The Irrepressible Body: In & Out (1997, dir. Frank Oz)

(CW weight loss)

Maybe after this blog becomes wildly successful and they make the Tessa Racked biopic, the opening scene summarizing my childhood and heralding my adult preoccupation with queer liberation and fat people in movies could very well when I was 12 years old and saw In & Out in theaters. At the time, however, it had two main draws. It was rated PG-13, and some scenes had been filmed a town over from where I lived. If you haven’t seen this film and are so inspired, I urge you to spend some of it admiring the background. I had positive memories of it and wanted to see how it held up over time.

Summary of the plot: a rural town in Indiana is sent into upheaval when high school English teacher Howard (Kevin Kline) is outed by former student turned celebrity Cameron (Matt Dillon) during an Oscar acceptance speech. Howard is surprised that Cameron perceives him as gay, as he is marrying Emily (Joan Cusack) in a week’s time. Emily has more than the desire for a lifetime commitment invested in their wedding: not only has their engagement lasted 3 years, but Emily has lost 75 pounds in order to be a thin bride.

in & out, kevin kline, howard brackett, joan cusack, emily montgomery

In & Out uses topical humor liberally, but two unutilized mid-nineties news stories actually fit in neatly with the film’s subject matter: the supposed discoveries of a “gay gene” and a “fat gene.” Biological determination is often used as an excuse for fatness or queerness to exist within a culture where “normal” people are straight and thin. We aren’t unnatural, we’re born that way. However, as Kathleen LeBesco points out: “This form of narration is particularly dangerous, however, in that the uses of biological research can cut both ways: science might be used as the basis for legal protection and moral respectability just as easily as it might be used as the proof of pathology and justification for eradication” (Rothblum and Solovay 77).

In & Out takes the optimistic approach to biological determinism. The film speaks not only to the virtue of acceptance, but also the folly of suppression. Emily’s and Howard’s bodies betray the false selves they have created in the interest of fitting into a heteronormative ideal, the achievement of which is in service to unobtainable cultural ideals and in conflict with their true natures. She is not a thin bride, he is not a groom who wants to have sex with a thin bride, “Macho Man” plays over the end credits. However, In & Out doesn’t fully deconstruct the conventional understandings of acceptability that constrict its characters.

Kline gracefully portrays Howard’s ambiguity with an undertone of innocence. In the beginning of the film, he doesn’t seem to be actively denying his sexuality as much as he’s lived his life in a completely heterocentric world without any cause to question his straight identity. Howard’s straightness becomes less and less viable as the film begins to question the omnipresence of heterosexuality, and characterizes it as a bundle of compulsory, restrictive gendered stereotypes. “At all costs, avoid rhythm, grace, and pleasure,” he is instructed by a self-help tape during an attempt to unlock his machismo; the audience immediately knows that musical-loving Howard will not be able to maintain this abstinence for long. But even when he isn’t consciously embracing it, his gayness is constructed in the film as an innate physical aspect. Even a casting choice suggests that Howard’s sexual orientation is a genetic trait: Howard’s mother is played by Debbie Reynolds, a gay icon who is best known for her roles in studio musicals like Singing in the Rain. His body is constantly betraying him, even as he tries to assert his straightness (as it is conflated in the film with manliness). When Cameron “outs” him at the Oscars, Howard’s shocked reaction includes letting his wrist go limp. In the best scene in the film, Howard tests his masculinity by trying not to dance to “I Will Survive,” but cannot prevent his body’s reaction to the disco beat.

