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Drawing the Divine: Depictions of Fatness and Race in Moana (2016, dir. John Musker, Ron Clements)

“Thou sayest thou didst see the god clearly; what was he like?”
“What his fancy chose; I was not there to order this.”

–Euripides, The Bacchae

Something I’ve always struggled with as the sole writer of this blog is the best way to include discussions of people of color.  Similarly to how Laura Mulvey famously observed that films are largely produced for an assumed (straight, cis) male audience, the US film industry largely also operates under the assumption of a white audience.  Often protagonists or other empathetic characters are white (traditionally of the WASP variety), while characters of other races or ethnicities are distanced from the audience.  As a white person, I am able to analyse and criticize what a film tells me about the people of color it depicts.  On the other hand, what I have to say is less vital to conversations about race in media than people speaking about how they see themselves. The lack of intersectionality in film often means little space for fat people of color, but when they are characters in film, they need to be included in the conversations I try to have on this blog– not with the intention of speaking over people of color talking about their own experiences and opinions, but rather to ensure that this blog is as inclusive as possible when looking at fat film characters.

That being said, last night I watched Moana for the first time.  Considering that Disney is, well, Disney, the amount of care they took in representing Polynesian cultures is notable, including an almost-all-Polynesian cast (I believe Alan Tudyk, who voices HeiHei the chicken, is the sole exception) and seeking approval from cultural experts before finalizing designs.  Plus, the titlular character (Auli’i Cravalho) is a courageous leader of her people whose adventure isn’t sidetracked by a compulsory romantic subplot.  As “Polynesian” is an umbrella term for many cultures and nationalities, the film’s world is a pastiche, with Moana being a character created by Disney and hailing from the fictional island of Motunui.  

The other principal character, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), is a figure in legends across Polynesian cultures.  He’s also the reason I’m writing this post:  Moana’s Maui is a big dude.  Before the film’s theatrical release, there was pushback against his character designed from New Zealand Parliament Member Jenny Salesa, Samoan rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, and others, that “the depiction perpetuates offensive images of Polynesians as overweight,” as noted in this NY Times article about the development of Maui’s look for the film.  A similar article from The Guardian, focusing specifically on the controversy, quotes Will Ilolahia of the Pacific Island Media Association stating that a fat Maui is “typical American stereotyping,” contrasted with Maui’s depiction in his culture’s stories as “a person of strength, a person of magnitude and a person of a godly nature.”

The articles quote other Polynesian folks who saw Maui’s size as an indicator of strength.  The Guardian article includes a YouTube video by self-described “obese Polynesian” Isoa Kavakimotu who defends Maui’s body as “all about function, not aesthetics.”  (The video is worth watching, but be aware that it has a lot of flickering images.)  Samoan artist Michael Mulipola interpreted Maui’s physique as that of a traditional animated sidekick, noting that Maui’s “thick solid build represents power and strength,” and is “reminiscent of old school power lifters.”  David Derrick, an artist who worked on Moana and is of Samoan descent, made an insightful observation in the NY Times article: “I think a lot of those things come from people being very nervous and scared that a big company is portraying this beloved cultural character.”  Given Disney’s history– hell, given the history of big companies using cultural objects to create a product for mass consumption– that’s pretty fair.

Derrick’s comment called to mind the depiction of Dionysos/Bacchus in the Pastoral Symphony sequence in Disney’s Fantasia.  (The Bacchanal starts at 11:05 in the linked clip.) I’m much more familiar with Greco-Roman legend than I am Polynesian, and therefore am more confident in calling out Fantasia as an example of a cultural object being distorted for mass consumption.  The NY Times article points out that Maui is traditionally represented as a slender young man; the same is true of Dionysos in ancient Greek art.  Although always the god of wine, to the ancient Greeks, he was much more: a personification of the wild, the invoker of divine frenzy.  His ceremonies honoring him served as a ritualized transgression of social order. In many traditional stories, including Euripides’ drama The Bacchae, he calls women to join him in ecstatic revelry in the forest, away from their roles as wives and mothers.  In the Fantasia sequence, outside the context of his culture and de-fanged for a modern Christian audience, he is a stereotypical drunk.  The satyr and centaurs who revel with him are in contrast both in their slender bodies and their behavior.  Their dancing is neatly choreographed; they manage to keep Bacchus as on-track as possible.  The female centaurs flirt with him but never allow him to get too close.  They remain in control of themselves and the situation, a Homeric social guidance film.  Bacchus is not effeminate, as Dionysos is described in Greek stories to suggest that he occupies a space outside social categories;  rather he is emasculated, his wildness stripped of its divine power.  He’s merely “let himself go,” his fat body a symbol of excess that is tolerated for a joke but never fully embraced by those surrounding him.  Does Maui suffer the indignity of a similar process at the hands of Disney studios, 66 years later?  Even if he isn’t the protagonist, Maui does retain his heroic status in the film– he’s strong, brave, clever, and embarks on a heroic adventure to save the world.  Does the fact that he has a fat body, as opposed to previous artistic depictions, detract from his other characteristics?

Searching online for a source to unpack the stereotype of fat Polynesians is proving difficult– I’m just turning up a lot of articles on reactions to Maui’s character design.  (Interesting sidenote: the titles of many of these articles describe Disney as “fat-shaming” or “body-shaming” Maui… drawing a character with a fat body is not “shaming” them, but no worries, it’s not like you’re being paid to use words accurately or anything.)   The pushback that I’ve seen is specifically focused on Maui’s size, and unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much of an explanation beyond that, suggesting that fatness is objectively and simply a bad thing.  Why is that the case, at least in the context of this discussion?  Assumptions about health is a likely suspect. The Guardian article mentions the high obesity rates in several Polynesian countries, as reported by the World Health Organization. Ilolahia’s statement suggests a connection between size, health, and colonialism. Even in Kavakimotu’s video defending Maui, he conflates fatness with unhealthiness, concluding that Maui isn’t fat/obese because of his physical prowess.  This is where we venture once more into the murky, mutable definition of what it means to be fat.  The reactions to Maui that I’ve seen thus far buy into the oversimplified narrative of fatness and health having an inversely proportional relationship.  It feels a bit cheap to point out that Maui is a cartoon character and a magical one at that, so questions of his health are somewhat moot to begin with.  But in the real world, athleticism and body size are more complicated than what’s being suggested.  While watching Moana, I asked myself if the desire to see Polynesian representation in film wouldn’t be better fulfilled by rewatching Whale Rider (to be honest, there was a lot about Moana that I found underwhelming).  And that thought came up again when reading about this controversy, considering that in Whale Rider, protagonist Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is trained to fight with the taiaha by her fat uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa).

Undoubtedly, the history of colonialism and racism continues to impact the quality of life of communities across the globe, including Polynesian folks.  And by not looking critically at what is implied when we talk about fatness leaves a lot unspoken about what kind of hurtful attributes get assigned to certain communities, and why.  But what is accomplished by suggesting that a fat character who comes from a marginalized community doesn’t belong in a heroic position, or even belong at all in a story about that community?  In fact, Maui is the biggest (human) character in the movie; does having a range of body types depicted still result in the promotion of a stereotype?  And considering that Maui’s character development redeems him as a hero in the eyes of his people, what the criticism of his body ultimately leads me to wonder is: where is the line between calling out stereotypes and playing into respectability politics?

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“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.”  

