‘Parks and Recreation’s’ Donna Meagle Is the Fat Heroine of My Dreams

Parks and Recreation ends its seven-season run Tuesday night on NBC. To celebrate the show’s unforgettable characters, Flavorwire is publishing a series of tributes to our favorite Pawnee residents. Click here to follow our coverage.

The most shocking thing a fat woman can do is to have a loving boyfriend — especially a loving boyfriend who finds her genuinely attractive, instead of merely developing an affection for the quirks of her misshape in the way one finds a crooked nose or awkward birthmark sort of adorable over time.

There’s this invisible wall that separates the attraction my beaus have felt for me from the kind experienced by my non-fat friends. Sometimes I can see the divide represented in even well-meaning pals’ faces when I tell them about a new dude I’m seeing, and it seems to say: “Is he specifically into that kind of thing, or does he just really like your personality?” Sometimes I want to respond to their non-questions: “He’s not some sexual deviant, but I’m going to guess his erection wasn’t just the result of those jokes I made at dinner.”

I keep my knee-jerk responses to myself, but sometimes I wish there was someone in my life who understood the minefield that is dating while fat. (I don’t make it a point to befriend other fat women simply because we can discuss how frustrating it is to find a decent pair of tights, or what a pain in the ass flying can be.) So much of what is casually referred to as “fat community” — i.e., fat women who encourage body positivity and the men who appreciate their size (and oftentimes think that makes them some sort of social activist) — happens on the Internet… and then behind locked doors. I’m living in the real world, so that’s where my love life plays out. I still get stares walking down the street, holding a man’s hand. Plus, the real-world method really weeds out the “closeted” dudes, which seems only right since I started not hating my body.

Eleven years ago, when my first serious relationship was starting, I had just one fat role model: Melissa McCarthy’s Gilmore Girls character, Sookie St. James. What I appreciated so much about Sookie was that she was a rad lady, full of culinary ambition and creativity and warmth and neurosis, and she happened to be overweight. Her size did not define numerous aspects of her being, as it does on McCarthy’s current sitcom, Mike & Molly, and other shows featuring fat female characters. Weight did not seem to limit Sookie, really. I had been chubby practically my entire life, but I came from an Italian family where that wasn’t a shameful thing. I was raised to believe that I was worth something — quite a lot, actually. Being big was, and still is, just one small part of who I am. Seeing a TV character with that same type of nuanced identity, for once, was incredibly heartening as a teenager.

 

There is one thing about Sookie that bothers me slightly now that didn’t when Gilmore Girls originally aired: her insecurity surrounding men. Dialogue from “Double Date,” the Season 1 episode where Sookie goes out on her first date with her future husband Jackson, sticks with me still. After asking out her produce supplier, Sookie finds herself wondering, “How do I not know he’s being polite? … I am desperate, lonely, and now a criminal.” Though the date goes well, Sookie continues to fret excessively over their early courtship. The body-related subtext is clear to me now, after more than a decade spent building up my own confidence with the opposite sex. It was time for a new fictional fat role model, which brings me — at long last — to Parks and Recreation’s Donna Meagle.

Played by comedian Retta, Pawnee Parks Department employee Donna could have easily been a hybrid of the “sassy black woman” and “sassy fat friend” archetypes. Instead, she transcends both of those ideas over time, moving from a recurring character to a series regular in Parks and Rec’s third season. Off the bat, Donna is second only to Ron Swanson in her bluntness and coldness. These qualities actually complement what comes to be one of Donna’s defining characteristics: her healthy sex life. (Please enjoy this highlight reel of Donna’s inspiring sexual antics.)

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If Donna has shame about her body, you wouldn’t know it. It’s not just the bright colors she wears to draw attention to herself. In the way Donna talks about her suitors — of all races, ages, and backgrounds — it becomes clear that men chase her while she keeps them at arm’s length. Like the player Tom Haverford wishes he were, Donna juggles multiple partners at once. It takes immense confidence — and yes, commitment issues — to pull off this kind of thing. Some men come, some men go. Donna doesn’t care — she knows others will materialize in time. I mean, she’s Donna: savvy, sexy, and outspoken. Many of us, overweight or not, could stand to exhibit Donna levels of self respect in any number of situations.

The absolute worst that could be said of Donna Meagle is that it is precisely this unabashed sexual appetite that makes her stereotypical of both her size and race. The ugliest stereotype about black women and fat girls alike is that they’re easy, sexually speaking. The thing is, Donna doesn’t seem to make it easy on anyone. Her standards are high, physically speaking, and she’ll drop a guy in a second. It took her ex Joe, an utter and complete catch whom she married earlier this season, years to get Donna to commit. She thought Joe, a kind and caring school principal, was too boring. Her shift in thinking came only after Ron encouraged her not to “confuse drama with happiness” in the Season 6 episode “One in 8,000.”

There’s a difference between being easy and having sexual agency, and Donna embodies the latter. Is she over the top sometimes? Sure. (Whatever, I’d wear the “You Can Get It” robe.) But Parks and Rec is a comedy, and Donna’s cold-hearted pickiness combined with a fearless libido make for funnier running gags than fat jokes. The fact that a character like Donna gets to even exist on TV in all her sexual fearlessness, getting what she wants without having to wallow in her own body-image issues, will remain an inspiration to me long after Parks and Rec ends.