Last week’s New Girl introduced a plus size character – Elizabeth – and they did it in exactly the right way. She wasn’t on for long, but it seems like we will be seeing more of her. I can’t say in advance that they will always handle her character as well as they are now, but it’s a hell of a start. Beyond that, it’s something that we don’t often see often on prime time television. What makes Elizabeth, Schmidt, and New Girl so special? Allow me to explain…(spoilers ahead FYI)
Alright, back story. Apparently Schmidt and Elizabeth dated in college, back when he was still “Big Guy” (see also: We Built This Schmidtty on Tootsie Rolls). She was also overweight, albeit not so much as he was. They didn’t work out long-term, because Schmidt changed as he transformed from Big Guy to his current sleek self.
Now to the present…Schmidt’s ex, Cece, is getting married, and he’s pretty upset about it. Thus, he seeks out a pretend girlfriend to accompany him to the wedding. He tries – hilariously – to get his past hookups on board, but they are all pretty anti-Schmidt at this point. Then, Nick and Winston suggest that Schmidt take Elizabeth to the wedding. Schmidt says “Elizabeth doesn’t count, she was during my Big Guy phase”, but he still drops by her house. Here’s the conversation they have when she opens the door:
Schmidt: This is real. This is not a dream. Look, I’ve kept off the weight. You knew me when action sandals were my necessary footwear…
Elizabeth: What do you want?
Schmidt: Why do you think I want something?
Elizabeth: Because I dated you for four years, I know when you want something. What do you want?
Schmidt: I would like to take you to a wedding because I’ve missed you so much.
Elizabeth: No, I can’t take you seriously when you’re wearing such tight pants. Get to the point.
Schmidt: Okay, look, my model ex-girlfriend is getting married to some small little Indian man who I just don’t understand, and I want you to pretend to be my girlfriend so she gets very sad and then breaks off the wedding and then runs away with me.
Elizabeth: Not a chance. (shuts door)
Schmidt: Wait wait wait, please.
Elizabeth: I’m only going to say this once. You were the greatest boyfriend. I loved Big Guy. But then you lost weight and you got mean. You stopped listening to me, you changed completely, you stopped paying for my dinner –
Schmidt: To be fair, at that point you were eating the lion’s share of the food.
Elizabeth: And you were sitting there eating one basil leaf, looking like an idiot panda bear!
Schmidt: Well –
Elizabeth: Look, I loved Big Guy with all my heart, but I have no interest in helping the guy who’s standing in front of me now. I hate your hair.
What’s great about this conversation is that you see Schmidt sincerely reacting to her words. He seems honestly surprised and unhappy when she notes that he “got mean”. After he leaves Elizabeth’s house, he speaks with Cece about her wedding. He apologizes if he was ever selfish in their relationship, and he says he’s really happy for her. We see him actively trying to change, and that’s not all too common on sitcoms.
You know what else is nice about the exchange quoted above? No mean jokes about how Elizabeth is fat. NONE. This is true to form for New Girl, and one of the reasons I love this show. (See: Thank You, New Girl, For Skipping The Cheap Shot Fat Jokes) We occasionally hear Nick or Winston mention Schmidt’s predilection for larger women, but that’s really just a part of his interest in almost all women. Schmidt has more liberal standards for beauty than most men in TV land these days. So I was not expecting a fat joke, but I nonetheless held my breath as soon as I saw an overweight woman on-screen.
It seemed like such a ripe opportunity to throw in a tired insult about her weight, or imply that she is desperate because of her weight, or mock how Cece couldn’t possibly be jealous of Elizabeth as Schmidt’s new girlfriend, because of her weight. This was handled well because Cece actually would be jealous. She’s a model, and she’s super hot, and she’s knows it. Another typically hot girl isn’t going to phase Cece one bit, because she’s secure with her looks. But a woman from Schmidt’s past, that he has an actual emotional connection with? That’s going to hurt Cece, for real.
