Welcome to Fatness In Film, a monthly column analysing examples of fat representation and body diversity on screen.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the ‘nicest’ shows on television. It might follow the goings-on of a police precinct, but doesn’t focus on the violence, crime or jaded attitudes we might come to expect from a cop show. Instead, the characters come together to form an odd but utterly lovable family, and being a good person always wins in the end.
The sitcom shatters stereotypes regularly, and has also dealt with a great number of issues extremely sensitively. These include the racial profiling of Terry (Terry Crews) when he was frisked by a prejudiced police officer and didn’t have his badge, the homophobia and racism faced by Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) as a gay black man in the force, the problems with the American judicial system as experienced by Jake (Andy Samberg) when he was wrongly convicted, and Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz) coming out as bisexual to her traditional Latina family.
As television shows go, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of the good guys. But, it’s not perfect. There’s one major problem with Nine-Nine’s otherwise remarkable record on inclusivity – it can’t stop being fatphobic.
The lasting presence of fatphobia rears its ugly head in all kinds of ‘woke’ liberal spaces outside of just film and television. Judging and mocking fat people is almost like the last widely acceptable form of prejudice. That’s not to say other forms of oppression don’t exist – of course they do, and the fight to end things like racism, sexism and homophobia is far from over – but there is at least a recognised notion in society that we should not subscribe to those views. When it comes to fatphobia, there’s still a vast majority of people that don’t even recognise it as valid. This is true across the political spectrum; liberals and right-wingers alike see fatties as fair game.
There’s a certain kind of sadness that comes with watching a show you love – one like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which seems so progressive – and then being completely blindsided, as a body like yours is made into a punchline. Again. You’re not angry; you’re just disappointed. You’d hoped for better. You thought you were safe.
Fatphobic jokes and storylines can be found throughout all seasons of the show, but there are three key episodes in which fatphobia has presented itself in Brooklyn Nine-Nine so far.
S1 E4: ‘M.E. Time’ and the fat victim
One of the most hurtful ways to treat someone is to take their voice away from them; to allow them to be judged and discriminated against without any way to defend themselves or be empathised with.
In this episode, Jake faces criticism from the squad for acting as a bad secondary officer on a case for Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio). He speaks over Boyle, takes charge at the crime scene, and delays the autopsy results by sleeping with the medical examiner. The reason behind all of Jake’s poor policing? He believes that it’s an open-shut case – the victim must have died of natural causes, because they’re fat. It was his fat that killed him! Obviously!
Weight stigma and bias against fat bodies is a major issue in the medical industry, and that’s what kills people every day. Fat people may be reluctant to go to the doctor for fear of being judged because of their bodies, and so fall foul to illnesses that have gone untreated for far too long. Or, if they do see a healthcare professional, their symptoms are ignored and instead blamed on their size. Patients are sent off with the prescription to lose weight, conditions go undiagnosed and untreated, and people die.
In this case, the victim is already dead. But Jake’s fatphobic jokes and rampant unprofessionalism will affect the living by feeding into the misconception that if you’re fat, it will be the death of you – something that has been scientifically disproven again and again.
Jake’s childishness is a core part of his character, and we love him for it – but the sheer volume of gags at fat people’s expense that fire out of the screen during this twenty minute episode makes it hard to watch: “I think we know what killed him and it was definitely not starvation”; “I started cataloguing the contents of his fridge but it turns out there isn’t enough paper on Earth”; “Murder-murder, or like his mouth murdered him by making him eat so much food his heart exploded?”. It spreads to other characters too, including Boyle and the medical examiner Dr Rossi (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). She even seems to relish and fetishise conducting the autopsy on the body – “look at that stomach lining; that is just a beauty”.
As it turns out, this was an actual murder-murder. The victim was poisoned by his wife. Jake learns his lesson about being a bad secondary, but is never challenged on his reductive and stigmatising views. It appears that even in death, this unnamed character didn’t even have the right to dignity or respect. They were mocked right to the grave.
S3 E4: ‘The Oolong Slayer’ and Fat Terry
Fatsuits are bad. Here’s a whole column explaining why, but the gist is that they’re stigmatising, dehumanising, and perpetuate negative stereotypes and misconceptions about fat bodies. Sadly, the Nine-Nine writers must have missed the memo.
Sergeant Terry Jeffords, played by former American football player Terry Crews, is a striking physical presence in the show. Standing at over six feet tall and weighing hundreds of pounds of pure muscle, his is a body that screams strength, power and discipline. His character is also a gentle giant, subverting what you expect a man of his stature to be like. Terry’s backstory adds more complexity to the character in that it shows how he used to be the very opposite. He used to be fat – and fatphobia tells us that fat is the least strong, empowered and disciplined thing that you can be.
In the fourth episode of the third season, ‘The Oolong Slayer’, this backstory comes back to haunt Terry. Stressed out by work and the upcoming arrival of his third child, he adopts a habit shown to him by Boyle of eating a single cacao nib every time he closes a case.
