American women are beginning to see something they haven’t seen much on television — themselves. Reality shows such as Style’s Ruby or scripted ones such as HBO’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency with Jill Scott are putting women with curves into the primetime spotlight.
“I wish this show had been on 20 years ago,” said Josh Berman, creator and executive producer of Drop Dead Diva, Lifetime’s new scripted dramedy starring plus-sized actress Brooke Elliott. “It’s only been with networks taking more chances and willing to admit that the audience is broader than they think that this show could have come about.”
Lifetime is no stranger to depicting real women with curves. “When we program television shows, we try to buy shows that represent our audience and our brand and that provides diversity for us in programming,” said senior vice president of series programming and development Nina Lederman. Lifetime tapped The View’s buxom Sherri Shepard to star in a sitcom this fall.
To comedian Margaret Cho, a Diva co-star, plus-sized women on TV are more than just a programming move — they’re a movement. “The main goal is to make Drop Dead Diva a hit because this is the audience that is left out so much,” said Cho, whose standup comedy routines often skewer Hollywood’s obsession with thinness. “It’s really hard to talk about invisibility, but the issue we’re talking about is invisibility and real women and real women’s issues.”
Body image has always been an important concern of women, says WE TV president and general manager Kim Martin. In a recent survey conducted by the channel, more than half of its viewers — women 18 to 49 — said they were trying to control their diets.
“That is representative of women across the country,” said Martin. “About 40% of our viewers participate in exercise regularly, so we make sure the programming on WE speaks to them.”
Whether it’s weight loss on fitness shows like I Want to Save Your Life or the docuseries The Secret Lives of Women, ultimately what connects viewers to these shows, said Martin, are “characters that you can relate to and want to watch.”
Such relatable characters include Ruby Gettinger, the formerly 480-pound Southern belle whose weight-loss journey is being chronicled for a second season on Style.
“We really felt her story could be really inspiring to a lot of people who are facing the same issue,” said Style president Salaam Coleman Smith.
Inspired by her own body issues, Lisa Ann Walter (Shall We Dance) created Dance Your Ass Off, a weight-loss dance competition on Oxygen. “She’s had four kids and has struggled with her weight and turned to dance to lose weight — that’s actually how she came up with the show,” said Oxygen senior vice president of original programming and development Amy Introcaso-Davis.
These shows are “definitely hitting a nerve,” said Mark Freeman, director of programming at Fine Living Network, which has seen success with Bulging Brides, All That’s Fit and off-network repeats of NBC’s The Biggest Loser.
On his FLN makeover series, Closet Cases, style expert Lloyd Boston deals with issues involving body image, “but I touch also on how your closet and your dressing space helps you feel better about your body versus feel worse about it,” he said.
“Women need to feel validated and they need to see themselves represented, and programmers realize their audience looks more like Ruby or any of the ladies on The Biggest Loser,” said Boston. “It’s smarter to put up a mirror to the audience rather than an image they’re going to envy. Those days are kind of long gone.”