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.