I like Noah Hawley. His shows are beautiful and interesting and I’m excited he’s creating television. I really enjoy Fargo (especially season 2), and I’m intrigued enough to keep watching Legion.
When I saw that there was an interview between Noah Hawley and Andy Greenwald on The Watch podcast feed, I was excited. I made sure to catch up on Legion in preparation. And overall I found the interview interesting; Greenwald did some writing for the show, and so he asked more insider-y questions like how Hawley decided on the look for certain characters and scenes. The part that troubled me was when Hawley discussed his visual inspiration for the Devil with the Yellow Eyes.
Much of Legion takes place in David Haller’s mind and memory, so having the Devil with the Yellow Eyes look more like an ogre than a person didn’t really bother me. I don’t think it’s inherently offensive or fat shaming to have a fat antagonist. The Devil with the Yellow Eyes is certainly a dehumanizing portrayal, but the character isn’t exactly human. At this point in the show, we’ve learned that he is a parasite in David’s mind.
Here’s the exchange:
Greenwald: The Devil with the Yellow Eyes was a character, was written, was up on the board, we talked about it. But I didn’t know what that character looked like until I think there was some test footage or something.
Hawley: Well that character came out of our production designer Michael Wylie who said he was obsessed with the show My 600-Lb Life.
Hawley: Which is a reality show, for people who don’t know it. And he said it’s so…like you can’t look away and it’s so horrifying, these people and…you know…and they’re what the technical term grossly obese you know…
Hawley: And yet there’s something like behind their eyes that just feels trapped…
Greenwald: Trapped in their own body…
Hawley: Yeah and so they’re…but again the uncanny, right? It’s like humans weren’t designed to be that big. So when…part of our reaction to people of that size is it just doesn’t seem natural to us because that’s not our experience of how human beings are meant to be designed, you know what I mean?
[Hawley then talks about how it was difficult to have a writers’ room because the look of the show is so specific]
What bothers me most about this exchange is that neither Hawley nor Greenwald [nor Wylie, who was implicated] seem to think there is anything wrong with seeing and portraying fat bodies as “horrifying,” and unnatural. That they think a real person is slender and that each fat person is a real person trapped inside an oppressive body that the rest of the world finds abhorrent. The problem isn’t that the Devil with the Yellow Eyes is an fat creature–it’s that Hawley seems to think that fatness is what makes a person into a creature.
Shows like My 600-lb Life perpetuate the idea that fatness is a disease, the result of bad decisions and maybe some bad genetics. It is something to be cured, to be overcome. They obscure structural and cultural factors that contribute to body weight: for example the cheapest and most accessible foods are usually pre-processed, and our society supports a sedentary lifestyle. Furthermore, they completely miss that our very understandings of fatness (and thinness) are historically and culturally constructed. Medicalizing fatness as a disease makes it seem fixed and objective rather than a moving target of socially unacceptable body shape. One only needs to look here and here and here to see that there’s still a lot of work to do on this.
In quick summary: The rhetoric of fatness, like other ways of describing the body, tend to talk about it in terms of control and mastery. Fat bodies are out of control; they need discipline, restraint, and hard work to become fit. Unfit bodies have been used as evidence of mental and moral failings, and has been a useful way to deprive people of rights (e.g. colonized people, people of color, women, and the disabled). For more on this subject, I’ll direct you to Amy Edman Farrell’s Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (NYU Press, 2011).
I would hope that people writing and creating in Hollywood would at least understand that it is not acceptable to demonize fatness. Do better, guys.