How Fat Characters Function as Part of the Gang in Pixar Films: A Bug’s Life (1997, dir. John Lasseter), Up (2009, dir. Pete Docter), Inside Out (2015, dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie DelCarmen)

Over the past 20 years, Pixar, it goes without saying but I need a way to start this post so bear with me, has become a name synonymous with quality animation and heartfelt stories.  While an element of the fantastic is an essential part of every Pixar film, the best ones are also relatable, sensitive observations of near-universal emotional struggles.  The films often deal with themes of loss and maturation, either through the change of the status quo or being separated from a loved one.  While life tends to hit us with these kinds of experiences over and over again, they are particularly poignant for young people; grownups watching these films get the double whammy of relating to the characters’ experiences and seeing them through the lens of nostalgia, remembering what it was like being a kid and struggling with sharing the spotlight, or rebelling against parental expectations.  When a film is emotionally impactful on such a deep level, it’s because it gives us characters who are relatable and realistic, even if they are robots or talking fish.  Perhaps because they are aimed at children, these films tend to rely on classic structures of storytelling, including their interpersonal dynamics:  often these films are driven by a motley crew  of colorful characters and/or a mismatched pair.  Since the ideal balance to strike is an initially accessible film that invites the young audience to a more challenging level of observation, the challenge (as I see it) is to move past easy generalizations and stereotypes that could exist as the individual characters within these more easily understood relationships and stories.  With regards to fat characters who are part of these commonly seen social structures*, three Pixar films show varying degrees of success at thoughtful, nuanced portrayals.

A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s second feature-length film; while visually it is a great leap forward from the animation in Toy Story, it never reaches the emotional heights of its predecessor.  In an ant colony whose survival depends on teamwork, bumbling inventor Flik (Dave Foley) is a liability.  After accidentally destroying the offering of food that a gang of grasshoppers extorts from the colony in return for “protection,” Flik is exiled under the pretense of being sent to find “warrior bugs” to help the ants defy the grasshoppers. Stumbling across a circus troupe, he mistakenly assumes them to be warriors; the troupe, in turn, mistakenly assumes Flik is hiring them for a performance.  The motley crew circus troupe is a marked contrast to the mass conformity of the ant colony, but besides having neat tricks and personal quirks, they aren’t fleshed out.  Unsurprising, considering that the plot is basically Seven Samurai in less than half the runtime, and there are eight characters in the troupe (nine, if you don’t count Tuck and Roll as a combined entity).  The troupe includes Frances, a snarky ladybug with a chip on his shoulder from being misgendered one too many times (Dennis Leary), Manny, a mystical praying mantis magician (Jonathan Harris), and this guy:

 

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Oh boy.

Heimlich (Joe Ranft) is an actor in the troupe, performing sketches with Slim the Walkingstick (David Hyde Pierce) and Frances.  He speaks with a German accent, reminiscent of fat German gourmands like Augustus Gloop.  Heimlich is just as brave (or not) and just as competent a performer (or not) as the rest of his troupe, but fat stereotypes are largely what differentiate him as an individual from his friends.  He is shown eating much more frequently than the other characters– compare this to the grasshoppers, who are greedy enough to exploit the ants for exorbitant amounts of food, are not portrayed as fat, with the possible exception of dimwitted toadie Molt (Richard Kind), who is smaller and broader than his ringleader brother Hopper (Kevin Spacey, chewing the vocal scenery).  Heimlich’s hunger is shown as inappropriate; he stops a performance to ask an audience member to share their candy corn wit him.  Even his name suggests inappropriate eating.  There are jokes and story beats based on the size of his body, such as getting wedged in tight spaces and other characters struggling to pick him up.  Heimlich’s prodigious consumption, while being a defining character trait, also serves a practical purpose in that he is preparing to transform into a butterfly (perhaps a nod to The Very Hungry Caterpillar). He looks forward to the day when he will be a “beautiful butterfly;” when he finally emerges from his chrysalis, he looks like the same character with slightly different markings and tiny wings that aren’t capable of lifting him.  He is, however, overjoyed at his “beautiful wings” and doesn’t acknowledge that he can’t fly with them, suggesting that his happiness in his appearance is tied to a lack of awareness of his own body.   

Last year’s Inside Out met with near-universal rave reviews for its innovative concept.  The story is simple: an 11-year-old girl Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has trouble adjusting when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.  The majority of the film plays out in Riley’s mind, a spacey environment ruled by her anthropomorphized emotions: Joy (Amy Poelher), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).  Riley is a happy kid with a secure life, so Joy is her ruling emotion.  During the substantial exposition, Joy explains how the seemingly negative emotions of Anger, Fear, and Disgust help Riley stay safe, but talks about Sadness as a nonessential.  Starting out as a motley crew of these five emotions, the film quickly shifts to become about a mismatched pair trying to work together, as Joy and Sadness are flung to the recesses of Riley’s long-term memory banks in a moment of panic.  On top of being opposite emotions, Joy and Sadness have contrasting looks: 

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Sadness is fat.  Her outfit of a shapeless sweater and glasses is gauche. She slouches and hides behind her hair and speaks in a soft voice.  She is the visual opposite of Joy, who has a slim body, boundless energy, a pixie cut and a feminine, form-fitting dress, who skates gracefully along with Riley and literally glows.  Sadness’ introduction in the film is accompanied by the strains of a tuba.  Her movements are sluggish; she is droops uncertainly over the control panel.  At one point, she is “too sad to walk;” Joy literally drags her around by the foot.  (Of note:  when Sadness collapses, the sound effect used is practically the same as the one in A Bug’s Life when Heimlich collapses. I described it in my notes as “blurpy.”)  

After its theatrical release, several articles and thinkpieces were published about Sadness being a fat character (none of which particularly resonated with me, to be honest, but they aren’t hard to Google if you’re curious).  Slender Joy (Amy Poehler) is the character who children are more conditioned by other media to like.  She looks like Tinkerbell and acts like Woody.  She’s also the protagonist, the emotion who takes the lead in Riley’s mind and narrates the story.  As Riley is learning to express grief in the external world, Joy is learning to accept Sadness’ importance in Riley’s life, and that memories can have a complex mix of emotions attached to them.  Along with Riley and Joy’s character growth, Sadness also learns that she plays an important role in Riley’s life and that there are times where it’s appropriate for her to be at the helm.  In fact, Sadness’ initial contribution to her and Joy’s journey, being able to navigate the maze of Long Term Memory, is due to Joy’s lack of faith in her, as Joy directed her to read their procedural manuals in Headquarters to keep her out of “trouble.”  Notwithstanding, her self-doubt seems to be learned from Joy’s constant attempts to prevent her from doing anything (and, externally, Riley dealing with the expectation to be her parents’ “happy girl”).  The thin character’s opinion of the fat character is largely what validates her existence.  It is worthy of note that, during glimpses into other characters’ minds, Sadness is always a fat character, but the leader emotion changes.  Sadness is in control of Riley’s mother’s mind, but is more thoughtful and measured than Riley’s Sadness.

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Riley receives the support she needs once she acknowledges Sadness.

Even if the character designers were not consciously saying to themselves “fat people are sad, therefore let’s make this character fat,” their intent was to portray a character whom others do not want to be around, whose presence is a detraction, a character who is only accepted after others undergo growth and maturation.  And they made that character look like a fat woman.  The sticking point when it comes to representations of characters from oft-stereotyped groups, like fat people, is the impossibility of seeing even a well-meaning depiction independent of those numerous experiences of a character being fat for a Reason, to communicate something about their personality or present their body as symbolic of something.  You know, the reason for this blog being a thing.  Maybe it would be different if there were more fat characters whose body size was incidental, in addition to having as complex a portrayal as characters of other shapes and sizes.  

