TelevIsm: The Office's Subversive Messages About Fatness


Image: A dressed-up Phyllis Lapin with Bob Vance

As The Office is a show about white people and men primarily; it is also a show about size-privileged people primarily. However, its focus on folks of size privilege is not myopic; of the regular cast, Kevin, Phyllis, and Stanley are all visibly fat, reflecting the reality of many nonfictional offices. Discrimination against their size is not ignored, but portrayed in a responsible and progressive way. Unlike most primetime shows, these characters are nuanced, three-dimensional players with lives independent of and often counter to stereotypes; their fatness is not erased, but instead a value-neutral part of their lives.

Fat people really aren't on television too often. Most series have very few fat series regulars. 30 Rock, for just one example, has just one not very positive fat character in its regular cast. Lost was mostly composed by folks who very accurately reflected what the kyriarchy would have you believe it means to look physically fit. Lost only had three regular characters who were not size privileged: Hurley, and less often Rose and Bernard. (I'll shut up about Lost now, promise!)

At the intersection of sizeism and sexism exists Phyllis Vance. Phyllis is active and healthy–she was a cheerleader and plays basketball and runs with the rest of The Office. Her health complaints are few–a history of scoliosis and some quickly-cured back trouble, neither coded as due to her weight (though Dwight makes a caddish comment to that effect). She is most closely compared to thin Pam, whom she has dressed similarly to on a couple of occasions, and whom she assertively tells not to threaten her client base. Phyllis is framed as attractive, happily married to Bob Vance (Vance Refrigeration). She is sexual and seems to like her body a great deal; in season six, she refers to her breasts proudly, has a quickie with Bob in a bathroom, and brags about flirting with men in bars. Her eating habits are not particularly healthy, but she's not guilty about them, they are not show to be a cause of her weight, and they are not unusual for The Office and their frequent birthday parties.

Michael does make jokes at Phyllis' expense–he attempts to make her into a matronly, asexual, harmless character by feigning attraction to her in the name of ridicule in a second-season episode (roundly recognized as sexual harassment) and later on claiming that she could not attract anyone (countered by her announcement of her engagement). But Phyllis does not reflect any of the stereotypes ascribed to older fat women. Phyllis is coquettish, not matronly. She is bossy and ambitious, not jolly. She is self-satisfied, not ashamed of herself. She is Phyllis Vance, and she's happy to be that.


Image: Kevin Malone with girlfriend Lynn

Kevin Malone is a hilarious character and a positive portrayal in some ways. He's healthy aside from a skin cancer scare early on. He's shown to be a basketball ace in a first-season episode, runs a 5k in the fourth season, and he has multiple romantic partners. He's not jolly, but monotonous.

But he's constantly shown to have cartoonish eating habits, sometimes forcing him into caricature and buffoonery. In one episode, the staff makes bets on the abilities and tendencies of other characters. Whereas talkative Kelly tells about her Netflix queue in infinitesimal detail, fat Kevin stuff M&Ms in his mouth. It's not explicitly "haha look at the fatty", and it's somewhat absurd. But, it's associating fatness with gluttony in a problematic way.


Stanley Hudson, wearing suglasses and a hat

Stanley Hudson is a pretty direct refutation of the jolly fat guy stereotype. He's the most direct rebuttal to Michael's constant ridiculousness. He is quite an amorous dude as well, with a wife and later a girlfriend. He's a well-developed character with specific likes (crossword puzzles) and dislikes (Michael). But unlike the other two fat series regulars, he is visibly unhealthy, having repeatedly voiced health concerns and experiencing coronary arrest, and avoiding activity (though he is sometimes physical). However, the show does not make a rhetorical point of connecting his fatness to his health problem beyond Michael being an ass about it, and showing him focusing on stress reduction rather than drastic changes in eating habits. Again, it's important that while Stanley is unhealthy, two other fat characters have few to no health issues.

The Office has also explicitly critiqued weight-loss culture (and especially its place in corporate culture). The "Weight Loss" episode portrayed corporate mandatory weight-loss programs as ineffective, harmful, humiliating, and not much fun. The group initially loses some weight, and then plateaus and even gains back–a reflection of the experiences of many dieters.

The project is also framed as harmful. The only character who feels better and healthier after the program is Stanley, who explicitly disassociates himself from its goals. Dwight goes overboard and humiliates Phyllis, Kevin, and Stanley, and endangers Phyllis by forcing her to walk five miles (both of these actions are rebuked by other characters). Michael Scott dresses in a fat suit and does his Michael Klump impression to the chagrin of the rest of the office. Kelly Kapoor discontinues eating and ends up in the hospital before renouncing dieting.

While Kelly Kapoor's eating is clearly disordered in this episode, the lives and experiences of folks with eating disorders are not appropriated; anorexia is not mentioned because it's clearly not anorexia that Kelly is experiencing. I suppose that these actions could be seen as mocking, but folks, I have done shit like this–try to lose weight as quickly as possible by eating next to nothing. It is a real impact of diet culture that is clearly shown to be inappropriate. Fasting in and of itself is not necessarily problematic, but it can be a practice that's used for self-harm, and The Office clearly critiques weight-loss culture through this depiction.

