Representations of Plus-Sized Characters in Popular TV

Representations, or the ways in which the media decides and works to portray certain groups or individuals in media texts (Hechavarria and Ingram, 2016), are rarely an uncomplicated phenomena, but for characters like Jasmine Flores in Netflix’s dramedy series, On My Block (2018-), and Schmidt in FOX’s sitcom, New Girl (2011-2018), representations can be ambivalent and even contradictory.

With a mixture of positive and negative qualities, overall, these characters are positioned to be comedic relief, between slapstick, physical humor and the drawing of attention to their size and body type in distinctive ways from thinner cast-members. Through providing a brief comparison and textual analysis of the two works, we argue that for both Schmidt and Jasmine, their plus-sized identities served to subvert and contradict stereotypical gender binaries. In flashbacks that depict “Fat Schmidt”, he displays more qualities of emphasized femininity than he does in his more muscular, later version of himself. Similarly, at the surface-level seen in the first season of On My Block, Jasmine’s character demonstrates more qualities of hegemonic masculinity, including hyper-confidence and an intense and vocalized sex drive. Essentially, through the representations of both of these characters, audiences can infer that if one deviates from the standard size expectations of conventionally-attractive men and women, they will undergo a process of desexualization through a gender-bending of their traits. Through the further development of both of these characters, an ambiguity develops which challenges the nature of this sharp gender binary, positioning its characters to prove that there is more to each of them than meets either the eye or the scale.

New Girl (2011-2018) is a seven-season situational comedy series based in Los Angeles that focuses on the ensemble cast of five roommates, their friendships, and their relationships. A large portion of the comedy of the show is based in the clash of mixing feminine and masculine energy, as the inciting incident of the series is the young female protagonist moving in with three men who have been roommates and friends for several years. Schmidt, one of these three male roommates, portrayed by actor Max Greenfield, is an upper-class white Jewish man with a particular affinity for his wardrobe, his social standing, referenced directly by the official show page, and who he can get into bed with. Following a well-trodden television sitcom trope, Schmidt’s backstory as a character contrasts present-day muscular and thin Schmidt to past-Schmidt, affectionately dubbed “Fat Schmidt” by fans.

Image: Schmidt sports a garbage bag to protect his broken penis, Vulture 

Image: Schmidt puts money into the “Douchebag Jar”, SBS

On My Block (2018-), expecting its fourth and final season in a few months, is a dramedy loosely based on the lived experiences and challenges of gang-involved youth in an impoverished neighborhood of Los Angeles. The show follows the story of four main characters who have been close friends since early childhood as they attempt to help one of their own escape his fate of getting indoctrinated into the family business of gang life. Jasmine Flores, portrayed by Jessica Marie Garcia, another teenager in the neighborhood, believes herself to be a member of the group and tags along behind the main cast, eventually becoming close with the central characters’ group and dating her long-time crush, Ruby (Jason Genao).

Image: Jasmine rides up to the main cast on a scooter, Chronically Streaming

Image: Jasmine & Ruby perform a dance routine choreographed by Jasmine, YouTube

There is no shortage of negative aspects of representations of plus-size characters, even in modern media like New Girl and On My Block. Through textual analysis, or the interpretation of symbolic meanings from media texts, we can hope to better understand the interplay between the plus-sized identities of Schmidt and Jasmine and their characters’ gender performativity. Gender performativity can be defined as the acts and behaviors of “doing” gender, influenced by the social construction of gender binaries and expectations. Ultimately, we argue that for both of these characters, the all-too-often pattern of desexualizing plus-sized bodies takes place in a unique way: through flipping and subverting of gender expectations and ideals of these characters in order to service their ridicule and minimize their appeal.

When we first meet Jasmine Flores in On My Block, she is literally chasing after the (all thin) main cast, using her inhaler every few seconds, and struggling to keep up. She wears loud and often skin-tight outfits, and acts with slapstick and attention-drawing physical comedy. Whether she is shouting, grinding on the floor to demonstrate her dancing skills, stealing the underwear of her female acquaintances, or forcibly laying on top of her crush while he fights and wriggles to break free, Jasmine is portrayed early on to be more of a source of annoyance for the central cast (and arguably audiences) rather than a more fully-developed character. Jasmine’s qualities include confidence, physical domination, hypersexuality, a willingness to speak about past sexual experiences, apparent arrogance, and individualism. All of these qualities match up with what is defined as Hegemonic Masculinity, or the dominant social construction of idealized manhood, characterized by being straight, white, cisgender, middle or upper class, able-bodied, muscular, individualistic, confident, physically dominant.

