Dear Ryan Murphy,
Last night, at the behest of numerous readers who have asked for my take on the new “fat girl” on your show Glee, I braved the endless trailers for Tron: Legacy and ventured forth onto Hulu.com to pick up a couple of recent episodes.
It turns out my limit for Glee episodes these days is 1.35 — it was just over a third of the way through the second one that I became utterly convinced that some small furry animal, maybe a hamster high on meth, had worked its way inside my skull and was running around screaming like a man on fire. I closed the Hulu window and the sensation stopped. I think we can both agree that your show is not good for my head, though I already came to that conclusion awhile back, which is why I stopped watching it in the first place.
I don’t know, Ryan Murphy; by all rights I should love your show. It has singing and dancing and it is quirky as fuck and it features an ensemble cast. These are all things I like. Part of the problem is that at some point, Glee became self-aware, and, like Skynet, turned upon all of us, we who had given it life. The Glee of today no longer serves its audience, a cheery distraction on a Tuesday night, but has morphed into an unstoppable train of high-kicking solo-belting sermon-preaching cultural ubiquity. It is everywhere now; it cannot be killed. It is made of liquid metal. There came a moment when all of the characters suddenly turned loathsome and sanctimonious, and still I watched, fearful that the show would find me in the night and murder me as I slept if I should dare to ignore it.
But I did eventually manage to survive a separation, and our time apart has done little to rekindle the spark these characters once had for me. There are exceptions, of course. Though most of the cast leaves me feeling dead inside, Chris Colfer as Kurt is practically perfect in every way. I had no opinion of Dianna Agron, who plays Quinn, until she responded so memorably to the GQ photoshoot controversy on Tumblr, which made my wrinkled little chickpea of a heart go pitter-pat. My heart, she is easily wooed by anyone who can offer a few smart and rational words in the face of hand-waving controversy, and sadly she is not wooed so often these days.
But I am delaying the inevitable: there is also the marvelous Ashley Fink.
You cast Ashley Fink as Lauren Zizes, a once-in-awhile supporting character who has recently joined the glee club on a more permanent basis. I also know Ashley Fink as Carter from the late lamented fuck-you-ABC-Family series Huge. My first exposure to Ms. Fink happened a year or so ago, when someone posted a question to my Formspring page informing me that the Glee wardrobe folks were totally cribbing my style for her character in her first appearance, evidently because there was a cardigan, mixed prints, and glasses involved. What I remember of the scene was Fink’s character demanding a box of Mallomars and yes, I thought about how I do enjoy a Mallomar now and then. To be blunt, I think Ashley Fink is awesome. I will brook no argument on this point. What I want to discuss, Ryan Murphy, is your portrayal of Lauren Zizes.
Lauren has mad style. She knows her fatshion, bitches, and wears short skirts and horizontal stripes with equal aplomb. She is snarky and clever and untroubled by the shrieking dramas of the glee club. She does push-ups to amp herself up prior to a performance, and is on the wrestling team. She likes Puck and lets him know it; after bribing him to hook up with her, Puck admits, in spite of himself, “I have to say, she kinda rocked my world.” She seems confident, bemused, sharp-edged, funny. If she were real, I’d want to hang out with her.
But you, Ryan Murphy, you have to go and ruin it by making Lauren’s defining characteristic an obsessive love of candy. The fat girl. Loves the candy.
Now, I make a good many jokes here about the so-called “bad” foods on which fat people are said to exclusively subsist. Bacon. Cheese. Handfuls of lard. Pie. The name of this blog even has “cakes” in it. I crack wise about this stuff in an effort to both be funny and to point out how ridiculous these assumptions are. Of course most fat people don’t demand buckets of candy in order to accomplish a task. There are even fat people who don’t much care for candy at all. I’d rather have a cup of tea, myself. The stereotype of the “bad”-eating fatty is offensive, sure, but it can also be funny. Sometimes, it has to be funny, or else we’d all be crying (or kicking people’s heads in) twenty-four hours a day. When we can bring laughter to a subject, that tends to help folks relax, and to open up the conversation to question these ideas. Yes, of course it’s silly to assume that all fat people eat Crisco with a spoon, a laughing person might muse, having not really thought about these stereotypes before.
