Do Fat People Dream?

By DuncanRhys C. Liancourt

––Near the end of a Marie Claire blog entry––Should “Fatties” Get a Room? (Even on TV?)––for which she has reaped bushels of criticism, Maura Kelly seems suddenly to recollect that her editor asked her to write about “overweight people making out on television”, and that she is ostensibly writing about a fictional show called Mike & Molly. Ms. Kelley begins her––let’s be generous and call it an essay––essay with research from CNN signaling for a third time (the first two indications are her title and her inclusion of her editor’s assignment) by quoting CNN that her essay is about “watching intimacy between two plus-sized actors.”

Ms. Kelly’s piece overflows with misconceptions, fallacies, misinformation, and bigotry, and it could hardly be more sanctimonious. She has apologized for some of these errata, for her most egregious error of being insensitive and upsetting people around issues of weight, and though her apology is not judgment free it seems sincere, as far as it goes, to this reader. Read both and decide for yourself. The apology, however, compounds Ms. Kelly’s second most egregious error, which is not, as we shall see later, fully separable from her insensitivity to plus-sized people. To address this second worst mistake allow me to highlight three of her words present in my opening: TV, television, and actors.

That’s right, Ms. Kelly’s piece purports to be about fiction. She even reiterates this alleged topic in her own defense, saying in her apology, “I was talking about a TV show…” But Ms. Kelly’s first words beyond introductory quotes from her editor and CNN (note that Mike & Molly is a sitcom, not a “reality” show) are not about fiction, not about a TV show. Ms. Kelley ‘s piece begins thus:

My initial response was: Hmmm, being overweight is one thing –

those people are downright obese! And while I think our country’s

obsession with physical perfection is unhealthy, I also think it’s at

least equally crazy, albeit in the other direction, to be implicitly

promoting obesity!

When Ms. Kelly refers to “those people” does she mean the characters, the actors, or something else? Does she believe it is this situation comedy’s obligation to address “our country’s obsession with physical perfection” in a certain manner? The answer seems to be yes, and the manner seems to be a moral one, as she criticizes this TV show for “implicitly promoting obesity” then judges such promoting “crazy”.

Ms. Kelly may be attacking fiction––suggesting that all products of the imagination are so much dross unless they improve us morally––or she may have merely lost her way, confusing herself by writing a piece that is not an essay but rather a trick or treat sack of opinion, advice, preaching, insult, criticism, entertainment, and more. If the former she is in company that includes Plato, “who,” Michiko Kakutani writes, “recommended exiling dramatic poets from his ideal state and also proposed a meticulous program of censorship.”[1] You may see that Ms. Kelly is a writer with a long list of articles under her belt and wonder whether any writer would seriously question the appropriateness of fiction. Ms. Kakutani can help with that. “In examining Plato’s often shockingly puritanical attitudes toward art, Ms. Murdoch notes that his feelings may have had ‘an element of envy’: ‘He had been himself a writer of poetry; and when a man with two talents chooses (or at any rate concentrates upon) one, he may look sourly upon the practitioners of the other.’”

Plato’s puritanical ideas were taken up by actual Puritans during one of the richest times for imaginative art. “There never was such a general passion for dramatic entertainments as during the Elizabethan period; the art was thoroughly studied and understood, as how could it be otherwise under the reign of such dramatists as Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Shakespeare?”[2] Despite this passion, or perhaps because of it, the Puritans closed the theaters in 1642; they made criminals of the actors with whipping for a first offense and fined any person convicted of witnessing a performance.

Does Maura Kelly want to close TV? “I tend to think,” she opines in her ‘Fatties’ piece, “most television shows are a kind of junk food for the mind and body.” Marie Claire readers may well ask if Ms. Kelly is the right person to be critiquing (nominally) TV shows, but more importantly they may interrogate Ms. Kelly’s moralizing concern with “promoting obesity.” By Ms. Kelly’s logic not only should we not watch TV shows but we should refrain from attending Shakespeare’s plays. Someone so concerned about us getting fat cannot possibly be sanguine about us learning ambition, deceit, and murder from Lady Macbeth and the Mister. “Shakespeare’s design upon us is manifest,” according to Harold Bloom. “We are to journey inward to Macbeth’s heart of darkness, and there we will find ourselves more truly and more strange, murderers in and of the spirit.”[3] Lest you think the fiction of Shakespeare inherently more moral than the fiction of a contemporary TV show, Mr. Bloom will disabuse you on page 7 with Nietzsche’s Daybreak:

Whoever thinks that Shakespeare’s theatre has a moral effect, and

that the sight of Macbeth irresistibly repels one form the evil of

ambition, is in error.

Drama, whether it happens to people in a story or to people in their real lives, happens to anorexics and aunts, plumbers, princes, ticket takers, detectives, musicians, Episcopalians and Quakers. Drama happens to murderous Thanes of Cawdor no less than, though perhaps a bit more than, to plus-sized actors and the ‘fatties’ they play. You needn’t think the TV show Mike & Molly any good to defend its creators’ right to create it. But if you don’t think it any good don’t make the mistake, as Ms. Kelly does, of confusing your aesthetic opinion of it with its possible value to others and to culture. “One of the most important social changes in the late Victorian age, perhaps the furthest reaching of all in its revolutionary implications,” writes Dee Garrison, “was the triumph of mass culture. Blithely ignoring the warnings of their betters against the evils of reading ‘salacious’ fiction, the American masses, with unrepenting self-indulgence, consumed the ‘volumes of trash poured forth daily, weekly, and monthly’ in the form of imaginative literature. Above all it was the American woman who found in light reading a temporary escape from her isolation and discontent.”[4]

I watched ten minutes of Mike & Molly and I could write at least as many words as I’ve written here about how terrible that ten minutes was, and about why it was so terrible, and none of the reasons would be moral in nature. I share with Ms. Kelly a concern about obesity for both individuals’ health and our society, but I can also empathize with the struggles and feelings of individuals, of people, who are––to apply all the terms from Ms. Kelly’s piece––plump, overweight, plus-sized, fat and obese. How is that I, always thin, can experience this kind of empathy? Let’s say, though it’s a fiction, that I’ve never even had a fat friend so have no experience with the trials of a fat person; and let’s say, though we must imagine it, that I’ve never experienced isolation or discontent for other reasons; how then could I learn to empathize in this way? Drama happens to every one of us and every one of us dreams; we have these, if nothing else at times, in common. Every character in fiction, as every person in life, has a story, and that story is the story of some hearer, reader, or viewer.

I leave you with two defenses of fiction––of dreaming, imagining, and making up stories––far more eloquent than any I could put forth. The first is Patrick Curry’s Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity and the second is this Curry quote of Philip Pullman:

Stories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis

Singer says, ‘events never grow stale.’ There’s more wisdom in a

story than in volumes of philosophy.


[1] Michiko Kakutani, “Iris Murdoch Defends Art Against Plato” <http://nytimes.com/books/98/12/20/specials/murdoch-fire.html&gt;

[3] Harold Bloom Shakespeare’s Macbeth (New York: Riverhead Books, 2004), p. 5.

[4] Dee Garrison “Immoral Fiction in the Late Victorian Library” <http://www.jstor.org/pss/2712478&gt;

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