small screen sirens: the “big” issue
Growing up, one of my favourite shows was Gilmore Girls. It was the sort of wholesome viewing that spoke to the fast-talking, coffee-drinking, small-village-dweller in me, and something I tuned in to weekly with much aplomb. It helped that my mum and sister liked it too, and it grew to encompass the three of us lazing around in the evenings, from our more tender years to more recently, where we’ve migrated from house to house watching episodes and warming wine glasses in our summery palms.
I can’t remember who said it, but after one particularly emotional episode, someone said, ‘I love Sookie, but man, she is a big girl.’
Huh. There are a few things wrong with this sentence – the but being a big one, and it got me thinking more and more about the representation of women’s bodies on TV. It’s not like the issue hasn’t been talked to death, but with the increasing push for all actresses to wriggle into a size 0, the disparity between body shapes has grown more visible.
The thing about weight is it opens up a bit of a free-for-all on an actress unless it’s a plot point. Take the American series Huge – a televised drama set in a fat camp – for instance. It had probably the most diverse representation of bodies in recent memory, but there was a purpose to that – the narrative objective being to lose the weight. In comparison, Girls’ Lena Dunham’s weight is a frequent point in media at the moment. Her abnormal-for-TV-normal-for-reality body has been the cause for an outright vicious commentary. She’s pear-shaped, plump with small breasts and a wide, flat behind and likes to show this off as much as possible, both for narrative’s sake and not. Her character makes no move to lose weight, and has no trouble attracting male attention – something that, strangely, has online reviewers scratching their heads. It’s an odd concept in itself and one that has proven pretty revealing of public views on bigger women and the idolisation still prevalent of the skinny – proving that, for many in media, desirable and thin are one and the same.
There’s this great moment in the first episode of Girls where Dunham’s character, Hannah, is in a bathtub, stark naked and eating a cupcake while her flatmate, the pretty, skinny Marnie sits beside her, shaving her legs in a towel. Hannah says, ‘Are you seriously going to leave your towel on? I never see you naked and you always see me naked when it should be the other way around.’ In many ways this encompasses this sort of perception – that public voice that places Marnie’s body as worth something more than Hannah’s and, for a body-worshipping society, one that places Marnie’s value generally over that of Hannah’s.
On the other hand though, shows like My Mad Fat Diary exist too, a series centring on Rae, an obese teenager who has recently been dispatched from a psychiatric ward. Melodramatic premise aside, the series is incredibly good, with smart writing, layered characters and some pretty hilarious comedy. Rae’s weight is a huge part of the narrative and plays a big part, not necessarily in Rae’s character as we see her, but certainly in the way Rae sees herself. Her value is, again, intrinsically tied to her weight and she feels that she is undeserving of good things until she loses it, something that she makes only one real effort to do in all six episodes.
In writing this, my thoughts migrated back to Gilmore Girls. I was really young when these episodes were airing for the first time, and missed a lot of the recaps and reviews that are now so much a part of my viewing experience (when I say I inhale a show, I mean that). What this means though is that I wasn’t around for the response to Sookie’s character, but I don’t remember it being as negative as what modern commentary says about, well, modern actresses. Melissa McCarthy, who played Sookie, now acts in shows where she is defined by her waistline – whether she’s playing butch counterpart to her svelte co-stars in film or the butt of fat jokes on her new series Mike & Molly, her size has become the main component of character for her, which is a shame because she’s damn talented. On Gilmore Girl’s Sookie’s weight was rarely brought up and certainly never utilised as a piece of visual comedy. Her character was funny and kind and fiercely loyal; she was feminine and sexy and career driven and was allowed her happiness before her slender friend. Her value with Lorelai was equal, and rightfully defined by her attributes and not by her size.