In order for this to work, once the laughing dies down, you have to make a point of the joke; we laugh, while part of us may believe the stereotype is true. Let’s talk about that. But you, Ryan Murphy! Instead of dragging the absurdity of the fat girl’s candy demands into the light of day and deconstructing that idea, you are banking on it. The fat-girl-eats! jokes do not interrogate these assumptions, but rely on them to elicit laughs, even supporting the notions of those who do believe that fat people are inhuman eating machines. In the episode in which Lauren joins New Directions, her compliance is paid for with candy and sexytimes with Puck — but mostly with candy. She requires candy to join, and candy to perform. By the most recent episode, Lauren is alerting her glee-club colleagues that slush from the parking lot is edible, and she is asking Santa Claus for sweet potato fries, and she is eating the popcorn the other kids are attempting to string for hanging on the tree. Her appetite seems uncontrollable, insatiable, all-encompassing. Hmm, where have I heard that before?
Ryan Murphy, I’m inclined to think that you make these jokes not out of any real disdain for fatasses, but out of a desire to be clever, to rep for the underdog. Before Nip/Tuck, you co-created a show in the late 90s called Popular, and it was another quirky series about kids in high school. Popular had two fat characters — Carmen Ferrara was played by a pre-weight-loss Sara Rue, and Sugar Daddy was played by a pre-weight-loss Ron Lester — and their struggles with self-esteem and fitting in were treated thoughtfully and sensitively, without making their size the most important thing about them. So I know that you are capable of depicting fat folks in a more nuanced way. Unfortunately, and this is my problem with Glee in general at this point, Lauren Zizes, like many of her classmates, seems more like a caricature of a caricature, rather than a real person.
There comes a moment when the eating jokes stop being funny. You may think you’re turning a mirror on a culture that punishes women for failing to starve themselves thin; you may even think you’re standing by the right of fat girls to eat candy, and yes, fat girls are entitled to eat according to their own desires. The problem is, Ryan Murphy, sometimes you don’t get to make the in-jokes when you’re not a member of the group being mocked. It makes the jokes tricky to read, and it’s far too easy to see Lauren’s character not as a pointed attack on the stereotype of the food-obsessed, sex-craving, unlikeable fat girl but as the stereotype itself, unquestioned, uncriticized.
Is this not what you meant to do, Ryan Murphy? Did you mean this character to be funny and shocking and maybe even a winking nod to obnoxiously unapologetic fat chicks like me? Then you fucked up. Believe it or not, I don’t spend my days looking for reasons to be outraged. Those are plentiful enough that, in the interest of my own well-being, I’ve learned to ignore them. Instead, I spend my days looking for reasons to be happy, to feel good, to smile. You put a new fat girl on your show, and my fondest wish is to watch it and discover that it is awesome. I already think Ashley Fink is awesome to start with, so you are beginning on solid ground. But instead of making her a real character, I get a fat-joke punch line in human form.
You can probably understand why I’m so annoyed with you.
And I’m actually letting you off easy in this letter, understand. There is plenty about Glee that gives me pause. You’ve glossed over fat and body issues before, in that weak-ass shit where Mercedes develops and then recovers from an eating disorder in a single episode. You also have a lousy track record of dealing with disability, popular protestations to the contrary, and the most recent Christmas episode represented a horror that left me aghast and enraged, but s.e. smith has already taken that apart and I’m not going to do better here. Lauren Zizes is just the latest in a long habit of characters that fit handy slots — the disabled kid, the woman of color, the dumb blonde, the gay — but who too often exist only to service some platitude-laden Afterschool Special of a storyline. Depth seems to be optional, something we see only if it’s convenient to the plot.
Fix it, Ryan Murphy! Don’t be a part of the problem.
Fat lady, pop-culture curmudgeon, and occasional TV viewer.