What if the fatties of the future are a logical, rather than hateful, representation? (Wall*e reconsidered)

Wall*e came out on DVD a while back, and I viewed it again with a particular eye for how bodies and genders are represented in order to reconsider if I feel my previous reviews still stand (see previous posts here and here). In sum, I think they do. I still think the film perpetuates heteronormativity, unnecessarily relies on normative gendering of the robots, and propagates a fat-phobic message. However, one of the people I viewed the film with disagreed mightily. He and I got into a rather lengthy debate after watching Wall*e, particularly in relation to the ‘fatties of the future’.

“Can’t you lose the reactionary feminist response for once? You are so anxious to see ‘wrongs’ that you refuse to see how logical having the humans be fat is! Of course they would be fat! As the movie explains, they have lost bone mass. It’s nothing to do with being anti-fat; it is merely a realistic representation of what would happen to the human body in such a situation.”

Although the “reactionary feminist response” comment was really annoying (why is it people are always so quick to use the F-card when they disagree?),  I can see his point. Yet, when we have a general cultural hatred and fear of fat, such a representation, even if it is logical in ways, is still problematic.  If we lived in a culture in which all bodies mattered, the fatties-of-the-future narrative thread would not so easily illicit disgust – a response that the film effortlessly promotes via showcasing the fat future-ites as lazy, oblivious, and not-too-bright. If fat was not code for dumb, lazy, and gross, the narrative would have had to work much harder to establish the future humans as such. But, by relying on fat as a culturally negative sign, the film (lazily) uses a shorthand symbol – and one that perpetuates bias towards particular types of bodies.

Further, while the representation is explained within the narrative framing (in the short sequence that shows the bone mass of humans shrinking and the flesh expanding), there are so many other representations the film could have chosen. For example, the future humans could have been so obsessed with their virtual screens and other gadgetry, they could FORGET to eat – they could have been skeletal creatures plugged into their techno chairs that could have doubled as a sort of life-support system with a feeding tube. Wouldn’t skeletal future humans who cared more about consuming technology and things than taking care of and nourishing their bodies also have been a logical representation?

The fat card was an easy one to play, a lazy one to play. And while I still see merit in the film, I see this as a major fault. It may be a logical representation, but it is also a hateful one.

Advertisements

17 thoughts on “What if the fatties of the future are a logical, rather than hateful, representation? (Wall*e reconsidered)”

  1. a response that the film effortlessly promotes via showcasing the fat future-ites as lazy, oblivious, and not-too-bright.

    I’m going to have to agree with your friend, and I’d like to say the same exact thing.

    They’re lazy, oblivious, and not-too-bright because everything on that ship has been handed to them. It was meant to be a short cruise of luxury, and became 700 years of it. 700 years of having every single thing attended to, so you didn’t have to exert any effort yourself.

    The condition they’re in is exactly what would happen to our race in such a situation.

    Though, apparently, you aren’t really familiar with low gravity environments.

    In space, over long periods of time, our species would lose bone mass. Period. Given that they’re lazy, and have everything handed to them, coupled with the American style of excess, what occurred is, as I said, exactly what would happen.

    There’s nothing hateful about fact.

    Such as stating in our current society, that being obese is unhealthy. It’s not “fat hate”, any more than pointing out that any behaviour or lifestyle is unhealthy is hate. Is saying smoking is unhealthy “smoker hate”? Is saying doing crack is bad “crackhead hate”?

  2. Sarah,
    Wasn’t the Axiom an ‘escape ship’ as planet earth was uninhabitable rather than a luxury cruise?

    Being underweight is unhealthy. Being overweight is no more or less unhealthy than being underweight, and often it is less so. Weight norms in our culture are ridiculously narrow. Being fat is not inherently unhealthy — that is a lie. Apparently you are not familiar with this fact.

    Regardless of whether the bone mass story is what would happen in space, the representation is problematic because of the widespread fat phobia in American culture. If the film wanted to use this representation, it should have done so in a much more culturally sensitive way.

  3. Wasn’t the Axiom an ‘escape ship’ as planet earth was uninhabitable rather than a luxury cruise?

    Well, yes, but in the context of the film, it was produced by “Buy-n-Large”, a corporation that (IMO) is not-unlike Wal-mart. A huge corporation, that advertised that leaving Earth would be a luxurious thing. All throughout, they advertise that this ship will have everything available, and be luxurious.

