See Jane Spotlight

Beyond Lazy Tropes: The Quest for Authenticity in Fat Representation

L to R: Brianna McDonnell, Jackie Schwartz, and Britney Young.

BENTONVILLE, Ark. – Britney Young, best known for her role on “Glow,” remembers the gloriously unusual audition process for the hit Netflix series about women’s professional wrestling.

Hopefuls were told in no uncertain terms to show up without makeup: “Come as you are.” Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch also prohibited any pre-audition weight loss, strength training or similar attempts at physical transformation. “They wanted us to come in our own bodies,” Young recalled, “which was really amazing.”

But what really knocked Young out, and still does, was the written description of her character, Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade. It included the phrase “gentle giant.”

For a plus-sized actor, this was the promised land. This role was a three-dimensional person, not some lazy trope.

“I was like, ‘That’s so nice,’” Young said. “Because I’m used to ‘Bully. Depressed. Low self-esteem. Overweight.’

“And when I spoke to Liz and Carly after getting the part, they said, ‘We just want you to be yourself. We don’t want you to fall into the stereotype.’”

Young told this story of casting utopia in June while on stage for a panel discussion at the Bentonville Film Festival. Co-founded by Geena Davis, the annual gathering in Arkansas showcases the power of inclusive content. The film festival, much like the Geena Davis Institute itself, supports diverse storytellers who accurately reflect the world we live in.

But research by the Institute also underscores just how rare it is to find success stories such as Young’s. Despite the pervasive ideal body image portrayed by the media, only 5.6 percent of women wear a size-6 or smaller. In reality, 54.9 percent of the bodies of American women are size-20 or over, according to calculations done by GDI using CDC waist-size data and size charts from major retailers.

Such numbers are the reason the panel talk at BFF was titled “Real Bodies for the Reel World.”

Hosted by Elizabeth Kilpatrick, a senior vice president at GDI, the presentation gathered women from both sides of the camera to discuss the challenges of what panelists unapologetically called “fat representation.”

Kilpatrick opened the panel by noting that children’s ideas about body image start as early as 3 or 4 and reminded the audience that the theory of change at the Institute is that by creating a media landscape where everyone can see themselves represented, people will see increased possibility for themselves.

It set the tone for a wide-ranging discussion on why positive representation matters.

“I got into this business because I know that media can be the most powerful tool for change,” said Jackie Schwartz, a New York-based producer, writer and activist. “I just want to be a person who makes people feel good about themselves and makes them feel like they are seen, heard and celebrated.”

“For better and for worse, I feel like most of my self-worth actually did come from what I saw on TV. But it was Fat Monica (from ‘Friends’) and ‘Shallow Hal’ all these films that made me feel like I was less of a person because of my size. And that can follow us our entire lives.”

Brianna McDonnell, an actor, influencer and media creator, nodded several times throughout Schwartz’s remarks.

“I got everything about my identity from media,” McDonnell said when it was her turn. “I think representative media is life-giving, life-changing. And we’re excited to be here making that change.

“I started creating my own work because what I wanted to do – what I wanted to see – didn’t exist.”

Worse, things are trending in the wrong direction according to Dr. Michele Meyer, the Senior Director, Research & Methodologies, for the Geena Davis Institute.

“Our research has shown that the presence of fat characters in film and television has decreased over the last few years,” Meyer said. “Further, we find more fat characters in smaller, less narratively significant roles – the less prominent the role, the higher percentage of fat characters we see. From these findings, we can infer that fat representation is not currently being prioritized by decision-makers in the industry.

Hurdles Ahead

The countless industry challenges surrounding large body types are so pervasive and so universal that Kilpatrick, as the panel host, barely needed to finish her questions.

She began one question with: “One of the big issues is the type of roles that they create for fat people is that they are often the funny friend or…

“We love the fat funny friend!” McDonnell interjected, her words dripping with sarcasm. “That’s what I go out for a lot. I’m the Fat Funny Friend girl.”

“The Fat Funny Sidekick,” Schwartz cracked.

That stereotype is hardly the only casting wasteland for aspiring actors with large body types. A staple of medical dramas, for example, is the fat character whose weight is putting them in perilous danger.

