By: Bryce Longenberger
During the past century, fat people exhibits featured prominently in the American freak show. Although today the freak show has largely died out, the fat body continues to be on display in modern American pop culture. The issues surrounding the contemporary display of fatness can be seen when one examines CBS’s number-one-ranked television show The Big Bang Theory. Unlike the freak show, The Big Bang Theory does not include an actual fat person. In one particular episode, fat people are actually replaced by people in fat suits. This allows for the display and performance of the fat body without the presence of a fat person. In so doing, it robs fat people of the power and control to determine how their own bodies are portrayed, while also reinscribing social norms that value thinness and degrade fatness.
The historical fat lady/man exhibit reveals prevailing ideologies about the fat body. Sharon Mazer writes about Katy Dierlam, who performed as “Helen Melon” at Coney Island’s Sideshow in 1992 as a fat woman exhibit. Mazer notes that the fat body is recognized as “a common sign of personal dysfunction, of overeating” (258). She later characterizes the “overweight woman’s body” as “something men are trained to shun, women to fear in themselves” (259). In essence, the fat body represents moral and physical excessiveness, a state that is thought abhorrent by many.
This sort of negative association is known as stigma. Erving Goffman defines a stigma as a personal attribute that is “deeply discrediting” due to societal attitudes regarding it, attitudes that can lead to social shunning (257). Among Goffman’s three types of stigma, the type that pertains to the fat body is “abominations of the body,” or “various physical deformities” that are visible to others and are difficult to cover up (257). In the case of a fat person, the body has the potential to consume the identity of the person, creating a singular identity concentrated on the fat body itself. Any interaction with a fat person, then, is tainted by the stigma that others impose upon that person, denying the fat person a chance of cultivating a normal position in society.
The stigmas associated with fatness can be seen throughout The Big Bang Theory. The Big Bang Theory is a television sitcom focusing on the story of four young nerds: two physicists, Leonard Hofstadter and Sheldon Cooper; an aerospace engineer, Howard Wolowitz; and an astrophysicist, Raj Koothrappali, all of whom work at Caltech. They are all geeky and socially awkward, especially when they interact with their neighbor Penny, an aspiring actress.
The only fat character in the show is Howard’s mother, Mrs. Wolowitz. Besides being fat, she has an excessive appetite, makes frequent comments about her bowel movements, and nurtures an overbearing relationship with Howard. The first problem with the portrayal of Mrs. Wolowitz is that it reduces her to her bodily identity, which is presented in stereotypical and stigmatizing terms. The second problem is that, despite the fact that the entire cast calls attention to her appearance by making fat jokes about her, Mrs. Wolowitz’s body is never shown to the audience. Instead, she always appears speaking from behind a door or from another room. Thus, there is no actual fat body present to contradict or counterbalance the stigmatized image presented in the jokes.
But the problem with the show’s portrayal of fatness goes farther than a simple lack of representation. Instead, in one episode, “The Cooper Extraction,” three of the characters don fat suits. It is on this display of the fat body without the presence of an actual fat person that I would like to focus.
In “The Cooper Extraction,” Sheldon Cooper visits Texas over the holidays because his sister is having a baby. While he is absent, the rest of the cast (including Howard’s wife, Sheldon’s girlfriend, and their friend Stuart) throw a Christmas tree decorating party and envision how their lives would be different if they had never met Sheldon.
When asked why Leonard (Sheldon’s roommate) and Raj never lived together, Raj narrates what would have happened if they had. In the imagined scene, Raj prepares dinner for the two of them. Raj takes a turkey out of the oven and says, “Come on Leonard. Dinner.” The camera then switches perspectives and focuses on Leonard, who is wearing a fat suit under his clothing. The camera shows him struggling to rise from his chair and walk slowly to the dinner table.
Before I describe the rest of the scene, let’s examine the issues surrounding fat suits. In her article on fat suits, Kathleen LeBesco discusses the politics of performance as it pertains to fat suits in relation to to Blackface and drag. She defines a fat suit as “a prosthesis, often made of foam and latex, which allows a thin or average sized person to appear fat” (232). Essentially, a fat suit allows a person who is not fat to present themselves visually as being fat.
The problematic nature of fat suits occurs when we consider who maintains power when a fat suit is worn. According to LeBesco, “when each group (fat and black) is imitated (through fat suits or blackface performance), their power is limited” (234). It is “limited” because the fat suit allows a non-fat person to dictate when fatness should be displayed and in what manner, essentially robbing fat people of control over their image and over beliefs about their body type.
