When news broke that Friends was coming to Netflix, I was as giddy as any other red-blooded American. I may be an outrageous snob when it comes to film and television, but who's not basic when it comes to that show? Growing up, Friends was like the pop song I never got sick of. I got the haircut. I worshiped Ross and Rachel. And, I laughed my ass off at Fat Monica.
Fat Monica is one of the longest-running jokes in the series. She first appears in season two. The gang sits around watching an old home movie — like one does with their friends — and teenaged Monica appears, sandwich in hand. She's so large that she doesn't even fit in the frame. "Shoot, I got mayonnaise on you!" she says, hugging Rachel. The audience roars.
Fat Monica appears in just four episodes over the course of the 10-season series, but she is referenced in nearly half. Her sight gags have been meme-ified en masse — lip licking, eating ice cream by the tub, or talking with a full mouth — and many a-tumblr has been devoted to GIFs of Fat Monica's goofiest faces. Each of the four episodes ends with Courteney Cox dancing solo in a fat suit, holding a doughnut in her hand.
In the show's storyline, Monica loses weight in college after overhearing Chandler make fun of her size. Shamed into thinness, Fat Monica becomes just Monica — desirable and (finally) human. Monica is many things: funny, uptight, loving, competitive. Fat Monica is just fat... and always hungry.
I was grateful for Fat Monica as a kid. She was proof I could overcome my disgusting plumpness and be seen as lovable, too. True, I would always bear the shame of my inflated past, just like Monica did, but I was willing to live with that if it meant I'd be a person instead of a punchline.
Although The Monster and The Joke are the most frequent representations of fat people on screen, they're not the only ones. "We also see The Hypersexual, The Asexual, and The Sidekick," says Lindsey Averill, producer of Fattitude, a documentary about fat prejudice in mainstream society and media. "There are 10 to 15 archetypes for fat characters. But, they tend to be problematic, meaning outside the normal sphere of culture. Fat characters don't have average experiences or stories. They don't have their own stories at all. They're the subplot."
While I latched onto the The Joke as a kid, Lindsey saw herself as The Monster. "I loved Star Wars," she tells me. "But, there was no one in that trilogy with a body type like mine, except Jabba the Hutt. I was the villain."
Lindsey admits she didn't connect the dots until adulthood, which is when she began to see her body as scary. She was the child-eating witch in Hansel & Gretel; she was the mean and pushy Miss Piggy. This stayed with Lindsey throughout high school, even though she was barely chubby.
"I thought I was the Michelin Man," she said. "I thought I'd shake the pavement when my feet hit the ground. I have no doubt that feeling came from media images, because my parents certainly didn't teach me that."
Lindsey had a healthy home and social life, but her body was still a liability. "I always wanted to sing and dance, but I had to aspire to people who didn’t look like me. If I was ever going to be capable of any of those things, I was going to have to change."
One could argue the media landscape has changed in the last few years. "What about Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids?" everyone asks when I talk about heavy characters. But, what about her? Her roles reflect a smorgasbord of fat-lady tropes. She's loud, gruff, hypersexual, and intimidating. She's a supportive friend to the lead character. And, she can't have sex without a sandwich in the room.
Shows like My Mad Fat Diary and the landmark episode of Louie that featured Sarah Baker's kick-ass closing monologue about the realities of fat-girl life show there are a few bright spots in an otherwise bleak horizon. But, when I reached out to Baker for this piece, her representation respectfully replied that she won't speak about plus-size issues. Lindsey got the same response when she tried to get an interview for Fattitude.
It wasn't just Baker who turned her down. So did McCarthy and many other actresses she reached out to. Perhaps they don't want to speak ill of their industry, or maybe they think talking about being plus-sized women will simply pigeonhole them further. But, when has remaining silent ever stopped bigotry? We shouldn't pretend Melissa McCarthy having sex with a two-foot sub is progress or quiet down when people roll their eyes because we're afraid we'll be seen as difficult.
I get it. No one likes a difficult fatty. They like them jolly and dancing with doughnuts.