NEAL CONAN, host:
Last night, Fox Television premiered its new version of the popular reality show "The Bachelor," with a plus-sized twist. "More to Love" follows a slate of women who compete for the heart of an eligible young man. But in this version of the show, the bachelor, a 26-year-old real estate investor, and all 20 contestants are overweight.
Unlike shows like "The Biggest Loser," "More to Love" is not built around the idea of losing that weight. Fox says the program shows real-sized people as they really are. But is this inspiration or spectacle? We want to hear from those of you who saw the show last night. Does it perpetuate stereotypes or challenge them? Give us a call: 800-989-8255, email us firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now from member station WUCF in Orlando is Marianne Kirby, a self-described fat activist who critiqued "More to Love" this week for the Daily Beast, and she joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us.
Ms. MARIANNE KIRBY (Writer): Hi. Thank you.
CONAN: And Fox bills "More to Love" as inspirational for overweight people. Did you take it that way?
Ms. KIRBY: Not nearly as much as they hoped that the fat audience would, I think. It's a problematic show.
CONAN: You said it was, on the one hand, great to see these, well, terrific-looking people with curves. On the other hand, you cringed.
Ms. KIRBY: Well, I mean, it's good to see fat people on TV. And I think we shouldn't be so afraid of the word fat either. It's also a lot of women crying about how this is their last chance at love, which really does play into this being a spectacle. So while it is great to see fat people on television, when they're portrayed this way, that sort of makes my life harder.
CONAN: Hmm. You also complained about the extent to which the show was built around shots of food.
Ms. KIRBY: Yeah. There's - if you watch the regular version of "The Bachelor," there's no food at that cocktail party, much less chicken teriyaki, meat on a stick dripping all over their fancy dresses.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And indeed, the bachelor is shown wolfing down a couple of cheeseburgers.
Ms. KIRBY: Yes. That's one of your first introductory shots of him, is the cheeseburger shot and the I-like-food line.
CONAN: And nevertheless, he is unapologetically fat and says he likes big women.
Ms. KIRBY: And I do think that's fantastic. That's sort of the weird tension that happens with this show. There's all of this great message of acceptance stuff. But there's all this backhanded, we're-still-going-to-make-fun-of-you, you know, stuff going on in the editing and the casting and the way people are portrayed.
CONAN: Don't these shows make fun of all their contestants whether they're fat or not?
Ms. KIRBY: On some level, yes, I think they do. This show - a friend of mine, her line is that it's not that she minds fat jokes. It's just that none of the ones she hears are funny.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KIRBY: And we've been hearing the same fat jokes forever. You know, oh, fatties like to eat, and let's move on. Let's find something else. If you want to laugh at me, make it funny, not weak.
CONAN: But for the most part on TV, people who are overweight play comic relief - the star's best friend, not the star.
Ms. KIRBY: Absolutely. Mimi from "The Drew Carey Show," Drew Carey himself, Roseanne, if you want to go all the way back to "Roseanne." "More to Love" is a new show as well, along with "Drop Dead Diva," which is sort of also a comedy. There is a model who has been sort of reincarnated in the body of a lawyer who happens to be fat.
Ms. KIRBY: And that's also a really intriguing show. There's a lot of fat people on television right now, and I see that as a very positive thing. It's just kind of problematic.
CONAN: Well, let's get some callers on the line, people who've seen the show, which debuted last night on Fox "More to Love." Does it challenge stereotypes or perpetuate them? Give us a call: 800-989-8255, email is email@example.com. And Orven(ph) joins us. I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, from Sacramento.
ORVEN (Caller): Hey, I watched the show. And I have just - I have three points. My first point being I don't think it perpetuates stereotypes. I mean, the stereotypes are there whether we deal with them or not. I really think the show is dealing more with reality. There are big people out there who are plus sizes who really deserve to love someone, who deserve to be loved.
I have two sisters who are plus-sized and I want them to be happy. Second point is, I don't think it's so much about being a plus size. I think it's more about being healthy. Healthy people can be really big and still be healthy. And my third point is this. We have a nominee of - for surgeon general of the United States who people are critiquing about being a plus-size woman. They're not looking at her credentials. They're not looking at her background. They're not looking at the community service she's done. They seem to be looking at the cosmetics of it.
And I hope one day we can really start dealing with the content of people's character, their heart and their soul and move on from there. Not everybody fits into that Twiggy cookie-cutout. And not everybody is not going to be in men's and women's health-fitness magazine. People can be healthy and happy and deserve to be loved.
CONAN: Nobody's going to argue with that, Orven. But on the other hand you have to admit that on a collective basis, on a national basis, obesity is a public health problem.
Ms. KIRBY: You don't have to admit that.
ORVEN: I (unintelligible) agree with you that obesity is a national health problem. Actually, obesity is an international health problem.
CONAN: Well, that's true. But...
