Fat bodies on TV: Mercedes Jones

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

I love Glee unapologetically.  Breaking out into song inexplicably, dance numbers where everyone magically knows all the moves, covers of my favorite pop songs, cheesy love stories and even cheesier storylines… the show has it all.  Now that Ugly Betty’s been canceled, it’s the only hilariously uplifting dramedy I have to look forward to every week.  (And honestly?  I don’t totally disagree with show creator Ryan Murphy’s assertion that lead Lea Michele—who plays Rachel Berry—is a “once-in-a-generation voice”.  Listening to her sing makes me want to be her best friend.)

My unabashed love aside, I know that the show is incredibly problematic.  The episode on disability, for example, was almost too painful to watch.  Most of the time when Glee tries to tackle tough issues, the writers tend to get after-school special-y.  It certainly doesn’t help that most of the characters are extremely stereotypical.  Sure, sometimes the actors are allowed to give nuanced performances that delve a little deeper, but these glimmers of the subjective person behind the stereotype don’t usually come out during the “issues” episodes.

Which brings me to Mercedes Jones.  I feel like I should love her: she is fat, she is talented, she is confident, and she rocks some pretty awesome fatshion (although Amber Riley herself has an even better fashion sense, IMHO).  In a high school full of mean popular girls, bullying jocks, and comparatively thin people in general (she really is the only visibly fat person on the show these days), Mercedes—quite remarkably—loves herself. When I saw that they were gearing up towards an episode where her size would (finally-for-fuck’s-sake!) be acknowledged, I was simultaneously excited and anxious—how would Mercedes handle being told to lose weight by the notoriously snarky Sue Sylvester, her new cheerleading coach?  How would the writers portray weight and dieting?  Would she temporarily give in to societal norms but come to her senses after fainting and then round out the episode with a (very touching and well-performed, even if a bit cliched) version of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”?  (The answer to that last question is yes.)

But the thing is, while I am a huge fan of Amber Riley the person, I feel fairly ambivalent towards Mercedes the character.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the fact that while yes, she is accepting of her body and this is SO GREAT to see on TV (especially on a show watched by so many young women), this is really the only attitude toward her body that she (as a fat Black woman) is allowed to have. She is and has been up until this most recent episode a complete stereotype of what it means to be big, Black and female according to Hollywood: “sassy,” confident, at times angry and confrontational, and yes, even a bit motherly and relatively asexual (in that although she seems to desire people, she is not seen as desirous—either by other characters or viewers). This stereotype is, essentially, a hybrid Mammy/”Angry Black Woman”. Many if not all of these characteristics, even if they seem to be empowering, actually serve to keep Mercedes (and other fat Black girls like her) in her place: she’s allowed to be angry about not getting the solos she clearly deserves, but isn’t really taken seriously when she speaks up (I think the glee teacher Will once told her they would bring in some “chocolate” so that a particular number would be more to her liking—Glee fans correct me if I’m wrong), she wants a boyfriend and talks about herself as sexy (she refuses to wear the cheerleading skirts because she “[doesn’t] want to start a sex riot”) but we aren’t meant to see her as sexy; we are supposed to like her “in spite” of her brown, fat body (just like all her friends do!). I know that part of the fun of Glee is taking stereotypes to the extreme (which can sometimes actually subvert them), but with Mercedes I don’t see too much room for selfhood beyond her “Beyonce”-osity. It’s frustrating, because I really do love Glee, and I really do want to love Mercedes (and, for what it’s worth, I think Amber Riley does an amazing job with what she’s given).

What I DID enjoy about last Tuesday’s episode was the (sort of) shout-out to intuitive eating from Quinn (the pregnant cheerleader who used to have disordered eating habits until she realized she should eat healthfully for herself and her child), and the mention by someone (can’t remember who) that diets don’t actually work (Halle-fuckin’-lujah!!!). And while I really did want to see Amber Riley rockin’ a cheerleader skirt, I actually kind of love that she insisted on wearing pants instead (as far as it can be read as a refusal to be sexually objectified).  I even loved when Mercedes got so hungry that the kids in the cafeteria turned into giant-sized food items, because seeing Rachel in a pink cupcake costume was just crazy hilarious.

Anyway, I don’t mean to imply that Mercedes isn’t good for FA or representations of fat Black women in general, just that she really isn’t anything new.  Watch any Queen Latifah comedy (especially Hairspray) or some of Mo’Nique’s earlier work, and you’ll see that Mercedes is just another iteration of the same damn thing.  However, with every re-presentation or performance of this stereotype, there is potential for change, for subversion, even if it’s slight.  The fact that Amber Riley is watched by some 15 million+ people every week, that Mercedes Jones is a character that is now near-and-dear to the hearts of millions of young girls, is in itself a bit of a revolution.  And who knows?  Maybe I’m just old and jaded, and Mercedes is actually empowering young women across the country to buck the status quo and love their bodies.  But there’s got to be a way to do this that doesn’t involve reinforcing negative stereotypes about Black female bodies.