shows and movies, especially comedies, often seek to be “politically incorrect”, as much of their humor relies on making the audience cringe or feel uncomfortable in an entertaining way. 

As a fan of comedy, I do believe it should push boundaries and challenge us. Getting offended at every little thing can definitely suck the fun out of nearly anything, and I understand that side of the argument. At the same time, portraying fat characters in a stereotypical way over and over for decades and decades has made us less empathetic to people in larger bodies, and this has tangible, negative effects on their lives. 

We will talk more about these very real impacts, but first I’d like to give a few examples of how well-known fat characters are portrayed and treated in popular TV shows. At first glance, these characters may not seem problematic, but digging a little bit deeper can uncover a pattern of truly unfunny and uncreative traits among fat characters. 

Fat Characters are Portrayed as Lazy, Stupid, and Food-Obsessed

For anyone who has seen The Office, it’s impossible to forget the famous chili scene involving Kevin the accountant. He is super excited to bring in a huge pot of his famous chili for his coworkers, only to drop it all over the floor. He panics and tries desperately to clean up the mess before anyone else comes in to see what he has done. 

I still can’t help but love this scene because I have had so many instances in my life where I am completely excited about something, and then shit hits the fan. Apparently, this scene was polarizing in the writer’s room. Mindy Kaling, who plays Kelly, apparently threw a literal fit when this idea was presented. It stayed, and it remains one of the most memorable scenes in the show, at least for me. 

Kevin trying to clean up his chili fiasco

Kevin’s character makes me laugh all the time, and he has many redeeming moments and qualities. Unfortunately, the show uses Kevin to portray a stereotypical fat, dumb, food obsessed, perverted guy in ways that they didn’t have to in order to get laughs. 

Although there are a couple of other characters who display ditzy behavior (Kelly and Erin), or misunderstand basic concepts, like how bankruptcy works (Michael), the only character on the show that is portrayed as “slow” or dim-witted is Kevin the accountant.

In fact, there is a joke in the later seasons about how Kevin can only do math when it involves pies or other desserts. When someone asks him to calculate a math problem involving salads, he can’t figure it out. Several other instances exist where Kevin appears incompetent, dull, and outright stupid, but this one stands out to be the most because it’s a blatant combination of showing an indulgent, unhealthy, and stupid fat character. 

Kevin saying "this sucks"

The dessert and food obsession continues on throughout the series, really drilling home that this fat character thinks about food all day long. 

In an early episode, Jim decides to host an office Olympics, where they make up games and award yogurt lid medals to the winners. Kevin creates an event to see who can fit the most M&Ms in their mouth, but he ends up being the only one who participates and is given a medal.

Later on in the series, Pam and Karen host a competing office party to teach Angela a lesson, and both groups try to lure Kevin to join theirs. He has a talking head where he gives it a good think, but he ultimately chooses Angela’s because of her double fudge brownies. 

Kevin frowning with disapproval at how fat characters are treated

In later seasons, two employees are trying to sell girl scout cookies for their daughters. Both characters recognize that Kevin will buy the most (typical fat guy, am I right?), so they compete to win him over. Kevin pushes them too far, and they both decide it isn’t worth it. Kevin ends up begging for forgiveness, so that he can buy some cookies. 

In another episode, Michael force-feeds broccoli to Kevin because he resolved to eat more vegetables. This is another well-remembered scene, and many people use the GIF of Kevin choking down the raw broccoli with a caption along the lines of “Me trying to eat healthier this year.” 

The writers either came up with the New Year’s resolution specifically for Kevin because he is in a larger body, or they had the idea to make one of their characters strive to eat more vegetables, and they thought it would be funniest to use the dumb, fat guy for it. This gag could have used a thin person too, as not all thin people eat as many vegetables as they should, and not all fat people don’t eat enough. Some might argue it would make the scene less funny, but why is a fat person being force-fed vegetables funnier than a thin person? What makes that particularly hilarious?

Kevin yelling, "well why don't you shut up"

Since Kevin’s character had been set up for seasons of only being interested in “bad” foods, this resolution made logical sense for the show, but it didn’t have to be this way.

