The Big C’s Big Black Problem

by Sonita Moss

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.

  • iQgraphics

    Great Piece.
    As a fan of the show, I did pay attention to the portrayal of the black character and my conclusion was this:

    You dug really deep, and I can see the stereotypes played out in all of the examples you made. But I think it’s all much simpler than this.

    “Friends” ran for many many years on network TV about a group of people hanging in NY but there were no black people until the end of the run with Aiesha Tyler.
    I think “The Big C” just wants to create more “realness” with the addition of a black character.

    And with the addition of her being just to make the world of the “Big C” more plausible, of course the character is going to be stereotypical on many levels, if not overtly than subconsciously. The latter is what I think the network has managed to successfully portray.

  • http://www.aol.com Sue

    I think you are reading too much into the way Gabbys character is. I see Gabby as a funny bright woman who stands her ground and that is how the character is. She is not ghetto she is not tough but she has had to be wary as people judge her on her fat and she is defensive. I only watch the show because Gabby is so good so give her a break.

  • AllieEmet

    Andrea seems like a fully dimensional & fully realized character, in my opinion. The writers’ portrayal of a morbidly obese dark-skinned black American teenage girl living in what seems to be a predominantly white upper-middle class suburb comes across as very true-to-life, and perhaps too much so for those seeking more escapism in their entertainment. I, personally, experienced a lot of difficulty buying into her relationship with Myk. I wasn’t necessarily pleased with the outcome, however I see ‘The Big C’ as being about the harsh realities of life, whether it relates cancer, Alzheimers, suicide, mental illness, miscarriage, weight, race, drugs, sex, money, etc.

  • http://www.monet4health.com Monet4Health

    The truth hurts. Gabourey Sidibe will always play the smart, sassy black girl until the end of time OR until she loses a considerable amount of weight. We subliminally root for her because we want her to be an in-demand actress. Is that wrong? The pickings are very slim. Most writers don’t know how to characterize black characters in general, let alone the “Precious-type”. Ms. Sidibe is a smart girl she knows her stance in Hollywood. At least she is not in some silly sitcom like The Game, peddling over-drama or in a new Tyler Perry epic film. (Insert severe sarcasm here)
    She can’t change the whole game in one role, at least now we know she is no 1 hit wonder and has gained popularity post-Precious. In a show where the topic is so sad she is the welcome comic and real relief.
    We could pass the same argument for most roles Megan Good has played after Eve’s Bayou.. the troublemaker or love interest … Same. Difference.

  • TheBestAnonEver, Part 2

    I love the Big C and do think Andrea is played to some stereotypes, but so is Adam and Sean. I like the story of how Andrea comes to stay in Cathy’s house and the revelations about Andrea that are revealed. I liked Cathy’s scenes in the church as well.

    I don’t see Andrea as aggressive and quick to attack, I see the character as a teenager with a quick tongue, something Adam would be if he were smarter. I don’t identify with Andrea, but I don’t expect to. I don’t identify with J in Awkward Black Girl either and I am sure there are many of us, but we’ll be roundly laughed out the room (as we should be), if we penned a piece on it. I think this over emphasis on looking for characters to identify with seems to be a cry not to end stereotypes, but create stereotypical roles you want to see.

  • Kacey

    Gabby is a really talented actress and I feel bad for her because she will always be seen as “Precious” (certain ruthless gossip rags always refer to her as such) and she’s always going to be type-cast as the sassy big black girl. OK, I know I’m going to get a lot of shit for this, but she really needs to slim down. I don’t mean for her to become Jennifer Hudson-esque, but if not for her health and personal self esteem (she claims to be happy and healthy…*shrugs*) at least for the sake of her career.

  • Kimberly

    You’re article is right on point and it reminded me if this article; Fandom and Its Hatred of Black Women.
    http://arsmarginal.wordpress.com/2011/10/07/fandom-hates-black-women/
    So often I watch shows with the black women are so poorly written and I watch in frustration as the actresses try and make the best of the material they are given. It’s not about the sassy black girl, it’s about giving the sassy black girl some growth and change. Or acknowledging the reasons behind the angrer and aggression in something other then a white liberal sort of way.

    I think if Mercedes and how she was kind of shoved to the back and Lauren was brought on as the fat girl with the confidence as Mercedes struggled with her weight and confidence.

