Fatphobia is a way of life in Western society. Being fat is seen as a character flaw, a health risk, and an unwanted state of being. Fat people are bullied and discriminated against. Since television and movies are mirrors of society, fatphobia is often reflected on the screen.
Fat women are rarely seen in pop culture. When they are allowed screen time, they are only allowed a few story lines: the ‘funny one,’ the ‘villain,’ or the ‘self-loathing fatty.’ These narrow representations of fat women are not only inaccurate of the experiences of many fat women, they also reinforce fatphobia.
The ‘Funny One’
The ‘funny one’ is the most used story line for fat women. The careers of Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson are the perfect examples. Almost all of their roles are playing the fat best friend of a conventionally pretty (read: thin) woman. They exist to set up jokes or to serve as a comparison for the conventionally pretty female characters.
Consider Rebel Wilson’s role as Fat Amy in the “Pitch Perfect” movies. She is portrayed as being comfortable with her body size, but Fat Amy is still a reductive stereotype. Many of her lines are about food. She’s the character delivering the majority of the jokes, including a lot of physical comedy that focuses on her size. Though her role is supposed to convey fat acceptance, Hollywood still doesn’t know what that means, so her representation falters and she remains just ‘the funny one.’
Melissa McCarthy’s role in “Bridesmaids” is another classic example of the ‘funny one.’ The character is a loud, vulgar, annoying slob, but in a way that makes the audience laugh. Physical comedy that focuses on the size of McCarthy’s body is used frequently. She appears to be the subject of jokes rather than the originator of them, even though she’s the one telling them. This exposes the internalized fatphobia so many fat women deal with: we make self-deprecating jokes about our size because we know we’re supposed to hate our size.
Why is the ‘funny one’ storyline for fat women so popular? It sets the precedent that fat women don’t need to be taken seriously. The ‘funny one’ story line reflects how we actually deal with fat women: we dismiss them.
The saddest thing about this story line is that it mostly exists in children’s movies. Prominent examples include Ursula from “The Little Mermaid,” The Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland,” and to a lesser extent, Roz from “Monsters Inc.” These fat women are portrayed as manipulative, conniving, insane, homicidal, and grumpy nags. Even when the characters are not human, as in Ursula and Roz, their alien bodies are fat, making the focus their fatness, rather than their femaleness. These characters are also usually represented as the opposite of the ‘good’ character who is a thin, beautiful, young girl.
This link between fat bodies and bad behavior creates an association in young minds with fat being evil, especially when contrasted with the thin, beautiful, ‘good’ female character. Young girls learn that fat is bad and thin is good.
The ‘Self-Loathing Fatty’
The most damaging story line allowed fat women on screen is the ‘self-loathing fatty.’ These characters openly hate their fat bodies. They’re often portrayed as unhappy, single women who believe their lives would be better if they could lose weight.
A current example of this story line is playing out on the wildly popular NBC show “This is Us.” Kate, played by actress Chrissy Metz, is the main character on the show whose entire storyline seems to be based on hating her body. She’s introduced with a scene of her weighing herself. Later scenes show her in front of her fridge berating herself for eating. Kate attends weight loss support groups, hell bent on losing the weight and having a better life.
Another example of the ‘self-loathing fatty’ is Quinn Fabray from Glee. It’s revealed that Quinn’s real name is Lucy, and she used to be a fat girl. Quinn was so ashamed of her body that she spent a summer at fat camp, had plastic surgery, transferred schools, and changed her name in a quest to disassociate from her fat girl identity. Quinn tells this story unapologetically, saying that she was miserable as Lucy Caboosey (her nickname when she was fat) and she is happy as thin, beautiful, surgically altered Quinn Fabray. The show never circles back to examine blatant fatphobia involved in this confession and accepts the narrative that former fat girls are happier when they get skinny.
The ‘self-loathing fatty’ story line tells fat women that they should be ashamed of their fat bodies and that they should be constantly seeking to make their fat bodies smaller. This is the messaging that makes eating disorders so common among American women. It also leads to the internalized fatphobia that makes so many larger women miserable on a daily basis.
These limited story lines for fat women are unacceptable. They reinforce fatphobia and unhealthy relationships with our bodies. We need stories about fat women who actually love their bodies, fat women who aren’t on diets, and fat women who are kind, loving, complex people. We need storylines for fat women that are just like the story lines we are given for thin women.