Sadly, It Takes Louis C.K. to Give Fat Women a Voice

The first of last night’s Louie episodes, “So Did the Fat Lady,” not only dismantles the fat-schlub-gets-hot-girl narrative seen historically throughout TV and movies, it acknowledges that this dynamic is very much alive and well in the real world. Essentially Louie asks, as compassionately as possible: if fat, middle-aged, bald, disgusting gingers like me are fucking models, who’s dating overweight women? And are they not worthy of love?

The answer is even more complicated than Louis C.K. makes it out to be, as are its implications. Last night’s show wasn’t perfect, but ultimately, the dialogue that last night’s show catalyzed among viewers — who may not have ever had these kinds of conversations before — is powerful enough to forgive the flaws in Louis’s careful execution.

I can count on one hand how many TV shows I’ve watched where I felt like I — a fat woman — was represented beyond butt-of-the-joke or disposable-friend status. Sitcoms made in the last few decades have been marred slightly for me by the cheap laughs had at the expense of female obesity. For every Roseanne and Sookie St. James (Gilmore Girls), there’s a Fat Monica (Friends), a whole season of Daphne Moon fat jokes (Frasier Season 8), the narcissistic unlikability of Suzanne Sugarbaker (Designing Women), and the clown-like vilification of Mimi Bobeck (The Drew Carey Show). Although we spend only 15 minutes of screen time with her, Louie‘s Vanessa character (played by Sarah Baker) instantly rises to the top of this pile in terms of relatability and nuance.

Vanessa is a cute, funny, independent — and, yes, overweight — waitress at the Comedy Cellar, with a relaxed-fit wit and an aggressive charm I wish I had. She hits on Louie in the coolest possible way, and it’s only after she gives him hockey tickets that he agrees to hang out with her. Their non-date is effortless… until the matter of Vanessa being fat comes up. Louie tells her she isn’t fat, her response to which is: “Louie, you know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? ‘You’re not fat.'”

From there, Vanessa uses Louie as a stand-in for mankind, asking him directly why men hate fat women so much. She points out that they’re both fat and they’d fit together well if he didn’t: a) feel entitled to a more conventionally attractive woman, b) feel ashamed to be affectionate with her in public. (This last point is crucial.) “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?” Vanessa asks. “Nope. Not for us. How is that fair? And why am I supposed to just accept it?”

This is one of the places where I take issue with the simplicity of Vanessa’s monologue, which ping-pongs between justifiably brazen, bitter, and downright depressing. She doesn’t have to accept it. Without getting into it too deeply, there are plenty of men who prefer big women, and I don’t mean the “curvy” euphemism as applied to Kardashians. It’s just that meeting them involves infiltrating online fat-acceptance communities, even traveling to what they call “bashes” full of thousands of fat women and the men who prefer them.

It’s not necessarily a scene for those of us who prefer romantic existence in the real world over the digital one, and it certainly comes with its own set of complications outside of typical male-female attraction. The point is, the whole thing is not as hopeless as Vanessa makes it out to be. The conversation is still worth our time, even if Louis C.K. slightly flubs this aspect and shows us another sad fat girl instead of an empowered one who can admit she wants a relationship and not just her hand held.

I’m torn because it takes a privileged man to give fat women a voice, to start a conversation that no one wants to have besides fat women themselves. And some fat women don’t want to talk about it either, just as they’d prefer never having to acknowledge their own size. Instead they do this dance with potential suitors that, to me, back before I was comfortable freely using the word “fat” to describe myself, felt like a staring contest of sorts: who’s going to point out the elephant in the room first?

That’s the difference between a character like Vanessa and a fat woman whose worst fear is a conversation about her pants size: the former is not afraid of acknowledging her misshape, which has come to define her in the eyes of others. The right words don’t make the wrong body any smaller, but they do take the power out of language itself. In doing so, you minimize the effects of those who call you fat and don’t mean it as a neutral descriptor, akin to “tall” or “short” or “skinny.”

Blowing the conversation wide open, as Vanessa did with Louie, made the situation less uncomfortable for her. For Louie himself, though, not so much… as you see when he finally takes her hand to get her to stop talking. For as emotionally uncomfortable as it can be to be an overweight woman, I think Vanessa would be entitled to making just one man uncomfortable. But here it is on a show watched by millions of straight men, written with care by their schlub idol, with the sole purpose of making them uncomfortable. Even though Louis C.K. messes up the ending by tying it into a perfect bow with no actual resolution, it’s a beautiful thing to see the intimate passages of your mind play out on your TV screen for the very first time. All it took to make the fat lady sing was a privileged man, albeit a self-aware one.