    If you get a chance check the Frasier episodes with Kim Coles where they address Frasier’s issues with the sassy black female and how he is afraid to confront her when she is wrong about things.

    I also think this applies to Tyler Perry and his horrible represenation of what he calls a combination of the women he know that have inspired him. A one dementional character that people laugh at or use as a grandmother figure to make them feel good about themselves.
    The message I see over and over is that if you a black you are angry, if you are black and dark you are even angrier, and if you are black, dark and big then you can’t be held responsible for what you might do to someone who looks at you the wrong way. Yes, there are women like that in the world, but if folks took the time to get to know them they might find out other things about this person. And when it comes to a TV show why not take the time to write out those differences and surprises?

  • Whatever

    Seriously, what roles do we expect her to play? The biggest issue here is that in real life she is morbidly obese. I don’t care how nice people think she is or how awesome her personality is. I don’t care how much she embraces her size or how confident she pretends to be. Let’s stop dancing around her weight and pretending everything is ok. Let’s also stop pretending there is a huge range of characters she will be playing at that size in hollywood.

    I totally agree with the writers critique of her character.

  • Ronyelle

    Just as a short skinny guy can’t play the role of a college football star, and no Asian chick is going to be playing the part of Jane Eyre, her physical being is going to limit how many roles she is going to be believable in, plain and simple.

    I agree with your assessment of Hollywood pigeonholing black actresses in certain types of roles, but using this actress as the object lesson weakens your case. Her gargantuan physical size really limits the types of roles audiences will accept her in, just as it would with any other actress that size.

    But your point is completely accurate.

  • Socially Maladjusted

    Well

    this is a very well written article.

    Seemed like it was all forlorn for you and the Sidibe character until you both got rescued by the interacial affections of the white male character.

    Those white writers know black women all too well, (better than us brothaz). They know they can do anything they like to black women and then be forgiven for it by givin em some sex

    LMAO!

  • chinaza

    Oddly, I don’t see Andrea as a stereotype.She’s not the jolly fat girl or nurturing “Mamie” type.
    She behaves like a real person with hang-ups about weight and color.She’s vulnerable and she’s built layers to cover that.
    That’s an honest reflection of the current culture and its feminine ideal.
    She’s not that likeable and that’s good.It fits the tone of the show where the characters are human,flawed and uneven.
    It’s a refreshing change from the saccharine,boring fluff that passes for TV nowadays.

  • minna k.

    Thank you for the well written, witty, and so thorough review of this tragic show that i have never heard of, living under a rock.

    Gabby goes “why don’t you touch them” and it was over for me.

    Hollywood loves inherently flawed Black women to contrast white female perfection, aspiration and well meaning.

    Good luck watching the next season. Be sure to have a bucket next to the couch.

  • http://thedaughterofafrika.blogspot.com/ African Mami

    I wonder if GS weight is a hindrance to getting beyond stereotypical roles.

  • Trini

    “Spoiler alert: Myk is revealed to be a thieving coke-head who is merely using Andrea in order to gain American citizenship as her husband. Of course he could never really want to be with her, the writers thought.”

    Really??! Oh so now we can read the writers’ thoughts? Come on now!

    Believe it or not I do believe the article was well written and obviously thoroughly researched but that one thing just got under my skin.

  • Trini

    @Monet4Health

    “She can’t change the whole game in one role.”

    AND

    “We could pass the same argument for most roles Megan Good has played after Eve’s Bayou.. the troublemaker or love interest … Same. Difference.”

    Thank you! Both very valid points!

  • Anon

    I know right?

  • Anon

    As I asked of another black man who comments, why even come to Clutch if you don’t like black women? There are other places on the internet.

  • iQgraphics

    I kind of have to agree with you. It went from analytical to accusatory.
    But overall, well done

  • Rocco

    This article was well argued and well presented. I think you make good points about how Hollywood is only willing to give actresses like GS roles where their size has to be front-and-center. While it may be true that Hollywood/TV may not change this soon and still produces some good stuff, it’s still worth calling them out on ways they can improve. Well done.

  • Girl

    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.

  • 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…)

  • nattygirldred

    I completely agree. Your damned if you do damned if you don’t with most people.

  • Girl

    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.

  • 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

  • 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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