The DUFF, or: What Makes a Character Fat?

In wide release as of last week, The DUFF is about Bianca (Mae Whitman), a senior in high school who is told that she is a Designated Ugly Fat Friend, someone whose social value lies in making her friends look more attractive by comparison.  This premise has not gone without critique.  From Genevieve Koski’s review on the Dissolve:

The idea of a “DUFF”—a “designated ugly fat friend,” or the less-attractive person hot people keep around to make them seem more desirable and approachable—is hideous, offensive, and shallow. And to its credit, The DUFF treats it as such. The idea of Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman, a just barely unconventionally attractive, objectively not-fat actor being a DUFF is even more hideous, offensive, and shallow. And to its detriment, The DUFF doesn’t do enough to undermine that idea.

When an actress who is straight-sized (if not willowy) is cast as someone who is devalued because of the size of her body, does that representation highlight the unobtainable exclusivity of  beauty standards, or uphold them by eclipsing the potential for featuring an actress whose body deviates even further from those standards?  According to its defenders, The DUFF concludes that it’s best to embrace who you are, but is that necessarily synonymous with critiquing culturally established beauty standards?  Frankly, I don’t want to schlep downtown in the cold and pay $11 to find out for myself, but the DUFF kerfuffle did bring to light something I’ve been wondering for a while:  what establishes a character as fat?

Spot the ugly fat person, win a prize!

In our day-to-day lives, we have indicators from various institutions as to whether or not we are fat.  The body mass index (BMI) is a commonly used, if flawed, tool in the medical field.  Mass-produced goods like clothing give us indication about what bodies are supposed to look like.  However, it’s unusual for a film to explicitly state a character’s height and weight, or their clothing size.  Of the films that I’ve reviewed on this blog so far, the closest that we’ve come to information about a character’s height/weight or clothing size is In & Out, where Emily reveals that she used to be 75 pounds heavier.

“Fat” as a descriptor goes beyond quantifiable data.  Mae Whitman obviously isn’t fat by clothing size or BMI standards, but she was cast as a “fat” character.  Even if she can buy clothing in the same store as her peers and her doctor doesn’t tell her to lose weight, Whitman’s body is further than co-star Bella Thorne’s from the established Hollywood ideal.  The measurement that The DUFF uses to consider someone beautiful and thin is objectionable, but it is hardly unprecedented, even in Whitman’s own career.  Her previous roles include characters whose function in the story is to be undesirable in comparison to someone else.  These roles include Mary Elizabeth in Perks of Being a Wallflower, who is less desirable as a girlfriend than Sam (Emma Watson); Roxy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, where her relationship with Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is dismissed as a “bicurious” phase;  and her arguably best-known role as as Ann Veal in Arrested Development.  Ann has many qualities that make the Bluths question her suitability as a girlfriend for George Michael (Michael Cera), such as her far-right Christian beliefs and her predilection for mayoneggs, but her appearance is an undeniable factor. His father Michael’s (Jason Bateman) numerous Freudian slips when referring to her include “Ann-Hog,” and when George Michael points her out to Uncle Gob (Will Arnett), he puzzledly responds, “What, is she funny or something?”  Ann is the butt of these jokes, but so are the Bluths themselves, as the series’ humor is often driven by characterizing them as shallow California elitists.  So no, the common person on the street would probably not characterize Mae Whitman as fat or ugly, but that’s the point: the viewpoint that’s being presented is not the common person’s, it’s a viewpoint coming from the apex of cultural power and privilege.

Even if it’s positioned in different places based on the context, there exists a boundary that divides bodies with an acceptable amount of fat tissue and bodies with an excessive amount.  Fat bodies.  Marilyn Wann offers a thought-provoking meta-description of fat, saying that it “functions as a floating signifier, attaching to individuals based on a power relationship, not a physical measurement.”  (“Forward,” The Fat Studies Reader)

One of the reasons that fat has become one of my main intellectual preoccupations is because of my own disorienting experiences being a fat character in other people’s lives.  According to the BMI, I am obese.  Most clothing lines don’t make clothes in my size.  However, my body is usually accommodated in public spaces (e.g. I’ve not yet had to pay for a second seat on an airplane), and I don’t suffer a tenth of the harassment that some of my larger friends do.  So while I’m fat, I occupy a weird in-between social space where thin(ner) people have no qualms about saying horrible things about Fat People to me, or express disgust at how fat they themselves are.  At least once, the average-height adult making the latter observation weighed half as much as I did.  I don’t think someone larger than me has ever complained to me about their weight in that way. “Ugh, I’m so fat, I’m so disgusting.”  And what, I wonder, does that make me?  Hearing virulent rants about Fat People is equally confusing for me.  Am I the Ambassador of Fat, tasked with the diplomatic mission of returning to my people with the message to stop ruining society and being so gross?

I’ve never had the nerve to ask a thinner person to tease out the meaning behind their statement, or even why they felt it appropriate to say.  There have been a handful of times when these comments have felt like a passive-aggressive attempt to shame or scold me, but I can extrapolate from 30 years of being around humans that the majority aren’t intentionally including me, even if they inherently are.  People often describe themselves as “fat” as shorthand for feeling unattractive or unhealthy.  Applying Wann’s quote, “fat” is used in this context to express how someone feels their own body devalued– disempowered– in comparison to the thin ideal.  I’ve been on friendly terms with most of the people who have made disparaging comments to me about Fat People, the disempowered Other who should be ashamed of themselves for not being Us, without realising that I can’t/won’t detach myself from that Other.

But let’s return to the original question: what makes a film character fat?  When choosing characters to discuss for CPBS, the most obvious guideline I use is whether the movie explicitly labels them as fat.  Some characters conveniently describe their own bodies as fat, like Louis in True Stories or Pagliacci in Shock Corridor.  Some are labeled fat through another character’s observation, like Bianca in The DUFF. But a fair number of characters aren’t explicitly assessed in these terms.  Stereotypes can draw attention to a character’s fatness, like Sgt. Powell’s Twinkie habit in Die Hard, or Dale’s lack of confidence in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.  But as I talked about with regards to Emma Levie’s role in Snowpiercerit can be impossible to discern if a fat actor is in a role because they were the best person for the job regardless, or if their body is intended to symbolize a concept or visually reinforce a character trait or interpersonal dynamic (e.g. that timeless dramatic pairing, hottie/DUFF).

The former situation even raises further considerations about a character who is written as fat versus a character who is played by a fat person.  Would The DUFF be given more credit for exploring its subject matter if Sharon Rooney had been cast as Bianca?  No offense to Mae Whitman, but that would make me more willing to see it in theaters.  It would be a more sincere approach to feature an actress who could realistically be the fattest person in the room outside of a casting call for a Hollywood-made teen movie.  As with In & Out, if a film wants to make a point about fat people accepting their bodies, the actor in that role should be someone whose body actively challenges the audience’s expectations about what acceptable bodies look like.  But of course, not every fat character in a film is intended to carry a message about self-acceptance.  Individual films vary greatly in their agendas, cultural milieus, and viewpoints.

After 1400 words of thinkpiecing, I find myself no closer to universally applicable guidelines for who a fat character is, but I feel like ambiguity is the only thing that could accurately reflect the mutable nature of socially constructed power dynamics.  Leaving that process of discernment (especially when looking for topics for this blog) should probably remain in the intuitive realm, because the one common thread that I have found in the characters that I’ve written about thus far is that I find myself able to compare and contrast them to my own real-life experiences of being a fat person.  From my perspective, that’s enough to make them a member of the club.

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