'Fat Monica' is the ghost that continues to haunt Friends 25 years later
Fat Monica continues to be a polarizing figure, not just in pop culture history but also in the show that created it.
Discussing the legacy of Friends can lead to a lot of disagreement. Some praise it as one of the funniest sitcoms of all time. Some dismiss it as a Living Single rip-off. Some rightfully call out how white and homogenous it was for a show based in New York in the ’90s. Some prefer to view the show with rose-colored, nostalgic-tinged glasses. Some point out characters like womanizer Joey (Matt LeBlanc) have certainly not aged well.
And speaking of characters from Friends that did not age well, “Fat Monica” is another big point of contention for some fans. Countless think pieces have explained why the character was problematic. “Problematicness” is one thing, but it’s more accurate to say that Fat Monica is an intrinsic part of Friends’ canon that it cannot seem to escape, even 25 years later.
Why is that?
Fat Monica is an incredibly lazy part of Friends’ comedic relevance
Even if you overlook the fatphobia that follows this character around like a shadow, you’ll find that the biggest problem with Fat Monica is how the show used her to garner cheap laughs in the laziest ways possible.
Everything from how the character was designed — à la the svelte Courteney Cox in a fat suit rather than an actual person who was, gasp, fat — to how the character acted was greatly exaggerated to elicit laughs — and not much else. In an alternate opening sequence, Fat Monica hops onto the gang’s couch and almost tips it over — and we’re supposed to laugh. Fat Monica is often seen eating sloppily, wiping chocolate from her face, or licking powdered sugar from her fingers. In “The One That Could Have Been” two-parter where Monica never loses weight in an alternate timeline, she remains a virgin for the longest time (because apparently fat people didn’t have sex in the ’90s?). And the show plays up the character’s hallmark neuroses for laughs when she is overly concerned with someone having sat on her Kit Kat bar (because being neurotic or struggling with OCD is complex…unless you’re fat) in the same episode.
Could the show have treated her better? Sure. But that would have deprived it of “reliable” laughs at the expense of a fictional fat character doing normal things like eating, dancing, or simply living. Fat Monica worked in a horrendously offensive sense in that — in an era where SlimFast was popping, extremely thin models like Kate Moss were It girls, and “heroin chic” was the prevailing fashion trend — pop culture fed a hysteria over being or becoming fat. And Fat Monica allowed people to take those anxieties about fatness, project them onto the character, and laugh at them. And be comfortable in laughing because whatever happened, they would never be as fat, sloppy, and socially inept as “Fat Monica.”
The “Fat Monica Dance” is a wildly important example of this
Nostalgia chasers will remember her dance as “cute” or “adorable,” but that’s not exactly the case. On one hand, Fat Monica appears to be unbothered and unconcerned with people staring at her while she dances, which itself would be great, but her dancing is played for laughs and is usually done with some type of food in hand — famously a donut. A scene that could have been used to demonstrate that Fat Monica was cool and confident regardless of living in a fatphobic society instead becomes another example of Friends’ lazy approach to fatness as comedy. It morphs into a recurring gag of, “Hey, look at this fat person MOVING. Come watch her make funny faces! And her fat jiggle! Hilarious!” It’s ugly, especially in a 2019 context, but to be clear, it was always ugly, and that “dance” continues to be a litmus test on determining how much the general public finds joy and hilarity in laughing at and ridiculing fat people.
What is also ugly is the fact that this character is weaved into other parts of the series by being the thing that normal (read: skinny) Monica is repeatedly slapped over the head with. Even outside of increased appearances in season 2, the rest of the Friends ensemble continuously revisit Monica’s fat past, unearthing home videos to kiki at and, in more extreme cases like Ross pointing out that she used to be fat as some sort of Yu-Gi-Oh! trap card (like his recurring nightmare of her eating him and her apparently crushing a horse) when he thinks she’s gotten the better of him. Joey, who never knew Fat Monica famously shouts, “Some girl ate Monica!” at one of these videos in “The One With The Prom Tape.” And while it’s played for laughs, it unintentionally makes some very important points.
Monica’s character trajectory plays directly into the dreaded “Reformed Fattie” trope, and positions Fat Monica as the “lesser” version of Monica
It is unfathomable to people like Joey that Monica existed and would have certainly eaten “the real” Monica if she had. In “The One With All the Thanksgivings,” a young Monica and Chandler (Matthew Perry) finally meet and though she develops a crush, she is put off by him when she overhears his disgust at her weight and then gets “revenge” on him a year later by losing weight and finally revealing herself as — what the show deems — an attractive woman.
Barring the absurd (but relatable) quest to lose weight so that a man can see you as fully (and attractively) human, it’s a grim demonstration that even her friends and family didn’t value her until she was no longer fat and thus “normal.” This is aggravated by the fact that it’s also her so-called friends that deem it appropriate to routinely use her fat past as some sort of “gotcha” against her presently skinny self. Thus, Friends’ accidentally demonstrates how fatphobia and fat-shaming are used as forms of control and regulation regarding beauty and specifically respect where cis women are concerned.
It didn’t matter how much skinny Monica had grown. And it didn’t matter that she was ironically the same assured, uptight, competitive, and caring person that she was even as Fat Monica. It didn’t even matter that in an alternate timeline, she would have supposedly ended up with Chandler even with her being fat. Her being fat, to begin with, and the show’s treatment of it, still lingers like a putrid stench or an unshakable specter in the background of the show, telling us — with the aid of a laugh track — that being fat is a disqualification for basic human decency, but does sure make for a good laugh.
And that’s something Friends has to live with.