Size Matters: The Bigger the Ass, the More the Sass

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When it comes to roles on television and in movies, fat actresses have few options. Instead of portraying diverse, multifaceted characters, they are usually relegated to either sassy fat sidekick or supportive fat best friend. Of course, as Marissa Audia-Raymo illustrates in her BUST Magazine article "The Fat Friend" (August/September Issue), these stereotypes ring true in real life as well.

On the feminist favorite, Gilmore Girls, the character of Sookie, played by Melissa McCarthy, is main character Lorelei's best friend and confidante. While Sookie does have a somewhat well-developed personal life, she still fits the trope of supportive fat best friend, relegated to the background most of the time, never seeming to notice or care that Lorelei received all of the attention and praise. McCarthy now plays another supportive best friend, this time to Christina Applegate, on Samantha Who? Surely with McCarthy's talent, she could hold up a show of her own—although the few times a fat woman has been the main character on a show, her weight has been a constant issue.

For example, on Less Than Perfect, Sara Rue, pre-significant weight loss, played main character Claude Casey, the newly-minted secretary to a mercurial news anchor. Rumors swirled that the show's title was a reference to Rue's weight, and her size was consistently a source of laughs on the show. Rue lost 30 pounds over the course of the show, which apparently still wasn't enough to not be relegated to supportive best friend status in her next recurring role. Rue went on to play Penny Higgins, best friend to Lindsay Price's Joanna Frankel on Eastwick. She recently lost another 50 pounds and has been tapped to host the CW's Shedding for the Wedding, a reality show about 10 fat couples trapped in a house together vying to lose the most weight so they can have their wedding funded. Oh, and of course she's now the spokesperson for Jenny Craig, a gig every formerly fat female celebrity is gifted with once they reach the magical world of thin.

Speaking of Less Than Perfect, Rue's character had her own sidekick on the show, played by Sherri Shepherd—which brings us to our second fat woman trope, the sassy fat sidekick. This role is almost solely filled by women of color, specifically black women. If you're a fat black woman on TV, it's practically a requirement that you'd better be sassy and mouthy. Sherri Shepherd also has a recurring role on another feminist favorite, Tina Fey's 30 Rock, which is problematic in its portrayal of pretty much all black characters, and Shepherd's character—Tracy Jordan's wife, Angie—is no exception. Angie is a Sapphire type if there ever was one, bossy and beyond "sassy;" constantly emasculating hapless Tracy. Ostensibly her character provides comic relief, but I just cringe every time she comes on the screen. I can't even say she's a "friend" to anyone on the show, but the neck-rolling mouthy fat black woman stereotype is in full effect.

Less stereotypical is the role played by comedian Retta on Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock's fellow Thursday night NBC comedy. While her character Donna has few lines on the show other than making various faces and rolling her eyes, when she does talk it's to say something—you guessed it—sassy. Again this is an example of fat women and specifically fat black women being used to provide comic relief. It's as if Hollywood thinks every fat black woman is a storehouse of "oh no you di'nt" type dialogue. I will admit, I do get down like that on occasion, but I like to think I'm more nuanced in general. I suppose when white fat women are relegated to supportive best friends I can't expect any more sensitivity paid to the depiction of fat black women, but seriously, these stereotypes are offensive.

Even the first Sex and the City movie got in on the act, casting a pre-weight loss Jennifer Hudson as Louise, Carrie Bradshaw's "personal assistant", who gives her a lot of "you go get yours, girl" advice delivered in that classic sassy black woman tone. I'm going to digress for a second to say that the scene in that movie where Carrie gifts Louise with that hideous Louis Vuitton bag and Louise gets all excited by it produced a ton of eye rolling on my part. That's great that Carrie wanted to reward her fat black assistant with something that would fit, but did she have to give her the most fake-looking Louis Vuitton bag in the line? I guess she figured all black people like that kind of gaudy blinged out bullshit.

