I remember reading once that Jodie Foster seeks out roles that were written for men but could be played just as well by women. I think the same mentality should apply when writing and performing fat characters: If you switch them out for thinner actors and can’t tell the difference, you’ve probably got a successful, non-offensive character who’s not going to remind girls that fat bodies are ugly and the people in them are unlovable.
The character I always come back to when I’m thinking about representations of fat ladies on TV is Sookie St. James from Gilmore Girls. Played by Melissa McCarthy, Sookie was lovable and cool and funny and successful and clever. She was a businesswoman, an amazing chef, and a great friend. She was adored by her husband, her children, and everyone who knew her. In all 153 episodes of Gilmore Girls, I cannot remember one single occasion when her weight was a point of conversation. It was never framed as a positive or a negative: The dudes who were into Sookie never fetishized her for her weight, and the ones who weren’t never used it as a reason. Her friends never discussed it behind her back. She never attempted to change her body or collapsed in a heap with a bag of cookies when things didn’t go her way. Her body mattered less than her personality and talent.
Melissa McCarthy changed the game again in Bridesmaids, in which a bride, Lillian, played by Maya Rudolph, is kind of obligated to include her fiancé’s sister, Megan (McCarthy), in the wedding party. Megan tags along on all the bridal party activities, stealing every scene. She is brash and kind and intelligent and loyal. The actress’s weight in no way influences or alters who the character is at her core. The third time I saw Bridesmaids in the theater, I became aware of how totally my reaction to this character differed from those of the people around me Megan comes on to Air Marshal Jon(played by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s real-life husband), I laughed—because a woman hitting on an air marshal by suggesting they “go into the restroom and not rest” is funny.
But a group of people sitting near me in the theater could not contain their disgust at the sight of an aggressively flirtatious fat woman daring to even mention sex in a movie. Instead of laughing, they groaned, and when the credits rolled over a “leaked” tape of Megan and Jon engaging in sandwich-centric foreplay, these audience members faked vomiting noises and declared, “I can’t watch this!”
I don’t think their disgust was about watching a woman being assertive about her sexuality—when Wendi McLendon-Covey’s frustrated-wife character, Rita, declared she wanted balls in her face at the bachelorette party, nothing but giggles filled the cinema. And it probably wasn’t the way Megan and Jon were getting freaky with the sandwich—the dodgy spit-roasted lunch scene and its hilariously gross aftermath in the bridal salon (if you haven’t seen the movie, it involves basically every bodily function) got only belly laughs, and it would be hard to find food-related territory more barftastic than that. I’ll never know for sure what those people were thinking or feeling, but I’d be willing to bet my collection of Swatch watches that they were disgusted—rather than amused by—the couple’s behavior purely because Megan was a fat woman, period, and they’ve spent their movie-going lives being trained to either laugh at or be disgusted by people who look like her (and me).
In a way, I can understand how that happened. Plotlines have reinforced the message to me my entire life that I am unlovable, that anyone who pays any romantic attention to me is doing it for a dare or a bet, or they’re a fetishist who gets off on fat girls. They tell me I’ll only find love with the most desperate dudes, like Kyle Edwards, DJ Qualls’s dweeby character in Road Trip—a shy nerd who genuinely sees fat women as boast-worthy sexual conquests. Get a load of this loser: He’s treating all women equally, no matter their size! His douchey friends are quick to remind him that fucking fatties is a pastime to keep secret. When Kyle produces a girl’s plus-size animal-print underwear after losing his virginity to her, Sean William Scott proclaims, “Did you kill a cheetah!?”
This shit matters to me. If we’re trained to mock the idea that fat women can be desirable, or make barfing noises every time we see someone McCarthy’s size in a sex scene, we’re going to think it’s OK to act like jerks if we see a fat girl dancing with her friend in a club. If we’re taught to laugh at women because they’re the size of Paltrow’s character in Shallow Hal or Wilson’s in Pitch Perfect or Super Fun Night, , we’re going to treat a fat person differently next time we’re given a seat next to them on an airplane. On the opposite hand, seeing fat people represented as real people in the media would have a positive effect on how real fat people are viewed and treated. When fat female characters are allowed to be more than just one thing, it convinces people that real fat women can be, too.
I’m lucky to be surrounded by people to whom I’m like Rae, Sookie, or Megan: My weight is incidental. It’s a huge part of who I am (pun intended), but it doesn’t define me. Even still, this is personal. If and when fat women on TV and in movies stop being presented as sad, lonely, dateless, hopeless, lazy losers, people might stop calling out fat “jokes” from their cars as I walk down the street, and I won’t have to pretend not to hear them as I try not to trip over my feet. Dudes might stop hitting on me based on an assumption that I’m desperate or that I will jump into bed with them if they just say, “I like bigger girls.” Maybe my mind and my personality and my dance moves and my sense of humor and who I am as a person will be the first things they acknowledge and (dare I say it) respect. ♦