The Big C's Big Black Problem

I am a loyal fan of The Big C. It is beautiful in its poignant portrayal of a woman living with cancer, yet deeply flawed in its characterization of a young black woman. I'm talking about Gabourey Sidibe's character, Andrea. Of course, the fact that actresses like Sidibe are given supporting roles in shows about confident, capable women is vital, but it too often comes at a cost: The Big C's writers bestow upon Andrea qualities that have potential to give her depth, but ultimately she is more trope than fully realized.

The worthy heroine of The Big C is Cathy Jamison, played by Laura Linney, who was honored with a 2011 Emmy for the role. Cathy is a quietly desperate history teacher in suburbia until she discovers she has stage-four melanoma with little chance of survival. With her remaining time, she decides to start re-living in a refreshingly non-cliché way. She makes an aggressive effort to develop a relationship with her apathetic teenage son while shifting the paradigm with her man-child husband. There is something about Cathy that is ultra-likable: she's kind but has gumption, possesses perfectly acerbic wit, and her once-privileged lifestyle is tolerable because she takes nothing for granted. Her friends and family each test her renewed outlook on life in various ways: her brother is an anti-establishment vagabond who impregnates her vapid, narcissistic college BFF; her across-the-street neighbor is a grumpy old widow with honesty that provides levity, and one of Cathy's favorite students is an overweight underachiever with an endless arsenal of clever one-liners.


Is "overweight underachiever with an endless arsenal of clever one-liners" a euphemism for sassy fat black girl? Why yes it is. Enter Sidibe, or Andrea, a student who cuts class, uses foul language, and proudly does not exercise. She is all attitude and doesn't give a flying expletive what you think of it. When she was first introduced, I audibly expelled air — seriously? This again? Don't we already have plenty of series with largely white casts flanked by sassy black tropes? Hiya, Mercedes from Glee, Donna from Parks & Recreation, Ava on Up All Night, Raineesha on the now defunct Reno 911!, Miranda on Grey's Anatomy! And please don't say "quit hating" — I love all those shows, The Big C included. I just know they have problems.

Andrea's tepid story arc in season 1 is almost unbearable to watch at times: she has to attend Cathy's summer school class because she's failed it already, she's hopelessly overweight, and she's openly defiant to the one person who shows her kindness. Andrea personifies three major tenets of the Sassy Fat Black woman trope: her issues with weight, her hyper-awareness of race, and her rather antagonistic attitude toward everyone.

Andrea is fat — her obesity is a central theme of her personhood in season 1. Her unhappiness with her body leaves her wrought with melancholy. In the pilot it's established that Andrea is overweight, hates it, and Cathy wants to help her slim down; Cathy even offers to pay her $100 for each pound that she loses when she catches Andrea smoking to curb her appetite. "I'd rather be skinny and die young than be fat forever," she declares. I wonder what it was like for Sidibe to recite this line even though she has openly declared her positive body image.

In episode two the first sight of Andrea is on the scale, with Cathy encouraging her to exercise. In episode three we see her reluctantly dismounting a tandem bike saying her "cooch is getting sore." "Think about how great you're gonna feel when you go down a dress size." "Who the fuck wears dresses?" Andrea retorts. Seriously? Seriously?? She's so angry about having to ride a bike that a dress is a suddenly obsolete garment?

In almost every scene featuring Andrea in season 1 her weight is mentioned or she is physically exercising. Second to her weight, Andrea is marked by her disgruntled persona.

Andrea is aggressive — if she is speaking, she is saying something snarky or instigative, or both. We usually see her on the defensive, ready to attack. And when she is the sole recurring woman of color on the show, this is significant. Beyond her witty comebacks, her actions are depicted as needlessly combative. The sassy black woman is constantly on edge or ready to lose it, for no apparent reason. In episode two she wields a paintball gun to coerce Cathy's son Adam off a bus.

In episode 5 there's a a scene with Andrea and Adam that's so absurd I laughed out loud. She is jogging, in case you forgot that her weight is the driving force of her life, and runs into Adam. She tells him to "stop staring at her titties," tells him he's never seen a rack like hers and then commands him to touch her boobs. After he clearly says no, she grabs his hand and puts it on her breast. What are we to take from this? That Andrea wants to feel good about her body and succeeds in this by making a guy fondle her chest? That women really like to be ogled by men and want to be grabbed? Or is she just so sexual that she can't help herself, the Jezebel trope personified?

During the third episode at the dinner party, Cathy explains that Adam is refusing to come down to join the guests and Andrea takes it upon herself to lay on him some good old-fashioned sassy black woman retaliation. She cusses him out and intimidates him into submission.

