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Will Sidibe’s size weigh down her acting career?

Gabourey Sidibe was nominated for a best actress Oscar for "Precious," but in Hollywood's fantasy factory, her size could prevent her from working much.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Howard Stern caused a bit of a ruckus recently when he suggested that Gabourey Sidibe had no chance at a career in acting. Sidibe received an Academy Award nomination for playing the title role of an overweight inner-city teenager in “Precious.”

Said Stern recently on his Sirius satellite show: “There’s the most enormous, fat black chick I’ve ever seen. She is enormous. Everyone’s pretending she’s a part of show business and she’s never going to be in another movie. She should have gotten the best actress award because she’s never going to have another shot. What movie is she gonna be in?”

Since Stern is in the ruckus business and is outspoken on a regular basis, the blasts created some waves in the entertainment community but little beyond that. Yet Stern focused attention on an issue, namely the ability of “actors of size” to establish and maintain careers.

Stern is already partially wrong. Sidibe will appear on the new Showtime series “The C Word,” and was one of the stars of an independent film called “Yelling to the Sky.” But will she be around for the long run? Can large actors or actresses work regularly?

“I don’t think you can automatically rule her out,” said senior editor Thom Geier of Entertainment Weekly. “If you look at two or three, shall we say ‘not size 0’ of the past 20 years, Oprah had a pretty good career after ‘The Color Purple.’ You had Jennifer Hudson, who went on to have a pretty good career (after winning an Oscar for her performance in ‘Dreamgirls’ in 2007).

“Now, is it going to be smooth sailing for someone like Gabby? Not necessarily, because there aren’t a lot of roles written for someone like her. It’s kind of hard to picture her in an action picture or in a conventional romantic comedy. But that isn’t to say there are no roles; there might be roles in Tyler Perry films, or on TV.”

Should movies reflect real life or fantasy?
Peggy Howell is a spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. Since Sidibe became news, her organization has also been in the spotlight.

“She already has other roles. To suggest it’s a one-shot deal is ludicrous,” Howell said. “I could say yes, that she is likely to only be targeted for specific roles. That’s the sad situation in Hollywood today because they don’t represent real people.”

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Howell said the real problem is that overweight folks don’t get a fair shake in all walks of life. “People of size are discriminated against in all workplaces, not just Hollywood,” she said. “Yale did a study on this (in 2008). People of size in the workplace are often overlooked for raises or promotions.

“We’re told that more than 60 percent of the population is overweight, but if you look at the way they’re portrayed in Hollywood in movies and TV it’s more like 10 percent. We’re not portrayed proportionally. It’s very rare when you see someone like that in leading roles. They get more comedic roles, the pathetic or comedic sidekick.”

But should Hollywood reflect real life? Should Sidibe and others of her size get roles in numbers that reflect their places in society?

“Hollywood is very much a fantasy factory,” Geier said. “People tend to go to movies as a form of escape, which is why you don’t see a whole lot of images of ordinary working-class people on the screen, even though that’s the norm of the whole in the country and the norm for those consuming entertainment. There are a lot of lawyer shows and doctor shows, but there aren’t as many lawyers and doctors in the real world. Hollywood exaggerates.”

Life is often unfair, and life in Hollywood even more so. Geier said overweight actors and actresses aren’t the only ones who get the short end. “A lot of very talented people don’t get work,” he said. “There are lots of handsome or beautiful people who have short-lived careers, for whatever the reasons. It’s not fair. How is it that Tom Cruise became a big star and someone else who came up with him through auditions did not?”

In Sidibe’s case, she is not only heavy, but also black, which adds another dimension to the issue, noted Ed Guerrero. He is a cinema professor at New York University who teaches courses in black cinema.

“Most black actors are held up as character actors anyway,” Guerrero said. “When you start to get into black actors that play social types and don’t play the glamorous types then you’re condemned to be a character actor. Michael Clarke Duncan in ‘The Green Mile,’ that was his shot, but it didn’t turn out to be his big break.

“I don’t mean to be negative, but I think she’s headed for character actor purgatory.”

Sidibe’s performance also touched upon a related issue, Guerrero said, one that has been discussed in his classes. It has to do with obesity, and whether images are consumed and retained by audiences, especially in the black community.

“One of the hidden dimensions of ‘Precious’ besides a series of fantasies is this whole issue of weight and size and what you do about that and what kind of message that sends,” he explained. “In the film ‘Soul Food,’ the matriarch cooks great food to keep the family together, but gets diabetes and dies. It’s a movie about food and how it unifies a family, but it celebrates the very food that kills the character of Mama Joe.”

The bottom line in Hollywood is, of course, where the money is. And that might be the bottom line in any discussion about whether actors or actresses of size have lengthy careers or not.

“In the long run, I believe Hollywood producers try to make as much money as possible on their films,” said Richard Verrone, a history professor and pop-culture expert at Texas Tech University. “If an overweight actor helps the bottom line, then an overweight actor will be used in the film. If an overweight actor may hurt the bottom line, then most likely they will not be used.

“Their decisions about this, most likely, are swayed by what they believe public perception will be of their movie and what they believe will make the best film, both in terms of art and of box office appeal.”

Still, actors and actresses in general are notoriously optimistic about their careers, and for those with extra pounds, the image of Sidibe at the Academy Awards has to be heartening to similarly sized hopefuls.

“I think seeing someone like Gabby become so successful,” said the NAAFA’s Howell, “gives hope to young people who felt for some time they have talent to share with the world but the world doesn’t care. Maybe this will give them a little hope that there are possibilities for them as well.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.