In other words, it would be great to see more characters in the vein of Russell from Up.  Russell (Jordan Nagai) is a tenacious, talkative Wilderness Explorer scout who is hellbent on earning a badge for assisting the elderly (“I’ve got to help you cross something!” he tells Carl when they first meet).  In his attempt to assist grieving widower Carl (Ed Asner), he is pulled along on an adventure to Paradise Falls, a remote spot in South America that Carl’s departed wife Ellie dreamed of visiting.  Carl and Russell initially seem to have nothing in common, but eventually it’s revealed that they are on very common missions, avoiding grief by clinging to symbolic material possessions.  Carl conflates the house that he and Ellie shared with his lost love, talking to the house as though it was her and attaching it to helium balloons to he can float it to her dream spot to live out the rest of his days alone/with “her.”  Russell’s dedication to being a Wilderness Explorer and earning his badge is an attempt to bring his estranged father back into his life, hoping that his father will participate in the badge pinning ceremony.  

Russell is far from an idealized character, but his imperfections aren’t mapped onto the size of his body.  He is socially unaware, but this is more due to being an excitable 8-year-old who’s been given an opportunity to geek out about his hobby.  His limitations are not completely conflated with the size of his body.  He fails at assembling a tent, which is a near-requisite joke about camping.  He struggles to climb the garden hose tether leading from the ground to the house– related to a lack of athleticism, but when it means saving his friends, he is able to climb it with no problem.  He brings a supply of chocolate bars with him, a pretty typical fat kid trait, but once he sees that Kevin the bird likes chocolate, he becomes more interested in using it as a tool of strengthening their relationship than eating it himself.  

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Although he loses his GPS device almost immediately, Russell serves as Carl’s guide in a few important ways. Russell has knowledge of the natural world and camping that help on their adventure, such as identifying dangerous stormclouds and bandaging Kevin’s leg after she is attacked.   More importantly, though, both characters have to learn to let go of their original goals and the items they make important, a move which is spearheaded by Russell.  After Carl chooses to save his house over Kevin the bird, Russell throws his Wilderness Explorer sash to the ground in disgust, giving up “assisting the elderly” in order to assist Kevin, whose life is at stake.  After this gesture, Carl flies the house after Russell, but has to discard the furniture and other mementos of his life with Ellie out to make it light enough to get airborne.  Although Carl is the elder, he follows Russell’s example.  At Russell’s pinning ceremony, Carl awards him the soda cap pin Ellie gave him when they were children which he wears on his lapel throughout the film, “for performing above and beyond the call of duty.”

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im not crying youre crying

Although Pixar films have certain shared traits that serve as brand DNA, the varying creators attached to different projects and the apparent market demand for sequels and spinoffs (which often mean a decrease in quality) mean that not every film they produce lives up to their reputation of superior family entertainment, nor does an exceptional concept or visual achievement say anything about the consideration of what it means to be an outsider beyond the context of said film’s immediate story.

 

*Not fat societies, mind you. WALL-E to be discussed at a later date.

 

See Also:

Does Inside Out Get Sadness Wrong? (with link to a more comprehensive NY Times article)

The Psychology of Inside Out

 

Rank Incompetence: Beauty as a Social Construct and The Firemen’s Ball (1967, dir. Milos Forman)

As I said in my previous post, 2015 was a great year for films with female protagonists.  We saw a whole range of diverse characters and situations, from The Assassin to Tangerine, Girlhood to Iris.  I also didn’t realize until I looked back at my blog posts from the past year that it was also the year of the female character right here on CPBS.  Starting the year out with Ma Rainey in The Ox-Bow Incident, the majority of the films I wrote about had fat female characters worth talking about. It shouldn’t be surprising that the role of body size in beauty standards was a recurring theme in many of these films.  Fatness is a complicated topic, but attractiveness is undeniably a factor in how it is considered.  Many fat characters, especially women, are contrasted against a conventional idea of feminine beauty.  That beauty can manifest as another character, perhaps the most explicit example being The DUFF, or the contrast between Anais and her sister in Fat Girl.  Often, a character is being measured against an ideal (eg. Emily in In and Out, who is hellbent on achieving her fantasy of being a skinny bride) or expectation (eg. Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, who subverts the presumption that the acapella group she is part of is made up solely of “twig bitches”).  Even settings where a seemingly foundational social norm is rebelled against usually keep other hegemonic ideals intact, such as the gay community and household in The Birdcage where Albert feels devalued and ostracized both because of her size and gender expression.  The unifying factor is a standard that has transcended agreement to become common “knowledge,” a fabricated rule that causes bona fide unhappiness when characters are deprecated in this way, which can even impede their ability to achieve their goals.  Consider Susan’s outlandishly frumpy secret identities in Spy, which both make it difficult to blend in and communicate the lack of respect her coworkers have for her.  In all of these cases, fat women characters face difficulties due to their bodies’ lack of social value.  They are all deemed less valuable than their peers based on their bodies. As these characters embrace and/or prove their personal worth over the course of the film, the social fabrication of these standards and adherence to them are shown to be mutable and hollow, more of a hindrance than a motivation or guide.

Recently, I saw a film that illustrated this same idea, but rather than providing a fat character to root for, the focus is on the ridiculousness of the figures making these judgments.  Milos Forman’s 1967 farce The Firemen’s Ball skewers the inept bureaucracy of communist Czechoslovakia.  Despite this specific intention, its observations can be mapped onto structures of control in other contexts where authority is suspect.  The film’s humor is derived from the ineptitude of a company of firefighters organizing a ball for their community:  the cursory reasoning that informs their decision-making, their selfishness and pettiness, their expectations juxtaposed with their hapless inability to control the unfolding and increasingly chaotic events of the evening.    

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As the ball begins, the Entertainment Committee (it should be noted that all the firefighters in the film are middle-aged men) is in a room separate from the festivities, crowded around a magazine photo of contestants in an international beauty pageant.  They make up a typical boys’ club, crowded together with pints of beer and cigarettes, arguing about the logistics of the beauty pageant they intend to run during the ball.  They “sensibly” arrive to only allowing the eight “most beautiful” young women at the ball to participate; the one crowned beauty queen will have the honor of presenting a gift to the elderly former chairman of the fire department.  This subplot puts the male gaze in front of the camera, under the guise of carrying out an official ranking of beauty as entertainment.  The results are hilariously uncomfortable.  Subsequent scenes feature three committee members approaching young women with the dubious honor of having been selected as pageant contestants as they carry out their self-appointed duty with an undercurrent of embarrassed self-awareness at how boorishly they are acting with the most paper-thin of excuses.  They argue about how to judge which women are the most attractive: by their breasts, faces, or legs.  They skulk around the edges of the dance floor and peer at women from the balcony.  The women they approach largely react with confusion, and the committee awkwardly tries to filter out undesirables who are nominated by proud parents or foolishly assume that a means of entertainment at an event would be open to anyone interested.  

The squeamish licentiousness of the beauty pageant takes place in a room separated from the ball, where many more firefighters than the entertainment committee are gathered behind a table to inspect the contestants as they rehearse.  Even if the “judges” of the pageant tell themselves that they are acting for the good of the event, the reactions of the young women’s parents suggest that they aren’t fooling anyone.  A mother of one of the young women escorts her into the room and cheerfully insists on staying to “find out what it’s all about,” to the dismay of the firemen (who eventually get her to leave by electing one of their ranks to ask her for a dance).  One man begs the committee to include his daughter Ruzena, a larger-bodied girl than the other contestants.  Her father tries to poke his head in the door every time it opens, despite having begged them to make her a part of the pageant.  A second father bursts in and drags his daughter from the room, telling the entertainment committee that they are “dirty old geezers.”  This illustrates the paradox of being considered a beautiful woman in a patriarchal system: the desire to be attractive paired with the anxiety over attraction leading to trouble.

