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"Fat Pig" by Neil LaBute - Study Guide and Commentary

Characters and Themes

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Neil LaBute titled the play Fat Pig (which first premiered off-Broadway in 2004) to get our attention. However, if he wanted to be blunt, he could have named the play Cowardice, because that is what this comedy-tinged drama is really about.

The Plot:

Tom is a young urban professional who has a bad track record of quickly losing interest in the attractive women he dates. Although in comparison to his crude friend Carter, Tom seems more sensitive than your typical cad. In fact, in the first scene of the play, Tom encounters a smart, flirtatious woman who is described as very plus-sized. When the two connect and she gives him her phone number, Tom is genuinely interested, and the two start dating.

However, deep down Tom is shallow. (I know that seems like a paradox, but that's how he is.) He is too self-conscious about what his so-called "work friends" think about his relationship with Helen. It doesn't help that he dumped a vindictive co-worker named Jeannie who interprets his overweight girlfriend as a personal attack:

JEANNIE: I'm sure you thought this would hurt me, right?

It also doesn't help when his sleazy friend Carter steals a photo of Helen and emails a copy to everyone at the office. But ultimately, this is a play about a young man who comes to terms with who he is:

TOM: I'm a weak and fearful person, Helen, and I'm not gonna get any better.

(Spoiler Alert) Male Characters in "Fat Pig":

LaBute has a definite knack for obnoxious, callous male characters. The two guys in Fat Pig follow in this tradition, yet they aren't nearly as loathsome than the jerks in LaBute's film In the Company of Men.

Carter might be a slimeball, but he is not too vicious. At first he is flabbergasted by the fact that Tom is dating an overweight woman. Also, he firmly believes that Tom and other attractive people "should run with [their] own kind." Basically, Carter thinks that Tom is wasting his youth by dating someone of Helen's size.

However, if one reads the synopsis of the play, it asks: "How many insults can you hear before you have to stand up and defend the woman you love?" Based upon that blurb, audiences might assume that Tom is pushed to the breaking point by barrage of awful insults at his girlfriend's expense. Yet, Carter is not completely insensitive. In one of the best monologues of the play, Carter tells the story of how he was often embarrassed by his obese mother when in public. He also supplies the wisest piece of advice in the play:

CARTER: Do what you want. If you like this girl, then don't listen to a goddamn word anybody says.

So, if Carter lays off on the insults and peer pressure, and the vengeful Jeannie calms down and moves on with her life, why does Tom break up with Helen? He cares too much about what others think. His self-consciousness prevents him from pursuing what could be an emotionally fulfilling relationship.

Female Characters in "Fat Pig":

LaBute offers one well-developed female character (Helen) and a secondary female character who seems like an artistic misfire. Jeannie doesn't get much stage time, but whenever present she seems like a typical jilted co-worker seen in countless sitcoms and movies.

But her stereotypical shallowness provides a nice foil for Helen, a woman who is bright, self-aware, and honest. She encourages Tom to be honest as well, often sensing his awkwardness when they are out in public. She falls hard and quick for Tom. At the end of he play, she confesses:

HELEN: I love you so much, I really do, Tom. Feel a connection with you that I haven't allowed myself to dream of, let alone be a part of, in so long.

Ultimately, Tom cannot love her, because he is too paranoid about what others think. Therefore, as sad as the ending of the play might seem, it's good that Helen and Tom face the truth of their faltering relationship early on. (Real life dysfunctional couples could learn a valuable lesson from this play.)

Comparing Helen to someone like Nora from A Doll's House reveals how empowered and assertive women have become in the last few centuries. Nora builds an entire marriage based upon facades. Helen insists upon facing the truth before allowing a serious relationship to continue.

There's a quirk about her personality. She loves old war movies, mostly obscure World War II flicks. This little detail might just be something that LaBute invented to make her unique from other women (thereby helping to explain Tom's attraction for her). In addition, it may also reveal the type of man she needs to find. The American soldiers of World War II, by and large, were courageous and willing to fight for what they believed in, even at the cost of their lives. These men are part of what journalist Tom Brokaw described as The Greatest Generation. Men like Carter and Tom pale in comparison. Perhaps Helen is obsessed with the films not because of the "pretty explosions" but because they remind her of the male figures in her family, and provide a model for potential mates, reliable, stalwart men who aren't afraid to take a risk.

The Importance of "Fat Pig":

At times LaBute's dialogue seems like it is trying too hard to emulate David Mamet. And the short nature of the play (one of those no bak 90 minute ventures like Shanley's Doubt) makes it reminiscent of those ABC After School Specials from my childhood. They were short films that focused on cautionary tales of modern dilemmas: bullying, anorexia, peer pressure, self-image. They didn't have as many swear words as LaBute's plays, though. And the secondary characters (Carter and Jeannie) barely escape their sitcomish roots.

Despite these flaws, Fat Pig triumphs with its central characters. I believe in Tom. I have, unfortunately, been Tom; there have been times when I have said things or made choices based upon the expectations of others. And I have felt like Helen (maybe not overweight, but someone who feels like they are removed from those labeled as attractive by mainstream society).

There's no happy ending in the play, but fortunately in real life the Helens of the world (sometimes) find the right guy, and the Toms of the world (occasionally) learn to how to overcome their fear of other people's opinions. If more of us paid attention to the lessons of the play, we could replace those parenthetic adjectives to "often" and "almost always."

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