CW: Fat Shaming, Mental Health Stigma, Spoilers for Season 2 of LOST (if anyone still cares).
I dreamed all last night of people ridiculing me for being fat. What triggered it? I don’t have to look far.
A little while ago, my husband and I, late to the pop culture party as usual, started watching LOST on Netflix. I’d heard the buzz when it aired in the days before Internet streaming, but I’d never had much interest in it. Then I heard Michael Emerson plays a leading role, and since he’s on my short list of actors I would gladly watch read the phone book, I suggested we give it a try.
For the most part, I haven’t been disappointed. The characters are varied and engaging even when somewhat hateful, and the writers apply the Mystery Island trope to good effect. I know going in that some of the mysteries will never be solved and that’s okay with me. Some of the performances are outstanding. Some not so much, but that’s the way it goes.
One of the main characters is Hugo “Hurley” Reyes, played by Jorge Garcia. Hurley has the dubious distinction of being the only fat person among the plane crash survivors. Another, Rose, might be considered fat, but she’s only kind of fat. She’s also a woman in her 50s, and she’s Black, all of which, right or wrong, diminish the impact of her body size on the story line. Hurley is young, and he’s superfat. So I’ve paid particular attention to his treatment.
At first, the writers seemed to avoid falling into the usual traps of portraying a Fat Person. He’s not the funny fat person or the butt of physical humor regarding his size. He’s not unusually clumsy. In fact, the rest of the survivors treat him with respect, except for one character who’s a nasty piece of work anyway and never passes up an opportunity to call him “Jabba” or “Michelin” or any other size-oriented slur that comes to mind. Hurley’s an organizer, often put in positions of trust. He calls out assumptions that he must be hoarding food because he’s the fat guy. Parts of his back story show the discrimination fat people face, like being forced to buy two seats on a plane even though he occupies only one. I remember remarking to my husband that I appreciated the portrayal.
It started in little ways, in the back story. We see Hurley watching TV and eating fried chicken out of the bucket. Hmm, well maybe that’s not so bad. Eating fried chicken out of the bucket isn’t a behavior peculiar to fat people. The fact that the writers chose to show the fat person doing it was certainly problematic, but it’s not the point of the episode, so let it go. Later, Hurley is reprimanded at work, a fast food fried chicken place, for eating out of the hot counter. Kind of mindlessly, you know, like you eat chips when you’re reading. Except fried chicken. That same episode opens with a dream sequence of Hurley in the pantry of the newly discovered Hatch, where he crams fistfuls of cereal into his mouth, drinks ranch dressing directly from the jar, eats candy bar after candy bar. And here I’m getting really, really uncomfortable. It’s getting harder to let go. I can tell myself EVERYONE has been living on fruit and fish and what they can scrounge for over a month at this point and ANYONE might fantasize such indulgence, but why did they have to make it the fat guy? Why make that choice? It comes clear not much later, when we learn that Hurley is, in fact, hoarding food. That he hides in the jungle to eat chips and ranch where no one can see. That every assumption people make about fat people is confirmed by his behavior around food.
Bad going, writers. And it gets worse. So much worse.
We learn early on in the series that Hurley spent time in a psychiatric hospital. I was curious as to why, all the while praying it would have nothing at all to do with his size or his relationship to food. Well, those prayers were offered in vain. In episode 18 of season 2, we learn what sent Hurley to the psych ward. “Dave” is about the most offensive 45 minutes of TV I’ve ever watched, in so many respects. It combines every single myth about being fat with mental health stigma in ways that left me screaming “FUCK YOU!” at the screen. And all of it is geared to turning Hurley from a fat man unapologetic about his size to one who is properly ashamed.
I don’t even know where to begin with this. The episode opens with chipper Libby running down the beach, Hurley panting in her wake. They stop. Red-faced, Hurley hangs his head and says “maybe I could stand to drop a few pounds.” Libby lauds him for trying and assures him “these things take time! You didn’t gain the weight overnight; you won’t lose it overnight, either.” Later, when he reveals his food stash to her and describes his relationship to food as a burden and a sickness, she says, “If you want to change, change.” I wanted to punch her in the nose.
Hurley, however, takes her words to heart. He destroys his food stash in an ecstasy of tearing open packages and dumping jars, shots redolent of “Fat person finds liberation from the chains of eating.” Unfortunately, he finishes just in time for the rest of the survivors to discover a mysterious supply drop. Oh no! More cereal to challenge Hurley’s insufficient willpower. As he stares with dismay at the palette of boxes and jars, he catches a glimpse of someone unexpected: An old friend from the psych ward. And that’s when things get really awful.
