I have a love-hate relationship with This Is Us. On the one hand, I'm invested in the link between Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack's (Milo Ventimiglia) flawed parenting and how it affects their children in the present. On the other hand, This Is Us is straight-up cheesy and, most of the time, groan-worthy. That's not to mention the fact that two of its heroes, Jack and Toby (Chris Sullivan) are often controlling in their relationships.
But the main criticism of This Is Us I keep coming back to each week is how the show treats Toby and Kate (Chrissy Metz). The couple met at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, and both of them always seem to be wrapped up in storylines that are related solely to their weight. Case in point: Last week, fans realized we have no idea what Toby does for a living, and we don't know much about Kate's work, either.
When my editor brought this point up, I wasn't surprised. In This Is Us' first season, we've seen the two Pearson brothers, Randall (Sterling K. Brown) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) go on incredible emotional journeys. We know a fair amount about their personal lives, their jobs, their hopes and dreams. But if you had to list what we know about Kate, it's a lot tougher. She's... a plus-size person who really wants to lose weight, right? And she was someone's personal assistant once?
After the topic came up, my colleague Kaitlin Reilly wrote a short post about how we don't know what Kate and Toby's jobs are. The story has 45 reader comments — a lot more than your average news story typically gets. Naturally, there's a divide: Some people are exclaiming that it's just a TV show. But some have the same reaction I did on Friday, which boils down to: "Well, yeah, of course they don't have jobs — they only have storylines about being fat."
To people who have never been overweight, this might seem like a stretch. But anyone who's struggled with body image will recognize that it's not. For Americans who aren't thin, it can often feel like everything ties back to your weight somehow. Just look at the recent backlash against Nike's plus-size line — which comes in spite of the fact that concern trolls constantly exhort fat folks to exercise.
So, in some sense, Kate's character makes sense. Her weight has been scrutinized by everyone from her friends to her mother for most of her life. And of course she'd feel disappointed that her various attempts at weight loss haven't been as successful as she'd like. But it shouldn't be the only thing defining her story (or Toby's).
Even if Kate and Toby are focused on getting healthier, weight loss is not the only characteristic of any real person's life. As shocking as this might sound, fat people have hobbies, interests, and dreams, just like straight-size people. But we have no idea what Kate and Toby like to do, other than watch football.
One Reddit user suggested that Toby is a TV writer. That would explain why he wanted to stay in L.A. and didn't suggest he and Kate move to New York so she could still work for Kevin. (I don't remember the TV writing being mentioned, so if you have a source episode on that, please comment!) And we did see one episode where Kate was a new woman's personal assistant — but, naturally, the punch line was that she was only hired because she was fat, and her boss wanted her to help her overweight daughter.
There's no denying it's progressive to see a plus-size woman starring in a major network TV show. But while Chrissy Metz is an incredible actress, that progress is diminished by how This Is Us portrays Kate. Did we really need the first shot of her in the entire show to involve staring into a sticky note-filled fridge? For as developed as Randall and Kevin's characters are, Kate is painfully one-sided. The closest we came to a non-weight-related Kate plot was her singing at Kevin's aunt's assisted-living home. But since that early episode, her love of singing has never been mentioned again.
It is possible to create a multi-dimensional fat female character on TV, though. While much has been written about Kate, Toby, and This Is Us on the whole, FX's Baskets has quietly flown under the radar and given us a realistic portrayal of a plus-size woman. In the show's second season, Louie Anderson's Christine resolves to get healthier after learning she has diabetes. We've seen her self-conscious struggle to fit in at a pool-based exercise class; we've seen her debate whether or not to eat a complimentary chocolate at a hotel. But we've also seen her fall for a new man (who she didn't meet during a weight-related activity), travel to new cities, and develop new hobbies. This Is Us could take a page from Baskets' playbook here.
This Is Us doesn't need to cut out Kate's weight loss journey as a storyline. It's empathetic and believable. But we need to see more about who Kate really is — beyond her body, and beyond her relationship to her family. What does she enjoy doing? What are her career goals? Until she and Toby do more than hit the gym and go to a weight-loss wellness retreat, I'll refrain from being too excited about just how progressive these characters are.