Feminism

Pretty Little Lies: Why I Loved the Fat Lady Episode of ‘Louie’

A lot of people had Thoughts and Feelings about the “So Did the Fat Lady” episode of Louie. Here’s the part that made me fist-pump the air and exclaim “yes!”.

You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? “You’re not fat.” I mean, come on, buddy. It just sucks. It really really sucks. You have no idea. And the worst part is, I’m not even supposed to do this. Tell anyone how bad it sucks, because it’s too much for people. I mean, you, you can talk into the microphone and say you can’t get a date, you’re overweight. It’s adorable. But if I say it, they call the suicide hotline on me.
I mean, can I just say it? I’m fat. It sucks to be a fat girl. Can people just let me say it? It sucks. It really sucks. And I’m going to go ahead and say it. It’s your fault.
Look, I really like you, you’re truly a good guy, I think. I’m so sorry. I’m picking you. On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys. Why do you hate us so much? What is is about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us? Nope. Not for us.
How is that fair? And why am I supposed to just accept it?

(transcript via, emphasis mine)

Sarah-Baker-so-did-the-fat-lady[1]

The actress in the episode, Sarah Baker, did a rather brilliant interviewTime and NPR both had similar takes, with the former seeing the episode as privilege-checking done without using those words and the latter praising Louis CK for facing his own hypocrisy.

On the other hand, Melissa over at Shakesville, in characteristically thoughtful fashion, covered the issues she had with the monologue. Melissa’s criticism reveals one of the reasons I liked the episode more than some other fat women might have, a reason I did not initially consider: region.

It’s continually amazing to me how comedians (and other people in the entertainment industry) are obsessed with documenting how fat the entire US outside of NY and LA are, but can’t wrap their heads around the idea that fat women are loved and get laid.

I can personally attest to the LA part of that statement. When I am at my home base of Southern California, I rarely feel attractive even though I know that people are attracted to me. Here, I rarely have been pursued in the way I see my thinner counterparts being wooed. This is true even within subcultures that are supposed to be body-positive, like the queer and kink scene(s); LA manages to make fat-haters of nearly everyone. On the other hand, when I have traveled to other parts of North America, I have been actively sought in a way that, at first, confused me, then delighted me. The contrast is so noticeable that I have begun to look forward to trips to places outside of SoCal as the guaranteed self-esteem boosters they have proven to be.

As someone incredibly tired of the pervasive denialism that derails conversations about fatphobia, I liked seeing the speech at the end of the episode. It’s utterly exhausting to live in a society where you are both seen as part of an epidemic, as sub-human, as inherently unattractive and disgusting, and yet aren’t supposed to acknowledge any of that. It was a relief, to me, to see someone who clearly thinks highly of herself — and who never once references dieting or weight loss, not even indirectly — give voice to the frustrations that have defined so much of my life as a woman in a sexist, fat-hating society.

This isn’t to say that everything about the episode delighted me. There are definite issues with privilege: Louis CK has the exact sort of platform generally denied to fat women despite the fact that he is also fat. That he would have to lend his platform in order to have a fat woman speak — and not even in her own words — is a set-up that indicates the very problem he’s trying to address. Episode specifics bothered me as well. I didn’t like the fact that Vanessa gave Louie the hockey tickets. I hated the bit about how she was desperate for hand-holding and the fact that Louie both hung out with her and took her hand seemingly out of pity. And I straight-up loathed her laughter at his awful titular “So Did the Fat Lady” joke (a fat version of the “cool girl“, anyone?).

What I did like was seeing a bad fatty positively represented on mainstream-enough television: a fat woman who doesn’t mention wanting or trying to lose weight, who loves herself without losing sight of the BS society puts her through. She, like me, doesn’t hate herself. Rather, she’s aware of how much others hate her and isn’t afraid of pointing out, instead of quietly submitting to the pretty lies that people tell about the lack of lookism, sexism, and fatphobia in society.

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Heina Dadabhoy

Heina Dadabhoy [hee-na dad-uh-boy] spent her childhood as a practicing Muslim who never in her right mind would have believed that she would grow up to be an atheist feminist secular humanist, or, in other words, a Skepchick. She has been an active participant in atheist organizations and events in and around Orange County, CA since 2007. She is currently writing A Skeptic's Guide to Islam. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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21 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading the recent string of articles about weight and fatphobia and I always come out of it with deeply mixed feelings. I’m not sure if it’s me or the writers so I’ll throw this out there and maybe someone can tell me what I’m missing.

