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Denise’s Test: In search of fair media depictions of people of size

July 13th, 2015     by Denise Reich     Comments

Illustration: Melanie Lambrick

It’s not particularly common to find fat people depicted in a positive light in films and television shows. They’re far more likely to be cast as unpleasant characters, and in the instances where they’re actually given a lot of screen time, it’s often for comic relief. And of course, they’re frequently depicted eating a lot.

Everyone knows about the Bechdel Test for depictions of women in media. I couldn’t find anything similar about fair depictions of people of size, so I developed my own test.

A character of size who passes Denise’s Test is one who is treated like any other person on the show; they simply happen to be heavy. 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.

I was encouraged by these examples, which include quite a few mainstream productions. I was, however, simultaneously disheartened to realize that most of the ones I was able to find were from past decades and that there doesn’t seem to be as much out there right now.

Sleeping Beauty, Film, 1959

In Disney’s classic animated film, two of the three Good Fairies, Flora and Merryweather, are heavyset. Merryweather is also the most logical and realistic of the trio, and cleverly figures out how to ensure that Maleficent’s curse on Aurora isn’t a death sentence.

Good Times, TV, 1974 – 1979

Good Times was a groundbreaking 1970s show about an African-American family in an inner-city Chicago housing project. While it garnered significant criticism over the way the character of J.J. Evans perpetuated many negative stereotypes, it also was praised as the first show to portray the experience of a working poor urban Black family. Family matriarch Florida Evans, portrayed by Esther Rolle, was heavyset, but that wasn’t a matter of interest to the plot whatsoever.

Dreamgirls, Broadway musical, 1981- 1985; film 2006

Effie White, the central figure in this musical by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen, is written as a full-figured character. The lead singer of an African-American trio in the 1960s, Effie is brilliantly talented, but is pushed aside by the group’s manager in favor of her thinner co-star. Jennifer Holliday created the role of Effie on Broadway and won the 1982 Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. The show-stopping number “And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going)” has become Holliday’s signature song. The film version of the musical cast Jennifer Hudson as Effie.

Mario, Video games, 1981 – present

Mario, who first appeared in the 1981 arcade hit Donkey Kong, has gone on to star in more video games, across numerous platforms, than I can keep track of. He’s the face of Nintendo and the best-selling video game character of all time. Mario is always depicted as a short, stout Italian plumber. He’s the hero of his storylines and he runs, jumps, and performs myriad feats of daring, directly contradicting stereotypes of fat people as lazy and unfit. Live-action depictions of Mario, such as the late 1980s Super Mario Brothers Super Show on TV and the 1993 film Super Mario Bros. have been faithful to the original design, with “Captain” Lou Albano and Bob Hoskins taking on the role, respectively.

Beetlejuice, Film, 1988

Otho was a pompous, obnoxious designer in this smart, offbeat Tim Burton film. If you’re like me, you probably really hoped he’d get eaten by sandworms. However, the film passes Denise’s Test because of him – he was played by a heavyset actor, Glenn Shadix. Bonus points: Otho was a hip trend-setter and was very bright, negating stereotypes of fat people as unfashionable and stupid.

Roseanne, Television, 1988 – 1997

Roseanne was one of the first – and remains one of the only—sitcoms to truly depict a blue-collar, working class family in Middle America. It burst onto the scene at a time when the most popular sitcom moms were Claire Huxtable, Elyse Keaton and Maggie Seaver: thin and conventionally beautiful. When I reviewed the show as a kid, my comment on it was, “Roseanne shows that all moms don’t look like Meredith Baxter Birney”. Both Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and her husband Dan (John Goodman) were fat, and the show’s storylines neither focused on their weight nor used it as a punchline.

Hairspray, Films, 1988, 2007; Broadway musical, 2002 – 2009

No list of fair depictions of fat people in the media would be complete without a mention of John Waters’ film and musical Hairspray. The plot follows large teenager Tracy Turnblad as she rises to fame as a cast member on a local dance television program in Baltimore, Maryland and helps integrate the show. Tracy is depicted as a determined, smart and talented individual who refuses to be judged by her weight. Fatphobia is addressed numerous times; Tracy’s mother Edna, who is also fat, has not left her home in years due to self-esteem issues. Motormouth Maybelle, a local disc jockey, has also been portrayed by performers of size, such as Queen Latifah in the 2007 film. Ricki Lake played Tracy in the original 1988 film; she was followed by Marissa Jaret Winokur in the original Broadway cast and Nikki Blonsky in the 2007 movie.

