Louis CK is getting heaped with accolades for “So Did the Fat Lady,” the third episode of his current season of Louie, which aired Monday night. I get why: it is, in its way, a progressive move for the red-hot comic to tackle the way men of his stature (and girth) treat larger-figured women. In the episode, Louie meets a new waitress at his regular comedy club. Vanessa (Sarah Baker) takes a shine to him and asks him out repeatedly; when they finally do go for coffee — that most flaccid of all dating moves — she ends up chewing him out for his lack of understanding about what it means to be fat, and about how shitty most men are toward women who are fat. “Why do you hate us so much?” she asks him point-blank. “How is that fair, and why am I supposed to just accept it?”
As much of a big Louie fan as I am, I’m not sure this is quite as groundbreaking as some of the fawning coverage would have you believe. I’d go so far as to say it’s got a bit of the ol’ “mansplain” about it. Baker’s rant, as beautifully as it was performed, was written by CK, not her, after all.
Larger women have been demonstrating on TV, on their own terms, what their experiences are long before the current King of Comedy tackled the subject. And contrary to the Louie episode, which basically insisted that fat women hate being who they are and feel constantly put down by men, many of these women were/are memorable, confident, life-embracing characters who don’t feel constantly victimized. I’m not saying no one feels that way – but I’m not sure we need to call the Louie speech the first honest thing anyone’s said about the subject.
Nobody did fat better – still – than Roseanne Barr in Roseanne, and that was 25 years ago. And she did it by existing, not soliloquizing. Her onscreen alias was larger than life, but it was because she was hilarious and unapologetic, because she had a family and friends and a rock-solid sense of who she was. Roseanne wasn’t a victim of the male gaze – she took that shit apart before it even got started.
In a less confrontational vein, Melissa McCarthy is a pretty awesome role model. My favorite iteration of her, though, is not in Bridesmaids or on Mike and Molly but on the ultra-verbose, still-lamented Gilmore Girls, where her character Sookie St. James, best friend and business partner to Lauren Graham’s Lorelai Gilmore, was in possession of a fully-formed life, and sense of self, as well as a full figure. I don’t recall Sookie’s weight ever even coming up in an episode (correct me if I’m wrong) but it certainly wasn’t a sticking point for her admirer and eventual husband Jackson (Jackson Douglas).
More recently, I think New Girl (which I have had many problems with, and have since stopped watching) ventured into interesting territory with its plot last year in which Max Greenfield’s Schmidt romanced two women at once, one of them the thin model Cece (Hannah Simone) and the other Merritt Wever’s Elizabeth, his former love from when he himself was fat. Schmidt was genuinely torn between the two, and though the show occasionally ventured into fat-flashback, it never really made Wever’s weight the butt of jokes. (Of course, though, guess which woman’s not on the show anymore.)
More controversial is the recent SNL sketch from Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, the latter who’s a standout as a fat woman in the generally pretty thin ranks (especially among women) of the late-night comedy show. “Dyke & Fats” isn’t exactly subtle, but its punch line is great. And as McKinnon relayed to Vulture, it wasn’t written by a roomful of writers but by the two themselves: “We were both really tired one night, and I just said to Aidy, ‘Man, dyke is tired,’ and Aidy said, ‘Fats is tired, too.’ And then it became our beautiful thing that we had together and we wanted to make something out of it.”
Then there’s Mindy Kaling, a.k.a. Mindy Lahiri of The Mindy Project. As a ruthless comic, she’s quick to make fun of her own weight (“A doctor told me that my metabolism is so high, I basically have to eat every hour. And that doctor was me”) but equally quick with a comeuppance for anyone else who might dare to even think about doing it. A woman who’s arguably not fat but definitely not shaped like 99% of the women who make it onto the small screen on a regular basis, she’s definitively changed the conversation about what women are supposed to look like – and about how they have feelings and lives, just like thinner folks – a lot more than Louis CK, if you ask me.
There’s certainly no small amount of antipathy for the fat out there, and I applaud his jumping into the fray in a way that I can’t recall ANY of his male colleagues ever doing. But I also think if we’re going to start doling out praise for the outspoken in this arena, maybe we ought to look a little further than Monday night.