9 Television Roles Where (Finally!) Plus-Size Actors Aren’t The Punchline
Most of the time, plus-size actors are cast as the butt of jokes. Here are 9 that break that trend.
If you are a big-bodied person, chances are you have received some sort of bullying or harassment in your life. When I was a kid, the effect of that treatment was compounded by the fact that no one looked like me on television or in film. Granted, pale skin with blue eyes was certainly not hard to find, but I identified infinitely more with any person of size, regardless of color. What TV and film do not understand about the fat dollar and its audience — the universal struggle of big bodies, although separated by levels of compounded oppression by race and class — is a shared physical experience of being “othered.”
Because they do not understand this basic concept, producers think that fat audiences will settle for seeing a “small fat” (fat in the “right” spots, small waist, Eurocentrically pretty face) making jokes about their body at the expense of themselves and their fat audiences. Fat characters are often forced into roles that have been drained of any sexuality, empowerment or agency. Add melanin and you have the caricatures of the “sassy black woman” or the “mammy” that Hollywood insists on perpetuating over and over.
Not everyone gets it wrong, though. Here are nine roles where fat bodies are not the punchline:
1. Sharon Rooney as Rae in My Mad Fat Diary
This series follows the story of Rae, a fat teenage girl who is recovering from bulimia. Yes, a television show that actually shows the complexity of an eating disorder within a fat body! The show discusses mental health issues and sexuality, and represents a voice of complex body issues paired with regular day-to-day teen topics.
“When I read the script I thought, ‘this is such an important person. I am not reading this because of the way she looks, or because of her size, or because of anything other than she’s interesting. She’s funny, smart, clever. I like her and I would like her regardless of her problems.’ Ultimately, it’s the story of a girl, a girl with huge, big problems — but the story of a girl. And it was the first time I had seen a story like that where I could play the lead. I didn’t have to change. I could do it as I was,” Rooney says of Rae.
2. Gabourey Sidibe as Becky in Empire.
Gabourey Sidibe’s Becky is talented, hilarious and desperately needed in the Fox drama Empire. Sidibe gave us the much-needed rooftop sex scene with Mo McRoe, one that is still talked about a year later. Primetime American television had seen nothing like it, and we loved it!
“After we were shooting it, the camera guy came over, and he said, ‘I’ve never shot a scene like this. And I’ve never seen a scene like this.’ ” Sidibe said. “I was really happy to be part of something that’s never been seen on primetime television before. And you don’t notice it because you don’t have to notice it, but there’s never been someone of my skin color, my size, with somebody else of the same skin color in a love scene on primetime television,” Sidibe told People. “Just go through the books, it’s never happened. And I’m not sure why it hasn’t happened, but I hope there’s more to come.”
3. Queen Latifah as Khadijah James in Living Single.
Winner of two NAACP image awards, Living Single centers on the lives of six upwardly mobile Black single twentysomethings in a NYC brownstone. As the editor of Flavor magazine, Khadijah James is brilliant, level-headed, independent and blunt. The series follows six singles through their lives in New York, inspiring many further series — including the whitewashed Friends.
4. Amber Riley as Mercedes Jones on Glee.
Amber Riley was one of the main cast members for all six seasons of Glee. Her incredible solos include “Respect,” “Bust Your Windows,” “Hate on Me,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” “Beautiful,” “Bridge over Troubled Water,” “I Look to You,” “Ain’t No Way,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Spotlight,” “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and, three days after Whitney Houston’s death, performed a tribute version of “I Will Always Love You.” She also played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the episode “The Rocky Horror Glee Show,” singing the lead on the song “Sweet Transvestite.” Riley’s portrayal of Mercedes was so strong that she received a SAG award as well as NAACP Image Award and Teen Choice Award.
5. Titus Burgess as Titus Andromedon on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
Titus Burgess plays the fabulous and outspoken roommate to Kimmy Schmidt in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. “There hasn’t been much representation that has treated us like real human beings, capturing both our eccentricities as well as the subtle parts that make us most human. There aren’t a lot of gay, out, black men that are talked about on television, let alone celebrated. I am excited that I can hold my head up and be proud of the work that we are doing and that it represents a part of my culture so well,” Burgess says of Black LGBTQIA representation in media.
Titus may not be an especially fat-bodied man, but to see a larger-bodied, femme, dark-skinned character on television who is allowed to show depth of emotion is something to be noted. “I’ve never been one to hide, but if I do not continue to show up I am letting the likes of many Americans get away with being comfortable in their ignorance, refusing to put on a seat belt so that they can go on emotional journeys,” he says.
6. Nikkie Blonskey as Willamina on Huge.
ABC Family created Huge, a show centered around teens at a weight loss camp. The show humanized the teen characters that the media and people in general frequently demonize and objectify. Based on a book by Sasha Paley, the show was helmed by a mother-daughter creative duo, Winnie Holzman and Savannah Dooley, and took time to introduce audiences to talented big-bodied folks who rarely see the spotlight.
While Huge was big among its large-bodied cult following, the show was canceled after its first season due to its lack of commercial success. The show may not have been spectacularly written, but its premise was creative and it showed a confident fat person who was happy with themselves and chose to defy those who wanted her to change her body for them. For this, we wish it had time to grow and regret that it was gone too soon.
7. Ashley Fink as Lauren Zizes on Glee.
Say what you want about Glee, Lauren Zizes is written incredibly well. Spirited, independent, and uncompromising, Ashley Fink portrays the plus-sized character who turns down the pretty boy jock who falls in love with her and tries to woo Lauren. CNN’s Lisa Respers France commented that she really liked the plus-sized Lauren and noted that “for me Lauren represents how Ryan Murphy is able to take the concept of the outcast, flip it on its ear and shove it back in our faces with a side order of fabulousness.”
8. Chi McBride as Emerson Cod on Pushing Daisies.
Emerson Cod is the emotionally hardened, incredibly stylish private detective in Pushing Daisies. Cod is the brilliant, fast-talking, temperamental foil to the overly sentimental male and female leads, Ned and Chuck, played by Lee Pace and Anna Friel, respectively. Cod leads the trio to cases where they split the bounty and resolve unsolved murders with Pace’s secret supernatural power (which brings dead people back to life) and Cod’s sharp intellect. Cod also has a sensitive side that has impeccable taste in suiting, loves to knit, and has a soft spot for animals. It’s unfortunate that he gets saddled with the occasional cliche “Oh hell no” when things go awry.
9. Melissa McCarthy as Sookie on Gilmore Girls.
Melissa McCarthy wasn’t always a film star. She began with bit roles and found her footing in television. Well before Ghostbusters and Spy, McCarthy co-starred in Gilmore Girls as Sookie. Sookie was not made fun of for her weight, and McCarthy was able to shine with her talent for physical humor by playing a culinary genius who constantly injures herself in the kitchen.
While these characters and television shows are not perfect, they are multi-dimensional and more than just fat people, much like viewers. They are great examples of what can be done when plus-sized folks are given the opportunity to be more than just a caricature.