Culture

It's About Damn Time for a Truly Great Plus-Size Rom-Com

Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. Why aren't they portrayed on-screen?

by Gianluca Russo
06 November 2018, 6:17pm

Shannon Purser in 'Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,' via Netflix (L). Joy Nash in 'Insatiable,' via AMC (R).

The determined assistants and their domineering bosses; the stunned girlfriend and his crazy rich family; the quintessential girl next door and her love letters. From To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before to Set It Up to Crazy Rich Asians, 2018 has shaped up to be the revived age of the romantic comedy. But amidst the heart-warming scenes and aspirational tales of love remains one recurring question: Where are all the fat characters?

Television and film have a deep-rooted issue when it comes to representing diverse body types. Despite statistics that show that 39.8 percent of adults are obese and another 32.5 percent are overweight, this two-thirds of the American population is hardly portrayed onscreen. On shows that include one or two plus-size characters, their storylines largely revolve around dissatisfaction with weight and body image issues. Other times, actors like Rebel Wilson in Pitch Perfect are flaunted as comedic geniuses, reinforcing the age-old notion that fat actors’ sole function is to provide laughter. Characters like “Fat Amy” are the brunt of fat-shaming jokes, unable to escape their bodies and have storylines that revolve on substance rather than size. More recently, Wilson actually incited controversy last week for claiming she'll be the "first ever plus-sized girl to be the star of a romantic comedy" in Isn't It Romantic, which omits actresses of color like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, who've each starred in rom-coms in the past, and white actress Ricki Lake.

Debby Ryan in 'Insatiable.' Tina Rowden/Netflix
Debby Ryan in 'Insatiable.' Tina Rowden/Netflix

Take, for example, two shows that premiered this summer: Netflix’s Insatiable and AMC’s Dietland. Whereas the latter was a step forward in plus-size representation that tackled issues like body shaming and hypersexualization, the former’s premise centered on a fat teen slimming down and seeking revenge on all who’d wronged her. Insatiable was torn apart and labeled a tone-deaf attempt at satire, with critics giving the series a measly 10 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Comparatively, Dietland was celebrated for its forward-thinking depiction of size, receiving an 82 percent rating from critics.

And yet, none of that seemed to matter, including a Change.org petition to cancel Insatiable that’s garnered over 235,000 signatures. When it came to viewership, Insatiable excelled and Dietland flopped. In contrast to critics' dismal reviews, viewers crowned Insatiable with an 84 percent audience score. Netflix quickly picked up the series for a second season, whereas AMC chose not to move forward with Dietland.

Despite the fact that depictions like Insatiable are problematic, they end up being preferred by audiences.



“Our whole entire culture tries to pathologize fatness,” says Janell Hobson, professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, SUNY, and author of the book Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender . “Even the whole medical industry will say that you need to lose weight in order to be healthy, so it’s going to be harder to accept big and fat as something that’s healthy, that’s natural, that’s normal.”

As Hobson explains, society exerts hostility towards not only plus-size individuals, but also to the notion of giving them agency. She finds that the media attempts to “discipline the body” and regulate what we consider aspirational. “In western culture, we still push this idea that to be skinny is to somehow be the better body, the ideal body, the body that you can control under a certain regimen, because to be fat is to somehow lose control,” she says. “Skinniness is kind of like the Puritan idea that you’re working hard and you’re not giving in to temptations like food.”

Joy Nash in 'Insatiable.' Photo by Patrick Harbron/AMC
Joy Nash in 'Insatiable.' Photo by Patrick Harbron/AMC

And only those who work hard seem to be worthy of love, a notion fat people are all too familiar with. Growing up, larger children are told that love and happiness come after you get skinny. Family, friends, and the media frame this chiding as an “encouraging message” to lose weight and get healthy. But that common phrase is one of the most toxic. It instills a self-hating, deprecating mindset that makes fat people feel constantly undeserving.

There are trailblazers challenging this norm, one of the most notable being Chrissy Metz in This Is Us. But yet again, Metz’s character, though given a love story, is trapped in the world of fatness, unable to break through the barrier of self-doubt and into the life of exuberant confidence. And while Hobson notes that this is still a step in the right direction, she addresses the need for much more, saying, “The challenge would be: Could they imagine a sex scene [with Metz]? One where she’s on top? And where the man is not intimidated?”

To set a fat woman in a place of dominance such as that is to throw away the stereotypical gender balance we’re accustomed to. “In your typical rom-com, [the girl is] super skinny which I think has to do a lot with wanting to keep the gender balance where the man is always stronger and bigger versus the woman who has to be slim and slender, therefore it connotes a kind of weaker sex,” says Hobson.

Shannon Purser, Kristine Froseth
Shannon Purser and Kristine Froseth in 'Sierra Burgess Is a Loser.' Aaron Epstein / Netflix

Looking at every rom-com released in the last year, this seems accurate. The plot of Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, for example, hinges on the problematic premise that a popular, chiseled young man, played by Noah Cenineo, would never date plus-size Sierra Burgess, played by Shannon Purser, unless he was tricked into it. To alter this dynamic by increasing the size of one partner in the relationship is to dismantle the familiar idiom of sweeping a woman off her feet. To many, apparently, a larger woman could never be swept away by a man of a thinner frame.

There have been a handful of instances in the past where this dynamic has been positively portrayed, the most popular being in the 1988 film Hairspray and the 2007 remake of it. In both, a strong, confident fat woman, played by Lake, is loved by a slim, conventionally attractive man who never views her weight as an issue. The film was a major leap forward for the plus-size community and young plus-size girls and remains to be immensely popular to this day, a clear indication that when Hollywood portrays fat romances correctly, the effects of those groundbreaking scenes are long-lasting.

It’d be foolish to insist that Hollywood hasn’t begun to take small steps in the right direction, even if hiring plus-size actors is just a ploy to appease scrutinizing audiences. But the fact that there has yet to be a truly great plus-size rom-com in 2018 is incredibly telling of the world we live in. It’s time society’s view of fatness alters enough that a fat woman can fall in love with a slim man, a fat man, or anyone of any size, without a second thought. What we direly need is a great plus-size rom-com that shows, once and for all, that life does not start after you get skinny; Love and happiness are attainable by all.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.