For years, one of the worst things a female character could be was fat. The fat woman was often portrayed as a cautionary tale, the antithesis to the popular skinny girl. And for her failure to starve herself, she was mercilessly mocked by her peers. But the Funny Fat Woman turns it around. She owns her size—and those laughs. Compared to a history of characters who were made to feel nothing but shame, this might seem like a tentative step forward for body positivity. Yet the trope also reinforces the old idea that women characters should be sexy or amusing—and often we’re still laughing at her, not with her. Here’s our Take on the many complexities of the Funny Fat Woman, what makes her different from the Funny Fat Man, and whether we can ever get over her size.
For years, one of the worst things a female character could be was fat. To be overweight was seen as a fate worse than death. The fat woman was often portrayed as a cautionary tale, the antithesis to the popular skinny girl. And for her failure to starve herself, she was mercilessly mocked by her peers.
But the Funny Fat Woman turns it around. She owns her size and those laughs. As a character, she can be identified by a few characteristics. She is willing to be the punchline and is usually confident about herself and her appearance. She takes bold risks, and she doesn’t worry about other people. And she’s quirky and upbeat… except when she’s being a sarcastic smart-ass.
Zizes: “I know I’m the hottest bitch in this joint.” – Glee, 2x13
Above all, the Funny Fat Woman is, well, funny. Compared to a history of characters who were made to feel nothing but shame, this might seem like a tentative step forward for body positivity. But the trope also reinforces the old idea that women characters should be sexy or amusing — and often we’re still laughing at her, not with her. Here’s our Take on the many complexities of the Funny Fat Woman, what makes her different from the Funny Fat Man, and whether we can ever get over her size.
Who is the Funny Fat Woman?
The Funny Fat Woman is, first and foremost, an object of ridicule. Beyond the jokes, the bullying, or the outright mean comments her character might endure, movies and TV often treat her body itself as a joke. She’s often depicted as a glutton, seen shoveling food into her mouth with no self-control. She’s typically reduced to a supporting character, given goofy subplots that see her providing comic relief for the real storylines involving her more conventionally attractive, emotionally intelligent female friends.
Rita: “Jesus, Megan.”
Megan: “I wanna apologize. I’m not even confident on which end that came out of.” – Bridesmaids (2011)
The Funny Fat Woman is often made to seem socially awkward and even downright annoying, desperate to be everyone’s friend. If she’s slightly older, she’s often typecast as matronly and overbearing, domineering, and robbed of all her femininity. This is especially true among women of color, who are often cast as sassy, plus-sized Black mothers and grandmothers who dish out insults and unsolicited advice. Their lack of sex appeal — often combined with a hyperactive libido — becomes a source of comic disgust, as seen in the common trope of Black men donning fat suits to play them.
Eddie Murphy, as Grandma Ida Mae Jensen: “Show me a lovely evening. Then I would take him home and give him the hot, lovely relations.” – The Nutty Professor (1996)
The Funny Fat Woman is thus presented as a contrast to the feminine ideal: unsexy, coarse, and with a dark and abrasive sense of humor. Sometimes we’re shown how her behavior actually masks a deep insecurity and even anger about her weight. For example, the title character in Netflix’s Sierra Burgess is a Loser is funny, but she can also be cruel, engaging in cyberbullying and catfishing, and manipulating her friends and love interest to her own selfish ends. Still, we’re meant to see how she justifies her actions because of her body image issues, as well as the understanding that, if she didn’t act out this way, she’d otherwise be invisible.
Jamey: “Honestly, had we not met the way that we had, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed you.” – Sierra Burgess is a Loser (2018)
But there’s another kind of Funny Fat Woman, one whose boisterous personality is born not of just acceptance of her size, but ownership. With her eponymous ‘90s sitcom, Roseanne Barr came to epitomize this kind of plus-sized woman — cool, cocky, and uncompromising. Roseanne viewed being overweight not only as no big deal but as a rejection of being inauthentic and uptight.
Reporter: “Doesn’t a fatty diet… won’t it make you fat?”
Roseanne: “So?” – Roseanne, 8x21
In more recent years, we’ve seen her descendants in characters played by Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson, who have further redefined the Funny Fat Woman as someone who doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her. In movies like Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, and The Heat, McCarthy portrays women who are not only comfortable with themselves but who can’t understand anyone who doesn’t live as freely as they do. They’re also unapologetically sexual. Similarly, Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy in the Pitch Perfect movies has an abundance of self-esteem, wielding her size as her superpower.
