When was the last time you saw a woman who was fat* and made no attempt to appear to be thin shown as highly attractive - praised for her looks frequently and without significant remarks to the contrary - on television?
No, Ugly Betty does not count (yet). While she is not shown exclusively as a tragic fattie, her looks are usually the butt of the joke. And while Roseanne was not vilified or seen as non-sexual, her looks were more of an aside than a point of praise.
Joan on Mad Men, played by Christina Hendricks, the only lead female character on television - now or in recent memory** - popularly understood to be both fat and attractive in the context of the show and in media coverage. Joan's body, with its large hips, ass, and breasts, is subject to frequent commentary on the show:
It's also a hallmark of media coverage of the show: an interview with Hendricks is titled "Dangerous Curves" and is framed by discussion of body at the start and end of the article. In her Esquire shoot (above), her breasts are positioned as the focus of attention - three out of five pictures in the set are of the boobs up. Her thighs and stomach are covered, in stark contrast to shoots (what is with that sort of violent word, anyway?) with thinner women, who are usually placed in a bikini at the most.
Now, none of this strictly on its own is a terrible awful no good thing. Mad Men is an awesome show that gives a great deal of consideration to women's issues, and Joan is an amazing character. She is sexual, confident, agent, and beautiful; Matthew Weiner deserves to be commended for going outside the typical narrative and positioning a fat woman as highly sexually attractive and beautiful.
The show also deserves kudos in its construction of Joan for the complete lack of othering within the world of Mad Men. Joan's body is a tremendous asset that fits into the standard of beauty without a need to make her some "special exception", assegregation. There's no fanfare or self-congratulation - just the fact that Joan is sexy. As a woman with big big hips that I try to accentuate rather than hide (as others have suggested I do), I am empowered by Joan's ownership of her hips and makes sure people see and love them.
But this starkly reveals the absolute and complete dearth of fat women who are popularly seen as highly attractive. As Sady says:
I am also on the record as someone who does not get the crazy fetishization of Joan and/or Christina Hendricks. In fact, I am annoyed by it, mostly because the public discussion around Joan tends to take one of three forms: (1) OMG BOOBIES, (2) wow, she is just super fat and I must be really open-minded for liking her OMG BOOBIES, or (3) see? Women could get ahead in the 1960s! By being sexy! In related news, BOOBIES, OMG.
The fact that there aren't a lot of lovely fat ladies in the media isn't a news flash to most of you folks. Fat women are erased and constructed as unattractive, oh noez! Clearly it's good that Joan is constructed as both fat and beautiful, even when it's done with a lot of fanfare and self-congratulation.
But how is her fatness constructed? Yeah, Joan is fat. And beautiful. And treated as such. But in what context does she take up the space she takes up?
Really, really restrictive and constricting clothes. Girdles that shapes her fat in a certain way. Bras that makes sure that her boobs are up and out. Hose that ensures that her ass and hips are without bumps or rolls. Heels that make her wiggle a specific way. Furthermore, the discomfort of these clothes are discussed ad nauseum in coverage of women on the show. While this is certainly true, it's just another way in which the one beautiful fat woman in America is placed out of reach of young fat women who live today.
Fat women who are not so heavily tucked and tied and polished are not so highly praised in the Mad Men. [Spoiler alert] When Peggy got pregnant and thus gained weight, she was immediately desexed and derided for gaining weight in the wrong places and not presenting her body in the right way (a constant battle for that character).
This isn't something I fault the show for - as with The Sopranos, it's an ugly reflection of a truth. This has more to do with the valuation of Joan in popular culture and complete erasure of fat attractive women who are otherwise outfitted.
The only fat lead character on a show who is understood to be highly attractive in media conversation is othered and very very carefully constructed. The era that the show takes place in others the character of Joan. Though her looks are praised, they are constructed as appropriate and "true to the times". It relegates beautiful fat women to the past, to another age, and banishes them from the modern era: an era that devalued women immensely.
The advent of Joan makes tiny inroads to the valuation of fat women, but they are indeed tiny. Yes, fat women are beautiful and confident: but only in a certain era, in specific attire, when they are otherwise disempowered and degraded, when they are other.
Further reading: Mad Men
*Fat, for the purposes of this entry, means a woman who does not fit into the popular bodily ideal. Hendricks and America Ferrera (see below) both benefit significantly from thin privilege, but do experience size discrimination.
**Excluding the occasional reality show - ANTM etc. Also, I could be wrong here - there may be other fat women constructed as beautiful in a lead role on television. But they haven't made a significant impact on pop culture.