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Should Fat Jokes in Media Get a Pass?

I started re-watching The Big Bang Theory recently, thanks to a deal on an HBO Max subscription, and while I like much of the show, I’d forgotten what bothered me about it the first time I started watching it.

All the fat jokes.

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s a “girl next door” show but with the twist that the four male leads are scientists and nerds. And one of them, Howard, constantly makes jokes about his mother, Mrs. Wolowitz, either about her size or her voracious appetite. None of which are funny.

He’s not the only one making such jokes either, and Mrs. Wolowitz isn’t the only target – but she’s the most consistent one. Before Mrs. Wolowitz (spoiler alert) dies, it seems like most episodes had one or more fat jokes.

I’m not the only one to notice this. A YouTuber called Practically Kara compiled clips of most of the fat jokes from this show, which is 20 minutes long – and I don’t think it covers everything. But here are a couple of examples to give you an idea.

Howard: “We’ve been going over the seating charts – in one corner, Bernadette’s mother. In the other three, mine.”

Bernadette (Howard’s girlfriend and later wife): “Oh my god, you’re right, I took our love and threw it under his bus-sized mother.”

Then, when I was poking around online, I found a sentence in one article that highlights the problem. The article, by Linda Holmes, indicates that Holmes enjoyed the show despite herself. She listed out objections people had made about the show: it’s not that funny, it’s mean to nerds, and it has a backward sensibility on many issues (such as race and sexual orientation).

To each of these points, she offered a counterargument. But for the fat jokes? Not so much. She wrote: “[The show has lazy] fat jokes, too, but practically everything has those. You refuse to forgive those, and you give up most of television.”

That took me aback, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. But really, we’re supposed to give the media a pass on fat jokes for no reason except that everyone is doing it? That’s the sort of rationale that would have you follow someone over a cliff.

Admittedly, I don’t know if she was right that when the article was written in 2017, many TV shows had lazy fat jokes. I’d cut cable by then, so I didn’t see a lot of TV. But I do watch some shows on streaming platforms, and of those – Abbott Elementary, Doctor Who, The Rookie, Call the Midwife, The Good Doctor, Queer Eye, and a variety of food competition shows – fat jokes are not common. Even in cases where someone makes a negative comment about a larger person, someone else typically jumps in to point out that the comment was rude and uncalled for. (I also like how Doctor Who approaches this, where people making those kinds of rude remarks are people we’re not meant to like.)

So no, I don’t think TV shows, movies, or any other media should get a pass for “lazy fat jokes” because it perpetuates weight stigma and body shaming – as you can see with Mrs. Wolowitz.

Ashamed and invisible

I remember too well how when I was heavy, I often felt ashamed of my body. And despite my size, I also felt invisible. It seemed that no one wanted to look at me, that their eyes slid right over me without recognizing me as a human being.

The Big Bang Theory took this one step further – they didn’t even give Mrs. Wolowitz a body. She was, quite literally, invisible. You could hear her talking from another room, but she was never shown as an actual person.

Why not show her? Bryce Longenberger articulates this well in his paper “The Unseen Fat Woman: Fatness, Stigma, and Invisibility in Mrs. Wolowitz from The Big Bang Theory”. He writes: “I demonstrate that the absence of Mrs. Wolowitz’s fat body in the show creates a clear message that the fat body is so ‘unruly’ and ‘ugly’ that it does not even deserve to be looked at, that it should be erased from public view.” (p. 2)

Unfortunately, I think he’s right. In addition, by making Mrs. Wolowitz invisible, each viewer is left to imagine how large she might be, or what her eating habits are like, without being checked by reality.

Fat suits aren’t accurate

It doesn’t help that the only depiction of heavy people in the show is when three of the characters wear fat suits in the episode “The Cooper Extraction.” Having characters in fat suits is not a celebration of heavy people – quite the opposite.

Having a thin person wearing prosthetics to appear heavy often only emphasizes the idea that larger bodies shouldn’t be seen. Otherwise, why not have an actor who’s overweight in that role? (This also came up more recently with Brendan Frasier in The Whale.)

The fat suit perpetuates the idea that only thin bodies are okay, particularly as fat suits are so often used to show someone who “let themselves go” by constant overeating – even though that’s not the reality for many heavy people.

And those wearing fat suits don’t have the experience of being in a larger body. They can ditch the suit and the negative association that came with it, something those in real-life larger bodies can’t do.

No free pass

It’s always hard when something or someone we like disappoints us by showing some kind of prejudice or stigma, and that’s certainly true with me and The Big Bang Theory.

Much as I like all the nerdy references and guest appearances from people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Wil Wheaton, Stephen Hawking, LeVar Burton, Ira Flatow, and more, that doesn’t mean the show should get a free pass on the fat jokes.

I realize this is a rather belated point, given that the show ended in 2019, but it applies to current shows as well. Fat jokes aren’t okay, and viewers should stop acting like they are.

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