ORVEN: (Unintelligible) so much as - instead of talking about people being plus-sized, I think the conversation should be about people healthy.
CONAN: All right. Let's get back to Marianne Kirby, who wanted to challenge me on that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KIRBY: I - you don't have to admit that. The obesity, quote, unquote, "crisis," is largely a product of the multibillion-dollar diet industry. Obesity levels stopped rising in 2000. If you check the CDC statistics on that, no matter what people say, obesity levels leveled off in the year 2000, nine years ago, almost a decade ago. And people are still parroting on about oh, they're on the rise. Also, the way these statistics are measured...
CONAN: Whether they're rising or not, they are too high.
Ms. KIRBY: Though - but you can't say that just based on the BMI, which is what a lot of the stuff is going by, because the BMI is your height and your weight. It doesn't actually measure anything of importance about your body. If you want to talk about health, what we have is a lot of diseases that are correlated with obesity but are not causally related.
ORVEN: You know (unintelligible)…
CONAN: Let's move on. Let's get back to the TV show. But Orven, anyway…
Ms. KIRBY: Yeah.
CONAN: …thanks very much for the show. Here's an email from Devin(ph) in San Francisco. If FOX is so concerned with making weight a non-issue, then why did they add the girls' weight near their names on the screen? I thought that was odd.
Ms. KIRBY: Is that for me?
CONAN: I guess it's for you.
Ms. KIRBY: Okay. Awesome. They did that because, I think for two reasons. One, so that people can go, oh, my God, look at how much she weighs. And two, because nobody knows what weight looks like anymore. You have no idea, when you look at a person, like, what their body composition adds up to. So, there are women on that show, there is one of them, she's 5'10 and 179 pounds, I think was her statistic. And to look at her, I don't think your average person on the street would peg her as fat at all. But according to all sorts of different measurements, she would be.
CONAN: Let's get Michelle (ph) on from Orem in Utah.
MICHELLE (Caller): Well, I have two things. One is - and I agree with her in saying that BMI does not determine whether you're healthy or not. A stress test does, getting on the treadmill and taking a blood pressure, taking the pulse level, taking sugar levels. That's what determines if you're healthy or not. And then, the thing I didn't agree about is I don't think that them being overweight - I don't want to be victimized anymore.
I don't think - I mean, cause there's other bachelor shows that the men and the women both have said, I'm 35. I'm whatever age. I'm at whatever stage in my life. This may be the last time I have at love. So I don't think it's because they're fat that it's being, you know, glamorized or it's being set apart and think, oh, I'm fat so no one's going to love me. I think that's too much of a victimization.
CONAN: And that was something that you also agreed with, Marianne Kirby?
Ms. KIRBY: Yes.
MICHELLE: I just - I don't agree with it, that...
CONAN: No. I'm saying, Michelle, that Marianne agreed with you. But go ahead. Thanks very much for the phone call.
MICHELLE: Oh, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Judy (ph) in Wilmington, North Carolina. I saw the end of the show last night. And if the intent was to show that overweight women can be just as alluring and glamorous as the size two models on "The Bachelor," it failed miserably. The focus was still on how fat they were and it came off - and they came off as pathetic.
The majority of the viewing audience is probably overweight but I'm sure they have no desire to watch people who look just like them in this type of reality show. We prefer to escape the reality of our own less-than-perfect bodies by identifying with beautiful people. I wonder how you respond to that.
Ms. KIRBY: That really bothers me on a lot of levels because it assumes that fat people can't be beautiful. I think that a lot of people, as many issues as there are in this show, as many mixed signals and messages, a lot of people are going to identify with these women because they feel that way.
I don't watch reality television on a regular basis, but I'll be watching next week because I feel for these women. There's so much negativity, so many things beating you down as a fat woman in America today that to have someone tell you you're beautiful and lends you your jacket really can be sort of a revelatory event. And to watch that happen for these women is really kind of powerful.
CONAN: Here's another email. This is from Pat in San Francisco. It watched - I watched it as a fairy tale for those overweight and viewed it as a circus side show for the thin. I was interested by that comment. Also by - I saw some comments to your blog and that was - several people said they were desperately worried that there was going to be a twist, as there often are, in these shows and that some thin competitor would be introduced further on down the show.
Ms. KIRBY: Yes. I did a lot of sort of prep work for the article and wound up watching a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. And it's interesting how aware of this tension the producers are. They are actively hoping - they've said in interviews - that people will tune in because they're attracted by the spectacle of this, and that they will stay because they get to know these women and they want to stay for the story of it.
CONAN: Well, story is what sells these kinds of shows. And you start rooting for one and against another, and I guess that's how it works. But nevertheless, people are afraid of what the twist might be, whatever it turns out to be.
Marianne Kirby, thanks very much for your time today. Marianne Kirby is co-author of "Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body." And she joined us today from the studios of member station WUCF in Orlando.
Tomorrow - and we're talking to you from NPR in Washington, D.C. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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