I Love ‘The Nanny,’ But We Have to Talk About Its Fat-Shaming Problem

Though this show means so much to me, the fat-shaming aimed at Sylvia and Fran is hurtful and unfortunate to see.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I discovered just what I needed: someone live-streaming random episodes of The Nanny on Facebook. It was the first time I was able to stream HQ episodes of The Nanny online, so I was fairly excited.

I can confidently say I near the top of the list of the biggest fans of The Nanny throughout history. In fact, I found the stream because I am among 26,000 Facebook users in a group intended for fans of that “flashy girl from Flushing.” Thus commenced my first semblance of a rewatch of the sitcom in many years — an experience many are now partaking in since it is available to stream on a major platform (HBO Max) for the first time in the show’s history.

At first, rewatching The Nanny was like greeting an old friend. I grew up on that show. My memories of an average weekday in elementary school involved coming home and tuning into TV Land to watch 4 p.m. reruns of Fran Fine’s hijinks with my bubbe before starting my homework. When DVR came along, my television’s data was consumed by reruns and repeats of those reruns. I must have watched the show through seven times while living at home with the luxury of cable.

The Nanny is hysterical and well-acted, but I also love it because, as a New York Jew, it’s familiar. The Fine family looks, talks, acts, and are total yentas like mine. Fran Fine especially reminds me of my Aunt Debbi — both gorgeous, single, loud, vivacious, and personable women. It was the only show on television, growing up, where I saw a family and culture that represented my own.

As I continued my rewatch in present day times, I began to realize I didn’t understand most of the jokes growing up. In some ways, this viewing, without the veil of childlike innocence, made rewatching all the more fresh and fun. Realizing that much of the show’s humor is built on very-clever sexual innuendos was a gleeful discovery.

However, I soon picked up on an unfortunate fact: The Nanny fat-shames. A lot. It starts subtle: Fran making little nods to her figure, hinting at some underlying fear of growing big. Once the show settled into its structure around season 2, if Fran’s mother, Sylvia Fine, is in an episode, fat jokes are made. Sylvia’s identity and any resultant humor is based on the fact that she is fat and likes to eat a lot. A spoonful of chocolate syrup is her medicine. She eats the Sheffields out of house and home, able to smell Niles’ refrigerated leftovers in the kitchen all the way from the foyer of the Sheffield mansion. Sylvia has hiding spots in loafs of challah for emergency chocolate bars while on a diet. She wants plastic surgery for “flabby arms.” One of Sylvia’s major plot points in a later season is that she needs to diet because the doctors have told her she’s going to eat herself to death.

Eventually, the fat jokes are aimed at Fran, as well. She’s been in Weight Watchers since she was a kid. She’s constantly needing to be on a diet and constantly breaking that diet. She soothes her sorrows over a tub of ice cream whereas a normal person soothes their sorrows over a bottle of brandy. Fran fears the inevitability of someday having Sylvia’s body (so does her love interest, Maxwell).

This new understanding of the show’s humor was jarring. A memory flashed to the forefront of my mind — watching The Nanny as a kid and thinking, “If sample-size, designer-clothes-clad Fran Fine is considered fat and needs to diet, where does that leave me?” I don’t expect Fran Drescher and other creators of the show to foot my therapy bill, but this is an undeniable experience I took from watching the show at a young, impressionable age.

It’s complicated, because The Nanny doesn’t entirely get it wrong: Jews do love to eat. Jewish culture is, in part, defined by its food and meals. Eating (and feeding our loved ones) is in the lexicon of the Jewish experience. At dinner, my family often jokes that my bubbe should stop “schtupping us with food” when we’re already full.

Nevertheless, the fat-shaming aimed at Sylvia, Fran, and the Fine family as a whole is hurtful and unfortunate to see. Watching today, as a bigger woman, these jokes sear at my self-esteem in the way a micro-aggressive comment from a well-intentioned friend would. As a relative, friend, and advocate of fat people, they make me protective and angry.

The dilemma is, I don’t want to stop watching. I love The Nanny. I love Fran Fine, I love Niles and C.C., I love Grace, I love Grandma Yetta — I love them all like they are my own family. Seeing Yiddish, my ancestral language, frequently utilized on a major TV network show fills me with joy. Seeing the sparsely used name “Yetta,” my actual great-grandmother’s name and my Hebrew name, donned by one of the funniest actors on the show fills me with pride.

This intersection of a New York, Jewish, and female experience was illustrated authentically. And the Jewish humor was specific, accurate, and made me feel as though us Jews were in on the joke, rather than being laughed at. Gentile viewers were, for the first time, the outsiders who learned a little bit about what makes the clock of Jewish culture tick.

But what do we do when lovable pieces of media are problematic? There isn’t anything we can do to change them. They are already out in the world. And The Nanny was, truthfully, created during a time period when uplifting all different kinds of marginalized people, rather than humiliating them, was by no means the norm.

We can’t change it. But we can acknowledge the harm they have caused, honor the victims of that shaming, watch with a discerning eye, and learn from these mistakes. We can validate our friends who are offended by the show — not only fat friends, but people of color, thanks to its all-white cast (with infrequent and somewhat stereotypical portrayals of PoC). We can consume (or create!) comedy that lets fat people in on the joke just as The Nanny let Jews in on it. We can continue to demand better from new shows currently being made during a time when people absolutely should know better.

I don’t want to “cancel” The Nanny. I don’t want to implore HBO to remove it from its platform. I don’t want to tell my friends to stop watching. And I won’t. But I will implore Fran Drescher, co-creator Peter Marc Jacobson, and anyone in the television world to do better in new projects. If our future is destined for a reboot of The Nanny, try to right these wrongs. Because, like it or not, an impressionable 10-year-old searching for a powerful, funny, and unapologetic Jewish woman on TV might be watching. Do better for her.

Kay Neufeld

Kay Neufeld (she/her) is a writer, journalist, comedy-being, and chit-chatting expert. Her writing has been published in Vox, Salon, The Observer, NYLON, et al. She now works as a newspaper reporter in Midcoast Maine covering local politics, culture, and her adventures.

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