The Louis C.K. Effect: Why Overweight Men Have Higher Status Than Overweight Women

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Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/FX

Yes, Louis C.K. can make dirty jokes with the best of them — "bag of dicks," anyone? — but he stands atop the contemporary comedy heap for different reasons.

In both his stand-up and on Louie, he's constantly making smart, incisive points about human nature. The first of last night’s two episodes of Louie was a prime example: He served up serious knowledge on the unfair disparities between how overweight men and women are viewed and treated in the dating world. (Spoilers ahead.)

Vanessa, played by Sarah Baker (whom Vulture interviewed last night), is an overweight woman who works as a waitress at the Comedy Cellar and keeps bugging Louie to go on a date with her. He eventually relents and they spend an enjoyable day strolling around New York and cracking each other up — until she refers to herself as fat and Louie tells her she isn’t. This launches her into an inspired monologue about the many ways in which being an overweight woman is being worse than an overweight guy. It’s unfair, she complains, that overweight guys often vie for slimmer women, ignoring women like her. She points a bit down the path they’re on. “If you were standing over there, looking at us, you know what you’d see? That we totally match. We’re actually a great couple together. And yet you would never date a girl like me.” It’s a cutting point: Louie, the very embodiment of portliness and schlumpiness, sees himself as somehow above women who are overweight. Overweight women? They’re conditioned to see themselves as beneath everyone.

So is she, right? For the most part, yes. “Men and women do differ on how much their assessment of physical attractiveness is influenced by body weight,” said Eli Finkel, a relationship and attraction expert at Northwestern University, in an email. “Men tend to prefer skinny women, whereas women tend to prefer medium-sized men. And, even beyond that point, weight is more strongly linked to a woman’s attractiveness than a man’s.” What complicates things a bit, though, is that men and women aren’t as different as we think they are when it comes to how important looks are in the grand scheme of things. “Paul Eastwick and I have done tons of work showing that although men and women differ in how much they say they want physical attractiveness in a partner,” Finkel noted, “these sex differences disappear once people have met a flesh-and-blood person.” That is, in real life, men and women are equally concerned with looks, even though men are conditioned to act like they think looks are a bigger deal.

We’re still missing an explanation for why overweight men tend to be perched higher than their female counterparts in the dating hierarchy. Jennifer Jill Harman, a Colorado State University researcher, suggested in an email that this might have to do with the idea that if one partner in a relationship is significantly more attractive than the other, “people tend to assume something else is ‘traded.’ So an unattractive older male most likely has status and money to trade for a younger and beautiful female. As men tend to have greater status in society than women, they can trade this for more attractive mates.” Yes, women have (somewhat) closed the money-and-power gap with men, but stereotypes are tough to dislodge, and they "still significantly impact our perceptions of others," Harman said. Men are still "perceived to be more agentic, assertive, dominant, and women more dependent, emotional, etc."

There's an ingrained assumption, then, that men have stuff to "trade," but women don't, and this assumption is part of the reason it's still seen as weird when an unattractive woman dates an attractive man — what could she possibly be trading? Louie and Vanessa are stuck in a system in which he’s supposed to trade on his wealth and power (which, in the fictional world of the show, he has very little of) to find a more attractive mate, while she’s supposed to settle.

So Louis C.K., in addition to generating a weirdly prolific number of social-scientific insights, really is something of a feminist comedian.