Monday, September 22, 2008
Weight Issues in "The King of Queens"
The King of Queens was a sitcom about Doug and Carrie Heffernan, an ordinary couple with a less-than-glamorous life. Doug (Kevin James) is fat, while Carrie (Leah Remini) is thin. The weight wasn't the main point of the show, but it was often played for laughs, and it was dealt with in some episodes.
Lots of people consider this show to be fat positive, mainly for the following reasons:
a) Doug is the protagonist, the loveable everyman character;
b) he has a hot wife.
I think both points are somewhat problematic. Yes, Doug is a loveable character, but he's a loveable loser, an everyman slob with no education, a low-income job and (sometimes) poor manners. This is how fat men are often depicted on TV. The fact that he's a protagonist is not fat positive per se, because fat men aren't as big a taboo on TV as fat women. Lots of shows depict fat men as the everyman archetype - famous examples include Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin on Family Guy. Are we supposed to identify with them? Often, yes. Are we supposed to see them as ideals or acceptable models for behavior? Mostly not. While Doug isn't as dumb as Homer or as obnoxious as Peter, he's frequently depicted as selfish, careless and sexist.
Also, just like Homer Simpson, he's shown eating all the time. I definitely think his weight is supposed to be one of his loveable flaws. "Fat is a loveable flaw", while more positive than "fat kills" or "fat means you're a bad person", is still not very positive. There's still the "flaw" part. Even if eating lots of fatty meat (among other things) is more socially acceptable for a man than for a woman, it's still viewed as greed by many people, and the show definitely doesn't do much to dispel that idea. For example, in an episode, Doug is unwilling to share his chocolate bar. Then there's the fact that Doug is often shown dieting, and at one point, the actor lost some weight and they wrote that into the show as an obvious source of pride. Doug was even admired by ladies more after his diet. The initiator of Doug's diets is almost always his "hot" wife Carrie. This is par for the course in sitcom land: fat people don't go on diets, they are put on diets by doctors or loved ones.
In an episode, Carrie puts Doug on a diet, and Doug finds she nags less about it if he gets her drunk. So he starts getting her drunk every night (yeah, it's a sitcom). When Carrie finds out he's been doing this, she gets furious. He says he loves her the way she is, only more when she's drunk. Hurt, Carrie says, "I love you the way you are, too. Fat, really fat, five pounds lighter but still too fat..." This doesn't sound particularly caring, and even if it's said in anger with the obvious intent of hurting him, it shows an underlying negative attitude about his weight. Doug tells her it hurts that she wants him to diet. Carrie says she does it because she wants him to live to be 40. Doug says, in an inflated voice, "Well it still hurts!" The audience laughs.
We're supposed to think that it's just love, taking care of him, but you know what? It often does hurt. She doesn't win the argument with the "fat people die young" cliché, because it's extremely rare for anyone to die before 40 simply because they're fat. While Doug is big, he's not big enough to be unable to function, and he doesn't seem to have any health problems. And then there's her previous comment about how fat he is, which might not invalidate the caring part, but makes me ask whether caring is the only reason she makes him diet. What's even more revealing is that in another episode, Carrie encourages Doug to work out harder after looking at a photo of him as a young athlete.
In a later episode, Carrie tells Doug he has a food addiction and takes him into counseling. This is an example of what I'd call caring. I'm not sure what to think of the implication that Doug's an emotional eater, however. This show likes to keep its themes light, and no real explanation is given for Doug's eating. He does get it "in control" for a while and loses some weight, but it seems like they dropped the ball on that storyline later on. It's not necessarily a bad development that he eats somewhat healthier, but I think the writers should have made up their minds. Either he's an emotional eater who needs to get it in control before he dies young, or he's just a happy-go-lucky guy who loves eating and should stay the way he is. I feel like the writers used whichever worked for the episode (true of many things on this show), and it leads to a pretty ambivalent threatment of the character's food issues.
The portrayal of Carrie also annoys me. I have noticed a tendency in sitcoms to make the wife the "conscience" or the reasonable person, while the husband is the man-child who wants to be free - eat whatever he wants, drink beer, watch TV, be a slob and what have you. I'm not really sure which is the positive portrayal, as viewers tend to identify with the man-child more than the wife. There also seems to be a tendency to begin the show with more equal roles and end it with the wife as the dull yet reasonable one who's always making remarks about the husband's lifestyle. While Carrie isn't as nagging as, say, Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond, she often seems nagging and despising of Doug's weight and eating in particular.
Then there's the "hot wife" aspect. There are many problems with this. Are fat women the consolation prize? If Doug had a not-so-hot wife, would he be "settling" because he can't have anyone "better"? Is a show with a fat husband and fat wife - Roseanne or... are there any others? - less empowering for fat people than a show like this? Why are there fewer stories where the woman is fat and the man is thin? The wife in any given TV show or movie will be younger, thinner, more trendy and more looks-conscious than her husband.
There are those who complain about the "unrealistic" portrayal of fat man/hot wife. "Why would she ever want to be with a slob like Doug?" I don't know where these people live, but I've seen lots of couples like this - and even (gasp!) fat woman and slim man couples - in real life. These comments make me wonder if it isn't a fat positive portrayal after all (a hot woman can love a fat man). But given the sexism of "Carrie's body=Doug's manhood", as well as the aspect of Carrie constantly wanting Doug to be thinner (which might imply that Carrie is "settling"), I can't really give it a pass.
What's worse, Doug's worth as a man seems to be constructed through Carrie's hotness. When he goes to a class reunion, he wants to show her off as his only achievement. Interestingly, Doug first tries to lose weight, but failing at that, he knows Carrie will be his trump card and people will still consider him something of a success. Doug's body is seen as a kind of failure, while Carrie's body is a cause of pride, not only for herself, but also for Doug.
There was an unexpected change in the fat husband/hot wife dynamic when Leah Remini got pregnant. For some reason, the writers didn't want Carrie to be pregnant, so they went with the old hiding trick of sitcoms. Carrie suddenly took to wearing surprisingly loose garments. Viewers complained, as usual, about the obvious baby pouch. This has never been a very good way of hiding an actor's pregnancy. However, something unexpected happened: Remini kept a lot of weight on after she gave birth. Now Carrie was permanently chubbier for no reason. The writers decided it was time to address this.
Doug tells Carrie that he thinks she's getting chubby. As Carrie points out, Doug has been fat throughout their marriage, but Doug thinks there's a difference: he was always fat, while Carrie's weight has changed. Her reaction to this is getting a personal trainer for them both. But alas, Doug cheats on his lessons, because it's Carrie who has to lose weight and not him. I haven't seen this episode, so I'm not sure how the conflict is resolved when Carrie eventually finds out. But it bugs, a lot.
Doug might as well say what he's thinking: it's ok for the man to be fat, even gain a lot of weight, but not for the woman. "Let's both diet" is not necessarily the compromise it sounds like. I'll admit that Carrie pressurizing Doug to go on a diet isn't very positive either, and some might see this as a "tables have turned" moment. Interestingly, both seem to see the other's body as shared property and lay some claim on its shape and size. However, this episode shows that Carrie sees her body as Doug's property to some extent, while Doug doesn't see his body as Carrie's property.
My watching of the show was sporadic, so I'm sure these are only some of the examples of the disturbingly ambivalent weight issues on the show. If you know of more, feel free to analyze them in the comments.