Plus–size people have a long, and frankly unfortunate, history in Hollywood and television. For much of history, fat characters have often been shrouded behind a veil of harmful comedy and shame. These practices perpetuate outdated and hurtful societal standards that make the media industry an extremely hostile place for anyone who happens to wear a larger size.
As a plus–size woman, it is disheartening to see all of the ways fat women have been abused by the media. Mainly, I think back to the infamous fat suit episodes of various TV shows. Beloved shows like “Friends” and “30 Rock” both feature tasteless episodes in which main characters, mainly female ones, are depicted as fat in the past. In these episodes, the “fatifide” versions of these characters are reduced to stupid, burping, ravenous beasts who are good for nothing but a laugh. It’s easy to write off these instances as things of the past — elements of a time that is long gone. If only that were true.
To replace these fat suit episodes, we now have horrors like “Insatiable,” a show that is well known for being incredibly fatphobic and out of touch. Less horribly, we also have characters like Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) from “Pitch Perfect.” Fat Amy seems to be Hollywood’s attempt at creating a strong, confident plus–size female. She’s unapologetic about her size to the point that she claims her shape as her name. But characters like her are still just around for comedy’s sake. Beyond cracking jokes and being the “fat best friend,” there really is nothing to her.
There was always one plus–size character who I looked up to growing up. This character was Ursula (Pat Carroll) from Walt Disney Studios’ animated sensation “The Little Mermaid.” Ursula stood out because she was not a joke. She was a powerful and formidable sorceress who was comfortable with herself and fiercely confident in her larger body. She was bold and fabulous — and she was fat. And I’m not the only fat girl to attach to Ursula. Countless magazines and websites have published articles dubbing Ursula a feminist icon.
I remember the outrage that came in 2012 when The Walt Disney Co. produced its Ursula limited edition Villains Designer Collection fashion doll. The collection was meant to reimagine Disney villains, and the company decided that Ursula would be more fashionable if she was skinny. This icon of plus–size feminism was suddenly tainted by the all-consuming power of fatphobia, but, for once, the world wasn’t having it. Complaints rang out from all across the internet in articles and blog posts. This was the first time I ever saw the world defending a plus–size body.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that when Disney announced the live–action “The Little Mermaid,” there was a lot of speculation about who would be cast as Ursula. The internet buzzed with hopes of who would be cast. Musician Lizzo even posted on Twitter telling Disney that it is her dream to play the character, and I would be lying if I said that I didn’t want her in the role as well. Lizzo has become an unstoppable pop culture icon of body positivity, and she has a gorgeous voice, almost perfectly suited for Ursula. She seemed like an obvious choice. Many people have also raised concerns about how Ursula should be a woman of color. Her design was inspired by the late drag queen Divine, so some people said Ursula should be played by a queen. Instead, Melissa McCarthy was cast in the role.
McCarthy isn’t a terrible choice by any means. She has advocated for body positivity in the past, but her role in the film raises alarm bells. McCarthy has taken on a handful of serious roles in the past, like in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” but most of the actor’s career has been dominated by slapstick comedy roles. McCarthy as Ursula opens the possibility that Disney might be trying to reduce the terrifying sea witch to a fat punchline.
As a little girl, I didn’t have the opportunity to see proper representation of plus–size women in media. It is crucial to change the industry so that this generation of little girls has the chance to see body diversity in film. Now, all I can do is hope that McCarthy understands the importance of the role and will fight to give Ursula the glory she deserves.