While film and television have come a long way in their representation of the LGBTQI community, fat characters are still noticeably absent.
I don’t know if this is an ‘everyone thing’, or some kind of ‘only me thing’, but I often get sudden impulses to do weird things as I go about my daily life.
For example, I sometimes have the burning desire to sweep everything off a shelf at a supermarket and see it all crash to the ground. Or, alternately, every single time someone goes speeding past me on a skateboard, I yearn to stick out my foot and see them go flying.
I never wish to actually destroy or hurt anything or anyone; it just happens. Fortunately, I have managed to control these impulses for thirty-three years and am yet to destroy a supermarket or the body of a young skateboarder (for which I absolutely believe I deserve a medal or some kind of parade, or possibly both). There is, however, another impulse I have that is becoming increasingly harder to control.
When I meet a person – especially a man – who is white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and middle-to-upper class, I have the urge to congratulate them with a handshake that is firm and warm. I feel the need to verbally congratulate them: ‘Well done. You have won the jackpot by virtue of being born. You have never had to wonder about your place in the world or where you fit in. I could not be more pleased for you.’
You can’t know everyone’s struggles, so this is definitely a case of #notallwhitecisgenderheterosexualablebodiedmiddletoupperclassmen, but I nonetheless feel comfortable claiming that many of these people were set on the best and easiest path through the world the second they came into it, all slimy and disgusting and crying (coincidentally, the same way many of them act on the internet later in life).
After all, nowhere is the luck and dominance of this group more demonstrable than in films and music and almost all other pop culture.
When I meet a person – especially a man – who is white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and middle-to-upper class, I have the urge to congratulate them.
Almost every time a white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied and middle-to-upper class person turns on the television or goes to a film, they will see themselves reflected back. Not only have pop culture products consistently been made for them, but also about them. They have countless choices about what situations, plots, adventures, and romances they get to watch characters very much like themselves be involved in.
The idea that there has been so much created about these people, that there are millions of different stories about this one specific type of human – so much so that they would never be able to watch them all – is grotesque in its privilege.
Pop culture’s outrageous bias towards these people is keenly felt when you are looking at it all from outside the parameters of the majority; when you are other. You feel that you don’t matter enough to talk about.
Growing up queer, especially in the days before the internet, I was desperate to access stories about people like me. I don’t use that word lightly: it was sheer desperation. It was vitally important for me to see queerness reflected in narratives, as they tethered me to the wider world. They helped me realise that my life had options, that it could be rich and complicated, and that people would love and want me. As a closeted and terrified girl in rural Queensland, queer representation in pop culture proved to me that a fulfilling queer life was possible, something I wouldn’t have been able to envision otherwise.
The terrible historical treatment of the LGBTQI community by television and movie creators has been chronicled. The poor representation of trans characters, queer people of colour, and queer people living with disabilities continues to offend.
Even as recently as this year, there was an outcry from the queer community after the few queer female characters on currently airing television shows were killed off, seemingly all at once. The most common narrative ending for a lesbian or bisexual female character on television is still death. Many queer women still feel as though the characters that most closely represent them on television are thought to be disposable by their creators, or are there only to further the storyline of the straight characters.
The poor representation of trans characters, queer people of colour, and queer people living with disabilities continues to offend.
However, as long as it is possible to see that changes are being made, that things are improving, and that there will not be stasis forever, you can believe that it will all be okay in the end.
And there is no denying that there has been positive change. There is more representation, more positive role models, and higher numbers of more complex LGBTQI characters in film and television than ever before. Queer people are frequently portrayed in a positive light, as normal humans – as sexual beings, as desirable. As human. It’s not enough, and it certainly favours white cisgender queers to a ludicrous point, but it at least encourages the belief that we might one day reach a point where everyone is included.
Queerness is not the only facet of my identity that I have sought to see represented in pop culture. There is another part of me that is not embraced, not accepted, and often feels as though it never will be.
As a white, cisgender, able-bodied lesbian living in Australia, I have enjoyed many of the same privileges as the people I referenced earlier – no doubt about it. Being queer has had its struggles, but the thing that has affected my life much more, the thing that has caused me anguish, that has brought me much more negative attention from the outside world, is the fact that I am fat.
