Reviewed Books & Films

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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Are The Obese Negatively Portrayed in TV and Film?


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?

Read the Review
ReviewWeighty Matters; Heavy Going
By Marianne LaFrance
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(41)


Michael Loewy, PhD

I guess if you have never thought about this before, this question is a good place to start. As soon as you consider this question, though, the answer is obvious. It is rare to find fat people (sorry, I cannot use the "O" word to describe fat people) on TV and movies, and then only for comedy relief--to be laughed at (out of disgust, pity, fear, etc.). I'm sure you can find the exception, but that only proves the rule.

Now that you have entertained the thought about fat people in media, you will begin to notice what had seemed just "how it is" before. Fat people are usually portrayed eating or talking about eating. Most people believe that, of course fat people would be portrayed this way, this is how they are. If you are really being honest with yourself, you probably believe this, though maybe never had the conscious thought.

Are fat people portrayed negatively in the media? Are they portrayed negatively in your thoughts and images? There is so much prejudice, disgust, hatred, and negative assumptions made about fat people and their behavior that we just take it for granted. The "War on Obesity" just fuels the hatred. I have heard stand up comics base their whole routine, or large parts of it, to just saying self-deprecating things about their own bodies or about fat people in general. Just standing on stage and saying, I am a disgusting, fat piece of ____, completely out of context, got a huge laugh and applause from the audience. I was so shocked. Where is the joke?

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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