Dieting is as American as apple pie. As Jerry Mosher notes in “Setting Free the Bears: Refiguring Fat Men on Television” from Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, “Dieting is such an American institution… most American sitcoms sooner or later do a ‘dieting show'” (188). This has been true since at least the fifties, when The Honeymooners and The Goldbergs both featured fat lead characters and episodes on dieting. However, The Goldbergs has the rare distinction of featuring at least two dieting episodes, airing only two years apart with drastically different resolutions. These two episodes from the early family sitcom demonstrate how ambivalent approaches to corpulence have long coexisted in American culture.
Series creator and writer Gertrude Berg had a self-deprecating but strategic awareness of her size. Embodying the role of Molly Goldberg for three decades, Berg capitalized on the meanings of her character through a number of paratextual products, including a cookbook and line of plus-sized house-dresses. Three factors may have insulated Berg from conventional pressures to reduce throughout her career: her establishment in radio; her matriarchal main role; and her Jewish background, since “off-white” ethnicities have often been associated with larger sizes in American culture. However, moving from the aural medium of radio to the visual medium of television may have increased those pressures. Mid-fifties competition may also have played a part, especially with the bevy of thinner, younger wives from the WASP-populated middle-class suburban family sitcoms that followed in The Goldbergs‘ wake.
Molly Goldberg’s size takes center stage in at least two episodes, number 25 from the DuMont run in 1954 and number 66 (“Milk Farm”) from the Guild Films syndication run in 1956. The episodes are remarkable for their similarities and differences. Chief among the similarities is their incorporation of the tropes of weight-loss narratives. These include forms of confession and surveillance, through the use of counseling, scales, and before-and-after photographs.
Both also feature work-out scenes that emphasize evolutions in televisual style through differing takes on similar routines. The 1954 episode, aired live, involves a long take through deep space. The camera captures a long shot of women working out simultaneously on different machines, then moves into and through the space, getting closer shots until finding Molly in a steam cabinet. The 1956 episode, edited for syndicated broadcast, functions as a conventional montage: single takes of women at different machines combine to represent discrete moments over time.
However, the biggest difference between the two episodes resides in their treatment of Molly’s efforts and results. In both, Molly cheats on her diet and fails to lose weight. In the first, the family supports her endeavor but finds the process amusing. When Molly reveals she’s ultimately lost no weight, they surround her with affection and console her with a bowl of ice cream.
In the second, the family supports Molly’s husband Jake in forcing her to go to a milk farm. Booted for cheating, Molly returns home to find a letter to the family detailing her crimes. At dinner Jake then shames her, calling Molly a “compulsive eater” who can’t control herself. She explodes:
“I am not! I am a human being like you and like you and like you! You think going away to drink milk is the answer? It is not!… How should I learn self control with skimmed milk? I don’t want to be forbidden forbidden fruits! I want to be surrounded by them! I want to be the one to say no!”
Molly then appears to prove Jake right, storming into the kitchen and devouring spaghetti behind closed doors. She returns to the living room with only bread on her plate, chomps a carrot, and indignantly exclaims “I don’t need a policeman!” before the episode ends.
One reason for the differing treatments here may be the change in the series setting. By the second episode, the Goldbergs have moved from the Bronx to suburban Haverville, changing their sociocultural meanings as much as their geographical location. Such aspirational migrations often compel corporeal alterations. Likewise, assimilation to their new environment (and new producers) may have involved attempts at not only trimming the Goldbergs’ Jewishness but also their size. The episode’s battle over Molly’s body reflects the angst from all these adjustments, as well as Gertrude Berg’s own dissatisfactions with the demands of Guild Films and the direction of her show.
Ultimately, the contradictory aspects of these two episodes are invaluable in framing ambivalent experiences of corpulence operative both then and now. Together, they highlight the negotiations over the body between self and others–the networks that help to shape the body and our perceptions of it–as well as the conflicts within. Gertrude Berg’s inspirations and intentions with both episodes may not be fully known, but her writing and performing in both provide a glimpse into the complexities of size in American culture at that moment that still resonate today.