Author: Tessa Racked

I'm the only thing that dies.

Fat men and thin women and a few thoughts about The Lobster (2016, dir, Yorgos Lanthimos)

I’ve been looking forward to The Lobster for quite some time.  I haven’t seen Lanthimos’ breakthrough Dogtooth (I know, I know), but I am a sucker for an unusual premise, and “a hotel where people are transformed into animals if they don’t fall in love” is just that.  The initial buzz has been good, but what caught my eye was AV Club’s review* that lingered on the description of Colin Farrell’s “doughy” body.

The Lobster takes place in an absurd distopia that is childlike in its rigidity, directness, and simplistic logic. A law that requires adults to be in a romantic relationship drives the entire film, as newly-dumped David (Farrell) finds himself at a hotel where he has 45 days to make a love connection lest he be turned into an animal, or choose to live in the wilderness with the hermitic Loners.  It’s a darkly funny critique of the idealization of romantic relationships, the belief that everyone is capable and desiring of a lifelong, monogamous relationship free of complicating factors.  This is a world where bisexuality has been phased out, where the basis of a “good match” means sharing a common characteristic like frequent nosebleeds.  The film criticizes conventional wisdom about falling in love, and casting an actor known for roles in action films and his good looks as a middle-aged milquetoast with a potbelly– and including ample scenes of him in states of undress– is made part of the film’s subversive tone as much as the sterile mise en scene and alienating dialogue.  Weight is added to Farrell’s body with the intention of depriving the audience of a (conventionally) handsome romantic hero.  His friends at the hotel are similarly characterized by physical traits that are meant to detract from them being ideal mates: a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) and a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw).

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If having Farrell gain weight to play David is intended to suggest that the search for romance is bound to end eventually in disappointingly ordinariness, the visual language does not extend in the same way to his female costars.  Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Angeliki Papoulia and Jessica Barden all play characters whose words and actions embody the awkward absurdity of the film’s world, but visually, they retain more of the physical idealized qualities.  And as members of the Loner group, Weisz and Seydoux spend most of their screen time swathed in plastic ponchos with “no” makeup and messy hair, but all of these women are conventionally attractive and thin, as compared to not only a heavier Farrell, but also actors like Reilly and Michael Smiley who, unlike Weisz and Seydoux, probably aren’t landing any modelling gigs.

Overall, The Lobster is great.  It strikes a marvelous balance between being accessible and surreal, entertaining and thought-provoking.  I’d much rather see a film of its caliber that doesn’t use the cultural baggage attached to fat bodies (and bodies with disabilities) as easy visual language to convey its thesis, but then again, it would be foolish of me to come out of seeing The Lobster with the expectation of having my dreams come true.

 

*I’ve used AV Club before for examples of how fat characters and actors are talked about in pop culture discourse, and just for the record, I don’t mean to pick on AV Club.  They just happen to be a website that I frequent for film reviews, news, etc.,they do a fine job on the whole, and I don’t find them to be particularly toxic.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women and Baggage: Enough Said (2013, dir. Nicole Holofcener); Jack Goes Boating (2010, dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Romantic plots in films often focus on idealized characters with few if any flaws (or flaws that are actually attractive, like an adorably clumsy woman or a widower who broods over his loss in an appealingly sensitive manner). And sure, considering that a film has a short amount of time in which to get the audience rooting for a character, getting us to the height of rapture when two characters kiss for the first time has to be a pretty hard sell. But this also means that the characters usually come from a very specific stock: conventionally attractive, young, uncomplicated lives and backstories. Two people who are set up to perfectly transition from attraction to love to a happy lifetime together. There’s little if any baggage: complicating factors that would detract from the audience’s confidence in a happy ending, such as characters being divorced, or lacking social skills. Considering how often fatness is a visible signifier of both age and an inability to have one’s life “together,” it’s not surprising that fat characters would come laden with traits or histories that would detract from them being ideal mates. Although seen less frequently in films, romantic films like Jack Goes Boating and Enough Said that involve a character who is fatter and older than the typical leading man tend to be infinitely more interesting and relatable; they carry more weight, so to speak. Jack Goes Boating, similar to Marty, follows a budding romance between perennially single Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who originated the role of Jack in the original play and also directs) and Connie (Amy Ryan); Enough Said is about skeptical divorcees Eva (Julia Louis Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini, in his final film performance).

Both Albert’s and Jack’s baggage includes a lack of finesse for adulting. Jack doesn’t know how to swim, and his cooking skills extend to what he can prepare on a hot plate. However, he acquires these skills as the film progresses to be worthy of Connie’s love, so he can rise to the tasks of holding a dinner party and taking her boating. These tasks, developing competence in food and exercise, are things that fat characters (not to mention fat people in real life) are expected to need and want. On the surface, his training is a pathway to him becoming a desirable mate, but more importantly, it speaks to an internal transformation. A big part of his education lies in visualization; he learns to see himself as someone who is a competent swimmer and cook as part of developing his confidence. And, as one would hope to see in a romantic film worth the price of admission, the development of Jack’s emotional life is paramount. Jack lacks the social skills and attainments one would expect from a man his age: not only is he single, he has never been in a serious relationship. His coworker and best friend Clyde (John Ortiz) and Clyde’s wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin Vega) are seemingly his sole connection to the outer world. Their apartment is the main domestic setting featured in the film, and we never see where Jack lives (although he mentions that he lives in his uncle’s basement). His sense of social propriety, as we often see with fat characters, is a bit off-kilter. He is shy and a man of few words, barely engaging when a beautiful Italian client tries to start a conversation with him. He is a fan of reggae music, the assumed reason that he sports some truly janky dreds in his fine, blonde hair. Preparing for his blind date with Connie, he comments to himself about needing to dress well: cut to him on the date in a button-down shirt and his omnipresent knit beanie as they eat Chinese takeout in Clyde and Lucy’s kitchen.