Though it is impossible to deny that Andrea is clever and a source of comic relief on a program that requires gravitas, it is difficult for me to relate to her because her foul temperament only amplifies as the series progresses. Objectively, she seems to be an angry, unhappy girl who is, at best, uncomfortable. Her unfortunate dealings with race exacerbate this view. 


In shows that tokenize black characters, those characters usually have an awareness of race and are quick to point out faux-racism or "play the race card." These events are usually imbued with liberal themes in which those accused of racism clearly have no racist intent. This serves to minimize the actual racism that people of color in America experience every single day and normalize the sentiment that black people are too sensitive about race. Because black people constantly bring up race, everyone else is so totally post-racial and free to avoid critically analyzing any private thoughts and actions influenced by race. Andrea takes every opportunity to remind the viewer that she is black and on a hair-trigger about crying racism.

Season 1, episode 3: "This better not be like one of those Blind Side fantasies where the uptight white bitch tries to save a black kid," Andrea succinctly tells Cathy after rejecting an invitation to a dinner party.

Season 1, episode 9: "What are you asking me about drugs for? Don't you know that racial profiling is rude?"
"I just thought you might've heard something."
"I actually did hear something — it's none of ya damn business."

Season 2, episode 2. When Cathy's best friend suggests Andrea could be her nanny and Andrea repartees: "Why? Because I'm black?"

Season 2, episode 3: "I bet you weren't a big fan of me moving in," she says to Cathy's husband, Paul. "Maybe you didn't want me here because I'm black." Once he protests she breaks into a grin, "Just fucking with you, Mr. J."

One redeeming quality of Andrea's character development in the second season was the relationship with the model-esque Ukrainian, an immigrant named Mykail who openly shows attraction to all of Andrea's tropey-ness. He is enamored by her attitude and pursues a relationship with her that seems to be based on genuine affection rather than some icky fetish.

Because of this entrée to romance, we even get to see Andrea navigate the travails of teenage sexuality and contraception. She's nervous about her first date, she is unsure of her identity, yet he's still attracted to her in spite of her flaws. The image of a young, albeit unlikely, interracial couple falling in love is refreshingly rare. But see, there are no happy endings for such a couple. Spoiler alert: Myk is revealed to be a thieving coke-head who is merely using Andrea in order to gain American citizenship as her husband. Of course he could never really want to be with her, the writers thought. Seeing the sassy fat black girl get her heart broken is apropos to the underlying message of her trope: love only exists unrequited because she has no desirable attributes.

This hackneyed characterization is lazy and limiting. I'm not saying that there shouldn't be black female characters with "umph" or vivacity, or that I would prefer Andrea as the pernicious matter-of-fact gentle sidekick, or gentle soul who cures Cathy's cancer through supernatural powers. Perhaps a start would be someone who consistently exhibits a wide range of emotions, not mostly anger, because black women are not several predictable components, as novel as that may sound.

From the beginning of season 1 to the finale of season 2 we see an impressive journey that Cathy and her loved ones embark on; there is progress, change, and humanity. There is certainly a modicum of compassion and warmth from Andrea by season 2: when she makes Cathy a "Brave Bitch" t-shirt for her clinical trial visit, the unlikely friendship that she develops with Adam, and her penchant for sewing that drives her to want to attend a fashion college. Overall, however,the lack of character development leaves a poor lasting impression of Andrea: she is burdened by heaviness and blackness that marks her with a permanent and tragic inferiority complex. No more than a mere caricature that the nice white lady does her best to save by allowing Andrea to live in her home, as she does in the beginning of season 2. It's unfair that a clearly progressive, well-written show with a lead female character, layered with complex and dynamic interpersonal relationships, simplifies the black girl. In the finale, when Paul informs Andrea of Myk's charade, she physically assaults him. "Is it so hard for you to believe that somebody could love me?" Yes Andrea, a little.

The third season premieres in April. I will be watching, hoping that Andrea is granted a reprieve from this lazy binary. If not, maybe I'll be writing about when the intersectionality is no longer enough.

With the advent of the Things White Girls say to Asian girls, and Desi Girls meme videos, there should be one called: "Things so-called liberal TV shows do to black women." If they are included at all. And that isn't sass, it's sad reality.

Sonita Moss is a graduate of the University of Michigan class of 2010. She hopes to obtain a PhD in Sociology with a focus on the intersections of gender, race, and beauty in pop culture. Whilst she prepares for the GRE, she occasionally updates her blog: deconstructedbeauty.tumblr.com, loyally watches too many TV shows, and attempts to get back into reading novels. Academia kind of ruined that for her.