James Corden and Dismantling Weight Stigma in the Media

It was the early 2000s, in a time when the middle class and blue-collar American families would crowd around the T.V. every Tuesday night and watch people weighed like cattle in a strange dangerous battle to be skinny in the highly objectifying show: The Biggest Loser. Coach Jillian Michaels would assure audiences that vomiting mid-workout was normal while Bob Harper was allegedly slipping Adderall and Nembutal to his team members. This was before the infamous NIH longitudinal study revealed the irreparable damage done to former contestants’ metabolisms. The "Subway diet" reigned, with numerous Americans eating their sandwiches to lose weight. They were all hoping to be like the tiny man with the big pants on T.V. We were bombarded with diet-focused media, from endless Jenny Craig infomercials to Beyonce’s Dreamgirls Master Cleanse to Hydroxycut ads. "Super Size Me" played on Toshiba televisions and rolled into health classrooms across the nation as the threat of low-rise jeans loomed over us all.

On October 12, 2000, the British Drama "Fat Friends" debuted on ITV starring a fresh-faced James Corden. Though very much a product of its time, with its focus around the members of a “super slimmers” club, the show’s deconstruction of the toxic and exploitative mechanisms of diet culture along with the social and physical toll of fatphobia was very ahead of its time. The show explores how weight stigma infiltrates all aspects of daily life, namely one’s love life. In a nice change of pace, the plus-sized actors are able to have love lives all of their own, from Val the journalist’s love affair with a male sex worker to Alan’s divorce and subsequent falling for Val, to Kelly’s marriage troubles to Rebecca’s Home Depot infatuation. A show full of complex plus-sized characters is uncommon.

Even more uncommon is seeing those characters have love interests. Being the fat girl growing up, I never saw characters like this. When I was younger, my favorite T.V. show was "The Sopranos" and one of the major reasons for that was numerous fat characters were portrayed as cool. Even though Tony is an anti-hero in the show, he is a character of complexity and duality and he is the main subject of the show. He wasn’t just there to make people laugh, he was enigmatic and threatening but also emotional. Naturally, it is much harder to get this kind of representation as a woman, but I took what I could get. The only romantic comedy starring a person that looked like me was in "Hairspray" and my enjoyment of that was always impeded by the usage of the inherently-objectifying fat suit that was worn.

Recently, James Corden was speaking on David Tennant’s podcast about the exclusion of “chubby” people on films and T.V.  He said that “If the world of entertainment was a big banquet table, people are like, ‘There isn’t a seat for you here.’” And this is what incited Corden to make "Gavin & Stacey". He talked about the difficulties of trying to be cast and how it entirely had to do with his looks. He recalled his time acting in the highly successful play "The History Boys" and how seven of his castmates who were at a similar place in their career and skill sets would come in with huge film scripts. He said that once three of them (including himself) were offered the “hottest script” and that his castmates got sent the script for the lead roles, while he received just two pages to play a minor part as a newsagent at the beginning of the film. Corden said,  “I really felt like people were going, 'We think you're quite good. It's just because of what you look like.'”

This is a feeling that any plus-sized performer can relate to. When I was younger, I went through an embarrassingly intense theater phase and I remember feeling constantly frustrated. My acting coach at a theater camp (I told you, it was very intense) told me I was a “character actor,” meaning an actor who specializes in playing eccentric or unusual people rather than leading roles. A “character actor” is also a nice way of saying, "You do not fit the conventional standards of beauty that will get you the lead roles." I was fine with this. It wasn’t until I found that when there were roles that called for fat actors, they would be filled by a girl half my size. Even more disturbing would be when I looked back and discovered that the whole point of some of my roles was to be fat and serve as comedic relief. Needless to say, I stopped auditioning my freshman year of high school.

Though exclusion in Hollywood and theater is concerning, I am even more concerned by the existing representation and the stereotypes it projects. Corden said, “...Certainly, no-one ever finds you attractive on-screen if you are a larger size. You will be good friends with people who are attractive and often will be a great sense of comfort to them and perhaps chip in with the odd joke every now and again.” Throughout all of my years in high school and my first year of college, I preoccupied myself with fulfilling the “funny fat friend” role, performing slapstick humor (think Chunk in "The Goonies") and simply was there to make everyone feel comfortable. My sophomore year of college I lost a significant amount of weight (mostly due to stress) and people treated me completely different. Now people smile at me in the street and ask about my private life and suddenly my opinion matters. I think our media reflects the way plus sized-people are treated in reality - you can be funny or you can be ignored.

Corden listed "Fat Friends" as one of the contributing reasons for his ability to write "Gavin & Stacey". I believe representation in the romance genre will improve slowly but surely, and movies like, "Isn’t It Romantic" are a great step in the right direction. Something I don’t love about the movie is that it teaches us that we can’t find love unless we love ourselves. It is significantly more difficult to find self-acceptance when society is constantly sending you signals that undervalue you. Sometimes it does take the help of external forces to find self-love. What certainly doesn’t help is a $66 Billion dollar industry confining you to a “before picture” and telling you that you need to lose weight to “Get your life back.” Your life is happening regardless of a number on a scale. You can find love despite your pant size. Fat women are strong, independent, intelligent, complex and sexy, despite what the media wants you to believe.

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