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.