    Probably in order to encourage people to go along.

    Being underweight is unhealthy. Being overweight is no more or less unhealthy than being underweight, and often it is less so. Weight norms in our culture are ridiculously narrow. Being fat is not inherently unhealthy — that is a lie. Apparently you are not familiar with this fact.

    There are far more people that are dangerously overweight, than are underweight. Obesity is inherently unhealthy. It’s bad for your heart, your joints, your kidneys, and various other things. A lot of people don’t want to accept that, because they claim it’s a “beauty standard”.

    Culturally sensitive? That’d be taking PC too far, I think. Loss of bone mass happens in low gravity. Our bodies are built for the gravity of Earth, not space. Even astronauts in space for short periods experience symptoms of loss of bone mass. The loss of bone mass, coupled with a veritable luxury cruise of excess would have such an effect on humanity.

    We shouldn’t be roped into only saying or doing things that won’t offend anyone.

  4. “Given that they’re lazy, and have everything handed to them, coupled with the American style of excess, what occurred is, as I said, exactly what would happen.

    There’s nothing hateful about fact.”

    Okay, but there is something hateful about characterizing fat people as “lazy, and hav[ing] everything hand to them,” living a life of excess. The simplistic reduction of fat to these factors is hateful. Fat people are no more lazy or privileged (hah!) than thin people. Most do not eat more than thin people, either.

    We can argue about the unhealthy bit, but the discriminatory bit (if you fat, you’re lazy and vice versa) involves chacterizing them by the appearance of their body.

    My understanding is that bone density loss is linked with loss of fat and muscle (not that you’ve can’t have bone density loss as a fat person), not increase, but admittedly, it’s been awhile since I read about it, and knowledge may have changed in the interim.

  5. Okay, but there is something hateful about characterizing fat people as “lazy, and hav[ing] everything hand to them,” living a life of excess. The simplistic reduction of fat to these factors is hateful. Fat people are no more lazy or privileged (hah!) than thin people. Most do not eat more than thin people, either.

    No no no, you miss my point.

    These people aren’t lazy because they’re fat. They became fat over time, because all they did was sit in their hover chairs and have everything catered to them by robots, and such. That’s not hateful. That’s what would happen. If you stayed seated for every activity for every waking hour, and never exerted any energy to do anything, would you become fat? Chances are, yes, yes you would.

    Though, you say most do not eat more, and I’d argue that. Most people tend to eat until relatively full/satisfied, at a meal. Obese people have larger stomachs. When you eat a lot, and your stomach distends and stretches, over time, it requires more to fill it. Ergo, for an obese person to eat until full will use more food than a thin person would.

    We can argue about the unhealthy bit, but the discriminatory bit (if you fat, you’re lazy and vice versa) involves chacterizing them by the appearance of their body.

    It’s mostly because increased body activity will not result in obesity. Olympians aren’t obese.

  6. Ah, sorry – I misread your comment.

    [i]If you stayed seated for every activity for every waking hour, and never exerted any energy to do anything, would you become fat? Chances are, yes, yes you would. [i/]

    Except that it’s incredibly hard to get thin people fat and fat people thin, and keep them that way. I’ve been sedentary and fat, active and fat, *really* active and fat, vegetarian and fat, vegan and fat, dieting and fat, and not dieting and fat. My aunt has been all those things except thin. There are plenty of thin people who are very very sedentary. (There’s certainly variation amongst folks, and weight does fluctuate some, but I’ve found mine stays within a pretty narrow 10lb. range, except when I’m super sick or actively lifting weights. I’m sure it’s different for some people, but almost everyone I know has relatively small fluctuation, especially over time.)

    If you were making a case for, say, physical weakness, I’d go for it. Hard to get stronger by sitting in a chair.

    There’s no good evidence that people who are obese have larger stomachs. (See: https://secure.nature.com/oby/journal/v9/n11/full/oby200198a.html for the most high profile one.) People who binge do, but the scientists couldn’t correlate increased stomach size with obesity. In addition, there’s lots of reasons people eat or don’t that don’t have to do with physical satiety. (And even physical satiety requires a brain-nerve correlation that may differ for different folks. That is, a tiny amount of ice cream makes me “full” for ice cream, but I can almost always eat more mangos. Something not merely physical going on there.)