    First, I think it’s a big issue if people are taken less seriously based on their appearance. Everyone should have the same access to justice, jobs, promotions, health care, transportation, entertainment and all other parts of society. I read the accounts of people that are not hired or dismissed because they’re fat/LGBT/disabled/atheist/muslim/black/female/whatever and I agree that’s a big problem and I’m grateful that the writers are bringing this up. Even those of us who think we aren’t overtly biased still have a lot of unconscious prejudices just because of the culture we grow up in and it’s only by openly acknowledging and actively questioning things that we can have a chance of truly fixing things, and the writing here is a crucial step.

    But so often these discussions of weight blend the social & professional issues with the personal. For instance, it seems like you imply that people should have equal access to sexual partners or relationships. That Louie is somehow wrong for not being attracted to heavier women. Is that right? Why is it such a problem if Louie has a “type” that he looks for and ignores others? Maybe it’s a bad call, maybe he’s limiting his options, maybe because he’s fat and balding he would be happier and more successful if he was more open to others. But then maybe not. And really it’s a personal decision and based on preferences that aren’t conscious or rational. I also get that it hurts to be rejected based on your appearance but I have a hard time seeing this as a problem. If a woman rejects a guy, she doesn’t owe him anything – not an apology, not an explanation, not even a chance. I don’t see why everyone – men and women – shouldn’t be free to accept or reject partners based on their own quirky, individual preferences.

    Am I misreading something here? Thanks for any answers and apologies if my blindness and privilege have led me to say things that were stupid or hurtful. I’m trying to improve.

    1. The problem is that not only are preferences not conscious or rational, they are also not necessarily intrinsic or hard-wired. In societies where fat is the preference for women, most men pursue and desire fat women more than thin women and claim it’s “just a preference” rather than discriminatory. In our types of societies, most men claim to only be attracted to thin women and that it’s “just a preference” rather than discriminatory. I’m sure that some men would continue to prefer thinner women even if society were less fatphobic, but I’m fairly certain that more men would at least consider dating fatter women if fatphobia weren’t so deeply entrenched in society.

      To use myself as an example, I am very attracted to men in black t-shirts and glasses. I have felt this way for as long as I can remember. My preference is so strong that I find myself drawn to men I wouldn’t otherwise be attracted to if they weren’t dressed that way. In fact, I had a very conventionally handsome friend once wear his glasses instead of his contacts one day and I suddenly wanted him, a desire that faded the next day when he went back to contacts. It’s silly for me to pretend that culture didn’t influence said preference: as a nerdy fat girl, I read men in glasses and dark t-shirts as fellow nerds and therefore less intimidating than conventional, mainstream men. Though it’s my preference and a strong one, I would be behaving disingenuously if I were to deny the cultural influences that led to my preference.

      In other words, I don’t think preferences are all that quirky or individual. I think that people think their preferences aren’t influenced by the culture around them when in reality, they certainly are. You see that in the way I am treated on SoCal vs. the way I’m treated elsewhere as a fat woman. Preferences do not arise in a vacuum and we human beings are social creatures who are influenced by the cultures around us.

    2. As a chunky lady, I’ve had men who are willing to fuck me and be with me and who are very passionate and CLEARLY very attracted to me — but only in the bedroom. They were unable to bring me out in public, or actually DATE me, because they were afraid of being judged. I’m explaining this very simply, as this sort of discrimination comes at many different levels.

      It’s not uncommon for men to be attracted to women that they fear they can’t be seen with in public. So maybe they only date thin women, but are actually attracted to chunky women. This happens. And it’s a shame both for those men who can’t pursue the women they are really (or also) attracted to, and for the women themselves.

      1. And I think this is where Louis CK hit the nail on the head: HE IS OBVIOUSLY ATTRACTED TO THIS PRETTY OVERWEIGHT WOMAN. It’s obvious! They get along fabulously, and he is clearly physically attracted to her. But he can’t bring herself to date her. Not because he’s NOT attracted to her, but because she’s fat and he doesn’t want people to know he’s attracted to a fat lady. That’s why discrimination against fat women is bad for the fat women AND the (straight/bi) men who are in fact attracted to us but because of societal pressures, are unable to pursue us.

        1. There’s also the reduction of women to their appearance. That’s one thing I’ve noticed a lot. If you’re a woman, people will say ‘2/10 would not bang lol’ as a way to dismiss everything about you.