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A rough start:  John Ortiz, Amy Ryan, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating

As far as social skills, Albert is better-off than Jack. He’s been married, he has a good relationship with his daughter, he’s a witty conversationalist and actively pursues Eva. But the film uses this as a double-edged sword; unlike Jack, whose flaws are obscured by his taciturn nature, Albert’s flaws are magnified by his social baggage. Eva’s growing affection for Albert is complicated when she befriends his ex-wife Marianne (Catherine Keener), who is a walking inventory of his personal quirks. He describes himself as a slob, but Marianne harps to Eva on his slovenly habits, his inability to cook more than one dish and multiple failed diets, expressing disgust at his fatness. (“But he never got obese, right?” Eva asks, a note of desperation in her voice.) Although not as egregious as Jack, Albert does have his own antisocial quirks. He doesn’t have a nightstand, which Marianne (and then Eva) sees as a failure of obtaining adulthood; he wears sweatpants to an early date with Eva, which she finds inappropriate. Even his job, working as an archivist for a television museum, suggests the kind of drawbacks often associated with fat characters: sedentary tendencies, myopic geekiness (he can recall ancient television schedules from memory). His association with television in Eva’s mind, while part of an unusual profession at first, becomes a negative as Marianne’s caricature dehumanizes him in her mind: “I pictured the ex she was talking about as this fat, irritating slob and it turns out it’s Albert! Fat Albert! …A cartoon!”

Both films depict romance as developing slowly and with some ambivalence; after all, Connie and Eva have baggage of their own. Connie is as awkward and shy as Jack; on their first date, she tells a lengthy story about her father’s declining health and death that leaves Jack confused as how to respond. Although a middle aged woman, she is just starting out in her career making sales calls, a job that Lucy evidently pulled strings to get for her. A man assaults her on the subway, leaving her with both physical and emotional wounds. She’s later sexually harassed by her boss. There’s also the suggestion that she hasn’t had much experience of being cared for as an adult, as Jack is emboldened to learn how to prepare a meal when she tells him that nobody’s ever cooked for her before. While she likes Jack, her experiences make trusting him a difficult task. He patiently gives her her space; during scenes where they are intimate, Connie sets clear boundaries that he respects. They talk about what they each want in a partner, both have modest goals. Jack wants someone who is positive and likes music, and won’t sleep with other men. Connie wants someone with “a sense he can tell me the truth, a sense of humor, has a job, patient, like you, sexy…” “I can be some of those things,” Jack responds. Perhaps because he is an unconventional romantic lead, there is no expectation for a conventionally dramatized sex scene (e.g. no dialogue, propped against a wall), or hyperbolic dialogue about the profundity of their love. The world of the film gives space for something more messy and human, where ordinary people have to negotiate trauma and inexperience, and find happiness in other flawed people.

Both divorcees, Albert and Eva are understandably cautious about developing a serious relationship. Eva, it’s worth noting, expresses reluctance to give him her phone number because “he’s kind of fat… he’s got this big belly.” After their first date, she bashfully admits attraction to him: “I wasn’t attracted to him at first because he’s not handsome in the typical way, but now I find him kind of sexy.” She later says that their “shared middle agedness” is sexy to her; while she has her reservations, partly because of his appearance and partly due to her own baggage, she is ultimately attracted to Albert as a fat, older man. Although she is able to move past the cultural imperative to be attracted to someone youthful and thin, this is in part because of her ability to relate to the phase of life he’s in. They both have daughters going off to college. Eva’s hesitance seemingly comes from the dangers of being able to relate to Albert. Her fascinated discomfort with Marianne’s rants about her ex-husband put Eva on the offense to “fix” potential problems in her future relationship with him. Eva starts to harp on Albert for a few different Marianne-highlighted personal quirks; unsurprisingly, food is one of them. She criticizes his eating habits in front of her friends and tells him, to his justified embarrassment, that she’s going to “buy him a calorie book.” While completely uncalled-for behavior, it does tie in to her own insecurities about her eating habits, as her ex-husband had a habit of bringing home foods that she was trying to avoid but couldn’t when they were still living together. Eva tries to use Marianne as “a human TripAdvisor” to decide if a relationship with Albert is worth the emotional risk; however, she does this at the expense of owning and taking responsibility for her own shortcomings. She jeopardizes her ability for Albert to trust her and exploits Marianne’s trust, hiding the truth from both of them. A subplot reflects her desire to avoid emotionally turbulent situations, where Eva starts hanging out with her daughter Ellen’s (Tracey Fairaway) best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson). Eva begins to neglect Ellen because she is having trouble dealing with the impending loss of her child to a college on the other side of the country. By treating Chloe as a surrogate daughter, Eva can willfully ignore the wedge of distance and maturity being forced between her and her actual daughter, just as she tries to use Marianne’s complaints to ward off disappointment with Albert.

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Enough Said: James Gandolfini, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and more chemistry than an entire season of Breaking Bad

Another detraction from an idealized relationship in both films is the juxtaposition of the budding romances with their friends’ unhappy marriages. Both relationship foils– Clyde and Lucy in Jack Goes Boating, Eva’s friends Sarah (Toni Colette) and Will (Ben Falcone) in Enough Said— feature thinner male characters, but neither couple is particularly happy. In addition to swimming and cooking, Jack learns harsh realities about relationships, as Clyde and Lucy reveal that there have been multiple infidelities over the course of their marriage, casting a shadow of concern over his potential future with Connie. Sarah and Will are more of a comedic foil than dramatic, but they still constantly bicker; adding in Marianne and Eva’s ex Peter (Toby Huss), romantic relationships in Enough Said seem to have a cyclical nature that create complicated family networks of currents and exes, whereas Jack Goes Boating is more linear and binary, split into the lonely single and the dissatisfied married.