    I wonder if Wall-E might have been better off showing a variety of issues people had to demonstrate problems – just as disconnect now may take many forms, maybe it should have in the movie as well.

  7. Excellent post. This is fat-shaming because it perpetuates the idea that fat people are lazy. These people could have been a myriad of shapes with weakened bodies. But it is “funnier” when the person is fat. Because we like to laugh at fat people.

    I personally am sick and tired of the new fat-shaming discourse of “health”.

  8. Anita and Lyndsay,
    Thanks for commenting and furthering the conversation on this topic in such useful ways!

    Shermanvolvo,
    Thanks!
    I agree with you about the “health” mantra as yet another “fat hate” in disguise rhetoric. All the talk of “childhood obesity” bugs me too — esp given the LACK of analysis of high fructose corn syrup and other processed foods as a major culprit. So much easier to blame parents/kids for their “obesity” than to take food corporations and corporatized farming to task…

  9. The assumption that people without imposed responsibilities will be satisfied doing nothing their entire lives is a bit depressing. IRL, I think a few years in, the novelty would wear off, and people would find their own things to do. When I have no responsibilities, I usually don’t sit around watching TV all day. Sometimes I do, but I certainly couldn’t handle doing that my entire life. Maybe I am an optimist, but I think if we were stuck on a spaceship for 700 years with no grunt work to do, we would end up with some lovely breakthroughs in philosophy, literature, mathematics, art, and virtually every other product of the human imagination. Okay, we’d probably be a little plumper on average, due to the being-in-space thing, and the fact that people would no longer feel pressure to “keep up appearances” for their jobs (modeling, performing, and acting-type jobs, especially). But I don’t for a moment believe that obesity and laziness are natural environmental products of having no responsibilities. In that 700 years, nobody took interest in a sport? For most people who play sports, they are recreation. The passengers of the Axiom had much more recreation time than we do today. Also, the linear increase in fatness (as shown by the captains’ portraits) is definitely not realistic. The children born in year 100 would have had the same luxurious lifestyle, and the same low-gravity environment, as the children born in year 650, yet the successive generations kept getting fatter and fatter. The fatness is definitely being used as a shorthand symbol for laziness and lack of independence. (Although I have to admit, I liked the fatness itself, because it made them all cute and rotund with stubbular fingers. Still, there have to be less hurtful ways to make lovable CG humans.)

    Another thing I find really weird is that I don’t think I saw anyone on the Axiom who was Asian, although there might have been one black guy. Everyone spoke American English, too. Did we just leave everyone except white Americans to die on Earth or did we segregate multiple ships by race and nationality (and then not bother to communicate with the other ships, or mention them, or let them know Earth was safe to return to…)? If the Axiom was made by a large corporation, I assume they were getting something out of the deal; does that mean ticket sales? Were the poor left to die, too? I liked Wall-E as a movie, in general. But there are a few subtle things in the movie that just come off really badly when you think about them.

  10. Obesity does necessarily result from lack of activity, but in most cases…well, yeah, it does. Yes, there are people who are genetically fat, and yes, those people deserve the same basic dignity and respect that everyone else does, but put a person (even me for example who can’t seem to hit 170) in a chair all their life with robots providing them with everything they want, any time they want it, and they’ll get lethargic and fat. Duh. The only thing that will save you at that point is a naturally high metabolism, and most people don’t have that. And maybe not even then.

    Also, to counter Meg: the passengers were in fact a mixed bag of ethnicities (word?). They spoke American English because it’s an American movie and nearly all sci-fi movies standardize the language for simplicity. In any case, would you really WANT more (prominent) non-whites, seeing as how the humans in the movie are clearly not intended to be sympathized with until the end? An obese black captain waddling around the ship in a stupor would not exactly be a positive portrayal…

  11. Actually, obesity appears to be more related to genes than activity level:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/7230065.stm

    Obesity is also linked to poverty, so in that sense, fat-shaming is similar to oppressive stereotypes of people on welfare, etc.

    I was volunteering at a fundraising event the other day with a bunch of “progressive” people (anti-capitalists, anarchists, marxists, etc) and a group of men talked about the perspective of doing a “full monty” as a fundraiser. Individuals immediately joked about people wanting to pay money to see “Bob” (I will call him) strip down. Why do you think Bob was targeted specifically, out of the group of men? Well, Bob was fat.