      2. They were unable to bring me out in public, or actually DATE me, because they were afraid of being judged. I’m explaining this very simply, as this sort of discrimination comes at many different levels.

        Ahh. I think you’re saying the issue is not exactly our sexual preferences (eg: saying that it’s wrong to be attracted to a body type), it’s that the people who are attracted to fat people feel ashamed and try to hide it.

        Yes, I can see how that is a problem, for the fat people of course and also those who would otherwise chose to date them. Thank you for sharing, I think I understand better now.

        1. I do want to say that this isn’t ALWAYS a problem. Not all men give a shit, and honestly I get laid plenty, but I also don’t live in Southern California or NYC. I live in Arizona. Also, I don’t live in Tempe. And I am pretty confident and otherwise privileged with being pretty attractive if not drop dead gorgeous. But even I’ve run into stuff like this, but mostly with younger men.

      3. One of my best friend’s had a boyfriend dump her because, “I love you, but my friends are constantly making fun of me for being with you, and I can’t take it anymore.”

        One on hand, maybe he should have sucked it up and got better friends.

        On the other hand, constant bullying sucks.

        She was wrecked, and he was dead to the group of us he’d met through her.

  2. Thanks, Heina, for writing this and making these points. Not only did it remind me that I have forgotten to set my DVR to record Louie this season, but it also gives a nice perspective on the issues.

    I am mildly frustrated about the link you provide to Melissa at Starksville, though, and so this is briefly directed that way (and follows up on similar concerns regarding, for example, the post about Macklemore on this site a while back). She has every right to think the episode sucks to whatever degree she believes it sucks, and certainly is warranted in thinking that it didn’t speak to her or speak from her perspective.

    What I don’t understand, however, is what she expected from her viewing. Most of Melissa’s criticisms couldn’t be cured unless Louie wasn’t a show about a white cis straight man written by a WCSM. I think Louie’s show is incredibly clear what viewpoint and perspective is being provide and it is one of a WCSM (add in divorced father) who can be a real asshole at times. If you aren’t a WCSMDF or aren’t interested in the perspective of a WCSMDF, then it likely won’t speak to you or for you.

    Now, is it a serious problem that young WCSM’s are the target audience for the vast, vast majority of shows, and that only a handful of shows seemed to be geared towards some other audience? Absolutely and indisputably. But that’s not Louie’s fault.

    We talk a lot about having diverse perspectives better represented in creating content, and that there is value in hearing from different perspectives. True, true. But there is also something to be gained from tailoring a message to individual audiences, and to ensuring that the same audience is hearing a certain criticism in different ways and from different perspectives.

    So, I think the question of whether Louie was a net positive is better resolved by asking whether the message of the episode about men’s treatment of overweight women was appropriate and effective for Louie’s audience without creating equal or worse misconceptions about overweight women. Heina certainly seems to think it did. Likewise, I think Phil Plait’s Don’t Be a Dick speech was made more effective in reaching the intended audience given that it came from Phil and given the fact that Phil is a WCSM. It is not contradictory to acknowledge that a message to WCSM about a minority might be more effective for some WCSM if it comes from another WCSM, and still be frustrated by that fact. We can believe that we need to have more diversity of voice in the media, and still believe that WCSM should take advantage of their ample opportunities to tell other WCSM not to be assholes. I feel like Melissa’s column unnecessarily smudged the line between those issues.

    1. I think you might be better off bringing up your issues with the Shakesville article on Shakesville, but I will say that I agree with Melissa’s post. I also agree with Heina’s post. I don’t see these points of view as mutually exclusive.

      Part of Melissa’s issue is that Vanessa’s speech could just as easily have been written by the actress who played Vanessa, and thus genuinely represented a fat woman’s viewpoint. But it wasn’t. And because it wasn’t, it doesn’t really get at the heart of what it means to be a fat woman in the US. It focuses entirely on what men think of fat women, and how men react to/interact with fat women, and it hinges all of a fat woman’s negative cultural experiences on whether or not men find them attractive. It would have been really easy to give the pen to the fat woman and let her write her own monologue, but instead Louis CK put his own words into a fat woman’s mouth to make it seem like fat women think mostly about how men view them.

      Another part of her issue with the scene was the way it ignores that some men actually are attracted to fat women, and that this is not an aberration. Yes, even WCSM, so saying “this is a WCSM’s point of view so I don’t know what you expected” is a strange complaint. A WCSM is perfectly capable of being attracted to a fat woman, dating her, being in a serious relationship with her, without making it into a “very special episode” that revolves around her weight.