Flash back to Hurley in the psych ward, talking to his doctor. The doctor asks how the diet is going. Ugh. Right off we get the message: Hurley’s in a mental hospital because he’s fat. They don’t need to say it in words. The implications are clear. Hurley says he had chicken breast and salad for lunch: Look, I’m trying to be a good fat person! Some more chat, and then the doctor says: “You’ve been here two months, Hugo, and you haven’t made much progress!”
Let me pause to convulse laughing. The writers have just shown they did NO RESEARCH WHATSOEVER into inpatient psychiatric treatment. My very first thought upon hearing this line was, “Wow, Hurley’s mom must have really good insurance!” The facility depicted is a rambling Hacienda-style building with lots of open space, private rooms, and wide windows in the shrink’s office. That is, it resembles a high-class rehab facility, NOT your typical inpatient situation. I’ve been in a number of psychiatric hospitals. They’re usually cramped and feature shared rooms and shabby furniture. Psychiatrists don’t conduct therapy or interact with the patients much beyond prescribing medication. They don’t generally have spacious on-site offices. They meet with patients wherever–in the common room, in an activities closet. Nurses and techs do the day-to-day stuff. Staying two months without making progress is unheard-of. Even when I was a teen, most people’s insurance kicked them out after 30 days. I think we’re supposed to believe Hurley’s in his late twenties, so it’s a stretch to assume his mom’s insurance even covers him. And I doubt the fast food place where he works offers a great mental health package. The last time I was inpatient, charges ran to $10,000 A DAY. Who’s paying for this?
Moving on. There’s some more talk between Hurley and his shrink. The eponymous “Dave” is mentioned. The shrink implies Dave doesn’t want Hurley to change. In the next scene, we find out what this means. Hurley goes to the facility’s basketball court (more laughing), where a game in in progress. All the players are wearing pyjamas and bathrobes. Not only is this just plain in accurate–most places insist on patients wearing street clothes as a way of maintaining “normalcy”–but the bathrobes have dangling belts. REALLY? You don’t get that in a mental health facility those would be verboten? ANYTHING a person might use for self harm or suicide attempts is strictly regulated. We weren’t even allowed to have shoelaces. Belts are right out. Way to show you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Anyway. Dave’s at the basketball game. He’s loud, abrasive, and nasty. He calls people names. But for some reason he and Hurley are friends. Dave demonstrates this by talking Hurley into eating tacos. Oh, I see. In Hurley’s case, “change” is defined by “staying on his diet” and Dave’s not wanting him to change is equal to talking him out of this “healthy choice.” The same thing replays later, when Dave encourages Hurley to steal someone else’s graham crackers instead of sticking to his afternoon snack of celery. He also talks Hurley out of taking his meds. Hurley, by the way, is being given clonazepam, brand name Klonopin, which is an anti-anxiety medication. There are problems with this that I’ll get to in a minute. Meanwhile, the shrink appears with a camera and tells the guys he needs a photo of them for the bulletin board.
This is where my husband turned to me and said, “Dave’s not real.” Oh, fuck. Of course he’s not. He’s…what? The personification of Hurley’s relationship to food? The voices in his head that hold Hurley back from achieving what he otherwise might, i.e., becoming not fat? It makes some sense of the fact that Hurley would be hanging out with this absolute douche nozzle, but speaks volumes about what the writers actually think about Hurley’s size. In any case, Dave is an hallucination, and if that’s so CLONAZEPAM IS NOT THE RIGHT MEDICATION. Hurley’s doctor should know this. He should be treating Hurley for a mental illness, not for being fat. But fat, apparently, is all the doctor can see.
In the present. Hurley goes to Sawyer, the con-man-cum-pack-rat, to see if he has any clonazepam in his “stash.” Sawyer responds with a typical jab at Hurley’s size. Hurley loses it and proceeds to beat Sawyer to a pulp while screaming, “Jabba! Michelin! Stay-Puff!”. My husband and I cheered, but when the two are separated and people ask what happened, Sawyer only says, “He just went crazy!” I don’t expect Sawyer to own up to his insults, but I would have liked SOMEONE to tell him, “Well, you had it coming, asshole.” Of course, we don’t get that because crazy fat guy is just crazy. I mean, if he didn’t want people to call him names, he should just lose weight, amirite?
