Type-Casting: The Skinny Glutton

Grace Adler. Lorelei Gilmore. And, yes, Liz Lemon. You've seen them over and over, these slender women stuffing their faces for comic effect. Because they're quirky! And down to earth! And lonely! But always skinny, so it's okay!

When a tipster wrote in to suggest this as a story idea, we knew she was onto something. As she put it, "the idea that we're seeing women in obvious distress, with obvious issues regarding food/love or commitment/abandonment usually played for laughs. We as the viewer know these women are really thin, we see it in front of our faces, but fat jokes abound." And it's a relatively new phenomenon. Sure, the gluttonous dame is as old as I Love Lucy and the chocolate factory. And the hungry sad-sack can be traced to Mary Richards' frumpy neighbor Rhoda, who lost the weight and the appetite when she became the heroine of her own spin-off. But it's only more recently that female characters have started eating like comic relief - but looking like leading ladies.

And it's never just eating; it's gluttony. Grace's inability to resist anything deep-fried, her insolent love of bingeing, was a major character device on Will and Grace; that she's always a size zero is just as integral to her character. The Gilmore Girls talked about loading up on junk food, Chinese takeout and other study aids with regularity. And Liz Lemon is defined by her addiction to Sabor de Soledad, her gorging on stew and ribs, her fixation with sandwiches. These are not incidental plot points, they're major indicators: like the cliche of the second-act tub of Haagen-Dazs in any rom-com, the aggressive gluttony is a sure indicator to the audience that these women are Single, Quirky and, (because they're thin, only gently) Sad. It says, 'I may look glamorous, but I have the mind and soul of a fat person! And this is hilarious!' Not incidentally, this also plays into that old male fantasy: the un-neurotic guy's girl who can chow down on a steak and still look like a centerfold.

This trope is infuriating for all kinds of reasons. Why does enjoying food = sad sack? Why are they all pretending to eat junk food constantly, yet maintaining Hollywood-tiny figures that clearly show the effects of restraint and exercise? It's like Hollywood stars protesting too much about how much they love pigging out - it's never just enjoying healthy food; there's an assumption that to connect with real women, there needs to be a pretense of wretched excess. Why is gorging on unhealthy food still regarded as A) automatically hilarious and B) a quirky plot point in a country where obesity and poor diet are less novel every day? Maybe writers in Tinseltown find women eating normally to be such a novelty that it's the stuff of high comedy. It's especially depressing because these tend to be smart, sympathetic characters designed to appeal to women - in some way is the contradiction playing into our own fantasies?

Because there's something deeply unhealthy about our liking for this trope, our buying into the dissonant fantasy. When we editors got to discussing the phenomenon, Tatiana made the point that this speaks pretty deeply to our unhealthy relationship with food: the need to fetishize it. Akin to the soaring popularity of cooking shows even as our practical experience of cooking declines, the porn comparisons, as detailed in a Harper's article from last year, are obvious. Even more so when you take a look on YouTube and see that people have compiled clip reels of "Liz Lemon Will Always Love Food" and "Food and Grace."

And it's not just eating: it's gorging, debasing themselves, stuffing their faces against all the dictates of health and decorum. One could argue that they're fostering an unhealthy relationship with food, making light of unhealthy emotional binging, and even fostering a perverse kind of thinspiration that suggests one can eat horribly and still meet Hollywood's ideals - but the notion that these actresses actually eat this way is so implausible that it's more an exercise in the grotesque than anything. These scenes of aggressive gluttony are about debasement. If unhealthy food is the ultimate sin now, the one thing left to maintain a moral stigma, these characters are showing that they hate themselves. But, because they're still skinny, we laugh and even get a vicarious thrill. Maybe we should ask why.

30 Rock — Liz Lemon LOVES Her Sandwich — Remix [YouTube]
Liz Lemon Will Always Love Food [YouTube]
Food and Grace [YouTube]
Debbie Does Salad: The Food Network At The Frontiers Of Pornography [Harper's]