Sassy and Sexless: Plus-Size Female Characters on Television

In the television landscape female characters above a certain BMI are almost entirely absent.

Image of Melissa McCarthy from SNL Studios and NBC.

Generally speaking, if you want to find a fat person on television they’ll be the one being yelled at by a perky trainer or as the brunt of a joke, shoving food into their comically bottomless pits. These people are not treated as three-dimensional characters but instead as walking fat jokes. Things are even worse for plus-size women on television, a medium that places premium value on women conforming to conventional beauty standards. The conventional beauty standards, especially on television, seem to be focused on shrinking the bodies of women, not allowing a variety of sizes. In a 2007 study published in a research journal on obesity it was found that fat characters made up only 24 percentof male characters and 13 percent of female characters on television. [1] Whenever a fat female character does pop up on screen, I find myself cringing and waiting for the fat jokes to start. 

Female characters above the ideal weight on television are often relegated to the sassy, best friend role when not an object of ridicule. They are present to give advice or act as comedy relief, but not allowed to have their own story-lines. Their romantic lives paint them as either desperate or sexless. For a female character to be “fat” is the worse insult possible. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve watched a show only to hear one female character lash out at another one by insulting her weight. Invariably, both of these characters are usually far below average weight.

Recently, probably due in part to the popularity of programs like The Biggest Loser or Dance Your Ass off, there has been a noticeable rise in programming featuring overweight characters. ABC Family aired a show called Huge starring Nikki Blonsky of Hairspray fame that set the world of the show within a fat camp. It dealt with the issues that overweight teens faced and showed a wide range of experiences and personalities. It treated "fat" people like they were actual people, not walking punch lines. It was canceled after one season.

Last year CBS premiered Mike and Molly, about two heavyset people who start a relationship with one another. The show is riddled with jokes at the expense of both characters' weight. The entire premise of the show, in fact, seems to be the hilarity of two fat people in love. Despite the rising popularity and Emmy win for star Melissa McCarthy, the show often treats it's characters as the punchline of jokes, not the ones telling them. Needless to say, it has good ratings and returned for a second season.

Then there are the shows that want to have their cake and eat it too. Glee is one of these shows. Despite the message of the show being to embrace differences, its two plus sized female characters are not portrayed vastly different than the fat girl stereotype. Mercedes and Lauren are allowed to break free of this stereotype occasionally, but the audience is constantly being reminded that they are first and foremost fat characters, instead of just characters. 

Image of Amber Riley from 20th Century FOX Television.

 Amber Riley’s Mercedes, the sole black female character on the show, fares the worst. Her story lines mostly focus on her being the sassy best friend of gay teen Kurt. While Kurt’s struggles with bullying and his sexuality have taken center stage, Mercedes has mostly been relegated to the sidelines. She is occasionally trundled out to act like a diva or sing a powerhouse song.

While Glee focuses on how Mercedes is beautiful and confident in her body just the way it is, it also undercuts this by having her stay perennially single. In fact, the one episode about her dating life last season focused the whole episode on her revolt of the school cafeteria after they stopped serving tatter tots. At the denouement of the hour, Kurt tells her that she needs to stop substituting food for a boyfriend. She agrees and goes off to talk to a boy Kurt wanted to set her up with earlier. We never hear or see this boy again. While season three has seen Merecedes finally partner up, we've thus far seen little of her relationship. This on a show that is almost entirely focused on dating and relationships when the characters aren't breaking out into song.

Lauren Zizes, played by the hilarious Ashley Fink, is a more complicated matter. Lauren is fat, confident and sure of herself. She is also pursued by handsome bad-boy Puck, a shocking turn in a media culture that says that fat girls are inherently unattractive. Puck is attracted not only to her body but also to her confidence. And unlike the desperate fat girl shtick seen so often in movies and television, Lauren makes Puck work for her affections because she knows she’s worth the effort. All this feels rather revolutionary on network television and especially in a show aimed at teens. Unfortunately, Glee also veers into the stereotypical when it comes to Lauren and food. She is almost always seen eating something or talking about food. When Puck writes her a love song, the lyrics are almost entirely about her size, including a dig about her needing to buy two seats on an airline. While Lauren is self-confident and capable, she is still often the brunt of the usual fat girl jokes. In the show's third season, Glee unceremoniously dumped Lauren's character by the wayside with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it mention to her whereabouts.

This isn’t to say that some shows don’t have kick-ass curvy female characters. Grey’s Anatomy has always been great when dealing with both tough-as-nails Miranda Bailey and Sara Ramirez’s Callie. Callie especially has a love life just as complicated as everyone else on the show and her weight is never an issue. She’s shown to be sexy and capable without her size ever coming into the equation. Likewise, the short lived sci-fi series Dollhouse had a tough and sexually desirable curvy female character with no emphasis on her size.

My favorite zaftig lady on the small screen is Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds. As the resident computer genius of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, she is also shown to be fiercely individualistic and attractive. She gets to wear fun outfits that accentuate her curves and in some ways even functions as the show’s sexpot. Her flirtatious banter with action hunk Derek Morgan is one of the lighter aspects of a very dark show.

Why is the positive portrayal of plus-size female characters on television important? Recently Tracey Gold, who played Carol Seaver in the TV show Growing Pains spoke at an event on eating disorders at the University of Delaware. She spoke about how fat jokes in the scripts of the show, along with requests from producers to lose weight, contributed to the development her anorexia. [2]

In a research study from the University of Michigan, it was found that watching television could affect the eating behaviors and body image ideals of children. Since children are more likely to model behavior than adults, it stands to reason that what they see through media can affect how they feel about their own bodies. The study showed that girls attracted to thinner female television characters saw themselves as heavier, while girls attracted to average-weight female characters reported the healthiest view towards body image and placed less importance on thinness. "This suggests that adopting normal-weight role models on television could be beneficial for girls,” said Kristen Harris, a University of Michigan assistant professor of communication studies. [3]

Girls would benefit from seeing a more realistic spectrum of female bodies on television. They would certainly benefit from seeing these body types as more than the dumpy friend or a walking fat joke. Television needs to embrace plus sized women as just women and treat them like three dimensional characters.

Who are your favorite plus-size female characters on television?

Image of Amber Riley from 20th Century FOX Television. Image of Melissa McCarthy from SNL Studios and NBC.Image of Kirsten Vangsness from CBS Television Studios.