Chances are you already know what happened on Louie this week. You’ve probably seen the “It sucks to be a fat girl” video, or your friends have seen it and keep telling you to watch it.
The Louie episode raised an issue with a thinking-about-it to talking-about-it ratio of about a million-to-one: the way our culture devalues women who are overweight. The speech that’s making the rounds was performed by actress Sarah Baker and written by Louis C.K. A man’s words coming out of a woman’s mouth. While I’m grateful a comedian of C.K.’s stature would dedicate an entire episode of his show to the complicated, challenging experience of being a fat woman, the fact that he’s got a male perspective brings with it some obvious limitations. His point of view doesn’t make his observations any less valid or insightful. But empathy only takes you so far.
What’s totally infuriating is this whole thing where a male comic gets to start the conversation about how hard it is to be a fat woman, which is why I was so excited to see that Amy Schumer took on this issue in a totally different, illuminating and, as per usual, hilarious way.
In a sketch during last night’s Inside Amy Schumer, Schumer’s character consults a “nutritionist to the stars!” played by Janeane Garofalo. Amy, with her eyes Bambi-wide and that little Lauren Conrad braid in her hair, describes what she typically eats: a yogurt and granola for breakfast, a salad for lunch. Garofalo cuts her off. “Let me ask you a question: have you always been a fucking trash heap?” Amy’s meal plan options include the Instagram diet (“Tweet it, don’t eat it”), the Beyonce diet (“Find out what Beyonce eats and tell me all about it,”) the Chilean Miner diet, as in, the Chilean Miners who were stuck underground with no access to food (Amy, looking at a photo of the survivors: “Wow. They look so svelte.”) She could also do a cleanse, “The kind where you eat anything and everything, as long as you don’t swallow it.” Amy is not convinced. “That’s just anorexia.”
Louis C.K.’s character echoes Garofalo’s value judgment: he repeatedly dismisses Vanessa, the waitress played by Baker, despite the fact that she’s charming, funny and beautiful. She’s fat. So is he. But he rejects her, more than once, before agreeing to go on a date. Meanwhile, Louie and his brother Robbie go on a Bang Bang as a celebration of their decision to get back into the gym-going habit. (A Bang Bang = two huge meals at two separate restaurants, back-to-back). Post Bang Bang, Louie and Robbie are feeling less than committed to the whole fitness regimen plan. Forget the gym, let’s eat.
Schumer’s sketch only works because of a ridiculous premise that we are readily willing to accept: that it’s totally understandable for a woman who looks like Amy Schumer to want to lose weight. Amy freaking Schumer! It’s like how Mindy is always making fun of her weight and eating habits on The Mindy Project as if Mindy Kaling is some kind of gargantuan hunger-monster, when in fact she’s a sexy, crop-top wearing celebrity. Why is the bar for women to feel attractive so high that many, if not most, conventionally attractive women don’t even make the cut?
The speech Baker powerfully delivers in Louie gets at the heart of this: because we still live in a society in which the worst thing a woman can be is fat. She tells Louie that “It sucks to be a fat girl,” that if a woman makes jokes about being too fat to get a date people will assume she is pathetic bordering on suicidal, whereas if a fat guy does the same thing he’s “adorable,” that a fat guy who isn’t hyper-secure in his own sexual appeal won’t flirt with or date a fat woman “because you get scared that maybe you should be with a girl like me.”
C.K. knows that the guys who look like him and refuse to “settle” for women who look like Baker are part of the problem. Most of Vanessa’s laments are about the way men treat women who are fat. Whether she feels beautiful or not isn’t really the focus; instead, C.K. has written about a fat woman’s frustration with the inability of fat men to see her as someone worth dating, the way she wants to be seen.
Schumer’s episode doesn’t directly address the issue of what men want. Garofalo and Schumer (and, at the end, a Bond girl played by a literal skeleton) are the only speaking characters, and the focus is all inward. Schumer doesn’t discuss wanting to be skinny because she can’t get a date or she wants more guys to approach her in bars. The understanding is that Schumer needs to lose weight just to exist. No point in saying men will judge her for looking a certain way, because it’s not just men who do the judging. There’s no talk in the sketch, at all, of Schumer accepting her body as it is. It’s just a given that her body is unacceptable.
Schumer has riffed on the idea of weight-as-worth before, with her brilliant “I’m So Bad” sketch about women who feel “guilty” for eating cupcakes at birthday parties and other horrific acts of carb-consumption. It’s as if, because women feel a social, cultural obligation to be thin at all times, the act of permitting yourself to be anything but thin, or to behave in a way that could make you gain weight, is a crime against yourself and others. (Think about the language we use to talk about dieting: having a “good” day or a “bad” one, a piece of chocolate is a “cheat.”) Somehow, it’s only women who are really stuck with this conflation of weight and worth.
Both episodes get at the same cultural issue: being a fat girl sucks, so women are expected to do whatever it takes to be thin or they should suffer the consequences of their fatness in silence. But neither Schumer nor C.K. really address why this disparity prevails. Why is there this tremendous difference between the way our culture views fat women and the way we view fat men?
On New York‘s new Science Of Us blog, Colorado State University researcher Jennifer Jill Harman posits that when there’s a great disparity in attractiveness between two people in a relationship, “people tend to assume something else is ‘traded.’ So an unattractive older male most likely has status and money to trade for a younger and beautiful female.” Meanwhile, we still operate as if only men can be the real money-makers but women have nothing to offer but physical beauty; a passerby seeing a hot guy and a less conventionally attractive woman can’t figure out what the woman could possibly have to “trade” in exchange for not being hot enough.
Maybe her personality? Ha! Just messing with you, no one cares.
There’s the fact that the entertainment industry is still dominated by older men, and older men want to see thin, beautiful women matched up with the schlubby, normal-looking guys of the world, presumably because this gives them hope, reaffirms their perception of themselves as guys that sexy, young women desire, and they really don’t care what the guy in the movie looks like as long as they can stare at a gorgeous women for two and a half hours. (This reminds me of that 30 Rock joke of Jenna’s: “Instead of losing a push-up contest to Julie Bowen to see who gets to play Kevin James’s mean wife who he’s sick of having sex with, I’m going to skip ahead to being an amazing slut who wins Oscars.”) Just in case you were wondering why there are so many Sofia Vergara-Ed O’Neill (and Sofia Vergara-Jon Favreau) match-ups on screen and so few fit-guy-fat-girl pairings.
This double standard persists, even though, as Dan Weiss writes on The Concourse, the reverse is just as common in reality. “There are hetero men who actively seek out fat women, because that is what turns them on.” In her interview with Slate, Baker says that she often is called upon to play “a fat woman with cats who has no boyfriends” even though “in real life, I’m allergic to cats and I’ve had a boyfriend since college.” But in movies or on TV, the sex lives of fat women are rarely played for anything but laughs. The exceptions to that rule are easier to list because there are so few of them; the one that comes most readily to mind is Donna on Parks and Recreation, whose is never mocked and whose sex life sounds more varied, exciting and hot than anyone else’s on the show.
And if you’re really dead set on losing weight, you could try the Kentucky Meth Cycle, or the Tami from The Real World: Season 2, Wired Jaw. Stick to it. You’ll become the perfect woman.