I have always been an avid consumer of books, TV shows, movies, video games, and, more recently, webcomics and podcasts. I take great delight in engaging with communities of people who like the same media I do, and I spend a lot of my time thinking about the worlds created by the creators of those media.
Now that I am an adult and an activist, my interest in my favourite books, movies, TV shows, etc., has evolved from mere appreciation of the media to also considering how these media explore different social issues. With this comes a devoted interest in what these media do to represent different ethnic and societal groups.
It has long been acknowledged that representation in mass media is extremely important. In 1987, historian Carlos Cortes wrote, “both the news and the entertainment media ‘teach’ the public about minorities, other ethnic groups and societal groups… this mass media curriculum has a particularly powerful impact on people who have little or no direct contact with members of the groups being treated”. It has been over 30 years since Cortes wrote those words, but they remain as relevant now as they were back then.
It is sadly also true that representation of minority groups remains limited, with most minority group representation being either not existing or reinforcing negative stereotypes. In the case of mass media representation, this is problematic because these representations are the only exposure to minority groups that many of the people who watch these media get, and it is therefore inevitable that these audiences will equate the negative stereotypes they see with those minority groups in the real world. Perhaps most alarming of all is that this poor representation influences not only how minority groups are viewed by others, but also how people within those minority groups view themselves.
Having said that, it looks as though the producers of these media are finally starting to pay attention to what activists have been saying for decades, because the past few years have seen poignant instances of some minority groups being represented in more inclusive ways. For example, the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther marks the first time that a wide range of nuanced, developed, stereotype-defying black characters have taken centre stage in such a major Hollywood production. To offer another example, popular TV shows like Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Steven Universe have made conscious efforts to portray queer characters in similarly nuanced ways. And, considering how well this type of inclusive representation is being received by audiences, I am hopeful that we will soon be seeing more mass media with great representation of these minority groups.
Unfortunately, while some minority groups are finally getting a fraction of the representation they (and, indeed, we) all need, others are being left behind. It is still difficult to find a major movie or popular TV show featuring at least one positive representation of a queer person or a person of colour, it is true. But it is next to impossible to find a major movie or popular TV show featuring positive representation of a fat person.
Back when I was a little fat girl, avidly consuming media and falling in love with my favourite characters, the only characters I saw that looked like me were the likes of Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, Dudley Dursley and Horace Slughorn. As well as being fat, these characters were lazy, gluttonous, mean, ugly, stupid, and/or either non-sexual or hyper-sexual. There were also characters like Monica Geller in Friends; formerly fat people who were then inspired to ‘sort their lives out’, lose weight, and become a more attractive, more in-control, ‘better’ version of themselves.
I was also exposed to plenty of news stories about the horrors of the obesity epidemic, featuring photos of ‘headless fatties’ and ‘medical professionals (who are always thin, of course)’ looking sadly at the interviewer and acting concerned about our health. With all that negative representation going on, it is no wonder that so many of us believe these fat-person stereotypes. Even I believed them, and I, like all fat people, am a living contradiction to those stereotypes.
These stereotypical depictions continue to make up 99% of the fat representation I see in mass media as an adult. Randy Monahan in the Netflix show Love, for instance, is a chronically unemployed loser who spends his days lying around either his or his girlfriend’s apartment, being a constant source of frustration for most of the other (thin) main characters. Another example from Netflix is the recently-launched show Insatiable, which features a young, fat woman whose jaw is broken by a man who punches her in the face after she hits him for trying to steal her chocolate bar. Because, as a fat person, only the prospect of her precious food being taken away from her would induce her to hit another person.
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I will admit that not all representations of fat people in mass media are quite that insulting. Characters like Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, and Po in the Kung Fu Panda franchise are all examples of fat characters we are supposed to like, and I do. However, these are all characters for whom their fatness plays a major role in their story, which is rarely the case for real-life fat people. True representation comes when a character’s representing a particular minority group is relatively incidental. For example, Rosa Diaz in Brooklyn Nine Nine is bisexual, but we do not find out she is bisexual until midway through season 5, when she has already established herself as a tough-girl detective with a sharp mind and anger management issues. Her bisexuality is a part of her character, but it is not so major a part that her character/story would not make sense without it. Fat Amy, on the other hand, would make no sense if she were not fat, all the way down to her name.
I have noticed some surprisingly good representations of fat people out there, including Dan Connor in Roseanne, Sookie St James in Gilmore Girls, and Mario, of Super Mario Bros. fame. In this sense, all hope is definitely not lost. But it must be noted that the vast majority of these characters are white men, and while fat white men need positive representation like the rest of us, fat women and fat people of colour are so much less likely to be well-represented in mass media. This is despite the fact that women and people of colour are statistically more likely to be fat.
There is no doubt that good, accurate, nuanced fat representation in mass media still has a very long way to go. But despite all of the issues that continue to exist, there are some promising signs that things will start to change for the better before too long. When the aforementioned show Insatiable was originally announced on Netflix, there was an enormous amount of backlash and an online petition to cancel it that has received 234,000 signatures to date. This reaction shows that people like me, who have had to endure horrible representation like this in our media for decades, if not centuries, are finally, FINALLY, being listened to. As well as this, there are some promising examples of fat representation that are, while not as widely known as big production Marvel movies or popular TV shows, are starting to gain recognition. These include Dietland, a book and TV series that explores society’s obsession with weight loss and stars fat actress Joy Nash in the lead role; Beneath a Sugar Sky, a young adult fantasy novel featuring a main character who is both fat and athletic, who travels to another world and exists as a mermaid, where her extra layers and powerful body are seen as assets instead of hindrances; and Steven Universe, which, as well as featuring incredible amounts of queer representation, also features a pleasing variety of fat characters.
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To conclude, fat representation still has a very long way to go, with stereotypical representation still making up the majority of fat characters on television, in movies, and in literature. However, there are little pockets of positive representation to be found. If we want to see an increase in good fat representation in mass media, we need to keep fighting the good fight and demanding that our stories be told.
[Featured Image: A person wearing a yellow hat, pink curly hair, a red dress, silver necklace and bracelets. Behind them is a tree and lights. Source: cristian]