Criminal Minds’ Penelope Garcia is a Revolutionary Character We Need -by Selfish Mitch

All female bodies are not the same, nor should they be. AK and I are almost exactly the same age and the same height, for example, but her body is healthiest at a size 0-4, and my body is healthiest at a size 8-12, depending on the brand. I have a broader, more bulkily muscled frame than she does. Her frame and muscles are lean. We’re both beautiful in our own way, and we think all women are too. For us, the goal is to be as healthy as possible, and if we look great, that’s a bonus.

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Kirsten Vangsness as Penelope Garcia  (source http://criminalminds.wikia.com/wiki/Penelope_Garcia)

 

However, if you watch TV or movies, look in fashion magazines and on popular Instagram accounts, you’ll find that the vast majority of women are size 00-4. They might be tall and lean like Taylor Swift, Allison Janney, or Blake Lively, or they may be short and tiny like Ariana Grande and Jada Pinkett Smith, or somewhere in between like Amanda Seyfried and Megan Fox. All of those ladies are beautiful, but Hollywood has a type.

I’m glad that in recent years we’ve seen more representation of different body types in the media. Plus size model Ashley Graham is a great representation of that. Still, have you noticed that in film and television, women who don’t fit in a sample size, like Melissa McCarthy and Chrissy Metz, tend to have story lines that are dependant on weight issues? McCarthy and Metz are both incredibly talented, but Hollywood doesn’t really seem to know what to do with them. Melissa McCarthy is a really talented comedian and seems to really enjoy physical comedy, which is great, but she’s rarely shown as the beautiful, strong, kick ass type. Instead, she’s often in an unflattering wig and clothes that don’t fit, and fat jokes abound. Rebel Wilson is another talented, plus sized actor, and she’s best know for her turns in the Pitch Perfect trilogy, in which she plays a character who goes by “Fat Amy.”

Here’s where Penelope Garcia, who has been played by Kirsten Vangsness on CBS’s Criminal Minds, is revolutionary. Vangsness and I have similar shapes, so when I discovered Criminal Minds earlier this year (I know it’s kicking off its 14th season, don’t @ me), I paid attention. I almost never see women my size represented on screen, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one as strong, powerful, and put together as this character. Vangsness is a size 12 according to a recent article I found, but she, like most women of my size and shape, can go up and down a bit, especially depending on the brand of clothing you’re buying. She’s not technically “plus sized,” but she’s certainly a body type we don’t see much in Hollywood. She discussed the topic in an interview with Pride.com.

“Stylists on the set of the CBS series have gotten a bit of Vangsness’s do-it-yourself spirit as well. “They kept saying, ‘Can you bring your own clothes? We don’t have anything in your size.’ Because in Hollywood they have size zero and size 22,” says Vangsness, who is a size 12. “But if you lie somewhere between the 12 to 16 range…they keep trying to put you into a size 4. It’s the strangest thing. What ends up happening is they buy four size 2 Marc Jacobs dresses and make one size 12. Then someone out in TV land watches it and is like, ‘I can get that dress.’ No, you can’t because you don’t have a seamstress that will alter exactly to your body. I feel for everybody.”

I feel you, girl. We’re also in that size range where straight sizes fit us strangely and most plus size stuff is too big.

The character of Penelope Garcia is a rich and layered one. She’s a brilliant former computer hacker who leaves the dark web to go to work for the good guys, profiling criminals. She’s strong, witty, and doesn’t apologize for the space her body takes up. She’s confident, a great friend and co-worker, and a solutionary. She’s also a bit of a weirdo, wearing bright clothing and usually a few more accessories than fashion dictates. She has romantic relationships with attractive men and a flirtmance with co-worker Derek Morgan, who is played by the ridiculously attractive Shemar Moore. Their platonic friendship is deep, layered with mutual love and respect, but they never cross the boundary into a romantic relationship. The sexy banter between them would be enough that most HR departments would write them up, but it’s sweet, funny, sexy, and a great break in the middle of serious storylines about psychotic serial killers.

