It’s no secret that representation of bodies that are other than thin is lacking in television and film. And when fat bodies are represented in media, the depictions of these characters is often one dimensional or problematic.
Turner Classic Movies recently released a documentary about Body Images on Film the documentary features commentary from Jonathan Van Ness, TCM host Alicia Malone and authors and body image activists Roxane Gay and Sonya Renee Taylor.
We had the pleasure of speaking with both Gay and Taylor about fatphobia, antiBlackness and their specific thoughts on Precious.
See what Roxane had to say in our exclusive interview below.
MadameNoire: Why did you decide to lend your voice to this documentary with Turner Classic Movies?
Roxane Gay: I think that any opportunity to talk about fat bodies and unruly bodies in a forum that will get a lot of attention is important. I think we need to see different kinds of people talking about different kinds of bodies and especially talking about bodies as what they are instead of problems that need to be solved.
MN: In the documentary, you mentioned the intersection between fat phobia and antiBlackness. Can you speak a little bit more about how those two are intertwined?
Gay: First of all, you know Black women’s bodies have always been exploited, reviled and/or coveted secretly. So when we see Black women on screen, we tend to see the fat, sassy Black friend or co-worker or we see the object of desire but we don’t ever know anything more about her other than that she’s the object of desire. Black women on screen are not given any sort of identity or self-actualization. They don’t have any f*cking personality, even. Beyond sassiness. All we know is that they’re there to be the sidekick. Our fat bodies don’t get good wardrobe. We don’t get the sort of attention that other actors on screen are going to get. And it shows and it’s ridiculous. So I do think it’s important that we point out that this is not just fatphobia, it’s misogynoir.
MN: I know the movie Precious came up a bit in the documentary. And I just wanted to know what are your thoughts on Precious? So many of us have such a hard time on where to place that…
Gay: Precious happened to be on tv the other day so I happened to see parts of it again. And I just remember thinking, Gabourey Sidibe did that. She really did. And I don’t think she gets enough credit for what she did in that role because I thought she was phenomenal. She was not given a lot to work with and she was directed by someone who I don’t think appreciates fat bodies. On the one hand, I think that story deserves to exist, it deserves to be told. On the other hand, it’s just relentless and so cruel. And it’s overwhelming to see that level of cruelty. I do think that level of cruelty exists in the world so why would we deny that.
But at the same time, I do think there are other stories we could have told about a fat, Black woman that wasn’t grounded in sexual abuse and a horrifically abusive mother who also happened to be fat. Even though, again, Mo’Nique did a phenomenal job. I think the Black women in the movie did the best with what they were given. And their best, as usual, is always more than good enough. But, my goodness, it would be wonderful to tell a different kind of story.
MN: I recently read this post about fat characters in children’s programming, books and Disney movies. I know you have young people in your life so what should parents and people who are concerned about the next generation’s morality be telling their children when they see these depictions of fat people or fat characters?
Gay: I think it’s important to not demonize fat bodies, especially to let young people know that whatever body you are in is a good body. And that you should see your body for the ways in which it is strong and capable and beautiful. I would even not put that much emphasis on beautiful. I think beauty is overrated.
Dr. Tressie McMillan Cottom, who is my podcast co-host, has an incredible chapter in her collection Thick: And Other Essays about rejecting beauty notions and accepting that not everyone is beautiful and that beautiful isn’t actually the goal.
I think those kind of messages could be really useful to share with children because so many people get this idea in their heads early in life that they’re ugly, flawed or too fat and that they must change. Let’s try something different.
MN: What would be an ideal representation of a fat, Black woman on television or film for you?
Gay: I think an ideal representation of a fat Black woman is a story where body is not relevant to the narrative but isn’t forgotten either. So, she doesn’t make jokes about herself. She doesn’t necessarily try to lose weight or think anything other than that her body’s amazing, strong and beautiful. And she’s allowed to have a love life and that love life is treating her as the goddess that she is. She has a creative life, an intellectual life, a work life and these things are not predicated on her body. That would be awesome.
You can watch the full documentary below.