I have dissected Kevin’s character in length, but there are other attributes often appointed to fat characters that we have not covered in detail. One of which is his pervertedness that comes on full display as the show progresses.

With all of this being said, I still love The Office despite its faults. Many have remarked that the show might not have aired had it been made today instead of the early 2000’s, and maybe that’s true. The Office was one of the first shows that thrived by using tension to purposely make audiences laugh out loud from being uncomfortable, and it notoriously pushed boundaries. Again, as comedy should! 

The actors are fantastic because they create tangible and palpable awkwardness that really do make me cringe every time I see them. Unfortunately, when it comes to weight stigma, I cringe because I think the show could have been just as funny without stooping down to this level of fat shaming. 

I’d argue that The Office has some of the best comedy writing in recent memory, as it managed to combine a truly compelling drama with lovable, imperfect characters that many of us can relate to. As a result, I think the fat jokes and illusions to Kevin’s food obsession and dim-wittedness are completely unnecessary. They may elicit a chuckle here and there, but I believe the writers were better than that- they didn’t need to stoop to that level to create hilarious moments and scenes. 

Kevin from The Office, Patrick Star from SpongeBob Squarepants (another show I adore), and Homer from The Simpsons display similar behaviors, such as laziness, stupidity, and overindulgence with food. These are just three examples of hundreds, but I encourage you to keep your eyes peeled for characters like this in the media. It may surprise you how common these traits are in fat characters, and it will eventually become clear how overused these character types are. 

Andy kicking garbage can saying "I'm going to lose my freaking mind"

Weight Loss is Often a Fat Character’s Main Story Line

Many shows and TV shows opt entirely out of having any characters in larger bodies among their cast for whatever lame reasons the company can come up with. So, it may seem like a wonderful thing when a show goes out of its way to cast characters in larger bodies and give them the spotlight by making them the leads. 

Unfortunately, one consistent fault of this scenario is that fat characters’ entire storyline become caught up in their weight loss or fitness journey. Fat characters often aren’t just allowed to be themselves. Instead, the battles fat characters often face are ones about trying to lose weight and the like. 

Homer Simpson, another famous fat character, talking about weight loss

Many networks may put this in to make their show “more relatable”, but it gets exhausting when every fat character is either labeled as stupid (or the comedic punching bag), or their entire existance revolves around weight loss. This is what happened in popular shows like Mike and Molly and This is Us

I must admit that I have never seen an episode of Mike and Molly, but I do remember it piquing my curiosity when it first aired. I thought it must be a wonderful show because it would portray two plus-sized characters, and to give them a relatable love story for viewers to follow.

After reading the description and synopsis for the show, I’m not so sure that’s what this show did or even tried to do. Instead, it seems like it only really reinforced stereotypes that already permeate the world of TV and movies. After reading a few analyses on the show, many people discussed the cheap fat jokes constantly used to try to garner a few laughs. These were disguised as self-deprecating humor, but I don’t think that gives them a free pass. 

Rory Gillmore saying "don't get self-deprecating. It's obnoxious"

Chuck Lorre, one of the producers of the show, remarked that the show wouldn’t be entirely about weight and weight issues, hoping that the humor would be “self-deprecating and with affection”. They seemed to succeed with their goal of going for self-deprecating humor, though I don’t think that’s any better or smarter than normal fat person humor. 

When a fat joke is written as self-deprecating humor, I think many people see this as okay. They think that because the character is making fun of themselves over others, it’s less damaging in some way. But fat jokes still come at the expense of fat people everywhere, whether its from a fat character themselves or from a thin character spitting it at a fat character. 

We have already discussed fat jokes and humor in the Kevin section, so that doesn’t bear much repeating. Instead, I want to focus on the fat characters whose whole story revolves around their “weight loss journey”. Mike and Molly seems to fit the bill here too. 

