The Academy Awards are right around the corner, bringing all of Hollywood’s elite under one roof. Bare shoulders and lots of highlight will dominate the red carpet amongst the female actors, nearly all of whom will have the same thing in common: They are not a part of the 67% of American women who wear above a size 14. This is a hard fact to miss since body diversity and positivity are becoming synonymous with female empowerment. With Hollywood being forced to confront its own sexism in the form of opportunities available to women, the wage gap, and most recently, addressing the predatory culture of silence around sexual assault, it’s important to keep looking at just how deep biases against women run. Starlet and actress are words that are almost synonymous with thin, and this is reflected in who we see in films and even more so in who wins Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. They are mainly thin and white, with a few exceptions, and it paints an interesting picture about how the industry views women as a whole.
In nearly a century of honoring movie stars, only a handful of plus-sized actresses have ever won an Oscar. Hollywood is built on a fantasy that pretty much erases fat people. It’s a reality that echoes over and over again. From record executive and producer Quincy Jones bragging about the technology to keep old and fat women away, to Harvey Weinstein using “fuckability” as the litmus test for whether or not women got roles in his films — the fatphobia in entertainment speaks volumes. But what speaks even louder, especially when it comes to the Academy Awards — the institution that gives Hollywood players a stamp of approval — is how fat people are actually represented. I’m not sure it makes things any better.
As I mentioned, only a handful of plus-sized women have won Oscars — four to be exact. One of them is Kathy Bates, who won Best Actress in 1991 for portraying a crazed literature fan in Misery. In the movie, she kidnaps and tortures James Caan's character for weeks in her home. As for the other three, all of them are Black women. In what may be the only sector of Hollywood where they have an advantage, women of color appear to be the only exceptions to the beauty rules of the industry. Hattie McDaniel, the first Black woman to ever win an Oscar, won Best Supporting Actress in 1939 for her portrayal of Mammy, a maid, in Gone with the Wind. Playing a poor and abusive mother in Lee Daniel’s Precious secured Mo’Nique the same award in 2009. And two years later, Octavia Spencer was also a winner in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role in The Help. Like McDaniel, Spencer also played a maid in the segregated South.
That plus-sized women of color have been given recognition by the Academy is only a win for body diversity in a non-intersectional vacuum. Mary Lee Johnston (Mo’Nique) was the villain in Precious. She participated in the physical and sexual abuse of her daughter. And despite being a complex character, she fed into stereotypes about poor women of color as threats to American morality. Spencer was a hero in The Help because she helped a white character achieve her dreams of becoming a journalist while risking her own safety to expose racism. McDaniel’s character in Gone with the Wind, Mammy, is now a descriptor for one of the more harmful representations of Black women in Hollywood.
Fat Black women are only allowed space in Hollywood, and by extension the Oscars, as they often find themselves as the butt of the joke, the unsung hero, or the mule to more important white characters. They reinforce the narrative that fat women are less desirable, less important, and less worthy of our respect and admiration. Too often they exist in films to make us feel things like anger, disgust, or at best, hope for another character altogether.
This year isn’t looking much better. Octavia Spencer is nominated once again for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Shape of Water. She played Zelda, a friend and supporter of the main character, a white woman who gets to fuck a fish. We still have a long way to go.