      1. These are all really good points. It’s still from the point of view from a man. Which I don’t necessarily have a problem with, although I wish Louis CK was more aware of that. Maybe he is, I don’t know. I haven’t read much on this yet. But yeah I don’t think the points of view are mutually exclusive.

        1. I would say, more concisely this time, that it is from the view point of a man because it is intended for an audience of largely men. It is a message that men need to hear, and because it is from another man, I think that makes it more effective. We need significantly more diversity of viewpoint desperately on mass media, but we also need to make sure the messages we want spoken are received by the right audiences, including those who currently have the most influence to control access to mass media and the messages sent over mass media.

          And I really don’t see any reason to doubt that Louis CK is acutely aware of his privileges.

          1. Are you sure the audience is “largely” men? You are assuming this for what reason? women also consume mass media. A lot. And CK has a HUGE female fan base.

      2. Thanks. I’m not really interested in Melissa’s blog, so I posted my comments here. And as I indicated, this ties in with other posts that have been made on this site, so it is a discussion I’d rather have here.

        You aren’t really correcting what I said. I understand her points, including the two you made. But the first one is exactly the one I addressed. Louie writes the show, and the only solution offered by Melissa and you is that (1) he shouldn’t write his own show or parts thereof (should he also not write any dialogue for his AA ex-wife on the show? gay characters? married characters?), or (2) he should avoid addressing the interaction of WCSM and overweight women entirely (or at least should not write any dialogue for the overweight woman — maybe he could just have a one-way telephone conversation with an overweight woman). In any event, it misses my point entirely that, considering the audience, Louie’s script might have been more effective than the one Melissa might have offered in its place. I would say by the largely positive reaction of Heina and others on-line, that Louis CK’s effort to write dialogue for the overweight woman didn’t completely misrepresent many of their viewpoints, even if there are some, like Melissa, who did not connect with it. Of course, Melissa couldn’t have written a speech that would speak for all overweight women either, so even your and her suggestion is subject to the same limitations and criticisms you are making of Louis CK.

        The second point is valid, but as a criticism of the Louie episode, I don’t understand it. First, it seems to expect that the character Louie and the character Vanessa to somehow give voice to all of WCSM and overweight women’s experiences, positive and negative, in a few minutes of dialogue. Louie (the character) is a man who is obtuse to his assholery most of the time, and isn’t likely to consider dating an overweight women for, probably, extremely superficial reasons (like an extremely large number of WCSM, which is why overweight women have many of the negative experiences they have with men and part of the reason why this is even an issue worthy of an episode or all of the on-line discussion generated). Vanessa is an overweight woman who lives in NY, so as both Heina and Melissa acknowledged, she probably doesn’t see very much of the WCSM who are attracted (or willing to admit they attracted) to her. Second, if the point of the episode is to bring to the surface the awful treatment many WCSM direct towards overweight women, the focus of Vanessa’s character should be lashing out at the hurt she has received, which she did. Real human beings don’t address every experience they’ve ever had in emotional conversations with near strangers, but it seems that the criticism here is that Vanessa didn’t write her outburst like a blog entry, filled with reflection and insights.

        Both of these criticisms miss my point, which is, we all agree that there needs to be better diversity of viewpoints expressed on television, but let’s not focus so much on the viewpoints given that we ignore whether the message is being received and understood by the appropriate audiences. Louis CK does an exceptional job, in my opinion, speaking to WCSM about privilege, and I don’t see how the episode Melissa would have preferred (which she doesn’t really explain or articulate other than to say someone else should have written it), would have been any more effective.

        From my viewpoint, Melissa’s criticism, boiled down, continues to look like there is nothing Louis CK could do, other than turn the the show over to her, that would have satisfied her. I think it is an example of hypercriticism that is not productive in achieving actual progress towards openness, understanding, or inclusiveness.

        1. Here’s the problem with what Louis CK said and with what you’re saying: Vanessa’s speech is NOT a true story. She says, in as many words, “My life as a fat woman sucks because you dudes make it suck for me!”

          That’s not a true story. I know many fat women. I am, myself, overweight and I present as female. Zero fat women in my experience (including, if you like, myself) are oppressed by the sexual opinions of men. The opinions of men are just not important to us. Nevertheless we have negative cultural experiences as a consequence of our weight. This is reflected, for instance, in a reduction in clothing choices. In discrimination by medical providers. In discrimination by people who work with the public (there was a comment on an article here on Skepchick from a person who turns Judgey McJudgerson whenever an overweight person comes through the cashier line). In being the butt of jokes, kind of like how a fat woman was the butt of the joke that wrapped up the Louie episode, which is why that joke was offensive and not funny. The list goes on and on but the sexual opinions of men are not anywhere on it.

