Total Fabrication Live

About six months ago, shortly before I joined the cast here at Shapely Prose, MTV contacted me through a friend I’d guest-blogged for. They said they were doing an episode of their docu-drama show True Life called “I’m Happy to be Fat,” and that they were looking for “healthy people who are happy and content with their body in spite of the societal expectations.” Now, I’m old enough that when I watched MTV, I was watching The State and Beavis and Butthead and 120 Minutes. (Sweet Machine’s immediate reaction when I told her about the whole thing was “You’re gonna be on TRL!!”) So I was not, in fact, in any way interested in being involved — but the show itself looked all right, and had even won awards from organizations like GLAAD. I talked to them, and was really long on politics and short on pathos, and thankfully they never called back.

That was pretty much a blip in my life, but it made me perk up my ears when I found out that Joy Nash was going to do the show instead. Joy is my age and my size and owns some of my skirts, but the similarity ends there — she’s many times more dynamic and charismatic, and more interested in being on TV. I was feeling confident, having seen all the accolades True Life was getting from oppressed groups, that they were interested in presenting an accurate picture of fat acceptance. I thought Joy would be a perfect face.

A few months later, I read this post, wherein Joy describes MTV’s attempts to fabricate and misrepresent drama between her and her parents:

I told the truth. I told my mom that when it came down to it, I believed that she would disown me before she’d accept certain things about my life. I told her for the first time, that I was sleeping with my boyfriend and that I didn’t think all gays were going to hell, and wonder of wonders: my mother’s head didn’t explode…

And then, 2 days later, I started to feel sick. The show is called “I’m Happy to be Fat.” Not, “My Parent’s Evangelical Absolutism is Crushing Our Relationship.” There is NO way that whole encounter is going to come off as anything other than 6 minutes of boo-hooing about how my mom used to hide cookies from me sometimes. It was seriously violating to think of all that complicated emotion being hacked up and boiled down to something so totally trivial and untrue.

Not only was Joy worried about MTV using the footage with her parents to make the point they wanted, but the new producers seemed invested in manufacturing high-stress situations that they hoped would bring out Joy’s hidden insecurities:

I was suddenly inundated with emails from some new guy with a bunch of amazing ideas. “How about you put together a program for high-school students in 2 weeks and present it with your mom?” “How about you write 40 more minutes of solo material and have it memorized and ready to perform for industry professionals in 7 days? ” “How about you throw a gigantic party for everyone you know, rent a film projector and get some kegs, all on your own dime??”

This is all just by way of introduction, to say that I would at one point have been saddened and disappointed by the show I watched on MTV tonight. But I wasn’t, because I was prepared. I knew that True Life was operating on a simple principle of entertainment: happy people make bad TV. Sure, the show was called “I’m Happy Being Fat,” but happy doesn’t play. If you don’t want people switching to Futurama, you need a little friction. And if it’s not happening on its own, you give it a push.

Having read all this, I assume that you, in turn, will be unsurprised to learn that the drama came off as completely manufactured, either by producers pushing from offscreen or by misleading editing or simply by the fact that everything looks more momentous when it’s on TV — if you’re on television for being fat, it’s going to look like you’re not finding true love because of your weight, instead of because finding true love takes a fuck of a long time and a lot of luck. (This was by far the thing that struck me the most about the show. Everyone’s experiences were so normal – looking for love, having incomplete confidence as a college student, worrying that people are only interested in you for sex. It was only in the context of a show about being fat that they started looking like Fat People Problems.) It also won’t come as a shock that at times you could practically see the off-camera prompting (“do you really think she looks good at this weight? Really? Okay, well what about her health? It’s unhealthy to be overweight. Now tell her that”). Nor will it stagger you that one of the subjects of the show was presenting her idea for a body acceptance club to the college senate, and another was throwing a huge party, presumably on his own dime. Sound familiar?

But my disappointment in the show isn’t really the failure as documentary — it’s the complete squandering of a great opportunity. True Life would have you believe that it’s valuable television, not just another My Big Fat Greek Sweet Sixteen or whatever trash they’re playing on MTV now. But there was absolutely nothing challenging or boundary-breaking about this show. All three participants were measured on the basis of their attractiveness to men — Sharonda felt that she got more male attention when fat, Roxie fretted about approaching a cute guy, Mikey was presented as worrying that he was simply a fetish for chubby chasers (though I didn’t see this at all, since the second half shows him organizing a local “chub and chaser” club). Two of the three were immediately shown eating fast food or fried food or donuts — the other one was never shown eating at all, presumably because she eats like any other college student, which nobody would ever buy as a realistic depiction of fatty eating habits. “Concern about health” took a front seat in one of the stories; another aimed to show that a confident size activist was secretly an insecure mess because she was only twice as self-possessed as any other college student, instead of three times. Nothing that might make a fatphobe think twice, or even once.

