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I expected to love Chelsea Settles. I expected to hate Chelsea Settles. On both counts, I was wrong. MTV’s newest (semi)reality protagonist— spun, as the network puts it, as “A New Kind of Heroine”—the 23-year-old, 324-lb Pennsylvania native is likeable, but not quite loveable. She is sweet, and pretty, and her dialogue gestures toward intelligence. Yet her sweetness stops short of vulnerability, the intelligence short of brilliance, and at least at this point—just after the show’s third episode—the cameras and editors cut consistently to unflattering shots of her body each time her face or voice begin to conjure real beauty. Meanwhile, the show itself, a half-hour series combining the compulsory self-exposure of MTV’s True Life series with the young-person-making-her-destiny appeal of Real World’s originary model, is not all bad. Or at least, not as bad as one would expect, given pop TV’s track record with handling obesity. Here we have a show focused on a young black woman, endowed with the kind of real-life-ish narrative heretofore bequeathed only to the stars of shows like MTV’s The Hills and the occasional bunch of Bravo’s Real Housewives.
Though I’m not one for blind celebrations of “representation,” I was happy to see Chelsea on the screen. She has a supportive family structure and (at least within the first three episodes) has not disclosed an over-the-top romantic attachment to chicken. As a reality show, Chelsea Settles does seem to mark a kind of evolution, one in which not-so-small, and not-so-white women can access the slow-panning televideography and semi-scripted dialogue of America’s favorite genre. But what is troubling about the show—and about the character it paints of Ms. Settles—is its inability to confront even American pop culture’s standard figurations of what I’ll call imaginariality without imposing upon it a tried and trite weight-loss makeover frame. It’s as though reality is not the genre here; obesity is.
Chelsea Settles is part of a full Tuesday night of fat-themed programming, often beginning with obesity-related True Life episodes (on the night of the Chelsea Settles premiere, for example, True life “I’m the Big Girl” served as the kickoff event). The show is immediately preceded by the hour-long I Used to Be Fat, in which high school seniors are paired with quirky, exuberant trainers who put them on extreme diet and exercise regimens to help them lose weight to the tune of 75 to 100 lbs in a summer. I Used to Be Fat pushes the weight-loss TV genre to extremes, delivering fat sheddage in The Biggest Loser (NBC) quantities in the space of a single episode, and showing the fulfillment of the classic American teen fantasy of full self-erasure and re-construction before the start of the new school year. This rhetoric finds its iconography in the show’s opening sequence in which the theme song’s peppy ditty proclaims “Another year you made a promise/another chance to turn it all around” as pages fly off of an illustrated character, invoking an inversion of the rapidly descending poundage numbers the show promises, evidence that personal growth really can be quantified.
I Used to be Fat quickly introduces the episode’s protagonist and establishes 1) her/his weight loss goal 2) her/his emotional or psychic motivation for losing weight 3) the major roadblock in the way. Along with interviews, and tragicomic first work-out scenes, the show features teary confessionals, like the ones in the first episode, for example, in which Josh, a white 18-year-old, confides: “ I don’t hate my body because, you know, I love myself for who I am. But I definitely wish I was thinner,” and then exclaims: “it’s not even fair! I don’t get it!… I want to lose weight more than anything. I want it more than anything in the world.” These sentiments are clarified by Terra of the second episode, whose friends call her “brown cow” because she is both large and biracial. Terra declares first: “I don’t like anything about my body. Not even a little bit,” then insists: “I’m a skinny girl waiting to get out and show the world who I am and what I’ve got to offer.” Enter the weird and magnanimous trainer, weekly weigh-ins, and the ever-present fact of a (staged) reveal party at the episode’s end, and an extreme weight-loss show is born.
