The Fat Flat Father: Animated Dad’s and Shifting Meaning of Shape
[originally published 22/8/2019 on Homer Mag]
“I think Dad looks pretty good, considering he’s had three kids.” — Tina Belcher, Bob’s Burgers
In 2017, Peppa Pig — the long-running British cartoon/bane of anyone who’s ever spent extended periods of time with a child under three — started receiving heavy criticism online from parents for regularly fat-shaming Daddy Pig in its comedic stylings. It was attention which — for people lucky enough not to be well-acquainted with the animated family and unaware that Daddy Pig’s girth does get surprisingly regular mentions — could easily be dismissed as ridiculous. Yet the fact that an otherwise sickeningly wholesome children’s cartoon was being called-out for a consistent (and very unsubtle) reliance on fat jokes is important, as it reflects a larger ongoing societal shift towards valuing meaningful media representations and greater diversity — including within animation.
Viewer-driven discussions like this are positive indications that audiences — or in this case parents watching with the target audience — are becoming increasingly conscious and less tolerant of writing which relies on lazy stereotypes and debases characters for their differences. The reality that both positive and negative representations hold power to influence and perpetuate enduring mindsets is being much more actively recognised, compared to even a decade ago. And while Peppa Pig is clearly intended for a very young demographic, the objections parents raised to this simple representation of a fat father are interesting when considering other animated dads written for older audiences in past and existing cartoons, and to what extent their shape is part of what makes them sources of comedy.
Classic animated fathers such as Fred Flintstone (The Flintstones: 1960–1966), Homer Simpson (The Simpsons: 1989-present), Hank Hill (King of the Hill: 1997–2010, whose dad bod is a beautifully exceptional combo of beer-gut with a severe lack of ass), Peter Griffin (Family Guy: 1999-present) and most recently Bob Belcher (Bob’s Burgers: 2011-present) are all images of working/lower-middle class fatherhood with physiques that are connected to their character arc. As cartoon connoisseurs will already know, these characters belong to very distinctive family sitcoms with diverging types of humour, yet one of the more obvious similarities they share (aside from all being white/yellow cis-het men) is that their shape is an immediate visual cue. It emphasizes their relatability and further encourages a viewer understanding of them as an average ‘everyman’. More than this, how these animated men simultaneously represent fatherhood and fatness — as well as how weight in general is treated as an ongoing plot device in these shows — mirrors the culture/time they originate from.
For Fred Flintstone, Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin, their larger bodies are a component of their archetypal role as the loud, irresponsible, man-child father. They are characters inspired by (or which intentionally parody, in the cases of Homer and Peter) pre-existing media tropes of incompetent family-men found in non-animated portrayals of family life such as The Honeymooners (1955–1956), All in the Family (1971–1979) or Married … With Children (1987–1997). More broadly, they are also part of an entrenched pattern of fat male characters in general being depicted as irrational, slow-witted or food-crazed, with their weight signifying personal failure on these and other levels.
Of these three dads, Fred is possibly the closest equivalent to Daddy Pig, as their shows were/are primarily intended for children. For this reason, the painfully outdated Flintstones episode where Fred joins an overeaters group, ‘Fred Flintstone: Before and After’, is interesting to compare to the Peppa Pig episode ‘Daddy Gets Fit’, as the premise for both episodes is the father character’s attempted weight loss. Despite the age difference between these episodes, both have a similar ongoing punchline involving the dad being self-deluded and having low impulse control. However, what’s telling is that only Peppa Pig received parental backlash for this gag, signifying a shifting public standard over time in what is considered harmless fun.
In comparison, The Simpsons, Family Guy and King of the Hill were all released in the 1990s, and again, although these are distinct shows, how masculinity is represented and tied to shape — especially through the father figures — evidences both this era’s social norms and longstanding (and as yet unchallenged) symbolic meanings attached to fat bodies. While Homer Simpson’s likability, for instance, is linked to heart-warming moments where he does the right thing or proves that he’s trying his best as a husband and father, the qualities which make him a funny character include his stupidity, quick-temperedness, laziness, impulsiveness and, of course, his endless appetite and penchant for doughnuts (similar to Fred Flintstone decades earlier).
Notable episodes where Homer’s weight is a specific plot-line include ‘Brush with Greatness’ (S02E18), where Homer is motivated to lose weight after getting stuck in a waterslide, ‘Bart’s Friend Falls in Love’ (S03E23), ‘King of the Hill’ (S09E23) and ‘King Size Homer’ (S07E07), popularly considered one of the best episodes of the show, where Homer intentionally gains weight in order to be eligible for worker’s compensation. One scene from ‘King Size Homer’, which is a classic example of Homer being funny precisely because he’s embodying stereotypes, is when Lisa is trying to defend her father to one of her schoolmates on the bus — “My dad may have gained a little weight but he’s not some kind of food-crazed maniac” — only to have Homer appear in the window madly driving a stolen icecream truck as he scoffs icecream.
