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KIM PARKER, THE “SASSY, FAT BLACK FRIEND” TROPE, AND THE PERVASIVENESS OF FATPHOBIA IN MEDIA

Kim Parker, The “Sassy, Fat Black Friend” Trope, And The Pervasiveness Of Fatphobia In Media

Kim Parker, and all the other “sassy, fat Black friends” who came before her, are there to make us laugh, but not for us to take seriously as characters or human beings. 

By Sydneysky G.

As many of us revisit Moesha on Netflix, we can’t help but notice how Kim—the funny, loud, ghetto fabulous, fashion-loving, fat Black girl who kept us entertained and interested with her humor and relatability—is so poorly treated. With fatphobic writing, Kim was boxed in as a character whose sole purpose was to exist as the butt of jokes. Fat Black women are overwhelmingly made to be the sidekick, caregiver, protector, jezebel, and/or comedic relief to the thinner and/or lighter-skinned people around us, on and off the screen. Just as Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy character from Gone With The Wind (1939) has been recreated continuously on screen throughout the years, Countess Vaughn’s character, Kim Parker, has been subjected to the same—becoming the blueprint for the “sassy, fat Black friend.” 

Let’s just address it now: Kim is a fat character. She is a small fat, but she is still fat. The writers of the show make this clear in the very first episode by having one of Moesha’s classmates call Kim “fat,” in a derogatory sense, and make jokes about her weight. Moesha and Niecy sit back and laugh instead of defending her—an experience all-too-familiar for so many fat people. Kim is written as a fat character, and because of that, we have engaged her as such since the 90s. Her fatness is constantly made part of the joke. In fact, it feels like the character itself was created out of an anti-Black exaggeration of how fat Black women are perceived. And in doing this they make the thinner and/or lighter character look “better” by comparison. Kim was never meant to be the character audiences wanted to be but rather an example of the “ghetto” fat Black girls that society looks down on. Showing fatness as a moral failure, fat characters are made out to be cautionary tales of “unrespectable” Black girls. Using fat characters to prop up thin ones as morally better people.  

Moesha is an honors student, Kim is not. Kim is always the loudest person in the room while Moesha is softer spoken. Kim uses AAVE often, Moesha mostly speaks “proper” English. Kim was even made out to be tacky for her fashion choices and shopping at swap meets. We are made to believe that Kim is beneath Moesha, in almost every way. Even Moesha sees Kim as less deserving than her, which is why in the episode called “Friends” Moesha gets upset when Kim makes the cheer team and she doesn’t. Moesha even goes as far as telling Kim to go on a diet, lashing out with envy after watching Kim get attention from her new friends on the cheer team and one of the school’s athletes. 

Brandy as Moesha (left) and Countess Vaughn as Kim Parker (right) in “Moesha”

This episode demonstrates how Moesha uses her friendship with Kim to boost her own ego and how she feels entitled to access and status that she believes Kim shouldn’t have because of her fatness. It helps set the tone for how Kim’s fatness will be engaged throughout the rest of the show and in her friendship with Moesha, whose behavior towards Kim is indicative of real-world friendship dynamics between thin and fat women. Their toxic friendship holds up a mirror to our society, in which many thin Black women treat fat Black women as if we are the supporting characters in their more important, more deserving lives. 

When we look at the current “sassy, fat Black friend” trope, these characters share many of the same characteristics as Kim Parker: sidekick to the thinner (usually lighter) main character, loyal, outspoken, outgoing, hypersexual, fashion lover, less intelligent than the main character, “ghetto,” “aggressive,” “romantically desperate,” comedic relief, protective, and subservient. 

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The “sassy, fat Black friend” is a very updated version of the “Mammy” trope. She is there to serve and protect thin characters, rarely ever with a story of her own, about who she is outside of their service to thinness. They speak up for thin characters when they are being attacked, they say the things other characters are too “respectful” to, they help thin characters reach their potential and forsake their own, all in the name of “friendship.” It is expected that these charters help make thin peoples’ lives easier.

This isn’t limited to just Black movies and shows. We see this trope in shows like Shrill—a show that’s been praised for its writing of the fat experience, but still uses the “sassy, fat Black friend” trope when writing the co-star’s character, Fran. She is written as the “wild child” in the friendship between her and Annie, continually helping Annie on her transformative journey. Even though both characters are fat, Fran is still written as the “helper”. She represents how fat Black women are often made to be responsible for white women’s self-love. They write Fran to be the opposite of Annie; she wants to be everything that Fran is. All the characteristics that make Fran “unrespectable” would be praised if the characteristics were found in Annie.      

