The Bitch magazine blog has a post up by Rachel McCarthy James examining fatness on my favorite show (at least the first few seasons), The Office.
It’s an interesting read focusing on three main characters: Phyllis, Kevin, and Stanley. (As well as an excuse for me to link to this picture of me on the Office set. I considered linking the vending machine one but it’s less recognizable, no?)
Phyllis (who we did a post about in 2006):
At the intersection of sizeism and sexism exists Phyllis Vance. Phyllis is active and healthy–she was a cheerleader and plays basketball and runs with the rest of The Office… Phyllis is framed as attractive, happily married to Bob Vance (Vance Refrigeration). She is sexual and seems to like her body a great deal; in season six, she refers to her breasts proudly, has a quickie with Bob in a bathroom, and brags about flirting with men in bars…
Phyllis does not reflect any of the stereotypes ascribed to older fat women. Phyllis is coquettish, not matronly. She is bossy and ambitious, not jolly. She is self-satisfied, not ashamed of herself. She is Phyllis Vance, and she’s happy to be that.
[H]e’s constantly shown to have cartoonish eating habits, sometimes forcing him into caricature and buffoonery. In one episode, the staff makes bets on the abilities and tendencies of other characters. Whereas talkative Kelly tells about her Netflix queue in infinitesimal detail, fat Kevin stuff M&Ms in his mouth. It’s not explicitly “haha look at the fatty”, and it’s somewhat absurd. But, it’s associating fatness with gluttony in a problematic way.
But unlike the other two fat series regulars, he is visibly unhealthy, having repeatedly voiced health concerns and experiencing coronary arrest, and avoiding activity (though he is sometimes physical). However, the show does not make a rhetorical point of connecting his fatness to his health problem beyond Michael being an ass about it, and showing him focusing on stress reduction rather than drastic changes in eating habits. Again, it’s important that while Stanley is unhealthy, two other fat characters have few to no health issues.
The Office is not a radical critique of dieting and weight-loss culture. It centralizes size-privileged people, and reinforces some problematic norms. But The Office does exist within the context of a media culture that frequently erases and usually stereotypes folks of size. By having a variety of well-developed, individual fat characters who do not conform to harmful norms and stereotypes, and by portraying weight-loss culture as harmful and problematic, The Office is sending a valuable and subversive message to its viewing audience.
That’s what she said!
Posted by mo pie