In the Blog
Denise’s Test, Part 2: More Positive Media Depictions of People of Size
Illustration: Melanie Lambrick
As I continue to search for positive depictions of people of size on stage and screen, I’ve come up with several more examples. As a reminder, to pass Denise’s Test the character of size must be treated like any other person on the show. They might be villains or heroes and they might be loved or loathed by the audience, but they’re not there in the context of a stereotype or joke. They’re not a) a stock “villainous glutton” or a related trope; b) they’re not the token “funny fat guy” who exists only for comic relief, and c) their existence is neither defined nor dominated by obsession or contentious relationships with food. Part 2 continues to focus on people of size that appear as main or supporting characters.
The Grapes of Wrath, Film, 1940
The pivotal character of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath is her family’s protector, leader, defender and adviser. In the 1940 film adaptation of the book, the role was handled by Jane Darwell, a heavyset actress. Darwell, a Hollywood veteran who had long played kind, nurturing, maternal characters, gave such an electric performance as Ma Joad that she won the 1941 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. After her work in Wrath she was cast in many more strong, assertive roles.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Television, 1970 – 1977
This breakthrough show was the first sitcom to depict a single, independent career woman and had several spinoffs, including Rhoda and Phyllis. Mary Tyler Moore played Mary Richards, an associate producer for a news program in a Minneapolis television station. Mary’s boss, the old-school journalist-turned-news director Lou Grant (Ed Asner) was fat. His character had a tremendous amount of depth, and was never made out to be a villain or a buffoon. Since the end of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Asner has continued to play strong, interesting roles on television, both as an on-camera actor and a voice over artist. He’s appeared in such shows as The Practice, the X-Files, The Glades and Hawaii Five-O, and has received 20 Emmy Award nominations.
The Facts of Life, Television, 1979-1988
This sitcom about girls at an American boarding school ran for nine years, and covered numerous hard-hitting topics about youth in America. One of the central characters, student Natalie Green, was heavyset. Natalie, who was portrayed by Mindy Cohn, was simply one of the gang; she wasn’t obsessed with food and she wasn’t a joke. Many of the storylines on The Facts of Life dealt with Natalie’s aspirations to be a professional journalist. Toward the end of the show’s run Natalie had a steady boyfriend and became the only main character to lose her virginity, directly negating the idea that heavyset women cannot not be sexually active or be portrayed in romantic relationships.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Film, 1988
Who Framed Roger Rabbit brought animation into the live-action world in this 1988 comedic mystery set in 1940s Los Angeles. Notably, nearly a hundred well-known animated characters from different studios, including Disney, Warner Brothers, MGM and Paramount, among others, appeared on screen together for the very first time. Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), the hardened, cynical private investigator at the heart of this amazing film, was heavyset. Eddie’s weight wasn’t a matter of concern, and true to his name, he was valiant and courageous as he faced his own demons – alcoholism and prejudice against ‘toons – while trying to figure out who actually had framed Roger Rabbit, saving Roger’s life.
Murphy Brown , Television, 1988 – 1998
This award-winning, intelligent comedy about a forty-something television journalist and her colleagues at a network news program, FYI, had very inclusive casting for its supporting roles. Phil, portrayed by Pat Corley, the wise, hardboiled proprietor of the bar where Murphy and her friends congregated, was a heavyset man. Large actors appeared in other roles on the show as well, including some of Murphy’s secretaries and recurring members of the FYI crew.
A Little Princess, Film, 1995
This beautifully designed 1995 film adaptation of Frances Hogdson Burnett’s novel about schoolgirl Sara Crewe gets a partial passing grade. It wasn’t exactly true to the characters, overall plot or setting of the book, in fact, it changed just about everything. Notably, the movie substantially weakened the heavyset character Amelia Minchin and removed her blistering monologue from the end of the story. However, one of the few places it stayed faithful to the novel was in its depiction of Ermengarde, one of Sara’s friends at school. Burnett wrote Ermengarde specifically as a fat girl with a heart of gold, a lot of courage and endless loyalty to Sara, even after she lost her fortune and became a servant. The 1995 film version of Ermengarde, portrayed by Heather DeLoach, kept all of these qualities, including her size.
Rent, Broadway musical, 1996 – 2008
This musical based on the opera La Boheme was set in New York City’s East Village in the late 1980s. One of the supporting leads, Joanne Jefferson, was originally played by a woman of size, Fredi Walker. During the remainder of the show’s twelve-year run on Broadway, both heavyset and thin actresses portrayed Joanne. Unfortunately, this inclusiveness did not carry over to the 2005 film version of the musical. While six of the eight original Broadway leads reprised their roles in the movie, Fredi Walker was not among them, and no other performers of size were cast.
Titanic, Film, 1997
James Cameron’s meticulously researched Titanic film depicted quite a few real-life passengers of the RMS Titanic. Among them was Margaret Brown, better known as the “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” who was known as a champion of women and children’s rights. Reportedly, when the shipsunk, Brown did everything she could to save others, including (unsuccessfully) imploring the crewman in charge of her lifeboat to turn around to pick up more passengers. In the 1997 film she was portrayed by a performer of size, Kathy Bates.
Gilmore Girls, Television, 2000 – 2007 (suggested by ProfElle)
This long-running series depicted a former runaway teen mother, Lorelai Moore (Lauren Graham), who found her niche and worked hard to succeed in a small Connecticut town. Lorelai’s best friend, and eventual business partner, was Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy), a large woman. Sookie had a healthy relationship with food – at the beginning of the series she was a professional chef at the Independence Inn, and her spectacular culinary creations were sometimes showcased. She had an active romantic life – as the series progressed, she dated (and she made the first move!), married and had several children. Sookie was charming, funny and smart; by the end of the show’s run she’d gone into business with Lorelai as the co-owner of the Dragonfly Inn.
Orange is the New Black, Netflix series, 2013 – present (suggested by Michelle)
The performers on this award-winning Netflix series, set in a women’s prison, demonstrate a huge amount of diversity in age, body type, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Numerous women of size are included in the cast, including Lea Delaria as Big Boo and Adrienne Moore as Cindy, and they are depicted as fully developed, complex characters. Danielle Brooks, an actress of size who portrays Taystee, has recently spoken out about body positivity and has launched a #LoveMyShape campaign on Instagram.
It’s clear from these examples that there’s room on television and movie screens for talented performers of size. It’s also clear that shows with fat characters can be commercially successful. Almost all of the films and TV shows that were mentioned in Parts I and II of this article did very, very well. They ran for numerous seasons, earned a lot of money, and won a lot of awards.
So why don’t we see more performers of size on our televisions, stages and film screens? What’s more important: presenting true talent and fostering inclusiveness, or presenting one very narrow, idealized view of humans in society? Perhaps those are questions that producers, directors and casting offices should be asking themselves.