Fat Black Girls on TV, and Art Imitating My Life: An Introspective

I am a fat black girl. A wide, full-bellied, thick-thighed, heavy-set, brown skinned, woman. I said that as an announcement of self. I don’t feel bad about it. Even though every form of commercial advertisement, and (not so) well-meaning family members have certainly tried to make me feel like I should. I’ve been bullied into weight loss challenges, coaxed into high impact aerobics, guilted into dieting. I’ve even been persuaded to food journal, shamed by own words. All in the name of “health.” And though it’s been tough, I’ve managed to remain me. My one of a kind self. Then I started seeing fat girls on TV.

Now let me start by saying representation matters. It matters a lot. And I would never pretend that seeing someone who resembles your basic category of self in the art you enjoy doesn’t have impact. It most certainly does. And almost every marginalized group out there is clamoring for representation. In print. On screen. They’re tired of the whitewashing. They want to see themselves. Fat black girls are no different, and as one, I can’t help but be excited when I see it happening. And then I see the characters. How they’re written, how they’re performed, how they’re drawn or dressed. I see them, and I don’t see myself. But is that because I’m covering my eyes? Is the fat black woman TV trope the me that I don’t want to see?

My first lasting memory of a fat black woman on TV was Nell Carter. I loved Gimme A Break, and loved her. She was a singing, dancing, laughing, darker-skinned woman. Nell Carter was everything to a little girl like me. I watched the later seasons of the show faithfully; I don’t remember when it first began. Anyway, Nell Carter was special. I saw myself in her, even though I was a kid. As I got older, it wasn’t hard to realize they’d casted her in sort of a minstrel/ mammy type role, an aspiring singer, playing nanny to this white man and his kids, as a last wish to their dying matriarch. And it wasn’t hard to see that Nell was the loudest person on the show, in both looks and personality. It took me a long time to figure out that was on purpose, that that was how the fat black woman was seen: Funny, sassy, noisy–with a good dose of humor and honesty and common sense to snatch you from the pits of wrong and set your life straight. With love, of course.

Moving on into the now, I can see that not much has changed, at least not as much as some would have us believe. The fat black friend is still the mother of the group, still the loudest, still the comedian to the skinny girl’s straight man. She still offers the most honest advice, says what no one wants to say, and says it with as much noise and drama as she can. The only difference is with the onset of cable and less restrictions, we’ve added a sexual element to the trope. The fat black friend is the most overtly sexual in nature of the group, but almost never paired–so she almost always has an air of desperation about her. When she does “meet” someone, it’s almost always someone completely unsuitable for an adult relationship, or so fine that EVERYONE (even her) questions how she managed to get him to pay attention to her. And if she has a continuous plot line at all, there’s a good chance it may involve her losing weight at some point. Shirley Hemphill (Shirley from What’s Happening–RIP), Yvette Wilson (Andell from Moesha–RIP), and Natalie Desselle-Reid (Janie from Eve), have all had pieces, if not the whole of this trope. Queen Latifah (Khadijah from Living Single) was written a little better–probably because she was closely written to match Queen’s actual personality–but she still had the least active love life of the four women on that show. Amber Riley (Mercedes from Glee) was also written slightly better, but fell into the trope by having her plot lines in the first season centered around her need to lose weight, and having a crush on a guy who turned out to be gay. The worst of these is probably Jennifer, played by Cocoa Brown from the Tyler Perry show For Better Or Worse, even though writing a trope is no less than what I expect of Tyler Perry (but moving on because my discomfort with TP’s writing is another story for another day). But even a show as cool as Insecure has Kelly, the “fat friend,” who is the loud, funny, blunt one who you’ve yet to see with a man and who is–wait for it–noticeably smaller than she was last season. How much do you want to bet they bring up that weight loss at some point?

But even with all of my–frustration? Disappointment, maybe? I am a firm believer that art imitates life. So is this me? Am I this fat girl? I didn’t think so at first, mainly because of one stark difference: the fat friend usually feels like a write-in to a skinny girl show, and so there’s normally only one per group. This gave me a hearty laugh. I don’t know ONE fat girl that has all skinny friends. I have a whole Justice League of fat girls in my life, all beautiful and talented, all with different powers. But maybe that’s just me. Nevertheless, that’s the reason I initially dismissed it as an unrealistic exaggeration. But then there’s the rest. I’m very sexual, and I talk about sex a lot. I mean, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know. But I’m perpetually single. I’m sure I’m the loudest of my friends and a lot of times the most animated. My babies often quote my “hilarious one-liners.” I’m asked for advice a lot, and can be counted on to give it to you straight–kind, but straight. I’m definitely the mother hen of all my homies. So is this me? And if I look at this art, and see this woman–this fat, black, woman–and am disappointed in how she’s portrayed, what does that mean? What am I saying? Am I saying my personality is something that seems exhausting and fake? Am I too loud? Too sexual? Too “sassy?” Am I all of these things and ashamed of it, and thus projecting that onto fat black girls I see on TV?

I suppose my real problem is that all of these traits seem like they are used to make the character look less worthy of being taken seriously. She may be offering the truth and the best advice, but her loud, sassy, no-nonsense tone assures that you’ll laugh it off and keep drinking your wine. Her blatant sexual openness might make her worthy of dick (sometimes), but you may not ever see her fall in love. And if she does get (and keep) a man, there’s a good chance he’s a man-child who feeds off her “motherly” nature in some way. She’s happy and confident and laughing and joking about her size–but not really complete unless she’s trying to get “fit” or lose weight. Everything her friends love about her seems to be hindering her, as a character, as a person–unless she’s trying to change it. And even though she’s obviously hard to miss, it’s almost as though she HAS to be louder to be seen. To be heard. Or maybe that’s just a projection too.

 

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