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Playing the Buffoon

July 4, 2009

What do all of these characters have in common?

Little John (from Robin Hood)
Little John

Pumba (from The Lion King)

Gus (from Cinderella)

Chien Po (from Mulan)
Chien Po

Baloo (from The Jungle Book)

Lefou (from Beauty and the Beast)

If you said “they’re all from Disney movies,” you’re right. But that’s not quite what I’m getting at.


Now, I’m normally a promoter of showing people of all body types in movies (and TV shows, and magazines and just about everywhere else), but these characters also share some other characteristics.

They’re all buffoons, foils, and sidekicks. Many (if not most) of them are presented as bumbling idiots and are pretty much only in the movie for comedic effect. None of them are the protagonists of the story, none of them have love interests in their films, they aren’t heroes and they don’t save the day. (They’re also all male, I’m not sure what to make of that, but there it is). The best that can be said for any of these men/male animals is that they’re “nice” or perhaps “a good friend”. Disney has done a pretty good job of showing us the place the fat people should occupy in society. They are relegated to a second class existence and are portrayed as dumb, useless, smelly, cowardly and unattractive. By comparison, the protagonists of all of these movies are good-looking, smart, courageous, and of course, SLIM. Take Lefou for instance. Because he is fat (and therefore an idiot, obviously), he can’t even be the antagonist of the story. No, he can only be the sidekick to the antagonist (who himself is in excellent physical form).

But it isn’t just Disney out there spreading the message that fat people are incompetent fools whose purpose in life is to be laughed at. Disney just provides some of the most clear-cut examples. Many other films and TV series are guilty of only showing fat people in peripheral roles, or as idiots. For instance, in The Simpsons alone, there are at least three fat characters who are specifically shown as either dumb, or worthy of ridicule for some other reason (Homer, Chief Wiggum, and Comic Book Guy). This message that “fat = stupid, laughable, incompetent, and secondary” is so pervasive that we almost don’t even notice how discriminatory it is. Weight has absolutely no effect on intelligence, competence, or worth as a person and the television and film industries need to stop acting as though it does when they create characters.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jill permalink
    July 4, 2009 4:34 PM

    This is a great post, Lisa. A couple of things:

    I actually can’t think of any fat female characters. Certainly, this is because I also don’t watch much TV. The only person who came to mind was Camryn Manheim, who was on some law show back in the day. We seem to have a literary space for the fat male, but not for the fat female.

    Another thing that maybe I’ll expand on during male body week: it’s interesting that the fat male isn’t the protagonist because the protagonist, in addition to being the driver of the storyline, is usually the guy who gets the girl. None of the above characters has any sort of romantic relationship going on, and with the exception of Chien Po (in A Girl Worth Fighting For) none even makes mention of what they would like in a girl. The fat man is almost totally asexual.

  2. Lisa permalink
    July 4, 2009 5:27 PM

    I was going to include a little about fat female characters in Disney, but there aren’t many. The few that I could think of were fairy godmothers (in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty), and Ursula (from The Little Mermaid). Although the fairy godmothers are likable, they’re pretty much asexual and relegated to the category of “cute but innocuous”. As for Ursula, she does seem to have some kind of sexuality (she wants to have Prince Eric for herself), and she is powerful. But, of course, she’s evil, so that’s not exactly a great portrayal of a fat woman. Also, she’s half squid.

    I was having a hard time coming up with other instances of fat people in movies and TV, and there certainly aren’t a lot of examples of fat protagonists or heroes out there. All of this is exactly what makes movies like Hairspray so rare. In Hairspray, the main character is fat, but competent, attractive, successful, and sexual.

  3. Becky permalink
    July 6, 2009 11:08 PM

    I’m glad you included reference to fathers that are portrayed as buffoons too, like in the simpsons, or ANY SITCOM EVER.

    I’ve only taken one media studies class, so don’t take my word for it, but we talked about how families are used in media to be a microcosm of society and therefore comment on it. A common trope is a father who is somehow emasculated or absent to represent societal degradation. In fact, the emasculation of fathers is explicitly linked to societal degradation in many studies of, especially, the urban black poor (see: the Moynihan Report, 1965). If you look back at many melodramas, there is a trend to have a father who is somehow inept, and watch the family cope with this absence of absolute authority and judgement.

    The reason I went through this, is to think at why sitcom dads might often be played by fat actors. In your post, you made a great argument at how fat=buffoon often in the media. Fat Fathers then, are also buffoonish fathers, and can follow this same trope of emasculation and ineptitude as in dramas. But in a shorter amount of time, ineptitude must be conveyed quickly to viewers. Fat has become a shorthand for emasculation in the media. And we all know why that’s so wrong and damaging.

  4. Tim permalink
    November 16, 2009 9:45 AM

    I came across this looking for the name of Gastons sidekick. Thank you. As for your post…

    I think one of the reasons fat is used in the media is because it portrays laziness, especially in men who usually have an easier time losing pounds. Also because fat people can get fat from having the mentallity of eating anything, which also comes down to laziness and lack of motivation to eat healthier (not only in type but also in qty). However, I think people really focus too much on finding stereotypes and less time enjoying themselves. I also think people who are slightly overweight (or more so) are more likely to take offensive to the fat bumbling idiots on shows / movies (I guess this is an obvious assessment but needed to be pointed out). In pointing out fat stupid people in the simpsons for example you failed in pointing out the comic book guy (have you seen him on the show?), from wikipedia:

    He holds a master’s degree in folklore and mythology (he translated The Lord of the Rings into Klingon as part of his thesis), has an IQ of 170 and is a member of the Springfield branch of Mensa.

    You also failed to point out that there are plenty of fat people on that show that are the wisest of the bunch, such as Dr. Hibbert (obviously not a fool), the old sax player guy and someone I can’t remember his name but is fat and very much portrayed as a smart person. My point is you focused on what you wanted to focus on and not the whole picture.

    I have nothing against you guys or your blog, I just wanted to show the argument as seen through different nonfat masculine eyes (I’m biased a bit opposite)

    Last note, did anyone notice that funny tiny tiny smiley face at the bottom left of the page? Must be part of the Vigilance theme of wordpress.

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