The Fat Kid Conundrum

When you’ve seen as many movies as I have — and I’d strongly caution against doing so — you start to notice the patterns. Through sheer repetition of stock characters and plot threads, Hollywood perpetuates a lot of myths about modern living that are not exactly true. Many of them are downright ridiculous. We Were Promised Hoverboards is a weekly series in which I investigate these myths for sociological and comedic purposes.

At the end of the movie, Superbad, Jonah Hill’s scruffy, unapologetically overweight character, Seth, walks off into the sunset (technically a mall) with the object of his affection in tow: a hip, attractive, statuesque, red-head named Wilma. Her name isn’t really Wilma, of course, but Superbad is the rare exception to the pop culture rule that The Flintstones paradigm is for adults only. There has long been a double-standard in TV shows and movies: If the patriarch happens to be a very large grease-trap of a man, he is more often than not partnered up with an implausibly attractive woman, perhaps a younger one with gorgeous red hair.

There are several exact parallels to be found in cartoons directly spawned from The Flintstones, namely The Simpsons and Family Guy. But this trend is not just a cartoon phenomenon, it dates back to at least The Honeymooners, and your Jim Belushis and your Kevin James’ can still be found clogging up TV sets, trading quip-filled banter with their conspicuously hot wives. This wish fulfillment fantasy seems squarely aimed at audience members at home who are of similar girth to Kevin James, and that makes sense. However, this promise is only one side of The Fat Kid Conundrum.

The ending of Superbad is a major exception to a long-standing rule in teen cinema. In pretty much every instance, the fat kid does not get the girl. She is a forbidden object for him to lust after but never to obtain, having to settle for merely ‘coming of age’ as a consolation. It’s as if the filmmakers, in a rare fit of verisimilitude, don’t want to stretch viewers’ suspension of disbelief too far by suggesting that the fat kid actually can get the dreamgirl. Because in real life, of course, in nine out of ten instances he probably can’t. What message does it send to kids, though, when they see that while being overweight at their age is clearly a detriment to romance, no such problem exists in the adult world? What are kids supposed to make of this fallacy?

When women get older, something apparently happens that renders them far less judgmental and more susceptible to advances from the rotund gentleman caller. Is it money and security? Maybe. If that’s the case, though, The Fat Kid Conundrum is kind of a misogynist ideal. Attractive women can afford to blow off fat kids in the folly of their youth, but later in life, they may have to settle for any provider who can offer stability and security, even if he looks like fucking John Goodman. Although Roseanne had it right by casting equally out of shape leads, John Goodman’s movie wives have been played by Melanie Griffith and Julie Hagerty (twice), among others less likely.

While the tough love lesson of teen movies gives actual hamhock-breasted fat children the motivation to lose weight, as soon as those kids see sitcoms like The King of Queens, they will find incentive to keep eating KFC’s Double Down sandwich: if they become adequate enough at their job later in life to afford a house, perhaps the girl that eluded them as a fat kid will be ready to settle for John Goodman. This message isn’t flattering for anybody involved — neither middling fat guys nor down-on-their-luck former homecoming queens. Fat audience members deserve some consistency in their pop culture depiction, though. Either the fat kid should get the girl more often — perhaps using bold, manic humor like Jonah Hill’s Seth in Superbad — or older fat men should be seen with the kind of women they are more likely to end up with in real life, as in Roseanne. Something has got to give, however, besides wastebands and standards.

Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.

The Fat Kid Conundrum