In her review of The Weight of Images: Affect, Body Image and Fat in the Media by Katariina Kyrölä, Marianne LaFrance discusses the images of obese persons in different types of media and the emotions that they elicit from the audience including fear, disgust, shame, pride, and laughter. The review made me consider some of the images in current television programs—programs such as Mike and Molly (a comedy about a married couple, both of whom are large) and (as mentioned in the review) The Biggest Loser (a weight loss competition). In films, I was recently reminded of the (negative) character Dudley in the Harry Potter films (Harry's mortal, nonwizard cousin—portrayed as a not-very-bright bully).
How prevalent are media images of obese individuals that elicit negative emotions? To what extent is it a problem? The issue seems even more complicated since not all aspects of obese characters are negative. The title characters of Mike and Molly are humorous, but so are the non-obese characters in the show (e.g., Mike's mother and police officer partner, Molly's mother and sister) and the non-obese characters in other situation comedies. And Mike and Molly are portrayed as a nice, loving couple. Although the book and the review note the negative emotions elicited by The Biggest Loser, others have argued the program's good points including that persons are working hard attempting to improve their health. On the other hand, as with weight, the negative stereotypes of various minority ethnic groups also have contained positive as well as negative aspects to their images—the noble savage, the brave African American character who always seems to die by the end of the show or film, and the ethnic minority character who rarely has the leading role in an ensemble cast.
Similar to ethnic minority characters, the obese person is rarely the lead in an ensemble cast even though he or she may be an important part of the group—the new show Scorpion, about a group of crime solving geniuses, is a good example). So, again, how prevalent and to what extent are these negative images of obese persons a problem?
By Marianne LaFrance
PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(41)