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The artificial nature of the beauty pageant was, in my experience, made further obvious by a lack of context.  Forman probably wasn’t taking the reception of his film 50 years down the line into consideration, but as a Millennial raised on Hollywood, it was difficult to determine how I was expected to judge these women’s looks.  Against expectation, the events leading up to the beauty pageant rehearsal do nothing to clue the audience into which of the women is supposed the be the belle of the ball.  The entertainment committee approaches several girls in the beginning of the movie who aren’t part of the final eight; one appears very drunk, another very disinterested.  A young woman (whom I found attractive) is randomly grabbed from the dance floor and recruited; she complains that she wasn’t actually chosen.  What we really have to go off is the reactions of the firefighters.  For instance, I thought Ruzena was rather pretty (she looks a bit like Molly Ringwald), but after she enters the rehearsal room, one fireman assures another, “Don’t worry, they’ll improve.”  His opinion is also complicated by an earlier scene where Ruzena has sex with her dance partner; even if the committee doesn’t find her attractive, she is desired.  As a viewer, I was relying on the literal male gaze to understand the dynamics of the scene, who I was supposed to see as attractive and who wasn’t desirable.  This gaze is, unsurprisingly, reflected by the camera, with shots that follow the leers of the entertainment committee and focus on eroticized body parts while they assess the female ball attendees.

The commencement of the pageant serves is an effective tonic for the underlying creepiness of the rehearsal scene.  The entertainment committee’s authority over the beauty pageant– indeed, the structure of the beauty pageant itself– quickly erodes.  The contestants are reluctant to parade up to the stage; first one, then all of them, run off the dance floor and seek sanctuary together in the ladies’ room.  Once they begin to run off, chaos breaks out.  The audience, chanting “we want the queen,” carry laughing women from the crowd to the stage.  The entertainment committee gathers outside the women’s restroom, begging the contestants to come out, as the audience cheers for a fat, middle-aged woman who stands on the stage, wearing the crown intended for the winner and waving to the crowd.  The former chairman, the original intended beneficiary of the pageant, sits alone and neglected in the crowd.  Eventually, the firemen are distracted from trying to salvage the beauty pageant by the sound of a siren: cut to a community member’s farmhouse, burning to the ground.

The genesis of this chaos is trying to be and create something one isn’t and can’t: a group of firemen from a small Czech town attempting a replication of an international beauty pageant with themselves as the judges, with only a magazine and their own imaginations as blueprints.  While under the pretense of benefiting the community– they are, after all, the entertainment committee for this large gathering– they shift the focus away from what the partygoers might want and towards their own desire to be in control, to be the ones surrounding themselves with beautiful women at the mercy of their judgment.  The firemen are engaged in the pageant, but the audience is indifferent and the contestants are apathetic, then uncooperative.  While focused on trying to maintain control and conform to a specific prefabricated fantasy, the firemen forgo their true responsibility to the community, neglecting to respond to a fire alarm until a fire is out of control.  It’s a story that we see replicated time and time again in various institutions:  adherence to precedent and retention of power trumps purpose and critical thought.  Consider how recently, for instance, the Academy Awards nominations for 2016 yet again pass over innovative, critically acclaimed films and work done by people of color in favor of nominees who adhere more closely to conventional, traditional tastes and expectations.  Likewise, most of the films we see feature characters who exist within audience expectations and stereotypes.  Some films like The Firemen’s Ball make this dynamic part of their focus, but all films are influenced by it in their creation, distribution, and reception.

Who else but Fat Amy? Pitch Perfect (2012, dir. Jason Moore), Pitch Perfect 2 (2015, dir. Elizabeth Banks)

One of the inspirations for this blog was an article I came across on AV Club:  Fat Monday: 16 realistic depictions of overweight people in pop culture. (The comforting tagline: “Eddie Murphy doesn’t appear once on this list.”)  I appreciated the intention, but it didn’t go far enough for my liking (obviously).  “Realistic” is a bit of a red herring:  the list is more characters who are shown in a benign, or at least thought provoking, light.  And, as is a pervasive problem in the listicle genre, the one-paragraph synopses of why a particular character fits in with the theme don’t approach the complexities of the works they are part of.  I’ve already written about a few of the characters in the article, and more are on my to-do list.  The reason I bring it up now, however, is because this post is about the article’s poster girl:  Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), from the Pitch Perfect series.

This was my first time watching Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2.  I had heard mostly positive things about Fat Amy as a fat character and, having seen both movies this weekend, there are a fair number of refreshing aspects to her representation, especially in the first movie.  She proves her competence as a singer in her introductory scene, impressing Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) with her voice despite their focus on finding women with “bikini-ready bodies” to audition for the Barden Bellas.  She is also the most confident, no-fuck-giving character in the movie by far.  The aforementioned scene is also where she famously explains that she calls herself Fat Amy “so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.”  Her sense of humor is often outlandish, but her deadpan delivery suggests that she’s getting more out of confusing the other characters than of being perceived as funny.  The majority of comments characterizing Fat Amy as fat are self-referential but, surprisingly, not self-deprecating.  She casually remarks that she is surprised that her “sexy fat ass” was chosen to be part of the Bellas.  Fatness is part of how she sees herself, and isn’t a source of shame; rather, it’s a part of her identity that she modifies appropriately to her mood and context.  It felt oddly empowering as a fat viewer to hear her angrily threaten to “finish [someone] like a cheesecake.”  A small but extremely important detail is how Fat Amy isn’t afraid to call attention to her body.  She sprawls and flails.  She has a habit of nonchalantly slapping a rhythm on her belly, or cupping her breasts during a performance.  She inhabits her physical self and her space without apologizing or minimizing.

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Significantly, Pitch Perfect doesn’t put Fat Amy in a position where she is dragging the group down.  There is a requisite joke about her being lazier than the other Bellas (while the other singers jog, Aubrey finds Fat Amy lying down, or as she calls it, “horizontal running”), but both films focus on Beca (Anna Kendrick) as the character with a problematic lack of commitment. As a group, the Bellas have to deal with a change in their image from normatively attractive young women to one that includes singers who don’t meet stereotypical sorority girl standards; the classic rag-tag underdogs in a story focuses on competition.  “I wanted the hot Bellas,” complains a frat brother who books the group to perform at a mixer, when shutting them down mid-song, “not this barnyard explosion.”  Even the senior Bellas, “twig bitches” Aubrey and Chloe, have bodies that defy expectations of femininity.  It’s common to see fat female characters in comedies as the source of gross or bizarre body humor in their respective movie, but Pitch Perfect spreads it around.  Aubrey struggles with  stress-triggered projectile vomiting, and soprano Chloe gains the ability to sing deep bass notes after a surgery to remove nodes on her vocal cords.

Although Fat Amy isn’t presented as grotesque or cartoonish, Pitch Perfect doesn’t extend the favor to other Bellas who aren’t straight and white, as Fat Amy is.  The most glaring contrast is Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), a black butch lesbian (with an incredible set of pipes) who is also larger bodied than the average young woman seen in a mainstream comedy. We first meet her at acapella auditions, where she is immediately misgendered.  She doesn’t come out to her chorus mates until towards the end of the first movie, although we get “hints” to her sexuality via shots of her leering at or groping other women, or other characters (including Fat Amy) making snide comments about her sexual orientation.  Even in Pitch Perfect 2, Cynthia Rose doesn’t become a fully realized character and is just a source of more gay jokes.  The audition sequence where we meet Cynthia Rose also introduces Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), who embodies the stereotype of the quiet Asian girl through a running gag where she says disturbing things in a soft voice that none of the other characters are able to hear.  In Pitch Perfect 2, Flo (Chrissie Fit) has joined the Bellas; where Cynthia Rose is a factory for jokes about lesbians creeping on straight girls, every line out of Flo’s mouth is a comment about how harsh and dangerous her life was in her unspecified Latin American home country.