In the last flashback, we learn how Hurley ended up in the hospital. He stepped onto a crowded deck, which collapsed under his weight, and a person died. Guilt and trauma caused him to suffer a catatonic episode, during which, his doctor points out, “You stopped speaking. You stopped sleeping. But you never stopped eating, because eating is how you punish yourself.”
Repeated screams of “FUCK YOU, YOU SMUG ASSHOLE!”
The shrink shows Hurley the picture he took, proving Dave isn’t real. Dave shows up one last time, to convince Hurley to escape. There’s a shitload more wrong with this scene, including the common room window being secured with a padlock for which Hurley has conveniently been able to steal the key and the locked grate not being wired to an alarm. Of course, along the way, Dave encourages Hurley to pick up whatever food happens to be lying around, and the whole escape attempt seems to be motivated by a desire for cheeseburgers. Dave goes out the window, but Hurley, with his new, magical knowledge that Dave is an hallucination, refuses.
On the Island, in the present, Hurley tracks down Dave, who asks him what happened after he didn’t go out the window. Hurley replies that he “got better;” after a couple weeks he was released, he got his old job back, he won the lottery. Dave replies, “Yeah, right,” and tells Hurley none of that ever happened, that he is, in fact, still back in the hospital, catatonic, and ALL of this is another hallucination. This was the most realistic part of the episode to me. In my worst times, I have similar thoughts. Maybe I never left the hospital. Maybe I’m in a padded cell back in Michigan. Maybe I never went to college, got married. When those thoughts hit, I breathe and think, “If I were hallucinating, I think I would hallucinate a better life than constant poverty and wretchedness.” Hurley, however, lets Dave lead him to the edge of a cliff where, Dave assures him, all he needs to do to “wake up” is throw himself off. Just in time, Libby appears! She asks Hurley why he thinks the Island isn’t real, and he tearfully admits that “In real life, a girl like you would never like a [fat] guy like me.” She kisses him! Yay! She really likes him! And Hurley immediately goes on a diet to be worthy of her (we see this in subsequent episodes). Can I please barf now?
As I said above, this episode disgusted me. It was repulsive on every level imaginable. How difficult can it be to give the fat guy a back story that doesn’t involve him literally being in a mental hospital because of his size? Apparently too hard for the writers of this series. And it angers me on a personal level, as a person with a history of eating disorders and a troubled relationship with size and food. Perpetuating these myths and stereotypes does a huge disservice to all kinds of people. When food and eating is involved, often that is ALL mental health providers can see and that’s what they treat. The treatment for anorexia? Eat more. The treatment for Bulimia? Just stop. For Binge Eating Disorder? The same. “If you want to change, change!” Looking at the surface as it is colored by societal expectations and assumptions about food prevents providers from finding the source of issues, and even causes them to dismiss issues as irrelevant. Hurley had a fucking psychotic episode! Losing weight isn’t the indicated treatment. It never is and it never will be.
With all the problems in this episode, probably the worst thing about it is that it’s meant to evoke sympathy. All the back stories are. They’re a line on the characters’ experiences and the situations that brought them to this place and time. We see Jack’s troubled relationship with his father and the breakdown of his marriage; Locke’s inability to let go of his own desire for a father figure, which has numerous tragic consequences; Kate’s run from the law; Mr. Eko’s past as a crime lord. We even feel some sympathy for Sawyer, for fuck’s sake! But Hurley? The great tragedy in his life is BEING FAT. He’s worth $156 MILLION and no one believes him because HE’S FAT. He doesn’t feel worthy of love because HE’S FAT. There are a zillion ways the writers could have chosen to tell his story that had nothing to do with his size, but they opted for the usual. I can almost see them sitting around in the planning stages saying, “Hey, we gotta cast one really FAT guy so we can show how terrible it is for him to be FAT!” I sure hope Jorge Garcia got a lot of money for this role. And the bitch of it is, most viewers will buy it. They won’t question why we aren’t seeing Hurley losing the love of his life or playing in a rock band or working in a high tech industry, because fat is all they can see. Just like the doctor portrayed in this episode.
If you’re new to LOST and thinking about watching, give this episode a miss. There’s no redeeming quality to it and it doesn’t tell you anything new. If you’re a writer, for the sake of all the gods, DON’T DO THIS. Don’t succumb to stereotypes and do your fucking research if you’re depicting things outside your personal experience.