A friend posted a query on Facebook: "Please name some movies/TV shows that make you feel more optimistic/positive about life."
Immediate resonance! I've never been one for dark, broody and violent visual arts. During my husband's avid watching of TV shows like Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead, I flee the room.
Reviewing the pilot episode, The New York Times deemed the show "a jam-packed theater of the verklempt" that "will leave no button on your psychic control panel unmashed."
To which I say, true enough.
Three generations of people, connected in sometimes straightforward and sometimes surprising ways, make up the show's focus. Four central characters share a birthday: Jack (Milo Ventimiglia), Kate (Chrissy Metz), Kevin (Justin Hartley) and Randall (Sterling K. Brown). The nature of entanglements among these four and other key players, too, is revealed only gradually. (Some of the links here contain spoilers about those revelations, but I won't mention any myself.)
The point is this: Time-worn questions of love and loss, ancestry and race, identity and the search for meaning, all manage to appear fresh on the screen in this show in ways that delight me.
I've been moved, in particular, by Chrissy Metz's ability to make her character Kate's sensibilities come alive via subtle facial movements and body postures. Kate is a 36-year-old woman struggling to find satisfying work and fulfilling love.
Kate is also overweight. In Kate, there's a rich mix of body positivity and self-acceptance (she's dating, and sensual scenes are included) with self-doubt and yearning for embodied change (she decides to try and lose a large amount of weight).
I see this complexity as a brave choice for the writers and for Metz. I have written about the multiple and terrible costs of fat-shaming before at 13.7 (see here, here and here), and it's clear from flashback scenes to Kate's childhood that Kate has suffered from this in her life. As an adult, she has not succumbed to it — she is not defined by her body size or others' views of it. Yet at the same time, Kate isn't fully content to leave things as they are: In this time and place in her life, she wants to lose weight.
Why is this courageous? Because Kate is neither the miserable and unloved overweight woman, nor the politically defiant I-am-perfect-as-I-am overweight woman. Easy stereotypes are refused.
Let me say this next bit plainly and avoid any potential misunderstanding: I'm not suggesting that Kate's wanting to shed pounds is the right thing an overweight woman must decide to do in real life. That isn't, course, for me to say. My praise of Kate's character is praise for only one genuine way to present a complex person.
Each week, I find myself musing that Kate's the type of person you just want to go to a coffeehouse and hang out with. Earlier this week, I got to do something even better: I spoke on the phone with Chrissy Metz, the actress who plays Kate.
I started by asking why, in her view, This Is Us has struck such a chord in viewers regarding family love and intergenerational dynamics. Metz said:
"I think it's because all of us have something we're not proud of, or might be ashamed of: a lack of relationship with our biological parents or children, or weight issues, or feeling like we're inadequate in some way. We're trying to do the best we can; we're all works in progress. Everyone can relate to this."
When I told Metz what I admired about her acting — those subtleties I mention above that look so effortless but that I know must be the result of serious talent and training — she thanked me. She said:
"I try to be present in the moment and to be authentic, and to listen. When you listen, as a human being and an actor, you can react authentically. I try to not to overanalyze, not to watch myself too much, but to be present in life and in my art. I'm so glad it comes off in that way."
I noticed that when NPR recommended This Is Us back in September, Kate — and thus, of course, Metz — was described as "morbidly obese." It's a sterile, medical-textbook term. I noticed, too, that Metz is often described in the media as a "plus-size role model." Knowing that some women have reclaimed the word "fat" and choose to self-describe that way instead of accepting others' choices for them, I asked for Metz's thoughts:
"Yeah, I mean, I agree with that — there's such a stigma to the word 'fat,' it's derogatory, it's [seen as] less than. Just because you have that, that's not all you are. Our weights fluctuate: Some people gain or lose, even friends who are average size. If I would say 'I'm fat,' my friends would say, 'Don't say that!' And I'd think, 'Are you offended, you can't handle the word? Or do you think I am embarrassed?'
In a sense, I really do feel that it's like a cuss word, we've made it something terrible, it's [seen as] super offensive. My thing is that I try not to take anything personally, what people think about me is not my business anyway. If you want 'plus size,' or 'fat,' or whatever, but I do agree that there is a stigma attached and it would be nice if and when, to say it without cringing.
I'm just happy to be doing what I do, and if I inspire people and bring hope it's only more reason to do this. It will be exciting to talk about things other than my weight. I'm an actress and a human being.
And that's the dilemma in a nutshell. Kate is a character with weight central to her storyline and, so, Metz gets asked about weight issues. But should weight be explicitly written into the script when overweight actresses earn starring roles? Listening to Metz, I conclude that maybe in the future, fictional Kates could just be large women whose size isn't part of the script.
But we're not there yet — and Metz knows that.
What stays with me most from our conversation is Metz's comment that "We're all works in progress." All of us may evolve, in our lives. That's the concept at the expansive heart of This Is Us, and it's exactly why the show makes me feel positive and optimistic.
Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book is Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape