Weight Stigma in TV Shows
Weight stigma in the media is sadly nothing new, but occasionally it’s so egregious that I feel compelled to comment on it. That’s the case with Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and to a lesser degree an episode of Poirot.
I came late to watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, only starting it in the past couple of months, even though the show started in 2013. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a cop show set in Brooklyn, but instead of being a drama, it’s a comedy focused less on crime and more on the lives and friendships of those in the Nine-Nine.
And while I generally like the show and find much of it funny, one aspect consistently grates on me – the weight stigma and fat shaming.
The show isn’t subtle about this, with one of the worst examples being in episode four of the first season. The episode started with the detectives being called to a potential murder scene, where the victim was an extremely obese man possibly weighing around 400 pounds (though we don’t know for sure and never see the man, just the cloth over his large body).
Jake, the show’s main character, makes joke after off-color joke about the dead man, believing that anyone that size must have died from a heart condition or other medical reason because of his weight, not because he was murdered.
For example, when another detective said he thought it was murder, Jake said, “Murder-murder, or like his mouth murdered him by making him eat so much food his heart exploded?”
But this episode is far from the only instance of weight stigma. The most constant examples are Hitchcock and Scully, two detectives who are older, overweight men. And unfortunately, the show uses their weight as an excuse to portray them in many negative ways: lazy, out of control around food, stupid, clumsy, incompetent, with poor personal hygiene, and a whole host of medical ailments.
It's all played for laughs, except it’s not funny. The show doesn’t seem to realize the harm it’s doing by reinforcing stereotypes about people who are overweight and correlating any negative behavior or situation with being overweight.
Too often, those who are heavy are considered lazy, stupid, lacking in self-control, and apt to die because of their weight, when none of that is an automatic given based on someone’s size.
What makes all this even more aggravating is that the show goes out of its way to be progressive in so many other ways. The captain is an openly gay Black man. One of the women is bisexual (and proudly supported by others on the team). The show has multiple strong women characters and tackles issues like homophobia and the MeToo movement.
And yet it has no problem making these digs about weight and larger-sized people, leaving me feeling sad and disappointed in the show’s writers and creators.
Compared to that, my complaint about Poirot is fairly minor, but it’s still worth mentioning. And if you’re not familiar with Hercule Poirot, he’s a detective invented by Agatha Christie who likes to solve murders by thinking about them and using his “little gray cells.”
Poirot is a man who thoroughly enjoys his food, so it’s not surprising that he’s a bit stout. For the most part, though, this goes unremarked, and certainly, no one considers Poirot stupid, clumsy, or ineffectual. He’s not lazy, either, though Chief Inspector Japp prefers more action and less focus on Poirot’s “little gray cells.”
But in the TV adaptation of Poirot starring David Suchet, the episode “Evil Under the Sun” did show some weight stigma.
First, Poirot complains that his jacket has shrunk, though in reality he’s expanded a bit. So then when he goes to dinner and collapses, everyone – including his doctor – assumes it’s because of his weight. Poirot is even sent off to a health resort for two weeks, there to suffer the humiliations of being weighed and given very strict rations.
A murder occurs at the health resort, and then it’s a good thing Poirot is on hand. But I seem to recall that in the book, Poirot is sent to the resort because of stress, not weight, though I could be remembering wrong.
At any rate, in the end, it turned out that Poirot’s collapse wasn’t related to his weight at all. It was food poisoning. And yet even though thirteen other people had gotten food poisoning from the same restaurant, everyone assumed Poirot’s larger size was the culprit.
On the plus side, the episode also showed that Poirot needed more substantial food to fuel his mind well enough to solve the murder; the diet rations he’d been on weren’t good enough. But I still wish he’d gotten to the resort for different reasons.
Media influences how we think
I bring all this up not only because it bothers me but because what we see in media impacts how we think about things. And if we see shows that are progressive in most ways but still think it’s okay to make fun of fat people, then that fuels weight stigma in society and our own thoughts.
I don’t know that we’ll ever get away from this type of stigma in TV or movies or magazines, but at least we can call it out when we see it, and try to make sure it doesn’t encourage us to behave in the same way.