Fat Matters

Last week, I wrote about my reservations about the movie Kung Fu Panda, both in regard to its cultural appropriation and its being marketed as a film that looks like one big fat joke with a "fatties deserve love, too" moral of the story tacked on at the end to justify it. My friend Coturnix saw it over the weekend, and says my fears were unfounded. But Coturnix, who is brilliant, kind, hilarious, and interesting, just for a start, is not, however, fat. And reading his review, my fat self noticed a couple of things:
...the movie is really not what Melissa expected. If anything, it is the opposite - in one moment it uses a fat joke to make you laugh (which sometimes you manage to suppress, sometimes not), but then in the next moment it shames you for laughing at the previous joke.
Well, that actually makes it pretty much exactly what I expected. See, being a fatty and all, I know that movies which use "a fat joke to make you laugh" aren't including me in that "you." Or any other fat person who doesn't think that fat jokes are particularly hilarious. I don't need to manage to suppress laughter when I hear a fat joke; I need to suppress my gag reflex.

And, honestly, it's not because I'm personally bothered by fat jokes; I've got too much contempt for that shit to be offended. But I didn't always feel that way.

Imagine being a fat kid being in that theater—s/he hears everyone around her/him laughing at the fat jokes, but doesn't "hear" everyone feeling ashamed of themselves in the next moment. Do the fat kids—the ones about whom everyone in the theater is supposedly learning an important message about acceptance—leave with a feeling of self-acceptance, or is that overwhelmed by the sound of laughter at fat jokes ringing in their ears?

That's why this kind of entertainment is problematic. It makes fatness central to the premise, but doesn't offer any opportunity to empathize with anything resembling the actual experience of being fat in an anti-fat culture—which can be brutal. The hatred can penetrate the toughest hides of the toughest fatties. There's not meant to be a happy ending for fat people, not like in the "fatties deserve love, too" movies. We're supposed to die miserable (pre-mature) deaths—and, as I've said before, we're not meant to have a moment of happiness of self-contentment while we live as long as we're fat:
It remains a radical act to be fat and happy in America, especially if you're a woman (for whom "jolly" fatness isn't an option). If you're fat, you're not only meant to be unhappy, but deeply ashamed of yourself, projecting at all times an apologetic nature, indicative of your everlasting remorse for having wrought your monstrous self upon the world. You are certainly not meant to be bold, or assertive, or confident—and should you manage to overcome the constant drumbeat of messages that you are ugly and unsexy and have earned equally society's disdain and your own self-hatred, should you forget your place and walk into the world one day with your head held high, you are to be reminded by the cow-calls and contemptuous looks of perfect strangers that you are not supposed to have self-esteem; you don't deserve it. Being publicly fat and happy is hard; being publicly, shamelessly, unshakably fat and happy is an act of both will and bravery.

Rare indeed is the fat chick who manages to find contentment in her own skin, because everything around her is designed so that she will not.
Like I said in my original post, if a movie wants to make the point that fat doesn't matter, cast fat actors in roles that don't require them—i.e. roles where fatness isn't central, or remotely relevant, to the plot. If a film wants to be about fat, then it should make some effort to reflect the reality of being fat, the commonality of experience among fat people—which, btw, doesn't include getting winded on stairs. One of the first things my fat self did with Iain was spend a day hiking 20 miles through the Scottish Highlands. As a big old fatty.

[Dog Falls, Glen Affric, Scotland: 2001]


And no one even had to motivate me with a dumpling or anything!

Coturnix notes that the film is "a fat-acceptance movie throughout," so how did it do on that score? I'll note this other passage from his review:
Poe, a son of a soup chef, is motivated by food, and the 'catch the dumpling' scene in the middle of the movie is absolutely awesome as, over a span of several minutes, Poe transforms from a clumsy fat panda into a nimble, fast, fighting machine.
But…isn't Poe still fat? "Fat" isn't part of his transformation, because "His natural body shape becomes a part of his fighting style, which he uses to defeat the enemy at the end." He was fat before and after—but his being fat is associated only with being clumsy (bad) not nimble (good) and fast (good).

This "fat acceptance" film doesn't seem to have successfully countered internalized associations with fat as a failing, but, in fact, reinforced them.

And lest anyone think I'm picking on Coturnix, I can assure you, even as a fatty, I could have easily written the exact same thing myself before I started thinking about these issues. No one knows more about internalized fat hatred than a fat person!

So, I'm still dubious about this film.

And I remain unconvinced that reinforcing stereotypes for laughs is the best way—or even a good way—to undermine them.


[This a fat acceptance thread. That means comments about how fat is unhealthy are unwelcome and inappropriate. The governing idea here is that, irrespective of your opinions about fat and health, fat people don't deserve to be shamed and ridiculed. If you're confused about this concept, please read this.]

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