When Tracy Oliver was approached to adapt the 1996 film First Wives Club for BET+, she knew she had her work cut out for her. The original film, which starred Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler, revolved around three college friends who reunite after a classmate dies by suicide. The women become support each other as they navigate divorcing their cheating spouses.
Oliver, who made history as the first Black woman screenwriter of a film that grossed over $100 million with the 2017 hit comedy Girls Trip, came to the table with a specific vision. While keeping the DNA of female friendship and comedy of the film, Oliver wanted to reimagine the leads as Black women. ““I was scared to ask this, but I said, ‘Is it crazy if we did it with women of color?” Oliver revealed in a 2019 New York Times profile. “They said, ‘No, that wouldn’t be crazy.’ I was like: ‘Really? O.K.!”
Oliver was also intentional in casting actresses in their 40s and with different body types. “There was an idea to make them in their early 30s, but I said I’d like to keep them older. If we age it down, we’re diminishing the whole point — age is important to get to the insecurity of women as they get older, and to keep the love for women over 40. So that was a conversation. So was body positivity and hiring two plus-size women out of three lead actors, because that’s real life.”
Jill Scott and Michele Buteau were cast in the roles of Hazel Rachelle and Bree Washington. Scott, a Grammy-winning singer who made her big screen debut woman in Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married?, plays Hazel, a talented soul singer who finds herself competing against younger women in the music industry, and Buteau plays Bree, a gifted orthopedic surgeon juggling a demanding career with marriage and motherhood. The representation of these women is important, as Oliver doesn’t reduce them to just their weight. Bree and Hazel are written as complex, vibrant, and three-dimensional women with needs and desires just as valid as their thinner counterparts.
In the history of television, the representation of plus-size and fat women in lead roles has been sorely lacking. According to a 2016 report from the International Journal of Fashion Design, American woman are, on average, between a size 16 and 18, yet they are hard-pressed to see plus-size women cast in lead roles. These women tend to occupy the role of the “fat best friend” whose sole function is to support the thinner lead actress, with no inner life or love interest(s) of their own or even worse, obsessed with dieting and losing weight to be attractive to men. Hollywood has been complicit in promoting this fatphobic messaging — women are only worthy of love and success if they are thin. And they certainly don’t get to be the leads or objects of desire in film and television if they don’t subscribe to having a smaller body. This messaging is especially dangerous when 20 million women in this country will struggle with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime.
There have been some examples of positive representations of plus-size and fat women in lead roles. Living Single, which aired from 1993-1998, featured plus-size leads in Queen Latifah, Kim Fields, and Kim Coles. Roseanne Barr fronted her own sitcom Roseanne in 1988, which highlighted the struggles of a working-class family in the Midwest. More recently, Retta starred in the NBC series Good Girls as a suburban mom who robs a supermarket with her two best friends to pay for her daughter’s expensive medical treatments. For three seasons, Aidy Bryant led Hulu's Shrill as an up and coming journalist who comes to accept being fat, and Queen Latifah is in her second season on the hit CBS crime drama The Equalizer as Robin McCall, a former CIA operative turned vigilante. The common thread in all these portrayals is that these women aren’t the butt of the joke; they are driving the story. They have family, friends, and community, and are unapologetic in how they move through a world that constantly tells them they aren’t deserving of safety and comfort.
When viewers are introduced to Hazel and Bree, both women are dealing with infidelity from their husbands. Hazel is in the midst of a very messy and public divorce when her music producer husband (Malik Yoba) leaves her for a younger pop star and Bree separates from Gary (RonReaco Lee) when he admits to having an extramarital affair. As she told the Times, Oliver wanted to explore the dynamics of colorism in celebrity marriages through Hazel: “The first wives in the Black community are often the ones that you grew up with, who supported you on your way up when you didn’t have any money, and they’re usually black. Undeniably black. But the second or third wives were younger, and also more mixed and less black, or not black at all. There’s this mentality that the more successful you get, the more you can afford to be with an exotic trophy wife.”
Humiliated and penniless, Hazel reluctantly agrees to a televised auction of her belongings, but by sharing her story with other women, she finds support from other “first wives” and realizes the end of her marriage is really the beginning of rediscovering who she is as a woman and as an artist. Bree has her own journey of self-discovery, and while she decides to reconcile with Gary, she doesn’t compromise when it comes to her career ambitions or apologize for making more money than her husband. Bree also comes to understand that asking for help and support in juggling her roles as wife, mother, and doctor empowers her.
First Wives Club continues to push the envelope in how we see plus-size women, particularly when it comes to sex and desirability. In the first episode, when Bree finds out her husband has been unfaithful, she goes out drinking with her girlfriends and catches the eye of a very attractive bartender with whom she has a one-night stand. After divorcing her philandering husband, Hazel finds love with a younger man (Mikhail R. Keize). The show doesn’t shy away from Bree and Hazel’s sexuality, which is crucial to normalizing plus-size bodies receiving pleasure; more importantly, Hazel and Bree know they deserve it.
As First Wives Club closes its third season, television creators and writers would do well to challenge the status quo by casting more plus-sized women in lead roles. As real-life body positivity icons like Lizzo show that plus-size women can lead joyful and fulfilling lives, Hollywood can help to shift the narrative for young girls and women, allowing them to embrace their bodies and stop apologizing for who they are.
First Wives Club Season 3 is streaming on BET+.
Rebecca Theodore-Vachon is a tv and film critic whose work has been featured in Harpers Bazaar, Shondaland Magazine and Indiewire. Follow her on Twitter at FilmFatale_NYC.