Last week, the Raven Symone series created by chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner, State of Georgia, premiered on ABC Family. Symone plays Georgia, a young woman who’s recently moved to NYC to pursue an acting career. As written, the character of Georgia is meant to be voluptuous — a quality she embraces yet one that some casting directors reject.
As played by the newly svelte Symone, however, Georgia wouldn’t be anyone’s definition of “curvy.” So what to do? According to reports, Symone’s thin frame was padded for the pilot episode (Symone confirmed this in an interview with The Insider) wherein Georgia faces rejection from a casting director who tells her “You’ll never be a star… no one will buy you as a seductress because in Damn Yankees, when they talk about the big seduction scene, they don’t mean the size of the actress.”
It’s a hard moment to watch, and not just because of the cruelty and seriousness of a character who, only moments before, was cartoonishly silly; it’s hard to watch because (even with the padding) Symone still looks pretty svelte and fit, and the steely reserve her Georgia replies with lets us know that this isn’t the first time the character (or perhaps the actress herself) has heard this damning and foolish decree. Symone does an admirable job of delivering Georgia’s empowered and empowering comeback, while still betraying a hint of the hurt and vulnerability that anyone would feel in that moment.
Symone’s figure and how it affects her ability to play this comedic role presents a sticky issue for feminists. On the one hand, her weight loss can be seen as a capitulation to normalizing, sexist demands that women in the spotlight be standard regulation size (read: SKINNY)… On the other, is there room for the possibility that losing weight was an expression of Symone’s own agency and control over her own body? It’s a rare situation for an actress’s weight loss to be of concern to her network and the show’s crator, but in this instance, can a show about a young woman who embraces her curves work without a curvy leading lady?
As wrong as it is to deny a talented actress work because she’s curvy, is it equally backwards to deny a thinner actress? Hollywood doesn’t seem to have a problem pretending gorgeous, thin women are in fact overweight (the scene in Knocked Up when Katherine Heigl is told to hit the gym before appearing on camera at E! comes to mind…).
Ultimately, what’s disturbing to me in all this is not the weight gained or lost, but rather the almost fetishistic and commodifying attention to a young woman’s body. The discourse surrounding Symone’s weight loss (is it healthy? Is it a good career move? Is it bad for the show?) renders her body a commercial object with measurable “worth,” and most damningly, takes the actress’s body out of her own hands.
Emilie Spiegel is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Media and Feminist Studies at NYU.