Given the lack of visibility of fat women both of color and white in mass media today who aren't actively trying to lose weight and selling a product (I see you, Kirstie Alley), I'm guessing we're supposed to be grateful for any representation we can get, no matter how one-dimensional. But personally, I'd rather not see fat people at all than see the grating stereotype of the sassy fat woman and the sad stereotype of the supportive fat best friend. It's been decades since a fat woman led a show without any mention of her weight—I'm talking about shows like the previously mentioned Roseanne and Gimme a Break. Our image-obsessed culture demands that its celebrities fit a certain mold and fat women, well, they break it. I want to see more Callies and Mirandas—in comedies as well as dramas. Fat people actually can be funny without playing off their weight. No, really, I've seen it. Hollywood needs to wake up and start realizing that.

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Comments

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Preach it!

A lot of people say 'any representation is a good representation' and I couldn't disagree more, for all the reasons you articulate in this post. I'd like to see some fat characters who just happen to be fat, rather than being defined solely by their weight, and who aren't walking sterotypes.

Amen!

I totally agree, and I hate to see awesome actors like Melissa McCarthy and Sherri Shepherd (both of whom I find hilarious) relegated to sidekick status because of their size.

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

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I'll third that

But sometimes it seems the goal line is so far away.

ugh!

i have been feeling this way a long time about tv/movies. i never see myself as a star, just as the bff. it seems like just recently there are a few bright spots (Drop Dead Diva, HUGE, disFigured) but for a nation where more women and men look like me than what is portrayed on the screen, we are pathetically behind. thanks for keeping the conversation going and for broadening the audience!

oh - and you might want to check out the british show, Fat Friends. it was on from 2000-2005 (i think?!) and you can get season one on netflix. it was an interesting perspective....

Fat Friends

Was that a show about friends who were fat? The title makes me think their weight is a factor on the show.

You are talking about me

I agree 100% with your thoughts on how "fat" women are perceived! I actually live this life I am the fat friend to all of my skinny friends I am the friend everyone looks at and is not attracted too I am the friend who is the third wheel I am the friend who cannot have a life since all I do is eat....right! It is hard even in real life to even get a kind word except from the people who really know you who look beyond the outer part of who you are the person they know is the real you. I wish there was a show or some kind of way for people to get to know the real person behind all the fat because who I am on the outside is not who I am I am a creative person I am a person who has dreams, wants and just needs to be noticed. Unfortunately a stereotype (labels etc....) has already been put in peoples minds and now it is a way of life and I do not see it changing but this article is a step in the right direction thanks for showing us that just because we are fat does not mean we cannot be beautiful!

I'm glad

I'm glad I helped you realize your beauty! That's a tall order!

Preach it, sister! I think

Preach it, sister!

I think the only show that I have seen recently (and granted, I don't watch much tv) that doesn't make the black female character have the typical "black girl sass" is Shirley Bennet (played by Yvette Nicole Brown)in Community. However, she does fall under the "fat best friend" category and even goes beyond that because she is a mother and so she has the tendency of being motherly to the rest of the characters.

And the depiction of black people in 30 Rock is ridiculous. I swear, sometimes I think future generations will look at that portrayal of characters like Angie and Tracy Morgan and wonder how it was okay to portray these characters this way; just like I wonder how "Song of the South" was ever acceptable. Grizz and Dot Com's characters are considered funny because, hey, isn't it funny when a black person isn't "ghetto"? Hilarious! That can't happen! That's as funny as a white guy trying to be 'black'! HA HA HA HA!

But I digress.

What I hate about the qualifications of characters in the media is that a big girl could never be a Carrie Bradshaw because, you know, big girls don't experience something like that and no one wants to see a show about a leading fat woman if it is not to poke fun at her weight.

Fat Sex in the City

What I hate about the qualifications of characters in the media is that a big girl could never be a Carrie Bradshaw because, you know, big girls don't experience something like that and no one wants to see a show about a leading fat woman if it is not to poke fun at her weight.