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Ester Dean as Cynthia Rose, in promotional material for Pitch Perfect

The “fat positive” aspects of Fat Amy’s depiction aren’t just positioned against other characters who don’t share her privileged social identities.  Stacie’s (Alexis Knapp) function in the group as the humorously slutty Bella complicates the praise Pitch Perfect gets for showing Fat Amy’s active sex life.  Stacie’s sexuality is coded as excessive, a joke that becomes the majority of her screentime, whether Aubrey is trying to get her to tone down her dance moves or she’s referring to her vagina as a “hunter.”  However, we never see Stacie involved with anyone.  Fat Amy, on the other hand, is shown in the company of two hunks on her spring break and also makes comments about her own sexual prowess.  So why is the line drawn between Stacie and Fat Amy, where one’s sexuality is the butt of jokes and the other’s is an empowering aspect of who she is?  When we see Bumper (Adam DeVine) flirting with Fat Amy and getting shot down or hear Fat Amy talk about how she joined the Bellas because she needed to step back from her busy love life, we see her defying the expectations that we have for fat girls in movies, the assumption that nobody will want to have sex with her or that she won’t have the self-confidence to approach someone.  Stacie, however, is normatively attractive.  We expect that she has no shortage of willing sexual partners, and isn’t restraining herself in the way she is expected to; thus, she is deserving of ridicule.  The inconsistency between how the two characters are portrayed demeans Stacie and condescends to Fat Amy.

Unfortunately, the liberatory aspects of Fat Amy’s depiction in Pitch Perfect largely erode in the second film.  The opening sequence is perhaps the most telling, where Fat Amy experiences a costume malfunction at a high-profile performance and accidentally exposes her vulva to the tv cameras and the concert audience which includes the Obamas.  Typical to a comedy film, the audience reacts with disgust and terror, some even running away.  Although unintentional, her body is deemed excessive and the resulting outcry nearly destroys the Bellas.  A similar scene of disgust comes later in the film, where a romantic moment between Fat Amy and Bumper leads to them making out on the Treblemakers’ lawn, causing Bumper’s friends to run off to avoid looking at the couple.  The plotline of their relationship doesn’t meet the standards set for Fat Amy in the first film, where she brushes off his advances (though she raises the eyebrows of the other Bellas by having his number in her phone).  In Pitch Perfect 2, she and Bumper are hooking up.  He asks her to date him officially with a romantic dinner; she initially turns him down, saying that she’s a “free range pony who can’t be tamed,” but eventually realizes that she’s in love with him, winning him back with a rendition of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.”  Pitch Perfect, the main conflict of which is between the characters’ respective acapella groups, set them up as well-balanced, confident, trash talking foils.  Fat Amy disdains Bumper’s advances and flirts with aforementioned hunks; Bumper quits school for an opportunity to be John Mayer’s personal assistant.  However, in the second film, former antagonist Bumper has been humbled, now working as a college security guard and desperately trying to hang on to his past glory days as a college acapella big shot.  It is at this point that he becomes a suitable partner for Fat Amy.

Unlike so many other films with fat female characters, Pitch Perfect presents Fat Amy as a character whose fatness is a part of her identity without being a point of dehumanization, even if the sequel makes some significant compromises.  Unfortunately, other characters with marginalized identities are left behind as two-dimensional stereotypes.  Perhaps apt to the story of a college acapella group, Pitch Perfect‘s approach to diverse representation is a welcome update, but it’s hardly a new song.

Roundup: November 2015

A rundown of fat characters in films I saw over the past month, but didn’t post about.

Stranger by the Lake (2014, dir. Alain Guiraudie)

A French thriller set at a remote cruising spot, following Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), who witnesses his favorite hookup Michel (Christophe Paou) committing murder.  Almost all of the characters in the film are men who have sex with men.  They are also mostly young and fit, with the exception of Henri ( Patrick D’Assumçao), a middle aged man with a beer belly who sits by himself and says that he is never propositioned for sex.  Only Franck approaches him for conversation, and their relationship remains platonic.  

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Vanya on 42nd Street  (1994, dir. Louis Malle)

This incredible film documents a group of actors who gather in an abandoned Manhattan theater for informal rehearsals of Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, under the direction of Andre Gregory.  Jerry Mayer plays Waffles, a sycophantic and persistently cheerful tenant of patriarch Serybryakov (George Gaynes).

Jurassic World (2015, dir. Colin Trevorrow)

I noticed two fat characters before Blu Ray took pity on us and malfunctioned.  Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), who Doesn’t Understand the Dinosaurs, serves as a foil to Owen (Chris Pratt), who Understands the Dinosaurs.  His goal is to weaponize the raptors for military use.  When the Indominus rex breaks free of its enclosure, one of its first victims is a fat security guard, who is monitoring the enclosure but fails to notice that there is a problem.  His death is somewhat reminiscent of Gennaro’s in the first film: paralyzed with fear and hiding behind a Jeep, he remains motionless while the dinosaur destroys his cover and devours him.

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Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight), a fat character from Jurassic Park. Also, a representation of what watching Jurassic World feels like.

ThanksKilling (2008, dir. Jordan Downey)

A low-budget horror comedy about a group of college kids terrorized by a cursed turkey over Thanksgiving break.  Billy (Aaron Carlson) is the group’s fool, to borrow a term from The Cabin in the Woods.  He is a loose cannon redneck who makes more inappropriate comments than the other characters (with the exception of the Turkey).  He is introduced ripping his undershirt over his excitement for Thanksgiving break, to which Johnny the jock comments that he doesn’t want to see his “tits.”  Billy is the one who suggests that the group gets drunk in the woods after their car breaks down, and a research montage later in the film includes a shot of nerd Darren teaching Billy how to read.  Billy dies when Turkey tricks him into swallowing him, then bursting out of his guts.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015, dir. Roy Andersson)

This film is a loosely connected series of static-shot vignettes that comment on mortality, morality, and human nature.  An opening sequence, “Three Brushes with Death,” feature two fat men who drop dead.  One dies in a ferry cafeteria; a second fat man takes his beer when the cashier points out that it’s been paid for and is up for grabs.  A fat dance instructor (Lotti Tornros) is inappropriately physical with a slender, younger male student (Oscar Salomonsson), running her hands over his body under the pretense of correcting his posture.  In a later scene, they are in the background having an intense conversation; he leaves her sitting at a restaurant table as she sobs inconsolably.  Another scene features a fat woman playing with a baby in a carriage.  Yet another is of a fat woman working in a laboratory, chatting on her cellphone while a confined monkey is tortured.  There is no narrative to speak of, but the most prominent characters are a pair of travelling novelty item salesman who are unsuccessful at their trade.  One of the salesman, Jonathan (Holger Andersson) is fat.  He is the more serious of the two and apparently the one in charge, describing his coworker as a “crybaby” and generally taking charge during their sales pitches.

“Anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time:” The Addams Family and Addams Family Values (1991 and 1993, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)

At first I was ambivalent about Uncle Fester, but it didn’t take much research to convince me that he is a fat character.  On his Wikipedia page, there is a quote from creator Charles Addams describing him as “fat with pudgy little hands and feet.”  Although his body is obscured under his black robe, he has usually been portrayed by larger-bodied actors, such as Jackie Coogan on the 1960s television series and Kevin Chamberlin in the original Broadway cast of the 2010 musical.  But as this is a film blog, the focus will be narrowed on the first two films and entertainment pillars of my childhood, the Addams Family and Addams Family Values, with Christopher Lloyd wearing a fat suit to play Uncle Fester.

