‘Survival of the Thickest’ shines when Black, fat and queer stars are at the center

OPINION: Comedian Michelle Buteau's new Netflix series is a refreshing twist on the tried-and-true formula of a plucky girl making it in the Big City because of the way it centers Blackness, fatness and queerness. 

(L to R) Michelle Buteau as Mavis and Tone Bell as Khalil in "Survival of the Thickest." (Vanessa Clifton/Netflix)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

“I want to be the person I never had growing up,” Michelle Buteau’s character Mavis says in the seventh episode of her Netflix series, “Survival of The Thickest.” After the bingeable delight that is this eight-episode season, Buteau (and Mavis) can count that as mission accomplished. 

The 45-year-old standup comedian and host stars as Mavis, a late-30s, plus-size fashion stylist looking to make her mark in an industry that’s overwhelmingly white and thin. On the brink of her big career break, she catches her long-term boyfriend mid-cheating in their bed, leaving her devastated and spiraling. Not one to be down for long, Mavis calls on her best friend Khalil (the always excellent Tone Bell) to help her move from her posh Manhattan apartment into a Brooklyn two-bedroom with a rando from the internet. She’s starting over and — this time — playing by her own rules.

Instead of high-profile magazine shoots with thin models like the one Mavis’ boyfriend cheated on her with, Mavis focuses on older Black celebs like Garcelle Beauvais’ diva ex-model Natasha, fat icons like Nicole Byer (playing herself!) and queer stars like drag queen Peppermint (also playing herself!). 

“I want to work with beautiful thick-ems and make them feel good about themselves,” Mavis says of her mission. Even when Natasha threatens to walk if Mavis won’t put Natasha in a corset, Mavis stands her ground, believing that it’s possible to find Natasha a dress that flatters her body as it is not squeezed to death with a centuries-old contraption. 

(L to R) Michelle Buteau as Mavis and Nicole Byer as Nicole Byer in “Survival of the Thickest.” (Vanessa Clifton/Netflix)

Plus, there’s plenty of sex to boot. While “Survival of the Thickest” is more “And Just Like That” than it is “Sex and the City,” (we’ve seen these story beats of a plucky girl making it in the Big City with the help of her friends many times before, but we’re still watching), “Survival of the Thickest” is a refreshing twist on the tried-and-true formula because of the way it centers Blackness, fatness and queerness. 

Those moments — like Mavis styling a queer prom for a group of outcasts and Mavis’ 40-plus BFF Marley (Tasha Smith) exploring her bisexuality in therapy and in a steamy locker room scene — are the strongest of the series. Marley’s bisexual breakthrough in therapy is so profound that her absence in the next few episodes leaves a hole in the story with a too-quick resolution in the final episodes. 

Still, Bell’s journey as Khalil from “fuckboy to fuckman” as he calls himself, and eventually to an adult who takes responsibility for his actions thanks to the love of a good woman, is charming and endearing. Put Tone Bell in more things! He’s delightful!

And Buteau as Mavis is so easy to love. While watching her stumble her way through hookups and romance is sweet and comical, the real treat is in the empowering act of centering and celebrating Black, fat and queer bodies in every episode.

Brooke Obie is an award-winning critic, screenwriter and author of the historical novel “Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.”

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