Image: Jasmine lays on top of an unwilling and uncomfortable Ruby, YouTube

Image: Monse and Olivia try to hide their discomfort at Jasmine stealing a pair of Olivia’s underwear, Wherever I Look

There is a large divide (no pun intended) in the duality between how Schmidt’s character operates in the present day in comparison to his alter-ego, “Fat Schmidt”. Fat Schmidt is nice, dorky, nerdy, and desexualized. While being portrayed by an actor in a fat suit, Fat Schmidt fumbles desperately with clumsiness as he wolfs down pizza, dances awkwardly with a girl, and asks his roommate to describe the mechanics of sex. He is comedically gullible, believing due to the persistence of his friends that he has an email-based pen pal relationship with Michael Keaton, and despite his best efforts, is only able to initiate a romantic and sexual relationship with another nerdy, desexualized fat character, Elizabeth. Fat Schmidt aligns much more with the definition of Emphasized Femininity than Hegemonic Masculinity. Emphasized Femininity, the unequal counterpart to hegemonic masculinity, dictates that the ideal woman will be thin, able-bodied, white, passive, submissive, lacking in confidence, and subservient to men. 

Present-day Schmidt, by contrast, is obsessed with his appearance and physique “to the point of narcissism” (Bourdaa and Kurtz, 2017), he seeks out strictly sexual relationships with women and avoids emotional connection at all costs, and has been forced by his friends to input money into the “douchebag jar” when he engages in either annoying, classist, or arrogant behavior. A large piece of present-day Schmidt’s vulnerability stems from being abandoned by his father at a young age, which continues to drive his often incessant desire to “seek success in a highly competitive corporate environment” and to flaunt his status (Bourdaa and Kurtz, 2017). While this type of apparent narcissism and ambition is still received with popularity and likeability from audiences, even to the level of being “widely considered” a “breakout character” (Bourdaa and Kurtz, 2017) for Schmidt, these same attitudes in Jasmine are unacceptable and annoying.

Image: Max Greenfield portrays “Fat Schmidt” in a fat suit, Eonline

As a decades-standing media trope, it should come as no surprise that these two plus-size characters are utilized more as punch-lines than serious characters. Zimdars (2021) references examples from as far back as nearly seventy years ago of fat characters being objectified for humor, from the character of Ralph in The Honeymooners (1955-1956) to more modern examples in The Simpsons (1989-) and How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014). More specifically, we can recall iconic characters like “Fat Monica” on Friends (1994-2004), who, much like Fat Schmidt, had a role that required a thin actor to don a prosthetic fat suit as a “visual spectacle rendering the entire character a ‘one dimensional, comedic gag’” (Zimdars, 2021). While Jessica Marie Garcia, who portrays the character of Jasmine, does not wear a fat suit while channeling Jasmine’s slapstick comedy, the reality still stands that the character is positioned as a gag made to pull laughs rather than a fully realized character.

Despite the differences in these characters, one thing is similar between them: once they return to more “traditional” gender roles, either by losing weight or demonstrating qualities more typical to the gender binary, they are able to reclaim their sexuality. Once skinny, Schmidt represents himself as hyper-confident and hypersexual. He often takes his shirt off for no reason, demonstrates his physical abilities, and often makes picking up women into a contest. All of these actions much more align with hegemonic masculinity than his past alter-ego, and earn him, rather than frustration at his display of toxic masculinity, respect, economic success, sex, and eventually his dream woman as a wife (even after cheating on her). 

After discovering that Jasmine is a caregiver for her father who is experiencing PTSD and needs physical support, and after we see her support Ruby in his journey with PTSD, then Jasmine slowly becomes a viable option as a love interest for Ruby and can be seen as a friend to the other female characters. This calls into question the ways in which the Male Gaze, or the depiction of women and female characters through a male, heterosexual and dominant lens which often sexualizes and objectifies women for the enjoyment of male viewers, plays into how audiences are meant to interpret Jasmine’s character. Early on in the series, Jasmine through the male gaze is at best a nuisance and at worst a threat to Ruby’s identity as a man. It would be absolutely unthinkable for Ruby to ever develop romantic feelings in return for Jasmine, who repeatedly confesses to stalking Ruby and mimes grinding and other sexual activities to gain his and other mens’ attention. By contrast, as the series goes on, Jasmine displays more emotional vulnerability and admits that she has been pretending to know a lot about sex in order to front and hide the fact that she is actually a virgin. Pretty much as soon as this reveal occurs, unveiling Jasmine as an inexperienced woman, Jasmine earns a more positive view in the male gaze, and thus romantic interest in Ruby’s eyes.

