“Remember Me Different”: Kelli and an Exploration of Plus-Size Characterizations in HBO’s Insecure
I want to remember her as more than just a punch line, and instead as a complex character
Insecure on HBO is one of my favourite shows.
One of the reasons why I love watching Insecure is because it resonates with my life. Like many (most? all?) Millennials, I am insecure about many things, including my personal life. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I believe that to be its main appeal — that the show is relatable.
The show is also empowering. On this one show, we have seen Black women take ownership of their sexuality in a way I have not seen on any other show. We have seen Black women take ownership of their careers in a way I have not seen on any other show. We have seen threesomes, and gay characters, and Asian love interests, and we have even seen plus-size characters — which is especially welcome since I identify as a plus-size woman myself.
I don’t want to sound… ungrateful? It’s not to say that I’ll take whatever I can get by way of Black visibility on TV. It’s just that I’m so happy that this show exists and I am too busy celebrating its existence to expect it to cover all bases and solve racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and all other “isms” at the same time. I’ve been hearing murmurs about there not being enough LGBTQ2+ representation (no trans people in particular), and the lack of condoms used whenever the characters have sex, among other criticisms. While I think we ought to rightly assess and analyze and criticize all media, I recognize that sometimes we can ask too much of our favourite shows — and especially of breakout shows with majority Black writers and Black actors. I don’t think it fair to doubly-tax these shows with jumping the high hurdle of existence and shouldering the burden of meeting all of our expectations around representation and public health. It’s too much pressure to put on just one show.
But to the extent that the show has chosen to include plus-size characters, I think it fair to ask that we do right by these characters and make sure that the characterizations are fair and accurate. And on this point, I think Insecure can “do better” — especially when it comes to Kelli.
We are first introduced to Kelli in Episode 3 of Season 1, when Issa, Tiffany, Molly, and Kelli are at a party. Kelli’s first line is, “You gon’ use all your drink tickets? ‘Cause I don’t play...” We learn that Derek, Tiffany’s husband, had connected her with one of his co-workers. Based on Kelli’s retelling, it sounds like a hum-drum date: “He took me apple picking.” But then Derek prods further: “And then?” Kelli responds cheekily, “We fucked in the orchard.”
The conversation starts to veer to the “broken pussy” rap that Issa did about Molly. Issa masterfully manages to change the subject, however: “Kelli, is that a drink ticket on the floor?” Kelli is easily distracted. “Hold up — where?” and she’s off looking for a non-existent drink ticket.
From the outset, we learn that Kelli is funny, confident, sexual, outspoken, and likes to drink. There’s no shame in that at all. I say, “Girl, getcho life!”
It is refreshing to see a plus-size character who is unashamed of her sexuality and who is comfortable in her own skin. In many shows with plus-size characters, those characters don’t have or are a valid, believable love interest, let alone have a sex life. What is troublesome is that her character never seems to progress beyond someone who is funny, confident, sexual, outspoken, and likes to drink.
In Season 2, Episode 2, after the fire at Issa’s house party, Kelli quips, “I haven’t been Saturday drunk on a Friday in a long time… At least no one can say the party wasn’t lit… ’cause it was on fire.”
In Season 2, Episode 4, she proclaims “I’m fine as fuck.” Later on in the episode, she gets fingered under the table at a restaurant — in public might I add, with Issa right beside her — and clearly enjoys herself.
In Season 2, Episode 6, at “Sexplosion,” the sex and sex toy expo that Kelli, Issa, Molly and Tiffany attend, the friends end up talking about giving blow jobs and Kelli says, “Honestly I’d rather go down on a woman. At least that shit cleans itself,” as she holds a vibrator that she immediately puts in her purse to buy.
She is unabashed about her sexual needs. Clearly, she gives no f*cks and she isn’t shy about accepting one. Or many.
In that sense, her character bucks the trend of other plus-size depictions in the media. And yet, there are still other plus-size tropes that Kelli perpetuates and never seems to escape from. Fat people in the media are often the side-kick and the funny, supportive friend. The comedic relief. The goof. They hardly get a storyline, and when they do, their weight is central.
In Season 2, we see that Kelli has lost a lot of weight. Perhaps Natasha Rothwell — the person who plays Kelli on Insecure and is one of the show’s writers and producers — had lost weight in real life and so her weight loss had to be written into the show. I don’t know. Either way, like so many other plus-size characters on other shows, Kelli is getting fit and losing weight to run a marathon (much like in Brittany Runs a Marathon. Some salient thought pieces on this can be found here and here).
It would be nice for weight to not be a “thing” when it comes to plus-size characters. It would be nice if their weight were merely incidental. But alas.
We see a similar phenomenon with Quentin in Season 2, Episode 3. Quentin is a lawyer from a Chicago law firm with whom Molly works. For once, this plus-size character isn’t the punch line in the way Kelli is. I mean, it is… ummm… interesting that all of the plus-size characters on Insecure have a healthy sense of humour, but he doesn’t serve the purpose of comedic relief in the way that Kelli does. What he does do well, however, is make jokes about his weight.
In one conversation with Molly, he tells her, “I’m slim-thick. You gotta feed me. I got a pastor’s body.” Plus-size people often make jokes about their size. When you live in a fatphobic world where people would rather die than gain weight, and where people are concerned about a “Quarantine-15” in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, where fat kids are bullied mercilessly and fat discrimination is rampant everywhere, many plus-size people learn from a young age, as a survival mechanism, how to be self-deprecating and funny to armor themselves in a cruel world full of hate. Thus Quentin’s portrayal is wholly realistic. And it saddens me.