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Shemar Moore and Kirstin Vangsness photo source

What Penelope Garcia doesn’t do is whine about her weight. She doesn’t come into the office bitching that she only eats carrot sticks and still will never be the size of her gorgeous, athletic, thin, co-worker and close friend, J.J. Nobody suggests Keto or Paleo or the Cabbage Soup diet to Garcia. I haven’t heard anyone say, “Oh, Penelope. You have such a pretty face. Have you tried Pilates?” They do invite her out for drinks, confide in her and love her, and she pays that all right back. She’s been on the show for 13 years, and I’ve never seen Penelope Garcia give a fuck about her weight. She’s healthy, she’s happy, and she loves herself. She doesn’t hide her figure in oversized black sweaters; she flaunts it in bright, sometimes crazy, but flattering patterns. Her hair color changes often, and her makeup is bright. This is a woman who isn’t trying to blend into the wallpaper, making self-deprecating jokes, and waiting to start her life when she hits a magical number on the scale. In a world where people call Beyonce fat and where Scarlett Johansson has been turned down for roles because she’s too curvy, Penelope Garcia living her best life is what we need more of, especially since Vangsness is entering her 14th year of playing this groundbreaking character and I don’t see other shows stepping up and showing other 3 dimensional average sized women. Think about this: Criminal Minds premiered just months after Friends Joey, Chandler, Ross, Phoebe, Rachel and Monica took their final bow. I loved Friends, of course, but the Monica fat shaming was a bad trope. In fact, in the episode about what could have been in alternate futures, tiny Courteney Cox was in Monica’s fat suit, portrayed as an awkward 30 year old virgin who had never been in love and doesn’t seem to have any rich relationships in her life. We haven’t evolved enough since then.

But, Mitch, you say, there are other female fictional characters that appear on screen with more weight than we’re used to seeing. Surely, they can’t all have fat plotlines! I haven’t seen every movie or TV show ever made, so that might be true. I think we’re close with the amazing Aidy Bryant on Saturday Night Live. In fact, she did a Weekend Update segment as herself discussing how hard it is to get roles that don’t revolve around her size. She was once offered a part in a movie. The character didn’t have a name-it was just “Ugly Fat Friend.” Aidy is anything but ugly, and to keep up with SNL’s production schedule, guest starring in other TV shows, and doing stand up and other projects, she must be pretty damn healthy. The great thing about SNL, whether you’re a fan or not, is that the actors often do the sketch writing as well. They have more control over what they do and how they’re seen.

Click play to see Aidy owning this song along with her female castmates and guest star Saoirse Ronan.

We also have the hilarious Katy Mixon headlining her own show on ABC, called “American Housewife.” The show was originally entitled, “The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport.” I have to admit, the character is super relatable to me. Katy’s character, Katie Otto, seems pretty happy with who she is, and she has a loving, supportive, thin, capable husband (which is something I’ll get into in a separate post.) The character and her family move to a super affluent area so their children can have the best education possible, but they’re a middle class family in an area like the Hamptons or Calabasas, and the other moms are tiny, mean, and judgemental. Katy keeps it real, and seems to be happy with herself, but it is hard for her to not fit in with the other moms, even if she really dislikes most of them.

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Mixon playing Katie Otto, who is not having any of this bullshit today. Image: https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/television/2016/10/09/american-housewife-tackles-weighty-subject/HA5mA0bUWzPBrpT5q0LCOI/story.html

She actually creates extra trouble for herself by pushing back against the other parents. She thinks these people are all shallow and materialistic, and for the most part, they are. She’s concerned about her children’s values changing to reflect those of the new community, and she fights it pretty hard.  Still, there are several fat jokes in this show, and some of them are pretty cheap. Also, I think it’s important to note that Katie doesn’t make an effort to know most of the juice cleansing, work out clothes wearing, luxury SUV driving moms, so she’s also being judgemental based on looks. I still call it a bit of progress, just not badass Garcia progress. I do want to note that American Housewife has a different kind of progress-Katy’s best female friends are women of color, and one of them happens to be a lesbian. I love the real-life aspect of that. She has friends who don’t look just like her, who come from different backgrounds. She and her husband are very much in love and rarely put each other down, especially not to the extent we see in other sitcoms. They are portrayed as partners, which is good to see.