Both McCarthy and Wilson have been outspoken about using their roles to promote body positivity — although Wilson, in particular, has also faced criticism for failing to acknowledge the path laid by women of color. After Wilson called herself the first plus-sized woman to lead a romantic comedy, some were quick to point out that others like Queen Latifah and Mo’nique had gotten there first. In fact, the Black woman has largely been a pioneer for the Funny Fat Woman: Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Florida on Maude, Theresa Merritt on That’s My Mama, and Nell Carter in Gimme a Break, to name a few. Her early depictions were largely rooted in the Mammy stereotype, with plus-sized women playing housekeepers who dispensed funny, no-nonsense wisdom to their white employers. But beginning with movies like Mo’nique’s Phat Girlz and Queen Latifah’s Last Holiday and Just Wright, they assumed agency over both their stories and themselves.
Mammy: “Now, don’t eat too fast. Ain’t no need a having for it come right back up again!” – Gone with the Wind (1939)
More modern plus-size Black women, like Parks and Recreation’s Donna, are strong, confident individuals, who know they’re desirable — and their comedy comes from how much quiet power they exert over others. Insecure’s Kelli exudes a similar self-assurance. Kelli is still a sharp wit, and she owns her sexuality in a way we’ve become accustomed to with the funny plus-sized woman. But more importantly, she’s a genuine person with complex feelings, who’s not just there to make us laugh.
Kelli: “I’m not trying to be selfish, but I’m losing my best friend to a goddamn baby.” – Insecure, 3x06
The Funny Fat Woman Vs. The Funny Fat Guy
Long before the Funny Fat Woman, there was the Funny Fat Guy: the jolly, good-natured fat man who’s been making audiences laugh since Shakespeare’s Falstaff. The Funny Fat Guy was a lynchpin of early onscreen comedy: Silent film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle became one of Hollywood’s first and most famous stars, raking in unheard-of millions to play bumbling oafs. The duo Laurel and Hardy mined most of its comedy from juxtaposing the pompous, portly Hardy against the skinny, guileless Laurel. And Jackie Gleason became one of TV’s earliest stars as The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden, whose weight is a constant source of jokes.
Falstaff: “Do I not dwindle? [everyone laughs] My skin hangs about me like an old lady’s loose gown!” – Henry V (1989)
The Funny Fat Guy has long been the star of the show, from John Belushi to John Candy, to Chris Farley — and his weight has always been an essential part of the act. In fact, being a fat man is often seen as being inherently funny. On the surface, these Funny Fat Guys would seem to have a lot in common with the Funny Fat Woman: they’re portrayed as socially awkward, bullied with mean comments, and portrayed as gluttonous and even disgusting.
But the Funny Fat Guy and the Funny Fat Gal are not on equal footing, and it’s not just in terms of which one gets to be the lead. For starters, women face a double standard as to what even constitutes “fat.” The term “Hollywood fat” has been used to describe actors who are perfectly healthy, yet are deemed overweight by the size zero standards of celebrity. And of course, this most often applies to women. The notion has also been propagated in movies like the Bridget Jones trilogy, where Renee Zellweger’s Bridget obsesses over her “ideal weight,” convinced she’ll die, in her words, “fat and alone.” As Zellweger herself has said, “Bridget is a perfectly normal weight and I’ve never understood why it matters so much. No male actor would get such scrutiny.”
Mindy: “I am not overweight. I fluctuate between chubby and curvy.” – The Mindy Project, 1x17
Indeed, men don’t have to worry about that standard. There’s far more latitude for what constitutes a truly “fat” man, and their weight is far from a hindrance to their happiness. The Funny Fat Man is considered a viable romantic lead, no matter how out-of-shape he might be, and he’s regularly paired with beautiful love interests who don’t mind — or even seem to notice — his size. On TV, the trope of the fat guy with the beautiful, skinny wife is so common, sites have devoted entire lists to the phenomenon. In these pairings, the men are implied to be sweet and affectionate, smart and good providers, or otherwise boasting the kind of attractive personality women can’t help but be drawn to.
Gayle Gergich: [to Jerry] “You are still the most handsome man in the world to me.”
Leslie: [laughing uncomfortably] It doesn’t make any sense.” – Parks & Rec, 5x20
This is the stark opposite of the Funny Fat Woman, who’s almost wholly desexualized and regarded as an object of disgust and pity. The fat woman’s sexual desire is usually played for laughs. And when men are attracted to fat women, it’s fetishized, or regarded as a sign of a character’s generally low standards. Meanwhile, the plus-sized woman is saddled with partners who are less than ideal, someone they’re forced to settle for. Hulu’s Shrill presents a generally body-positive spin on the Funny Fat Woman, casting Aidy Bryant as someone who learns to embrace her size and disregard anyone who doesn’t. Yet for most of the series, she’s stuck with Ryan, an embarrassing man-child who thinks only of himself. As Ali Drucker speculates in The Cut, Annie sticks with her “bare-minimum boyfriend” in part, due to the “fraught ways society has leveled the self-esteem and romantic aspirations of plus-size women.”
