James Corden: fat luvvie
Obesity is cool, exotic and iconoclastic – as long as you’re famous rather than poor.
In her new column, Emily Hill will write regular dispatches from the Republic of Celebrity. In this issue: why working-class fat people are demonised while fat luvvies are celebrated.
In March, it was revealed that an obese family in Blackburn, England, had totted up death threats on internet sites and a barrage of insults from their neighbours for being fat. Leaping on the story with glee, that week’s press profiled the Chawner family with headlines including: ‘Introducing the lardbuckets’, ‘All that is wrong with Britain: 83-stone family’s too fat to work and too busy watching TV to diet’ and ‘The real Tellytubbies’. They had not killed anyone, they had not maimed anyone, they had not interfered with anyone or put a garden pergola on House of Commons expenses – but they were fat and, if you happen to live on a council estate, being fat is a crime.
This must have been confusing for the poor Chawners, who will be well versed in their television, and will have noticed that on the small screen, fat characters played by luvvies are more likely to be celebrated than reviled. Just as an olive-soaked bruschetta or mozzarella-smothered ciabatta will have as many calories as a peanut-butter white-bread sandwich, but is not perceived as being equally unhealthy, and just as a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall lasagne will go down infinitely better in conversation than a Big Mac from McDonald’s even though a single scrummy serving of Whittingstall gives you 20.5g of fat, so Dawn French, Fern Britton, and new celebrity lardy boy on the block, James Corden, are loveable and cuddly rather than monsters at whom it is quite acceptable to shout abuse in the street.
Corden’s BBC3 comedy show Horne & Corden (or ‘Yawn & Boredom’ as the Sun’s TV critic Ally Ross dubbed it) was a sketch show with no jokes, fronted by the only person in the UK more annoying than Lily Allen. (The new show was even broadcast at the same time as Lily Allen’s chatshow once was, as if the BBC deliberately set out to prove that although everyone thought it couldn’t come up with anything worse than Lily Allen and Friends for that time slot, it can – and it will.) The central focus tended to be jokes about Corden wanting more chips than his skinnier foil, Mathew Horne. Fat jokes are the raison d’être of Corden’s repartee. On television, this is comedy – in real life it would be a catastrophe.
Corden seems to have achieved popularity largely by means of being tubby. Gavin and Stacey, the sitcom for which he is famous, charts the love story between a Welsh girl from Barry and an Essex boy from Billericay. Corden co-starred and co-wrote the series with actress Ruth Jones. Together they picked up two Baftas and seven million viewers for the Christmas special – and yet the only funny bits were clearly written by Ruth Jones for Ruth Jones’ character, who had just wandered out of Saxondale. Otherwise, with whinge-faced Stace and hen-pecked Gav, it was basically George and Mildred for the Noughties. Corden’s character Smithy was there to elicit belly laughs for eating too much and for having suppressed homoerotic feelings – or perhaps merely overly sentimental ones – for his best friend Gavin.
There’s always been a class element to size-ism. You cannot attack the underclass for being poor – that’s snobbery. So instead, the poor are attacked for being fat – that’s just maintaining a ‘healthy attitude’. Were he not a thoroughgoing middle-class luvvie, Corden would long ago have been castigated for setting a bad example to those who, like the Chawners, sit on sofas chowing down on Wotsits and guzzling Lucozade, apparently preparing to bring down the NHS with a mass spike in diet-related diabetes. All of this is bogus, of course. There are no evil foods, the people who eat too much are not evil, and there is no such thing as an ‘epidemic’ of obesity.
‘Epidemic’ used to be a word associated with disease, as vast numbers of people died of nasty infections like typhus or cholera or plague. Nowadays, the word is used not just for disease, but for social phenomena, to stigmatise things that people like doing too much, tainting them with the connotations of illness. So there is an ‘epidemic’ of binge-drinking and singlehood because people like to drink and prefer not to settle down too early: two other phenomena which are celebrated on the screen – through Sex and the City’s single-girl ploughing through the cocktail menu – yet greeted with horror when young girls do the same over here in Britain.
Female commentators have gone into raptures over Joanie, a character in the urban commentariat’s favourite new show, Mad Men, as she is praised for being a plus size. ‘Joanie’s magnificent arse filled the screen’, The Times’ TV critic gushed. ‘Joanie’s arse is a clarion-call, a timpani roll – the oiled man banging the gong at the start of Rank films. It is an arse you want to throw a carnival for. It has become totemic among the womenfolk of the world.’
More recently, The Times’ ‘Style’ magazine devoted an entire issue to the subject of how fat is going to be big this year, heralding ‘the triumph of curves’. St Joan of Mad Men (naturally) was the focus: ‘We look at Joan in Mad Men, in those curve-packing dresses, and feel the strange sensation that, for the first time in more than a decade, we are seeing the womanly form as God intended it.’ Later, of course, this is somewhat diminished by the vision of her in jeans: ‘In a thigh-skimming asymmetric number with a frill down the front or, God forbid, jeans and T-shirt, she looks like the big girl who doesn’t quite have what it takes.’
First of all, if Joanie is fat then I’m a sumo wrestler living on a Sunny D drip who cannibalised Dawn French with a garnish of cream puffs and a lard drizzle. But let’s for a moment give the consensus an air kiss and concur that Joanie is a big glorious heifer: well, you can’t argue one minute that being fat is a Bad Thing, the typhus epidemic of the modern world, and then turn around 30 seconds later to laud fatness on the small screen as the supreme symbol of bodily beauty. You can’t say that being fat is not on – it’s a sign of illness – and then say how we should all be overjoyed in our own fat skins. Unless, of course, fatness is only a sign of slothfulness and moral turpitude in the working classes, while in the luvvie world it’s evidence that you are chilled out or cheeky. What big fat double standards.
Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard. Visit her personal website here.