Posted by: Hil | October 28, 2009

Body Diversity in Media

Love Your Body Day was last week, and I have been musing about the way that bodies are depicted in media.  So often discussion about media and body image end up focusing on criticisms of the thin bodies that dominate runways and television, which has always made me uncomfortable.  There are some women who are very thin naturally, and talking about extreme thinness as though it is unfeminine or gross bothers me.  Furthermore, it sets up a false dichotomy between skinny actresses and “real women.”  All women are real women, regardless of their size.  Furthermore, I think it lets the media off the hook too easily.  How silly is it that every person over a size four in Hollywood is somehow supposed to be a poster girl for the amorphous category known as “real women” that seems to include everyone from a size six to a size 20?

To me, the important issue is promoting body diversity in media.  For the vast majority of women in this country, positive portrayals of bodies that look remotely like theirs are pretty hard to find.  Fat bodies are so frequently the subject of mockery on television, and women who fall in the gulf between sample sizes and plus sizes are rarely represented at all.  I am no pop culture expert, but I could only think of a few examples of non-skinny female characters on television who fit the following criteria:

  • Fully fleshed out character who is more than a foil, friend or comic relief.
  • Weight and body image are not defining aspects of the character
  • Not the subject of weight related jokes
  • Not a classic “fat girl” stereotype
  • Dressed attractively and not in clothes that make them look heavier than they are.

The first example that came to mind was Ellenor Frutt from the late 90’s legal drama The Practice, played by the fabulous Camryn Manheim.  The part, which was created for Manheim, isn’t perfect, but it is the most positive portrayal of a fat woman on television that I can think of.   Ellenor is a tough, no nonsense defense attorney: smart, passionate, and hard-working.  Manheim even managed to convince the producers that viewers would not quit watching the show if Ellenor and her thin, attractive boyfriend *gasp* kissed onscreen.  (Manheim won an Emmy for the role and famously yelled during her acceptance speech, “This is for all the fat girls!”)  I loved The Practice when it was originally on, budding lawyer that I was, and I loved Camryn Manheim.  She has such fire both onscreen and in her interviews, and her confidence in her skin was and is inspiring to me.

I had a really tough time thinking of characters in currently running shows who met the aforementioned criteria.  After much thought, I came up with the following.

1.   Dr. Callie Torres from Grey’s Anatomy, played by Sara Ramirez. 

The role was written specially for Ramirez after producers saw her Tony award winning turn in Spamalot.  Ramirez gained weight after being cast on the show, but was apparently never pressured to slim down.  In an interview a couple of years ago, she had this to say about her weight gain:

[N]obody from the show ever pressured me about it. Nobody ever said, “You’re getting a little heavy.” Instead they wrote scenes for me to dance around half-naked in my underwear! I went to Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer, and said, “Do you really want me to do this? Why me? I have so much cottage cheese here and there!” She just looked at me and said, “Work it.”

2.  Joan Holloway from Mad Men, played by Christina Hendricks. 

I’ve never seen an episode of Mad Men, but I love the 60’s fashions of the show, and Joan is my favorite from a fashion standpoint.  The show really celebrates her body type, treating her full hips like an asset rather than a figure flaw.  Joan was originally supposed to be a thin, mousy, guest role, but when after the producers saw Hendricks’s audition, the character was rewritten and changed into a lead.

Side note:  I don’t watch either of these shows, so I can’t vouch for everything about their portrayals, but I know that both characters are presented as highly attractive and appear to be fully fleshed out characters.  It’s probably not a coincidence that both are very tall, have voluptuous figures and, while “Hollywood Fat,” would probably present as thin according to “real life” definitions.  Nonetheless, I think that it’s a positive step to have women like Ramirez and Hendricks cast as the glamorous lead rather than the “fat girl”, which women of their size so frequently are.

The next two characters on my list probably don’t completely meet my criteria, but come close enough and are different enough from the norm that I thought them worth mentioning.