in & out, debbie reynolds, kevin kline, joan cusack, wilford brimley, frank oz

Emily’s repeated sentiment is that she can’t believe that she is a thin bride; this not only conveys her happiness, but foreshadows that her current state is a fleeting fantasy. Of course, the fantasy alluded to is her and Howard’s romance, but her thin body is intrinsic. Even if Emily and Howard did get married, it’s not likely that she would be able to maintain a 75 pound weight loss in the long run, if multiple studies are to be believed. Even the threat that she will return to her original weight is verbalized as a threat that she will “start eating again,” a hyperbole that characterizes her goal as requiring the impossible denial of something essential, but also characterizes her as being a typical food-obsessed fat girl just underneath her controlled, trim surface. Emily’s quest to regulate her body is paralleled with Cameron’s supermodel girlfriend Sonya (Shalom Harlow), who includes vomiting as part of her daily agenda and is insulted by the suggestion that she eat a meal after a long trip. Thinness, like straightness, can only be achieved through hypervigilance and self-denial. As soon as the wedding is called off and Howard’s illusion of straightness has dissipated, Emily too begins to drop her illusion and seeks food to binge on. Her fantasy of being a thin bride leaves her collapsed in a heap in her wedding dress, wailing, “I’m starving!”

The least explicit but most present pressure on Howard and Emily to marry is the threat of being categorized as unmarriageable. When Emily blows up at Howard after he comes out during their wedding ceremony, she cries, “I base my entire concept of self-esteem on the fact that you’re willing to marry me!” For Emily, validation comes through marriage, which she sees as evidence that she is worth of love and desire. Deeper into her meltdown, she runs along the side of the road in her wedding dress, begging passing cars to marry her. Being a bride hinges on being thin. Emily describes herself as having been fat her whole life, but that she “didn’t want to waddle down the aisle.” She says that her deceased parents never thought she would get married; her fatness is the only given possibility as to why they would think that. But her achievement of this goal also depends on Howard’s heterosexuality. “You still want to [get married], right?” she asks him. “That’s why I transformed myself, isn’t it? Do you want me to start eating again? …I can, Howard! I’m very fragile!”

But Howard is also using Emily as a means of validating his own normalcy, as cancelling the wedding would mean disappointing his community’s expectations. Howard’s mother tells him immediately after suspecting he might be gay that she loves him no matter what, but forces him to marry so that she can have some excitement in her life through planning the wedding. The pressure to be regain his straight identity through getting married is most poignant at his school, as his beloved students suddenly become uncomfortable around him and Principal Halliwell (Bob Newhart) suggests that he could lose his job.

Although his friends and family all want to believe that he is straight, openly gay TV journalist Peter (Tom Selleck) thinks Howard is gay and calls him out on marrying Emily for the wrong reason. Peter encourages Howard to trust his friends and family will support him. His advice proves to be wise, as the town rallies around Howard in a Spartacus-esque show of solidarity at his school’s graduation ceremony, everyone declaring themselves to be gay as well. Howard maintains his place in his various social units, and the film ends with him attending his parents’ wedding vow renewal ceremony.

Emily’s victory comes when Cameron shows up to replace (and supersede) Howard as the desirer of her as an object. The handsome, successful actor confesses that he fell in love with her when she was a fatter student teacher who tutored him, and chooses her over his supermodel girlfriend (who he says “looks like a swizzle stick”).

Although given more license to exist, presumably her confidence and happiness still depend on being physically attractive. Cameron and Emily express their feelings for each other by reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet, using a literal performance of heterosexuality as a means of connecting to each other. Even if Howard and Emily end the film with more freedom to be themselves, this freedom was given to them by members of the entertainment industry. They are still bound by the somewhat modified cultural norms that initially pressured them into adopting false identities in the first place.

Ironically, it is the film itself that ultimately restricts Howard’s queerness and Emily’s fatness, as these traits are only present in the film in their lack. Howard’s sexual orientation is expressed solely as effete traits, the only erotic exchange with another man is a kiss that is performed as an experimentation (and didn’t even involve tongue). In an odd mirror image, Emily’s happy ending is solely behavioral– during the denouement dance party we see her eating cheese puffs– but we never see her as a fat person. Therein lies the discrepancy of the film’s message: are we truly accepting of something that we can’t bring ourselves to actually look at?

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