Fat People are the New Gay People

The Weight – Reality television is deeply ambivalent toward excess flesh. (Dana Stevens, Slate)

On reality television, fat people are the new gay people. Earlier this year, Fox was forced to cancel two gay-themed reality shows, the short-lived Playing It Straight and the never-aired Seriously Dude, I’m Gay, due to protests from advocacy groups and general viewer indifference. These shows, which I discussed in a Slate article at the time, exploited cultural fears about homosexuality by making gay men the “wild card” in traditional reality-show competitions. To their credit, audiences responded with a shrug. But the evil forces that plot new reality shows have now turned their attention to a new sideshow attraction: the overweight.

Reality television has chosen this season to mine the American obsession with body size. The Biggest Loser (NBC, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. ET), a weight-loss-themed reality series in which two teams of dieters, the “reds” and the “blues,” compete to see who can lose the most pounds per week, has been expanded from an hour to an hour and a half per week. VH1’s Flab to Fab (Mondays, 8 p.m. ET), which will start its new season on Nov. 29, subjects overweight fans to the diet and exercise regimens of their favorite celebrities. (Last week’s teaser episode, a rerun from last spring, featured three women keen to emulate Jennifer Lopez.) And Showtime’s Fat Actress, scheduled to premiere in 2005, is already being widely publicized as a comedy/reality hybrid in which Kirstie Alley, playing herself, seeks to overcome Hollywood’s prejudice against large women and jump-start her television career. Finally, there’s Toccara, who, until she was voted off the show last week, was the “plus-sized” anomaly among the svelte beauties on this season’s America’s Next Top Model (UPN, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. ET).

All of these shows share a deep ambivalence toward excess flesh, seeking to eliminate it even as they depend on it for their very existence. The title of The Biggest Loser says it all: The more you lose, the more you win, but even if you take first place, you’re still a loser. While television executives may be congratulating themselves on their inclusiveness, they have created reality programming that capitalizes on Americans’ fear and hatred of their bodies, making the differently sized the stars of a freak show.

Reality television is the new Roman colliseum. Who’s watching this crap?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Not me, I’m proud to say.

  2. NJvoter says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

    I really really hate “Extreme Makeover” where our culture pushes the use of plastic surgery to make everyone’s dreams come true.

  3. mike says:

    what happened to sitcoms? all of this reality crap is terrible – I think that the networks save a lot of money which is the driving force.
    Gilligan’s Island? I have been reading a lot more lately…so maybe I should thank the networks/producers.

  4. denise says:

    Mike — The sitcoms that are on are mostly lousy too.

    I don’t watch reality shows either unless you count home remodeling shows or “What Not to Wear.” However, I did watch an episode of “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss” and laughed pretty hard at that one.

  5. Anjin-San says:

    Vote with your remote. Lots of great shows on PBS, The History Channel, Discover & The Science Channel

  6. ibejo says:

    “Reality television is the new Roman colliseum” – That was dead on James. Very well put.

  7. AnjinSan says:

    Today’s bread & circuses are malls and television. Who is watching this crap? I suspect its mostly Bush voters in red states…