I would love to see a show about some of the fabulous fatshionistas in the fatshion blogging world. I think it would be highly entertaining and enlightening!

I would love that! Seconded.

I would love that! Seconded. A show about fatshionistas is something I would most definitely watch.

Melissa McCarthy

Couldn't agree with your thoughts more! We are still living with pop culture in which any kind of "diversity" be it a fat character, a character of colour, a homosexual character, etc is most often tokenised rather than just being another aspect of a multifaceted person. Thought I'd mention that Melissa McCarthy will be starring as the lead in Mike and Molly, coming out this fall on one of the major networks, and from the (short) preview I saw, her weight didn't seem to be the joke behind it all.

Mike and Molly

From what I understand, the premise of the show is two fat people meet in an Overeaters Anon meeting and fall in love, so weight is pretty front and center. Not only that, but he's a fat cop - so I'm sure there are plenty of donut jokes.

Wow, sounds like

Wow, sounds like the set up for a whole lot of fat jokes. Not good at all.

Thank You!

Thanks for putting this problem out in the open! For too long have I seen big women, who look like beautiful, being cast as the "best friend", or being used to advertise to other big women that they should join a diet system. I also love how to put into light about the terrible stereotypes that black women are cast in. Being a young woman of color, I find it annoying and nausating when I see these ridiculous characters! You see them everywhere! At least Christina Hendricks is a nice role model for women since she's happy about her weight.

I think Mo'Nique

I think Mo'Nique is a good example of a fat black woman unashamed of her size, regardless of what her other issues are.

some more mold-breaking fat actesses

Reading through this post three actresses came to mind who have broken the mold delightfully.

First of all: Margaret Cho in her one-season TV show "American Girl." Now, I've never seen the show but I have seen her stand-up routine regarding the abuse she endured because she was "too fat to play herself on TV" (and her show was promptly replaced by THE DREW CAREY SHOW!!!!) But knowing Cho, if they had let her just be herself it could have been great! But it's probably better for us all that she escaped alive (barely) to keep making her awesome independant comedy.

Then there's Camryn Manheim, esp. in The Practice. I know she is dedicated to fat acceptance & I read her autobiography when it came out years ago. She has definitely played the role of a serious, non-BFF, professional woman very well and spoken publicly about it with great panache.

Then, my favorite, the Vicar of Dibley starring Dawn French. It's hilarious, delightful and stars a decidedly fat (and gorgeous) comedian... and having just watched the entire series I can't think of a single fat joke in all five seasons (plus specials)! She is considered very attractive, constantly flirted with by the (admittedly eccentric) men of her town & ends the series married to an oh-my-god hunk with nary a joke about "how could he be with her?" He's handsome and in love with her. It's pretty amazing to see on TV and also really sad that it's amazing. She does mention her "magnificent bosoms" as a gift from God (she is a vicar after all) and loves loves loves chocolate but this is no more than personal eccentricity. She's my model (along with Roseanne) for the comedy show starring a fat woman: she's just funny, it's just a good show, she's a star and that's the end of it. If only...

Thanks to Tasha for an interesting series!

One thing I've noticed is that this series has mostly focused on tv shows. It would seem that tv is slightly more interested in casting women who aren't rail thin.
But one tv star who hasn't been mentioned by Tasha yet is America Ferrera. 'Ugly Betty' was a big hit for it's first three seasons,but why haven't we seen Ferrera in any major widely released movies? I'm sure she could make a rom com more interesting than the usual suspects who get cast in that genre of films(Aniston,Barrymore,Diaz,Hudson). The only film roles she's gotten since 'Betty'(besides 'The 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' sequel) are small "indie" films and voice-overs in cartoons. Guess the movie studios have decided Ferrera is "too fat" to be a movie star. Or "too Latina".