Ten days pass and Terry is visibly bigger, wearing padding across his body. Boyle looks concerned, and says he might want to “slow down on those things” – “I don’t mean to overstep here, but you’re looking a little…fat.” To former fat kid Terry, this is the very worst thing Boyle could call him. It shouldn’t be, but it is. His first reaction is a legitimate one – “How dare you! You can’t comment on my body. This is a workplace!” – but that legitimacy of the pain that comes with being judged on your body at work is soon replaced with comedic absurdity, as Terry says he feels objectified by Boyle’s male gaze.
Another 21 days later, and Crews is in a full fat suit. He has a vastly larger frame, and the prosthetics give the appearance of his entire jawline having vanished. It’s virtually impossible that Terry’s extremely muscular body could have changed so drastically in a month – but just a bit of a muffin top wouldn’t have gotten quite so many laughs, would it?
Here, Terry claims he’s “off the nibs”. He gives a rousing speech about resilience; all the while, cacao nibs are falling out of a hole in his bag, spilling out rapidly like sand falling through an egg timer. Boyle looks on with pity in his eyes for what his friend has become.
The episode wraps up with Boyle organising for the squad to help take some of the stress off Terry’s plate – pun intended. When Terry asks Boyle how he can thank him, his reply is “start looking after yourself again” – because obviously, someone that size can’t possibly be looking after themselves, right? Once again, all the magic and complexity that is the human body and all the ways in which it can be healthy are reduced down to one thing – weight.
S6 E2: ‘Hitchcock & Scully’ and the fat transformation
Something that sets Brooklyn Nine-Nine apart from other shows on TV is that out of the whole ensemble cast, it’s the old straight white guys that get the lowest billing.
Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker) and Scully (Joel Mckinnon Miller) are the laughing stocks of the precinct. They are terrible detectives, though good at paperwork. They do disgusting things at their desk. They are largely ridiculed for being unintelligent and socially awkward. They are also both fat.
The sixth season of Nine-Nine set about changing that perception – for the duration of the second episode, at least. It starts with a flashback to a cocaine bust in the 1980s; a major drug dealer is arrested after some smooth talking and sharp shooting from two hunky young detectives. The curveball is revealed right before the titles roll – the studs are Hitchcock and Scully, back in their glory days.
The story involves an investigation into what they did with the bags of cash they found during that bust. But the real question on Jake’s lips throughout the whole episode, when finding out who Hitchcock and Scully were back then and looking at who they are now, is – “what happened to you?!”.
His question is answered in the very last scene. In another flashback, the pair are at a chicken restaurant, checking in on a witness they’re helping to protect. They go to leave, saying they’re off to the gym for the second time that day, but the waitress hands them a bucket. As they tuck in, mania grows behind their eyes. They eat more, chew faster, slop sauce all over themselves without a care in the world. This, we are told, is what happened. This is how Hitchcock and Scully went from the best cops on the block to being an embarrassment of the Nine-Nine – they got a taste for fried food, they stopped going to the gym, and they got fat.
To explain these characters’ development in this way is like putting faces to what diet culture tells us will happen when you gain weight: that you will become a loser, most likely be terrible at your job, and you will die. Almost every joke involving Hitchcock and Scully is based on their stupidity, or an obscure, gross illness that they have. They are our collective fear of fatness personified.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is one of my favourite pieces of television. It’s my background noise; my comfort blanket. I put it on while I’m working. I leave it playing to help me fall asleep. It’s remarkably well written, I adore the characters, and it never, ever gets old. And it’s not the only place where inclusive values can’t seem to stretch to include people in bigger bodies. But I’m tired of being laughed at. Fat people are not your safe, politically correct punching bag – and if the core of your show is kindness, it needs to come in all shapes and sizes.
thanks for writing this. i’ve also been uncomfortable with these jokes but didn’t know how to articulate it. thank you.
This is exactly how I felt watching these episodes.
Thank you so much.
Couldn’t agree more with each of your points! Love the way you’ve articulated them! 🙂
I really have to thank you for writing this. Since learning how size discrimination operates in the States, I often feel like I’m the crazy one or just entirely alone in my views and perspective. This article articulates exactly how I feel about this show, and I feel less alone when I read it – because it IS such a great show, but for this one thing that feels like an even bigger disappointment. Thank you.
This is so accurate, and really spans Michael Schur’s shows beyond B99, all of which I love, but feel pained during those fatphobic moments:
The Office (U S.) – Kevin is the office sad sack and often depicted as slow, stupid, and disgusting.
Parks and Recreation – Jerry is a laughing stock, always farting, eating, clumsy, bullied for the entire show.
The one exception to Schur’s popular work so far, as much as I recall, is The Good Place. Although Eleanor does slip in a fat joke at one point, implying it was surprising any fat people would make it into the show’s version of “heaven”.
So disappointing to find in otherwise well-written shows.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is also one of my favorites and common background noise but I always skip these episodes (especially M.E. Time). I also hate when they always refer to Terry’s overweight past as his “fat phase” (Season 1, Episode 7 “48 Hours” Amy wears an old Terry with a confederate flag because “When you’re that big, you’ll buy anything that fits” and “A lot of fat guy clothes have racist overtones”) as though anyone can get shredded like Terry if they just work hard, even if they used to look like him in a fat suit. It’s simply untrue and dangerous.