For years, the film industry has pigeonholed fat characters (and actresses, for that matter) as The Fat, Funny One. Never given a genuine love interest, or seen as sexy or desirable, she’s there to get some cheap laughs (mainly at her own expense) and keeps the storyline moving for the sexy, thin female protagonist.
Take Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect, for example. She plays Fat Amy, who does have a love interest, but finds herself, her romantic counterpart – and their relationship as a whole – repeatedly the punch line of jokes. She’s also often seen in slow motion, highlighting her fatness. Similarly, Melissa McCarthy plays Megan in Bridesmaids, the fat sister of the groom who always gets the biggest laughs. She’s outspoken, lacks stereotypical femininity, and throughout the film is seen as repulsive to the men she pursues.
Recently, the industry has chosen to take on board criticisms about the lack of fat female protagonists (likely spurred on by the booming trends around body positivity and size diversity), and as a result, we’re seeing more body positive and fat-friendly characters on our screens and making their way into mainstream media. With that, we’re looking at the films, TV shows, and characters that have helped begin to reshape the way fat women are perceived on the big and small screens.
How To Be Single
2016’s How To Be Single is the tale of a young woman who decides that she wants to experience single life, having been in a long-term relationship. Although the lead role, Alice, is not a fat woman, the supporting role – her best friend – is. The film begins looking like it could be another stereotypical Hollywood, making fat jibes for jokes, however, Rebel Wilson’s character Robin is surprisingly different. A confident guide into the single world, scoring one-night stands, Robin is far from The Fat, Funny One. Rebel’s character is there to be the fun, carefree singleton, showing Alice how to enjoy herself; she’s empowered, and her weight rarely comes into conversation. Whilst yes, her character is funny and gets some of the cheap laughs, her weight is never found as the butt of the joke, rather her funny moments are made funnier by her lack of embarrassment or self-consciousness.
Last year, Netflix brought Julie Murphy’s novel Dumplin’ to life, starring Danielle Macdonald and Jennifer Aniston. Willowdean (played by Macdonald) is a self-assured high-schooler. She’s aware of her size, but for the most part doesn’t mind. She grew up with a positive fat role model – her aunt Lucy – who taught her to love herself from a young age. But, when her aunt dies, she has to face the world alone and navigate her way through her teenage years without her aunt to guide her, all whilst living under the same roof as her pageant queen mother. When she finds Lucy’s incomplete application to a local pageant, Willowdean decides to enter the pageant (which her mother is in charge of), in defiance of beauty standards.
Willowdean does get to enjoy a love interest, Bo, and she struggles with believing that he could ever want a girl like her because he is conventionally attractive, and she isn’t. The beauty of this relationship is that it doesn’t take centre stage in the movie, rather the plot’s focus is on her relationship with herself, her friendships and the confidence that her and her friends gain from standing up and being counted at the pageant.
Isn’t It Romantic
The most recent of Rebel Wilson’s releases, Isn’t It Romantic follows the story of Natalie, a woman who was taught from a young age by her mother not to believe in happy endings because she was fat. Whilst the film takes place in a parallel universe after Natalie knocks herself unconscious, it highlights the fatphobic stereotype that it’s unthinkable that an attractive man (Blake, played by Liam Hemsworth) could fantasise about a fat woman, and that in order to make her beauty worthy, she would have to be placed into a thin ideal to validate it. The movie points out the flaws that still occur in the rom-coms of the present day.
Whichever angle this film is seen to take, Rebel Wilson’s wardrobe is confident, colourful and very body positive (not shying away from different shapes, bold hues, and fun cuts), in comparison to some films where a fat character’s clothes are purposefully selected to hide them into the background, or for comic relief.
Based on Lindy West’s memoir, Shrill was Hulu’s highly anticipated release in March of this year. SNL’s Aidy Bryant plays Annie, a fat woman who wants to change her life, without changing her body. The TV show’s casting is diverse, showing representation of women of all shapes and sizes, as well as featuring PoC and LGBTQA+ characters in more complex roles rather than conforming to stereotypes.
There are many moments that make us praise the show; fat women parading confidently in their underwear and swimwear, having sex (and it being a positive experience) and so much more. The two love interests in Shrill are both aesthetically very different and aren’t used to validate fat women by casting men who conform to male beauty ideals. This series has so much to offer for women everywhere, and by supporting shows with a fat leading lady with her own strong storyline (that doesn’t include her weight) we’d hope that more networks will start picking up and getting behind these kinds of characters.
These kinds of shows and movies highlight both the pros and the cons to the industry. It shows the blatant lack of roles of the empowered fat woman, plus, with the likes of Rebel Wilson being cast as so many of these characters, it exposes the shockingly low number of plus-size actresses who have made their way into mainstream TV and film. The roster of recurring actresses made their industry mark cast as The Fat, Funny One, showing that unless you’re prepared to take on roles that often undermine and mock your own physical appearance, it’s incredibly difficult to get a break. Here’s hoping that the popularity of these shows and movies will encourage producers and casting directors to gift us with more incredible fat protagonists.