The marked division between the two films is their ideas about if and how people change. Jack Goes Boating takes a more romantic approach: Jack dedicates himself to self-improvement once he meets Connie, but also learns that the reason she loves him is because he strives to be someone who can make her wishes come true. After the dinner he cooks her is accidentally ruined, she calms his shame by telling him how what she appreciates is that he cooked for her, even if they weren’t able to eat the meal. This message is explicit in the last lines of the movie: “I knew you’d be good,” Connie tells Jack admiringly. “I am for you,” he responds. On the other hand, Enough Said finds its resolution in the acceptance of flaws. Albert breaks up with Eva after discovering she’s allowed Marianne to “poison” their relationship. Despite hearing over and over about the worst version of him, she drives by his house often, finding that she misses him. When he sees her parked across the street from his home one day, it leads to the first interaction since their breakup, where they admit that they’ve missed each other. He tells her that he bought a nightstand (something she had been bothered about); she is surprised, but when he admits that he was just teasing her, she laughs, glowing as she looks at him. Eva, the thin, seemingly more “together” adult, is the one who has to change for the relationship to work, letting go of Marianne’s seemingly wise perspective about his shortcomings and solely focusing on her affection for his deadpan sense of humor and gratitude that he still has feelings for her.

Neither film ends with a grand pronouncement of love, or any other epic resolution. These characters aren’t timeless testaments to the power of love: they are charming but quotidian, flawed and wounded, but in ways that make them relatable. While I am looking forward to the day where I go to the movies and see a fat character swept up in a fairytale romance, seeing one in a more grounded, realistic film like Enough Said or Jack Goes Boating has more significance for me. My favorite films are the ones where I can relate to the characters, where the situations they confront feel true to my own experiences; in part, this is why I wish I saw more characters with physiques like my own. When a romantic story includes the anxiety of a failed date or the ambivalence of seeing a lover’s unattractive quirks, the honesty of those situations– the baggage that can be more believably ascribed to characters who aren’t young or normatively attractive– draws me in more fully than any scenario Nicholas Sparks could think up. If there is an upside to having a physicality that is denied idealization, I think that’s probably it.

See Also:

Vulture:  The Toughest Scene I Wrote: Enough Said‘s Ending

April 2016 Roundup

I’ve had a busy week, but better late than never!  Here’s a summary of fat characters in films I saw over the past month but didn’t write about.

The Lady Eve (1941, dir. Preston Sturges)

Classic screwball romantic comedy in which con artist Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) tries to swindle wealthy nerd Charles (Henry Fonda) and loses her heart in the process.  Two father figures in the movie are fat men: the Colonel (Charles Coburn), Jean’s partner in crime who pretends to be her father, is debonair yet heartless;  Horace (Eugene Palette), Charles’ tycoon father, is a blustering blue-collar type who made a fortune by brewing the Ale that Won for Yale.

Midnight Special (2016, dir. Jeff Nichols)

In this moody sci-fi drama about a Kid with Powers, there’s a small role of a child psychologist (Dana Gourrier) who is a competent, serious professional who does her job in an intense, high-security military setting and just happens to be fat.  And that’s it.  Which is fine by me.

Faces (1968, dir. John Cassavetes)

Dang, this is a good movie.  A cinema verite look at a crumbling marriage over the course of a night, as Richard (John Marley) spends the night with Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) a sex worker he frequently patronizes, while his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) picks up Chet (Seymour Cassel) a playboy she and her friends meet at a club.  Although all the characters in the film are portrayed as lonely people desperate for some way to remedy the emptiness of their lives, a few fat minor characters come across as particularly pathetic.  Maria’s friend Florence (Dorothy Gulliver) practically begs Chet to pay attention to her, while two of Jeannie’s other clients (Fred Draper and Val Avery) become angry to the point of aggression when threatened by Richard’s presence in Jeannie’s home.

Ma Vie en Rose (1997, dir. Alain Berliner)

This is a sweet film about Ludo (Georges du Fresne), a transgender 7 year old who wants to be accepted as a girl.  Unsurprisingly, this is easier said than done, as her family and community react to her love of dresses and dolls with confusion and disapproval.  The repercussions of transphobia on her family as a whole largely come from Albert (Daniel Hanssens), a fat man who is Ludo’s father’s boss. He is rather conservative, and is scandalized when Ludo holds a play-wedding wherein she “marries” his son Jerome (Julien Riviere), putting her father’s job in jeopardy.

Happy Birthday John Waters

The king of filth turns 70 today. With films like Cry BabyPink Flamingos, and problematic fave HairsprayWaters has graced an undeserving world with outrageous stories of irrepressible outsiders, including some truly amazing fat characters played by Divine and Rikki Lake, who don’t subvert stereotypes as much as crash into them at full speed.

It’s been over a decade since his last film, A Dirty Shame, but he seems to be enjoying retirement from filmmaking. And he certainly has quite the legacy.  Here’s a link to one of my favorite scenes from Hairspray, to celebrate.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women in Judd Apatow Productions (Superbad, 2007, dir. Greg Mottola; Knocked Up, 2007, dir. Judd Apatow)

(CN: rape culture) As Superbad and Knocked Up are both Judd Apatow productions, they share many key elements:  not only cast and crew, among them Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Bill Hader, but also a focus on young men who are reluctant to move on to the next phase of their lives, and how this reluctance affects both existing relationships and the ability to forge new ones.  Both films find our fat protagonists in situations demanding maturity, whether or not they are ready; both try to prepare through performing heterosexuality.  In Superbad, Seth (Jonah Hill) and his attached-at-the-hip best friend Evan (Michael Cera) are graduating high school and going to different colleges.  Instead of facing his feelings of loss, Seth focuses on getting Jules (Emma Stone) to date him for the summer so that he can practice having sex and start college as “the Iron Chef of pounding vag.”  In Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) has a one night stand with Alison (Katherine Heigl) that results in an unintended pregnancy; he tries to do the “right thing” by rushing into a relationship with her.  And it comes as no surprise that both women are portrayed as out of the protagonists’ “league.” Thinness is a major indicator of this quality that Jules and Alison both possess, that could be seen as “having it together:” they display self-control, competence, intelligence, and maturity, whereas Ben and Seth are characterized in a contrasting manner. 

[Something to bear in mind if you haven’t seen Superbad and your interest has been piqued: this is a movie that is very much located within rape culture. Its theme and story subvert expectations of teen sex comedies, but there is no getting around that for a lot of the film, the protagonists are planning to have sex with women who are too drunk to consent.  Even though their plan is hatched from ignorant naivete rather than, say, a pickup artist handbook, it does expose a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies that can be uncomfortable to watch.  Although rape culture isn’t the topic of this article, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the film’s problematic aspects.]