I have yet to address fat suits on CPBS.  The only role I’ve looked at that utilized a fat suit is John Travolta’s in the Hairspray remake, which I didn’t talk about in the article.*  The reasons for putting an actor in a fat suit vary based on the film, but there are similarities between Travolta wearing one in Hairspray and Lloyd in the Addams Family movies, which is the spectacle of celebrity.  In either film, a fat actor could easily have been cast, but both Lloyd and Travolta are well-known names to mainstream audiences.  On top of this, putting both of these actors in a fat suit creates a spectacle based on their public personas that serves as a draw for the film.  Travolta’s abrupt left turn from his usual roles as a handsome leading man was one of the main sources of buzz around Hairspray, and Lloyd’s portrayal of Fester fits in with his reputation for playing characters whose offbeat looks indicate an offbeat personality.  I’m hard pressed to think of a fat actor for either movie who would have been suited to the role and at a comparable level of fame.  (My initial thought for a recast of Fester would be Pruitt Taylor Vince, master of creepy weirdos, but even today he is at the “hey it’s that guy” level of fame.)  Of course, this creates a vicious cycle in which a studio wants to hire someone at a certain level of fame, but there is a dearth of fat actors as well known as they want, so a thinner actor is put in a fat suit, preventing fat actors from reaching greater levels of notability.  Of course, fat actors are far from the only marginalized group to experience this vicious cycle, as disabled actors, actors of color, and queer/trans actors are often overlooked in favor of performers from more privileged groups who go on to give “brave” performances as marginalized characters– or whose characters are (re)written to have that privilege.

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Fester as a character has changed through the years and various media incarnations of the Addams Family (although his ability to light a lightbulb by holding it in his mouth has been consistent).  In the films, Fester has brutish tendencies and is as gleefully morbid as the rest of his kin, but he is ultimately someone who is gullible, tender-hearted, and lonely.  In both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, Fester’s story revolves around finding a connection with his family in spite of being duped by a manipulative woman.  When introduced in The Addams Family, he has been convinced that he is Gordon Craven, son of overbearing loan shark and con woman Abigail Craven (Elisabeth Wilson).  He and his mother “pretend” that he is long-lost Uncle Fester as a means of stealing the Addams fortune. Fester-as-Gordon-pretending-to-be-Fester is often perplexed, in way over his head in the Addams’ world and doing a poor job of convincing them that he is Gomez’s (Raul Julia) long-lost brother.  Despite believing he is only pretending to be Fester, the relationship he fosters with Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) raises a sense of belonging with the Addamses.  As introverted, lurking Fester is a foil to debonair, zealous Gomez, chubby Pugsley is a foil to his svelter sister.  Wednesday is intense, dour and sadistic, where her brother is easygoing and (like his uncle) gullible, always playing the victim to Wednesday’s torturer in their games. Fester’s love for the family as a whole grows to the point where he is able to stand up to his villainous faux mother in their defense.  A flash of insight strikes (literally, in the form of a bolt of lightning and Fester’s head) and the prodigal uncle’s true identity is restored.  His redeemed status in the family is illustrated in the film’s final scene set on Halloween, with Pugsley having opted to dress up as his uncle.

fester and pugsley

In Addams Family Values, Fester begins the film with his identity intact.  He is gleefully ghoulish, not unlike his family members, but as he is no longer bumbling through a con, we see that he is genuinely awkward, shy, and oblivious.  In the first film, Gomez waxes nostalgic about what a ladies’ man Fester used to be (while they watch a home movie in which young Fester sticks his finger in his date’s ear), but in the second film, he can barely look at object of his affection Debbie (Joan Cusack, arguably doing her finest work), let alone talk to her. Like Abigail, Debbie is a criminal who survives on deceit and wants to use Fester to get her hands on the Addams fortune. She is a “black widow” who marries, then kills, rich bachelors.  No longer reacting to the Addams’ world out of ignorance, Fester is purely unintelligent, to the point of being childlike.  While seducing him, Debbie confesses that she is a virgin; he doesn’t know what that means.  This doesn’t logically match up with the rest of the family, making Fester look particularly idiotic. In an earlier scene, Wednesday tells a less-informed peer that she has a new baby brother because her parents had sex; this is played for laughs, but apparently Gomez and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) don’t shy away from candid biological discussions.  Plus, considering that Morticia and her mother both practice some dark form of magic, you’d think they would have vials of virgin blood or something like that lying around the mansion.  When Debbie tells him what a virgin is, he confesses that he is one as well, again highlighting his naivete.  Fester’s role as vulnerable outsider is used primarily for laughs (as in this scene) and conflict, where the rest of the family must save him from Debbie, who attempts to turn him into a “normal” person, more to her liking, before bumping him off.  Compare this to a thinner outsider with a goth aesthetic in a comedic modern-day fantasy released a few years earlier: the titular character of Edward Scissorhands.  Edward (Johnny Depp) is also socially awkward, vulnerable, and longing for love.  However, unlike Fester, his loneliness and vulnerability are romanticized.  Despite having dangerous blades for hands, Edward is an artist who doesn’t want to harm anyone.  Fester is sweet and caring, but also delights in mayhem and grotesquerie. Edward’s love for Kim is pure and chivalric,  as opposed to Fester’s love for Debbie, which is misguided and dangerous.  Edward is a source of creativity and wonder for the mundane community he tries to live in, while Fester is merely an oddity.  

In a subplot, Fester’s young proteges find themselves in a similar dilemma.  Thanks to Debbie’s influence, Wednesday and Pugsley are also removed from their home and threatened with assimilation into normalcy at Camp Chippewa, a summer camp “for privileged young people.”  Camp Chippewa is a microcosm of the mundane world that the Addams are normally apart from, where people with non-normative bodies and identities are marginalized and attractive, athletic WASPs rule.  Wednesday and Pugsley befriend Joel (David Krumholtz), a nebbishy kid with multiple allergies.  The privileged-privileged campers, led by ultra-snob Amanda (Mercedes McNab) and enabled by chipper camp directors Becky (Christine Baranski) and Gary (Peter MacNicol), torture the outsiders with condescending mock-concern.   According to Becky, the WASPy campers “are going to set an example to show that anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time!,”  while completely disregarding the needs and preferences of the marginalized campers. When the annual summer camp pageant is announced as a tribute to Thanksgiving, Wednesday is cast as Pocohontas, the leader of the Indians (played by the other outsider kids), and Pugsley as a fat-suit wearing turkey whose part includes a song begging the audience to kill and eat him.  And of course, as the Internet reminds us every Thanksgiving, Wednesday leads the other misfits in a spectacular rebellion

pugsley turkey

The Addams family is a subversion of American values, delighting in death and misery where most people would rather not think about such topics.  The family and their ilk include not only a Gothic aesthetic and diabolical values (Morticia laments that, as a busy wife and mother, she doesn’t have enough time to “seek out the dark forces and join their hellish crusade”), but an embracing of non-normative bodies.  In The Addams Family, Fester is re-introduced to Flora and Fauna, a ravishing pair of conjoined twins whom he courted as a young man.  Extras in scenes of the extended Addams family and friends include little people.  While this isn’t exactly liberatory, as little people are often present in films as little more than “weird” set dressing, it reinforces the idea that the Addams’ world embraces difference, along with death and destruction.  Although the inverting of social expectations fuels much of the humor in the film, perceptive audience members may wonder what the films are saying that these are also characters who passionately pursue their interests, are proud of their family history, care deeply about each other, and don’t exclude anyone based on ability or appearance.  

