BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF
Louis C.K. is no stranger to the word “fat.” On his television show and in his stand-up, Louis C.K. never misses an opportunity to talk about what it means to be fat and the baggage that comes along with it. C.K. probably does it better than anyone, but he does so from an extremely personal perspective. That is until earlier this week, when his FX show Louie aired an episode called “So Did The Fat Lady.”
“So Did The Fat Lady” finds Louie being pursued by a smart, funny, overweight woman named Vanessa, played by Sarah Baker. Vanessa is a perfect match for him in every way, except that he just can’t see himself dating someone who is fat. Nevertheless, he finds himself casually hanging out with her, and they have a pretty nice time. That is until the final scene, where he makes the mistake of telling her that she’s “not fat,” which launches Vanessa into a wrenching speech about what that word means to her.
Unsurprisingly, the episode has elicited a strong response.
Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik credited C.K. for “recognizing that the world is full of people who have different circumstances from him, and that trying to understand with and engage with those differences makes life better.” At Jezebel, Madeleine Davies praised the show’s characterization of Vanessa, claiming that she “is completely lacking in self pity.” Davies argues, “She doesn’t hate being the fat girl, but she hates what it means to other people and she hates that society has dubbed her as not being good enough to even be the girlfriend of a schlubby divorced dad in his forties.”
Not everyone, however, has been so admiring of the way Vanessa was written. Willa Paskin at Slate suggests that, “A woman as confident and comfortable as Vanessa would not, I don’t think, imagine herself as the victim of her weight and blame guys like Louie as entirely as her speech suggests. As a guilt trip, her speech is perfect; as a character exploration, it’s a little bit too much of a guilt trip.” And Vulture’s Danielle Henderson found C.K.’s execution muddled, writing, “I imagine this episode of Louie will bother a lot of people. But I’m not upset that Louie broached the topic, just unsure of where he wants us to end up.”
Body image issues continue to go mostly unrecognized in this country, and for bringing attention to them, C.K. deserves his share of credit. “So Did The Fat Lady” is especially adept in its observations on the hypocrisy of society’s feelings towards overweight men versus overweight women. In comedy especially, a man expressing insecurity about his weight is cute and vulnerable—but a woman doing the same thing is just sad, as Vanessa suggests.
C.K. is also smart enough to understand that for things to change, men have to be a part of the conversation. He knows it’s not enough to say, “Our country is too hard on women,” “Assholes are too hard on women,” or “Women are too hard on each other.” What truly makes “So Did The Fat Lady” work is that C.K. acknowledges that so-called “nice guys” (as he is portrayed in the episode) are as much a part of the problem as anyone else. C.K.’s character likes Vanessa. He gets along with Vanessa. But he doesn’t want to go out with her because of what other people might think, making him the biggest asshole of all.
However, while it is fair to give C.K. his deserved recognition, it’s important to be aware the conversation isn’t over. In discussing “So Did The Fat Lady,” many critics have brought up My Mad Fat Diary, a much-beloved if little-seen British import about an overweight girl named Rae with mental health problems. Although the show is based on a real woman’s story, it was created by a man named Tom Bidwell. An Onion A.V. Club piece written by Libby Hill notes the irony.
As with Louie, the person overseeing the pathos of My Mad Fat Diary is a man. It’s not strange that, at this juncture, the people taking a stand and shedding light on the ill treatment of fat women are men, even beyond how weighted the entertainment industry is toward the voices of men in general. It ultimately makes sense that the only people who can speak of this injustice and truly be heard are men. As wonderful as it is that men are taking the lead on this front, it still serves as a strange testament to a pervasive double standard. When Louis C.K. features a fat woman exposing the poor treatment she deals with every day, the response is largely, “How thoughtful,” even as Lena Dunham is lambasted for daring to portray the oft-naked adventures of Hannah Horvath on Girls.
Herein lies the problem: although including men in the body image discussion is key, it’s essential to remember they aren’t the ones driving it. Yet as Hill points out, they’ve once again been given a megaphone to talk about an important issue, while women have to shout to be heard.
Hill’s piece concludes that C.K. is “starting a conversation,” but this too might be giving him more credit than he is due. In a New York Times interview with Sarah Baker (whose portrayal of Vanessa is already earning her scores of rightful acclaim), Cara Buckley casually observes that, “The role comes at a time when more women who are unapologetically not thin—like Melissa McCarthy, Mindy Kaling and Rebel Wilson—are appearing on screen.”
And it should be noted that the real conversation on body image is being championed by women outside of the male-dominated entertainment industry. For instance, XOJane’s Lesley Kinzel is just one of the writers leading the campaign against fat-shaming. In response to a Daily Beast editorial entitled, “If You’re Fat You’ve Only Got Yourself to Blame,” Kinzel detailed the nuances of what it really means to be overweight in this country.
As much as we like to cling to the idea that our cultural and personal relationships with food and bodies are as straightforward as flipping a switch, they are, in fact, anything but. Each of us brings a literal lifetime of personal experience to our consciousness of these issues, and as such our reasons and approaches and explanations will inevitably be radically different, from one person to the next. Acknowledging individual circumstances is not avoiding blame, but then, why does blame need to be assigned in the first place?
Kinzel couldn’t be more right. Every overweight person has a different experience. But the only time we should blame someone is when they implicitly use the word “fat” to bring someone else down. Because fat is a reality for some people, and for women especially, it’s time we all stop sweeping that reality under the rug.
This is just as true in comedy as it is anywhere else. In 2014, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?” simply doesn’t cut it anymore.
Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.
Photo via Fernando Alonzo III