Ever since the blogosphere blew up and every imbecile with a PC gained access to the Interwebs, outrage has been the go to emotion for amateur critics worldwide. According to these vicious culture vultures, Game of Thrones is inauthentic, Boardwalk Empire is boring, and Mad Men is past its prime.
But if there’s one small screen outrage that perpetually has these bloggers reaching for their smelling salts, it’s “unbelievable” television couples. Don’t believe us? Just Google “Patrick Wilson Girls backlash,” and wait for the hateful, Lena Dunham-bashing vitriol to bombard your screen. The World Wide Web would have us believe that Patrick Wilson is just too darn attractive to look poor pear-shaped Hannah Horvath in the eye, let alone deign to sleep with her—this isn’t the fantastical world of Westeros, after all! Everyone knows that in this reality, chubby girls aren’t allowed to get laid!
The question of “appropriate” show biz pairings is a natural extension of the horribly skewed, superficial world we live in. Schlubby “everyman” types are all the rage in film comedies (see any Seth Rogen movie, ever), and always manage to score the hottest girls. The unfairness here isn’t just that chubby men are allowed to get with beautiful women, while we don’t tolerate the reverse; it’s the implication that no one in their right mind would even consider casting a “normal” woman to play a leading role in one of these stoner comedies. While men have shattered the glass ceiling of desirability, show biz bigwigs refuse to let go of the archaic notion that we, the average-sized consumers, would run for the hills if our leading ladies wore anything bigger than a size toddler large.
This pervasive media deification of the anorexic actress, presented in tandem with the somehow-desirable, mildly overweight man, has serious ramifications, as does the implication that chubby women don’t deserve screen time, let alone sex or human affection. In short, it perpetuates insanely unrealistic standards of female beauty, and has a punishing effect on the lived experiences of real women who, more often than not, will never look like Katherine Heigl.
This is the backdrop for last night’s episode of Louie, “So Did the Fat Lady,” in which Louis C.K. did something extraordinary—namely, made some really powerful points about gender, media, and American standards of beauty, all while avoiding the common traps of stereotyping or mansplaining. Oh, and did we mention that he managed this all in a 23-minute-long comedy?
The premise of the episode is essentially watching Louie come to terms with his own fat, white guy privilege—the realization that, despite his inability to date every gorgeous woman he lusts after, or successfully start a diet, he actually has it pretty good. Louie’s revelation comes in the form of Vanessa (the incredible Sarah Baker), a waitress at the Comedy Cellar where he performs. Vanessa is smart and funny—we watch Louie laugh at her repartee with customers from afar, and are clearly meant to note his admiration.
And yet, Louie doesn’t ask for her number, or try to find out where she’s off to after his set. Instead, we see Vanessa hit on Louie over and over again, with underwhelming results. Vanessa is actively wooing Louie and, despite the character’s series-long gripe about his inability to successfully woo women, he appears unflattered and unenthusiastic. What accounts for this gender role reversal, in which Vanessa pursues and Louie demurs? The simple fact that Vanessa is a “fat girl.” She’s more similar in size to Louie than to the thin women he’s accustomed to dating.
After turning her down multiple times, Louie finally takes Vanessa out on a coffee date (though we’re led to believe that his invitation is inspired by guilt, not attraction). The date goes remarkably well—on top of their similar body types, Vanessa and Louie are wildly compatible, and genuinely enjoy one another’s company. But, like any good episode of Louie, the good feels are simply a sheen, barely concealing an ugly truth—the uncomfortable fact of Louie’s lack of romantic interest in Vanessa is just waiting to rise to the surface. When it finally crescendos, it’s in the form of Vanessa’s monologue for fat girls everywhere—a speech that, despite its premise, remarkably manages to be neither simple-minded nor condescending.
Vanessa’s main complaint about “dating in your early 30s as a fat girl”? Mainly that “it really sucks.” She’s waited tables during countless comedy sets, and she knows how often Louie complains about his inability to lose weight, and his subsequent difficulty landing ladies. Imagine how Vanessa feels, then, looking up from an even lower level on the sexual totem pole. Men like Louie, she explains, won’t even consider dating her. Sure, they’ll sleep with her—but they are loath to consider the social ramifications of actually dating a fat girl, despite their own less-than-enviable physiques. To add insult to injury, Louie gets to complain about his weight all day. Meanwhile, Vanessa laments, fat girls aren’t even allowed to mention their weight-related hardships, as it’s seen as embarrassing—instead, they’re expected to suffer in shameful silence.
Louis C.K. isn’t just alluding to double standards in the media; for Vanessa and the women she is speaking up for, every day is a constant struggle to prove their worth within a weight-obsessed culture that paints them as unbeautiful blights. After attacking Louie and his male cohorts for being ashamed to romantically value women like her, Vanessa dares to wonder:
“Look, I really like you, you’re truly a good guy, I think,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I’m picking you. On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys. Why do you hate us so much? What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us? Nope. Not for us. How is that fair? And why am I supposed to just accept it?”
For her, hate is not too strong a word—it’s appropriate for these men who insinuate, time and time again, that she does not deserve to be loved and cherished, simply due to her weight. That she is somehow lesser because of her gender—since, after all, a “fat” man like Louie doesn’t find himself in so dire a predicament. Vanessa is reacting to a societal aesthetic so punishing and so pervasive that it renders her not only undesirable, but practically un-human.
In a culture where we are told that so much of a woman’s happiness is predicated on her beauty and sexual appeal, lack of access to these arbitrary attributes renders one entirely underserving of romantic satisfaction. Vanessa’s argument is that men, even Louie, her cookie-cutter counterpart, do not see her, and do not understand her struggle. And, as this episode so potently illustrates, our misogynistic media culture is partly to blame. Flipping through the channels, one thing becomes shockingly clear—women like Vanessa are hardly seen, or heard, at all.