 

* …but I will talk about now.  John Travolta in a fat suit reflects my overall opinion of the Hairspray remake, namely that its admirable attempt to be more empathetic to the marginalized characters it portrays is undermined by its move towards wider mainstream acceptance as a movie.  One would expect to see a name as big as Travolta’s attached to the role of Edna, but John Travolta, a straight A-list celebrity who is an open and enthusiastic member of a religion that decries homosexuality, is a far cry from originator Divine a fat drag queen whose name was synonymous with trashiness.  In the remake, Edna is given more emotional depth in the form of being unwilling to leave the house until she loses weight (or, as actually happens, until she is empowered by Tracy to do so), but the casting choice was not to give this role– a potentially valuable career opportunity for a less famous actor– to someone who would have experienced the anxiety of being in a public space where they are reviled for what they look like.  Rather, the role went to someone whose reason to feel anxiety about appearing in public would likely be his immense popularity.

“You’re not such a dog as you think you are:” Marty (1955, dir. Delbert Mann)

I hadn’t heard of Marty until my partner recommended it for the blog, which was a little embarrassing when I found out how well-received it was in its day.  A low budget film version of a tv production, Marty won both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was a career highlight for star Ernest Borgnine, who until that point had been best known for his role as a villainous staff sergeant in From Here to Eternity. The trailer for The Catered Affair, Borgnine’s next film, perfectly illustrates the impact of Borgnine’s work in Marty.  Borgnine isn’t the star of The Catered Affair, nor is he the most glamorous star in the cast, but the studio used him as the spokesperson based on Marty’s warm reception by audiences.

The premise of Marty is modest and relatable, set in the present-day Bronx and following 24 hours in the life of Marty Piletti  (Borgnine).  We are introduced to Marty behind the counter of the neighborhood butcher shop where he works.  He helps two customers in a row who inquire about his little brother’s wedding, and as “what’s wrong” with Marty that he is a bachelor at 34.  Everyone in Marty’s life feels entitled to comment on his lack of a wife, a status to which he feels resigned.  His bachelorhood is not pathetic in and of itself, rather the pathos comes from the relationship-shaped hole in his life.  He doesn’t have much else going on besides his job (though he does have ambitions of buying the shop from his boss).  A conversation with his best friend Angie is largely a repetition of “What do you feel like doing tonight?” “I don’t know, what do you feel like doing?.”  At Angie’s suggestion, he phones a woman he had met a month prior– “the big girl,” as Angie describes her– to ask for a date.  We only see Marty’s half of the conversation, the camera slowly pushing in on his face as he is rejected (“the big girl” presumably being someone who ought to struggle with finding a date for Saturday night as well), highlighting his loneliness and vulnerability.  Marty is shy and socially awkward, but he explicitly attributes his bachelorhood to his size and physical appearance.  “Whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it,” he tells his mother (Esther Minciotti) when she tries to convince him to spend his Saturday night at the dancehall where Marty’s cousin met his wife.  When she persists, his facade of resignation slips to reveal a raw, frustrated pain.  “I’m just a fat little man, a fat ugly man… you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache, a big night of heartache.”  

marty_3

 

Marty and Angie go to the dance hall.  Angie quickly finds someone to dance with him, but after getting a quick once-over, the woman Marty asked for a dance turns him down.  As Marty is standing by himself, Clara (Betsy Blair) enters the film.  Paralleling Marty’s introduction, she is at the receiving end of someone’s disapproval:  her blind date is disappointed that he has to waste his Saturday night with someone as plain-looking as she.  He offers Marty $5 to take Clara off his hands; Marty refuses, and watches as Clara gets ditched regardless.  Marty becomes her knight in shining armor.  In a subsequent scene, the camera glides through the crowded dance floor to find Marty and Clara dancing together, commiserating over their unlucky social lives and finding refuge in each other.  “I’m really enjoying myself… you’re not such a dog as you think you are,” he tells her.  “Maybe I’m not such a dog as I think I am,” he adds after she tells him that she’s also having a good time.

As they get to know each other over the course of the night, we see that Clara and Marty are both kind, sensitive, optimistic people.  The romantic scenes in Marty are humble.  They lack the glamour of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out on the beach in From Here to Eternity, the Best Picture winner two years prior.  Despite being average-looking people walking down a city street and getting coffee in a diner, the vulnerability that Clara and Marty share is more heartrending than the most exquisite locale or best-sculpted cheekbones could ever be.  They admit to each other that they both cry easily, with a relief that borders on excitement in having found someone that relates to their experience.  Later on, Marty tells Clara about how depressed and directionless he felt after returning home from World War II, and reveals that he thought about ending his own life.  “I know,” is her gentle response that tells us everything we need to know about her own relationship with suicidal thoughts.  What would be their first kiss in any other romantic movie is discontinued by Clara’s discomfort; where any other romantic lead would react with force or indifference, Marty crumbles into frustration and self-loathing.  Instead, Clara expresses her affection for him through her words: “I know when you take me home I’m just going to lie in my bed and think about you.”

marty and clara

 

The pain their loneliness causes is very real, but seems to be largely due to the opinions of others.  Clara is criticized for not being pretty, Marty is criticized for being bachelor.  The film does not portray marriage or a family life as intrinsically providing more happiness.  Marty’s mother and Aunt Katarina (Augusta Ciolli) lament the life of a widow; his cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) squabble with each other over the wails of their newborn.  Marty’s friends focus on women who are “money in the bank” and fill their free time with drinking and trashy novels.  However, everyone focuses their pity on Marty, the fat “dog” who is 34 and unmarried, then ridicules him for spending the night with a woman who is too old and unattractive to be considered a worthy mate.  Clara’s introduction into Marty’s life reveals that his friends and family rely on him to stay in the state they they ostensibly pity.  Although these days it isn’t unusual for someone to be unmarried or even living with family in their 30s (I’m sure this is more true in New York City, considering the high cost of living), the implication for audiences of the time was that Marty is in a state of arrested development.  Borgnine plays him with an openness and vulnerability that borders on childlike.  I was impressed by the emotional maturity with which Mrs. Piletti was written, expecting her to be a two-dimensional Italian mama, but an early scene of her serving Marty his dinner, surrounding him with serving dishes, suggests that he is smothered by her, and that her smothering is the cause of his fatness.

The film ends on a hopeful, but uncertain note.  Initially, Marty gives in to the opinions of his friends and family, and avoids calling Clara.  We see the two lovers in their respective spheres, completely miserable.  Marty stands amidst a group of his friends outside their neighborhood bar, listening to the same “What do you feel like doing,” “I don’t know” conversation that has apparently reached Pinky and the Brain levels of repetitiveness.  The camera slowly zooms in on him, gradually edging his friends out of the scene as they suggest going to the movies or– if my interpretation of the euphemisms of the day is correct– soliciting sex workers.  Marty veritably explodes from frustration, breaking away from his friends and rushing to the payphone:

“You don’t like her, my mother don’t like her, she’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man! Well, all I know is I had a good time last night! I’m gonna have a good time tonight! If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me! If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad!”

Marty dials the phone.  As it rings, he sarcastically picks on Angie for being a bachelor, repeating the criticisms his customers threw at him in the opening scene.  Closing the phone booth door between himself and his loutish friend, we hear Marty saying, “Hello, Clara?” as the film fades to black.  Contrasting with other romantic films of the day like From Here to Eternity, which ends in dramatic heartbreak for Lancaster and Kerr’s characters, the ending of Marty is modest, but that’s what makes it so special.  We don’t know if Marty and Clara make a good couple in the long run, but the impact she has on him is enough for him to make two difficult choices in defiance of what he’s being told.  He stands up for her worthiness despite being told that she’s a “dog,” and he stands up for his choice to pursue love with her, despite implications that as a “fat, ugly man,” he isn’t capable of finding it.