Still, even after Schmidt has shed the weight, he still displays some more feminine traits and even at times, references to his past plus-size identity. Schmidt, often to the discomfort of his male friends, expresses his platonic love and appreciation for them, at times through hugging and kissing them. Schmidt’s more feminine interests in luxurious clothing, hair products, gourmet cooking, and obsession with keeping things clean all earn him light bullying and running jokes from his friends. Additionally, there are times where it seems that Schmidt, despite his weight-loss, still identifies with being fat, such as a scene where he attempts to comfort himself through emotionally-eating a brick of cheese. Schmidt even later experiments with rekindling his first-ever relationship from when he was “Fat Schmidt”, which a plus-size woman named Elizabeth. Although things function on good terms for a while, and Schmidt ultimately seems happy and is able to deal with more of his deep-set insecurities, the narrative breaks them up once more, freeing Schmidt to eventually return to his on-again, off-again romance with Cece Parikh (Hannah Simone), a thin professional model. Although there is something to be said for New Girl fans shipping these two together since their Season one chemistry, one has to ponder whether Elizabeth might have been a more viable love interest for Schmidt had she lost weight as well.

Image: Schmidt comforts himself after a breakup with a brick of cheese, Reddit 

Image: Schmidt stands alongside former love interest, Elizabeth, Fandom

Despite the fact that both Jasmine and Schmidt do include some rather negative stereotypes and representations of fat characters, there are positives that we can identify in these shows that let us know we’re moving in the right direction. Even after his dramatic physical transformation, Schmidt still holds true to several more feminine-coded qualities and traits, and despite the fact that these at times make him an easy target for jokes amongst his friends, it is made clear throughout the show that his friends appreciate his affection for them, and also find their friendship meaningful. For his affection toward his friends, his eventual role as a protective and doting father to a young daughter, and his ability to settle down with Cece and stop being a ‘player’, Schmidt can offer us a resistant masculinity, or a direct opposition to traditional notions of white, straight, and cisgendered hegemonic masculinity. Schmidt’s transformation contradicts the argument that his “ideal” finished version would need to align with hegemonic masculinity. This grants audiences an alternative to the only kind of masculinity we have seen in so much of the media.

Another interpretation is that against the typical representation, or lack thereof, that we usually witness of plus-size characters, these representations, even though they include some negative stereotypes, are still steps in the right direction. It is true that historically, we have seen the Symbolic Annihilation, or purposeful erasure, of plus-size characters, especially women, from view, despite the fact that the CDC reports that over two-thirds of American women today are considered plus-sized. In this train of thought, it is certainly a victory that Jasmine Flores, a plus-size Latina woman, ends up being developed throughout the seasons. Zimdars (2021) references that other shows which include plus-size characters, such as American Housewife, are “inherently limited due to their focus on middle or upper-middle class fat women who are white”. The intersectionality, or the experience of how individuals and communities with several layers of minority or oppressed identities all compound to form a unique intersectional oppressive experience that is distinctive from the sum of its parts, of Jasmine’s character is a special one, indeed. For many, the evolution of Jasmine to become a main cast member and a romantic partner for Ruby all while maintaining her sense of self and sense of confidence is a huge victory for the plus-size community.

Image: Ruby leans on Jasmine for support during a panic attack, But Why Tho Podcast

Image: Ruby decides how he feels about Jasmine and the two share a kiss, YouTube

Ultimately, the desexualization of Schmidt and Jasmine from New Girl and On The Block respectively can be initially understood to reinforce harmful stereotypes of plus sized bodies, but the development and growth each character experiences in their respective show demonstrates their characters are complex representations of gender performativity. Schmidt experiences two extreme gendered performances, one that is obnoxiously masculine when he is thin, the other that is comically desexualixed when he is ‘Fat Schmidt.’ Similarly, Jasmine is granted emphasized feminine characteristics only after being subject to the male gaze, which grants the supposed sexuality at the cost of the hegemonic masculine qualities Jasmine embodies earlier in the series. Though both characters tow the line for plus-sized representation on our TV screens, the implications surrounding how these characters are allowed to be sexually desirable are grim.  Schmidt and Jasmine demonstrate a grand step forward for plus-sized representation and stories being heard, while also upholding harmful societal expectations of what it means to be desirable.

Works Cited

Bourdaa, M., & Derhy Kurtz, B. W. L. (2017). The rise of transtexts : challenges and opportunities / edited by Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Melanie Bourdaa. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315671741

Hechavarria, D., & Ingram A. (2016). The entrepreneurial gender divide: Hegemonic masculinity, emphasized femininity and organizational forms. International Journal of Gender and Entrepreneurship. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/IJGE-09-2014-0029/full/html

Iungerich, L., Gonzalez, E., & Haft, J. (Executive Producers). (2018-2021). On My Block [TV series]. Netflix.

Meriwether, E., Kasdan, J., Chernin, P., Pope, K., Finkel, D., & Baer, B. (Executive Producers). (2011-2018). New Girl [TV series]. Fox Broadcasting Company.

Zimdars, M. (2021). American Housewife and Super Fun Night: Fat Ambiguity and Televised Bodily Comedy. Fat Studies, 10(1), 50–63. https://doi.org/10.1080/21604851.2019.1643664

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