The Real Problem With Fat Characters: An Exclusive Clip From Fattitude

It’s pretty obvious that movie and television characters don’t look the way most of us do, and that it's a problem. But rarely do we actually talk about why that poses a major issue, or the repercussions: When you only see yourself depicted on the screen as a sidekick, a villain, a predator, or a joke, how does that affect the way you view yourself in real life?

Fattitude, an upcoming documentary, tackles that very question. Specifically looking at issues of size (because, of course, media fails us on other diversity issues, too), filmmakers Lindsey Averill and Viri Lieberman explore the massive impact of media bias and its effects on viewers.

“Media, in so many ways, is our greatest educator,” says Lieberman. We’re inundated with it from birth. “Unless your parents are engaging with you in really deep conversations, analyzing what you're reading from the moment you can read, you're going to absorb these ideas. ‘Oh, that’s the hero, so that’s what a hero looks like. Oh, that’s the love interest, so that’s what a love interest looks like. Well, I want to be a love interest, so I need to look like that.’”

And that’s just the individual impact. On the societal level, media bias is the fuel behind a largely invisible prejudice machine. “It's a bias that the culture doesn’t really acknowledge as existing. And so it's unchecked by the culture,” says Averill. “It’s not rude to laugh at a fat joke.”

In their years spent researching and interviewing subjects (full disclosure: myself included), Averill and Lieberman noted many common tropes — evil witch, funny best friend, sexless loser, or sexually voracious predator — most of which haven’t evolved at all over time. “At the end of the day, fat is portrayed mostly just as a joke,” says Lieberman. “Or a monster,” adds Averill. “That’s the two-sided coin.”

When you only see yourself depicted on the screen as a sidekick, a villain, a predator, or a joke, how does that affect the way you view yourself in real life?

We’ve seen these characterizations for so long that we often don’t even notice them. But look closer and there are insidious details buried in this bias. “We see lots of figures of fat people shoving their faces full of food,” says Averill. “A very small percentage of the population actually has binge-eating disorder, and yet the behaviors that we see fat people behaving in on television tend to be markedly disordered.”

Then there are tropes like the mammy archetype, a complex conglomeration of historic racist stereotypes and the asexualization of both characters of size and characters of color. Stripped of her agency, this female character becomes, as Averill says, “the earth mama figure that’s gonna care for everybody and love everybody.”

As with any bias, intersectionality brings things into even sharper focus. Fat characters are nearly all misrepresented. But fat characters of color? Queer fat characters? When’s the last time you saw one of them portrayed in mainstream media with nuance or humanity — when’s the last time you saw them, period?

Averill and Lieberman are completing the film for the festival circuit, aiming for a 2017 release (more on that here). But they’ve given us a sneak peek with this exclusive clip, featuring more personal stories about this issue that bleeds into our daily lives — regardless of our size.

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