“This is Us” Fails To Unpack The Tragic Fat Girl Trope At All And It’s Super Bumming Me Out
I’ll forgive you if you’ve somehow managed to remain unaware of This is Us, NBC’s high-expectation fall dramedy. I almost overlooked it myself, but TV shows with fat women in them have a way of finding me.
The series’ premise is that it follows the lives of four people born on the same day — seemingly distinct strangers, and it works very hard to obscure their connection to reveal it as a twist at the end of the pilot. But I’m not going to review the whole show here. I only want to focus on a piece of it, the piece that stirred my interest in the first place. See, This is Us has a fat woman in a leading role. Not a supporting role. A main character. One of the aforementioned birthday kids is Kate (Chrissy Metz), who is 36 years old, and fat.
The first time we meet Kate, she is staring into her fridge. Yes. Her fridge is peppered with post-it notes to herself, some identifying foods as “BAD,” some sharply reminding her not to eat her birthday cake until her party. Yes. This is what we get first: a fat woman and a fridge. Kate moves to the bathroom, where she strips down to her underwear to weigh herself. Yes. This is what we get next: a fat woman and a scale. Somehow, in the course of stepping on the scale, she falls and badly sprains her ankle. Yes. This is what we get third: a fat woman immobile on a bathroom floor with an injured lower extremity.
Does the above read like a harsh assessment? Read it again; all I’ve done is state the facts of our introduction to Kate. She is food- and weight-obsessed, struggling with low self-esteem (if not straight up self-loathing) and the show literally puts her injured on the floor within moments of meeting her.
Chrissy Metz’s performance is the only reason I didn’t turn the episode off immediately. If I’d just read the script, I probably would have chucked it across the room at some point. A lesser actress would not have been able to play these scenes with humanity and sympathy that somehow avoids veering into the pitiable; yes, I believe the script wants Kate to be pitiable. I think it wants Kate to be sad and desperate because it cannot imagine a fat woman who isn’t. Metz does far more than that, and she makes the difficult stereotypes bearable. I can’t speak personally to what it’s like to be a fat actress in an industry where fat roles are overwhelmingly negative, offensive, or simply punchlines, but I would imagine that a role such as this, even with all its flaws, is a tremendous opportunity. And in fairness to This is Us, the series has put a clearly fat woman in a leading dramatic (dramedic? It’s a “dramedy,” remember) role, and that is definitely something worth applauding. The fact that this role has also given Metz an opportunity to shine is likewise a net positive.
For these reasons and a few more, I’m not damning this series just yet. It’s a tough position to hold, though. There is a scene in which Kate, now pledged to lose weight at last, attends some kind of… diet group? Fat support club? I don’t even know. It’s very strange. The club leader talks to everyone about her weight loss and her subsequent commitment to help other people become “skinny,” like she has done. She is actually still fat, though. I can’t decide if this is supposed to be a cheap joke (LOL, she thinks she’s thin!), or a subtle attempt to point out that even a person who looks fat to you may have been much fatter once and lost a significant amount of weight. If it’s the latter, it’s far too understated.
Also at this meeting, a legitimately slender woman (credited as “not-really-fat rich girl”) bemoans that while her problems may differ from those of the fat people surrounding her, they also cannot understand what it’s like to be conventionally attractive and burdened with an “extra” 7 pounds. She receives glares. Again, I am unclear if this is an effort to acknowledge that the overt and explicit prejudice fat people face is materially different from the social pressure an average-sized woman faces to fit in? Or maybe it’s just making fun of an average-sized woman with body issues. Who can say.
Another fat woman tearfully explains that she wasn’t allowed to eat pizza as a kid, so now she “has to eat the whole thing,” and she’s thinking she should just get her stomach stapled and be done with it. This portion is played for absurdity, and it is absurd, but I can’t read whether we are meant to be laughing at the ridiculousness of pizzaphobia and weight obsession and “stomach stapling” or if we are meant to be laughing at a fat woman’s eating disorder.
The pizza woman and her stomach stapling comment are pretty openly mocked even in the episode. This happens courtesy of Toby, the irreverent funny fat guy (DRINK! Oh wait, we’re not playing that game yet) who’s interested in Kate. Toby is played by Chris Sullivan, who is also great and blissfully relaxed in what could have been a very one-dimensional role. (Notice a trend yet, in which there are a lot of talented fat actors in Hollywood and too few substantive roles for them to prove their brilliance in?)