For whatever reason — weight-related or not — even though Quentin and Molly obviously vibe and get along with one another, and even though Molly initiates and has sex with him, Molly doesn’t consider him a real romantic prospect. Go figure.
Inma go back to Season 3 in a minute, but in Season 4, we’re introduced to “TSA Bae.” TSA Bae seems to serve some kind of questionable security role at the apartment complex that Issa manages. We learn that Issa and TSA Bae are in a “friends with benefits” type situation (aka “fuck buddies” to be less politically correct). Sex is a focal point in basically all episodes of Insecure, and I like that the fluffy people on the show are not left out of this narrative. Here, we see a rare instance of fat sex on scene. If I’ve started to sound like I’m narrating a nature documentary, it’s because it’s so rare to see the fat person — the fat male at that — out in the wild, buck-naked, having sex. Rarer still is to see a man of any size change position for the sexual comfort and pleasure of his partner on TV. If you watched TV from morning until midnight, you would almost never know that fat people have sex, just like people of other sizes. Who knew?
After one such escapade, TSA Bae notes that Issa had purchased a new fan. She said that she did after he had, “sweated all over her” the last time they had sex. Obviously, people sometimes sweat while having sex, but I couldn’t help but feel like that comment bolstered the “sweaty fat person” archetype. There has long existed an assumption that fat people are always tired, sweaty and stinky and have poor hygiene because they are… well… fat. The disgust and annoyance with which this comment was uttered invoked this for me.
TSA Bae is not a viable romantic prospect and was obviously just a decent f*ck for Issa — he’s ok, interim dick if you will. A girl’s got needs. To the writers’ credit, he was not upgraded from TSA bae to real-potential-bae because dude had a wife and two kids at home with one on the way. It had nothing to do with his weight. But it is interesting that none of the plus-size Black men are pursued as Plan A love interests.
And again, we see the fat-person-as-comedic-relief trope. He can hardly be taken seriously as the “bouncer” at Issa’s block party. He’s just a big ol’ fun-loving, sex-having guy. No depth. Or, at least, the show doesn’t take the time to peel back the layers of and explore this character.
Speaking of layers, Kelli has many (yup, I’m back to Kelli). She knew about Tiffany being pregnant before Molly and Issa knew, which hints at the fact that Tiffany and Kelli are closer friends than they are with Issa and Molly. We see the hurt in her eyes when Tiffany doesn’t include her in the planning of her baby shower because she’s not a parent. If only Insecure would explore the relationship between them a bit further in future episodes.
Kelli is an accountant/financial planner, but aside from one episode, that fact is never mentioned again. It would be nice to know about the professional life of Kelli, as a contrast to the constant, almost self-imposed professional struggleage of characters like Lawrence and Issa.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Kelli at Coachella in Season 3. All true fans of Insecure remember this scene — the pinnacle of Kelli being a punch line.
Issa, Molly, Kelli, and Tiffany get into a fight with people who took their spot during a concert. The friends get kicked out. Kelli is high out of her mind, gets tased, pisses her pants, lies on the field, and mumbles her famous last words, “Don’t look at me. Remember me different.”
The scene is hella funny and memorable. But it wasn’t until I donned my “thinking cap” (as my elementary school teachers called it) that I realized that once again, Kelli still provides the “fat friend” levity in what was a tense situation.
Seeing plus-sized people bring the levity to every situation on the show starts to get a little… tiring.
There’s a popular GIF of Kelli talking about “growth.” By Season 4, Issa has left her job, started another one, moved out, moved on, and is an event organizer. Molly is finally using her words and being more honest in her relationships. Tiffany is forever pregnant but shows some honesty when she shares with Issa her fears of how motherhood has already changed their friendships. But we never get to see growth from Kelli.
So I’d like to take the idea of “remember me different” a little further. I don’t want us to just remember Kelli as someone who peed on herself at a party. We should be able to remember her differently. Remember her before she pissed her pants. I want her to be known as a loyal friend and person, and not just the butt of the joke or the levity in every situation.
Natasha Rothwell has said in an interview with Huff Post, “And for me as a body-positive, fat-loving feminist, I need other thick and beautiful women to see themselves represented in ways where they are charactered but not caricatured. They are grounded characters with real lives, real stories, real backgrounds and the focus of the scene that they’re in is not their size or their color. They’re telling a true, honest story about emotion, about life and death and struggle. And she just happens to be black and she happens to be plus size. By doing that, you really validate their stories by being worthy of being told.”
I’m not convinced that Insecure has achieved this yet. Kelli, Quentin and TSA Bae don’t happen to be plus-sized. Their size is still central to their inclusion and they are still very much caricatured. As a fellow thick and beautiful woman, I don’t see myself represented. Now, I don't expect Insecure to be the embodiment of my hopes and dreams, but I will admit that part of the reason why I’ve long struggled to accept that I can be chosen, loved, and desired as a plus-sized person is because I didn’t seethose depictions on screen growing up and I still don’t now. I realize that all of this can change or take a new direction in a few hours, since a new episode of Insecure will be airing tonight. I’m just commenting on what I’ve noticed thus far.
Rothwell has also said, “We’re this new fresh take on black storytelling, and when people don’t see their specific storyline they think you’ve missed the mark. If you don’t see your story being represented or told in the way that you’ve experienced it, then pick up a pen. Get behind a computer. Write your story.”
I don’t think I have a calling to be an executive producer and screenwriter. But here I am behind a computer, writing my story. I have many. Because as people — not only plus-sized people — we are a composite of stories. And my story is that I’m thick, yes, but I’m much more than that. I write because I don’t want to just be remembered as the fat girl, or the funny girl, or the outspoken one. I want to be remembered differently. Remembered for more. And I want that for Kelli too.