Superbad is set in a high school community, thus character dynamics and situations are exposed largely through high school students gossiping and talking shit.  We get an idea of what the object of Seth’s affection is like before we even see her through Evan’s needling:  “Jules got incredibly hot over last summer and obviously doesn’t realize it because she’s still talking with you and flirting with you.”  Seth responds by running through a list of her former boyfriends who are more worthy than him, constructing her “league” of guys who are exceedingly athletic, handsome, and “the sweetest guy ever.”  We also see where our protagonists rank socially by a scene of Seth performing poorly in gym class and the number of times he is called a “pussy.”  Seth is both unpopular and disorderly, willfully ignoring school rules and bubbling over with sexual impulse. The guys have an innate sense that these traits need to be suppressed in order to be attractive.  An early scene finds Evan giving a heavily doctored account of his weekend exploits with Seth and Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to Becca (Martha MacIsaac), the girl he likes.  As he speaks with forced maturity and nonchalance, the scene is cross-cut with flashbacks to the guys watching porn, drunkenly crashing his parents’ party, and puking in an alley after getting denied entrance to a strip club.  Jules, in contrast to Seth, is portrayed as more “together.”  She projects cool in every scene she’s in, through a balance of ease and self-control:  she’s a girl who laughs at dick jokes and can successfully throw a large party on short notice, generously providing alcohol for her guests even though she herself does not drink.  

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Seth and Jules have chemistry.  Actually, they have home ec!  Just making a little joke. I like to keep it light in the captions.

Although Seth has a history of awkwardly flirtatious encounters with Jules, he is convinced that the only way he can have sex with her is if her judgment is impaired through alcohol.  Seth convinces Evan that he too can score with Becca if she’s drunk.  “You know when you hear girls saying, ‘I was so shitfaced last night, I shouldn’t have fucked that guy”? We can be that mistake!”  Seth believes that if he (and, by extension, Evan) is going to have sex with someone, it’s due to poor decision-making rather than desire. This mindset motivates their extraordinary attempts to buy alcohol and get to Jules’ party.  Seth even discourages Evan from telling Becca how he feels about her instead of plying her affections with alcohol.  

Seth’s plan is incredibly unethical, though the film portrays it as a misbegotten product of his insecurity and selfishness.  The turning point for Seth is when he is forced to drop his scheming and finally allows himself to be vulnerable, allowing his unruliness to dissolve his prickly defensiveness instead of being used to transgress order to get what he wants.  We see him starting to let go at Jules’ party, telling the embarrassing stories of his adventures thus far to a group of peers, as Jules watches him from afar, smiling.  They go off alone, and he discovers that his plan is subverted by her “togetherness:”  not only does she not drink, she sets appropriate boundaries by saying she doesn’t want to make out with him when he is drunk.  He walks off, unable to handle his frustration and embarrassment.  Later, Jules finds him crying.  He tells her how disappointed he is that he blew his last chance “to make [her his] girlfriend for the summer,” and that he had been banking on her being drunk.  “You’d never get with me if you were sober.  Look at you!  Look at me!”

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In her essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness,”  Neda Ulaby makes the following observation about why Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had so many ardent female fans at the height of his celebrity:  “[he] projected a desire to be viewed with longing, illustrating that the capacity to attract and hold such a look is as frequently a gender-neutral source of power as a gendered target of male exploitation” (Braziel and LaBesco 160).  I must admit a personal bias– I think Jonah Hill is a cutiepie– but no matter how much I try to stay mindful of Seth’s creepy attitude towards making Jules his conquest earlier in the movie, the sincerity and vulnerability of his sense of loss melts my heart every time I watch this scene.  It’s also effective on Jules, apparently, as the film ends with her inviting him to hang out at the mall the next day.

Knocked Up begins in a similar vein, with unruly man-child Ben and “together,” out of his “league” Alison hooking up after a night of drinking at a club.  The opening scenes illustrate who the characters are and how much their lives differ, with Ben and his friends goofing off and smoking pot in their mess of a house, while Alison wakes up early, takes her nieces to school, and holds it down at her glamorous job.  They are physically dissimilar as well; Alison works for the image-obsessed E! Network, and isn’t told to lose weight when she gets a promotion to be on-camera (they legally can’t do that), but is strongly encouraged to “tighten.”  Ben, on the other hand, is comfortably unkempt and chubby.  They cross paths at a nightclub when Alison is celebrating her promotion and Ben gets her a drink; “I rarely look this cool,” he admits.  Although there is nothing to suggest that either is planning to get the other drunk in order to get laid, their encounter is characterized by poor judgment, namely a miscommunication about a condom that results in pregnancy.  The next morning finds Alison looking with disgust at a naked Ben asleep in her bed; he is the “mistake” that Seth and Evan aspire to be in Superbad.  

This is probably a good opportunity to bring up a challenge that I face writing about the topic of fat characters in romantic/sexual situations:  I’m attracted to other fat people.  I don’t come at these movies from the assumed point of view that the fat characters are unpleasant to look at.  I can parse from Katherine Heigl’s acting, the camera angles, timing, etc. that naked Seth Rogen in one’s bed is unappealing and therefore funny, but that’s not a point of view to which I can relate to at all.  Knocked Up can be rightly criticized for being a story about an idealized woman and an underachieving guy falling in love, when the gender-swapped version of that story would never see the light of day, but this argument can be convincingly made based on the characters actions and lives.  From what I remember of publicized versions of this argument when Knocked Up came out, it often boiled down to their physical characteristics, which assumes that attraction is universal and objective, alienating not only fat people from this discourse, but people who desire fat people.  This idea even appears in discussions of size diversity: the AV Club published an article yesterday about body shaming in Hollywood, where one of the writers mentions “Seth Rogen and basically all of his romantic interests” as an example of “men paired with female co-stars who are objectively more attractive.”

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“Hooray!  Oh, wait, I mean… Gross? … um…?”

