“You’re so real,” a vapid housewife tells Katie Otto (Katy Mixon) moments after she admits to wearing a pizza-stained sweater backwards. That “real” was clearly a very back-handed compliment from the woman’s tone, but Katie’s voiceover unpacks the subtext for us anyway: “’You’re so real’ is Westport mommy code for you shouldn’t be eating that or driving that, and I saw you unbutton your pants at that stoplight.”
Last night’s premiere of American Housewife, ABC’s newest family comedy, explored the idea of what it means to be real. As a curvy woman, Katie maintains her own sense of realness in a neighborhood of rich women in yoga pants with “big houses and tiny butts.” The fact that we have a primetime show with a with a lead actress who isn’t Hollywood thin in itself combats the media-driven perception of what a woman’s body must look like to be considered a “real woman.” (The average American woman is a size 16, btw.) The idea that college-educated Katie has chosen to be a stay-at-home mother is certainly a response to the ongoing debate of what a “real mother” should look like. Hell, in the first episode, she tries to convince her anxious—though in the real world the poor child would be diagnosed with potentially severe OCD—and germophobic daughter that germs aren’t real.
Redefining what real looks like in 2016’s America is certainly a noble cause, but the show does fall short. Primetime television pilots tend to strip the nuance out of, um, everything. Five minutes into the show there was a quip about a Trail of Tears diorama, and a reference to a Pakistani girl using a sock as a menstrual pad, because oh yeah, this show is about white people. But even worse, American Housewife is a show about body positivity that ends up shaming other characters for their size.
When “Fat Pam,” a woman we never actually see, moves out of the neighborhood, Katie is distressed to become “the second fattest housewife in Westport,” (the original name of the show) so she and husband Greg (Diedrich Bader) concoct a plan: find another “larger-ish-type gal” (Greg’s words) to buy the house. It’s one thing to have a character be vulnerable, but it’s another to use that vulnerability to drive a half-hearted plot. Maybe they should have just gone with one of Katie’s earlier suggestions: tampon wind chime.
So anyway, they spend the afternoon at the open house scaring away every skinny woman in sight, but only skinny women are in sight. Just when they’re about to give up, the plus-size woman of Katie’s dreams walks through the door—the camera slowly pans up as Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” plays. For a show that’s supposed to be about normalizing bodies, American Housewife still relies on the tired punchlines that have long plagued overweight people on screen. Not only is this character entirely defined by her body, but the scene ironically presents her body as sexy, borrowing a song commonly used to score love-at-first-sight moments, to make a cheap joke at her expense. The audience is still laughing at a fat woman just because she’s fat.
In the end, the would-be new neighbor ends up being a racist homophobe, and after Katie runs her out of the neighborhood by making out with her Black Lesbian Friend, another skinny Stepford Wife moves in instead. Katie is back to being comfortable enough with her body that she doesn’t need someone “fatter” to make her feel better, but the underlying message is still “at least I’m not that fat.”
Despite a foundational tone issue, American Housewife still has the potential to be a good show—Katy Mixon is charming, and Diedrich Bader’s delivery is consistently on point. Their children, including a skinny-in-the-making teenage daughter, a capitalist pig preteen son, and the token “weird” one are all walking tropes, but hopefully they can be fleshed out in future episodes.
American Housewife certainly fits in with ABC’s current family comedy lineup. This is the new normal, the new real America. The show feels like Blackish for white people, though for obvious reasons, it’s not nearly as important or groundbreaking. But in a post-Roseanne world, the show will have to work a little harder to dig into the truths of white middle class America—just because the main character has a body not normally seen on television and is positive, doesn’t make the show body positive.