I spend a lot of time thinking about fat figures in media. A lot. To the point where it’s almost impossible for me to see a film where a fat character is dressed down, degraded, or has their fatness played up exclusively for comic relief. I immediately associate with this character because they’re one of the few people that I can see in a broader scope with my body type– it’s not even a conscious decision. Every “slapstick” stunt ends up feeling personal, and me hating that fact doesn’t make it any less true.
I’ve talked some about my television role models vanishing (a trend that’s continued, unfortunately), so I thought I’d take some time to talk a little but about the more prominent role models in the fat community that aren’t vanishing. I’d like to talk a little about what they add to the community and how they detract from the community. And not just actors/actresses, but films as well. Media campaigns, maybe even organizations.
So here’s my first segment on it, and I’m going to talk a little bit about a character from one of my favorite shows on television right now: Mags Bennett from FX’s Justified.
In character summary, I’ll steal from the LA Times:
“Justified’s” Mags Bennett is a moonshine-swilling, pot-growing, Southern mama whose aw-shucks demeanor belies the menace of a rattlesnake. The mother of three sons of varying levels of ineptitude, she brings the hammer down on anyone who crosses her. Literally.
Played by the character actress Margo Martindale, Mags — a role that was originally meant for a man — is but one of many forceful women on the FX show.
But Mags is no black and white villain. It’s something the show does in general very well; lines are straddled and crossed. Mags is a woman who stands for what she believes in. A tree that refuses to bend, and the matriarch of the Bennett clan who holds a considerable amount of power.
She’s as charming as she is terrifying. When a company comes to town to purchase their land to get at Harlan County’s coal reserves, she’s not afraid to give them a piece of her mind in one of the most inspiring speeches in the whole series. I’m 99% sure that this is the scene that won the actress, Margo Martindale, her Emmy for the role in 2011.
All of the above — and more I couldn’t even begin to touch on — are things that make Mags an amazing character. She’s clearly a badass feminist role model. A role originally made for a man, blasted into tons of amazing glittery bits by the amazing Margo? I love it! But what makes her an amazing fat character?
She’s allowed to be all of the above things without her size being mentioned once.
She’s strong. Fiercely independent. She paves her own path and is an undeniable force throughout the show’s second season and brooks no bullshit from anyone, be they law enforcement or her own sons. And not a single joke is ever made about her size. No “big mama,” no poking fun at how mannish she must be for being the size she is. She’s just fantastic, powerful, and simultaneously fat.
Despite all her badassery and putting aside how much I adore this character, she does fall into two of the fat woman stereotypes: she’s a villain and she’s a mother. Typically when we see a fat person on a show they’re there for a prescribed role. Comedic relief is a popular one (Mimi on the Drew Carey show), and mothers are given a pass as well. Seeing a plump woman with a husband and kids doesn’t really make us bat an eye– after all, she’s already gotten married and had children, and odds are good at at some point during the show she’ll belabor the point that when she was younger she was so much thinner and prettier (since we all know fat people can’t be pretty, after all).
Another one you run into is the fat person as a villain. Ursula from the Little Mermaid, for example, was a powerful fat woman who was utterly terrifying. I remember running and hiding behind the couch as a kid whenever the scene of her becoming large and shooting at Eric’s ship came on. It was the way she was written, the way she was designed, and the fat wasn’t just a side-note either. Villains are usually created to highlight negative actions or thoughts that we’re taught to reject. Greed, selfishness, up to absolute sociopathy. We’re supposed to look at these characters, identify them as evil and then also identify their habits and lifestyles as evil too. Fat people are usually lazy, slovenly– or occasionally incredibly vain. They’re stupid, they eat too much, and they really don’t do anything useful.
I give Mags a pass on the villain trope largely because she isn’t any of the above. She isn’t selfish, heartless, greedy, lazy or sloppy. She’s a hard working southern woman who’s earned every inch she has and doesn’t plan on letting any of it go without a fight. She’s far from your typical villain which is refreshing to see in any character but especially in a fat character. I love it when shows break stereotypes and this one does it all over the place.
Oh, and for an additional bit of badassery? The real-life person Mags is based on died in 2005 and lived to be 101 up in those mountains making moonshine. How awesome is that?