This guest post by Rachel Wortherley appears as part of our theme week on Fatphobia and Fat Positivity.
Audiences were first introduced to English actress and comedian Dawn French in various comedy series: The Comic Strip (1982), Girls on Top (1985), and as half of the comedy duo, French and Saunders (1987) with Jennifer Saunders, star of the beloved series Absolutely Fabulous (1992). However, it was The Vicar of Dibley (1994), in which French made her mark.
When the elderly vicar of the fictional small village in Oxfordshire called Dibley dies, the townspeople are appointed a new vicar by the bishop. However, they are stunned that upon the new vicar’s arrival that he is a she. Viewers are first introduced to the vicar, Geraldine Granger (Dawn French) at the same time as the characters. She is already perceptive, funny, and charming. Upon her meeting with the conservative Parish Council leader, David Horton, she says, “You were expecting a bloke—beard, bible, bad breath. Instead you got a babe with a bob cut and magnificent bosom.” When introduced to the vicar another character, Owen Newitt, says, “She’s a woman,” to which Geraldine responds, “Oh! You noticed! These are such a giveaway, aren’t they?” while pointing to her breasts. During her first sermon, the congregation, which usually yields three to four parishioners—all from the church council, has all the pews filled. Parishioners are curious about the prospect of a female vicar, but the congregation, as well as, the audience is charmed by Geraldine’s charisma, wisdom, and warmth.
Authority figures in religious factions, specifically in the Church of England or in Roman Catholicism are largely viewed as being devoid of desire, humor, or sexuality. Because of their position in the church as a figure that facilitates human connection to a higher power, people usually disconnect priest, vicars, etc. from human emotions. Being sexless or promiscuous is also attributed to female characters in media who are fat, or overweight. Either they are sexless, yearning for someone who is deemed to be out of their league, or they overcompensate by being promiscuous. Examples of this can be found in any Hollywood high school comedy. One of the exciting things about The Vicar of Dibley is that Geraldine is not a sexless and humorless character—as a vicar and a woman with a fat body. Geraldine is the funniest vicar on television, especially if we point to her bawdy jokes at the end of each episode–jokes that are hilarious and almost of the quality of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Geraldine’s ideal man is actor Sean Bean, whose picture hangs on the wall next to Jesus Christ. She is able to maintain a sense of being sexy, yet spiritual. There are occasions where Geraldine also finds herself swept up in romance. In Season 3, Episode 1, “Autumn,” David’s brother, Simon, visits Geraldine for a romantic weekend. Upon their first meeting in Season 2, Episode 4, “Love and Marriage” Geraldine gushes with flirtatiousness and wit. She resembles a high school girl with a crush. Geraldine even dyes her hair blonde because Simon is looking for a “buxom blonde” and considers moving to Liverpool where he lives. When they reunite for a romantic weekend, Geraldine and Simon kiss passionately and retreat to her bedroom for sex. Prior to that, the “eccentric” friend of Geraldine, Alice Horton (Emma Chambers), comments:
“You know all about eternal damnation and pneumatic drills in your brain tissue if you so much as look upon a man with lust. Especially as a vicar. God will probably have to strangle you with his bare hands.”
Geraldine is progressive in her thoughts and action on pre-marital sex. But, what is significant about this scene is that Alice and the townspeople assume that she will not be having sex, not because she is fat, but because of Geraldine’s clerical position as vicar. What is even more rewarding is when Simon descends Geraldine’s stairs, dressed in a bathrobe, declaring to three of the council members—David being one of them: “I’ve been waiting for this gorgeous creature for hours.” Geraldine is mortified, but the men quietly leave them and do not chastise her for having a sexual appetite.
Writer and creator Richard Curtis, best known for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Love Actually (2003), writes Geraldine Granger, as well as the other characters, with good hearts. While audiences can look at Geraldine and see that she is not a size two, the writers choose not to highlight that fact, or make it a running joke. She indulges in her favorite chocolate bars, but no more or less than any other female character who is hungry or has their heartbroken. Her weight and self-esteem are not directly linked as Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). In The Vicar of Dibley, her mind and body are embraced.
We can look to the Parish Council—consisting of all men with the exception of Geraldine and formerly Mrs. Letitia Cropley (Liz Smith)—as examples of men who embrace all aspects of Geraldine. While Owen sexualizes the vicar through his comments, Season 3, Episode 15, sees David Horton looking at the vicar in the new light. David begins to see that Geraldine and he are the only two in the extra-ordinary town of Dibley, who have brain cells. He declares his love for her and proposes. However, Geraldine accepts then rejects. While they are evenly matched, they are not in love. Geraldine gets her dream in the episodes, “The Handsome Stranger” and “The Vicar in White.”
“The Handsome Stranger” and “The Vicar in White” see Geraldine falling in love with an accountant and new resident of Dibley, Harry Kennedy (Richard Armitage). He is handsome and exceeds her expectations on a physical level—Harry is arguably more handsome than her ideal—actor, Sean Bean. Harry falls in love with her upon their first meeting and later proposes. Harry’s proposal funnily sparks the proposals of Owen, Jim, and classmate Jeremy (Hugh Bonneville). While Harry’s proposal to Geraldine may seem unbelievable to most because she is overweight, it is not for three reasons. The first reason being that Dibley is an eccentric village where the unbelievable occurs. The second reason being that so much of the show focuses on how someone unexpected, a female vicar, transforms the hearts and minds of the congregation. The last reason being, why not? Why can’t Geraldine be just as happy as Kevin James is with Amber Valletta in Hitch (2005)? As a viewer, the feeling of Geraldine obtaining her dream husband in looks and intellectuality is fulfilling. The vicar ends up getting married in her pajamas, and Harry still accepts her.
Dawn French as Geraldine Granger perpetuates a positive image of fat women/bodies in comedy. Her persona outshines her overweight visage and she is allowed to be herself. In Hollywood, the last time a woman in her late 30s-40s, who was overweight, and starred in her own television show was Roseanne Barr in Roseanne. The closest example in England is another British sitcom, Miranda (2009). While Miranda Hart in the television sitcom Miranda is not overweight, there are body image issues present. At 6 foot, Miranda Preston is 35 years old, single, socially awkward, taller than a majority of the men she meets, her clothes are unflattering, and she is dubbed “Queen Kong” by her friend Tilly. Miranda stumbles, bumbles, and is called “sir” by people. Yet, as the series continues through the end, Miranda builds her confidence up. The unconventional heroine trope is explored in The Vicar of Dibley and continues throughout to a show like Miranda. British television, especially sitcoms, demonstrates that there is so much more to comedy than the running gag of fat bodies as “messy, unattainable, or unlovable.” Boadicea (Geraldine’s first name in season one) is beautiful, bodacious, with a big personality.
Rachel Wortherley earned a Master of Arts degree at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. Her downtime consists of devouring copious amounts of literature, films, and Netflix. She hopes earn an MFA and become a professional screenwriter.