Critic's Notebook: TV's Fat Women Are No Longer a Joke

Shrill season 2 - Publicity Still 2 - H 2020
Allyson Riggs/Hulu

Fat women on TV have traditionally been funny sidekicks or sad sacks obsessed with losing weight, but shows like 'Shrill', 'Work in Progress' and 'Euphoria' have been changing the narrative.

In the opening moments of Showtime's mordantly funny autobiographical comedy Work in Progress, Abby (Abby McEnany) confesses her intention to end her life if her circumstances don't improve. "I mean, 45, fat — I'm this queer dyke who has done shit in her life and that is my identity?" As she explains during a therapy session, "this bitch at work" bought her a package of almonds because she knows her weight has been fluctuating, so Abby decides to lay out the 180 almonds, each representing a day in her life, and systematically destroy one every 24 hours. If she's still feeling suicidal when one almond is left, she'll go through with her plan. At the end of her monologue, she looks up and realizes her therapist has croaked.

The gradually thinning almond jar becomes our framing device, each episode named for how many nuts are left at the last scene. It's the ticking crocodile that haunted Captain Hook, both poetic and absurd, and succinctly encapsulates McEnany's wickedly effective gallows humor. The almonds at once symbolize the diet culture that imprisons Abby, her struggle with gender/gendered social policing and her dueling mental health diagnoses (OCD, anxiety, depression). Work in Progress is a classic 2010s-style sad-com, pulsing with as much grief and fury as it does farce and eccentricity. But this show isn't just Curb Your Enthusiasm with a more inclusive face. "It's a show about a fat, mentally ill, clinically depressed, sometimes suicidal queer dyke who has given up on love,” McEnany told The Daily Beast. “And has a lot of shame, not about her sexuality or her gender but about her fatness."

Fat, it seems, is the new frontier. And auteurs like McEnany and Shrill's Lindy West have been working to shift the narrative for TV's fat women, who have often been relegated to chipper sidekick roles or the zoo of gawking reality television, to reveal the truths of living in a body that is painfully visible and invisible simultaneously. Series like Shrill, Work in Progress, Euphoria and TLC's new reality show Hot & Heavy demonstrate that fatness is no longer just joke fodder and that these characters/subjects can indeed find love (and be loved by people who don't physically match them, à la This Is Us and Mike and Molly).

Refreshingly, these new shows aren't fixated on weight itself —  losing/gaining, physical transformation —  but the weight of weight: the family pressures, romantic stigmas and self-hatred endemic to inhabiting a fat form in a disapproving environment. Thanks to social changes that occurred during Industrialization, we've come to see fatness as a perversion of femininity: a trait that both over-sexualizes and de-sexualizes a female body that should ideally take up no space at all. From this perspective, fatness is desire; fatness is anger; fatness is failure. It's everything a woman isn't supposed to be.

The year 2019 was the year fat women broke through to the mainstream, with Lizzo, Beanie Feldstein, CupcakKe, Aidy Bryant, Naomi Watanabe and others proving that female fatness isn't a monolith that equates to one overarching cultural value (historically, either hypersexuality or comic chops). As a fat woman myself, I'm particularly attuned to how women who look like me are portrayed in popular culture, and I've been astonished to see so many thickly built female celebs suddenly wearing their experiences openly and proudly, which I partially attribute to the successes of the Fat Acceptance Movement and fat feminism. Beyond public personas and body-pos soundbites, however, TV's structured stories are helping expose the molten human core of conflicts surrounding weight.  

Hulu's muted comedy Shrill pairs well with Work in Progress, as they both highlight the internalized sorrow and shame that come with inhabiting a large body in a society that values a small one for women. At the beginning of Shrill, protagonist Annie (Bryant) is hooking up with a childish nincompoop who initially forces her to sneak out the back of his place so his roommates don't catch a glimpse of her. While the couple tussles throughout the two seasons, both trying to puzzle out what they want from each other and what they want for themselves, Annie ultimately realizes that Ryan (Luka Jones) has merely been a convenient stopgap, a tool for companionship so she doesn't have to do the hard, vulnerable work of dating. Like Work in Progress' Abby, she's swallowed the idea of her supposed unlovability and said no to potential romance before it could say no to her.

Abby's journey toward self-love isn't as overt as Annie's — McEnany shies away from grand feminist soliloquies about the power of telling the world to go fuck itself, instead positioning Abby as someone who wishes she could be that confident but can't because of her innate anxieties. Across the season, she shares a sexy, pleasant romance with a young and attractive trans man more than 20 years her junior (Theo Germaine), which ends up imbuing her with much-needed joy. Other shows would probably milk Abby's neuroses to her doom each episode, turning her into a modern George Costanza, but here we get to enjoy the lightness Abby and Chris bring each other as she learns to trust again after a long-ago disastrous breakup.

Thankfully, the show embraces the sexual connection between them, treating us to a groundbreaking real-time sex scene where Abby and Chris writhe together in the darkness as we hear their every erotic moan and grunt. (They have sex in the dark not because of their non-conforming gender presentations, but because Abby's self-esteem about her size dictates it.)

Similarly, reality series Hot & Heavy takes a lens to the experiences of mixed-size couples, twisting TLC's patented "fatness chronicle" reality genre away from shows like My 600-Lb Life and the Honey Boo Boo franchise, which prey on viewer's schadenfreude and view fatness as a grotesque circus. The show follows three mixed-weight couples — three fat women and their conventionally attractive male partners — showcasing the real issues men face when they're open about their preference for larger women, including people questioning their masculinity, and the presumptions people make about fat people's health. The show is as slick and artificial as any in the unscripted genre, but it doesn't posit that these women need to change, but rather, that society needs to better accept the spectrum of attraction.

This attention to sexual vibrancy is also what renders Euphoria such a compelling teen drama. Euphoria might be buzzy because of its rainbow cinematography and its unrelenting focus on hard-partying teen culture, but it's also one of the few shows I've seen to take teenage girls' sexual tastes and explorations seriously. One member of the ensemble, Kat Hernandez (Barbie Ferreira), is a shy, chubby nerd who soon learns to weaponize her sexuality, becoming a dominatrix cam-girl who verbally abuses men for money over the Internet and then humps-and-dumps as many dudes as possible as a way to domineer over the guys who once rejected or humiliated her. Kat lives out a fantasy of many fat women who would love to turn their tormentors into a sweaty puddle. The show is no contrived spectacle for the male gaze but a celebration of eroticism honoring the inner lives of characters more typically objectified in popular entertainment.  

The evolution of TV's complex fat woman hasn't just burst forth from a vacuum; it is part of a larger trend that began in the mid-2000s with popular comedies that proffered fat protagonists without digging deeper into the lived-in experience of being fat, such as Ugly Betty, Drop Dead Diva and Girls. Later, under-seen but harrowing dramas like Britain's My Mad Fat Diary and AMC's Dietland opened up the wounds of fatness, demonstrating the internalized emotional pain and externalized political pain of largeness, respectively.

As Peak TV rages on and the streaming wars continue, and as audiences clamor for more stories that center on inclusion and intersectionality, I expect to see more dynamic narratives that dissect fatness alongside other formative identities. So go ahead and eat that.