home Feminism, North America, TV, Women The Big C: So this is liberating?

The Big C: So this is liberating?

The Big C is making quite a splash in cable programming. Laura Linney stars as Cathy Jamison, a high school history teacher diagnosed with Stage-IV melanoma. Cathy eschews chemotherapy and opts not to tell any of her family and friends about the diagnosis, despite being told that she has a limited life expectancy.

It’s a premise that’s both intriguing and deeply disturbing. It helps that The Big C is headlined by an all-star cast of character actors. Showtime has demonstrated that, along with Weeds’ Mary-Louise Parker, the network consistently offers darker, less conventional roles for women in television comedies. And if that’s not enough, consider that the show’s pilot was seen by 1.154 million viewers, giving Showtime its largest audience in 8 years for an original series debut.

Some audiences characterize Cathy as subversive and emboldened by the decision to live out the remainder of her life with a devil-may-care attitude toward finances, marital problems, and other stresses of adult life. She buys a new car, orders liquor and dessert instead of a sensible chicken dinner, and even does cartwheels in the hallway of her high school.

Ms. Magazine blogger Audrey Bilger hails Cathy’s “feminist spirit,” claiming that “when a formerly mild-mannered, soft-spoken woman behaves badly, the incongruity is delicious. Linney plays this rebellion beautifully. You can see Cathy pause before she crosses a line, and when she goes there you’ll find yourself cheering.”

Yet Cathy’s impulse buying and enjoyment of food do not insulate her from the loneliness which colors all of her relationships, from the self-involved and childish husband (Oliver Platt) who never asks about the real reason behind Cathy’s behavioral swings to the immature teenage son, Adam (Gabriel Basso) and her outrageous environmental activist brother, Sean (John Benjamin Hickey).

Is playing the silent martyr a feminist act or a more passive, regrettable deed? Cathy’s liberation comes at the price of emotional isolation from her friends and loved ones, who have no comprehension of her inner turmoil. By taking on the burden of keeping her cancer a secret, Cathy embodies the American go-it-alone ethos, yet it is clear that the secret weighs her down and keeps her from attaining real closeness with anyone in her life.

Nonetheless, Cathy so far appears to be at peace with her decision and seems determined to enjoy all of the material comforts her middle-class frugality had previously denied her, as well as bursts of honesty with neighbors and strangers with whom she now feels she can express her real thoughts without fear of reprisal.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the show is without problematic content, and observing Cathy’s interactions with other characters will surely have viewers questioning Cathy’s supposed feminism. Guest star Gabourey Sidibe plays Andrea, a surly teenager stuck in summer school with Cathy as her teacher. In her first scene, Andrea offers a spot-on impression of her neurotic history teacher one morning after arriving late to class, only to be told by Cathy that, “You can’t be fat and mean, Andrea. If you’re gonna dish it out, you’ve got to be able to lick it up. Fat people are jolly for a reason. Fat repels people, but joy attracts them,” Cathy says, who is making sure to include every fat-phobic stereotype she can cram into the conversation. “Now, I know everyone’s laughing at your cruel jokes, but nobody’s inviting you to the Prom. So you can either be fat and jolly, or a skinny bitch. It’s up to you.”

So much for feminist solidarity! In this exchange, the audience can clearly see Cathy’s so-called “liberation” has morphed into the cruel harassment of an innocent young woman whose body falls outside of traditional parameters for female beauty: thin and light-skinned. Andrea is shamed for her body — for daring to be Black, fat and sarcastic in a society that renders both women of color and larger women as invisible — and she is silenced from joke-telling.

From there, Cathy catches Andrea smoking in the school corridor and makes her an offer: she will pay Andrea one hundred dollars for every pound she loses and Andrea will have weekly weigh-ins to track her progress. This is body policing to an extreme degree, yet Andrea seems eager to cash in on the potential high pay-out of weight loss. Are we meant to see Cathy as benevolent and invested in Andrea’s well-being, or is it more important that we see how Andrea has been reprimanded for her larger body and bribed with money to change it? In an interview with USA Today, Sidibe commented on her role in show, saying:

“Cathy has for a lot of years lived a life for someone else, and Andrea does what Andrea wants to do,” Sidibe says. “There’s just a freedom that Cathy never experienced and in return, she gives Andrea emotional support she never had.”

