From the station that helped destroy the Gosselin’s marriage comes a new series called “One Big Happy Family.” The series, which premiered last month on TLC, documents the efforts of a black North Carolina brood, in which all four members weigh in at more than 300 pounds, to slim down. The show’s producer, Mike Duffy, likened it to the TLC show “Little People, Big World,” saying that “One Big Happy Family” is instead “about big people living in a little world — fat people living in a skinny world.” Show clips are available here.
The Boston Herald calls it “TLC’s latest attempt to exploit a family for ratings.” Monsters and Critics says, “Trainwreck reality TV doesn’t get much bigger than the TLC effort, One Big Happy Family.” Variety says, “One Big Happy Family joins a TLC lineup that often seems devoted more to pithy titles than anything else.” And a CNN report last week drew attention to “big” concerns whether or not the show is “potentially exploitive of the family, whose ‘fat and happy’ attitude has drawn comparisons to the comedic Klump family from the Eddie Murphy film ‘The Nutty Professor.’”
Granted, the Cole family’s attempts, at times, can seem like buffoonery. For instance, in the clip above, the family is shown eating a voracious amount of pancakes, which mother Tameka says the family can work off later with a walk around a local water park (an excursion undoubtedly suggested by show producers). Once there, they indulge in a big, sugary piece of funnel cake. Chairs break beneath their weight and the family is turned away from a water park ride for their size. But weight-loss reality shows are, by their very nature, exploitive, which begs the question of why the sudden concern and criticism over this weight-loss reality show.
Let’s juxtapose the Cole family to the most popular of weight-loss reality (side)shows, “The Biggest Loser.” Now in its ninth season, “The Biggest Loser” is one of NBC’s most-watched prime-time programs, drawing an estimated 10 million viewers each week. The show publicly “outs” its fattest contestants on national television while gleefully flaunting those contestants who’ve never had a boyfriend or girlfriend or are so fat they cannot even put on their own shoes. Contestants are required to sign releases absolving NBC of any medical liability and holding them to strict confidentiality agreements before squeezed into spandex outfits designed to deliberately accentuate every roll and dimple in high-definition detail. Once they get to the “Biggest Loser” ranch, they are greeted by rabid, screaming so-called fitness experts who run them through the ringer, health be damned.
So, why does “One Big Happy Family” elicit alarm and concern while “The Biggest Loser,” arguably the most ‘fatsploitive’ show out there, generates rave reviews and ratings?
Critics argue that unlike the wildly unrealistic “Biggest Loser,” the Cole family has no personal trainers or nutritionists and that the family is left to navigate blindly through the process of developing a new, healthier lifestyle while audiences laugh at their shortcomings. But which is more exploitive (and unrealistic)? Generating ratings by sequestering contestants for months in a strictly controlled environment of total exercise immersion with the promise of a big payoff for those who go to any length to lose the weight even if it means endangering one’s health? Or showcasing a family who, while may very well be misguided in some aspects of health and nutrition and engage in some late night “cheats” along the way, are nonetheless committed to enjoyable physical activities and healthier eating?*
But is it the fact that the Coles are going it alone the real reason why audiences are squirming? Perhaps the discomfort stems from the show’s very title itself. After all, it’s uncommon to see fat people, let alone those classified as morbidly obese, highlighted in the media as something other than vaudevillian subjects of pity or mockery. In spite of the stares, glares and snide comments their weights bring them, the Coles are a remarkably close-knit family who tackle their commitment to a healthier lifestyle with a healthy heap of humor and optimism. They are comfortable with themselves as is and tease each other and hug often. And they are, indeed, very happy.
Or maybe the audience ambivalence stems from the fact that the Coles don’t quite look or act like the Huxtables. In Enlightened Racism, authors Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis argue that “The Cosby Show” appealed to white viewers because not only did the Huxtables absolve them and the nation of guilt and responsibility for the position of black people, they also fit neatly into the privileged middle class world of white television. The Coles, on the other hand, don’t fit (no pun intended) quite so neatly in those boxes that all too many white folk consider to be the prerequisites for black success. Like the upwardly mobile and mostly thin Huxtables, the Cole parents are partners and the children respectful. But while the Huxtables were popular among white audiences, in essence, for transcending their black origins, the Coles are uncomfortably fat, stolidly middle-class, sport cornrows and braids and like to rap. Tameka Cole is the family breadwinner while Norris Cole, who receives disability after being injured on the job, is a stay-at-home dad. The couple married when the children were six and four years old after Tameka delivered Norris an ultimatum.
And yet for all the praise given to “The Cosby Show” for ‘normalizing’ the black middle class to white viewers, it’s the Cole family that may be more the modern Everyfamily. Like most middle class families, the Coles don’t have easy access to personal trainers and nutritionists and instead try to navigate through the ever-changing and confusing barrage of health information lobbed at them by the media and health industry. We see Tameka Cole try to find time for exercise between working two jobs and watch her struggle to feed her family something that’s both nutritious and tastes good; an unemployed Norris Cole, who wants to “step up and be a man” and who tries to set a better example for his children; a seemingly self-confident Amber, who admits that food is her drug; the feelings of ‘otherness’ acutely felt by each member of the family and their collective and individual struggles to make healthy decisions in a world that encourages otherwise.
TLC, no doubt,” is capitalizing on the struggles of the Cole family, but on the ‘fatsploitation’ barometer, “One Big Happy Family” ranks pretty low in comparison to the feeding frenzy of other weight-loss reality shows. The family is unapologetic for their weight and do not feel the need to make excuses for or justify how they got to where they are. They attempt to engage in physical activities that are both enjoyable and strengthen their ties as a family unit. And most importantly, the Cole family seems to enjoy the kind of health that no amount of calorie-counting, grueling calisthenics and scale-watching can buy: good mental and emotional health. As Amber Cole says in one episode, “I wish everybody in the world could feel like their family is there for them. My family is truly there for me, and I love them for that.”
Have you seen “One Big Happy Family?” What’s your take on it – is it inspirational or fatsploitive?
*Despite the family’s lack of professional assistance, all have lost weight. In the afore-linked CNN story, Tameka Cole reports having lost 72 pounds.