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I am a loyal fan of The Big C. It is beautiful in its poignant portrayal of a woman living with cancer, yet deeply flawed in its characterization of a young black woman. I’m talking about Gabourey Sidibe’s character, Andrea. 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 Big C‘s writers bestow upon Andrea qualities that have potential to give her depth, but ultimately she is more trope than fully realized.

The worthy heroine of The Big C is Cathy Jamison, played by Laura Linney, who was honored with a 2011 Emmy for the role. Cathy is a quietly desperate history teacher in suburbia until she discovers she has stage-four melanoma with little chance of survival. With her remaining time, she decides to start re-living in a refreshingly non-cliché way. She makes an aggressive effort to develop a relationship with her apathetic teenage son while shifting the paradigm with her man-child husband. There is something about Cathy that is ultra-likable: she’s kind but has gumption, possesses perfectly acerbic wit, and her once-privileged lifestyle is tolerable because she takes nothing for granted. Her friends and family each test her renewed outlook on life in various ways: her brother is an anti-establishment vagabond who impregnates her vapid, narcissistic college BFF; her across-the-street neighbor is a grumpy old widow with honesty that provides levity, and one of Cathy’s favorite students is an overweight underachiever with an endless arsenal of clever one-liners.

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 plenty of series with largely white casts 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 love all those shows, The Big C included. I just know they have problems.

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 personifies three major tenets of the Sassy Fat Black woman trope: her issues with weight, her hyper-awareness of race, and her rather antagonistic attitude toward everyone.

Andrea is fat — her obesity is a central theme of her personhood in season 1. 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 positive body image.

In episode two the first sight of Andrea is on the scale, with Cathy encouraging her to exercise. In episode three we see her reluctantly dismounting a tandem bike saying her “cooch is getting sore.” “Think about how great you’re gonna feel when you go down a dress size.” “Who the fuck wears dresses?” Andrea retorts. Seriously? Seriously?? She’s so angry about having to ride a bike that a dress is a suddenly obsolete garment?

In almost every scene featuring Andrea in season 1 her weight is mentioned or she is physically exercising. Second to her weight, Andrea is marked by her disgruntled persona.

 

Andrea is aggressive — if she is speaking, she is saying something snarky or instigative, or both. We usually see her on the defensive, ready to attack. And when she is the sole recurring woman of color on the show, this is significant. Beyond her witty comebacks, her actions are depicted as needlessly combative. The sassy black woman is constantly on edge or ready to lose it, for no apparent reason. In episode two she wields a paintball gun to coerce Cathy’s son Adam off a bus.

 

In episode 5 there’s a a scene with Andrea and Adam that’s so absurd I laughed out loud. She is jogging, in case you forgot that her weight is the driving force of her life, and runs into Adam. She tells him to “stop staring at her titties,” tells him he’s never seen a rack like hers and then commands him to touch her boobs. After he clearly says no, she grabs his hand and puts it on her breast. What are we to take from this? That Andrea wants to feel good about her body and succeeds in this by making a guy fondle her chest? That women really like to be ogled by men and want to be grabbed? Or is she just so sexual that she can’t help herself, the Jezebel trope personified?

 

During the third episode at the dinner party, Cathy explains that Adam is refusing to come down to join the guests and Andrea takes it upon herself to lay on him some good old-fashioned sassy black woman retaliation. She cusses him out and intimidates him into submission.

Though it is impossible to deny that Andrea is clever and a source of comic relief on a program that requires gravitas, it is difficult for me to relate to her because her foul temperament only amplifies as the series progresses. Objectively, she seems to be an angry, unhappy girl who is, at best, uncomfortable. Her unfortunate dealings with race exacerbate this view.

In shows that tokenize black characters, those characters usually have an awareness of race and are quick to point out faux-racism or “play the race card.” These events are usually imbued with liberal themes in which those accused of racism clearly have no racist intent. This serves to minimize the actual racism that people of color in America experience every single day and normalize the sentiment that black people are too sensitive about race. Because black people constantly bring up race, everyone else is so totally post-racial and free to avoid critically analyzing any private thoughts and actions influenced by race. Andrea takes every opportunity to remind the viewer that she is black and on a hair-trigger about crying racism.

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25 Comments

  1. I love Laura Linney but aint no way I’d watch that show..once I saw Gabby would be on it I knew the reasoning behind it would be shady
    Liberals have started that “lets have them accuse white people of racism at every time” to DOWNPLAY us when we really are going thru racial issues which why you now have some many insensitive bastids claiming that a person is “just playing the race card”

    Such bull. Gabby is a pawn. There are hardly ANY shows with attractive black women. They all look like asexual mamies who just snap and roll. Btw you forgot Yvette Brown from “Community” on your list.

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  2. nattygirldred

    It is unfortunate that I was brought to the Clutch website reading an article about Black women wanting to boycott the movie Red Tails because there were no Black female love interest… and then I read another article about basically boycotting the movie based on the book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (I think it’s called) because Chris Brown has a small part even though it is FILLED with Black actresses that deserve to work. And NOW (this is all within the last hour people) I’m reading yet another article that managed to put down black female actresses in at least 5 major TV shows… I just don’t know what to think Clutch… What Do We LIKE??? (besides The Game… if that) signed: Future Black Female Actress (who acts in movies black women don’t want to see…)

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    • There’s NOTHING “unfortunate” about it. We’re not smurfs. We dont all have to like or agree with anything. DO YOU.
      Dont know why people are still whining about those who had their reasons for not wanting to see Red Tails. Mind your business. The movie made 6m over the weekend, so why are yall still whining? Get over it. As long as you see it and fine with your decision, why do you care about what other people decide to do?

      I on the other hand will check out the upcoming movies mentioned in other article. as for act like a lady, UM that has to do with the fact that some of us dont want to have anything to do with Steve Harvey..again if you wanna see his shyt, good for you. whereas I will put money towards Pariah and other movies THAT I WANT TO SPEND MY MONEY ON.

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    • nattygirldred

      YES! I do find it UNFORTUNATE they we can’t accept ourselves I don’t particularly care for ANY of those movies I mentioned. The point is that I have not come across ANY article on this site that has something positive to say about ANY of these mainstream movies that these black folk have used a crowbar to bust open the obstacles put in their way by white casting director, writers ect. It really sucks to not have your own people have your back is all. And for the record if over 50mil was spent on a movie 6mil is a pittance. I do not believe I was “whining” about Red Tails, THE ARTICLE talks about people “whining” about the lack of a Black female love interest. I’m not pulling this out of my ass, my assessments are based on articles published on this website. And also if you READ the other article you will note that people had a problem with Chris Brown. Anyways WHY are you attacking ME? … not to be throwing out ‘the angry black woman’ sterotype but…. dang

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  3. A Black Woman

    Hi Everyone:

    This is a feminist magazine? I’m a quite surprised that no one actually understood this well written article about how Black women are stereotyped in TV, if we’re even on the show. This is very disturbing. . .

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