The Wall Street Journal has commentary this week on the subject of plus-size actresses in Hollywood, and while it tries to be optimistic, the final conclusion is not a rosy one.
It’s a common theme, this urge to project progressive improvement on a controversial topic, like the lack of diversity in body size amongst successful Hollywood actresses. When we increase our awareness of fat-lady invisibility in media, we naturally begin to look for positive signs of growth, and as a result of built-in confirmation bias, we’ll often find them because we want them to be there so badly. It’s too depressing to think otherwise.
Even the WSJ piece -- which is pointedly critical of the treatment of non-skinny actresses -- hopefully begins, “Full-figured women have achieved unprecedented success in recent years.”
But I’m calling bullshit.
I don’t believe things have gotten better for fat women in film and television -- indeed, I think they may have gotten worse. For all of our handwringing about an alleged obesity epidemic, we are arguably seeing fewer and fewer people who look like us in the media we consume. And when we do see them, they are stereotyped into self-conscious caricatures of what we are eager to believe about fat people: that they are gluttonous slobs abiding in a deep pit of denial.
I look back on my own lifetime of media consumption and don’t see a gradual climb toward new representations of a variety of women’s bodies, ones that are nuanced and fully human, over the past few decades. Instead, I see more fat cliches and more “funny” stereotypes, their portrayals becoming shallower and shallower. I see audiences being encouraged to laugh at instead of sympathize with fat characters, left and right.
While I definitely remember hearing a lot of fat-dependent punchlines in television and movies as a kid, I also remember seeing many larger female characters that I related to, or at least that I thought of as possible role models. So I’ve assembled a few of my favorite examples from my formative years.
1986: "Designing Women"
It’s true that this series became infamous for hiding the ever-widening Delta Burke, who played former beauty queen Suzanne Sugarbaker, behind furniture. And yes, there were a lot of jokes about rice cakes, and how cranky and miserable her constant diets made her. But I didn’t mind the diet jokes so much because diets DO make you cranky and miserable. I knew it, even by the time I was 9 years old.
And I didn’t mind the other jokes because Suzanne Sugarbaker left little doubt that she could manage just fine on her own. She was completely and undeniably magnificent, not to mention genuinely hilarious, and she all but invented the now-common cliche of the conceited fat woman who persistently maintains a high opinion of herself regardless of the slings and arrows flung her way.
I count myself lucky to have done a lot of my growing up during the years in which Roseanne ruled the world. Both the woman and her namesake show were truly revolutionary on a multitude of levels, but when I go back and revisit the series now, I am mostly astonished by the way the size of the two stars -- Roseanne Barr and John Goodman -- was virtually ignored in all but a tiny handful of plotlines over the sitcom’s nine-year run.
More than that, Roseanne and Dan Conner were SO INTO each other. Candidly, openly, unabashedly and sharing a powerful and enviable chemistry. Their relationship remains a solid model for many a real marriage even today, and their size was never a part of the show’s main premise. Indeed, their size was barely even mentioned, with the result that after a few episodes it ceased to be something all but the most vehemently fat-hating viewer would waste time noticing, when their actual human characters were so much more interesting than any shallow stereotype could be.
Today, the closest thing we have to Roseanne is “Mike & Molly,” a series that stars the outstanding Melissa McCarthy, but which ultimately is not a show about two people in love -- it’s a show about two fat people in love. It’s not the same thing.
Lake’s dirty 80s Turnblad is aware that she’s fat and simply doesn’t care if anybody has a problem with it. She’s got high self-esteem because she knows she’s awesome, and talented and gorgeous, and she never doubts that she deserves to get the hot guy, and so she does. Her confidence is infectious and even today when I need a mood booster, I will watch "Hairspray" and immediately feel excellent about myself.
Plus it has Divine, possibly the greatest fat girl role model to ever live.
1993: "Living Single"
OK, really just everything Queen Latifah has ever done. I mean, this is a woman who managed to work a gig as a Jenny Craig spokesperson in a way that not only didn’t piss me off, but made me like her more because she is just so freaking amazing. I’m highlighting "Living Single" here because it was her first big role and it’s still a brilliant and underappreciated (and hilarious!) series.
Notably, Queen Latifah later mentioned in an interview with Glamour that she got a bit of pressure to lose weight during Living Single’s run, and simply refused to do so. Seriously. I adore her. OK enough fangirling.
Before Ryan Murphy made "Glee," he made "Popular", the original weird acid-trip consciously queer teen-drama series. I really, really loved "Popular," not least because of Sara Rue, who played Carmen Ferrara, the token fat girl who also betrays a surprising amount of nuance and complexity.
Carmen’s character has her fair share of tragic miseries, many of which are a result of the bullying she sometimes faces, and her relationship with food is fraught with issues, but overall she comes across like a normal teenager just trying to get through it all. While the series often portrays Carmen in sad or funny scenarios, we’re never meant to laugh at her -- even when she tries out for the cheerleading squad! -- but rather to sympathize with her, and this makes all the difference.
Of course, the above list is woefully incomplete. It doesn’t include Camryn Manheim, who fought hard for her character on "The Practice" to be more than another tragic fatty. It misses Kathy Bates, who has a freaking Oscar (and whom we can hope is currently kicking breast cancer’s ass). It neglects Oprah, who got an Academy Award nomination for her role in legendary film "The Color Purple."
Today’s fat actresses are working as hard as they ever did, if not harder, in the face of a cultural obsession with obesity and the shaming of same. As much as I would like to predict a future in which a wider diversity of women’s bodies becomes the norm in media, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Honestly, I expect fat bodies will continue to be punchlines until enough of us get sufficiently fed up with it to stop laughing and start thinking about the effect our willingness to make a joke of any woman’s body has on the way we see ourselves and each other.