In some ways, the TV landscape is more plus-friendly than ever before, though there's still a long way to go. We have Kate (Chrissy Metz) from This Is Us, accompanied by her fat suit-clad fiancé, Toby (Chris Sullivan). There's Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Alba (Carla Jimenez) on The Mick. But to me, the best plus-size character on today's current TV lineup is Christine Baskets, of FX's Baskets. Christine is wonderfully complex — in the show's first two seasons, she's started her own business, stood up to her bully of a brother after her mom's death, and forged a new romantic relationship after her husband's death by suicide. And when the conversation turns to Christine's health, it's in a way that's realistic, not preachy.
Oh, and Christine is played by a man, Louie Anderson.
Traditionally, male actors have played fat women, particularly Black women, in ways that feel mocking and problematic. Even John Travolta's turn in Hairspray was, in essence, a parody of what it's like to be a fat woman. But Anderson's casting itself isn't a joke. And Christine's weight is never a joke, either. That's what makes Anderson's character so interesting — Christine herself is a huge step forward for plus representation on TV. But should we be upset that the role is continuing in what's historically been a troubling tradition of cis men in drag as plus-sized women characters?
The short answer is no. Anderson's portrayal of Christine is so rich, so nuanced, that it's easy to forget there's a male actor beneath Christine's flowy dresses. There's a reason he won an Emmy Award for his work on Baskets' first season. If there's anything to criticize about his casting, it's the fact that Anderson is just 16 years older than Zach Galifianakis, who plays Christine's twin sons, Chip and Dale, on the show.
Galifianakis has said in interviews that he and Louis C.K., Baskets' former executive producer (FX ended its relationship with C.K. following his admission that the allegations of sexual misconduct against him are true), wanted Anderson for the role because of his voice.
"I wanted to cast Brenda Blethyn, and she wasn't available," Galifianakis told Variety in 2016. "I told Louis, 'It's a voice I keep hearing, like Louie Anderson's voice.' He said, 'Well, should we cast him?' It was an a-ha moment, and those a-ha moments I tend to go with, instead of overthinking."
Now that the show's been on for two seasons, it's hard to imagine Christine being played by anyone but Anderson. He's carried Christine through her self-consciousness during a water aerobics class. And he's perfectly captured Christine's struggle with emotional eating as the seasons have gone on.
There's a place for characters like Champlin's and Jimenez's in the TV landscape, for sure. We need confident plus-size characters for whom size isn't an issue. But we need figures like Christine, too. The reality is, no one feels confident in themselves all the time. And for many people, of all sizes, body image struggles are real.
Through Christine's character, Baskets shows those struggles without casting judgment on them. Emotional eating can be an issue for many people. For Christine, the loss of her husband, as well as offhand remarks from her late mother, led to her seeking comfort in sugary treats. But the way the show portrays it feels true to life — and Christine isn't defined by her eating habits, or her weight. At times, she's fighting an internal battle, but she's not waiting for her life to begin once she reaches a certain size. Compare that with This Is Us — the first time we meet Kate in the show's pilot, she's falling off a scale. (And yes, I know the show's portrayal of Kate has improved in its second season.)
It's okay for people of any size and gender not to feel 100% confident, 100% of the time. That's why Christine's character is so powerful — and that's true regardless of Anderson's gender.
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