Across literature and in television/film, the rom-com world has a bevy of tried and true cliches that fans come to be familiar with over the years. Enemies to lovers working towards a common goal. Childhood friends realising that they’re actually soulmates. An ambitious career-driven city girl finding happiness in a small town with a single father. Fake relationships that slowly turn into the real thing. We know these formulas well, and though they’re not always executed perfectly, we love them all the same. But one less commonly occurring Romancelandia trope is that of the fat female love interest, specifically of the fat Black woman looking for love. Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique were mavericks of that particular kind of representation with gems like Just Wright and Phat Girlz, but over the years, big girls have once again been relegated to the sidelines as comic relief.
Just when we were getting tired of the lack of body diversity and inclusion within the rom-com space, actress and comedian Michelle Buteau is bringing the big girls back to center stage with Survival of the Thickest, a Netflix series loosely adapted from her eponymous book of personal essays. Equal parts sexy, inspirational, and downright hilarious, Survival of the Thickest is exactly what the rom-com genre needs right now: a reminder that fat Black women exist and are thriving.
Buteau stars as Mavis Beaumont, a thirty-something New Yorker who’s living a charmed life; she’s got a great job as an assistant stylist, and she gets to work with the love of her life almost every single day on the set of high profile fashion shoots. Mavis is living the dream, but it quickly becomes a nightmare when she finds her long-term boyfriend and creative partner in bed with another woman. Devastated by the personal and professional betrayal — who wants to work with their cheating ex? — our protagonist leaves the glamorous Harlem high-rise they once shared for a fresh start in a place she never expected to land: a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Prospect Heights with a roommate she met through a sketchy website. (Been there, girl.)
But starting over, in work and in love, isn’t easy. After years of climbing to the top, Mavis once again finds herself struggling to prove herself in the cutthroat fashion industry. Without the influence of her A-list photographer ex, gigs aren’t as easy to come by. Making things even more difficult are the fatphobia and elitism that run rampant in fashion; as a plus-sized Black woman who was forced to start her career from scratch, getting her foot back in the door is a lot harder than she thought it would be because people can’t see her genius past her pant size. Even with so many obstacles standing in her way, Mavis continues to strive for greatness, and the support of her best friends Khalil (Tone Bell) and Marley (Tasha Smith) keeps her steady even in her lowest moments.
Buteau has always been laugh-out-loud hilarious, making us double over in supporting roles in titles like First Wives Club and Marry Me, but Survival of the Thickest takes her from comedic relief to star of the show, and episode after episode, she earns every second of that limelight. The Netflix series is a ridiculous dramedy that manages to level its off-colour humour with a whole lot of heart, and we have, in part, Buteau’s earnest acting to thank for that perfect balance. Mavis falls into a special class of protagonists — the messy Black women who are doing the best with what they’ve got, word to Mariah Carey — and like the plights of an Olivia Pope (Scandal) or a Jax Stewart (Reasonable Doubt), her Black girl chaos is nonstop. Life has handed Mavis L after L, but fortunately, she knows how to make lemons out of lemonade. This isn’t to say that Mavis handles her mess perfectly every time; in the first episode, a drunken hookup is almost derailed when wasted to the point that she literally cannot stop vomiting. (Spoiler alert: she links up with the guy anyway.) Messiness and all, we’re rooting for her anyway because she’s so real. Mavis is just like us.
Inspired by Buteau’s real life via her book of the same name, Survival of the Thickest centres the experience of this full-figured Black woman without being burdened by problematic stereotypes or biases that Hollywood likes to impart on fat people. In a culture where isms and phobias are still a fixed part of our social structure, it’s still uncommon to see films and TV shows where a full-figured Black woman is at the centre of her own story — especially when her size isn’t a major source of conflict within the plot. Mavis’ thickness is an important part of her personal journey in Survival of the Thickest, inspiring her mission to make fashion more inclusive for everybody, but it’s never really a problem for her. Contrary to what society might think or feel, Mavis is truly happy with the way that she looks. It’s the discrimination and biases of others that she wants to change. And that self-possessed confidence radiates off of her everywhere that she goes, attracting professional and personal suitors of all kinds, including Luca (Marouane Zotti), a gorgeous Italian businessman who falls for Mavis at first sight. The chemistry between the two of them is palpable (on their first date, he stares at her like she’s the sun and the stars, and she blushes a visible cherry red under the heat of his gaze), and baby…it is magical. Like, kicking your feet, giggling like a schoolgirl-type magic. Mavis pulls not in spite of her weight or even because of it; she’s just a really charming, beautiful person who happens to be thick — a reality that’s rarely reflected in Hollywood without being the butt of some poorly crafted joke.
As such, Mavis and Survival of the Thickest are a great addition to the Black rom-com zeitgeist, fitting neatly beside the magic of Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique’s underrated stories about fat Black women finding true love as they are and on their own terms (with extremely attractive partners every single time). Though the cultural discourse about weight has changed over time — early 2000s movies really did not give a damn about being politically correct when it came to diet culture — the intention of these films was clear: expanding the rom-com canon and inspiring us to rethink our desirability politics personally and collectively. We know that representation is a key tool in reshaping culture, but even as Hollywood slowly makes moves to diversify its storytelling, fatphobia is still getting in the way. Just one look at casting announcements or trailers shows that the industry hasn't quite pushed past its subconscious disdain for bigger bodies. Plus-sized people, especially if they also happen to be black women, are still working twice as hard for a small percent of opportunities, and in the off chance that they do get a shot to be cast, their stories usually leave much to be desired.
Survival of the Thickest is trying to address that inequity, and it makes good headway in its fun (albeit brief) 8-episode debut. Buteau’s Mavis is a leading lady that you’ll never want to stop rooting for.
The first season of Survival of the Thickest is now streaming, only on Netflix.