Episode 149: How Fatness Became a Cheap Joke and Proxy for Moral Deficiency in Pop Culture

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A character played by an actor in a fat suit shovels food in his face, unable to restrain himself in a fit of rage. Another falls, too lazy and out-of-shape to get up without the aid of others. And yet another loses weight and avenges the anti-fat bullying she faced growing up, finally earning respect as a thin person.

We see all of these tropes ad nauseam in film, television, literature, and other forms of arts and pop culture. They’re a manifestation of a deep cultural hostility toward fat people - one that perpetuates a centuries-long stigma that both reduces them to their size and their eating habits, with little curiosity about any other facets of their lives, and equates their bodies with the sins of sloth, greed, and gluttony.

The results: degradation, dehumanization, and a constant, unrelenting message that fatness is a moral failure. Whether in 19th Century sideshows and cartoons presenting fat people as the object of humiliation and scorn, sitcoms and movies of the 1990s using fat suits for a cheap laugh, or new dramedies that continue to miss the mark, the characterization of fat people as sin incarnate has hardly changed, thanks to a virulent and complex nexus of racism, classism, and misogyny.

On this episode, we explore how mass media perpetuate anti-fatness in Western, and especially American, culture, examining the ways in which imperial conquest and capitalist development laid the foundation for hostility toward fat people; how even supposedly enlightened liberals use the thin patina of public health to mask routine anti-fat bullying; and the methods Hollywood and other sources of cultural products use to present fat characters as punchlines and nuisances who can only be kooky best friends or degenerate villains.

Our guest is Professor Amy Erdman Farrell, author of Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture.

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