It’s almost quitting time, which means you’re mere moments away from shrugging off the working world and heading to hearth and home. But before you go whistling down the sunny side of the street, shoulders lightening under the lengthening shadows of another day well spent, we have some bad news for you, wrapped up in a last-minute memo we call Daily Buzzkills.
Television used to be a sanctuary, a place for soap opera fantasies and farcical misunderstandings to be resolved with dramatic slap-fights or lighthearted quips before the commercial break—a place, in other words, where everything was idealized. But then came reality television, and with it the narcissistic thrill of gazing at our own less-than-idealized, actually-quite-dumpy-when-you-get-right-down-to-it reflection in the mirror, even when—especially when—we didn’t always like what we saw.
You can blame it on the inevitable exhausting of storytelling conventions (thanks for sucking up all the world’s “murder made to look like a suicide” plots, Law And Order and CSI; hey, Heroes, leave some shitty time travel scenarios for the rest of us!) for the decline of scripted television, or the plethora of interchangeable The Sarcastic Guy Who Knows When People Are Lying Because He Hears Voices That Tell Him The Truth That Are Probably Also Ghosts Or Something shows, or fall back on the ye olde “dumbing down of America” trope, but whatever the reason, the Nielsens bear out that most viewers will opt for skanks humiliating themselves for paltry sums of money or fake romance over actors playing skanks only pretending to do the same things. Which is great if you’re one of those neo-Luddites who’d rather, say, read an awful book and have a pointless debate about it, but not so great for those ratings-junky networks—having their Worst. Summer. Ever., by the way—who are constantly chasing the dragon and trying to get one more fix on what people actually want to watch.
And right now, what does America want to see more than anything? According to CNN, they want to see fat people—lots and lots of fat people, whether they’re talking about being fat, talking to other people about how they’re fat and should stop being fat, crying about being fat, refusing to cry about being fat, learning how to dress to hide the fact that they’re fat, learning to dress to celebrate the fact they’re fat, being put through strenuous aerobics to stop being so fat, or maybe just stuffing themselves into costumes and doing elaborate dance routines, all in the name of losing fat. Shows like Ruby, The Biggest Loser, Dance Your Ass Off, Drop Dead Diva, Mo’Nique’s F.A.T. Chance, and the upcoming Fox dating show More To Love have become the rage du jour, narrowly edging out the formerly popular genres of “washed-up TV star complains about his life in between doing embarrassing things most rational people would refuse to do” and “woman who makes less than $30K a year is told repeatedly by two rich assholes that her taste in clothes is hideous.” Yes, it’s a fat, fat, fat, fat world out there, and in a way it’s about time, isn’t it? As Amy Introcaso-Davis, senior vice-president at Oxygen (“The Odorless Network!”), puts it, viewers are tuning into Dance Your Ass Off because—thanks to America’s ever-growing obesity epidemic—“people find the contestants so relatable.”
Yes, we’re sure that’s the reason—that viewers are tuning in to see positive depictions of plus-sized people just like them take proactive steps toward getting healthy, and not because you take said plus-sized people, cram them into Bedazzled Lycra, and force them wrap themselves around stripper poles or jiggle to “Push It” for our amusement. How noble the pursuit of healthy body image! But wait: According to killjoys like women’s studies professor Esther Rothblum, co-editor of the upcoming The Fat Studies Reader, it’s possible that the appeal of shows that put fat people in humiliating situations in the name of forcing them to stop being so fat is that they, you know, put fat people in humiliating situations. “By portraying somebody who weighs so much more than they do,” Rothblum says, “it's almost a way to make the audience feel like 'I could look worse' or 'At least I'm not them.’”
Is this true, America? Has the whole point of “plus-sized television” been lost on you? Are you somehow not walking away from watching a 300-pound guy gyrate awkwardly in disco pants with a better understanding of the importance of diet and regular exercise? If so, it’s not really your fault; after all, “at least I’m not them” is pretty much the one consistent theme of reality television. Still, it’s interesting that the producers of these shows claim to be both engendering a more understanding environment for overweight people and shaming them into losing weight—especially when all evidence points to the fact that being overweight is still one of the greatest of mortal sins in this society, so much so that we’re seriously mulling over whether Neil Cavuto is right that Regina Benjamin is too fat to be Surgeon General, or giving loveably fat comedian Jonah Hill shit for being loveably fat, because c’mon, he’s a celebrity now. But hey, we suppose all of that’s okay, because TV programmers are now putting lots of fat people on TV and making them jiggle and somehow that means they’re helping. Yes, they should all sleep well tonight—provided they’re not totally fat, of course.