The Girls on the Go: Big, Fat, and Beautiful Women in Musical Theatre

Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Marissa Jaret Winokur as Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

“You like musicals? Have you ever heard of Hairspray? You’d be a great Tracy Turnblad!”

I have consistently heard variations of this for about ten years now. And I have the feeling it’s not just because I’m a belter and a brunette.

SPOILER ALERT: I am not a skinny person!

That doesn’t automatically make me ugly, lazy, or unhealthy. Unfortunately, my size does automatically put me into a type as an actress.

So, yes, before you ask, I’ve heard of Hairspray. The fat nerd who secretly loves hip-hop in High School Musical? I’ve been up for that role. I can sing the Sad Fat Girl Songs from Bare: A Pop Opera, Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?, and Dogfight at the drop of a hat. Oh, and I have heard “I’m Not Pregnant.” I have mixed opinions about the fat female characters in musical theatre.

Before I continue, I should probably point out to you that I am not using the word ‘Fat’ in a derogatory manner. Like I said earlier, fat doesn’t mean ugly, lazy, unhealthy, sad, angry, undesirable, smelly, or any other association commonly made with fatness. Fat just means fat. Any negative connotation was created by society, not by fat itself.

As an artist, you have the ability to contribute to or to push back on cultural myths. Writers commonly do this by letting the underdog prevail. Whenever a character is an underdog, there is usually a societal inequality that explains why they are perceived as losers or outcasts. Fat female characters are no exception.

Ballads like “A Quiet Night at Home” from Bare: A Pop Opera are popular for a reason. I call songs like this Sad Fat Girl Songs, because they illustrate the very real pain and self-deprecation that comes from being fat while female. Would I, an actual sometimes-sad and fat girl, use a Sad Fat Girl Song as an audition piece, though? If you asked me five years ago, I would have said yes. You may say yes, and more power to you. It takes guts to look strangers in the eye and allow them to witness your darker truth for sixteen bars.

…As I get older, though, I’m learning that going into a room full of strangers and literally belting “Look, I’m fat and this is very sad for me” isn’t exactly the best first impression I could be making.

The alternative to the Sad Fat Girl Song is the whole funny-fat-girl-schtick. I’m all for funny women. However, I think it is reductive for a fat character to predominantly joke about her body in the name of humor. If the behavior is a defense mechanism, that’s a different matter entirely. There is truth to the stereotype that fat women use humor to cope and connect, but the humor doesn’t have to be fat-centric.

Other fat lady characters are considered funny because they are outwardly confident and/or sexed-up.  What’s so funny about a fat woman telling the world how sexy she is? I can’t help but notice an inherent cruelty written into these scenarios as if the punchline is “Haha, she can’t be attractive! Bless her poor, fat heart!”

Real-life fat women can be attractive. Maybe it’s not your taste, but there are fat women who find love. There are fat women who love themselves, take chances, get the guy, and never hide who they are or how they feel.

…Which brings us back to Tracy Turnblad.

A fat, beautiful female lead can achieve her goals and find love for 2,642 performances on Broadway. Positive, sensitive portrayals of fat women can be written and performed to great success. Knowing that gives me hope for myself and other girls and women like me.

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