Of these 1990s animated fathers, King of the Hill’s Hank Hill is particularly unique, as his character is funny for being uptight and conservative, as well as for his pure love for traditionally masculine/fatherly interests (like propane, his lawn, hardware, football, his truck etc.). Like Homer and Peter, Hank belongs to a show which parodies American culture, but whereas the former embody the ‘lazy/dumb American’ stereotype, Hank takes pride in his work, his home and his country, and is usually the voice of reason. Yet despite Hank being a shift away from the irresponsible father trope, Hank’s body is still made to be a relatable source of comedy via the exploitation of normative gender roles. In ‘Hank’s Back Story’ (S05E19), for example, Hank is told by his doctor he has “diminished gluteal syndrome” — a (fictional) condition “quite common in the suburbs: a white male with small buttocks and protruding belly often caused by pronounced consumption of beer.” Hank’s shape is the result of ‘manly’ behaviour — drinking in the alley every night with his friends — and while his weight is less of a plot device than Homer’s, Peter’s and Fred’s, weight-based stereotypes around failure are prominent in his lonely friend Bill Dauterive.
Hank Hill’s character arguably offers greater depth and realism compared to other man-child representations of fatherhood, especially as Hank’s character growth is generally related to his efforts to understand and bond with his quirky son, Bobby. Yet following King of the Hill’s conclusion in 2010,[sm1] one indication that animated representations of fatherhood and larger bodies are continuing to become more nuanced, while still remaining relatable and funny, is Bob’s Burgers’ patriarch, Bob Belcher. While Bob’s appearance and his physique are often the butt of his children’s jabs — and there is an ongoing joke that Bob can’t run very far — there are subtle yet meaningful characteristics which make this moustachioed burger-man a different kind of fatherly representation than animation is used to. Bob Belcher, and Bob’s Burgers in general, represents a positive shift away from larger bodies being flagrantly used as a visual cue for stereotypical attributes such as laziness or incompetence.
Although in small ways Bob mirrors the man-child trope, with his dramatic freak-outs and very public rivalry with neighbouring restauranteur Jimmy Pesto, in general he is the most sensible member of this eccentric family. Bob has a lot of patience, a strong work ethic and a passion for what he does, but unlike Hank, his children’s quirkiness is never something he has to work hard to accept or understand. Bob is the kind of supportive father who will get his legs waxed with his eldest daughter Tina, and the type of husband who accepts without question that his wife is carrying around a potato because she thinks it looks like her dead grandpa. Bob may judge his family’s oddities as he gives an exacerbated “oh my god”, yet it’s clear he genuinely loves each member of his weird family for who they are and enjoys their company. His children are “a two adult, two-bottle-of-wine-a-night job” (according to Linda) but unlike Peter and Homer, Bob is never a negligent family-man, and what’s more, unlike Hank, Bob never expresses a desire for his children to be different or for his son to be less dramatic and effeminate.
Above all, Bob is funny not for character attributes commonly designated to fat fictional men, but rather for his little eccentricities and for his reactions to bizarre circumstances, which vary from dry wit to outlandish over-reactions, reminding viewers that deep down Bob is just as strange as the rest of the Belchers. He has substance, and his arcs do not rely on harmful and outmoded media tropes, and it is this type of character depth within Bob’s Burgers which has attracted such a large following to the show. The only two episodes of Bob’s Burgers with a specific focus on weight/dieting weren’t even related to Bob’s figure, but rather to Bob feeling guilty about the health of his regular customer Teddy (S05E03) and to Linda’s attempts to go on the ‘skin-deep’ diet (S03E08) out of fear she has a ‘muffin top’. The latter episode ends with Bob reassuring Linda, “You look great. You know who doesn’t have a muffin top? People who go to the gym all the time, and who don’t have kids.”
Bob’s Burgers is often compared to The Simpsons in its earlier years, as the Simpsons were also hailed as one of the most relatable families on television, despite being animated. Yet since that time, animation has needed to create more complex characters which go beyond or challenge harmful tropes, rather than continue to reinforce simplistic and antiquated stereotypes. Formulas continue to be challenged and called to account; especially as online connectivity creates a space where open discussion is more prominent than ever. More importantly, however, this change is also the product of greater diversity in writing teams, and creators like Loren Bouchard wanting to see representations of their background which they did not experience growing up.
In an interview on the current rise of animated comedy, Bob’s Burgers creator Loren Bouchard spoke of the limits traditionally placed on “blue collar characters”, and how his intention with Bob’s Burgers was to challenge the trope of a working-class person as “a lump who comes home, sits on the couch and isn’t curious, doesn’t read books and isn’t interested in making things.” This conscious effort to offer more meaningful representations of working-class people has meant that all of Bob’s Burgers thematic cornerstones — including family dynamics, masculinities, fatherhood and body shape — have been affected through sympathetic, nuanced writing. And just as positive audience reactions to the representations within Bob’s Burgers are an indication that audiences are refreshed by shifts away from old formulas, the outcry against fat-shaming Daddy Pig reflects other related, nascent values of our time.
As unreal as cartoons are, media representations reflect some level of reality in order to reach particular audiences. That viewers are choosing en masse to endorse a familiar, relatable family acting generously, thoughtfully and with love indicates the presence of a desire in that audience to live in that kind of world. How we affect cartoons is clear, as Peppa Pig has shown, but how they affect us is an open question. The differences between the world of Bob’s Burgers and what came before it should inspire us to ask, how can our own world come to look a little more like theirs?
 This is noticeable for instance in the recent episode ‘Roamin’ Bob-iday’ (S09E16), where the family locks Bob out of the restaurant to force him to take a much-needed day off. He stands outside banging on the door for two hours.
 Especially noticeable for instance in episodes where Linda or the kids aren’t working at the restaurant such as ‘Lindapendant Woman’ (S04E14) or ‘Bob Fires the Kids’ (S03E03), as well as ‘An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal’ (S03E05), where Bob is clearly unhappy that he doesn’t get to spend his favourite holiday with his family.