We see even more evidence of Schmidt’s character progression when he returns to Elizabeth’s house with three pizzas in hand:
Schmidt: I paid. All yours. No judgements.
Elizabeth: Why’d you come back, Schmidt?
Schmidt: The Big Guy is, well, still somewhere inside this perfect body. He needs you to coax him out a little bit, please, tell him what to do next.
Elizabeth: Eat the pizza. Eat all the pizza. While I watch, right now.
After this we see one of the best scenes from the show, ever, when Schmidt becomes reacquainted with pizza. It’s honestly adorable and hilarious to see Big Guy emerging with each bite.
It’s not just the lack of fat jokes that made me so happy. It’s also that Elizabeth is strong, confident, funny, and totally uninterested in Schmidt’s shit. She isn’t the fat ex that has been waiting anxiously for the moment that he came back. She isn’t a woman so desperate for affection that she immediately agrees to Schmidt’s scheme.
She’s portrayed as (gasp!) a normal woman. An awesome woman. Who happens to be plus size – her weight is not her defining characteristic. And you know what? The fans so far are loving it. Many expected Elizabeth to also have lost weight, but were pleasantly surprised by her still curvy (a bit chubby) figure. Fans like myself are deeply conflicted, because we really love Schmidt with both Cece and Elizabeth. Ultimately I think most of us want Schmidt to end up with Cece, because we’ve invested in their relationship and their chemistry is amazing. So that makes it extra awesome that this new character has people feeling torn – their interactions are so awesome that we have to consider if maybe Schmidt is better as the Big Guy.
Much of the credit goes to actress Merritt Wever, formerly of Nurse Jackie fame. Her badass attitude shines through her portrayal, and makes this character a fascinating element of Schmidt’s past (and future?) I don’t know yet if she will appear on more episodes – I certainly hope so, but most of the news online specifies that she was cast for one episode. Maybe she will be integrated into the show more since people seem to really like her? Also, an upcoming episode is supposed to feature flashbacks to when they all lost their virginity. I’m assuming Schmidt lost his to Elizabeth back in college.
I can’t help but compare this to plot to the one with Patrice in How I Met Your Mother. Both shows feature the ladies’ man/player type of guy appealing to a plus size woman for help with a super hot ex-girlfriend. One show – HIMYM – portrays the plus size woman as naive, eager to please, and seemingly oblivious to Barney’s history of mocking fat women at every turn. The other show – New Girl – portrays the plus size woman as intelligent, discerning, and completely aware of how mean Schmidt can be.
It isn’t really a fair comparison, because Patrice’s character can’t be expected to be privy to Barney’s litany of fat jokes throughout the show. Patrice (played by actress Ellen D. Williams) is a very funny character, but you can make a strong case for her being taken advantage of. If she knew how Barney talked, she might well treat him more like Elizabeth did Schmidt.
I wouldn’t put the two side by side at all, except that it is so rare for a sitcom to offer up a plus size character that isn’t made fun of constantly. Patrice isn’t insulted for her weight, but her character is basically there for Robin and Barney to use towards their own ends. She is demeaned and screamed at on a regular basis. Given the show’s history of not-even-clever fat jokes, it’s hard to believe that they didn’t intentionally select an overweight actress to play Robin’s whipping boy.
So in HIMYM, a plus size woman is cast as a character that is constantly put down and treated like shit. In New Girl, a plus size woman is cast as a character that holds her own and doesn’t automatically do whatever she is told to do. In HIMYM, Barney shows little to no progress in terms of how poorly he treats women. In New Girl, Schmidt realizes that he has made mistakes, and actively tries to change. Guess which show I respect more?
Obviously I still LOVE me some HIMYM. Also, I realize that the shows are different enough that pitting them against one another doesn’t even necessarily make sense. But I still think it’s really interesting to consider the dynamics of both shows, and put some thought into how each one portrays women – fat, skinny, or otherwise.