          But Louis CK, being a man, absolutely centers himself and his opinions in Vanessa’s monologue. The words he put into her mouth make her problems all about men. That’s the problem. He does not understand, at all, what it means to be a fat woman in the US. He imagines in his head that he is the lynchpin of her experiences, and so the monologue that he wrote makes it all about him. Vanessa’s monologue is about men. It’s not about women, or fat women. It’s about men. And that’s the problem.

          If you can’t see that, that men are not the all-important, all-consuming central figures in fat women’s experiences the way Vanessa’s male-written monologue presumes, then I can’t help you.

          “First, it seems to expect that the character Louie and the character Vanessa to somehow give voice to all of WCSM and overweight women’s experiences, positive and negative, in a few minutes of dialogue.”

          You say this a couple of different ways, but there’s nothing in Vanessa’s monologue that indicates any conception of this fact. The monologue does present itself as something universal to all fat women. It was written and delivered with no qualifications whatsoever. Any apology you might make in the vein of, “Well, they only had a few minutes and couldn’t possibly include any mention of any other experience,” has no basis in the dialogue or in reality. There is no reason the episode could not have been adjusted to make the monologue 60 seconds longer, or make the pauses slightly shorter, so as to include a line to the effect of, “This is only a part of the problem, of course, and there are plenty of men who are not like you, Obtuse In Your Privilege Louie, and the only reason I’m bothering with you is because I really like you.” No reason whatsoever, except that Louis CK doesn’t comprehend a fat woman’s experience and he thought his monologue told a story that is true for all fat women. You want to apologize for the fact that it is not universal by saying it’s not meant to be, but Louis CK clearly thought it was universal when he wrote it.

          Furthermore, the monologue says, in words, that are readable in the transcript and audible in the video clip, that fat women have sucky lives as a result of the opinions of men. Not, “Our lives suck and the opinions of men contribute to that.” No, it says that fat women have sucky lives because of the opinions of men, full stop. If this were true, then if men could just get their heads out of their asses, the lives of fat women would be exactly like the lives of thin women! And, in fact, that is something Vanessa implies several times.

          That’s not true, in the slightest.

          “but let’s not focus so much on the viewpoints given that we ignore whether the message is being received and understood by the appropriate audiences.”

          What I mainly see you saying is that we shouldn’t care if the message is a true one, an accurate one, or one that is helpful at all, as long as some message is being received and understood by the all-important fatphobic WCSM demographic. I could not disagree with that more.

          1. I appreciate the point you are making in the first half, and it is definitely a valuable one to make. I probably have a narrow viewpoint because my wife and I are not overweight, but my wife has the remnants of an eating disorder, so that I see every comment about someone’s weight on TV and movies to be a potential trigger and to create anxiety in my wife about her own weight. It can make her miserable at times, but not a miserable person overall, as you point out very well for those who are overweight.

            Perhaps I need to view the actual episode to say more, but I view the description of it as painting the picture of a woman describing the frustration she has in interacting with men. She is not, as I view it, describing every aspect of her life, but describing the part that deals with dating men and the misery that can come with meeting new men. When people get frustrated, they don’t give speeches like, “I really like every other aspect of my life except …” They say, “You are making me miserable.”

            And your last paragraph does misread what I am saying considerably. I don’t know how I can say it more precisely than I have written it above, although I will admit that I am not being concise.

  3. The one thing I LOVE about Louis CK is that even though he’s obviously not perfect, he is willing to have these discussions, and he’s willing to put himself on the spot when having these discussions. I mean, he HAD to have known this episode would start a discussion. He has genius-level insight on our world and the way he brings it to the small screen is beautiful.

    1. Watching him develop his awareness in his comedy has been really, really intriguing. I mean, go watch a few of his earliest clips on youtube, and compare them to more recent stuff. His growth has been really fascinating.

  4. I was in two minds about it. I thought a lot of it worked, but I think Louis CK let himself off the hook a little too easily. The holding hands felt like a slightly false conclusion to me, like more work needed to be done before he earned that.

    I think it’s great that he addressed the shitty things people say towards larger people, especially larger women. I think it’s shitty that more people will listen to a man pointing them out than a woman doing the same. That’s hardly Louie’s fault but it’s still shitty.

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