The Meanings of Jason Segel's Fat

The Sensitive Schlub’s Chub

on April 27, 2012 by Inkoo Kang

forgetting-sarah-marshall_400.jpgEarlier this week on David Letterman, giant teddy bear-come-to-life Jason Segel revealed that he was forced to shed 35 pounds to play Emily Blunt’s fiancé in The Five-Year Engagement. Sporting a baggy gray suit and a jaw-tracing bloatee, Segel confessed, “I was forced to lose weight for this movie. It was by the studio president! I was told it had to be conceivable that Emily Blunt would ever choose me to be her husband, which I think is fair enough!” The actor/screenwriter was just as self-deprecating about his figure in Engagement’s script, which he co-penned. The trailer shows Tom, Segel’s character, wearing an apron that hides his squishy middle under a picture of chiseled abs. Growing indignant about a development that will prolong his engagement to Violet (Blunt), Tom compares his situation to being deceived about how many more miles he’ll have to run on a treadmill. Violet interrupts with a smirk, “When was the last time you were on a treadmill?”

Tom is the latest Segel character forced to confront the actor’s increasingly visible fat. Since his first major role as sweet, sensitive Nick Andopolis in Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks, Segel has been exhibiting an ever-expanding waistline. As Nick, Segel was an impossibly lanky gentle giant who idolized romance, rock and roll, and weed. While all of Segel’s subsequent characters have genealogical roots in Nick, they lack the latter's teenage gangliness. Marshall Eriksen, Segel’s character on the long-running CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, is Nick with a law school diploma and premature jowls. I Love You, Man features Nick toasted by the California sun, perennially in search of free food, and Jeff, Who Lives At Home shows Nick at his most existentially dire – as an overweight thirty-year-old trapped in his mom’s basement, devastatingly aware that he’s missing a purpose in life. Even in his two passion projects, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Muppets, which he co-wrote and starred in, Segel didn’t give himself a chance to stretch beyond the affable beta males and easygoing everybros that comprise his screen credits. For The Five-Year Engagement, he made his character a chef, perhaps to explain and excuse his spare tire.

To be fair, it’s not like Segel’s an unholy mix of human and ham. But as a romantic leading man, he has just enough fat for audiences (and studio heads) to wonder: Is he desirable enough? As Segel admitted on Letterman, it’s a question that plagues – and possibly threatens – his career. But conversely, his fat is now as much a signature look as Heidi Klum’s legs and Justin Bieber’s hair. And as this tweet, “I wish we could all agree to adjust our cultural perspective on beauty so that I could eat more,” suggests, Segel doesn’t want to trim down – he just wishes other people wouldn’t have a problem with his body. (#Protip @JasonSegel: If you want to eat like there’s no tomorrow, write a role for yourself that doesn’t hinge on being attractive to others.) So what does Jason Segel’s fat mean to him and to audiences? Here are some answers:

Male Privilege – To get it out of the way, let’s admit right off the bat that Segel has been allowed to balloon for as long as he has because of his gender. There’s no way any of his female co-stars, especially his on-screen romantic partners like Blunt (Engagement), Amy Adams (The Muppets), and Alyson Hannigan (How I Met Your Mother), would have continued to find work with an extra thirty pounds on their tiny frames. Audiences would revolt, studios would pass, tabloids would hiss with glee, and pretty soon the only people calling them would be Weight Watchers reps.

Relatability as a Beta Male – America is fat, and so is Segel. The actor’s huggability informs much of his “beta male” persona; the flaw of fat makes his characters sympathetic and nonthreatening. Contrast Segel with his one-time co-stars James Franco and Paul Rudd, on the one hand, and Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, on the other. Segel’s undeniably handsome, but lacks the movie-star dreaminess of Franco and Rudd. His fat defensively insists for him, “It’s okay that they’re better-looking than I am. I’m not one of the pretty boys.” And his fat serves a completely different purpose than that of Rogen and Hill, his fellow members at Clubhouse Apatow. In contrast to Segel, Rogen and Hill have spent most of their careers playing unlikable characters. Their fat, combined with other unattractive features – bad hair, strident voice, surly or abrasive attitude – give them a prickliness that Segel lacks.

So while Rogen and Hill have often deployed their fat as a wall, Segel uses his as an invitation. He’s not that much more handsome than male audiences, nor is he too fat for female audiences to find attractive (thanks, we now know, to studio heads). Neither unattainable nor undesirable, he’s the boy next door. And because he’s experienced weight struggles and body awkwardness himself (it must be uncomfortable to feel like Lurch all the time), he’s the rare everydude who also understands the everygirl.