Law & Order franchise, TV, 1990 – 2010 (original)

In its 20 years on the air, Law & Order cast more actors of size than one can count, and they played everything from judges to criminals to witnesses. Numerous spin-offs have been developed from the original Law & Order, and large actors Camryn Manheim, Paul Sorvino and Anthony Anderson have all had long-running major roles in the franchise. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, which began airing in 1999, is still in production, and continues the tradition of diverse and inclusive casting.

All That, TV, 1994 – 2005

This clever, sharp sketch comedy show starring preteen and teenage actors ran on Nickelodeon for a decade and introduced numerous talented young performers, including Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson of Kenan and Kel and Good Burger. The kids on All That came in all shapes and sizes, and the writing treated them fairly and didn’t exploit their weight for laughs.

Chicago, Broadway musical, 1996 – present; film 2002

The 1996 Broadway revival of this Kander and Ebb musical, which focuses on women on trial for homicide in 1920s Chicago and the influence of economics, emotion and popular opinion on justice, has welcomed performers of size to numerous key roles during its nineteen-year (and counting) run. You’re still not going to find a person of size playing Roxie Hart, Velma Kelly or any of the dancers, so this show doesn’t get a complete passing grade, but all of the other supporting leads, including Matron “Mama” Morton, Billy Flynn, Mary Sunshine and Amos Hart have been played on Broadway by heavyset performers at one time or another. The trend has carried over to regional productions of the show, too. The 2002 film version of the musical didn’t go quite as far, but still cast Queen Latifah as Mama Morton.

The Life, Broadway musical, 1996 –1997

The Life, a musical by David Newman, Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman about sex workers in gritty, pre-gentrification New York City, featured a cast that was diverse in ethnic background, size, and age. For the 1997 Tony Awards broadcast and other media appearances, they presented a song from the show called “My Body” that proclaimed “My body’s nobody’s business but my own!” If that wasn’t clear enough, the lyrics went on: “If you’ve got a problem, I don’t give a damn!”

The Parkers, Television, 1999 – 2004

Mo’nique and Countess Vaughn starred on this sitcom about a mother and daughter who both attended the same college in Santa Monica, California. Vaughn’s character, Kim, had a supporting role on Moesha before receiving her own show. Both leads were women of size and it was neither here nor there; the plots revolved around their academic progress in college and active love lives.

Glee, TV, 2009 – 2015

Glee, a blockbuster musical show about students in a competitive high school glee (singing) club, was lauded for its diversity and inclusiveness, and had numerous interesting characters of size, including Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), Roderick Meeks (Noah Guthrie) and Lauren Zizes (Ashley Fink). These characters were appreciated in the club for their talent, not for their size. Lauren had an affinity for candy, but it wasn’t the central focus of her role, and she was a far cry from the “funny fat person” trope. She was also on the school wrestling team, directly challenging the “fat people don’t exercise” stereotype. The heavyset Lillian Adler (Jane Galloway Heitz), who appears in flashback scenes, was the legendary (deceased) director of the glee club, and was held up as an example of excellence.

Mobbed, TV, 2011 – 2013

This reality show hosted by Howie Mandel never really took off and only shot eleven episodes, which were broadcast as specials over a two-year time period. In each show someone revealed a big secret to their loved ones, such as a long-awaited pregnancy or a crush, with the help of a giant flash mob and other performances. The original episode was centered around an elaborate marriage proposal for Nikki Davis, a model with plus-size clothing company Torrid. Mobbed also featured mob dancers of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and ages, and choreographers Tabitha and Napoleon D’Uomo (Nappytabs) enthusiastically supported all of them (full disclosure: I was one). Fat dancers were given screen time right alongside thin ones.

Are there more out there? I’ll keep looking and get back to you with Part Two!

Tags: body politics, media savvy

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