I’m not going to walk you through the whole show, but consider these indicative endings:

  • Sharonda, who thought she was hotter when heavier, got a talking-to from her doctor about her blood pressure (139/83), and decided to embark on a weight-loss program. No mention of HAES, of course. The Dragnet-style wrap-up: “Sharonda is now eating less and working out five times a week. She’s already lost seven pounds and looking forward to meeting her goal of 250 by the summer.” Yeah, let us know how that works out for you, Sharonda. (To be fair, Sharonda had gained a great deal of weight recently, so she may have shot up above her setpoint. But I still hope she finds a way to feel as good about her new exercise program as she does about her new body, instead of focusing on weight loss that may or may not happen. Or, failing that, that she finds an exercise program she CAN feel good about.)
  • Mikey, who loved the attention he got from chubby chasers but hadn’t found The One, founded a local club for fat guys and their admirers. Since the kick-off party, 20 people joined, but Mikey still hadn’t found true love. This is because he’s fat, because a thin person would surely have gotten married by now, as much as several months later, if he had 20 people to choose from!
  • Roxie’s size acceptance club got approved, although the vetting process was nerve-wracking for her, surely because she was fat and not because the student senate was asking her difficult questions which she answered with aplomb. So far, 25 people have joined. She asked Patrick out and he said yes. But they still haven’t gone on a date! So she loses, right?

“But FJ,” you say, “aren’t you being a little oversensitive?” A little, maybe. They do show men hitting on Sharonda, guys enthusiastically buying Mikey’s pinup calendar, and Roxie speaking confidently to her peers. And I was totes rooting for the tough smart girl to start her club, and for the handsome gay guy to find love, and for the feisty fashionista to… have her friends and family stop being prompted to berate her about her health. But they also, for instance, pull out pre-commercial teasers where Sharonda cries or Roxie says “that was so embarrassing” (“that,” we later find out, was successfully asking Patrick out). And the show’s introduction doesn’t talk about the tough smart girl, the handsome gay guy, and the feisty fashionista — it talks about the secret insecurities, the fetishism, and the diabeetus. The effect is to create a context in which the potentially revolutionary elements — the buff dude who’s heavy into Mikey, for instance, or Roxie’s new group’s triumphant parade — are made to look faintly ridiculous. Pretty radical, MTV!

That’s television for you, of course. I knew it was going to go down that way, and so did Joy, and so did the other bloggers who were approached and who turned TRL down. But it’s not just television — it’s also a metonymy for being fat in America. Contentment doesn’t play — you’re only a valuable figure if you radiate angst, if you worry about your health, if you think you can’t find love. You redeem yourself when you pillory yourself; if you refuse, then by god they’ll make you give in or they’ll cast you aside. You earn your right to be fat and visible when you act — or are unwittingly presented — as a figure of fat self-hatred. Insisting on being visible and fat without the flagellation? Well, then you’re a dishonest, paranoid douchebag.

What all this means is that nobody’s going to give us a platform. Martin Luther King Day, which it was until half an hour ago, is a great time to remind you all of Gandhi’s characterization of the progress of activism: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. But at no point do they hand you a microphone and let you speak freely and unedited. We have to seize every real opportunity we have to get our point across, because if we leave it in someone else’s hands, it’s going to get deliberately muddled and fucked up. That might mean commenting here or on a smorgasbord of other blogs, or starting your own blog, or going to BFB’s Think Tank and talking about what you can do out in the world. It might mean animation or art, or video without the middleman meddling of producers and editors — Joy’s original Fat Rant has garnered over a million views and 75 video responses. Don’t forget Lindsay’s activism forums, like I keep doing because I suck. Nobody’s going to hand us a soapbox — we’ll have to cobble one together from scrap lumber. But once we’re on it, who’s going to knock us off?

ETA: Here’s the grain of salt to take my post with: fatblogger vesta44 liked the show. I must grant that I went in expecting to be disappointed, and it certainly could have been a lot worse. But oh, it could have been a lot better.

35 thoughts on “Total Fabrication Live

  1. Reminds me of when I was in college and I was asked to participate in a documentary about being queer in Nebraska. I wasn’t angsty enough and I have a great relationship with my parents so I was barely in it, and what they did show was wildly out of context.