It’s unclear how, exactly, Cathy is showing emotional support for Andrea. It can’t be emotionally supportive for a teacher to be so concerned about a student’s weight that they offer to pay a teenager to diet and exercise. Like many white liberals, Cathy believes that throwing money at a problem will “solve” Andrea’s issues, yet Andrea is shown time and again as choosing the food she wants, eating chips outside of a gas station and she is most certainly not going on a “Biggest Loser” weight-loss regimen, despite the promise of money for her troubles.

After receiving an invitation to Cathy’s house for dinner, Andrea admonishes Cathy for her intrusiveness, saying, “This better not be like one of those Blind Side fantasies, where the uptight white bitch tries to save the Black kid.” Andrea, in more unapologetic and definitely emancipating respects than the character of Cathy, is living life on her own terms in the face of multiple kyriarchal oppressions. That is truly feminist.

The evolution of both Cathy and The Big C’s relationships with race, class, gender, and chronic fatal illness continue to unfold each week in new episodes. Let’s hope the show’s politics progress along with the seasons.

3 thoughts on “The Big C: So this is liberating?

  1. Hi, and thanks for your post. I’ve never seen The Big C, but I saw the clip you mentioned–when Andrea was admonished for being fat and mean– some time ago and was equally taken-aback by it.

    But I disagree with some of the things you said in evaluating it. Nothing Cathy said to Andrea involved race, and to suggest that is to derail the real issue: weight-based prejudice.

    First let me say that I too am overweight and have struggled all my life. I know that it is the first thing I’m judged on and if I’m ever going to be taken seriously, it is the first hurdle I must overcome. I get that.

    But I am not immune to judging others and often wonder if fat people might not be less worthy of my respect given that they don’t even have any for themselves. Then I realize that I am the subject of my own prejudice.

    The truth is that we have these feelings for a reason. Being fat isn’t like being black or Jewish or having curly hair, it is the result of choices we make every day. I am fat because of a behavior, and it is unhealthy. It is unattractive. And we all prize beauty above all else.

    Fair? No. True? Abso-freakin-lutely.

  2. Honestly, why do you have to see hate in what is really an act of kindness.

    Young people need to be shocked to get through to them at all. That is what this Character was doing to another character.

    The show’s politics?!? In this story the woman has just found out she has only a short time left to live and she is determined to help someone out in the way she best thinks she can help her. Did she say, starve yourself and throw up in a toilet? No. SHe said you need to eat right. Have fruits and Veggies. OH NO! not fruits and veggies. She said for her to walk every day and try and keep junk food out of your hands. She said to stop smoking.

    Get your sanctimony and put it somewhere else. If i call you sweetie or dear are you going to freak out that i am diminishing you.

    This show is Phenomenal and has no real flaws. The scene in the final episode of the season where the son breaks down is a culmination of what the viewer feels throughout the season as they realize that this awesome person is going to die.

    If you want to write a review, try and keep your personal politics and personal issues out of it and critique the show on what it is.

  3. I’ve been watching the first season of this show this past week, and I did and do have a huge problem with this scene in question. I’m also overweight and big fucking deal. We all have our “issues,” obsessions, flaws, and it’s not OK to just conveniently forget about other internal or external flaws (adultery, egotism, suffocation of her son and dismissal of her husband’s feelings) and yet focus on those that involve keeping to the standards of beauty. Andrea’s parents accept her and love her and keep her in an emotionally healthy environment. She doesn’t need to be rescued by the great white hope. So far as I can tell from season 1, Cathy’s bribe fell flat. Until Andrea makes that decision for herself, it will not work. She is beautiful. But she will continue to make wrong choices until she can see that for herself.

    In keeping with the theme of Cathy’s self-righteous character, I think that’s what makes the show work. Just because she has cancer doesn’t mean she’s a saint or perfect or always makes right decisions. As the audience, we have to make up our own minds and it’s interesting to see her flaws as a person. I do like the way that her character changes throughout the season, a sign of a well-written show. But I appreciate your note of Cathy’s criticism and that it’s simply not OK. To the show, keep the fat slamming to a minimum. That still seems to be the last accepted prejudice of our society.

Comments are closed.