Finally, modern TV masters the art of humiliating the fat
So long, farewell, and thanks for all the flab.
Goodbye “Dance Your Ass Off”. Goodbye to the lurid outfits and the ridiculous hats that Australian audiences for but one brief week got to sample. Goodbye to the prospect of a weekly side-serving of self-abasing, mortifying attempts at burlesque routines and swing-dancing in the name of farewelling the extra kilos.
Channel Nine in its estimable wisdom and impeccable taste broadcast the first episode of this part dance competition, part ritualistic humiliation of overweight wannabes for Australian audience’s viewing pleasure a couple of weeks ago.
“Dance your Ass Off” was billed thus- “Twelve finalists, nearly 3000 lbs, one goal - to go from an eating machine to a dancing machine.”
The contestants are setting out to “shake and rattle their rolls in front of a live studio audience and a panel of expert judges” according to the American production company behind it.
In an introductory piece to camera each contestant explains their very real desire to lose weight, to change their lives and improve their health- thus far, fairly standard realty TV fare.
But any vague semblance of dignity is then jettisoned in the spectacle of flesh that follows. Contestants take to the stage resplendent in outfits, the only purpose of which, can be to humiliate: from awkwardly askew trilbies to boob tubes stretched perilously across the busts of size 28 women.
It was a “heavyweight series” according Nine’s publicity spiel - I am trying not to gag as I type this – but due to the fact that a “disappointing” 800,000 or so people sat through it, you’ll now have to watch the remaining episodes on the televisual graveyard of Nine’s digital channel.
But never fear if you missed it because fat people and lots of them will be on your TV very soon.
“Fatsploitation” is the newest entertainment buzzword and producers the Western World over are seemingly haunting the biscuit aisles of supermarkets to trawl for the overweight and insecure for our TV watching pleasure.
Why? Because, right now stuff about fat people sells really, really well, or so the TV executives reckon.
If Australian audiences are fed only half the “fatsploitation” shows being pumped out from both sides of the Atlantic we are going to be in for a very interesting ride.
Last Tuesday night in the US saw the debut of “More to Love”, a new show from the creator of “The Bachelor” that has been cunningly dubbed “The Fatchelor”. Think one lonely guy in search of love and twenty gals keen to attract his attention- plus an additional several hundred kilos.
Is this TV that pushes the envelope and offers a glorious “stuff you” to the near-anorexic broads and their muscled beefcake beaus that have long been the stuff of mainstream reality TV viewing?
Are Paul Conely and his 20 potential future brides helping challenge conventions of beauty and desirability by showing plus-size, media-hungry, lonely-hearts rather than the stock-standard popsicle stick thin, media-hungry lonely-hearts? As the review from the Washington Post put it, “Frankly, the only conspicuous difference [with The Bachelor] is that they squeezed fewer would-be Mrs.Conleys into each limo.”
From all accounts it’s as clichéd and vomit-inducing as any other version of this “love match meets televised drinking game set in a mansion” genre, replete with nauseating ring ceremonies and enough gushing emotion to induce a nose-bleed.
Hungry for more? Even if our networks don’t snap that up there’s still plenty of other shows to choose from. In recent times UK viewers have been treated to “Half Ton Mom”, “Fix My Fat Head”, “Supersize Teens: Can’t Stop Eating”, “Fat Teens in Love”, “Supersize Vs Superskinny” in which overweight and underweight contestants swap diets, and finally it’s never too young to share your weight problems with the world with “Too Fat To Toddle”, a show about overweight pre-schoolers.
Barry Austin, the UK’s fattest man is the star, natch, of “Inside Britain’s Fattest Man” and “Back Inside Britain’s Fattest Man”. Speaking about the experience in a newspaper interview Austin said, “The TV shows didn’t help me. They put me in a hotel and said eat and drink whatever you like. It was like giving a heroin addict drugs.”
In the US, the Oxygen network has screened “Mo’nNique’s F.A.T. Chance” a beauty pageant for plus-sized women who vie for the title of “Miss Fabulous and Thick”.
