The entertainment industry has played a crucial role in shaping how viewers perceive themselves and the world around them. In film and television specifically, more and more production houses are trying to make content comparable to real-life by diversifying characters and plots to better reflect everyday people. In shows and films like This is Us, Insecure and Ma, characters of various races, abilities, and sizes are being included in recurring and even star roles. But despite having more screen time, many characters, especially Black and/or fat icons, have storylines or characterizations that subscribe to tropey and even cliché ideals that don’t paint a proper picture of those respective experiences. Like my mama says, “It’s not what you do. It’s how you do it”, and truthfully, when it comes to current portrayals, this ain’t it.
As an aspiring screenwriter, I often find myself analyzing my favorite shows and films, and when it comes to these three plus-size representations, the production teams fell short on their development.
1. Kelli (Insecure)
Now, before I get started, I want to let y’all know I love Insecure. I think Issa Rae has done a phenomenal job at artistically simulating the millennial Black woman experience and how we go about our daily lives and relationships. I will even say that I think the casting choices are great and I enjoy most of the characters I see on screen. However, when it comes to Kelli (played and written by Natasha Rothwell), her character is lacking.
When Kelli first emerged as a guest character, my initial reaction was “Period, Issa! We have some fat, Black femme representation!” With her personality, quips, banter, and larger-than-life presence, I felt her inclusion added a much-needed dimension to Issa, Molly, and Tiffany’s friend group. But as time went on, I began to notice that everyone else had complex storylines and character development, while Kelli’s took the back seat and stayed there. For example, we’ve learned a lot about Issa and her growing pains with her personal life and Lawrence, we know about Molly and how her control freak nature coupled with her insecurities about love plague her romantic connections. We even know about Tiffany and how, in the last season, she suffered from postpartum depression and didn’t know how to articulate it, but when it comes to Kelli the only thing we know about her is that she’s an accountant and she’s Tiffany’s best friend and Simone’s godmother. Hell, we just found out what her last name was from her voicemail message, and to be honest, I don’t really remember what it was because it didn’t stick long enough for me to remember it.
Out of the femme quartet, she is the only one that we haven’t seen with a partner, except for that one date with Amine’s fine ass. She was the only one that peed her pants at Coachella, and there was that one episode where she was drunk and was fingered under the table at the diner. I’m not tryna get up on a soap box to bash her because sis is important. My only concern is that Kelli’s character and her storyline are not congruent with those of her castmates, and that, in my honest opinion, gives lowkey fatphobic vibes to the point where I question if the audience is laughing with her or at her.
2. Kate (This is Us)
Like Insecure, I think This is Us is also a great show, and I appreciate that it has a diverse cast of characters that all struggle with identity, loss, and other personal challenges. I think Kate’s character is also pretty dope to see. She’s a fat woman married to a fat man, and she’s also a mother. It’s truly refreshing to see larger-bodied individuals in situations that are usually geared towards their smaller counterparts.
On the flip side, the fact that my first encounter with Kate’s character is marked by an image of an open refrigerator with a sticky note that reads “do not eat” along with other weight loss and diet-related paraphernalia really stuck with me. I adore all bodies and think that what people choose to do with their body is completely up to them, but I just can’t get behind this idea that we have to reinforce the weight loss agenda to create content. Y’all may think “well, Cheyenne, weight loss is something that fat people do experience and deal with,” and I concur, but my response is simply this: why is it that fat people’s representation revolves only around the losing weight aspect of their lives and not just existing? Smaller characters can frolic from scene to scene and can exist in every way possible, but this is never an option for larger characters.
3. Ma (Ma)
I’m going to keep this one brief because, chile, just the thought of it makes me cringe. Ma, from top to bottom, is a mess.edu. That idea of making Octavia Spencer’s character into a modern-day mammy where she “cares” for privileged and entitled white children and tends to their every whim, only to use them as collateral in a revenge plot against their back-stabbing ass parents who’ve wronged her was partially a mood. However, I still felt this was problematic because they had her up there coddling these kids and trying to pander to the audience’s sympathy when she inevitably started to show up and show out on them. Let’s not forget she was also abusive to her own daughter, whom she kept under lock and key and overmedicated. Even her death at the end gave the perception that the villain was vanquished, even though the true villains were her caucasian classmates who thought that humiliating a Black girl in a janitor’s closet in front of their entire high school was slapstick humor.
Although these three characters have some redeemable moments and qualities, they still, for the most part, play into fat stereotypes of laziness, lack of desirability, and the idea that fat characters come second to everyone else. When I watch these portrayals, I feel some type of way because a lot of people take these images and internalize them as if these are real representations of the fat experience.
Where are the modern-day versions of characters like Khadijah James from Living Single who was depicted as having hella love interests or even Nikki Parker from The Parkers who, although she constantly chased after and even stalked her love interest (which, full disclosure: a bish don’t support this narrative of fat, Black femmes being overtly thirsty/predatory at all), still gave off major bad b-tch energy with her impeccable fashion sense and confidence?
The most contemporary examples would be Hazel Rachelle and Bree Washington from Bet+’s The First Wives Club, which is a show that I not only binged in one day, but features storylines of two fat Black women. Both ladies are in relationships, own their sexuality, desirability, and complexity in a context that has nothing to do with the theme of weight-loss equaling their worth, and neither was overshadowed by their straight-sized co-star. This is the type of content we stan in this house, and we need more stories that are going to paint a more diverse experience of fat, Black femmes that is not trauma porn.
It’s 2020 and it is time to give our fat, primarily fat and Black, characters more depth. We need more larger-bodied individuals not only as screenwriters and directors but also as producers, executive producers, casting directors and other decision-makers that should be working to make content relatable and not stereotypical. You may ask, “how do we go about doing this without burning some bridges,” and truth be told you can’t. Any major change requires ruffling feathers, but we will only see the change we need to see when people start to say “No” and pave a way for themselves and the community. We desperately need inclusivity in all aspects of the creative process. At the end of the day, these creatives must ask themselves if creating content that inaccurately portrays marginalized groups is worth their oppressors’ coins.