She was a traditionally built lady, after all, and she did not have to worry about dress size, unlike those poor, neurotic people who were always looking in mirrors and thinking that they were too big. What was too big, anyway? Who was to tell another person what size they should be? It was a form of dictatorship, by the thin, and she was not having any of it. ― Alexander McCall Smith, Morality for Beautiful Girls
If you haven’t seen the November cover of Elle magazine, you probably also missed the big deal that was made about it – particularly the oversized cashmere coat Melissa McCarthy, one of the magazine’s featured honorees for their annual Women In Hollywood issue, was wearing. McCarthy looks positively ravishing, and is one of the few plus-size women to ever appear in a full shot on the magazine’s cover. Still, there were those who chose to judge and criticize everything about it; from the styling that appeared to deliberately conceal McCarthy’s voluptuous frame; to the magazine for “celebrating obesity”; to the lady herself, for allowing herself to be manipulated by the fat shaming “fashionistas”. Why this was such a big deal to people whose lives it couldn’t possibly have affected in the slightest is one of life’s enduring mysteries. However, the Elle cover does reveal one thing: that no matter how beautiful, clever or talented she might be, for the physically average American woman to appear in any form of media is still deemed “controversial”.
To clarify, Melissa McCarthy picked out the inexplicably offending garment herself, explaining that living in Southern California didn’t afford her many opportunities to be able to don such a heavy fabric. That, plus the fact that the issue was scheduled for a November release, gave the Mike and Molly star no reason to second guess her choice. In short, she loved the coat and wanted to wear it in the photo shoot. But why did it matter so much to so many people? Whether in support of or detracting the image, a lot of people spent a lot of energy blogging about it. Would such a hoohah have been made if the photo had featured someone like Kevin James or Jack Black?
It’s no secret that women in the entertainment industry have always been held to far greater standards than their male colleagues. If you watch the old Mary Tyler Moore Show on Hulu, you’ll lose count of the number of times her best friend Rhoda’s weight is a topic of conversation or insult, despite the fact that Rhoda is nearly as slender – and really, any woman comparing herself to Moore is going to see herself as a hippo. But even though only a size or two separates the two women’s wardrobes, by the standards of the era (which the industry still clings to in a lot of ways), Valerie Harper’s Rhoda was “the fat best friend”.
Now that sitcoms (and scripted television in general) have made a comeback, we are seeing more “average” or full-figured women in more significant roles than ever before. For example, Lena Dunham’s Girls over on HBO, is an unflinching and naked (literally) portrayal of the average – and average looking – young woman, sex life and all. Meanwhile, Rebel Wilson’s new series Super Fun Night is also shaping up to be a popular show. Wilson is another big girl with amazing comedy chops, but she can also bring the requisite humanity to a performance. The very popular The Office gave us Phyllis, a bigger lady who was also depicted as having a very active, even adventurous, romantic life with a doting, successful husband. The Office also gave us Mindy Kaling, whose own series The Mindy Project has been doing very well. Kaling is beautiful and intelligent but her character is not always sympathetic, which is what could be a factor in the show’s future, not her figure. There are also Glee’s Amber Riley, Parks and Recreation’s Retta, and Drop Dead Diva’s Brooke Elliott, just to name a few.
Unfortunately, most women actors who fit the description of “traditionally built” are still primarily relegated to supporting roles. Their characters tend to be played either for laughs or for sympathy; or they’re strong and sexy but they’re “the sassy Black/Latina/Asian friend”. Though Wilson, Kaling and Dunham all star in their own series that revolve around “real” women, it’s difficult not to wonder whether such would be the case if these talented women weren’t also the shows’ creators.
Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell are not the first to play a realistic couple, physique wise, but for women a character like Molly Flynn-Biggs is still rare. What other female characters with more real-world body shapes can you think of?
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