Junkfood Science: Boston Legal takes on fat discrimination in the workplace

November 07, 2007

Boston Legal takes on fat discrimination in the workplace

Fiction often takes its inspiration from real life. Boston Legal introduced a timely storyline last night when lead law firm attorney Denny Crane, played by William Shatner, fired a lovely associate lawyer, Nancy Wilding, for being fat. Then, he rationalized it, saying he had to let her go because he didn’t want to “catch” her fat.

The spunky, now jobless, Ms Wilding responded by saying “ka-ching, ka-ching!” and got her own lawyer. Next week she takes them to court.

Will her lawyers brilliantly demolish that “fat is contagious” notion? They have all of the ammunition.

This idea was created by authors of a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine this past July, who claimed that ‘obesity’ could be caught by associating with fat people. Within 24 hours of its publication, it had been reported uncritically as fact in over 500 media outlets across the country. Of course, the paper’s key message was little more than the promotion of social shunning and discrimination of fat people. JFS looked into this paper and made some surprising findings, serving to remind us that even peer-reviewed medical journals can resort to woo. Nor is there any credible science to support the idea that one can catch “fat” from associating with a fat person, anymore than you can catch “black” from a black person. If these wonderfully talented Boston Legal writers, David E. Kelley and Corinne Brinkerhoff, read JFS, it could make for a fun show.

While Ms Wilding had worked for Crane & Associates for over 6 years, partnership was not in her future, she was told, because the firm “can’t have fat people working at Crane & Associates.” Denny Crane confirmed that it wasn’t her job performance and that she was being fired because she was fat. He even agreed that if she were thin, she’d still have her job. [There was also a suggestion that he was upset that she had rejected his sexual advances, which he found particularly offensive, given she was fat and therefore perhaps supposed to be desperate.]

Of course, in the real world, employers are rarely this blatant, but Boston Legal is taking on discrimination against fat people with bold honesty. As documented in a recent study led by Michigan State University (reported here), for white women who are fat, their weight is the biggest source of discrimination in the workplace, adversely affecting hiring, salaries and career advancement and leaving them most vulnerable to firings. This study provided powerful evidence of the legal liabilities employers face when failing to recognize weight bias in the workplace. If the Boston Legal writers read that study, this fictional legal case could serve as a inspiration for a multitude of real life ones waiting in the wings.

Stay tuned. :)

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