How Gabourey Sidibe is quietly changing the world.

By | February 2, 2010

Oh, this is just what I needed today. As a counterpoint to the extreme self-consciousness of famous fat ladies like Carnie Wilson and Kirstie Alley, below is a clip of the always-wondrous Gabourey Sidibe talking about her Oscar nomination on Good Morning America.

Gabby is a treasure because she is completely at home in herself, at least she is now, and I hope she will continue to be in future, and I hope she has a fantastic career regardless of her size. She is entirely human, and she is normal enough that I feel enabled to call her “Gabby” like I know her personally, which I do not. Her enthusiasm is infectious. We want to root for her not just because she is the underdog — though she is — but because she is so like us, or like a family member we love, or like a friend we don’t see often enough. We want to root for her because some people are so astonished that anyone who looks like Gabby could possibly have any depth that they witlessly confuse the actress with her character. A nigh-universal assumption about fat folks, especially fat folks who are also not white, is that they’re all unintelligent, unhappy, pathetic, and pitiable. Though the character of Precious may, on the surface, be seen by some as fitting these descriptions, the actress Gabby does not. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to watch her as herself for more than a few seconds and seriously argue that she’s any of the above. What’s fascinating to me is that while the role and the character she portrays may not do much that is new for cultural representations of fat folks, especially fat folks of color, Gabby herself, just being herself, talking on late night television or popping in on Good Morning America — she is, individually, a revolution.

When I talk about representation, what I mean is the predominating picture that media paints about certain marginalized groups. When I say “marginalized”, I mean those people who don’t get “normal” roles in the television and film worlds that govern so much of our discourse, but instead get stereotyped or caricatured. The fat best friend of the (thin) heroine. The disabled person who inspires the (able-bodied) hero to do good. The black dude who tries to rob or rape the (white) heroine. The poor stranger who gives perspective and bequeaths the wisdom of poverty to the (well-off) hero. And it goes on. These stereotypes are generally presented in contrast to the protagonist, and it’s the protagonist with whom we’re expected to identify, while the supporting pieces serve their purpose to draw the hero out, to make him a deeper character without having any depth of their own. Precious is unusual in giving us a main character so different than what we’re accustomed to, and challenging us to relate to her over the course of the film. Even when we don’t want to. Even when we’d rather turn away, like we would if Precious were a living person on the street, and not a comparatively safe image on a screen.

Gabby, however, takes this further by not only making us want to relate to her as an actress, in opposition to our comfort level, but by also being, herself, a contradiction to what we expect fat black women to be. She is smart, engaging, funny, and above all, charming. I keep reading folks acting like Gabby is the rarest jewel on earth, that nobody else in the world could possibly look like her and have even a tenth of her self-confidence and appeal.


Gabby represents me. Gabby represents my friends, people I know and love, first-person, real world. Gabby represents a lot of us that our culture and our media don’t believe exist; we are fat unicorns, frolicking in fields of candy flowers, having the unfathomable gall to be happy and enthusiastic and funny and real in a world that demands we be apologetic, and shamed, and chastized, and isolated. My heart bursts with joy when I see this woman on the television because, yes, I feel recognized, and I feel validated. I’m here. I’m real. It’s a miracle. It’s a bloody fucking miracle of impossible proportions, more than I expected, now, ever. How can this be happening? It is.

There I am. There she is.

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