Annie: “Maybe if I was just sweet enough and nice enough, and easy-going enough with any guy, that would be enough for someone.”
Fran: “Honey, you’re being so mean to yourself.” – Shrill, 1x01
The Funny Fat Man is seen as more than just his weight. The Funny Fat Woman is defined by it.
Funny Fat Woman Reevaluated
As the very existence of Shrill suggests, we’ve become slightly more mindful of body positivity, creating movies and TV that center overweight characters without making them the butt of the joke. We’ve even seen actors like Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson moving away from the Funny Fat Woman roles that made them famous, toward more dramatic work that shows their full range. There are arguably more overweight characters in prominent parts than ever, though, it’s still only a smart percentage of overall roles. According to a study of the top 100 films of 2016, a mere two women larger than a size 14 were cast in a leading or co-leading role, while there were only three to be found among the leads of the top 50 TV shows. Meanwhile, even a marginal increase in representation doesn’t necessarily mean that the fat woman’s story will be treated with any greater empathy or diversity. The lives of even those more body-positive characters still tend to revolve around their weight. And whether or not it’s played for laughs, the plus-sized woman’s weight continues to define the way others perceive her, and how she perceives herself.
Plum: “People like pretty things.”
Julia: “You’re not a thing.” – Dietland, 1x01
In shows like This Is Us or films like Brittany Runs a Marathon, the character’s weight-loss journey often is her story arc. On-screen, overweight women’s relationships are dominated by conversations about their size. And more often than not, their friends and family still end up implicitly shaming them for it. Even when she is supported and reassured that she’s perfect just the way she is, the plus-sized character herself will be overcome with self-doubt, seeing herself as undesirable and unworthy of love.
Rae: “You’re an 11. And I’m a 4.”
Finn: “I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.”
Rae: “You should be going out with people like Stacy. Not someone like me.” – My Mad Fat Diary, 2x02
Women continue to face disproportionate scrutiny of their appearance in the real world, leading to internalized body image and self-esteem issues. So, it’s understandable that movies and shows would attempt to reflect this with stories focusing on a character’s own weight struggles. But as Evette Dionne writes in YES! Magazine, “Fat-acceptance activists also want a world where people of size are on screen in narratives that don’t center on their weight.”
Reassuringly, we have seen some examples of this. Booksmart’s Molly doesn’t look like the usual rail-thin teen we’re used to — and refreshingly, the film doesn’t comment on it at all. As actress Beanie Feldstein told The Independent, she’s actively resisted the idea of women being defined by their weight, saying, “...As I got older, I just refused to accept it. And so I want to be a part of art that refuses to accept it as well.” And while the characters in Shrill and Dietland do make their weight part of their story, they’re also more concerned with changing their worldview rather than themselves. Shrill‘s Annie doesn’t just learn to accept her body, but to celebrate it, and to not let other people’s opinions of it impede her from getting what she truly wants out of life.
Molly: “Who allowed you to be this beautiful?”
Amy: “Who allowed you to be this beautiful?”
Molly: “Who allowed you to take my breath away?” – Booksmart (2019)
The Funny Fat Woman has evolved from being an awkward sidekick into a confident lead. Just as she’s become more than just her weight, she’s also become something more than just funny. She’s a complex human being who can laugh, cry, go wild, or get angry, just like the rest of us. And even when she is played for laughs, more and more she’s in on the joke: After all, Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson aren’t just starring in these films; they’re often producing and writing them, too.
That said, should we still be laughing at fat jokes at all? There is an inherent shame to the fat joke that will never cease to be problematic, no matter how willing the participant. At the same time, as Refinery29’s Sadaf Ahsan writes, “Sometimes when I’m watching McCarthy and Wilson, I get the feeling that they’re making fun of themselves so others can’t.” There’s an argument to be made that the Funny Fat Woman is a form of empowerment in a society that continually marginalizes her — a way of reclaiming the agency and attention she would otherwise be denied. Further denying her the right to poke fun at herself would only be telling her what she can and can’t do with her body. And that would be no joke.
Aubrey: “You call yourself ‘Fat Amy?’”
Fat Amy: “Yeah, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” – Pitch Perfect (2012)