The strong female lead has taken many forms over the years. Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Charlize Theron and her buzzcut in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Jennifer Lawrence sharpshooter Katniss Everdeen all stand apart in a crowd. In spite of their wildly different aesthetics, however, they’re bound by a common trait: none of them are above a size 10.
Even outside the blockbuster arena, you would seldom find a larger heroine who is accepted for her size from the get go. Whether it’s Melissa McCarthy in most of her post-Bridesmaids career, or the deeply messed up framing of Gwyneth Paltrow in Shallow Hal, if a fat woman isn’t a punchline she’s pitied. In her recent paper on fat females in cinema, academic Amy Pistone objects that throughout recent history, what few plus-sized characters actually did make it onto the big screen were riddled with stereotypes or written in as narrative devices.
“Fat actresses are hired to belch and trip, dance and eat, shock and offend. They are never given the chance to be human, much less mirror the real depths of the human soul,” she writes, citing McCarthy’s outsider-brand of comedy as one of the problems with how fat people are viewed on screen and by society as a result. With 73 per cent of the US population currently labelled “overweight”, these negative connotations cause all manner of harm not just in how fat people are treated by the public but in how they feel about themselves.
“Our view of stories and who they belong to is still so myopic,” culture expert Jess Weiner told Teen Vogue. “We haven’t made bigger bodies and fatter bodies unapologetically visible without it being a defect that they have to overcome.”
Recently, thankfully, the representation of regular-sized women has slowly begun to shift on screen, and with it the definition of what a strong female lead can look like. Some recent examples have taken the label literally – hello Natalie Portman and her bulging biceps on the set of Thor: Love and Thunder. Before her very public firing from The Mandolorian, Gina Carano was also pushing body positivity into the mainstream by maintaining her broad MMA fighter’s physique, which made her controversial right-wing outbursts all the more disappointing.
As Francis Lee’s new film Ammonite proves however, women don’t need to be ripped to be strong. For the role of revered palaeontologist Mary Anning, Kate Winslet maintained a full belly and thick, labourer’s legs that are framed as both enduring and beautiful. Viola Davis adored lauded singer and entrepreneur Ma Rainey’s voluptuous figure for her Oscar-nominated performance. “Everybody wants to be pretty, so they’ll say, ‘Ooh, I don’t want to be 300 pounds, can we just ignore that?’” she told Vanity Fair. “In my opinion—no. If they say she’s 300 pounds, you have to be 300 pounds, or else you’re not honouring her.”
Even in comedy, the punchline is changing. When the end credits rolled for Olivia Wilde’s cheerful debut Booksmart, I sighed with relief as Beanie Feldstein – the largest in her group of peers – is teased for being a relentless goodie goodie and not once for her size.
Real progress can’t be made in representation without interrogating why these specific perceptions of plus-sized women exist in the first place, beyond the fact that the film and TV industries rest on deeply misogynistic foundations. A show doing this better than any is Shrill, a three-season adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir that stars Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant. In the series, Bryant’s character Annie challenges the stigmas and microaggressions that plus-sized women face from the pilot, in which Annie gets an abortion because the morning after pill is less effective on overweight women. Yet the show also takes care to chart her journey to acceptance. For all the weighted arguments that it makes against society’s treatment of fat people, one of Shrill’s most memorable scenes unfolds at a plus-sized pool party, where a sea of gorgeous, empowering women give Annie the boost she needs to show her skin unapologetically.
As with any industry built on systematic sexism, the changes in how we see strong female leads is slow, given how hard it is to get one on screen in the first place. Yet whereas we’re unlikely to see a plus-sized female Marvel or DC superhero any time soon, or a Disney princess with realistic proportions, storytellers are successfully proving that leading women don’t need to conform to industry body standards. That you don’t have to be a Ripley or a Khaleesi in order to own the spotlight. If anything, by rejecting these standards, they appear even more powerful.