  2. I never made a New Year’s resolution this year because I personally find I can motivate myself without someone handing me a day and asking me to change things about myself that I don’t care to change. However, I think I’m going to make a MLK resolution: I want to start my own blog. My programming class/computer science friends are giving me the how-to knowledge, and places like this are giving me the inspiration.

  3. FJ, that was beautifully put. I can’t watch crap like that, it makes me incoherently angry, and I’m working on being a little less “ball of seething rage” lately. /grin

  4. Ashirin, tell me about it — the things I do for this blog. (I thought I’d be coasting off an exercise high, but hooping class was full of dudes in their early 20s with stoner laughs, so not so much. But I still watched the show because I LOVE YOU GUYS.)

    (And really, it coulda been a lot worse. It just coulda been so much better.)

  5. Beautifully put, FJ.

    But at no point do they hand you a microphone and let you speak freely and unedited. We have to seize every real opportunity we have to get our point across, because if we leave it in someone else’s hands, it’s going to get deliberately muddled and fucked up.

    This is my effing motto.

    I thought the show was way way way better than I was anticipating. I thought all 3 were adorable- Roxie and Mikey came off as particularly well-spoken. I bet they never showed Roxie eating because she’s a vegetarian
    But awesome review. My roommates who I read it aloud to were really impressed with your writing. “How did she do that so fast?!” was the general concensus. :)

  6. You are absolutely right — if we don’t speak for ourselves, on our own terms, no one will. This is why I’ve started a blog of my own, specifically about fat issues. As much as I love reading this blog and others’ in the FatoSphere, I feel like I can’t remain in the comments section any longer! I have to start writing for myself, too.

  7. Joy, I’m definitely glad to hear that it was better than you were expecting, because you’re the one who got advance notice of how bad it coulda been. :) I do think that they had a potentially great mouthpiece in Roxie (and, to some extent, in Mikey, since it never seemed to even occur to him to dislike his fat) — I just wish they could have presented them straightforwardly. But then it wouldn’t have been any “fun.”

    Looks like I misspelled Roxie’s name — oops! I wasn’t looking up at the screen when they put it up there. Will fix. (Great article about her.)

  8. D**n, you’re a good writer.

    I can’t believe I just read the word metonymy in a contemporary blog essay.

    This even beats when Heather #1 used “myriad” in her note in Heathers.

    Awesome.

  9. FJ – I wasn’t expecting it to be good at all after reading about Joy’s experience with them, and I really hated how they treated Sharonda, that sucked big time, IMO. I haven’t watched any of the other episodes, and don’t plan on watching any more. I watched because Roxie and her friend Kate commented on my original post about Roxie starting her Body Beautiful Project at her college. I did have some of the thoughts about the show that you wrote about above, but I’m one of those people who, if I don’t write it down when I think of it, it’s gone, and of course, I left pen and paper upstairs on my computer desk (I watched on the TV in the basement, DH was watching something else on the TV in the living room). So yeah, it could have been so much better than it was, but it could have been worse too. I just hate that so-so treatment of fat people when it comes to television is as good as it gets, so far.. I hope that will change, eventually, and we’ll be treated with the respect that everyone deserves, no matter their size.

  10. I had a similar experience with a Sun-Times reporter who asked leading questions until I stumbled into saying the soundbyte he needed to nail his angle and finish his article (totally unrelated to fat or anything else substantive). It was shocking to me how all the interesting stuff I’d said was completely left out, and I felt like such a rube for not seeing what he was doing.

    It’s sad to me that the only things that seem to get media attention these days are drama, angst, misery, suffering, death, and destruction. It’s like the only way the collective can feel alive or happy or worthy is in contrast to the (mostly) fiction piped into their brains by the media. Sad.

    Makes me really happy not to shell out for cable. As usual.

  11. I knew it was all too good to be true. I was also approached about going on the show. After a few weeks, I laid out my ground rules and *surprise* never heard back. Can’t say I’m sorry. My life is way too complex for anyone else to get, let alone myself.

    What sickens me is that they billed themselves to me as journalists. If they pulled that kind of take-out-of-context shit at my paper, they’d be fired.

    Thanks for the recap FJ. It just solidifies my feelings that I don’t want to watch.

    And Tari: that kind of reporting is bullshit. I’m so sorry that there are a few reporters like that out there who end up clouding how most people feel about talking to reporters.

  12. TR, my notes during the show are full of little asides like “good god am I relieved I turned this show down.” Not that they would have really wanted me.