In (slight)defense of 'Samantha,Who',at least Dena(Melissa McCarthy's character) has a relationship with Chase Chapman. In fact,Chapman initiates this relationship by telling Samantha "You're friend? I wanna to date her. Make it happen!" I didn't see every episode of the series(due to ABC's screwing around with it's timeslot)but I never saw any episode where Dena's weight was a subject of discussion/problems between her and Chapman.
Thanks again for this series

It would be nice to see more larger women as leading ladies

I guess Drew Barrymore and Renee Zellweger haven't been the standard Hollywood twig in all their movies, so there's that, kinda.

But it would be nice to see a few leading ladies now and then, either in a commanding performance or just in a freaking romance, who actually started to resemble the kinda ladies I've been dating my entire life.

Sara Rue pre-weight-loss: Rarrrr.
Would've loved to see her in a ton of romantic movies.

Hi! My god how much do I

Hi! My god how much do I love Bitch- just discovered it recently!

As a non US citizen I am always astonished by the flat out offensive, patronizing and incredibly stereotyped way non-ideal (ie black, fat, 'homely', crazy, 'misc.') women are portrayed in the American media- Jesus! What decade is this, I ask myself, but then I ask myself that most days about most shiz I see on the telly etc. However! I also want to triple-slap the women who participate in these shamefests, grinning along, starving themselves, consenting, supporting the status quo. If all fat, black, homely, crazy misc. women said 'hell no' to humiliating roles, all this crap would grind to a halt.

Those roles belong to Paltrow and her fat suit.

So while the entertainment industry might hold the can for initiating this situation, the women who take the roles also need to take responsibility. If your job means humiliating yourself and denigrating others, you're as bad as every douchebag producer who leans on their cast to lose weight and get their noses fixed.

Hmm...

Hi KellyJelly,

It's awesome that you love Bitch (hooray!) and that this series is resonating with you. However, I'm a bit uncomfortable with you saying that you want to "triple-slap the women who participate in these shamefests." We can critique pop culture in a snarky way all we want here, but please refrain from trash-talking other women. We don't know what they're going through, and if they're absorbing cultural messages about their bodies (hell, we all do that sometimes) they probably need our support more than they need to be slapped.

Thanks!

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

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Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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fat is too sexy for TV

When reading some analysis regarding the double standard that was imposed on the Lane Bryant commercial showing a gorgeous curvy model in underwear that was not allowed to air in primetime (between 8 and 9pm as I recall), I remember one person's take as the difference between Victoria Secret models and Lane Bryant Models is that the fat was more sexual than the skinny.

What I understood that to mean and I think you might agree, is that fat makes the stuff that's hiding under the wear want to come out. Like my fat naked parts are screaming to escape and entice you- oh no! I guess the perception is that skinny girls, with their more boyish features don't have the same "issue" with their parts in underwear - stuff ain't going no where.

So the real problem is that female leads in general are not sexual in an overt way in American media, not that they aren't fat. If Carrie Bradshaw were fat, I think I would be annoyed that they wrote a fat female character with so little self-awareness especially in the sex department. Fat or not fat, female characters today lack maturity and I'm not sure that making them fat will solve the problem.

Pop Culture - Yawn.

You know, what's really too bad is how pervasive and influential pop culture is allowed to be as it seems to me that most of it merely appeals to the lowest common denominator. That's the obvious reason as to why there is a very limited and narrow vision of how women are represented. It's basically allowing the general public to dictate tastes, which usually results in some pretty boring shit. If more smart people were creating TV shows and movies and had the venues to get them out there, then we could ensure that we're represented in a way we desire.

One medium that is becoming

One medium that is becoming more fat friendly is books. Although I consider myself thin, I identify more with fat protagonists (probably because, as a science-lover, I too fall into the "she-can't-possibly-have-a-boyfriend" stereotype) If TV won't provide us with positive representations of fat characters, perhaps we should turn to ink and paper

I love Melissa McCarthy SO

I love Melissa McCarthy SO MUCH! She's such a doll and an amazing actress. Love to see her in more prominant roles.