I hadn’t seen Knocked Up in several years; everything I remembered about its main conflict arose from Ben’s immaturity and lack of responsibility (e.g. not reading the baby books).  However, the second watch revealed a more nuanced relationship than Manchild Loves Overachiever.  Alison herself is emotionally mature and willing to give Ben a chance, but her emotionally stunted, thin family doesn’t contribute to that at all.  Alison’s polished mother (Joanna Kerns) frostily pressures her to get an abortion, threatening that her daughter’s job won’t like when pregnancy makes her fat.  The next scene shows Ben’s stoner dad calming his son’s fears with amused patience.  (These scenes are imbalanced, in my opinion, and it’s all Harold Ramis’ fault.  He is in the movie for maybe 4 minutes total, and he knocks it out of the park.  I think I got more choked up over his loss watching this scene than when I heard the news of his death.)  Moreover, Alison’s unhappily married sister and brother-in-law, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), are a symbol of impending doom.  Pete is so checked out of his life that he appears to be an animatronic Paul Rudd puppet, while Debbie is shallow and controlling, a near-constant voice of doubt in Alison’s ear.  “He’s overweight,” she tells her sister, “when does that end? …imagine how much bigger he’s gonna get.  That means he has bad genes.  Your kid is gonna be overweight.”  “Shit,” Alison whispers.  Alison’s “mistake” puts her in proximity to fatness, both through the weight that she gains over the course of her pregnancy, and her decision to give a relationship with Ben an actual chance, despite walking out of breakfast with him the morning after their hookup.

Like Seth in Superbad, Ben is characterized by his lack of traditionally masculine charms (big muscles and/or a big paycheck), but becomes lovable by being vulnerable and emotionally open.  His ultimate proving ground when Alison goes into labor. He proves that he is open to change and has taken on some of Alison’s “togetherness,” but unlike the rest of her family, prioritizes her feelings and wants.  He takes care of Alison through the knowledge he’s acquired about the birthing process and taking care of her emotional needs by setting boundaries with her ruthless obstetrician (Ken Jeong) and Debbie, who is also won over by Ben telling her to stay in the waiting room.  Proving that he can be mature and nurturing, Alison realizes how much she loves him, and the film ends with a montage of the happy family.  

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Look at ‘im go, defying traditional standards of masculinity.

Ulaby’s observation about Fatty Arbuckle also applies to Ben, as he moves beyond the goofy guy who was lucky enough to have a one-night stand with a beautiful woman and becomes someone who is willing to be vulnerable and open to change out of longing for her to love him.  Both films end with the protagonists facing their scary, uncertain futures– Seth and Evan separate from each other, Ben becomes a father– motivated by the reciprocated love of women who are out of their “league.”  The fat protagonists of these films show a different masculinity than is often seen in film, men who are desirable to women through their longing and vulnerability.  Regarding the kind of women who are desirable to men, though: if the audience wants a depiction of women that doesn’t reside on top of the traditional pedestal of togetherness, we must look elsewhere.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men with Thin Women

Romantic love is a fraught topic for this blog.  It’s an incredibly common motivation in film, but one that fat characters are so often disconnected from.  Frequently, they are assumed to be undesirable, unlucky in love (whether unable to attract a mate or part of an unhappy couple), non-sexual, or grotesquely hypersexualized.  Not including this post, I’ve written about fat characters in 112 movies that I’ve watched since starting this blog in June 2014.  Here’s the breakdown of romantic relationships including fat people that start during and last through the ends of those films, by size and gender (both of which are, of course, rigid binaries):

Fat man, thin woman: 6
Fat woman, thin man: 4
Fat man, fat woman: 2
Fat woman, thin woman: 1

Although not a large or representative sampling of film as a whole, fat romance is present in a little over 10%.  In addition, notice the most frequent pairing:  when fat characters have storylines where they and another character fall in love, it’s commonly a fat man paired with a thin woman, who is commonly conventionally attractive.  

I wanted to look at this trope, but was struggling to pick a title or two.  I have the excellent fortune to have a partner who works at a brick-and-mortar video store, and thus access to thousands of titles.  I called him at work.

“Do you have Only the Lonely?”
“No.”
“Do you have King Ralph?”
“No.”

Apparently, my fortune has its limits when crossing paths with my thing for 90s rom coms.  I explained to Patrick that I was looking for a movie in which a fat man and a thin, conventionally attractive woman fall in love, and are still together at the end of the film. I had called during a slow night; when I arrived at the store an hour later, this pile was waiting for me:

 

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And he had only gone through the comedy section and pulled films based on his personal knowledge of the plots.

It’s not like this phenomenon is shrouded in mystery.  In a culture where most filmmakers are straight men, and art has traditionally catered to the straight male gaze, there is more leeway for a male character to be a relatable Joe Six Pack (or lack thereof) and less for a female character to deviate from widely accepted beauty standards.  On top of this, most widely-distributed films get made with box office numbers in mind.  The result:  something “refreshing” or “progressive” usually takes a baby step or two away from convention, fearful of alienating audiences (and operating under the assumption that the audience isn’t already alienated).  However, because the change in convention is so often discrete, it’s easier to isolate and inspect what it means to have fatness as an element in an otherwise normative film romance.  Does fatness have an effect on how love and desire are portrayed?  Gender?  Does having a fat lover reify the expectation that a female character conform to beauty standards, or does it provide opportunity to subvert those expectations?  Is there a film out there that meets the aforementioned criteria and includes people of color besides The Nutty Professor?

Since this dynamic crops up time and time again in the pool of films that are appropriate topics for CPBS, I intend to take a closer look at it through a series of articles. Do you remember last year, when I said I was going to do a series of articles about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career and then I didn’t?  This will be kind of like that, except this time, it will actually exist.  I’m starting with two films that I have easy access to: Superbad and Knocked Up.

Roundup: March 2016

A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.

Take This Waltz (2011, dir. Sarah Polley)

This romantic drama follows Margot (Michelle Williams), a writer who finds herself torn between her loving, stable marriage to chef Lou (Seth Rogen) and her prickly, burgeoning crush on their rickshaw-driving artist neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby).  I was hesitant to include this because Rogen is thinner in this film than most of his work (he made this film around the same time as Green Hornet), but I decided to go with it as the film juxtaposes him with Daniel, who is very athletic (literally spending his days running around Toronto).

