Originally, I was going to go on a big rant about Hollywood’s representation and casting of plus size actors and actresses. I could focus on the infamous Fat Amy, or Megan from Bridesmaids, but this has been done a thousand times before, and by writers far more superior than myself. What I realised was, there is actually something I spend far more time watching, talking about and thinking about: British Soaps. I’ve had a little wander through Google, and I can’t see that this has been a widely covered subject, so I’m putting my two cents in.
For reference, I’m a religious viewer of Eastenders and Hollyoaks. Corrie and Emmerdale I can give-or-take, but I do get updated by my workmates discussing them regularly. There’s something so comforting about getting home from work, taking my bra off (ahhh!), making a cup of tea and watching my soaps. It’s my simple pleasure of winding down and watching someone else’s dramas instead of focusing on my own.
I truly admire the talent and skill it takes for actors to dedicate themselves to such a British institution. We are promised a semi-realistic look at UK life, from Walford to Manchester to Yorkshire (but seriously, how many plane crashes can one village take?!). We are presented with a humble community of shops, flats, houses and businesses. We grow attached to families and relationships, new characters and old. We invest emotion into people’s stories, secrets of their past and their hopes for the future.
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The thing is, I dare you to pick out a cobbled street in Manchester that only has one or even two residents that are overweight, especially those under the age of 40. Show me a northern village where there is only once exclusively fat family and no others. Find me a London-based community with only one fat character, one black family and one Asian family. Finally, can you live on the outskirts of a popular city, amidst a high school, hospital and college, and not encounter a fat man or woman on a regular basis?
No, my friends. The answer is no.
Please remember, my analysis is of the characters portrayed and not the actors themselves. Please don’t mistake my descriptions for insults aimed at the real person.
The most commonly referred to fat character in recent years is Heather Trott, beloved by many and cut down in her prime by Ben Mitchell and a hefty photo frame. Heather’s character was part of the show for just under 5 years. Played by Cheryl Fergison, Heather was depicted as a George Michael fanatic, obsessed with the 80s and a lover of fancy dress. In an excerpt from The Guardian in 2009, Fergison stated that she initially thought Heather was quite childlike, but was pleased that the show had “the courage to employ a bigger woman”. It was her hope that viewers realised that Heather’s size and mental state were due to her childhood and relationship with her mother:
“It could be perceived [that the character was just about her size], but when you look into the character, there is more depth to her—she’s got a terrible mother, there’s her background, and so on. You see her eating and, hopefully, people are intelligent enough to go, ‘Ah, we can see why she does that.’ I’m hoping people will see it’s not just about what she looks like. You don’t have to be a big person to know that people comfort eat, or to say, ‘These terrible things happen in life, that’s why she behaves like that’.”
Having accepted Cheryl’s characterisation of Heather as someone with extreme emotional damage, ironically, Heather was primarily a comedy character in the show. The writers gave her quite a specific look, often pairing ugly and dated tunics with matching hair bands. There was never really a chance for Heather to develop as a role model for plus-size women, with her romantic outlook and childish charm often being mocked in the story-lines. She led a difficult life of financial struggle, with no successful career, and was often given money by her friends and neighbours just to get by. An unplanned pregnancy from a one-night-stand was her most major story-line (but even then, this was a ‘who’s the daddy’ situation where the viewer was meant to doubt the fact that several main characters, who usually are linked with the more stereotypically attractive women, would actually sleep with Heather).
Eastenders’ unattractive, unsuccessful, non-academic, downtrodden Heather Trott.
I would have enjoyed Heather’s character more, if there had been any another plus-size actors working on the show. As a fat audience member, I was faced with the prospect that only the thinner, attractive people in the square lead a happy life. On the other hand, the more overweight male characters, like Minty and Phil, both had story-lines suggesting they were sexually attractive, successful, and popular. Funny, that.
Who thinks of a fat person in Emmerdale and doesn’t focus on the Dingles? Primarily, Mandy Dingle, played by the lovely Lisa Riley. When first introduced, the majority of the Dingle family were rotund, with a couple of muscular farm boys and the occasional petite female in recent years.
There’s not a TV watching adult Brit who doesn’t know who Lisa Riley is. Famous for presenting You’ve Been Framed as well as panel show appearances and a stint on Strictly Come Dancing, Lisa has continued to feature her gorgeous big smile on our small screens.
As Mandy Dingle, Lisa portrayed a character with feisty personality. Unashamed of her plus size figure, Mandy was promiscuous and flirty. She was written to be a sexual creature, with many successful relationships developing over her time in the soap. Loud-mouthed and not afraid to state her opinion, Mandy was viewed by the general public as being a great character, but sometimes a ‘bit too much’.
