On Disgust: How Revulsion Shapes Popular Art

We need more movies that don't star blond guys named Chris

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

"... the new Nike mannequin is not size 12, which is healthy, or even 16 – a hefty weight, yes, but not one to kill a woman. She is immense, gargantuan, vast. She heaves with fat.

She is, in every measure, obese..."

-Tanya Gold, The Telegraph, June 9, 2019

In a major publication, for money, and with the approval of at least one professional editor, Telegraph writer Tanya Gold voiced unmistakable disgust for fat bodies in an article earlier this year. Gold's piece is remarkable not for the sentiments it contains—which one can find in any garden variety piece of "obesity epidemic" reporting in print or televised news—but for the venom with which it expresses them. According to Gold, the very existence of representation of a fat body amounts to encouraging mass suicide by slothfulness and overeating. Her piece demonstrates the way in which, while the corporate adoption of diversity and acceptance movements like body neutrality and gay pride are economic opportunism at best and hollow exploitation at worst, public reactions to mass media and advertising still betray core fatphobic sentiments held by huge swaths of the population.

So what does Gold's disgust mean? One of the universal emotions defined by psychologist Robert Plutchick in his seminal work on the subject, disgust is a primal human driver. Its evolutionary advantage was theorized by research psychologists Megan Oaten, Trevor Case, and Richard Stevenson to relate to sensory perception of disease or toxicity in food, objects, and people. It serves as a kind of defense mechanism by which populations and individuals protect themselves against outbreaks. Disgust motivates us to dispose of our dead before they putrefy, to avoid spoiled food, and to keep biological waste away from settled areas, but while disgust-motivated infrastructure can be beneficial, the emotion itself is as readily triggered by learned prejudices as it is by real threats.

A wedge-tail Eagle feeds on roadkill

When the experience of disgust is conflated with value judgments, with moral or scientific imperatives, society reshapes itself around those things just as it does around landfills and waste treatment plants. Evidence of this is plainly visible in everything from the concentration camps swelling like boils along our nation's southern border to articles like Gold's, which confuse the author's revulsion at the sight of fatness with the idea that fatness is itself immoral. You don'thavetolookfar to find the sentiments behind these outpourings of vitriol at work in ways both blatant and reserved, but nowhere are they more visible than in our society's popular art, the perfect medium for their social reinforcement.

The Beautiful People

Sit down and watch the last 14 years of programming on the CW. Marathon all 22 Marvel movies. Hell, throw in all 10 Star Wars movies, all 378 episodes of NCIS, or all 458 of Law and Order: SVU, the 12 X-Men movies, TheHunger Games, Harry Potter, The Maze Runner, James Bond, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and whatever else you can scoop off the surface of the last 20 years of mass media with a pool skimmer. You're going to find about four or five fat actors, next to zero fat actresses, and basically no one who isn't either conventionally attractive or an older performer considered conventionally attractive in their day and now relegated to comic relief (for women) or grave mentor roles (for men).

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in HBO's The Sopranos, 1999-2007

Not only does the modern casting process eschew performers audiences might find unattractive or upsetting to look at, but the actors it does select fall within an embarrassingly narrow band of physical similarity. Try scanning the headshots for a CW show's cast; it's four or five "types" reproduced ad nauseam across hundreds, even thousands, of hours of television. The Marvel movies infamously featured three blond men named "Chris" in leading roles before it led a film with a man of color and, later, a woman. Art like Marvel's depends on an ethos of inoffensive mildness in everything from its heavily studio-enforced visual and storytelling style to the physical bodies of its actors. The people it excludes, the vast majority of the human race for which it has no screen time, are those who might in some statistically significant subsection of the population—be it large or small—cause feelings of disgust.

But why shouldn't we sit with disgust? Why should we only look at and imagine a single tiny wedge of a single spectrum of human bodies? It can't be solely about economics. The Sopranos—arguably the most acclaimed television show of all time and if not the most influential second only to David Lynch's Twin Peaks—featured an unheard-of cast of overweight, balding, unusual-looking people and almost single-handedly transformed HBO into a programming juggernaut. If anything, audiences react most strongly to actors whose bodies are engrossing in some way, whose faces provoke conflicting emotions, whose appearances are more relatable than screen-perfect Ken Dolls like Marvel's Chrises. James Gandolfini was a sex symbol not in spite of his hulking physique, crooked teeth, and unconventional features, but because of them. When viewers can relate a performer to the people who surround them in real life, to their own friends, family, and loved ones, their psychological bond to a piece of art can be much deeper.

Various CW cast members from the Arrow-verse series of programming

A Case for Ugliness

Art made by and for people who fall outside our culture's ideas of conventional beauty does exist. The fiction of Charity Porpentine, The Sopranos, the Coen brothers' body of work—the sort of visual easy listening which dominates mass-market entertainment doesn't hold a total monopoly, but its reach, and influence, remains a frightening thing. Audiences who never read a book that makes them uncomfortable, who never see a person whose appearance upsets them, who never hear music that makes their palms sweat and their face flush, will never have a chance to grow as makers or viewers of art. A steady diet of unchallenging fare and normative, vaguely pleasing bodies leaves us stunted and unable to imagine or relate to different kinds of people.

Disgust left unexamined serves to reinforce prejudices, but to sit with disgust, to hold it close and try to feel the contours of its reason for being, is to open one's self up to radical new experiences of empathy. In order to pursue this growth, audiences must seek out art which challenges, which gives them sensations other than amusement and pleasure. Some of their initial disgust may transmute over time into other emotions. Some of it may remain a part of them for years, or potentially forever. But to turn one's back on discomfort is to reject the idea that a world can change, that acceptance can be more than lip service and corporate ads, that all of us deserve to have our stories told and our images held up as worthy, real, and wholly human.