    It took me a few hours to articulate what made me angry in the moment – Bob was a “safe” target because he was fat. And even if one is “progressive”, targeting fat people isn’t “really” oppressive, because, well, it’s funny. And fat people are innately unattractive. (Didn’t you all know that?)

    Why do discussions of fat oppression have to come down to “well, it is about lifestyle” or “being fat is unhealthy”? Why do all these justifications come out?

    Why can’t the focus be on “the depiction of fat people is stereotypical and harmful”? And just leave it at that?

  12. The way in which the humans on the Axiom were portrayed is largely based, I think, on 1950’s science fiction. I’m thinking of an early MAD comic from the 50’s, for example, by Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman, which was a parody of the sci-fi of the time, where people in a futuristic city zip around on hover chairs and have all their needs tended to them by the central computer of the city. Interestingly, in this comic, their heads are very large and the rest of the body quite small and useless, as if it has withered away from lack of use. Both in this case and in Wall-E, I think the creators were attempting to make the humans of the future look like the giant babies they are treated as by the ‘nanny’ computer, but the difference between the humans in the 1950’s version and those in the 2000’s version – namely, large amounts of body fat – is telling and seems to indicate that your analysis concerning ‘fatphobia’ is correct and very relevant.

    Also, I thought that the fact that the people on the Axiom were predominantly white and (exclusively) North American was quite chilling, once I thought about it. The Earth today has a population of 6,7 billion people – that only a few hundred Americans survived by buying seats aboard a luxury escape ship, owned by the very same private corporation that seems to have contributed the most to Earth’s demise, indicates that, what, 99% of the people on Earth (those who were not the few wealthiest Americans) died, or, you could say, were killed by the capitalist quest for profit. The thought lends a horribly frightening backdrop to the otherwise quite light-hearted movie.

    Anyway, great blog!

    1. Adam,
      Thanks for commenting!
      Very interesting comments about 50s sci-fi. How interesting that the comic you cite has shriveled bodies… This does indeed ally with my argument that the representation is context dependent, and we must take the fat-phobia of our culture into account when assessing this representation. Those who argue the representation is “merely” logical or coincidental are missing that images are not value-free — hence the notion “the politics of representation”!
      Also, your points about the whiteness of the Axiom are very interesting. The argument that non-whites were likely not among the wealthiest and “were killed by the capitalist quest for profit” puts a new spin on the movie — it would be interesting to read the film in relation to the famous essay “Lifeboat Ethics” by Hardin — I think I have that title right. Ok, you have just given me an idea for another post. Thanks much!

    1. The “just a film” arguments irk me. Yes, they are “just films” but popular culture has immense sway over our cultural imagination. Saying things are “just films” or “just entertainment” has been used as a catch all way to justify racism, sexism, homophobia, etc in media. It is about the POLITICS of representation, there is no “just” about it, and certainly little justice.
      So, go ahead and “relax” and let the world stay a socially unjust place if that’s your excuse but I, for one, say fuck no, I am not going to relax.

  13. Maybe they should have had everyone be pasty white complected because in space you don’t really need melanin. But it wouldn’t be PC to deliberately work that into the story line, now would it? Or maybe they should have had everyone be extra tall, because in a low gravity environment people are more likely to elongate than shrink.

    I was teased- daily, from the time I was about 6 until maybe 12 for my weight. At which point I basically stopped eating anything but dill pickles, diet coke, ice cubes, and vegi patties. Which was REALLY healthier than when I was eating normal food and chunky, eh? I am so very lucky I did not develop anorexia.

    This is the biggest reason Wall-E bothered me- kids don’t understand the “subtleties”. They just see fat people falling on the floor and unable to get up. They think it’s funny. That translates into it being funny to make fun of the chubby kid.

    I actually thought parts of Wall-E were fantastic. It didn’t need to be ruined by the fat jokes. No matter the intellectual excuses anyone would use.

  14. Yet another one that thinks that being fat is somehow “cool”, instead of a debilitating condition.
    Everyone seems to believe he’s a minority during these days, an oppresed minority even.
    I believe it’s easier to lie to yourself than face the reality of the fact that fatness stops you from doing many things that other people can.
    Fat pride, just like “alcoholic pride”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s