The Nanny’s Loud Body

Late in the series run of CBS’s The Nanny, the show’s aesthetics of excess finally confront their final frontier: fatness. Thick thighs befall the titular nanny, Fran Fine, a wisecracking and trashy-fabulous woman from Queens. It’s unexpected. She’s finally about to seal the deal with the stern and respectable father of her charges, whose heart she’s melted with her wacky antics. But a bad reaction to an allergy shot makes her balloon in size, still stuck inside her skintight dress. “Oh Mr. Sheffield,” she moans, “you’re never going to find me attractive again!” Ever gallant, Mr. Sheffield replies through a grimace, “Miss Fine, don’t you be ridiculous! There’s two—three—six times as much of you to love!” This claim isn’t convincing; Fran mutters to the doctor, “Kill me, please.

On The Nanny, fat is the worst possible thing you can be, and it can happen to you at any moment. As it turns out, Fran’s swelling has resulted from a counterreaction to something she ate: a bowl of her mother’s diet soup, which contains vegetables, and, if she’s honest, a little bit of tortellini—just for flavor. In this punchline, fatness is revealed to be an inherited sin, transferred from mother to daughter for maximum comedic disaster. Only when Fran is “deflated” can the romantic plot of the show recommence.

The sitcom made a frequent habit of cruel fat jokes and plotlines like this one. It’s one of a long series of shows that have used the fat suit device, from Friends to more recent fare like New Girl and Mad Men. But in The Nanny, the embrace of fat jokes is strange. It’s weird for a show that embraces so many other kinds of bigness: loud voices with exaggerated Queens accents; broad, slapstick comedy; bright, over-the-top outfits. The incongruous fear of fatness ultimately reveals what kinds of excess seemed possible for women on television in the 1990s. Revisiting its preoccupation with fat jokes demonstrates the (limited) extent to which TV has moved on. However, The Nanny has a limited place in our collective television memory, making appearances on niche social media accounts rather than a big streaming platform. As a result, its impact on a longer comedy tradition is in question. How do we remember a show that expanded the limits of what was lovable—but still placed fat people firmly outside the lines?

In its aesthetics and its humor, The Nanny evinces an admiration for excess that extends right up to the possibility of having an excessive body. It ends there absolutely, obsessively prodding that boundary. Outside allergic incidents, Fran is known for her big hair and her tiny waist, and she is convinced that in the combination lies her only chance of getting somewhere in life. The show’s representation of fatness as threatening is at odds with its central thesis: that tackiness and loudness are primary source of charisma, connection, and power. Fran’s unpretentious street-smarts and Yiddish-heavy vocabulary are the qualities that endear her to the Sheffield family and ultimately secure her place within it.

But she perceives these traits to be acceptable precisely because she is beautiful, and most of all thin. And, in the logic of the show, she’s probably not wrong. The Nanny derives comedy from the revolting possibility that Fran might turn into her mother, who is constantly eating and—quelle horreur—a size twelve. Sylvia Fine turns up near daily at the Sheffield mansion to munch on cream puffs and terrorize the WASPy Sheffields by reminding them that the vivacious nanny they love may someday place her appetite for carbs over her appetite for Loehmann’s sales on teeny-tiny crop tops.

Fran is at frequents pains to assure Mr. Sheffield that this will not happen. She seems to know that her beauty is a condition of acceptance—a kind of apology for her aesthetic and temperamental bigness, and for her Jewishness. Probably this understanding arose from star and executive producer Fran Drescher’s real experiences in Hollywood, but she reproduces the expectation more or less uncritically. In this way, she follows in the footsteps of one of her comedy forebears, and one of the only big stars of the ‘80s not to cameo on her show: Joan Rivers.

Rivers, an unarguable pioneer for women in comedy, was famous for admitting — or insisting — that “looks matter.” She was uncharitable to women who didn’t take this mandate seriously. In a late interview on the Howard Stern show in 2014, she brought up Lena Dunham’s body unprompted. She pretended to be critical for health reasons, mentioning the specter of diabetes, before coming eloquently to the point: “But don’t make yourself, physically—don’t let them laugh at you physically.”

For Rivers, the physical body, specifically the fat body, was the point at which you can’t control whether people are laughing at or with you. TV critic Emily Nussbaum writes of the quote that Dunham “was violating the rules that Rivers built her life on—was hemmed in by, protested, and enforced, often all at the same time.” Dunham made it seem possible for a fat person to be a participant in or engineer of the joke, not just the butt of one. Rivers had thought it impossible, and thus wanted it to remain impossible for those after her. She expected Dunham to maintain the rules too: “Don’t say it’s O.K. that other girls can look like this. Try to look better!”

For both Rivers and Drescher, the question of body acceptability is rooted in ethnic identity. To be Jewish is already to present a kind of cultural excess that may disgust a repressed WASP-dominated media culture. The fat Jewish woman embodies a form of racial excess that threatens her access to whiteness. Fat studies critic Kathleen LeBesco writes that across the twentieth century, Americans have attributed to fatness the power to render certain people “not racially adequate.” This perception began at the end of the nineteenth century, during the period of greatest Jewish immigration to the United States. As it became possible for people of modest means to get enough to eat, fatness no longer represented prestige or comfort. Instead, white Americans from Northern Europe began to prize slimness as a quality that would distinguish them from stockier (and swarthier) immigrants. And while The Nanny is laudable for the way it catalogues and celebrates Jewishness, Drescher seems to feel that the cost of this attention is in the slinkiness of her figure. If she can catch a man’s eye with the slim taper of her long legs, maybe he’ll stay when he hears her accent.