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Orgazmo (1997, dir. Trey Parker)

A self-consciously B comedy that is a sendup of low-budget action films, the porn industry, and (of course) Mormons, Orgazmo pits kung fu fighting Latter Day Saint Joe (Parker) against evil porn producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs).  Maxxx is fat, as are some of his cronies/actors Jizzmaster Zero (Ron Jeremy) and his dimwitted bodyguard whose name I didn’t write down (mea culpa, unsung hero).  But another notable scene pairs Joe with a fat porn actress called T-Rex (Ruby Hart, credited on IMDB as “The Fat Lady Stripper”), and touches on a number of tropes:  the ground shakes when T-Rex approaches, she is masculinized (her lines are dubbed with Parker doing a voiceover), she is crass and sexually voracious, Joe is terrified of her, and the onlookers are disgusted, with the exception of weirdo Dave the Lighting Guy (Matt Stone).  The scene can be found here (NSFW; typical Parker/Stone humor).

The Ladykillers (2004, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

A remake of a  1955 heist film that pits a group of thieves against an elderly Christian woman (Irma P. Hall) who unknowingly rents a room in her house to their grandiloquent ringleader (Tom Hanks).  In true Coen fashion, the film is peppered with idiosyncratic fat characters: a sweaty, easily-bribed boss (Stephen Root); a security guard who is constantly laughing and surrounded by food wrappers (Walter K. Jordan); a deputy sheriff who frequently naps at his desk (John McConnell).

The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)

One of Pixar’s best, in a world… where superheroes are forced into hiding as normal people, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to ignore his and his family’s special abilities.  Having to live as insurance agent Bob Parr, he gains weight and is referred to as fat at least a few times, but is still able to fight well enough to defeat a massive killbot single-handed.  Once he has the opportunity to put his super-strength to use again, an exercise montage helps him get back his trimmer physique.

Meet the Fokkens/Ouwehoeren (2012, dir. Rob Schröder, Gabriëlle Provaas)

I usually don’t include fat people in documentaries that I see; in most cases, a subject being fat is happenstance.  That is the case here– a profile of Louise and Martine Fokken, Dutch twin sisters who were sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district for over 50 years, and just happen to be fat (although photos show that they were slimmer in their youth).  Although fatness isn’t explicitly discussed, they are contrasted with their slimmer, younger colleagues and laughed at by some passerby.  The idea of older, fatter women being sexually active, as well as objects of desire, is unthinkable to many people; making it the subject of a full-length documentary is a necessary subversion of assumptions about who sex workers are.

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Link: ‘You Cannot Shame Me’: 2 New Books Tear Down ‘Fat Girl’ Stereotypes

Usually when I post links to interesting articles, they’re a few years old, things I’ve stumbled across doing research or something of that sort.  But today, I’m delighted to be able to signal boost something that not only was released today, but that I came across listening to the radio on the way to work.  NPR’s Morning Edition ran a piece about two recently published novels whose protagonists struggle with fatness, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad and Dietland by Sarai Walker.  The piece isn’t about film (although Walker’s novel is being turned into a TV show and she mentions film when talking about the need for more fat characters in media), but it does touch on many points that are familiar territory for this blog:  the need to deconstruct the narrative of a sad fat person finding happiness when they lose weight, the intersections of gender and fatness, and the difficulty and necessity of reclaiming the word “fat.”  Plus it’s an article from a mainstream news source about fat people that doesn’t go into Obesity Epidemic Panic Mode.  Not too shabby.

“I’m not going to let her be a joke:” What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, dir. Lasse Halström)

I’ve written previously on CPBS about trying to pin down the parameters of fatness.  My approach to selecting films and characters to write about is to see fat (and, implicitly, average/thin) as a contextual label that tacitly includes socially ascribed values, un/acceptability almost always being one of them.  This open definition has room for a range of body sizes and shapes, and thereby, a range of challenges.  Most characters, by virtue of being in widely distributed films, tend to be “Hollywood fat.”  The conflict attached to their size of their bodies is the inability to be accepted into systems that are usually criticized for being shallow and elitist.  Often the impact of their fatness on their character arc stays on that level.  Muriel Heslop may be ostracized by her peers for being fat, but she is able to walk into literally every bridal boutique in Sydney and try on dresses that they have in stock.  

It goes without saying that being demeaned based on narrow standards of physical acceptability is a real, common, and painful phenomenon, but leaving the fat person’s experience in the realm of “The jerks don’t think they’re beautiful but then they have some transformative life experiences and learn that they really are” is a vast oversimplification.  I believe that challenging viewers to empathize with people and situations they had prejudged or overlooked is one of the most powerful effects that cinema can have, and fat characters are usually in a relatively comfortable place for most viewers– which is why What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an essential addition to this blog.  Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates), aka Momma, is a fat woman whose weight and size impede her mobility; the impact this has on her children is a significant part of the plot.  She isn’t treated as a joke or a horror story.

Although the previous sentence isn’t something that can often be said of people of Darlene Cates’ size when they appear on a screen, make no mistake: the film doesn’t idealize or center Momma.  As with many marginalized and supporting characters, Momma functions as a symbol.  Similar to Misery’s Annie Wilkes, Momma can be equated with domestic stagnation.  She was “the prettiest girl around these parts” (the evidence of which is a photo of a younger, slender Momma on the family fridge) until her husband’s suicide.  Her weight is attributed to her prolonged bereavement, ensuring that she is “wedged” in the house that he built for his family.  “We don’t really move.  I mean we’d like to, but my mom is sort of attached to the house,” Gilbert (Johnny Depp) explains to manic pixie dream girl Becky (Juliette Lewis) with a wry half-smile, referring both to Momma’s limited mobility and her emotional constraints on leaving the house.  He continues describing his mother to Becky in terms that refer to both her size and her inability to move forward with her life:  “Did you ever see a beached whale on television? …that’s her.  That’s my mom.”  Hardly a compassionate description.  Compare her to Arnie (Leonardo diCaprio).  Gilbert is also responsible for his brother’s well-being, but highly mobile Arnie isn’t a barrier to Gilbert’s wanderlust, and is able to travel off into the sunset alongside him.  