Outsider Status – As seen in the David Letterman appearance (“I got bullied by my boss for being fat!”), Segel is skilled at using his love handles to get love from audiences. It’s no coincidence that for years, the actor accidentally(?) circulated a joke/rumor that Linda Cardellini (Lindsay from Freaks and Geeks) dumped him for gaining twenty pounds. Despite being a super-successful, mega-rich, creatively fulfilled star – who, incidentally, does a really great job of keeping his partying mostly under wraps – Segel’s extra pounds render him relatable by making him seem like a Hollywood outsider.

That fat outsider quality might explain why he’s so often cast as a manchild. Manchildren might be the new normal in the movies, but they’re still treated, by the supporting characters and most audience members, as standing outside the bounds of normal society. Segel’s fat virtually endows him with a manchild narrative: This is a guy who’s hit his thirties and is gaining weight fast because he eats and behaves in exactly the same way he’s been doing since puberty. Fat augments his characters’ slovenly appearance and aura of idleness, and gives them an unnatural “baby with stubble” look that perfectly emblematizes the out-of-step life stage they occupy.

Hedonism – Accordingly, there’s always a slight air of tragedy to the manchildren of the movies. If they’re in a Farrelly Brothers film, they suffer from an unresolved childhood trauma. If they’re one of Apatow’s creatures, they need the love and civilizing influence of a good buzz-killing woman. But part of Jason Segel’s PR magic has been the transformation of the actor’s fat into a sign of hedonism. In a different appearance on Letterman last year, Segel talked about gaining 40 pounds while filming Jeff, Who Lives at Home in Louisiana because there was so much good food and drinks in New Orleans that he couldn’t help himself. In other words, Jason Segel knows you’re looking at his fat, and he wants to tell you that it comes from Good Times. He’s not gonna make excuses about being big-boned or having a thyroid disorder, and he’s not the fat kid who has to learn how to be funny to make friends and avoid getting picked on. Fat, or at least his fat, equals fun. 

Confidence and Desirability – For all the many self-deprecating remarks Segel has made about his weight, he is clearly confident enough to talk about his fat often and extensively, thus inviting others to do so as well. (Hi, Jason!) In fact, Segel's regular discussions about his body ultimately read like a secret campaign for the sensitive schlub. Take Sarah Marshall, for instance, which Segel wrote and starred in. The film promotes the sensitive chubby guy – a figure usually reserved in film for a high school girl’s gay best friend – to the hero and romantic lead. The fat, depressed schlub (Segel) is positively compared against his rail-thin, manic sex-pirate rival (Russell Brand). Chubby dudes like himself are the boys next door. Thin men like Brand, on the other hand, are strange, foreign, a passing fad.

The film is virtually a (rather self-aggrandizing) paean to the sensitive chubby guy. Segel’s character Peter demands sympathy on account of his vulnerability and regular-guy looks, while Segel the actor/screenwriter calls attention to how cool he is about his body (including his penis), that he can be openly self-deprecating about it, even show it off. At the same time that his character is being callously emasculated (Peter’s girlfriend Sarah, played by Kristen Bell, dumps him while his, er, peter is exposed), Segel portrays his "real" self as desirably “masculine." He doesn't care, after all, if you see his body – or not enough to shield it from the camera's view, since, in movie terms, men who are overly concerned with their appearance aren’t desirable – they’re sissies, narcissists, or The Situation. In contrast to those undesirable types, Segel can draw attention to his fat (and his penis) to score sympathy points, while alluding to the sexual self-assurance he must have in order to bare them.

It’s hard to imagine another actor using his fat as part of his/her "brand" as successfully as Segel. Bonding with fans over weight problems is usually an older female star’s strategy (Oprah, Kirstie Alley), and usually occurs only in the context of selling a makeover product aimed at older female audiences (e.g., The Oprah Winfrey Show, Jenny Craig). But Segel’s audience is younger and comprised of both men and women. In a shrewd reversal (that likely wouldn’t work for even a popular thirtysomething actress), Segel employs his fat as a plea for sympathy and identification (“look how gross I am, just like you”), while exhibiting it as a sign of his sexual confidence (“look how okay I am with how gross I am; you should be impressed”). Thus, Jason Segel is having his cakes, and eating them too.

Tags: Jason Segel, The Five-Year Engagement, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Judd Apatow, Jeff Who Lives At Home

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