*Readers are advised the following concerns the show’s Australian 2012 incarnation.
The Biggest Loser is over for another year—and it was difficult to not be charmed by the triumph of bashful grouch Margie, who provided much of the show’s humour: in her tantrums against her trainer and regime; her self-deprecating humour; her refusal to dilute her personality in social niceties like many of her peers; and in the show’s embarrassing failure to observe her sexuality in a mock-dating segment early on. Yes, the theme was ‘singles,’ this time around, with a focus on readying contestants for the love from which their weight had apparently disqualified them.
The Biggest Loser, like Extreme Makeover or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is in the business of policing deviant appearances, and dramatizing the urgency and fundamental goodness of that policing. However, part of that dramatization is of course dressing it up. This season, that policing was rephrased as defense against the threat of deep, social and personal exclusion (as the ‘singles’ theme indicates): contestants simply could not live fulfilling lives because of their weight. Or so we’re led to understand.
Locating deficiency solely within its contestants, The Biggest Loser never even entertains the notion that society’s expectations of individuals are not empirical, immovable, and infallible. From the show’s perspective, if a contestant had ‘never been kissed’ because of their weight (as at least two had not), this was an understandable (and, actually, condoned) disqualification. They had the power to fix it. It was not worth considering that this shouldn’t disqualify someone from being kissed, at all—nor indeed from kissing someone. Desire for social (and, through this, personal) acceptance is a crucial motivator in The Biggest Loser; however, it is always the individual who must transform, totally, to bring this about.
With self-righteous urgency, the disciplining of unacceptable bodies also wears the altruistic mask of ‘serious health concern.’ Now, many of the people on this show are overweight to an extent that puts them in real danger, and it is difficult to take issue with their avoidance of early death. Similarly, I am not denying that this show has an emotionally transformative effect on those who participate in it. What I am getting at is the somewhat cute assumption that what its producers seek to create primarily, and what its audience are primarily moved by, is deep investment in these transformations, in the revelation of inner potential—or in the warding off of diabetes and heart attacks. The show’s medical concerns are undermined by its more conspicuous fascination with exposed blubber, with rituals of humiliating bodily exposure. Moreover, it takes little imagination to consider those contestants who must have been rejected from the show in its initial intake for being too overweight, too far gone. Behind The Biggest Loser that we see must slump those who were more medically urgent, yet could not usefully reinforce the show’s ideology of magical rebirth and integration into the status quo (for more on this see Fiona Whittington-Walsh’s essay, “Beautiful Ever After”).
Where we are gripped by a contestant’s emotional transformations, their ‘journey’ (as the show unceasingly puts it), we have also to consider to what extent our joy is, again, the joy of normalcy, of new acceptance. Are we actually celebrating the achievement of a dream that one, of any size, should not have to ‘dream’ in the first place?
I’ve argued that in the appeal of The Biggest Loser is a desire for social conformity, for the policing of ‘abnormality,’ for the correction of that which seems to challenge the status quo. What these very large bodies (humiliatingly paraded at various junctures prior to their transformation) troublingly suggest is not some mere visual affront (the offensiveness of ‘fat’), but a more disturbing denial of the social norms in which the rest of us are painstakingly expert, and through which we measure and understand ourselves. In the revelation of shirtless contestants—fat obscenely cascading the length of their bodies—is not simply an eyesore. Shockingly evoked is also the idea that one could possibly live without observing the codes and conventions surrounding physical appearance the rest of us take so seriously.
Within any culture, a level of difference between people is expected and desired, however only within the parameters of what that culture finds acceptable. René Girard writes that “Difference that exists outside the system is terrifying because it reveals the truth of the system, its relativity, its fragility, and its mortality” (The Scapegoat 21). For Girard this dynamic is most easily exemplified in the case of physical disabilities, which can challenge with their “impression of a disturbing dynamism” (21) an otherwise stabilized and accepted system of physical differences. Similarly, the ‘obscenely’ overweight is so perhaps because it challenges the individuality we cultivate and believe we have achieved within the rules—achieved while actually rigorously observing society’s every standard, especially those relating to how others perceive us. According to Girard, each of us values ourselves as somehow ‘different’ from those around us. Yet what we see here is difference on a scale that upheaves the very coordinates of that difference, of our difference. Extreme difference, I’m arguing, tends to uncomfortably highlight, to even insult, our total and unquestioning adherence to social norms—tends to suggest to us that we’re not different or individual, at all.
Following this, encouraged in the viewer of The Biggest Loser is, surely, an almost aggressive desire to see normative codes of appearance and behaviour reinforced and revalued, to see awakened in contestants a ‘necessary’ self-discipline. In this we also see a reflection of the fascist ethos. The trainer “Commando,” an unsmiling military-themed character in combat boots and camouflage who runs fitness programs like R. Lee Ermey in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), clearly illustrates this connection. One might easily argue that behind the most rigorous fitness routines lies a kind of fascist idealism—a preoccupation with strength and endurance, with self-denial and discipline (leading frequently to a desire for self-discipline in others, or revulsion at its absence). Through Commando this tendency is utterly undisguised—even glamorized. Whatever the case, the barking soldier was a useful enforcer of a broader cultural desire for physical conformity, for machination, for the regulation of difference outside the system. And he was so because of the affinity that the broader status quo shares with the fascist mentality when it comes to policing these disgusting bodies.
Much more positively, with the show’s intense focus on social acceptance, particularly that proven by romantic (heterosexual) coupling, it was heartening to see no-frills lesbian Margie come out on top, and the show come to terms with her sexuality along the way (a revised dating segment allowed her female suitors). In Margie’s victory one could celebrate someone fitting in, finding acceptance, and learning to love herself—however not quite in the ideologically homogenized way the show seemed most keen on.
Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.
Whittington-Walsh, Fiona. “Beautiful Ever After: ‘Extreme Makeover’ and the Magical, Mythical Spectacle of Rebirth.” Popping Culture, 6th ed. Eds. Murray Pomerance and John Sakeris. Boston: Pearson, 2010. 179-190.
3 thoughts on “The Biggest Loser wrap-up”
Hey Dom, would you say that the symbolic restoration to the contestants to the realm of ‘normal’ is a reiteration of an age-old (or at least, narrative-old) theme? What makes The Biggest Loser different?
I think so. I suppose a dominant ideology is always interested in alarming at then smoothing over its discrepancies – or transgressors. Somewhere at the bottom of this show is, I think, an alarm at the transgressive excess of these people – a feeling that something should be done about this, although no one can precisely admit why. Maybe because no one can admit why, no one can actually bring themselves to actually SAY that, directly: “you’re repulsive to me, shape up!” Instead, that disgust gets dressed up as ‘medical concern’, or therapeutic concern: I’m your friend and I’m so concerned about you – for your own good you need to shape up. I suppose what interests me most are these various ‘disguising’ discourses.
LATER: I think The Swan, the reality show, tidily illustrates why you’re right (title references ugly duckling story).
It’s always struck me as suspect that Ten’s two biggest programs are The Biggest Loser and Masterchef. The cynic in me views it as a vicious cycle of ratings appeal.
That said, yours is a much more interesting take on the show than my initial dismissal of it as a freak-show wrapped up in a cynical “inspirational” package. I’d never really considered the elements of societal-difference being brought back into accord with the status-quo.
A jolly good read!