The XX Factor

Louie Has No Idea What It’s Like to Be a “Fat Girl.” Neither Does Louis C.K.

Sarah Baker in Louie

FX Networks

Monday night’s episode of Louie showcased an extremely rare television archetype: the overweight cool girl. Funny, spunky, kind, aggressive, and brutally honest, Vanessa (Sarah Baker) arrived to give Louie—and us—a new perspective. Overweight characters are so infrequently showcased on television—or really in any popular media—that to hear Vanessa lay it all out, telling Louie exactly what it’s like to be a fat girl, initially felt to me like a kind of revelation. When someone has so much to say that we haven’t heard before, does it really matter if she’s a kind of fantasy or an object lesson more than she is a real person?

Last week, we watched Louie hit on every (thin) waitress at the Comedy Cellar so shamelessly that one of them chastised him for it. You can’t hit on everyone, the waitress warned, “You think people like saying no?” This week, Louie is the one saying no, as he continuously rejects the totally charming (not thin) waitress Vanessa, presumably for the very same reasons that all the other waitresses reject Louie: He doesn’t think she’s cute.

As the episode makes clear, Louie’s belief that he is somehow out of Vanessa’s league, is bogus and twisted. Louie and Vanessa, as she puts it, “match,” which, actually, is selling Vanessa short. Vanessa has a lot more game than Louie: Her teasing, her persistence, her good humor are all more objectively appealing than Louie’s highly vulnerable, sad sack, passive routine. Throughout the episode, Vanessa comes across as a version of Gone Girl’s storied “cool girl” with some added pounds: She’s chill, she’s fun, she likes hockey, she rarely loses her temper. When she tells Louie, “I got my period when I was 9, come on,” egging him on to get real, she seems like his dream girl. I nearly swooned when she responded to a nasty customer looking for his bill with a calm, “I’m not your waitress, but let’s find her and kick her ass.” Even her take on the word fat—that to call her anything else is dishonest and disappointing—is part of how cool she is. She’s honest, she’s searing, she’s no bullshit.

But how representative of overweight women is she? Vanessa, in her long speech excoriating Louie at the end of their great date, makes some incisive points: her observation that, as a fat woman, her admitting to being sad makes her seem dangerously pathetic, while Louie’s similar honesty just makes him adorable, is dead on. Being single and alone is still a frightening fate for a woman in a way it’s not for a man, and we respond with near panic to one and not the other, accordingly. Similarly, her take on Louie’s double standards, the way he, unlike much more attractive men, fears flirting with her lest he be mistaken for being on her level, seems insightful about guys like Louie—which it’s safe to assume it is, since it was written by Louis.

The first time I watched the episode, I read Vanessa’s entire speech about the difficulty of being a fat girl as a female cri de coeur. The second time I watched it, after interviewing Baker and learning that she had nothing to do with the script, it seemed more like a male mea culpa. Louis C.K.’s insights into why a man might not want to be seen with a woman like Vanessa are unimpeachable: His concern about double standards and casual male cruelty seem deeply felt. But his characterization of Vanessa is less unerring. A woman as confident and comfortable as Vanessa would not, I don’t think, imagine herself as the victim of her weight and blame guys like Louie as entirely as her speech suggests. As a guilt trip, her speech is perfect; as a character exploration, it’s a little bit too much of a guilt trip. Vanessa’s teachable moment, and the episode more largely, is as scathing to Louie as possible. But it’s also condescending to Vanessa: I mean, if all Vanessa wanted in life was to hold hands with a nice guy, a girl as cool as she is could do just that. Wonder if we’ll ever see a fat girl on TV who demands more.

Also in Slate, read Willa Paskin’s conversation with the actress Sarah Baker on playing Vanessa.