Mandy stereotyped a label that so many fat women are branded with today. If a straight sized woman is funny and loud, most people would usually describe her as hilarious and confident, or bright. Add a plus size body to that, and you get phrases like ‘larger than life’ or ‘big and bubbly’. Yes, it is well-known that a lot of confident plus size women use comedy to add to their attractive qualities, but also there are those less confident in their bodies and resort to comedy as a way of masking what they are self-conscious about.
Emmerdale’s confident, lovable, un-academic, obnoxious and selfish Mandy Dingle.
Although Mandy is a better portrayal of a plus size woman with confidence, she is still a big fat caricature. As a plus size character who is not self-conscious of her body, she was actually just loud mouthed and quite selfish about the choices she made which hurt those close to her.
Now, with Hollyoaks, we have go to a bit further back in time.
Does anyone remember Chloe Bruce?
Wonderfully played by Mikyla Dodd, Chloe broke the mould as the first plus-size character in Hollyoaks. She was part of the soap from 2000 – 2004, and provided the audience with many realistic story-lines about what it is to be a young plus-size woman. She was a naturally chubbier girl, riddled with insecurities yet determined to discover her true self without succumbing to the media standards of beauty. The character was bullied for her weight, but as she grew older and more confident, she began to own her appearance and personality. Unfortunately, Chloe often sabotaged her own happiness, and at some points her self-perception and body image got in the way of her relationships.
Chloe was clever, ambitious and talented. She wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it was quite clear she had admirers and sexual relationships while in the soap. She went from a bullied, busty school girl to being the Student Union Advisor. She was even responsible for the Student bar, a very popular meeting point that was regularly featured in the show. She was a strong role model for young plus-size women, and this was recognised by the writing, with other characters often seeking her advice and friendship. Eventually, Chloe made the difficult choice to leave Hollyoaks to further her career in radio, moving to London. Hollyoaks gave us the success story of Chloe Bruce, with her journey to body confidence echoing the way young women feel in today’s society.
Since then, Hollyoaks has not really featured a young plus size woman. It could be argued that current character, Tegan Lomax, is plus-size. In reality, the actress is actually not fat. She does have quite a rounded face, and large shoulders, so this could lead people to think she is bigger than she actually is. She is often dressed in flamboyant, baggy shirts to accentuate a larger frame, but this is just clever styling by the wardrobe team. A quick look at the actresses Instagram will prove she has quite small frame under these baggy shirts. Instead of plus-size, I would argue that Tegan has a unique figure, being very top heavy with a small waist and hips. Certainly, if Hollyoaks is trying to pass her off as their plus size representation, I feel this is unfair to the viewers.
Considering Coronation Street is set in a realistic looking cobbled street in Greater Manchester, it’s residents are far from realistic. I actually don’t have much to write about for this soap, as they really don’t have any plus-size representation. My colleagues have agreed with me on this, and that over the years, there have been very few notably plus size characters like Molly Compton and Fiz Brown. Even then, both actresses made the personal choice to shed a lot of weight, documented in magazine interviews and photo shoots. This was the actors’ choice, and in return had nothing to do with the characters or their storylines. This meant the physical appearance of the characters, as a demographic on the street, was obviously not important to the writers and directors. In turn, this has left us with no plus-size main cast characters under the age of 45.
If the range of characters in soaps were more realistic, there would be several men and women of an overweight nature. They would vary from short to tall, athletic to lazy, healthy to sick. They would cover various characteristics including: well-dressed, confident, successful, conventionally attractive etc. but could also be cunning, spiteful, clever and manipulating characters. They would have the same caliber of storylines as the rest of the community, highlighting their positive and negative choices in life, and how they achieve their goals.
We want to see characters we can relate to, who aren’t singled out because of their weight by stereotypical characteristics and comical story-lines. Fat people are allowed to be represented in our British soaps, but it seems the catch is that their weight has to be their most prominent character trait. Or, if their storyline is realistic and relatable, they are long gone from the soap and have left us wondering when we will next see a young plus size character.
What upsets me most is that, every year, thousands of trained character actors and actresses are denied parts intended for stereotypically attractive people. These can be some of the most talented artists in the business, but the media would rather portray an unrealistically pretty cast than a true portrayal of our society.
I ask the writers, directors, producers and casting agents of our generation to think about this. Consider our society, in all it’s diverse glory, and how truthful you want to be with your art. Please remember that you are responsible the casting of talented, admirable, hard working, plus size men and women.