If you’re not white, straight, slim and young, who do you see reflected back at you in TV and movies?
As a lesbian (surprise!) who has always had an enormous love of television and movies, I have spent a lot of time concerning myself with the visibility of lesbians on screen. When I was a teenager I would do anything and go anywhere in desperate (and hormonal) attempts to witness the slightest hint of physical or romantic affection between two women. Whenever heterosexuals turn on their 3D Google Glass television, or sit down in their overpriced assigned cinema seats, they get to see men and women date, kiss, fuck, fall in love, fight, break-up, live happily ever after, and/or play out almost any other relationship-related scenario imaginable. They can go to their local definitely open and thriving Video Store and find a movie that demonstrates relatable relationships. They can identify with countless characters across the course of their lives. As a queer person, you identify with people who share similar personality traits or thoughts and feelings with you, but then you watch them kiss someone you would never want to kiss and they have stubble and it just looks painful and you try to Photoshop another woman’s face in but it’s before your family has a computer and anyway that’s unrelated. Seeing a well-rounded representation of people who are just like you living their lives in varied (including happy and fulfilled) ways is incredibly important, and in recent years I’ve realized that a different yet integral part of myself is also rarely represented on screen. Its effect reaches many more people, and can be just as destructive.
Not only am I a lesbian (which means I am a woman, in case you hadn’t realised), I am also a FAT woman (not to be confused with my alter ego Fatwoman, who is like Batman except she spends all her money on parties). In the same way that being a lesbian has defined certain aspects of my life, being a fat person in this society has as well. For me, as a privileged and white fat lesbian, the anti-fat sentiment I have experienced my entire life has been more pervasive and damaging than any amount of direct homophobia I have encountered (so far). Don’t get me wrong; they are both REALLY fun to experience, and they have a lot in common, especially when it comes to media representation. If you try to list all the thin, white actresses who have ever played a straight character on television or in movies, you would be here for days and days and eventually your colleagues would call the police because they would be concerned that something had happened to you because you weren’t annoying them at work. And something WOULD have happened to you – you would have had died of starvation and dehydration, but not before realizing that in the big picture, almost all women in movies and TV are thin, white and heterosexual. The number of lesbians on screen compared to their prevalence in actual society is low. The number of fat women on screen compared to their prevalence in actual society is INSANELY UNJUSTIFIABLY low.
Both the quality AND the quantity of the depictions of fat women are problematic. When, in some kind of miracle from Fat Jesus, a woman who is fat actually appears, she is almost always the (big) butt of the joke. In most of these instances her weight is not just incidental to the character, it defines the character. It is why she is there. She is there for us to laugh at, to be disgusted by, or to feel sorry for. Fat woman see this happen time and time again, and it reinforces what you know the world thinks of you. And you know how the world thinks of you because of the way you are treated. The disgusted looks people give you, the jokes you hear them say about you, and the insults you hear them say TO you. Having low representation of awesome fat women in the media makes it easier for these things to happen. If the only examples you see on film are there solely for you to be grossed out by or to make fun of (or both), of course you are going to bring this with you the next time you see me strutting down the street confidently (because I am listening to Beyoncè). Confident fat women seem to be a real puzzle for a lot of people. Because society and media representation tells us that fat women should be unhappy. Fat women are all on a diet, or should be trying to be thin so they can then become happy and have fulfilled lives. Fat women are unattractive. Fat women should cover up, and not try to look pretty. Fat women shouldn’t turn down any man; she is LUCKY to have attention. She should actually be begging people to have sex with her, and be incredibly grateful when someone deigns to do it.
When I was about 14, I was sitting on the slope of my school oval reading by myself (because I was so COOL) in front of a group of boys. Within earshot, I heard them trying to convince one of the group to do something. They were offering him prizes. Saying they would give him a CD (this was the olden days), saying they would buy him lunch. And as it turned out, he would get these rewards if he would come down to sit next to me, talk to me, and ask me out. For a joke, of course, because I was so disgusting that it would be winning the ultimate dare to be nice to me. Looking back at that humiliating moment (which I still feel punch me in my gut when I think about it), I realise now that in their minds I was totally dehumanized. I was not even a real person to them. Would that group of boys going to see American Pie or Steamboat Willie or whatever was out back then and witnessing a fat girl on screen who was hilarious and fun and respected have changed that? Maybe.
Obviously part of this problem is that women in general and on film are still often nothing characters or treated like garbage, but one of things that saved me at that moment, that day, was going home and watching Roseanne. The character of Roseanne (and her husband Dan to a lesser extent, I love you forever Dan) was a big, bold, brash, confident, hilarious, arse-kicking, complex woman. The show was far from perfect, but during that time I got to go home and watch a fat woman not take any shit from anyone. I got to see her have a mostly happy relationship with her husband, who loved her. I got to see an implied, fulfilling sex life. And that was so important for a fat girl to see, a girl whose confidence was shattered with every shouted “disgusting fat bitch” from a passing car, or muffled laughter as she walked past a group of school kids. And don’t be mistaken, this does not just happen to kids. Fat jokes and insults are the last bastion of bad-taste and terrible comedy that is still common and accepted by many people. Fat jokes can be done well, but in almost all cases that is when they are coming from an excellent fat character that has the audience laughing with her, not at her.
When I started this article, I tried to write down some examples of great, well-developed, multi-dimensional, fat female characters that I have identified with in my life. They could be characters where their fatness was integral to their storylines, or (the dream), where it was just another thing about them, and the exact same character could just as easily be played by a thin person. The list varied from people like Rae from My Mat Fat Diary, where her fatness is key (but she is also multi-dimensional and great), to Donna from Parks & Recreation, who is hilarious and amazing and sexy, and whose weight is never referenced. But the most important thing I came away with from this list was how fucking short it is. I’ve done this before with lesbian representation and have also ended up with a short list. But not 60% of people in places like America and England are lesbians (no matter how hard I wish). At the moment we have a select few women like Retta, Melissa McCarthy and Aidy Bryant flying the fat flag, and doing it amazingly. Their fatness is there, but it is not the reason they are there. They are there because they are hilarious and smart and beautiful. Every time a woman is allowed to be valued for their brain or humour or beauty, and aren’t torn down or blocked from success purely because they are fat, it reinforces to fat women everywhere that they will be okay.