This often leads to the denigration of the fat body. LeBesco comments that fat suits “seem to allow for a moment of recognition that fat-phobia exists, followed by a mandate that fat people must lose weight to avoid this stigma” (232). In this way, fat suits situate thinness as the preferred and dominant societal norm, while relegating fatness to deviance and undesirableness. And because fat suits display the fat body without the presence of fat actors and actresses, fat people cannot challenge these negative ideas about their body type. They have no voice because they do not control its display.
If we return, then, to the scene from “The Cooper Extraction,” we can see that the characters’ narration of the imagined scene and their use of fat suits further denigrates fatness. After the brief clip of Leonard walking to the table with his fat suit on, the scene is interrupted by Leonard in the present scene. “Hang on. Why am I fat?” Leonard asks. Raj replies, “You’d have no girlfriend to see you naked, you’d try to fill the void with food, and I’m an enabler who once deep-fried a pancake.” But Leonard merely retorts, “Why can’t you be fat too?”
In the next instant, we are once again returned to the imaginary scene, but this time Raj is now also wearing a fat suit. As they both gorge themselves on an extremely large amount of food, Stuart also walks in with a fat suit. As we return to the present scene once again, Raj asks Stuart, “What are you doing?” Stuart, who appears sad, says, “I just wanted to be in anyone’s story.” Still puzzled, Raj says, “Yeah, but why are you fat?” Stuart merely lowers his gaze and says, “Cause Leonard’s fat.”
As I stated above, the first major issue is that three thin or average sized actors are presenting themselves as fat. This portrayal is not only accomplished without a fat person present, but it also reinforces the notion that fatness is a result of gluttony and losing control, a state that should not be desired.
The second problem is that these three characters also flippantly decide who is fat in this imaginary scene. First, only Leonard is fat; however, the plausibility of the scene cannot be maintained unless Raj is also fat. Finally, Stuart imposes fatness on himself just so he can be mentioned in someone’s story. In this way, the frivolous nature in which Leonard, Raj, and Stuart take fatness on themselves devalues the fat body and the experience of fat people.
I will not concede that fat suits are entirely destructive and harmful to views surrounding fatness. Indeed, Kathleen LeBesco states that “the power and possibility of fat drag … comes in denaturalizing the thin ‘original’ body of the actor [or actress]” (233). I would agree that if fat suits could redirect the attention away from the absent fat body and back towards the cultural norm that thinness is natural and to be preferred, while also valuing and humanizing the fat body, then fat suits could be used to some benefit.
However, as I’ve shown in this blog post, that is not usually the case. Therefore, I believe that a better course of action is allowing fat people to represent themselves, thus “win[ning] more advantageous positioning in fields of power” and gaining back their control over their own representation (LeBesco 234).
What might this look like, you ask? Well, a good starting place would be Helen Melon’s performance, which I mentioned in the beginning of this blog post. Dierlam/Melon does display her body for audiences at Coney’s Island Sideshow, but she uses her performance to confront her viewers’ beliefs about fatness and body image.
According to Mazer, Dierlam/Melon “reverses the lens of her performance” and exposes our thoughts about her as “cultural stereotypes” (260). She uses her body to directly and explicitly state what her audience is thinking about her, thus turning the tables on her audience and forcing them to confront their own prejudices about the fat body.
Another example of challenging negative fat representations can be found in the art installations created by Rachel Herrick and titled The Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies. In Herrick’s travelling museum exhibits are displayed mannequins representing the endangered “obeast,” a creature modelled on Herrick’s own body. The “obeast,” as she describes it, is simply a fat woman, but it is described as if it were a wild animal. Instead of degrading the fat body, Herrick’s fictional animal critiques the notions that fat identity is somehow dehumanizing or animalistic. She exaggerates societal norms and challenges the public to reexamine their preconceived notions of fatness.
As we watch three actors don fat suits on The Big Bang Theory, we are left with a false representation of the fat body. There may be laughter as Leonard and Raj stuff themselves with food, but we can not forget that while they can take off their fat suits, the prejudices and ideologies about fatness to which their performance contributes are not as easily taken off.
Goffman, Erving. “Stigma and Social Identity.” Understanding Deviance: Connecting Classical and Contemporary Perspectives.” Ed. Tammy L. Anderson. New York: Routledge, 2014. 256-265. Print.
LeBesco, Kathleen. “Situating Fat Suits: Blackface, Drag, and the Politics of Performance.” Women and Performance 15.2 (2005): 231-242. JSTOR. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.
Mazer, Sharon. “‘She’s so fat …’ Facing the Fat Lady at Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore.” Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression. Eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco. Berkley: University of California Press, 2001. 257-267. Print.
Museum for Obeast Conservation Studies. MOCS, 2015. Web. 7 Nov. 2015.
“The Cooper Extraction.” The Big Bang Theory. CBS. CBS, New York City. 12 Dec. 2013. Television.