Disclaimer: the term ‘fat’ in this post is not meant to dehumanise, insult or tease anyone mentioned. It is used as a descriptor much like ‘thin’ or ‘skinny.’ This is in the vein of many body-positivity activists reclaiming the word and help it uplift young women like the way ‘thick’ and ‘curvy’ have. I myself, am fat. 

While originally praised for casting a plus-size woman as the protagonist in a romantic comedy, Netflix’s latest teen romance Sierra Burgess is a Loser has faced numerous accounts of backlash since its release last week. The film has come under fire for glorifying catfishing; making numerous jokes at the expense of LGBTQ+ youth and the deaf community. However, in the sea of comments surrounding the rom-com, as well as the fat-shaming backlash Netflix experienced last month with Insatiable, what really disappointed me was the film’s treatment of it’s protagonist Sierra, played by everyone’s favourite Upside Down victim Shannon Purser.

Sierra Burgess is the latest in a slew of female protagonists who unfortunately help support a romantic-comedy trope that I’ve dubbed the ‘Fat Girl Romance.’ Films like The Duff  (literally an acronym for Designated Ugly Fat Friend) and Shallow Hal often try to take critique the trope but fail miserably, helping to cement the idea that a version of beauty that differs from mainstream media is only desirable to one person. Characters like Purser’s Barb in the first season of Stranger Things as well as Beanie Feldstein’s character Julie in Ladybirdare well-written and wonderfully complex ‘sidekick’ characters who one existential flaw: they’re not seen as romantically valid by any of their peers.

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The ‘Ugly Duckling’ trope has always been popular within Hollywood romantic comedies. These are women who are looked at as ‘quirky’ or ‘lame,’ generally with little to no friends and who seem to put no effort into their appearance whether it’s because they consider it unimportant or because it’s an outward revolt on the very teen culture that has tormented them. In films like She’s All That, which revolve entirely around the ‘Ugly Duckling’ storyline, these characters are seen as needing improvement, finally realising their full potential after makeover montages and the acceptance by someone of ‘the popular crowd.’

In films like The Breakfast Club or Clueless, making over the girl who goes against the grain is a subplot to the story, finally introducing someone previously seen as undesirable to be worthy of attention, particularly from her male peers. When you replace the actress however with a fat girl, this changes.

Sierra is literally introduced as a ‘loser’ before the film even begins. She’s shown to not put much effort into her appearance, possibly because she is ‘smart’ and studious. Her inner circle consists of her parents and only one other person. When Veronica (Kristine Froseth), the school’s resident mean girl, befriends Sierra, she’s teased by her friends who remind her that ‘only losers hang out with losers.’ Sierra, for fear of being rejected by Jamey (Noah Centineo), the popular jock from the rival high school, catfishes him for weeks pretending to be Veronica, ultimately needing the thin, pretty cheerleader to vouch for her in order for the romance between Sierra and Jamey to actually bloom.

While Sierra’s size isn’t directly tied to her ‘loser’ status by any of her tormenters in the film, an outburst in front of her conventionally attractive mother (played by Lea Thompson) as well as a song she writes as part of a school assignment, prove to the viewer that Sierra sees her physical appearance as her biggest crutch when it comes to winning over the boy of her dreams. The song she pens for school literally says ‘If I could I’d change overnight / I’d change into something you like.’ Sierra therefore loses all faith in her intelligence, kindness and sense of humour when it comes to finding love, letting her insecurities turn her into a bully by continuously catfishing Jamey and publicly slut-shaming Veronica. Sierra therefore also helps cement many of the ‘geek’ archetypes that spell out that, if you’ve been bullied or teased you can get away with doing that to others – but that’s another analysis for another day.

The only other fat character in the film is Veronica’s mother Trish, played by This is Us‘s Chrissy Metz. Veronica describes her mother as someone clinging on to youth and Trish is depicted as someone obsessed with societal ideals of beauty, coaching her two younger daughters to be pageant queens and controlling Veronica’s diet. When Veronica tells Sierra that her mother is controlling because her father left her for a younger woman, the puzzle falls into place: Trish’s obsessions stem from her own insecurities of not being thin, young or beautiful enough to keep her ex-husband at home.

Overall, both the ‘Ugly Duckling’ trope and the ‘Fat Girl Romance’ share one major crutch: a woman’s worth is only quantified and qualified by the male attention she receives. Where the two tropes differ though in their ‘desirability’ is how many people desire them. Characters like Laney in She’s All That or even Lara Jean in Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, go from invisible to visible once they enter the popular boy’s inner circle. Sierra Burgess and other fat girls on screen however, are lucky if they get to be desired at all, especially when we’re talking about non-protagonist characters. It helps develop the notion that women who do not fit a societal ideal of beauty must ‘settle’ for the first person who shows any romantic interest in them.

Before going to homecoming together, Jamey looks at Sierra and says she’s not everyone’s type but she is his type. Jamey enters a martyr position here, stepping above the crowd and sacrificing himself by dating the ‘loser,’ admitting to the fact that Sierra is still not seen as desirable to anyone but him.

I’m not asking screenwriters and filmmakers to write about plus size women who aren’t self-conscious: that’s normal! We’re confronted by an ideal of beauty that differs from what we see in the mirror. Stories about body acceptance and positivity are vital.

However, we aren’t all the same. Whether a side kick or protagonist, fat women have been deemed ‘lesser than’ by Hollywood for too long, especially when represented as romantic leads. In reality however, we’re not single-faceted. Our insecurities don’t always lie with our weight; we’re not all brainy artsy kids who think we don’t ‘belong.’ We’re fully capable of being popular; of being beautiful and dating people; of finding love without the need for someone to sacrifice their social status. Some of us like to put makeup on, and go shopping; we wear clothes that aren’t sweatpants and hoodies; we can be complete bitches and absolute angels. We are simply more than a fictional number on a scale.

My issue with Sierra Burgess is a Loser isn’t just about the treatment of fat women; it’s about how Hollywood believes that unless you fit a particular ideal of beauty, you’re not worthy of valid character development. Whether we’re discussing fat women, LGBTQ+ women, women of colour or women with disabilities, physical appearance always appears to be one of their defining characteristics. Write a character that is everything you want it to be, and don’t let her physical appearance make up 95% of her personality.

 

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Published by Gemma Pecorini Goodall