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.