“You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.” Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout epic about the golden era of porn, Boogie Nights, flirts with the culturally subversive potential of the community on which it focuses.  When I recently rewatched the film (having first seen it over a decade ago), the inversion of the male gaze jumped out at me.  We do see female bodies in states of undress, meant to arouse, but Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg)– or to be more specific, Dirk’s 13 inch penis– is the sun at the center of Boogie Nights’ universe.  Although the audience must wait until the very end of the 2 ½ hour film for the full frontal reveal, Dirk’s penis is very much a presence in the rest of the film.  When he whips it out, the camera focuses on the character who is doing the gazing.  The audience’s thrill and titillation is vicarious; we are invited to empathize with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), and others as they marvel at Dirk’s cock, instead of to consume depersonalized images of Dirk’s body.  Similarly, during Dirk’s debut scene, the sight of him and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) fucking is distanced from the audience as Jack’s camera is literally put between us and them.  The more clearly framed images are those of the cast as they watch Dirk’s performance; Scotty J’s (the dear departed Philip Seymour Hoffman) near-painful desire for Dirk, combined with the discomfort of holding up the boom mike, is of particular note. (More on him in a bit.)

phillip seymour hoffman, boogie nights, scotty j

Another aspect of the potential subversiveness of Boogie Nights is the characters’ sexual relationships.  The main characters form a family of sorts, headed by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber. Treating each other with support and affection, the members of this family both mimic and exist outside the boundaries of the heterosexual nuclear family. While we don’t see them engaging in kink or sex between characters of the same gender, making sex into an art and a profession is queering, to a degree.  Their lifestyles and sexual choices are used as reasons to marginalize them:  Buck (Don Cheadle) is denied a business loan, Amber loses custody of her child, and Dirk is queer-bashed while hustling.  (One of his attackers calls him “donkey dick,” turning the attribute that made him special in his community into an oddity.)  Whereas sex in movies is usually burdened with emotional weight, a cause of strife and jealousy, most of the characters in Boogie Nights are effervescently casual about it. However, we are given a few subplots where characters divert from the free-love culture promoted by Jack and his crew.  One is Little Bill’s (William H. Macy) blatant cuckolding by his wife (Nina Hartley), which culminates with him carrying out a murder-suicide; the other is Buck and Jessie (Melora Walters), who are pushed together as wallflowers at Jack’s Christmas party, marry, have a baby, and start a small business, executing so perfectly in line with the American dream that Buck’s commercial for his stereo store is dripping in red, white, and blue.  The trajectory of both couples in the film ultimately comes down to the husbands’ agency; both of whom take themselves and their wives out of the industry because they don’t fit in.  Little Bill and his wife apparently aren’t able to successfully navigate their relationship through her desire to have sex with other men– the film does not confirm whether or not she performs in Jack’s films, but casting real-life porn legend Nina Hartley in the role certainly implies she does.  The implication that Buck is out of place comes through his clothing; he dresses like a cowboy, which customers at his part-time salesman job find off-putting and his co-star Becky (Nicole Ari Parker) tells him is no longer fashionable.  When Jessie and Buck meet, he is dressed in a flamboyant new outfit with a braided wig, which he laughingly takes off as they warm up to each other, suggesting that he has been pretending to be someone else as part of Jack’s group, but has finally found someone he can be himself with.

The fat characters in Boogie Nights don’t make the choice to leave the community in the same way that Little Bill and Buck do, but neither do they have access to the inner circle, the ability to become true members of the family.  Kurt (Ricky Jay), the Colonel, and Scotty J reflect the subversive aspects of the porn community, but in a less romanticized way than the thin, conventionally beautiful characters.  Kurt, the director of photography, shows the same commitment to well-made porn that Jack does, but does not have the same emotional connection with his coworkers.  In an early scene, he badgers Little Bill about the lighting for the next day’s shoot, oblivious to how distraught Little Bill is over finding his wife having sex in Jack’s driveway amid a circle of spectators.  After Little Bill walks off, Kurt goes to join the spectators, placing his voyeuristic interests over the wellbeing of his colleague.  The Colonel, who funds Jack’s films, initially comes off as avuncular and powerful, similar to Jack.  However, this changes abruptly in 1980, as the new decade turns the harsh house lights on the party of the 1970s.  He is arrested for child pornography, representing a corruption of Jack’s idealized porn goals.  His pathetic rationalization, “I just want to watch,” is a creepy parallel of the self-conscious performance of Dirk and Amber’s sex scene in the first half of the film.  This revelation is too much for the otherwise warm and indulgent Jack, who turns his back on his old friend.  And then, there is the aforementioned Scotty J.

scotty j gif

Scotty J is the only character who is meant to be read as queer, as his arc in the film is his crush on Dirk.  Scotty enters the film through the side gate of Jack’s house during a pool party as two men carry an overdosing woman out the same way; the side portal into Jack’s world for the aspects of it that are not given much focus.  “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate starts playing as Scotty sighs.  Serving as his point of view, the camera pans across the the conventionally beautiful party-goers who might as well be a different species.  Scotty’s skin is pale, hair is messy, and his clothing ill-fitting; his belly sticks out from under his tank top.  His very posture is gauche; he tends to stand with his head tilted in a manner that suggests an awkward teenager.  Once he zeroes in on Dirk, lounging in a beach chair, he approaches and forces an introduction with awkward small talk (“Nice to meet you.” “Me too.”).  He fawns over Dirk, accompanying him from his dressing room to the set like an acolyte (as he chews on a pen in suggestion of where his mind is).  His hero worship of Dirk contrasts with Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly), who treats Dirk as a competitor but is positioned in the film as his right-hand man, where Scotty is merely flitting around in the background.  In a scene of the three men buying matching outfits, Scotty can’t quite button his pants, and looks awkward and out of place next to the other two.  This brief moment in Dirk’s upward career trajectory is a moment of relatable awkwardness and ostracization for many fat viewers who have been part of a social clothes shopping expedition with thinner friends.

The turning point of the film is the 1979 New Years Eve party, the last night of the idyllic 70s before the downturn into the 80s. Scotty transgresses the boundaries of his relationship with Dirk, first by revealing that he’s bought an identical Corvette, and then by trying to kiss him.  Dirk shoves him away, and Scotty automatically apologizes, explaining “You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.”  Scotty wants to know if he can be accepted as the desired object of Dirk’s gaze.  Reflecting the emotional support and sexual open-mindedness shown by the family, Dirk is shocked but tries to be kind to Scotty as he but turns him down and returns to the rest of the party as quickly as he can.  Boogie Nights is full of characters regretting choices that have separated them from their loved ones, but no moment is so visceral, uncomfortable, or intimate than the lingering closeup of Scotty J sitting in his ‘Vette, sobbing his heart out and repeating “I’m a fucking idiot” over and over.

scotty j car

After that turning point in the film, Scotty is swept along with the course of the other characters’ stories, assigned to watching them.  He squirms uncomfortably in the background as Dirk starts his downward spiral of drugs and poor decision making.  When the characters find second chances at the end of the film, he films the birth of Buck and Jessie’s baby.  (During this montage, we also see the Colonel in prison, being abused by his cellmate.)  Scotty is not ejected from his group of friends the way the Colonel is, but after being rejected by Dirk, is not given his own chance at growth or redemption.  True to his personality, Scotty embodies an awkward position in Boogie Nights.  He is a stand-in for the audience.  Like Scotty, we able to gaze all we want at the porn actors who arouse our desire, but we are never able to touch them, to be with them. The feelings they invoke in us are ultimately fantasy.  However, this is where Scotty’s story ends.  The other characters grow and move on to other pursuits, just like we are able to move on to other experiences and aspects of our lives once we are through with our role as audience member, but Scotty remains mired in the role of unfulfilled gazer, an object of our pity (or derision).  This too, is a flirtation with subversion that is ultimately fantasy: Scotty J is a disempowered gazer relative to the object of his gaze (Dirk), but given that he is fat and queer, the film is attempting to change the power relationship using someone who is already marginalized.