What Louie’s “Fat Girl” Episode Got Wrong (And Right)

Last night’s episode of “Louie” (an FX program that heavily fictionalizes the life of comedian Louis C.K.) featured a storyline between Louie and new character Vanessa (Sarah Baker), a waitress at the Comedy Cellar, a club where Louie is a regular. The characters spark. Vanessa is charismatic, hilarious, awesomely honest, and a complete sweetheart. She’s basically Louie’s dream girl. That is, she would be if Louie didn’t dismiss her as being overweight, and if he didn’t make her weight a problem. In the previous episode Louie aggressively hit on every skinny waitress in the club. He didn’t have half the chemistry with these girls as he did with Vanessa. Yet he has made dress size a dealbreaker when it comes to dating. So as gorgeous as Vanessa is, inside and out, she doesn’t fit into Louie’s dream girl’s jeans and the two never have a chance at romance.

This episode is not perfect. It’s problematic. Willa Paskin, in her Slate piece “Louie Has No Idea What It’s Like to Be a ‘Fat Girl’. Neither Does Louis C.K.” takes the show to task for Vanessa’s final speech at the tail end of the episode where the waitress takes the comedian to task for making her weight the end all be all:

“Vanessa’s teachable moment, and the episode more largely, is as scathing to Louie as possible. But it’s also condescending to Vanessa: I mean, if all Vanessa wanted in life was to hold hands with a nice guy, a girl as cool as she is could do just that. Wonder if we’ll ever see a fat girl on TV who demands more.”

Meanwhile, Danielle Henderson at Vulture, in her piece “What Louie Gets Right and Wrong About Weight and Women,” also has problems with the final speech, in particular Vanessa’s line “I don’t need a boyfriend or husband, I just want to hold hands with a nice guy,” to which Henderson (who labels herself “fat” earlier in this think-piece) says:

“Fat girls …want sex, and love, and marriage, and happiness in all the ways that every non-sociopathic person wants those things…. In her entire romantic life, all she wants to do is hold hands, like an anemic fourth grader who doesn’t know what dating or sex even is. After all the bombastic pomp of her lead up, in the end she’s willing to settle for not much at all.”

Paskin and Henderson write beautifully about this episode and the issues it brings up. I don’t disagree with the problems these reviewers find with this story. Despite its problems, I’m still glad this story was told. This is an episode that does not criticize Vanessa’s body type, but rather Louie’s boneheadedness for not being able to get past her body type. It’s not Vanessa’s weight that’s on trial. It’s Louie’s backwardness. For so long in storytelling we’ve vilified female bodies that don’t conform to a very narrow standard of conventional beauty. For the things that this episode got wrong, what it got right was making an enemy out of the standards themselves.