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