I also can’t easily forgive that this meet cute is basically stealing the whole premise from Mike & Molly, literally the only other show on TV with a fat couple in leading roles in recent memory. It’s also weird because it seems to imply that the main place fat people hook up with potential dates is in weight loss/fat support groups, when in reality fat people meet people they want to date (or just bang) in bars, or on Tinder, or at Starbucks or at Planet Fitness or volunteering in an animal shelter or chilling in a therapist’s waiting room or skating at a fucking roller rink. Fat people also don’t only date other fat people, but even if they did, have you been outside lately? Fat people are literally everywhere.
Predictably, Kate and Toby go on a date, and it seems to work well. They’re both charming and have great chemistry. At Kate’s door, Toby manages to suggest she invite him in and make it not creepy, which is almost impossible. Kate then manages to be unsure and awkward about his obvious interest in her without coming across as rigid or simply ashamed, which is likewise really hard to pull off. Can I impress upon you again how fantastic these actors are? They may be working with characters buried under a lot of assumptions, but they’re doing a crazy good job at it anyway.
So. This is Us lays down this stack of stereotypes, but then moves on to straight-up bashing other trope-laden television. Kevin is Kate’s hot fit self-assured brother in a heavy-handed effort at ironic contrast. Kevin’s a successful actor in a stupid sitcom who has a surreal flip out on set — with Alan Thicke present, playing himself — in which he rips the head off a baby doll and passionately condemns the studio audience for watching and applauding artless crap on television. It’s a huge self-indulgence on the part of This is Us, telling its own audience how superior they are for watching this instead of, I don’t know, The Big Bang Theory? But this sneering at sitcoms is also pretty bizarre considering so much of the Kate storyline is ripped from Melissa McCarthy’s back like a polyester floral tunic. Later, another character even overtly characterizes his actions as being “like a bad sitcom.”
Rather than mock its own plot conveniences with winks and nods, This is Us could instead choose to do stories that are actually different and which depart from the familiar tropes and stereotypes that we already know so well. This self-awareness (or perhaps more precisely, self-consciousness) could be refreshing, if only it extended to Kate’s storyline.
The trouble is, Kate’s story in the pilot feels contrived and shallow and extraordinarily predictable. It is what a (presumably) not-fat writer perceives to be a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of what it is like to be a fat person filled with self-loathing; it feels like This is Us wants us to see how sad Fat Kate is, see her struggle with male attention, see her fight to be rid of the weight she wears like uncomfortable ballast. I trust that the people making this show are doing so with impeccable intentions. I think it’s very clear that Kate is meant to be likeable and sympathetic. I just wish her main function so far wasn’t to make us feel sorry for her.
My problem with This is Us as it has unfolded so far is, like the first episode itself, a bit convoluted. I’m not suggesting this particular story is not worth telling; Kate’s issues with her body and her self-esteem will be very familiar and relatable to a great many unhappy fat women. Still, Kate’s tragic-fatty trope continues to be the main stereotype we see, and it feeds and reinforces a lot of negative cultural assumptions about life as a fat woman. Were portrayals more varied, it wouldn’t be an issue. But fat women on television who aren’t mostly caricatures of denial and shame are still so rare, and even when they exist they tend to be relegated to non-leading roles.
We already know what it looks like when a fat woman hates her body and battles to lose weight; we have seen that story a thousand times, in film and television and books, scripted and “reality,” over and over again. We’re ready for something different. Aren’t we? We can handle something new. We don’t need Kate and Toby to bond over their shared knowledge of how many calories are in everything. Let them bond over rugby or showtunes or their secret fondness for hate-reading parenting blogs. Anything other than calories. It’s not funny; it’s just boring. It’s just predictable. It’s just a big sign reminding us: they’re fat! They’re different! They’re not like you. But real fat people — when they’re not confronting very real and damaging prejudice from the outside world and many of the people in it — are actually into all the same stuff not-fat people are. I swear. It’s not all armfuls of “junk food” and moralizing fridge Post-Its and Weight Watchers math all day long.
I’m not giving up on This is Us just yet. I will keep watching. There are lots of episodes to come that may surprise me. I hope they do. The fact remains that this series has done what no other major network show is doing right now. I just wish the series’ creators would look as critically at their own tropes and shallow stereotypes as they have at the sitcom tropes they so eagerly skewer in the pilot. There’s so much possibility here. Let’s not squander it on comfortable stereotypes. Audiences, even big network audiences, are ready to be challenged. All that remains is for someone to challenge them.