From left, Melanie Field (back to camera), Lolly Adefope as Fran, and Aidy Bryant as Annie in “Shrill”

Dijonay Jones from Proud Family is a good example of how the specter of Kim appeared in other shows after her run on Moesha and later The Parkers. Dijonay is the best friend of the main character, Penny. The two are complete opposites: Dijonay and her family are “ghetto” and also happen to be dark-skinned, compared to Penny’s mostly light-skinned and less chaotic family. Like Kim, Dijonay is written and depicted through an anti-Black lens with the intent to make a mockery of her and her body. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with being ghetto. The issue is in how Black fat women and girls are depicted as such to suggest that we are less than our thinner counterparts.

Dijonay’s relationship with Sticky mirrors the one Kim has with Hakeem on Moesha—one where a fat Black girl or woman spends her time chasing a (usually thin) boy or man that continually rejects and ridicules her. In contrast, thinner female characters are given kinder and more loving relationships, sometimes even with the same person who was harming the fat character. Such is the case with Hakeem and Moesha. We rarely, if ever, see fat characters in healthy romantic relationships because society does not believe we deserve it. 

Our desire for love is made to be a joke and seen as desperate attempts to trick, persuade, or annoy someone into loving us. It’s okay for these men to harm the fat characters in ways they wouldn’t harm a thin character because we aren’t meant to care about the harm fat Black women encounter. Instead, we are to laugh at the fat Black woman’s humiliation and “delusional” desire for love. 

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The most current version of the “sassy, fat Black friend” is Kelli from Insecure. At this point, it’s clear that the show has no interest in investing in Kelli’s story outside of her role as Captain Save-A-Thin for her friends. Kelli only exists to service her thinner and/or lighter friends, even though every time Kelli is in a scene she is the most entertaining one. Assuming the role of the fat comedic relief, she’s created moments on the show that have been continuously used as gifs and memes on social media. 

Natasha Rothwell as Kelli from “Insecure”

Kelli honestly seems to be the glue that keeps her friend group together. This past season we watched her help Tiffany during her pregnancy as well as helping to take care of the baby postpartum. Kelli also helps Issa during her fundraiser and even encourages Issa and Molly to talk during their fall out. Yet we are given so little of her unless she is helping the other characters. Unlike all the other characters on the show, she doesn’t even have a last name.

Kelli, Kim Parker, and the other “sassy, fat Black friends” who came before them, are there to make us laugh, but not for us to take them seriously as characters or human beings. It’s easy for writers to use fat characters to do this work in fiction because essentially that is what thin people believe in their day to day lives, that we exist to help them on their journey through life, spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Rarely in our lives are fat people loved for who we are instead of what we can do for (thin) people. 

Edited by: Da’Shaun Harrison and Sherronda J. Brown

Sydneysky G. is a Fat Black writer & activist from Detroit whose writing is centered around fat identities & pop culture. Along with writing, she is a Jazz musician, cosmetology student, and makeup connoisseur. She likes to spend her time watching movies and listening to podcasts. You can find Sydneysky on Twitter at @blackfatqueer and Instagram at syddskyy.

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Comments
  • Valeri Cruz Amaya

    I thought about this constantly while watching Moesha for the first time. It struck me even more in the Halloween episode where Niecy and Moesha talked about Kim’s weight on a three-way phone call. And instead of addressing the fatphobic comments Moesha and Niecy made, the show dismissed it by saying that all the girls talk bad about each other behind their back, so it was okay. Being fat myself, I do want shows to create fat characters that are more than just fat, however, it would be nice to see a deeper discussion of fatphobia in a mainstream show.

    Sep 17, 2020
  • Lauren Walker

    Well written. I hope Issa Rae reads this and changes her writing staff

    Sep 18, 2020
  • Anonymous

    I can bang with this article except for 1 thing; you keep bringing up color in situation where color wasn’t an issue. In Moesha, and Insecure, the fat black friend is actually the same color or lighter than the thin friends, Proud family was multiple shades, and the other show was just 1 Fat Black against a white canvas. While colorism is definitely an issue, being “ fat” is the issue here, NOT color…

    Sep 18, 2020
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