Even in 2017, it's difficult to name more than a handful of plus size women who have graced the hallowed grounds of the Oscars red carpet. If you narrow that search down to black plus size women, the list gets even smaller. While stars like Gabourey Sidibe, Mo'Nique, Queen Latifah, and Octavia Spencer have all achieved well-deserved fame on the silver screen, their success didn't come easily — and perhaps wouldn't have been possible without the trailblazing efforts of Hattie McDaniel.
Hattie McDaniel might not be a household name, or one that comes up frequently in talks of Hollywood legends. However, at one point, McDaniel was one of the biggest African-American stars in the country — and the first black or plus size woman to ever win an Academy Award. However, despite her success, she was forced to accept her award in segregation.
McDaniel won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Gone With The Wind, the Civil War epic that has become an iconic staple of cinema. In 1940, McDaniel was definitely a Hollywood anomaly — she was plus size, she was black, and she was 44-years-old, a far cry from the svelte, young, white starlets that usually graced the silver screen.
Unfortunately, McDaniel's nomination didn't transcend the societal norms and restrictions of the time. According to The Hollywood Reporter, "the 12th Academy Awards were held at the famed Coconut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel. McDaniel arrived in a rhinestone-studded turquoise gown with white gardenias in her hair."
Despite her efforts, "McDaniel then was escorted, not to the Gone With the Wind table...but to a small table set against a far wall...With the hotel's strict no-blacks policy, [agent] Selznick had to call in a special favor just to have McDaniel allowed into the building."
After her win, McDaniel struggled to break the mold that Hollywood had forced her into, pigeonholed into roles not unlike her turn as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. In fact, according to IMDB, McDaniel played 74 domestic roles (aka, maids and other domestic service providers) throughout her career.
In 2017, it's hard to swallow the idea that an Academy Award winner and talented artist would be treated this way, regardless of size or race. However, the controversy surround Mo'Nique's 2010 win for Precious may indicate that we haven't come as far as we imagined.
Mo'Nique, a black and plus-size woman herself, thanked her predecessor (while wearing gardenias in homage to McDaniel) in her acceptance speech, "for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to." According to The Hollywood Reporter, the result of Mo'Nique's controversial role and speech had some of the same outcomes as McDaniels — one producer even told her that she'd been "blackballed" because she "didn't play the game."
Despite the challenges faced by women in Hollywood, particularly those who fall at the intersection of plus size and black, there is some hope for the future. Gabourey Sidibe was nominated for Best Actress for her role in Precious in 2010, and became one of the first (if not the only) plus size black woman to have a sex scene on network television on Empire. Orange Is The New Black star Danielle Brooks is one of the faces of Lane Bryant, and won Screen Actors Guild Awards for her role in 2015 and 2016. Octavia Spencer won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her 2012 role in The Help, as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award for 2017's Hidden Figures, and stands a great chance of nabbing the Best Supporting Actress award for Hidden Figures at the Oscars on Feb. 26.
All of these recent successes might not feel like enough, but they are indicative of something positive. 75 years ago, Hattie McDaniel was one of a kind — in 2017, we're edging closer, however slowly, to women like her being one of many.