Big Love: Plus-Size Women in Pop Culture

by | September 18, 2011
filed under Feminism, Pop Culture

One of Nancy Upton’s entries for the American Apparel “Next BIG Thing” contest

Please join me in welcoming new Gender Focus guest blogger Alicia Costa! Alicia is an activist/ anti-violence worker/ writer based out of Vancouver BC. She has a BA from SFU in Women’s Studies and a certificate from Langara College in Journalism.

In light of the recent media storm over the past week about American Apparel and it’s disastrous  ‘The Next BIG Thing’ online contest to find a plus-size model for the launch of their XL clothing line I thought now’s the time to examine some recent trends in the entertainment world and its representations of  larger women.

The woman in the middle of the American Apparel story, Nancy Upton from Dallas, submitted photos of herself with food in an effort to make a statement. She won the most votes in the contest, but American Apparel rejected her because of her “attitude”.

“As corny as it sounds, it just occurred to me that based on their “Hey, come on, fatties, we want you to play, too” tone, wouldn’t it be kind of brilliant to respond in a “Thanks for letting me play, just let me try put down the pizza, first” similar mocking tone.” (Jezebel) They have since offered to fly her to LA to see how the company works.

Nancy’s stand against American Apparel opens up some interesting lines of discussion. It’s clear that Nancy is making a statement against the way larger woman are represented by clothing manufacturers and in mainstream media.

There has been an attempt over the past few years to add visible plus-size female characters into TV and movies. However, the roles always seem to come up short when it comes to proper representation and empowerment.

A good example of this is actress Melissa McCarthy and the roles she is often given. McCarthy is best known for her role as Sookie, the best-gal pal of Lorelei Gilmore on Gilmore Girls.  McCarthy’s recent success has come from her roles in the comedy film Bridesmaids and the CBS show Mike and Molly.

In Bridesmaids McCarthy’s plays the character of Megan who is the sister of the groom. While I really enjoyed the movie overall, McCarthy’s character was harmful and offensive in its portrayal of larger women. Everything from fart jokes to bad fashion sense to lack of sexual attractiveness was displayed. When the producer came under fire for McCarthy’s character he claimed that she herself had creative control of how Megan came across on screen.

McCarthy’s other role as Molly, an overweight school teacher who lives with her mother and thin sister in Mike and Molly is equally anti-progressive. The premise is Molly meets Mike (a very overweight cop played by Billy Gardell) at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.

McCarthy as a plus size actress has a unique opportunity to be able to take roles that empower larger women. But she has made is clear in several interviews that she is unhappy with her weight and it is reflected in the roles she takes, further perpetuating negative stereotypes about plus-size women.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel however in the form of Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva. The premise of the show is that of a beautiful aspiring model Deb, who is killed in a car crash and given another chance at life when her spirit is popped into that of a size 16 lawyer named Jane.

I know what you’re thinking. It definitely took me awhile to watch the show. I just didn’t think I had the strength to watch yet another fat-hating self-hating female character. But, I was pleasantly surprised.

Jane, who is played by Broadway actress Brooke Elliot is smart, witty, and sexy. The show tackles a lot of tough realistic issues that larger woman deal with. This includes a lawsuit against a clothing manufacturer who refuses to make or carry anything over a size 10, wrongful termination based on weight, and taking on a harmful get-thin-quick diet.

The show also routinely features fantastic female actresses (Rosie O’Donnell, Kathleen Najimy, comedian Margret Cho, etc.) who have spoken out about weight and acting in Hollywood. I commend the writers for tackling a lot of real-life issues like navigating love and relationships as a larger woman and attempting to break down stereotypes.

It’s far past time there are positive and empowering plus-size role models in pop culture and the entertainment world.

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