Is TV living off the fat of the land?
The TV industry has always been savvy about staying in step with where its audience is heading. And in this country, the audience is heading upward – at least as far as their weight is concerned.
It was inevitable that TV would eventually come around to featuring more plus-sized people. That’s just a way of better reflecting its audience. With more fat people sitting on their sofas watching television, it stands to reason there should be more characters for that audience to relate to. That seems to be the point of developing shows such as next season’s CBS sitcom ‘Mike & Molly,’ in which Billy Gardell (‘King of Queens’) and Melissa McCarthy (‘Gilmore Girls’) play two people who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.
And then there’s ‘Huge,’ which premiered last Monday on ABC Family. This is the series about a coed fat camp for overweight teen-agers. This show’s most distinguishing characteristic is its sheer number of fat actors – a couple of dozen of them both as leads and background extras, the greatest boon to the employment of these physical types in the history of television.
Peggy Howell, PR director for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), is big on ‘Huge,’ partly because “we don’t see people being pushed and abused like we do on reality shows, which is nice.” Plus, as referenced above, “It was nice to see so many fat people have an [acting] job!” Howell told Reuters.
But what is ‘Huge’ – or, for that matter, TV in general – saying about what it means to be fat?
On the one hand, the teens at Camp “Huge” have gone there to lose weight and also kick their addictions to Twinkies, Twizzlers and mint-flavored toothpicks. The camp’s director stresses that their weight-loss is aimed at improving their health. For these youths, however, losing weight has less to do with health than social acceptance. And, of course, most of them, just like many of those who will watch the show, won’t ever really become thin, so they’re encouraged to accept their body types for what they are and be happy with them – albeit with a little less weight, if they can shed a few pounds.
Does all of that mumbo-jumbo add up to a mixed message? And is ‘Huge’ succeeding or failing in its effort to strike an even balance between these issues? Critics seem to have voted for the former and have praised the show for its sensitivity and also its pioneering spirit.
Populating a scripted TV show mostly with overweight people is indeed revolutionary, but they’ve been a familiar sight in the unscripted realm for a while now. ‘The Biggest Loser‘ is now preparing for its 11th season on NBC, and VH1’s ‘Celebrity Fit Club‘ dates back to 2002.
The latter is likely most notable for the amount of weight not lost by its semi-famous participants. ‘Biggest Loser,’ on the other hand, has contestants losing substantial amounts of weight – sometimes within shockingly short periods of time, a feat some medical experts have decried as dangerous.
Still, the contestants’ weight-loss efforts on ‘TBL’ are aimed at improving their health (and winning some money in the process). The over-riding message seems to be: If you’re obese, you’d better do something drastic (other than gastric bypass surgery) to lose all that weight or else pre-order one of those piano crate-sized caskets that ‘Oprah’ showed her studio audience a couple of weeks ago.
However, nowhere is the issue of obesity more murky than on Oxygen’s dance/weight-loss hybrid ‘Dance Your Ass Off.’ Now in its second season, the show has contestants in competition with each other to dance off the pounds. Watching this show is a happy, inspiring experience… except for one thing:
The producers replaced the first-season host, Marissa Winokur – best known as the bubbly, chubby star of Broadway’s ‘Hairspray’ – with the slenderer Mel B (aka Melanie Brown of the Spice Girls). Why? Well, the producers won’t admit it, but more than one published report had Winokur getting fired because she was too fat. And how screwed up is that?