Humans eat for many reasons, perhaps the most important of which being that we'll die if we don't. But if a woman is eating in a TV sitcom, it means something. Usually something very bad, or at least very weird. This little bit of TV writer shorthand has been sending a message to young girls for half a century: What you eat defines your place in the world, and you should worry about it constantly.
If a sitcom woman is eating food, it usually means ...
Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, Leslie Knope on Parks And Recreation, and Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project -- a group of successful, smart women who date men who look like Jon Hamm and Timothy Olyphant. Yet we need to know their lives aren't perfect. I mean, no one wants to watch a show in which gorgeous women just live perfect lives ... Oh crap, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, right. OK, mostly no one wants to watch that. The rest of us need to see hilarious flaws to make us feel like these characters are just like us. Usually this involves seeing them struggle mightily to balance their careers and their personal lives.
And how do we know when they're stumbling? Do we see Leslie Knope smoke crystal meth? No, we just see them eating perfectly normal food. Liz unwinds by scarfing down a plate of "night cheese." Mindy has a two-bear-claw-a-day habit. Leslie lists the important things in life as friends, waffles, and work ... or waffles, friends, and work. The key is that they be super weird about it. Like, waffles are a routine part of the modern diet, but Parks And Rec implies that if a supervillain were dangling a waffle and Leslie's mother off of a building, Leslie would have to seriously consider who to save. She's one waffle away from becoming Eleven from Stranger Things.
The "She eats to remind us her life is unfulfilled!" bit isn't new. In the 1970s, you had Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. That's another character who was objectively killing it -- she had a cool job and her own apartment, and she was gorgeous. But she was constantly spouting negative lines about her (very skinny) body, like "I don't know why I should even bother to eat this. I should just apply it directly to my hips!"
The Gilmore girls' metabolic powers are legendary. It's a whole thing on the show that they're constantly seen eating takeout and junk food.
Warner Bros. Television
Pre-Gilmore, being able to eat a lot without gaining weight was reserved for nerdy boys like Shaggy in Scooby-Doo and the old, not-sexy version of Jughead in Archie Comics. Their inability to bulk up after eating fistfuls of cheeseburgers was seen as a failure. Men are supposed to be large and imposing, but for the Gilmores, staying thin is a superpower. It proves they can "hang with the guys" while maintaining figures that ensure those guys are still sexually attracted to them. NOTE: In real life, Lauren Graham (who plays Lorelai Gilmore) once said she's been on a diet for 35 years, since she was 11 years old.
You might think that the Gilmores made it easier on women. Maybe that was even the idea -- it's OK to eat pizza now! Before you eat that pizza, though, just let me remind you that Amy Schumer is a size 6, and when she takes her clothes off for a photo shoot, it's hailed as an act of bravery. Amy Schumer bravely said yes to the pizza (likely less often than the average American), and no one is going to let her live it down.
Sometimes, the ability to eat and not gain any weight is even thrown in with literal superpowers. Kara Danvers (Supergirl) on the CW version of Supergirl attributes her ability to eat sticky buns for breakfast everyday and stay so thin to being an alien. Which, to be fair, is the most realistic explanation for that. According to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, being the Slayer makes you hungry, but it certainly doesn't make you gain weight, because ... vampires have a strict no-fatties policy?
I first noticed this on one of the best shows on television right now, The Good Place. Main character Eleanor is supposed to be a bad person -- she's selfish, shallow, petty, and trying to improve herself in the titular Good Place (an oddball afterlife, if you haven't seen the show). In a montage in which she briefly becomes good, we see her eat a banana, choose water over a margarita, and become vegetarian. When she goes back to being bad again, she orders a waiter delivering her a vegetarian meal to "throw those vegetables in the garbage," and is shown with a piece of pizza sitting by her bed. Pizza, of all things! Evil has overtaken her once more!
On FXX's You're The Worst -- an ensemble comedy about terrible people -- the two main female characters, Gretchen and Lindsey, have Gilmore-esque junk food diets. It's again one of the running jokes in the show. Every meal is usually some kind of fatty diner food which they wolf down like animals.
We also see them sneak onto a movie set to steal from the craft services table. When Lindsay's husband tries to get her to cook a healthy meal with him, she freaks out and stabs him. Granted, these are the protagonists -- their flaws are supposed to be kind of endearing. But A) none of these people are obese, and B) it's yet another example wherein women eating human food is treated like a quirk. And yet any time a model-thin woman turns up on a show like this subsisting on kale salads and Gwyneth Paltrow cleanse juices, she's going to be portrayed as an uptight harpy, the kind of woman other women hate.
It's as if in the world of sitcoms, there's no socially correct way for a woman to eat. So I guess they're pretty realistic in that regard.
Eat all you want, enjoy it, and cook it in an Instant Pot. Seriously, they're super useful.
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