These shows set the context for Chelsea Settles, reminding us that in the U.S. pop culture imaginary, wherever fatness goes, weight-loss must follow. Of course, many of these protagonists are unhealthily overweight. Michelle Obama’s kid-focused antiobesity campaign, Oprah’s enduring public affair with the weight-loss effort, and the countless weight-loss products and books marketed each year toward Americans—more specifically, America women—all serve as reminders of the fact that, particularly in this culture, obesity is a health risk in more ways than one. But MTV makes no mention of other, closely related health risks—I was shocked to see no disclaimer at the end of I Used to Be Fat warning of the atypical and potentially damaging nature of some of their protagonists’ weight figures. Nor is there any discussion of body image issues and their impacts on actual bodies of all sizes. These conversations may be passé, and yet it is impossible not to recall them in the midst of two- and three-hour blocks of slow-motion fat shaming and extreme-weight-loss fantasy glitz.
And, unfortunately, that’s what Chelsea Settles turns out to be. Like any good American hero, Chelsea has a two-pronged dream: to claim socioeconomic success (as a fashion designer in Los Angeles) and to find personal fulfillment, peace, and herself (that is, to lose weight). Again, Ms. Settles is charming, likeable, and even refreshing. Her obsessive love for Kim Kardashian, her dream of a career in fashion, and her mildly-comical inability to find her way around a Laundromat all place her within a discourse of girlishness rarely accessible to young black girls and women, (though they stop short of rewriting that discourse to include black girls and women, as Chelsea’s race has been left a salient silence thus far).
Her roundness aside, Chelsea epitomizes the straights and narrows as best a big black girl can. She is light and college educated with hazelish eyes and a neat, straight, simple black perm. Her heterosexuality is established within minutes of the first episode, when a confessional shot and a short montage reveal that her mildly caring but villainously conflicted boyfriend, Rory, has cheated on her, wants to move in with her, and (surprise, surprise) is against her trip to L.A. That she’s an obese woman protagonist with a ‘real,’ (if hugely problematic) romantic life could, once again, be refreshing. But Chelsea isn’t given time to be anything close to real—she is too busy giggling and crying to evoke the emotional complexity of even a so-so fiction. And the jury’s still out on whether the series will be responsible enough to acknowledge this with anything more than an obligatory “i-make-jokes-to-mask-my-pain” confessional. My guess is it won’t.
Sadly, this is not particularly shocking. But what’s most troubling is the show’s slick and subtle deployment the hallmarks of the weight-loss show genre, and of fat-shaming methods from other sites of American culture. Where the Real Housewives and Real Worlders deliver their confessionals to either un-personed stationary cameras or in conversations with interviewers who are edited out of the scene, we peer at Chelsea over the shoulder of a nameless young white woman (a producer? A psychologist? We never get to know) who probes her for information about her weight, her life, and her feelings. Meanwhile, Chelsea sits, face frozen in a self-conscious smile, on what could easily be a therapist’s couch. Perhaps to justify this motif, Chelsea offers a voiceover declaration that “if I find out who I really am inside, there’s nothing that anyone can say or do to me to bring me back to some of those low points that I’ve hit in my life.” Yet the trailer for the show and the weight-loss focus of its advertising suggest that it’s not a probing of self but a shrinking of self that should fend off social stigma and keep folks like Chelsea from sad times.
These pathologizing images are more familiar to crisis shows like A&Es’ Intervention and VH1’s Celebrity Rehab, than to “hero[ic]” reality life portraits. Whereas these shows, along with The Biggest Loser and I Used to Be Fat, claim their extreme makeover statuses, Chelsea Settles masquerades as a modern-day adventure-epic-meets-picaresque, in which a big black girl heroine and her femmie black male and quirky white female sidekicks roll through lowlights and hijinks on the road to finding their destiny, one in which, for the big black girl, extreme weight loss is just an obvious, natural part.
And so, Chelsea Settles turns out to be the newest born in an old generic lineage that may just be finding its name. It is not a “reality show,” just as I Used to be Fat is not simply a makeover show, and TLC’S Big Sexy isn’t just about a group of model girlfriends on the prowl for dates. These shows mark the exciting potential and swift short-fallings of a new genre—Fativision? Obesiality?—that could theoretically offer, as MTV says, new kinds of protagonists into the reality soup, but instead provides another fix of America’s fat-philic and fat-phobic standard fare. These characters make it to the screen not because they are interesting, or pretty, or brilliantly palatable, or even because they are fat; they make it because they are all of those things, and are desperate to change.