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Momma comforts Arnie after one of his multiple attempts to climb the town’s water tower.

Momma’s stagnation also seems to affect her younger son in particular.  She cradles Arnie when he’s upset and refers to him with pet names like “my sunshine.”  Her infantilizing treatment of him contrasts with his impending 18th birthday, as well as the stress that Arnie’s siblings go through trying to rein in his childlike antics (such as climbing the town’s water tower), occasionally exploding in frustrated violence.  The film takes place roughly over the course of a week, during which time Arnie’s nose is bloodied both by his brother and younger sister.  

The house itself, symbolic of the Grape family and their baggage, is not in good condition. Gilbert’s handyman friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) observes that it has “a serious foundation problem.”   The house’s disrepair is attributed to the strain of bearing Momma’s weight; the few times we see her moving through the house are accompanied by the creaking and groaning of the floorboards under her feet; in one scene, her journey from the bathroom to the couch where she spends most of her time is intercut with shots of Tucker in the basement, observing the floorboards bending and showering dust from the impact of her footsteps.  As with other tensions that remain undiscussed, her children keep the house repairs a secret from her, sneaking boards into the basement to secure the floor that shakes under her feet.  The image recalls the cartoonish cliche of a fat person’s footsteps causing the ground to shake.

Momma’s inability/unwillingness to leave the house and reliance on her children to care for her tethers Gilbert to the house, stifling his dreams, which in practice comes across as his constant brooding.  The town is depicted as sapping Gilbert’s will to live.  Arnie’s comments lack a filter but usually skewer a situation’s truth.  “You’re getting smaller!” he crows at his brother during the film’s opening scene.  “You’re shrinking! Shrinking! Shrinking!”  But any dreams Gilbert has beyond getting out of his hometown are nebulous and largely unspoken, which Becky attributes to him always thinking about other people. Despite being a caretaker for both his mother and brother, his selflessness has definite limits. He has an affair with a married woman (Mary Steenburgen), makes insulting comments about his mother to Tucker and Becky, and gets angry and sullen with Becky when she talks about leaving town, even though she is literally travelling through in a camper.  If anyone in the family deserves to be characterized as always thinking of others, it’s older sister Amy (Laura Harrington), who is constantly in service of others onscreen, cooking for the family or helping her mother ambulate.  Amy’s happy ending is relegated to Gilbert’s narration, where he tells the audience that she gets a job managing a bakery in Des Moines, and that younger sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) is looking forward to “switching schools,” presumably under her sister’s care.

Momma also functions as a source of shame for Gilbert.  Their relationship is understandably complicated.  She holds him responsible for Arnie’s safety and he often fails her; she can’t move past her husband’s death, which results in additional burdens on Gilbert and his siblings.  However, his frustrations with her are ciphered as disgust at her size.  Gilbert’s desires, which Becky categorizes as selfless, include wanting Momma “to take aerobics classes,” prioritizing her unacceptable weight over her grief or her social isolation.  When Tucker asks Gilbert how Momma is doing, he replies “She’s fat.”  His friend defends her by saying, “She’s not the biggest I’ve ever seen.”  

Inextricable from Gilbert’s sense of shame is how Momma is treated as a spectacle, an experience not unfamiliar to many people of Momma’s size.  Momma was Darlene Cates’ first acting job; she was discovered by screenwriter Peter Hedges as a guest on Sally Jesse Raphael, talking about life at her size.  During the interview, she said, “I’ve always had this fantasy, this goal, of being able to go to the mall… and sit there, and not have anyone notice me.”  Fat characters, especially those who are Momma’s size, are often included in films as spectacle.  Whether for eliciting laughter or disgust (often both), they often solely exist for the purpose of the emotional reaction of the audience looking at their bodies.  Many of the townspeople making Momma into a spectacle are children, suggesting that the impulse to stare at her is immature.  In the beginning of the film, Gilbert is willing to help a neighborhood child peek into the living room window to get a glimpse of her, but doesn’t want to bring Becky home, as is an expected step in their blossoming romance.  He wants to stay outside the house, making snide comments to his friends and being safe in the crowd of spectators; being seen inside the house, as part of the family unit containing his unacceptably fat mother, is too much for him.  

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The Endora community, from Momma’s point of view.

Although Gilbert eventually brings Becky into the house, Momma herself shows more courage than he does.  After climbing the town water tower one too many times, the cops put Arnie in jail.  Momma responds by leaving the house for the first time in over seven years to get her son.  She tells her children to get her coat for her, but ends up going into town with a blanket thrown around her shoulders, a coat able to accommodate her likely being a difficult item to find.  She marches into the sheriff’s office, to the surprise of everyone present, and demands Arnie’s release without having to go through any procedures that the sheriff tries to insist are necessary.  Momma’ trip back to the car, assisted by Amy, is a gamut of children laughing at her and adults giving disgusted sidelong glances.  One man even snaps a photograph.  This scene is centrally composed of closeups of Momma and Amy, isolating them in the frame and focusing on their determination to get to the car in a dignified manner.  The gawkers are seen in longer shots; we see them in groups, how they outnumber the Grapes, their feelings of disgust nearly overwhelming.  The family is uncharacteristically quiet on the drive back home; during dinner, Ellen breaks a pane of glass throwing something at a group of children trying to sneak a peek at Momma.  Although the act of going to the town square is objectively small, it is the essence of one of the main reasons Momma doesn’t leave the house:  she is made to feel shame for who she is by nearly every passerby.  Her lack of hesitation to confront that in order to save Arnie from a scary situation makes the blanket around her shoulders look more like a hero’s cape than an ad hoc coat. In the next scene, Becky tells Gilbert that Momma’s actions were “so brave… you know that, right?”  He doesn’t respond, staring at the map of places to where Becky has traveled.

