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When Will Fat Black Actresses Get the Chance to Play Serious Leading Roles?

Tabby Kibugi

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A week ago, I finally caught up with Netflix’s The Starling, an American drama film featuring one of my favorite actresses, Melissa McCarthy. Watching her take the lead role as Lilly, a wife grieving over the loss of her child, was a novel experience. Over the years, McCarthy has been typecast as the stereotypical funny fat girl (read Bridesmaids, Spy and Mike and Molly). Starting with 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, however, McCarthy has started to move away from the funny side character to more serious lead roles. And she’s not the only one — rather, she’s part of a growing trend of fat white actresses enjoying more serious roles while their Black counterparts are left behind.

Fat white actresses are slowly starting to get more lead roles in an industry that is known to mostly cater to slim, blonde actresses, and that has a bad reputation of misrepresenting fat characters and reducing them to stereotypes like lazy and loud. Their weight is, at best, a punch line and, at worst, a constant source of burden. Popular fat characters in recent TV shows include Katy Mixon’s self-loathing titular role of Katie in American Housewife, in which her character lives in fear of becoming the second fattest woman in town, or Chrissy Metz’s Kate on This Is Us, whose storyline is dominated by her weight loss attempts for several seasons.

While both of these characters have been rightfully criticized over the years, Metz has recently landed a leading role in drama Stay Awake, a drama about a woman struggling with opioid addiction, and a role that will focus on her acting chops rather than her physical size. This is part of a growing Hollywood trend in which fat women are finally being considered for roles beyond those that focus on their size — or at least, in which fat white women are starting to enjoy those opportunities.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Hollywood’s treatment of fat Black actresses. At the mercy of three separate structures of oppression — race, gender and size — fat Black actresses are still pigeonholed as support characters who fall under certain tropes. Take Natasha Rothwell, popular for her role as Kelly in HBO’s Insecure, and her recent role as Belinda in HBO’s The White Lotus. Rothwell had a stellar performance as the spa manager of the Hawaiian resort, but her role is all about her ability to cater to white people and smile through their microaggressions.

“It was about understanding the quiet storm that Black women carry inside us when we have to be in those situations where privilege and your paycheck are at risk if you were to act out of pocket,” Rothwell told Insider earlier this year about the role — in other words, it wasn’t really about Rothwell’s character at all.

Then there’s the mega-talented Gabourey Sidibe, made famous for her starring role in 2009 film Precious. While she’s forging ahead with a directorial debut in 2021, thriller Pale Horse, she’s struggled to find roles that focus on her dramatic talents and don’t use her fat Black body as a prop.

“The Hollywood seas didn’t part for me in the same way that it might have for maybe Anna Kendrick who was nominated for the first time that year [2009] as well, who then went on to star in films and television and the whole thing,” Sidibe told Collider in 2020. “The seas did not part that same way for me and I assume that there are a few factors that made that so.”

Hollywood isn’t just giving fat Black actresses fewer lead roles than their white counterparts — for lead roles that would have been suited for them, the opportunity is taken up by an actress in a fat suit. Last November, as I watched the trailer for Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, I was shocked to see the lead role assigned to Viola Davis in a fat suit, a role which would have better suited an actress like Nicole Byer or Gabourey Sidibe. While Davis put on a stunning performance, her misplaced fat suit was a consistent reminder of how insidious fatphobia in Hollywood is, and the industry’s harmful idea that only actresses who aren’t fat have the appropriate dramatic range.

In coming years, fat Black actresses will hopefully be given more roles that aren’t enveloped in white supremacy or other stereotypes, enjoying the same opportunities fat white actresses are slowly starting to see come their way. In the push for fat actresses to get their due, fat Black actresses need even more support to ensure they’ll be given the same chances.

Before you go, click here to see “fat” characters in movies & TV shows who were never actually fat.
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