The Office is not a radical critique of dieting and weight-loss culture. It centralizes size-privileged people, and reinforces some problematic norms. But The Office does exist within the context of a media culture that frequently erases and usually stereotypes folks of size. By having a variety of well-developed, individual fat characters who do not conform to harmful norms and stereotypes, and by portraying weight-loss culture as harmful and problematic, The Office is sending a valuable and subversive message to its viewing audience.

Comments

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Difficult Lines To Walk

For a humorous television show there can be some fine lines writers might want to avoid crossing because the issues can be so deadly serious. There are certainly plenty of potential areas for humor with respect to weight issues. i loved the movie "Shallow Hal", the recent Lane Bryant ads and reading a blog post recently entitled: Lane Bryant Rattles Skeletons In Victoria's Closet. One one end of the weight scale there are people starving themselves to death due to Anorexia, Bulimia and images of perfection and on another en there are people compulsively overeating. It is just too easy to make fun of "walking skeletons" and the "gravitationally challenged". Fat and thin jokes are hard for writers and comedians to resist. I wonder how fertile a field there is in making fun of the people who advocate the anorexic look or have Fataphobia?

I actually hated Shallow Hal

I actually hated Shallow Hal because the central construct - that a fat woman can be fun, funny, attractive, and desirable - is underscored by the fact that it's just Gwyneth Paltrow, one of the skinniest women in Hollywood, in a fatsuit. The audience is comforted knowing this, and therefore not really challenged on their views, and an opportunity for a woman who is actually fat and attractive to be a main character is lost.

I generally think it is a

I generally think it is a bad idea to make fun of people based solely on their weight, thin or big! The humor in the Office, whether it's directed at Phyllis or Angela, is based on the idea that Michael is being inappropriate.

It is commonly accepted when

It is commonly accepted when people ridicule others for smoking due to it's negative health effects. Being a smoker myself I have experienced first handedly people making nasty comments as they walk by. Why is it that if this type of bashing is commonly accepted in our society whereas making a comment to an obese person stuffing their face at a buffet? The health risks are equally as grave especially seeing as the rise in type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and so forth are all higher than ever and still on the rise. Although I do not agree with messages through the media that say being stick thin is attractive, I also do not think we should praise the complete opposite group (obese/overweight individuals). Both extremes are unhealthy and should not be condoned. Also, there is a point where hypersensitivity comes into play, a lot of the recent articles/posts have been picking apart television shows that are supposed to be funny, controversial, and relate to viewers. The producers of these shows, for instance south park (which there was a recent posting about) try to push the limits. In doing so, the voice of chief actually left the show because he was a practicing Scientologist. The point is these shows all deal with real issues, and yes their are some underlying negative messages, i do not think they will greatly effect the way our society works, I do not think making a joke about a transvestite is going to automatically cause an uprise in intolerance. I am not belittling the issues at hand, however I do think some of these issues are being read way to into, it seems as though the author is watching the show specifically looking for any minor slip up relating to gender, race, class, or whatever have you.

Sigh.

Sigh. Your ignorant, baseless fat hatred and discrimination are tired and predictable, which is why I included some outside reading material to clear up your anti-feminist, anti-fat ideas. Here they are again, for your convenience:

http://kateharding.net/2009/02/05/exceptions-that-arent/
http://www.therotund.com/?p=581
http://the-f-word.org/blog/index.php/2009/02/02/are-you-fat-or-fat-euphe...
http://kateharding.net/but-dont-you-realize-fat-is-unhealthy/

Furthermore, this is a feminist series about television. If you'll read my first post, you will find an abundance of reasons why these jokes are not "just jokes" and have larger significance. To take the example of "transvestites", trans people and particularly trans women face a MUCH higher rate of violence than cis society, and jokes that you consider harmless actively lead to their disenfranchisment and often their death. If you'll read my second post, you'll see that I do think politics can be joked about responsibly.

i'm not sure where you live

but where i live it is perfectly acceptable to mock people based on their eating habits and weight. where did you find the poster, or bitch in general, mocking people for smoking? you're comparing the world at large (where it is considered ok to ridicule people for smoking) and JUST THIS BLOG (where it is not ok to ridicule people for being fat.)

and while the fact that being fat is NOT a health risk is also beside the point of your faulty oppression olympiad, even if you compared ridiculing eating habits (which is a fairer comparison to smoking habits), your comparison doesn't work.

Kevin eats the M&Ms in the

Kevin eats the M&Ms in the second season episode, Office Olympics, not the betting one (Safety Training? Idk, I'm drunk and made the mistake of checking google reader).

The Office isn't perfect but it's my favorite show. Thanks for this article!

Ah, you are right! Thanks :)

Ah, you are right! Thanks :)

Great article! Thank you

Great article! Thank you for paying attention to such a funny and widely-watched show. Remember when Kelly bought a tapeworm from Creed in another misguided weight-loss attempt? Pure gold.

Size Acceptance

I like this line:

"Discrimination against their size is not ignored, but portrayed in a responsible and progressive way."

I think it is important for us to hear and see how we as a society react to large size men and women. I think the show handles it well. As a plus size woman myself I catch many looks that I probably would not get if I was a size 8. However I can handle criticism and continue to live my life as I want. It is up to me to make those choices that work for me and not be judged by others. The Office is recording actual pieces of real-life and sending them as messages to us as viewers.