3.  Mellie/November/Madeline from Dollhouse, played by Miracle Laurie.

*Sigh.*  I could write a whole post about the treatment of body and weight in show creator Joss Whedon’s work, but I will restrain myself.  Suffice it to say, the man has good intentions and tries to be feminist and progressive, but frequently falls flat on his face.  He has a very bad habit of casting thin women as “heavy” characters who are invariably sweet and maternal.  Mellie, a recurring character, is yet another sweet, maternal girl who bakes lasagna and pines after her handsome neighbor for episodes before he notices her.  I am very tired of this pattern.  However, the character became more complicated when it became apparent that she is an active who was imprinted with a personality most likely to make Agent Ballard fall in love with her.  I haven’t watched the show recently, but its possible that the show’s creators have something more interesting in store for the character now that she is free from her contract.  I am also pleased that Mellie dresses attractively and that Whedon went to bat with the producers to convince them that Mellie was not too fat to have an ongoing romantic and sexual relationship with the leading man.   (Miracle Laurie, for the record, may be Hollywood fat, but she is by no means fat by real life standards.  Her resume lists her height as 5’9″ and her weight as 145, which gives her a BMI of 21.4, which is lower than mine.)  I think its interesting that Mellie is the only character on my list who was not specifically created for or extensively modified and expanded for the actress who played her.

4. Technical Analyst Penelope Garcia of Criminal Minds, played by Kirsten Vangsness  

Garcia, a spunky computer hacker turned FBI analyst, was originally supposed to be a minor recurring character, but the show’s writers overheard Vangsness and hunky co-star Shemar Moore flirting shamelessly and decided to incorporate some of their banter into the script.  Garcia took on an increasingly large role in the show and was made a series regular in the second season.  I struggled with how to characterize this character.  The character is, in some respects, highly stereotypical, serving as the show’s plucky, geeky comic relief.  While she flirts shamelessly with Shemar Moore’s character, one has to wonder whether this is allowed because it is so clear that their flirting is recreational and not goal directed–while the characters are close friends there is no real sexual tension between them.  Garcia’s boyfriend on the show is a fellow geeky analyst. 

So why is Garcia on my list?  Because she is, to me, one of the best parts of the show.  Vangsness injects real life and spark into the character, and the show’s writers have incorporated much of her humor and style into the character.  In a frequently dark show full of stoic people in suits, Garcia is always optimistic, confident, and unapologetically herself.  Garcia is a fat woman who is supremely confident herself and whose confidence is not portrayed as delusion–a rarity on television.  She’s someone who you want to root for and is never an object of pity or derision, and to me that makes her worth a mention. 

Can you guys think of any more examples?  Are you more likely to watch (or not watch) a show depending on the body types represented?

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Responses

  1. Great post! I agree with you that it is silly to call women who are in Hollywood today “unreal” because of how they look, but the image is skewed. The average body size of a woman in the U.S. today is 12-14…so to most women watching out there, being really thin may seem unreal. I agree, I think it’s silly to consider them “fake” but I can also see why many women feel that way…

    I couldn’t even name the characters you’ve listed…I remember when Rachel Ray’s weight was a lot of controversy on the FN. I can think of Roseanne…although that’s an old example, Oprah (periodically) and some other TV hosts.

    I know there’s a series about a girl who gets “stuck” in a fat girls body…Yeah, that’s really positive….

    Thanks for the post, I’ll try to think of more examples!

  2. Verbalriot–I absolutely agree that thin actresses present a completely nonrepresentative picture of what women look like. The image is fake–the women are not. My larger point was that “real women” don’t look like one thing–they come in all shapes and sizes and it would be great if we saw more of that diversity reflected in media.

  3. I love that you are pointing out the necessary aspect of body diversity. It is so important to focus on all types of bodies. It’s all about promoting a positive body image regardless of size. Great post!

  4. Hey Hil, Very interesting topic. I think you are right about diversity being key. I think the same applies to models for clothing store catalogs. Anyway, great examples you gave. I guess I don’t really specifically watch shows based on what the female characters look like, but I definitely notice the things you’ve pointed out.

  5. […] posted a few days ago about the incredible lack of body diversity on television.  I wanted to post a sort of appendix to that post cataloging one notable exception: food […]

  6. Thanks for this 🙂

  7. Thanks! Fantastic post. Would you mind if I linked to it on my LiveJournal?


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