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve gone out for these really great medical shows that are fantastic,” Young said. “But every single role I’ve gone out for is usually a pregnant woman who has complications because she’s overweight. And it’s Every. Single. Time. And on the same shows.”

Young acknowledged that there are indeed instances of such complications, but added, “There are so many fat women out there who have successful pregnancies with no problem. Why can’t we show those? Why is that not a character?

“It’s because we don’t have those people at the top who are saying, ‘Yeah, we have a pregnancy storyline. Let’s just bring in Britney because she’s great!’ But instead, it’s always, ‘Nah, she’s rushing into the hospital because she got that gestational diabetes. Bring in Britney!’”

On the flip side, panelists hailed the handful of icons who have shown what’s possible. Kilpatrick even choked up on stage while recounting a few milestone television performances from plus-sized actors.

“I was probably 32 before I saw a woman in a professional role, which was Camryn Manheim as Ellenor Frutt in ‘The Practice,’” she said. “And I was over 50 when I saw Chrissy Metz in ‘This Is Us’ represent a woman who was fat and just had a normal life and a normal career and a husband. And we really want to make sure that is not the case for the kids that are growing up now.”

Young also savors Metz’s burgeoning stardom, in part because her character of Kate Pearson eventually evolved to accommodate the actor’s boundless talent. Metz was not confined to storylines about weight or weight-loss surgery.

“She could do way more than what they were giving her,’’ Young said. “She could give an emotional range besides being depressed. Besides having low self-esteem. Besides hating herself.”

Schwartz pointed to “Somebody Somewhere,” a Max show she described as “doing everything it should for a fat body on screen.” Bridget Everett plays the lead character, Sam, a Kansas woman who fails to fit in, and nothing about the show revolves around her size.

“I think the show is so beautiful because she lives a full life, Schwartz said. “She’s a friend, she works, she deals with mental health issues, she deals with her parents and her sister.”

Young said: “I think that speaks to exactly what we’re just talking about. It’s about creating characters who are fully fledged and who are allowed to have different aspects to them other than,’ Oh, I want to lose weight.’ Like, how boring.”

How to Create Change

Alas, roles such as Sam – or Ellenor Frutt or Kate Pearson – remain scarce. The same goes for Carmen Wade, the athletic wrestling savant that Young infused with life.

“Glow” thrived from 2017-19, including a final season that included Geena Davis stealing scenes as glamorous former showgirl Sandy Devereaux St. Clair. But Young said on the panel that her post-“Glow” career has given way to a trickle of auditions – maybe two a month. Never mind that Young was among the most popular characters on a show that once won a Screen Actors Guild Award for stunt ensemble in a television series.

“I thought I’d be doing all these cool things,” Young said. “I’m not.”

Hollywood is still woefully short on worthwhile roles for “real bodies.” But the panel had an emphatic answer regarding the solution.

They’re going to do it themselves.

McDowell has been taking this tack for years. As soon as she started producing and directing theater, she launched a production of “Little Shop of Horrors” and cast a plus-size performer to play Audrey, the romantic lead.

“And every review we got was, ‘Oh my God! This is so crazy and radical!’” McDowell said. “A plus-size Audrey in Little Shop?! Like we can’t even imagine this!’

“And that was when I was like, ‘Wow. We have sooo far to go.”

So now McDowell does it all, with a plus-size fashion blog called The B Word. She also creates and directs digital series and short films for her production company, and hires an intersectional, diverse crew to make them. Her recent projects include a fantasy called “Plus-Size Princess Moments.”

“We are creating something that is unapologetically fat, and fat positive,” she said. “And that is the energy that you need to bring to set.”

Schwartz’s company, called Besties Make Movies, and Rose Pictures is working on a documentary in conjunction with the Geena Davis Institute. (Kilpatrick is an executive producer along with Institute CEO Madeline Di Nonno). It’s called “Nothing Fits” and it will explore how Hollywood and fashion have worked separately – and together – to affect how each generation of women has felt about their bodies.”

And Young? Well, she has big plans, too.

“I’m gonna enjoy my one life in my gorgeous, amazing body that allows me to do what I want,” she said. “And I’m not going to be held to this box that people want to put me in. That’s exactly why I want to tell different stories.”

IF SHE CAN SEE IT, SHE CAN BE IT®