The debate over exactly why the “fatsploitation” market has taken off like the proverbial hotcakes is mixed. Is it because we are sick of spray-tanned, preening blonde poppets who maintain their toned bodies courtesy of a rigorous regime of laxatives and purging and that this slew of curvaceous and comparatively plump folk are a refreshing change?
Or is that when we watch people who potentially need two seats on a commercial flight we feel comparatively Kate Moss-esque as we undo that straining top button on our jeans as we reach for another handful of Pizza Shapes?
Esther Rothblum, a professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University recently told CNN, “Most people feel too fat in this country and are made to feel very unhappy with their bodies. So by portraying somebody who weighs so much more than they do, it’s almost a way to make the audience feel like ‘I could look worse’ or ‘At least I’m not them.’ “
There are accusations from concerned doctors that the repeated bombardment of images of such overweight people normalises obesity. For them, sitting in front of the box gobbling up an entertainment diet of this kind of TV will see us making for the nearest pizza joint post haste without any semblance of guilt or concern about the ensuing calorific bombardment.
Many of these shows wrap their underlying premise in promoting a healthier life, of helping needy people lose weight. But how has this public health narrative become so twisted and the anti-obesity message so distorted into some sort of grotesque public spectacle of humiliation all in the name of improved well-being? Somehow the health warnings about weight and all the damaging effects the excess kilos will have on your heart, your lungs and no doubt your bed springs have been twisted into a justification for dragging out hours of TV that involves larger reality show aspirants dancing, dieting, and dating for our viewing pleasure.
The contestants’ willingness to trade their self-respect and some modicum of dignity is by no means unique in the world of reality TV. Are these people being exploited or demeaned any more than the average reality TV combatant? Is this entire genre not built on reveling in, and gleefully revealing, the inadequacies of others?
But the point of difference is the underlying motivation for taking part. For many, if not all, of these larger reality “stars” (a point they regularly espouse to the audience) is that they’re taking part not simply for a chance at a fleeting moment of celebrity but to improve the quality of their lives and to no longer suffer the consequences their weight presents day-to-day.
The constantly bleated message is “lose the kilos and regain self-respect and pride” but I’m yet to discern at what point the scales tip in favour of empowerment over ridicule.
It used to be enough to just dump a bunch of hot misfits with great tits on a desert island, toss them a bag of rice and a fishing rod and watch the conniving, the creep of malnutrition and the sandy, awkward sexcapades that ensue.
Richard Hatch would never get a guernsey these days unless he packed on an extra 100kg and agreed to perform the macarena wearing nothing but a delicately placed bandanna.
Producers of reality TV exploit the same shame and inadequacy of eagerly willing participants for sensationalised emotive value, whether they be fat, thin, black or white, rich or poor. It is after all their stock in trade and good luck to them and their percentage point cuts of the ad revenue- 911s and eightballs for all!
But, capitalising on the genuine health issues of a group of people asking for help seems more manipulative and cutthroat than the when producers take advantage and make sport of the home brand staple of grasping, star-gazing wannabes that they normally let forth onto our screens. After all, would they ever do a show called “Amputees on Ice” and dangle the lure of new prosthetic limbs as a tempting inducement to contestants?
Let’s be under no illusions, showbiz generally has long capitalised on bodily extremes. For guranteed reality celebrity either ditch all solid food and start learning to love the sour taste of bile to fit into that size 6 bikini, or hit the Monte Carlos with a vengeance. Moderation and balance are never going to stand a chance for achieving a modicum of notoriety when we can be gleefully tripping through the carnival side-show of excess.
Somehow public sentiment about weight has become so confused that it has become socially acceptable to mock or even abuse overweight people under the guise of feigned concern for their health.
So will the Australian public devour the new round of “fatsploitation” that may come our way? Who knows, but in the meantime, watch out for ice-skating amputees coming to a small screen near you.
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