Welcome to Fatness In Film, a monthly column analysing examples of fat representation and body diversity on screen.
Too often on screen, plus size women are side characters in a thin protagonist’s story. They end up disregarded, two dimensional, and are often doused in diet culture messaging.
Thankfully – though at a glacial pace – that is starting to change. With the filmmakers and showrunners behind the camera becoming slowly but increasingly more diverse, so too are the stories they tell. As a result, the industry is finally starting to provide us with authentic, beautiful, complex, fat female characters to treasure.
Here’s just five of the most memorable:
Molly – Booksmart (2019)
Olivia Wilde’s debut feature chronicling the high school hijinks of BFFs Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) was an acclaimed but underseen gem from last year. The exquisitely authentic friendship between the two leads was what really made Booksmart shine – Amy’s first foray into lesbian sex was a key gay moment of 2019, and Feldstein’s Molly is a much loved, much needed example of positive plus size representation in modern teen movies.
The best thing about Molly? Not one second of the film is spent analysing, mocking or stigmatising her weight. Molly is super smart, super driven, flirts expertly with the hottest guy in school and looks absolutely iconic in *that* sequinned dress.
Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson – Orange is the New Black (2013 – 2019)
Being one of the most varied female casts to have ever been compiled on television, any number of the OITNB ensemble could be included on this list – Boo (Lea DeLaria), Cindy (Adrienne C Moore), or Daya (Dascha Polanco), for example – but Danielle Brooks’ consistently soulful and gut-wrenching performance as Taystee throughout all seven seasons of this landmark show is undoubtedly the best of the bunch.
Highly intelligent, a great dancer and singer, the life of every party and a deeply caring friend, Tasha Jefferson is the emotional core of the prison-set saga. She goes from a fun-loving but institutionalised inmate to being the leader of the epic season-long riot in OITNB’s fifth year – and ends up a heart-breaking example of the very worst parts of the American judicial system.
Viv Odusanya – Sex Education (2019 – Present)
Sex Education is gloriously candid, comforting and character-driven piece of television; one of the finest Netflix originals to date. It effortlessly depicts the relationships and sex lives of people across the spectrums of race, sexuality, and gender presentation. But, something distinctly lacking in the first season was a diversity of bodies – which is why it was so exciting to meet Viv (Chinenye Ezeudu) when it returned earlier this year.
Viv Odusanya is a socially awkward genius who strikes up a friendship with ladies’ man and top athlete Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) after becoming his tutor: she helps him with Shakespeare, he helps her to loosen her academic straitjacket a little, and pursue her crush. The joy in witnessing this bond develop between two characters we would never normally see as friends cannot be understated, and the flickers of their potential romance feel positively ground-breaking.
“Guys like you never see girls like me”; she says to Jackson, as they part ways on a bridge.
“Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind”, he quotes back to her, before saying “I do see you, by the way”. Swoon.
Susan Cooper – Spy (2015)
Melissa McCarthy is one of the most prolific plus size actresses working today, and despite some of her roles being far from progressive in terms of fat representation, Spy is a raucous, funny and fat positive delight.
She plays Susan Cooper, a talented CIA agent lacking in confidence who is thrust from her comfort zone when she’s sent out into the field on a mission. Of course, there are derogatory fat jokes at Susan’s expense – but the witty script means she’s always left with the last word, and what’s most satisfying is seeing McCarthy let loose in this lead role. Her body is never changed other than being made to look the part in a sensational array of evening gowns and trench coats, and the prejudice from those who underestimate her is proved wrong again and again.
Kat Hernandez – Euphoria (2019 – Present)
Sam Levinson’s HBO show Euphoria pushes all kinds of boundaries with its visuals, its depiction of mental health and more, and one of the standout characters in the teen line-up was Barbie Ferreira’s Kat Hernandez.
Kat starts the show as a virgin determined to be anything but, and goes on to find empowerment in embracing her sexuality, working as a cam girl to earn money, and then learning what it feels like to truly connect with someone. She’s the designated ‘fat friend’ in her girl group but isn’t side-lined because of it. In fact, for once, it’s her that ends up the happiest.
Whilst teen shows in particular seem to be nudging the needle towards body diversity and positive plus size representation, there’s still some way to go. Fat women of all ages deserve to feel seen and valued on screen, queer and gender nonconforming fat characters are still hard to come by, and there needs to be a wider range of male bodies in our media too.
There’s a fair few more plus size characters that could have featured on this list, but they’re just a drop in the ocean compared to the vast number of stories centred on straight-sized people that we see every day. Here’s hoping that in another decade’s time, instead of racking our brains to think of five fat heroines, we’re struggling to narrow it down to fifty.