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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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  1. 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.

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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    • 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!

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  5. 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.

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