Weight Problems

Given the strangely punitive frenzy of media attention devoted to Calista Flockhart’s alleged anorexia some months back, one would have hoped that the producers of Ally McBeal, the Fox drama in which she stars, would be exquisitely sensitive to issues of weight. That’s why it was a surprise to see last week’s episode strike a quite cruel tone in its treatment of an overweight advertising executive in trouble with the IRS. Fat and balding ad guy George has a sweat problem, and lawyers Nell and Ling believe they’ll never convince the government he’s innocent as long as he sweats under cross examination. So off goes George’s shirt, and Ling and Nell lather him with liniment, apparently because that will stop the ooze. “I need more,” Ling grouses. “He’s fat.” George, understandably, is acutely embarrassed. “This is really humiliating,” he says. Indeed. But it doesn’t stop there. Prepping George for his IRS meeting, Ling can’t help asking him: “Is it hard to go through life as a soggy hog?” and “You walk around looking like a heart attack waiting to happen.” Later, after the IRS guy is vanquished, a happy George holds out his arms to Ling. “Don’t you dare hug me,” Ling shoots back.

Leaving aside for a moment that at $250 an hour, she could have afforded the dry cleaning (or better yet, charged it to her client), this is a nasty piece of work. What exactly has George done to deserve this humiliation ? If you prick him, does he not shvitz?

As someone who has been more or less overweight for most of my life, I’ve noticed the increasing virulence with which TV and movies treat the issue of weight. It is rare, in fact, to see a portrayal of a fat person in which his weight is not the primary reason he is on screen. In the recent movie Office Space, for example, the heart-attack death of a fat marriage counselor is used as a pivotal plot point played for yuks. As it turns out, David Kelley, the creator of Ally McBeal, is also behind the only recurring fat character in prime time, Camryn Manheim of Kelley’s ABC show The Practice. Manheim’s fatness has been trumpeted as a Very Big Deal, though everything about the hullabaloo suggests less about how far we’ve come than about how far we’ve yet to go. Elsewhere, avoirdupois is used as a shorthand for avarice, laziness, gluttony (that one, I suppose, is understandable), or really, any of the seven sins. Fat actors who succeed tend to engage in an extreme form of self-mockery (really, self-loathing) as a way to neutralize their size.

In a time when almost every deviation from the norm has been reclassified as a disability–you can’t even make fun of drug addicts any more–fatness has become the new Polishness: an all-purpose locus of fun. My theory is that this hostility is wrapped up in social confusion over whether weight problems are behavioral or genetic. Recent studies have pushed the argument in favor of a genetic basis, but there is no doubt that American eating and exercise habits have contributed to a remarkable increase in obesity. Fat people (like homosexuals before the gay-rights movement successfully implanted the notion of the gay gene) are seen as “guilty” of a self-indulgence that skinny people (and especially skinny people in terror of becoming fat) must deny themselves.

On Ally McBeal, fat-bashing could well be nothing more sinister than another baroque attempt to distract audiences from the increasingly freakish-seeming Calista Flockhart. But those Ally watchers who resemble Ms. Manheim more than Ms. Flockhart–and that’s probably the majority of them–might receive a different message.

Michael Hirschorn