As An Overweight Queer Black Woman, I Need More From ‘This Is Us’
Let me start by saying this: I am neither trying to be contrarian nor attempting to get clicks. I actually really truthfully don’t understand the mass appeal of NBC’s new hit show This is Us. In fact, I find much of the show alienating and undermining of what it means to be Black and/or woman and/or overweight and/or queer in the United States today.
I remember when the first trailer came out for the September 20th debut of the show that was billed as a “skillful, shameless tear-jerking” picture of American life. Most of this sentiment stems from the fact that the characters on the show seem to be a “normal” white American family. But, we soon find out that it is everything but normal.
At the start of the series, white American parents, Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy Moore), are preparing for the births of their triplets. However, as circumstances turn out, they end up losing one child and adopting another. The adopted child just so happens to be Black and was abandoned by his father as a newborn. As the show develops, their children, Kevin (Justin Hartley), Kate (Chrissy Metz), and Randall (Sterling K. Brown), go through regular woes of family life with the added complexity of being the handsome superstar jock, the overweight sister, and the token Black person, respectively. While this makes for great television, it also romanticizes many of the circumstances of racial, size, sexuality, and gender difference in ways that make it hard for me to watch the show.
For starters, there is an overwhelming lack of engagement with the fact that Randall is a Black child who becomes a Black man whose life experiences will necessarily require an eye to the politics of race in America. The triplets’ birthday seems to place their birthdays in the 1970s, a period when Black Power rang from the tongues of many young militants and allies. And, while the show has made a few attempts to address the ways Randall’s race is critical to his personhood, they have yet to truly articulate a set of justice-conscious politics that would seem relevant for the era.
One quote that stuck out to me on the “The Game Plan” episode that emphasized this fact, was when Hartley’s character Kevin explained to his Black nieces, Randall’s daughters, “we’re not even different colors anymore. We’re just one thing. One painting…There’s no you or me or them; it’s just us. And this sloppy, wild, colorful, magical thing that has no beginning and has no end, this right here, I think it’s us.” As Kevin explains this experience, the production flashes to a young European immigrant arriving at Ellis Island, who we are to presume is Kevin’s (and Kate’s and Randall’s) great-grandfather. This deliberate shift to a traditionally acceptable form of immigration to the United States as this white male character speaks to two Black girls whose ancestors likely came to this land in the bowels of a slave ship seems both heavy-handed and dismissive of this country’s long history of racial disparity and oppression.
To be honest, that scene was difficult to watch, not because it was emotionally evocative but because it was shrouded in the post-racial rhetoric so many people have embraced in this contemporary political moment. This sort of non-conscious, colorblind political commitment was only further evinced on the Thanksgiving episode where the family’s tradition centered around mocking the pilgrims with no mention of the genocide of indigenous people. The fact is: a show like this is set up just by its mere character structure to do better with these topics. And still, they choose not to.
Another key storyline on the show deals with Kate’s weight. The character is written in such a way that we are immediately introduced to her by the cereal she eats (or is forbidden to partake in by her very petite, very attractive mother), the clothes she feels uncomfortable in, and the shame she feels for a body that she cannot for the life of her relate to. This is literally Kate’s entire character. And while I understand that the show’s writers were attempting to broaden and diversify perspectives of what means to be overweight in this society, they still replicate many of the problematic views of fat and fat people that so many hold.
For example, Kate is frequently styled in frumpy clothing, covered up in sheaths of fabric as to suggest that a) this is how overweight people should dress, or b) this is how little effort the show’s team has put into styling the actress, or, worse yet, c) their conception of a character like Kate requires that she feel shame and embarrassment of her own body to the point where she feels the need to hide it from everyone around her, including her lover. Even at moments where Kate is given the opportunity to be sexy, she finds reasons to avoid it. Unlike the steamy kissing and foreplay scenes involving Kevin, Kate and Toby (her on and off boyfriend played by Chris Sullivan) often rush off camera after saying things like “wanna have sex?” They are rarely shown in passionate moments, removing clothing, or waking up in the bed (like real people do with their lovers no matter their size).
This is yet another one of the ways that This Is Us toes the line of preserving the status quo that says not all bodies can be considered sexy, especially on television.
Lastly, and probably the hardest part for me, is that there is a certain lazy heavy-handedness to the casting and writing of the show. In my gut, I am starting to believe that NBC’s real goal was to make sure that enough people saw themselves reflected in at least one character on the show. There’s the respectable Black guy with the crunk Black wife who wears braids every other week. But, just in case you were worried about his street cred, he’s got a previously addicted, former civil rights activist, bisexual, dying Black father who struggles with chronic pain and fatigue due to cancer treatment and is as Black as they come. We were introduced to his male lover on the mid-season finale rather than earlier on when we met the character.
There’s the overweight couple who happen to live in the one city in America where weight is a literal requirement to get most jobs. Then there’s the materialistic, shallow guy whose daily struggles oscillate between his hair gel and white privilege. Finally, you cap off the cast with the good ol’ apple pie American parents who love football so much that they conceived their children in a bar bathroom. But, in case anyone Brown felt left out, the Latinx best friend ends up becoming the step-grandpa when dad (Ventimiglia) dies.
Yes, all of these sorts of people exist in real life. But, the mythical serendipity that brought this family together (or “the painting” as Hartley’s character calls it) feels less about depicting the vastness of the American experience and more about making sensational TV.
If you are wondering, yes, I will probably still watch the show. I will do so half-hoping future episodes see an improvement on these matters. The other half of my viewing choice stems from my desire to continue seeing at least some slight reflections of myself, my friends, and my family on my television each week. Even if those reflections are stretched, blurry, or distorted, they are first steps toward moving the genre forward.
At this point though, I need more from This Is Us. I think I deserve it too.
Photo by: Ron Batzdorff/NBC
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