Ultimately, what she wants is to stop getting paid for the work she already does: being a mother to her employer’s three children, living in his Park Avenue mansion, and being his romantic and emotional bedrock. Fran knows that her best chance at financial comfort is to choose the same career that has always provided it to women. She wants to get promoted to wife. As the central flirtation becomes a major component of the show, and her desperation for commitment more pronounced, she admits a grimly familiar desire: pay me in love instead.

In this element and many others, The Nanny is a rehash of The Sound of Music. Fran arrives, a fish out of water, to bring love and warmth to the Von Trapp-adjacent Sheffield family. Drescher reportedly pitched the sitcom to CBS with the suggestion, “Instead of Julie Andrews, I come to the door.” And The Sound of Music is, of course, just Jane Eyre, taken from highbrow to middle. The Nanny is Charlotte Brontë’s lowbrow grandchild, the last generation of a gradual (and admittedly pleasurable) artistic decline. And while the show lacks the threats of Nazi invasion or a madwoman in an attic, the core warning of the three works is the same: dream big enough to marry the man of the house, but beware wanting too much. Just look where that got The Sound of Music’s greedy baroness. Bertha Mason has the rapacious sexual appetite so often attributed to racialized women, but she has other repulsive desires as well. Jane Eyre tells us that “She was a big woman, in stature almost equaling her husband, and corpulent besides: she showed virile force in the contest” (293). Part of the threat of Bertha’s hulking body is the amorphous possibility that she may not be fully white. Drescher has lost in translation Brontë’s lesson about choosing marriage only when you’ve secured enough independence to do so on your own terms. What she remembered is that fat bodies are frightening, racially other, and violent, best kept locked away in the attic. The Nanny locks away the threat of fatness through constant, obsessive jokes, as if keeping its enemies closest of all.

All of this would be easy to forget, in the warm hum of predictable jokes, winningly delivered, and a constant stream of outfits that would make Lil Nas X jealous. In fact, the show is primarily remembered for its satisfying romantic plotline (punctuated by Fran’s oft-repeated plea, “Oh, Mister Sheffield!”) and for its fashion. One Instagram account, @whatfranwore, catalogues every outfit Drescher wore on the show; this fashion history project has 318,000 followers. On YouTube, fans have posted compilations of their favorite snarky putdowns.

But these curated forms of fandom remain the primary way to interact with The Nanny. It isn’t streaming on any popular platform and the DVD box set is expensive and more or less retro. Unless you’re a superfan who has been watching the show through dubious online methods since 2008, it’s difficult to find a full episode anywhere. As a casual, nostalgic fan of the show in 2020, It’s far easier to remember Fran’s high camp wardrobe than to recall her constant and anxious labor to maintain the figure necessary to wear it. She has become an aspirational meme, rather than a perpetrator of woman-on-woman fat-shaming crime.

Because of our selective social media memory, it’s a fraught endeavor to critique a 25-year-old TV show for regressive attitudes. Despite the fact that critiquing 25-year-old TV shows has become a cottage industry in online media analysis, without streaming access, our memory of a piece of nostalgia television remains hazy. When beloved shows become widely available through streaming, we watch them with the much-altered critical perspective of 2020.

How would The Nanny fare on a streaming platform in 2020? Our attitudes to fatness on television have changed, in large part due to the efforts of fat white comediennes like Lena Dunham on Girls and Aidy Bryant on Saturday Night Live and Shrill. Fat black women like Lizzo and Nicole Byer have also carved out audiences for themselves, despite the greater online abuse they receive. With our updated understanding of fatphobia, including its racist implications, Fran’s constant repulsion at fat people has a sinister undertone. The discourse, by its own rules, would have no choice but to respond.

However, a streaming re-premiere would also give us the chance to consider how Fran’s other qualities of excess provided a clear precedent for these women in the media. She insisted upon brashness and bright eyeshadow and female desire as loveable qualities. And of course, in its feverish denials, The Nanny theorizes fatness with acuity. Before it seemed possible to have a fat heroine on television, it became feasible to put fat characters on the margins, and to talk about fatness without euphemism. Fran’s mother certainly eschews shame as she digs into another cheese kugel, despite the other characters’ best efforts to shame her.

My most generous contribution to a potential Nanny discourse comes out of my abiding love for the show. There’s a chance that despite its refusal to hold fatness as worthy of love and desire, The Nanny is already thinking about how fatness informs other kinds of aesthetics and affects. Drescher’s instincts lead her to a theory of visual loudness. To wear a skintight sequin tiger print minidress is to choose to have a loud body. Her clothes and affected performance are a tour de force performance of taking up space. On The Nanny, bodily accumulation—if done with sequins or hairspray—is the chosen accessory of a personality that is your greatest asset. Although she can’t quite figure it as a fat body, the ostentation of a loud body is six seasons of material for the hit show of your life.

If The Nanny ever becomes available for streaming, I hope the discourse will be kind to it. I hope we’ll remember that all the pleasures of the lowbrow, from sappy romance to bad fat suits, have lit the way for loud and fat women to show us their accents and their love handles. In Donna Karan patent leather, please.

Ana Quiring is a PhD candidate in English at Washington University in St. Louis. She loves Mrs Dalloway and Twilight the same amount. She tweets @AnaQuiring.