As often as you hear about the fat lady singing, how often do you hear her voice?
Too often, pop culture is happy to relegate fat women to the punchline of an easy joke based solely on the fact that they exist—like Fat Monica on Friends or any time an overweight woman is mentioned on How I Met Your Mother. “So Did The Fat Lady,” one of the latest episodes of Louie, includes such a scene in which fellow comedian Jim Norton derisively spits out the word “yuck” at the back of a retreating overweight waitress. That, however, is merely Louis C.K.’s nod to the status quo before the episode sets out to wildly subvert it. And that subversion manifests in the simplest of forms: The fat lady is allowed to speak.
In this way, “So Did The Fat Lady” ventures into territory rarely explored in pop culture: what it is to be a fat woman existing in a society that views her as less than. In the episode, a lovely, funny, overweight waitress named Vanessa (Sarah Baker) romantically pursues Louie to less than ideal ends. During her pursuit, Vanessa is revealed to be a fully formed, fully realized person; smart and capable; independent and motivated; stepping out of the fat girl holding cell populated entirely with Funny Best Friends and blazing a new trail: She is the Manic Pixie Fat Girl. And for good reason. Vanessa is written in the most droll and likable way because C.K. wants to make it perfectly clear that the reason she is rejected is because of her size. Not even being the platonic ideal is enough when you’re an overweight woman.
This is not lost on Vanessa, and she has plenty of thoughts on the matter. But what she has to say may give viewers pause. In the scene’s most profound moment, she posits that the meanest thing you can say to a fat girl is that she isn’t fat. And she’s right. The show doesn’t go on to explain why that is, but it’s not so hard to parse. To tell a fat woman—who’s fully aware of her weight, her size, her body, who gets up every morning and looks in the mirror the same as anyone—that she’s not fat confirms all of her worst fears about herself: Ultimately, being fat is something to feel intensely ashamed of. It’s so shameful that loved ones will deny it to her face, lest her heart break at the realization.
As difficult as it is to be a fat woman on the dating scene, consider how much more difficult it is while in the throes of adolescence. While Louie sheds light on the struggle of the adult fat woman, My Mad Fat Diary, a BAFTA-nominated U.K. series created by Tom Bidwell and based on the diaries of Rae Earl (and sadly unavailable in the United States), examines the burden of being a fat girl. Adolescence is already difficult enough to navigate, as the show evidences with its non-fat supporting characters, but it becomes doubly so when overweight and mentally ill, as protagonist Rae (Sharon Rooney) is. Rae’s trials are vivid and painstakingly portrayed as she struggles to find self worth in a world that often deems her worthless. The show flirts with serving merely as wish fulfillment for fat girls as it deals with Rae’s burgeoning love with her social group’s resident dreamboat, Finn—before taking a devastating turn, one similar to the one C.K. explores in “So Did The Fat Lady.” Having started a relationship with Finn, Rae ultimately ends it because she can’t stand being seen with him in public and worries about what people say about him for being with her. Finn cares not a whit for what those people say, but Rae knows better. The show and Rae are complicated and nuanced. And as much as dealing with her weight (not losing it, mind you, living with it) is integral to the character, the point is that Rae is learning to overcome the preconceived notions others may have for her and refusing to be defined by something so insignificant.
The same isn’t necessarily true for other “heavy” (accurately described or otherwise) characters on TV. The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling), despite being by most standards completely average sized, is portrayed as an extremely unconventional beauty, with recurring weight-based jokes made at her expense. The same is true of Rebel Wilson’s Kimmie Boubier on the recently canceled Super Fun Night: Kimmie accepts her weight, but it doesn’t serve as any less of a punchline throughout. And, of course, Girls’ Lena Dunham, another average-sized woman, appears nude frequently, to the consternation of many, and to such an extent that each new example of nudity seems to launch a slew of thinkpieces on what it all means.
But the answer is simple: Society (and, by extension, pop culture) accepts a woman who is fat so long as she is cowed by it. It doesn’t wish to be reminded of a fat woman’s sexuality, nor does it want to see an imperfect female body nude. It will embrace fat women who accept their weight, so long as the women understand that it is inherently hilarious that they are fat and that other people have a right to ridicule them about it. That’s what it all means.
There are, mercifully, examples to the contrary: Vanessa and Rae, but also Donna Meagle on Parks And Recreation. She’s an empowered, no-nonsense woman who is cool, refined, and goes through men like so many used tissues. Portrayed by Retta, Donna is another fine example of a woman not defined on any level by her size. The same can be said, historically, of Suzanne Sugarbaker (Designing Women), Roseanne Conner (Roseanne), and Sookie St. James (Gilmore Girls). Yet while these positive portrayals are great, they are but a handful in the face of television history.
As with Louie, the person overseeing the pathos of My Mad Fat Diary is a man. It’s not strange that, at this juncture, the people taking a stand and shedding light on the ill treatment of fat women are men, even beyond how weighted the entertainment industry is toward the voices of men in general. It ultimately makes sense that the only people who can speak of this injustice and truly be heard are men. As wonderful as it is that men are taking the lead on this front, it still serves as a strange testament to a pervasive double standard. When Louis C.K. features a fat woman exposing the poor treatment she deals with every day, the response is largely, “How thoughtful,” even as Lena Dunham is lambasted for daring to portray the oft-naked adventures of Hannah Horvath on Girls.
Fat is a dirty word. It’s an admonishment and a death sentence, especially in the world of dating, and even more so in the world of pop culture. But being fat is not a burden that weighs on everyone equally. It’s no accident that “So Did The Fat Lady” falls in episode order directly after “Model,” an episode featuring Louie improbably hooking up with a young blonde woman (played by Yvonne Strahovski). The question both episodes ask is: What cost are we willing to pay for a relationship? (Even one that lasts only a night?) In “Model,” the price Louie pays for a completely unexpected night of passion with a beautiful model is astronomical, at least financially. No matter how unintentionally, it saddles him with a debt he’ll pay the rest of his life, and yet, by the end, he’s fine with it and moves on to greener pastures. In “So Did The Fat Lady,” however, he encounters a price he is unwilling to pay. For him, the perceived cost of holding a fat woman’s hand in public is petrifying because of the horror that being with Vanessa may be where he belongs. The model may have cost him his dignity and his money, but the fat lady would cost him his manhood.
And in discussing this loaded topic, even Louie isn’t perfect. On first viewing, the ending is pat, almost condescending. Louie takes Vanessa’s hand not because he believes in what she’s saying but because he needs the conversation, with all its reminders of how awful the world is for fat women, to end. Vanessa even acknowledges as much and accepts it willingly, happily. And so they walk off hand in hand, having wiped the slate clean. On re-watch, however, it becomes clear that this, after all, is an episode of Louie. He is just a man, and C.K. is, at all times, working to make this world, even when fantastical, as real as possible. Louie would hold hands if it meant things didn’t have to be awkward anymore. Louie would probably throw himself in front of a bus if it meant things didn’t have to be awkward anymore. Louis C.K. is not looking to remake your world and massage away its problems. He’s looking to hold a mirror up to your world so that you can see it in a new light.
He’s starting a conversation. No matter how sad it may be that the only way many will start to understand this maligned populace is if a white guy explains it to them, the fact remains that through the platform of his critically acclaimed show, Louis C.K. has given voice to the fat girl. The impetus, then, is on the rest of society to carry on where Louie left off, moving forward to a place where no one need speak for the fat girl. Instead, the fat girl speaks for herself. And the whole world listens.