Arnie has his 18th birthday, typically a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, dependence to independence.  Perhaps still feeling the shame placed on her by the town from her trip to the sheriff’s office, Momma watches the festivities from a discreet window.  She and Gilbert have a heartfelt conversation in which she apologizes to him for being “this way” and he denies being ashamed of her.  In a gesture to both atone for the shame he has felt around Momma and to bring Becky more fully into his life, Gilbert asks Momma to allow him to bring Becky inside and meet her.  Momma, understandably, is initially resistant, but Gilbert persists:  “This is different.  Nobody’s gonna laugh.  I’m not gonna hurt you any more, Momma.”  She relents, and is introduced to Becky, who is young and pretty and slender, who embodies the person Momma was and the person Momma is compelled to measure herself against.  Momma’s impulse, literally right after the two of them shake hands, is to apologize for herself:  “I haven’t always been like this.”  “I haven’t always been like this,” Becky responds, neutralizing the expectation of shame or regret around Momma’s body, normalizing their differences.  Momma laughs, the tension in the room dissipates.

After the events of the day, Momma complies with a repeated request Amy makes of her in the beginning of the film and Gilbert’s unexpressed desire:  she moves.  Without fanfare, she ascends the stairs to a bedroom on the second floor.   The scene appears to unfold in real time and focuses both on her children’s reactions and the effort it takes for her to get up the stairs.  The soundtrack is largely her heavy breathing and the creaking of the staircase under her feet; her face shines with sweat once she reaches the second floor, and her children have to help her get into bed and rest.  Finally at peace in her relationship with Gilbert, she calls him her “knight in shimmering armor… you shimmer and you glow.”  Presumably because her body was not able to handle the strain, Momma dies while the family cleans up the remains of Arnie’s party.  As is the case with many heroes, Momma sacrifices herself for the sake of her loved ones.  

The family’s grief is compounded by a horrifying thought:  the police may have to call in extra manpower to remove Momma’s body from the house.  Ellen panics: “There’s gonna be a crowd.”  “She’s no joke… I’m not going to let her be a joke,” Gilbert vows.  Tragically, he finally returns to seeing his mother as someone worthy of dignity only after her personal agency has been eradicated.  Instead of trying to ignore or accept the stares of the townspeople, or try to fight against them, the family makes a radical decision to liberate Momma from them altogether.  The only way for Momma and her children to be freed from shame is to remove her body from the equation entirely, for her funeral to be the project of her family alone.  They remove their belongings from the house and light it on fire, with Momma’s body inside.  She is not the only one liberated by this act; freed of the dual constraints of Momma and the house their father built, Gilbert and Arnie are free to ride off into the sunset with Becky and the magical convoy of campers that roll through their town every summer.

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Because the film focuses on Gilbert’s personal conflict and growth, Momma’s depiction is mostly limited to her experiences as a fat person, and how her size affects her relationships with her family and her community.  Although this is a notable limitation, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is landmark for how it asks the audience to look at the story.  While Momma’s relationship with her family is complicated, especially with Gilbert, we are invited to empathize with her, and see the cruelty and negative effects of the judgmental gaze that is so often turned onto people of Momma’s size.  Considering that virtually all other pieces of media depicting people like Momma invite the audience to embody that judgmental gaze, the subverted viewpoint of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape makes it essential, despite its flaws.
See Also:

No Small Parts episode #8: Darlene Cates  A webseries dedicated to the lives and careers of character actors presents a heartfelt tribute to both Momma and Cates, who lives in Texas with her husband of 40+ years.  As a self-identified fat actor himself, webseries creator Brandon Hardesty makes a poignant comparison between his own career and Cates’:  “If I turned down every role where my weight is used as a one-off joke or a sight gag, I’d probably never work again.”  

Roundup: February 2016

A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.

This is Spinal Tap (1984, dir. Rob Reiner)

Reiner inserts himself in this classic mockumentary as documentarian Marty diBergi, both a dorky outsider to the world of rock and the frequent reminder of the real world outside the band’s bubble where they aren’t the hallowed rock gods they position themselves as.  Other fat characters include the band’s creepy keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff).

Groundhog Day (1993, dir. Harold Ramis)

Buster Green (Brian Doyle Murray) is the master of ceremonies for the Groundhog Day ceremony who becomes part of Phil’s time loop routine when he chokes on a piece of steak and must be saved via the Heimlich maneuver (presumably many, many times).  Gus (Rick Ducommun) is a blue collar townie with whom Phil gets drunk (also, presumably many, many times).

Hail, Caesar! (2016, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

A fair number of fat characters are in this sprawling cast, from a beleaguered bartender in the sailor dance number “No Dames!”(E.E. Bell) to a nefarious extra (Wayne Knight) to professional person Joseph Silverman (Jonah Hill).

Toy Story 2 (1999, dir. John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Ash Brannon)

Al (Wayne Knight) is the main antagonist of the film.  Although he owns a toy store, he hates children, is greedy (stealing Woody from the yard sale even after Andy’s mom insists he isn’t for sale), lazy (complaining about having to drive to work that is literally across the street from his building), and represents a misguided approach to toys (wanting to preserve them in pristine condition instead of loving and playing with them).  The Prospector/Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammar) is also an antagonist, wanting to go along with Al’s plan to sell the toys to a museum in Japan because he’s never been taken out of the box.  Keeping toys in the box is positioned as wrong or sad in the film, but for the Prospector, it’s the best option.

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Drag Me to Hell (2009, dir. Sam Raimi)

Christine (Alison Lohman) is the typical thin, blonde protagonist of a horror film. Although the plot focuses on her struggling against a demon summoned to stalk her by a curse, her defining character trait is attempting to reinvent herself and run from her past as a fat girl who grew up on a farm in the South.

On the Waterfront (1954, dir. Elia Kazan)

This classic film follows the struggle of dock workers under the thumb of a mobbed-up union boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), one of whose thugs is a fat man.

Casablanca (1942, dir. Michael Curtiz)

Fat characters include Carl (S.Z. Sakall), a good-natured waiter at Rick’s cafe, and Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet), who runs the black market in Casablanca and has access to highly desirable exit visas.

 

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