With the Oscars a day away, quite a few films are continuing to make headlines. On their way to the Academy Awards, the incredible cast of CODA keeps picking up statues, allowing them to remind the industry that representation matters, authenticity matters, inclusion matters. Other films nominated in the Best Picture category have been making headlines for less positive criticism, including Licorice Pizza’s blatantly offensive racism. As with every year, the Oscars drum up discussions about diversity in film, but no one seems to be talking about the fatphobia baked into our entertainment.
Maybe it’s time to start.
Steven Spielberg is adding another Best Director nomination to his resume, along with a Best Picture nod, for his West Side Story remake. A film which includes a quick line, from the Sharks side, worrying that moving their children to America will result in them getting fat.
Notably, this contextually doesn’t make sense in the time period, taking place well before America’s “obesity epidemic”, as pointed out by TikTok account @MoreThanTracyT, aka Abby Morris who produces a podcast about fat representation in media. Not only is this “joke” out of place historically, it’s an unnecessary new addition that was not included in the original 1961 film.
Another Best Picture nominee, King Richard, a biopic about Venus and Serena Williams’ father, includes a scene where the Williams family is sitting down to enjoy their dinner, burgers. While saying grace, patriarch Richard (played by Will Smith) prays that his girls don’t get fat. In the film, the family laughed. In my press screening, the audience laughed. I did not. Watching, I wondered if this was foreshadowing that tennis star prodigies’ father perhaps commented on their weight resulting in an eating disorder, or perhaps this was intended as an example of how disparaging their father was. Was this just one of the many criticisms they faced at home? No. The line was just there to be “funny” and had nothing to do with the plot.
In fact, the film continues to show the Williams family eating burgers, almost every meal on screen is burgers - even a scene where Richard says his wife may think he’s cheating on her with the amount of dinners he spends eating burgers at a particular place. Yet in two hours and 24 minutes, the solitary fat joke did not connect to a singular other moment in the movie. I wondered how many other movie goers even remembered the joke at the end of the movie.
How many times do we go back and rewatch comfort shows, like Friends or Sex And the City, only to uncover noticeably insensitive jokes which, at the time, may have been considered funny?
There’s a good chance we didn’t realize how offensive it was back then. I’m not afraid to admit how unaware I was - how young, naive, and self centered I was - when Friends aired from 1994 - 2004. At the time, I too laughed along with all the jabs at Chandler’s expense. I was ignorant. Society, as a whole, was ignorant. The sexist and homophobic quips were so prevalent, yet I would argue most of us didn’t even notice them back then. Just as many audiences didn’t catch them in this year’s Oscar Noms. But times have (thankfully) changed. Lines from SATC, like when Carrie said, “I'm not even sure bisexuality exists. I think it's just a layover on the way to Gaytown,” could no longer fly under the radar. We can’t help but cringe at how outdated these thoughts are now.
Yet, fat-shaming is still thriving both on-camera and behind the scenes. Don’t Look Up star Melanie Lynskey admitted to Rolling Stone she was fat-shamed by some Yellowjackets crew members during production of season one. Hearing that industry colleagues would speak to one of their stars in such a disrespectful manner is shocking. Thankfully, she revealed, she was defended by her co-stars who spoke up for her and contacted the producers. Lynskey’s decision to go public with the story may have inspired actress Allison Tolman to speak up on Twitter about on-screen body shaming.
Tolman called for writers to stop making weight based jokes and to remove descriptors from castings, “take the jokes about weight out of your scripts. I promise they aren’t funny. And even if they were, they won’t hold up well. And even if they did, they’re unkind-either to your characters and actors or someone in your audience or crew. It’s not worth it.” Like most human attributes, weight based commentary in entertainment should only be used when pertinent and authentic. For example, casting Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story made sense. She’s a great actress and fits the needs of the character. Her size was historically accurate and relevant to the story.
There are plenty of examples of how poorly media has aged, how problematic certain scenes, characters, and jokes were, when examined through a modern lens. Yet as progressive as we want our entertainment to be, there are still places we fall short. Marginalized communities are beginning to be heard, and ending Fatphobia, the discrimination against fat people, by no longer including unnecessary fat jokes is a solid first step.
It’s baffling when you realize how often fatphobic jokes appear in entertainment. Thor’s weight gain in Endgame did not change the outcome of the story, or make him any less a “god of thunder”. More often than not, fat jokes are lazy and irrelevant to the story. But also, they’re just plain mean.