In today’s society, even though racists and homophobes, abelists and misogynists still run rampant, they’re being called out.  It seems like fat jokes are the last frontier for jokes about people. Hell, even Glee, the show that had a “very special episode” and set it’s social justice warrior mission to music every week, had unchecked fat jokes.

Still, it’s TV. It’s the movies; it’s not real life, right? In today’s society people are influenced by pop culture. TV shows, movies, reality stars, and even the President drop cruel words into our ears and onto our screens, and those words embolden people. We become a sum of our experiences, and if we are constantly taking in “jokes” about fatness, about people being different sized, that seeps into the general consciousness. When Trump calls Rosie O’Donnell a disgusting pig and says Heidi Klum is sadly, no longer a 10, it makes people think it’s OK to say those things as well. (Along with all of his other problematic opinions on “others”.) Sadly, I still hear people refer to people they care about as, “my fat friend? The one who you met at my party two years ago?” That’s the rub about being considered average or larger sized in our culture. You’re reduced to one characteristic; two if you’re lucky.

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I look different in these photos, but I have the same heart, mind, sense of humor, love, and ambition. Who I am doesn’t change with the way you see me. My self esteem no longer lives and dies by the scale. I’m stronger than that now, but many girls and women aren’t.

 

The fat funny girl. The fat girl with great hair. The fat girl who shouldn’t wear skirts that short. The fat bitch. The fat girl who’s got a great personality. The fat girl who is actually really pretty if you get to know her.

So, how do we react to this? How do we stop it? We can support movies made by female directors and screenwriters. Women, even women in Hollywood, have friends who are more than their weight, and that can come through in their storytelling. We can vote with our dollars for TV shows and movies who are doing it right.

In this world, we can use the internet to tell people exactly what we think of them. The comments any celebrity’s instagram will tell you that. So often people tell them they’re fat, they’re unworthy, unattractive. Don’t do that. If you know people who do that, call them out. Tweet at producers and studios that you want to be represented and respected on screen.

Most importantly, love yourself exactly as you are, exactly as you look right now. I’m working on losing weight put on by some medication right now, because the sudden weight increase has been hell on my joints. I’m working on becoming healthier, and for me that’s about 25 lbs of less fat and more muscle than where I am right now, but I’m not putting my life on hold until my favorite jeans fit again. I still love myself and know and respect myself and my journey.

If you have someone in your life that you see as overweight or fat and that’s part of your description of them, even if it’s only in your internal dialogue, stop that shit now. That person is aware of their weight. You don’t need to tell them. They know about diets and exercise, and if they want to work on losing weight or being healthier for themselves, that’s their journey. It’s not yours. It’s fairly likely they are their own worst critic, so you don’t need to tell them that something is tight or doesn’t look good on them. No, not even if you’re “just worried about their health.” Their health is their own damn business. I have friends who eat like shit, don’t exercise, and binge drink regularly. They almost never have people tell them to change because they’re damaging their health. I polled my friends. Unless they’re over size 10 or they’re size 00 or 0, nobody remarks on their “health”. In fact, I have one friend who drinks daily and smokes like a chimney. Nobody said a word to her about her health until she gained a bit of weight. So fuck that.

Everyone’s body is different. I look thin, strong, and healthy at 155-165 lbs if I’ve been working out. AK, who is my height and age, would look completely different at that weight. That’s my peak healthy weight, but for her, I’m not sure if she hit that weight when she was pregnant and felt huge. I have very thin friends with health problems and a friend who is a size 4X whose doctor constantly remarks on how healthy she is overall. Low blood pressure, great cholesterol numbers, etc. She’s working on losing weight, but she’s doing it her way. You don’t get an opinion or comment.

I’m hoping AK will write a post soon about her experience with people telling her she’s too thin. We hit opposite ends of that spectrum, and that’s not OK either. Sorry this is long, but I have words.

-Love, light, health, and the incredible badassery of Kirstin Vangsness AND Penelope Garcia,

Selfish Mitch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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