Size Matters: Small Screen, Big Women

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While there are endless examples of fat female characters portrayed in an unappealing light on television, fewer and farther between are positive portrayals of female fatness. When you come across one, even if it’s on an otherwise dull show, it’s refreshing to see. I’d like to take in a few of those breaths of fresh air here, for your reading pleasure.

Grey’s Anatomy: Dr. Callie Torres (see above picture)
Played deftly by Sara Ramirez, Callie is a strong, complicated, nuanced and gorgeous woman of color who happens to be fat—a characteristic that doesn’t hamper her ability to get it on with some of the hottest people on the show, from Dr. Mark “McSteamy” Sloan to her current love interest, an attractive, thin blonde woman by the name of Arizona. This relatively recent development in Callie’s love life earned her the adoration of legions of queer women (myself included). Her character proves that fat female sexuality can be portrayed in a tasteful, positive light without the partner of the fat woman being positioned as a “chubby chaser” or in some other way a fat fetishist.

Grey’s Anatomy: Dr. Miranda Bailey
Chandra Wilson’s Emmy-nominated portrayal of Dr. Bailey presents us with a petite powerhouse of a Chief Resident. Commanding despite her diminutive stature, the fact that she’s fat doesn’t detract from her authority or ability to be taken seriously; so many fat black female characters on TV are forced to play off their fat in comedic or Sapphire-type roles. Although she doesn’t get involved in the sexual antics of her co-workers, it’s not because she’s considered unattractive, it’s because she’s no-nonsense, married, and not the type to buy into the soap opera nature of her colleagues’ personal lives. Dr. Bailey is a wonderful example of how a black female character can be written as assertive and at times aggressive but maintain a level of vulnerability and sensitivity that jibes with the overall nature of her personality.

Roseanne: Roseanne Conner
While some may say Roseanne, with her caustic wit and sarcasm, is not a positive portrayal of a fat woman. I beg to differ. On the show, she is not weight-obsessed and her fatness is not positioned as a Big Issue in regards to her interpersonal relationships with co-workers and other family members or her romantic relationship with her (also fat) husband. She is portrayed as an average, realistic working class woman. Many average working class women are fat. She’s simply playing a character that represents a large number of USian women, and being as how she is the lead character and her fat is not something that is constantly brought up with a lot of hand-wringing surrounding it or subject to cheap jokes playing off it, I’d say she’s a pretty positive representation. In and of itself, seeing an average working class fat woman on a top-rated sitcom every week was a positive development.

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Gimme A Break: Nellie Ruth “Nell” Harper (see above picture)
Honestly, Nell Carter’s character on this show was the first character I thought of when I started thinking about positive portrayals of fat women on television. Yes, she’s playing a stereotype—the black housekeeper of a white family—but folks, this was 1981 and any black woman, especially a fat black woman, on TV not screeching at her husband or wearing a kerchief was a milestone. Nell Harper was attractive, pulled together, funny AND had a love life. She dated, had a boyfriend, and was sexual without it being a joke. The show was not immune to playing off her weight, but it at least did so along with playing off the weight of the male lead on the show, Police Chief Carl Kanisky. Nellie was a positive character, as nuanced as you’re gonna get for a fat black woman on a sitcom in the early 80s, and was played expertly by the Tony-award winning Ms. Nell Carter.

Disparate as these roles are, they all have something in common—they’re not caricatures, they’re real characters, something very rare and very special for fat women on television.

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