Plus-size actresses finally assume leading roles


New York — Long relegated to providing comic relief or playing supporting parts, plus-size actresses are finally getting their due with juicy front-and-center roles in a sign of shifting attitudes towards diverse body types.

New Hulu series "Shrill," which debuted Friday and is adapted from the best-selling autobiography of Lindy West, is the latest example of studios willing to depart from the tried and tested formula of slender leading ladies who have dominated the small screen since its creation.

To be sure, curvy actresses like the Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer and Mo'Nique, or hip hop icon Queen Latifah, blazed an early trail starting more than decade back with a string of starring film and television roles.

In more recent years, Chrissy Metz has gotten attention for "This Is Us," Danielle Macdonald starred in the Netflix movie "Dumplin'," while in cinema, Rebel Wilson ("Pitch Perfect") and Melissa McCarthy ("Spy," "Ghostbusters") have made themselves regular fixtures.

"I think the American public, and probably the public in general, is not used to seeing fat women on TV," Aidy Bryant, the star of "Shrill" who has been a regular on late night comedy show "Saturday Night Live" recently told Elle magazine.

"I do think we are starting to see somewhat of a shift," said Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut where she is deputy director Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Heavier actresses are also taking on new types of roles.

"In the past, people with obesity were often cast in more of that comedic role than a serious one," said James Zervios, of the Obesity Action Coalition, which fights against weight bias.

"As of very recently, we have begun to see people with obesity, such as Chrissy Metz, cast in more dramatic roles."

But, he adds, the progress is more marked for women than it is for men, who struggle to find leading roles outside of comedic performance.

According to Puhl, research conducted by her institution has found decades worth of evidence documenting weight stigma in the entertainment industry, where characters with a larger body size "are often ridiculed, depicted engaging in stereotypical behavior like eating or binge eating.

"They're also less likely to be shown having positive social interaction," she adds.

That bias is even more pronounced in children's television, with large characters portrayed as "as being aggressive or antisocial or unfriendly." — AFP