Excerpt: Sonita Moss on Gabourey Sidibe’s problematic character on The Big C

Is “overweight underachiever with an endless arsenal of clever one-liners” a euphemism for sassy fat black girl? Why yes it is. Enter Sidibe, or Andrea, a student who cuts class, uses foul language, and proudly does not exercise. She is all attitude and doesn’t give a flying expletive what you think of it. When she was first introduced, I audibly expelled air – seriously? This again? Don’t we already have series’ with a largely white-cast flanked by sassy black tropes? Hiya, Mercedes from Glee, Donna from Parks & Recreation, Ava on Up All Night, Raineesha on the now defunct Reno 911!, Miranda on Grey’s Anatomy!

And please don’t say “quit hating”, I am a loyal fan of all of these shows, The Big C included. It is beautiful in its poignant portrayal of a woman living with cancer, yet deeply flawed in its characterization of a young black woman. To critique is to love, it comes from setting a higher standard of expectation, from a desire to push boundaries or at the very least, allow flexibility within tightly constrained norms. Alas, the overweight black, testy, unhealthy, irritated black woman archetype is far too normalized to even be given a second thought. Of course, the fact that actresses like Sidibe are given supporting roles in shows about confident, capable women is vital, but it too often comes at a cost: The show’s writers bestow upon Andrea qualities that have potential to give her depth, but ultimately she is more trope than fully realized.

Andrea’s tepid story arc in season 1 is almost unbearable to watch at times: she has to attend Cathy’s summer school class because she’s failed it already, she’s hopelessly overweight, and she’s openly defiant to the one person who shows her kindness. Andrea is a supporting role, but there are three major tenets of the Sassy Fat Black woman trope that she personifies: her issues with weight, her hyper-awareness of race and “playing the race card”, and her rather antagonistic attitude toward everyone.

Andrea is fat: The underscoring of Andrea’s obesity is a central theme of her personhood in season 1. From the viewer’s perspective, her unhappiness with her body leaves her wrought with melancholy. In the pilot it’s established that Andrea is overweight, hates it, and Cathy wants to help her slim down; Cathy even offers to pay her $100 for each pound that she loses when she catches Andrea smoking to curb her appetite. “I’d rather be skinny and die young than be fat forever,” she declares. I wonder what it was like for Sidibe to recite this line even though she has openly declared her body-positive self image.
– From “‘The Big C’s’ Big Black Problem,” in Clutch Magazine

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  • http://commentarybyvalentina.wordpress.com/ Val

    “Don’t we already have series’ with a largely white-cast flanked by sassy black tropes? Hiya, Mercedes from Glee, Donna from Parks & Recreation, Ava on Up All Night, Raineesha on the now defunct Reno 911!, Miranda on Grey’s Anatomy!”

    Thank you! I thought I was the only one who noticed these same characters on so many different shows! Oh, and don’t forget the Black wopman on Community whose character began on the show as seemingly the anti-stereotype but alas was magically tansformed into a a drunk and a woman who didn’t even know who her baby’s father was. Sigh.

    I’m not surprised by Sidibe’s role on the show. All of the roles she’s done have been stereotypes. I think that’s all we’re going to get from her.

  • Mumblepuddin

    I don’t think the Andrea character was written into the original script as being african american or any specific race.  Just overweight and bitchy.  Gabby probably won the role by auditioning against a number of actors

  • Anonymous

    I actually like this character though I have found some problems with her portrayal as you did. I was especially unhappy with the way her season two romance ended and we simply did not see her for the remainder of it. I want to know what they’ll do with her character in season three. I think in season two she comes off as more of a reckless teenager who is foolish and silly, although most of the qualities you describe still apply. But she is confident and happy about herself, attracts a man who seems to love her (up until a very troubling point), and interacts with the family she’s living with pretty well. In some ways she is not what you would expect. By that I mean she comes from a rich family but tried to keep that a secret from the woman she’s currently living with. She still continues to underachieve, and even neglect her studies further when she has a boyfriend but I believe that she comes from ambitious enough stock that eventually she’ll develop her own niche where she is successful in life. In a way she reminds me of a friend with a similar profile. In the case of my friend, maybe she just flounders around b/c she thinks the limit is the sky. But she’s ambitious, smart, but sometimes has to dumb herself down to fit in the available crowd.

  • BluTopaz

    As much as I love Gabby Sidibe, it pains me to think that characters like this one are the only roles she will get.  Her opening skit  with SNL a few years back was hilarious, because the whole joke was everyone trying to counsel her, based on her Precious role. And Gabby was all, “hey I’m not that poor girl, it was a MOVIE! And Mariah Carey doesn’t have a mustache, either!”–hysterical and very smart.

    But back to your point– I’m convinced many people are uncomfortable with Black women who they are unable to fit into a stereotype.  I haven’t seen the other shows you mentioned, but I have wondered  how anyone could portray anything that hints of sassy, overweight,  blackgirl.  Like how did that dude on that show feel about saying ‘i’m Puerto Rican, we’re great at selling drugs’. I don’t get it. Your rent and bills might get paid, but can you be fully proud of yourself? 

    And I was shocked and very pleased Michelle Obama addressed the angry black woman trope as it’s been thrown at her. Who has been more open, accessible, pleasant, fun, etc.  almost everytime we see her–they can’t call her fat (even though Rush Limpbags tried), she’s more highly educated than many of the slobs who have can’t keep her name out of their mouths, so, oh yeah! Let’s call her angry!

    This need to pigeonhole ANYONE is rather demonic, if you ask me. It says more about the folks doing the broad brushing.

    • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

      BA HA!!
      Rush Limbaugh trying to call Michelle Obama fat!!!
      (sorry this just made me laugh)

      I have to say that agree with you Blu Topaz.