Fat Amy saying "horizontal running"
Another example of a character in a larger body being depicted as lazy

For example, Mike and Molly apparently first meet at an overeater’s anonymous meeting, and the entire series follows their relationship through dating, marriage, and beyond. It’s littered with attempts at weight loss. At the same time, I get that this is just the premise of the show. But it’s an overdone cliche that fat characters’ only purpose in life is to try to get thin. For people in larger bodies, it may very well feel that way in real life, but perhaps the media portrayal of people in larger bodies always trying to lose weight is what makes it feel like a necessity somehow. 

Also noteworthy is the fact that the creators of the show seemed to feel that simply casting actors in larger bodies was enough. Chuck Lorre remarked,

 “Television would normally have cast Chris O’Donnell and Courteney Cox as the people who meet at Overeaters Anonymous. In this case we had the courage to cast people who are just people, who are trying to make their lives better and find someone that they can love and be loved by.”

Woman saying "so brave"

So brave. They “had the courage” to cast “people who are just people”. Melissa McCarthy is a damn superstar. Claiming that Courteney Cox is somehow not “just a person”, but Melissa McCarthy is seems a bit shady, no?

Okay, so the show supposedly isn’t all about weight loss, right Chuck Lorre? At least that’s what you said before. The comment about “trying to make their lives better” from above also makes one wonder what exactly he is referring to here. Making their lives better through weight loss? It’s hard to say, but it does seem like that’s what he is alluding to. 

The phenomenon of fat characters only really pursuing weight loss also reminds me of Kate’s storyline from This is Us, a drama that seemed like everyone was watching during my senior year of college. Kate, played by Chrissy Metz, grew up in a larger body and remains in one throughout the series. 

Kate and Toby, two fat characters from This is Us laughing on the couch

Kate also meets her future husband at some kind of weight loss support group, which already made me think, “Oh boy, here we go again”. Like meeting her future husband, every decision she makes or thing she tries somehow gets tied back to her weight. 

Kate tries to pursue singing like her mother did back in the day, and this leads to subtle, and not-so-subtle jabs from her mom about her appearance throughout the series. She and her husband also spend much of the series trying to get pregnant, which of course also prompts discussions about how her weight will make it really difficult. Again, I would see this as a relatable storyline if it already hadn’t been done dozens of times before. 

This show revolves around tons of flashbacks to the main three’s relationship with their late father, Jack. Kate and Jack were particularly close, and the audience sees Kate growing up in a larger body since she was a little girl. It is established to viewers that Jack likes to spoil Kate by taking her out for ice cream or treating her to other foods. After he dies, her eating apparently spins out of control, and results in her current weight. 

It seems that most of the blame for Kate’s weight is her lack of “willpower” or “determination” in the face of tragedy. It’s never mentioned that a person can just be fat because that’s what is natural for their bodies. Again, these may be relatable concepts for many viewers, but Kate never just gets to be herself- she is always just the fat character that needs to lose weight. 

This bears repeating because I believe we don’t think about it enough while we consume our media. Seeing fat characters whose only purpose is losing weight can make real-life fat people feel that this is their only purpose too. Characters like this can lead people to believe that if only they could lose the weight, all of their problems would disappear, and they would finally feel confident and good about themselves. 

We need to see fat characters that are comfortable in their skin and get to have a storyline that is not driven by fitness or “health”. We need to see portrayals where a person being in a larger body is just normal and doesn’t need discussion.

It’s kind of like how in Schitt’s Creek, homophobia doesn’t really exist. David and Patrick just get to be together, and nobody really bats an eye. Even when the show leads you to think there will be a moment of homophobia, the audience is relieved to find it was simply a misunderstanding. 

David and Patrick from Schitt's Creek

I understand the desire to make television shows relatable, but writers and producers also have to be careful to not let this “relatability” cause more problems in the long run. It’s a complicated, complex issue, that is only further convoluted when characters are shown at different stages in their life, and some are portrayed as more “worthy” than others. 

Fat Character Flashbacks Show that Thin Versions are More Valued and Worthy

New Girl was one of my favorite shows in high school and throughout college, and I probably watched the first three seasons at least five times through. For some reason, it made me dream about moving to LA, living in a beautiful loft, and having wonderful friendships with my roommates.