If I have stories about being verbally abused by homophobes, or the daily grind against heteronormativity, I have many, many more stories about being abused and discriminated against for being fat. I have had doctors ignore my health issues because they were too focused on my weight. I have had job interviewers treat me with distaste. I have had had slurs yelled at me, cigarettes flicked at me while being called a ‘fat bitch’. I have been dismissed, ignored and treated badly. I know what it is like to have one person look straight through you as if you do not exist, and the next to look at you with disgust – the end result is the same: I feel that they do not consider me a human like they consider themselves a human.
This may sound hyperbolic, but it is the reality of living in a fat body, moving in a world that is full of people conditioned to find that body unacceptable or unpalatable.
We live in a society that does not often give people who look like me a chance. The prevailing attitude is one of fear: as a fat person you are everything that people are scared of becoming. You are somehow precluded from being desirable. Not only desirable as a lover, but as a friend, or as someone people want to spend time with.
When I talk about tricking people into liking me with my internet presence before they meet me in real life so they can’t instantly dismiss me because of my looks, it isn’t completely a joke.
Australian society has reached a point where it is generally considered unacceptable for anyone to express overt anti-queer sentiment in public. So, if you are simply queer like I am queer, you do not hear a constant barrage of homophobia.
This is not the case when you are fat.
Your friends and family and colleagues do not constantly talk about which diet to use to avoid becoming queer. You don’t hear them talking about forgoing that burger because they might become gay. You probably don’t hear your friends say they hate themselves bitterly for being queer. Your friend doesn’t tell you that she wishes she had cancer because it means she would finally be straight.
It is generally considered unacceptable for anyone to express overt anti-queer sentiment in public… This is not the case when you are fat.
If you sit and listen, you will find that people are very upfront about their hatred and fear of fatness. This includes people you love and people who love you. I have sat at tables with people who have made fun of someone for being fat while I am sitting there with them.
It is so insidious, that people who adore you will never stop to think about the effect their complaints about the ‘grossness’ of feeling fat might have on you. There are only so many ‘I need to go on a diet’ comments from co-workers (much thinner than me) that you can sit through before it starts to get to you. There is only so much time before the continuous negative feedback about the way you look starts to reduce your self-esteem. There is only so much obvious public distaste for your body that you can take before it starts to change the way you think and feel about yourself.
It is widely seen as completely unacceptable for television shows or movies to espouse homophobic viewpoints these days. There has been higher numbers of LGBTQI characters on television, as well as increased diversity amongst those queer characters, exemplified by shows such as Orange is the New Black and Transparent, created by non-network companies like Netflix and HBO. Things are changing.
If it is important for people to see their lives reflected in pop culture in positive and affirming ways, then fat people have largely (no pun intended) missed out.
But not for fat people, and particularly not for fat women. LGBTQI people make up far less of the population than fat people, yet there has been no discernable change in my lifetime. All representation for fat women essentially rests on the shoulders of Melissa McCarthy (who is wonderful). She is better than nothing, but it is still, almost, nothing. Try to name five other fat actresses who receive similarly regular work in the film industry. Can you do it easily, if at all?
If it is important for people to see their lives reflected in pop culture in positive and affirming ways, then fat people have largely (no pun intended) missed out on this.
The exclusion of fatness in 2016 is similar to the exclusion of queer people pre-2000s. You rarely see depictions of fat people, and when you do, their fatness is often their defining characteristic (like Rebel Wilson’s characters), or in need of eradication (like on The Biggest Loser). If the graph line of society’s treatment of LGBTQI people has been on a steady incline – and this has resulted in pop culture’s treatment of LGBTQI people also rising – the graph line for fat people in both society and in film and television seems to be remaining disappointingly horizontal.
If I needed to see queer people on screen to know that I was normal, then surely I also need that for the fat part of my identity, the part that suffers constant derision.
If fatness is causing people anxiety, isolation or low self-esteem, then surely positive portrayals of fat people would play a vital role in their mental health and wellbeing. If a lack of representation is a message of exclusion, storytelling is surely a means of inclusion and validation. Where can fat people see themselves represented as human? Not only as human, but as humans who are worth something, who are desirable, who fuck and who love and who fuck up and who are loved?
Like seeing a lesbian on-screen, or a trans person, or a person of colour, I don’t want to just see someone who is ‘the lesbian’ or ‘the brown person’ or ‘the fat person’ on my television.
There should be a broad range of fat characters, in order to ensure that they have not just been put there simply to placate the audience. Not all people within a minority are the same, and we cannot be represented by one token character. There needs to be complexity. We want our fair share of diversity, in the hope that maybe one day we, too, will have too much to choose from.
It’s our turn to win the jackpot.