  13. And Tari: that kind of reporting is bullshit. I’m so sorry that there are a few reporters like that out there who end up clouding how most people feel about talking to reporters.

    Just to clarify, I don’t think all or even most reporters operate that way. Just enough of the ones I’ve interacted with to make me cynically hyperaware and suspicious. Which, to be fair, I lean towards anyways. ;-)

  14. Last night I watched an episode of Intervention on A&E that featured a compulsive eater (and a DMX addict.) I was really interested and yet somewhat frustrated by the treatment of the compulsive eater. He obviously had a problem stemming from his poor family life, and I think they did a good job of portraying it, as well as portraying him as a dynamic person. The thing they didn’t do that pissed me off was put in there somewhere that not EVERYONE who is fat eats 5000-8000 calories a day. They were very respectful of him and overall I thought it was good. I just really wanted them to somewhere say “Memo to fat haters, this man has a problem, not all fat people have this problem.” (The DMX guy was just very sad, he was clearly a smart guy, and he relapsed after treatment ;-()

  15. I’m just pissed that I put all that effort into figuring out what to wear to be interviewed with Joy, and then it wasn’t used. :)

    No, really — like everyone else, I’m glad it wasn’t me. And excellent post, FJ.

  16. Wait, he’s addicted to DMX the late 90s-early 00s rapper? Is there a meaning of DMX that everyone knows but me?

  17. FJ,
    Very very true! His whole family was big, so, it was obvious he was probably not going to be waif like. I think it was good that they usually addressed it as a food addiction and not a weight problem. (Though the subjects often focused on weight loss, and not food addiction.)

    SM,
    I have no idea, that’s what they called it on the show. (Unless I’m remembering wrong.) It seems like every day there are more scary new drugs I don’t want anything to do with.

  18. DXM is often abused in high doses by adolescents to generate euphoria and visual and auditory hallucinations.

    That sounds like DMX to me.

    Cough suppressant, huh? God, what the kids get up to these days.

  19. DMX = dextromethorphan. Cough syrup.

    The ads for that Intervention episode upset me; it looked a lot like it was going to be “look at the fatty who needs to be saved from his own indulgence.” Of course, the very existence of that show upsets me (I’m sorry, why should people’s addictions be entertainment?), so my view wasn’t exactly without bias.

  20. Yeah, I only watched it so I could get pissed off about how mean they were to the fatty. (And until Paranormal State came on.)

  21. Changing attitudes takes time. The first out gay character on TV didn’t happen until “Soap”, and that was a caricature. Twenty-five years later, there was a gender-transitive character in a soap and “Will & Grace” was popular.

    My point is that even the crappy, ill-informed stuff is laying a groundwork for the future. The more we talk about it, the more we push to get heard, the more the message will come on-line. It sucks today, but tomorrow it may shine.

  22. I happened to see this thing last night, and you’re review is accurate. But in some ways I thought Sharonda was the most well-spoken, because she was just so unaffected (except by all the pressure we saw her receive). She just plain liked how she looked and felt, with no agenda about it.

    And penguin, you are so right. I’ve had my eyes on the gays in media through Soap and thirtysomething and it just keeps coming. Remember what a shocking premise Will and Grace was? And now we can’t remember why.

  23. I flipped back and forth from the show and Medium. I just wanted to see what it turned out to be- and was not surprised to see it edited down to what the powers that be wanted it to be, since I’ve followed the backstory along here.

  24. Thanks for the great wrap-up and for detailing Joy’s experience in it. Really highlights the manipulative crap they pulled!

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  26. I had a brush with ‘reality’ tv a couple of years ago when friends of ours were involved in a show.

    Fake Fake Fake-y McFakerston with a side of fake sauce. They really do everything they can to drive the segment along their chosen story line. And I say that despite having quite liked one or two of the filming crew I got to chat with during the shoot.

    At least in their case I think the show covered costs the participants wouldn’t have otherwise incurred.

    Seriously, it’s amazing what someone with an agenda can to to interview notes or video footage.

  27. I’m actually watching this as I leave my comment. It is so typical of MTV to up the drama factor as much as possible. In the scene w/ Sharonda clothes shopping w/ her friends, she made a great point about the difficulty to find trendy, fashionable clothes in her size and then her friends acted like she didn’t even deserve to have trendy clothes since she dared to be that overweight. Wow. For all the faux drama I think Sharonda held her own quite well and her friends just ended up appearing annoyed by her confidence.

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