I still love New Girl, at least the first few seasons. I never actually finished the last season because the first few episodes bored me. Either way, it’s still a show that I enjoy playing in the background while I enjoy a pot of tea or work on basic administrative tasks on my computer. I do have one significant problem with the show, though.

Nick from New Girl banging his head on a pillow

Schmidt, played by Max Greenfield, is at first an insufferable, uptight, and egotistical adult that keeps the apartment clean, navigates working in a female-led corporation, and enjoys showing off his body. Throughout the series, viewers are treated to watching Schmidt grow and go from an annoying fratboy-like character to a genuinely good man. One way the show helps viewers empathize with this character is by showing glimpses into his past, and why he may have the standoffish personality he does, especially at the beginning.

When Schmidt and his roommate Nick met in college, Schmidt was fat. In flashback scenes, college-aged Schmidt is portrayed as greasy, happy-go-lucky, dim-witted, clumsy, weird, and dying to fit in with the likes of Nick. He is frequently the butt of the jokes, but he doesn’t always catch on that he is being made fun of. This is vastly different compared to how thin Schmidt is portrayed and treated in present day scenes. He is competent, smart, financially secure, well-dressed, successful, and obsessively clean.

Schmitt and Nick acting surprised

This character transformation is eerily similar to Monica from Friends, who was also in a larger body during flashback scenes. She is also depicted as sloppy, clumsy, unattractive, and her character is the recipient of many cheap shots throughout the series. 

For example, Ross (Monica’s brother and a character I absolutely detest for many reasons) talks about how he used to have nightmares that Monica would eat him. He also mentions other stories from their childhood, recounting that she crushed a horse when she was fat…? These are supposed to be funny, but even when I saw these episodes 10 years ago, it felt wrong.

This is all compounded by the fact that a body transformation leads these characters to go from “disgusting” human beings to ones that are more worthy of love after they lose the weight and “get their act together”.

Fat Monica dancing
I cringed while looking through these GIFs

Friends displays this attitude clearly. Spoiler alert: Monica and Chandler end up getting married later in the series. But one episode shows that Fat Monica, as she is referred to on the show, was attracted to Chandler when they first met. She had a crush on him until she overheard him saying that he was disgusted by her weight. As a form of revenge, she decided to lose the weight to become the thin, attractive version of herself that we see in present day scenes. Eventually, they end up together. 

It’s a really charming story about how a woman goes through a body transformation, or gets a makeover, and is suddenly seen as desirable or worthy of a man’s attention. These stories certainly haven’t gotten old, right? Right?

Seeing characters like Chandler admit that he is disgusted by a person’s weight can make this sentiment feel acceptable for other people to state or think internally. Having characters who only find love after they lose weight can make people think that weight loss is the path toward love and acceptance. 

Sarah Silverman saying "Who deserves love?  You do."
No matter what you look like

I know people hesitate to condemn the media from decades ago, protesting that they were socially acceptable at the time. I am not saying we must stop watching these shows, or attack the actors involved in them, but I think it’s imperative that we at least become aware of how certain people are typecast and characterized time after time in the media we consume.

These discussions are important to have so that we can do better moving forward.

Woman saying "do better"

In Conclusion

The common thread among all of these characters is that fat characters are rarely allowed to just be normal. They’re frequently used as a comical punching bag, their entire story line revolves around a weight loss/fitness journey, or their past fatness shows a transformation that makes their thin selves more respectable than their fat selves. 

We will cover more next week about how these commonalities are everywhere we look, but many directors and writers are becoming more conscious of this, and seek to change things. 

See you next week! 

Hey Arnold Characters waving goodbye

As Always, a Book Recommendation

I know I just recommended this book a few posts ago, but Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen inspired me to write this post. Her book talks about how these are common traits of fat characters, and that few fat characters are allowed to be smart, charming, and display other positive attributes. 

If you don’t already know what it’s like to be in a larger body, this book can also help you understand the inconveniences and abuses fat people go through on a regular basis. It’s an important work, and Hagen is also a stand-up comedian, so these pages are filled with amazing and witty jokes that poke fun at the fat-phobic cultures we live in all around the world.

It’s a treat to read, and I highly recommend you get your hands on it as soon as you can! 

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