Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fat Shaming in Gilmore Girls: What Progress Have We Made?

I'm watching Gilmore Girls again. It's great background television to have on while I'm folding clothes and sweeping the floor and otherwise caught in a cycle of domestic chore-doing while on maternity leave.

This is probably my fourth time through the series, and while I vaguely remember a few of the references from the time before this viewing, I'm definitely noticing the fat shaming that is peppered through the show with alarming frequency.

I'm certainly not the first re-watcher to recoil at these painful barbs in a series I remember fondly and warmly. Courtney Mina takes the show to task for several fat shaming and more general body shaming moments in this post for Bust. However, looking at the show through this lens might ruffle some feathers because the show has generally been seen as a positive display of body (though certainly not racial) diversity (see point number five in this article and the discussion of Sookie's character here).

Sookie, indeed, is a rare find in television: a plus-sized woman whose character development and primary function is never centered on her size. The show served as a launching pad for Melissa McCarthy's stardom, but many of the roles she would come to play afterwards still used her size as a punchline or at least a plot point. To see a plus-size body attached to a character who just exists is still refreshing fifteen years later.

And while Sookie is definitely the most cited example of this positive treatment of fat bodies on the show, she's not alone. Babette and Miss Patty are both larger women who are never shamed for their body size.

What's more, all three of these women are given full, successful lives. They aren't turned into women who need to be pitied or wallflowers whose body size makes them shrink into the background, trying to hide from the world. Miss Patty, in particular, is a vivid character whose sexual escapades, bold personality, life in show business, and colorful clothing all scream "look at me" without falling into tried and true stereotypes about large bodies.

Often, fat characters in television and film are shown as lonely, desperately seeking love, settling for a unfulfilling relationship, or going through a physical transformation (which includes losing weight) before finally getting to meet "the One." Miss Patty and her multiple marriages throws a monkey wrench into the idea that there is a "One" but also insists that she will not settle or expect less from her love life because of her size.

Babette and Sookie are both in quirky but completely fulfilling marriages that demonstrate their partners to be worthy and loving. Babette's comments about turning the bedroom into a jungle to fulfill some of her and Maury's fantasies also tiptoes into the realm of a fat woman owning and displaying her sexuality proudly. Again, that wasn't just groundbreaking television in 2000; it would still be rare today.

These large, plot- and character-driven moments are what I usually remember about the show. In my mind it is progressive, woman-centric, body positive, and fun. Perhaps that's why the body shaming that keeps creeping up keeps taking me by surprise. There have been some times where I gasped aloud at what my beloved Gilmores were saying. Here are some of the most egregious offenses:

  • Rory and the Ballerina
This particularly interaction has a reddit thread of discussion. In Season 4, Rory has an assignment for the Yale Daily News reviewing a ballet performance. She is pressured to make sure she doesn't hold back on her opinion, and she makes sure to give it all. While she does critique the actual performance, she also has choice words for the ballerina's appearance, including some discussion of the roll of fat around her bra strap. It's petty, cruel, and hard to watch.  
When the ballerina confronts her, I'm inclined to agree with her anger. 
  • Big Undies
Luke and Lorelai go shopping in Season 6 and Lorelai comes back with someone else's bag by mistake. The misplaced bag contains some large pink panties and bunny slippers. When Lorelai holds them up she comments that they might be hiding from their owner because she would "hate to be wrapped around the woman who fits these." 
  • Treadmills as Punishment
A running gag on the show is that Rory and Lorelai loathe physical exertion and love junk food. Luke is constantly nagging Lorelai to eat something healthy, and the girls constantly make jokes about how little they exercise.  
This as a backdrop makes a snide remark from Lorelai's mother, Emily, even more abrasive. When she's getting staff to arrange chairs for a party, she comments "not that far! If people need that much room to move around, they should be on a treadmill not at a party."  
The idea that people are only allowed in public spaces if they look thin coupled with the idea that exercise is only a remedy for fatness and not for health is particularly troubling. 
  • Fat Thighs 
One subplot involves Paris' affair with much-older professor Asher Fleming. Rory never really approves of their fling, and she gets upset when she hears that Paris is probably only one of many of Asher's paramours. In a conversation with Asher, she gets a dig in at him about the other student she saw him checking out at a book signing by saying, "And the redhead has fat thighs!" 
  • Shaming the Runner
Paris and Rory room with a runner named Janet. Paris and Janet don't get along at all, and Paris is particularly cruel to Janet about her exercise routine (a necessary part of Janet's life since she is a college athlete with an athletic scholarship). At one point, Paris is making fun of Janet as she jogs away and then mumbles, "I hate that she's thin!" 

They're small moments in the show. They're not things that I think about once the show has ended, and they're definitely not the things I remember in retrospect, but they are frequent enough and mean enough that I think they're worthy of examination. 

Maybe it's just a sign that we really have made a lot of progress in this area. It stings now because we have a lot of social movements around fat acceptance, body positivity, and otherwise recognizing that body shaming is wrong. Perhaps my response to these barbs is like my response to seeing old cartoons use blackface for gags: a sign that once we know better, we do better. 

In a show that works so hard to dismantle stereotypes and to showcase feminist messages in other ways, these moments feel out of place, but they really weren't out of place for the time. It was common to use nameless fat people as easy jokes. 

I think we're much less accepting of that kind of lazy writing now (just look at the response to one such scene in Jessica Jones). Does that mean that we are actually getting better at seeing beyond fat bodies as jokes and viewing these characters as full, dynamic, and worthy of respect? Or does it merely mean that we have learned to make our fat shaming a little more nuanced and subtle? I'm not sure, but I hope at the very least that the new episodes of Gilmore Girls (which I await anxiously and excitedly) do away with these kinds of cruel, unnecessary comments. 

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