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Three 2017 Movies with Awesome Fat Female Characters (and one from 2012 because why not)

Admittedly, I haven’t been great about keeping up with the Monthly Roundup feature.  I like having an overview of the fat characters I’m exposed to as part of my regular moviegoing, but something about its current format doesn’t feel quite right, and I’ve decided to shelve it until I’m more confident about what I’m doing with it.  However, I’m pleased to report that in the space of one short month (admittedly not a calendar month, but still), I have seen no less than four films with kickass fat female characters.  Most amazingly, I only sought out one of the four because I knew in advance that it had a fat female character; the others were complete surprises.  Check these out if you’re able.

Deidre and Laney Rob a Train (2017, dir. Sydney Freeland)

It’s not uncommon for a socially awkward protagonist high school girl to have a frenemy, someone in her social circle who is overly assertive and selfish, but gets away with it because of her social capital and ability to be manipulative. (Mean Girls. If it’s not patently obvious, I’m referencing Mean Girls.)  In a subplot, Laney (Rachel Crow) is strong-armed into auditioning for a beauty pageant by Claire (Brooke Markham), a Lady Macbeth-in-training who is determined to become Miss Iowa and wants Laney to make her look better by comparison.  Claire is ruthless, ambitious, struts around with a cute boy on her arm, and the film never so much as comments on the fact that she’s bigger than the other girls in the competition.  I don’t automatically cotton to fat female antagonists for merely existing, but considering that Claire’s threat to Laney is fueled by her confidence, social prowess, and beauty, it’s heartening that the role was given to a larger-bodied actress.

GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (2012, dir. Brett Whitcomb)

A compelling documentary about the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a short-lived tv phenomenon in the late 80s that helped legitimize women in the world of professional wrestling.  The film basically opens with footage from the tv show of two fat women, Mountain Fiji (Emily Dole) and Matilda the Hun (Dee Booher) throwing down in the ring. Although the other GLOW members featured in the documentary are thin and conventionally good-looking, Mt. Fiji and Matilda also stand out for their dedication to their craft.  The other women talk about their time with GLOW as a fun adventure they had in their youth, mostly sending them on to other careers.  As Matilda the Hun, a “glamazon” heel, Booehr views wrestling as her vocation, having struggled to wrestle in male-dominated venues long before being hired by GLOW, and continuing to wrestle long after it ends.  Dole, a former Olympic-level shot putter, doesn’t have a story quite as happy as the others– the present-day segments show her struggling with health problems– but her reunion with the rest of the GLOW cast shows that not only was she one of the main faces on the show, but that her castmates truly looked up to her as the heart of the phenomenon.

A scripted series based on GLOW is releasing this summer on Netflix… we’ll see if they fuck it up, I guess!

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2017, dir. Dash Shaw)

I went into the theater thinking that the title was metaphorical, and I was dead wrong. Daria meets The Poseidon Adventure, with an inventive visual style along the lines of of Belladonna of Sadness.  Dash (Jason Schwartzman), our protagonist, is a self-centered sophomore who sees himself as the star journalist of the school’s newspaper.  He makes several comments about his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) being fat, but Assaf’s character design isn’t markedly different from the other not-fat characters.  Lunchlady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), however, is drawn fatter than the other characters, and her size belies remarkable strength and ability.

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Patti Cake$ (2017, dir. Geremy Jasper)

An underdog story about Patricia “Killa P” Dumbrowski (Danielle Macdonald),  a young woman from a working class town in northeast New Jersey who dreams of making it as a rapper.  Her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) encourages her to share her talent with the world, but she feels held back by a host of reasons, including her peers who deride her for her size.  Fatphobia isn’t the only problem she faces, though, and she channels her feelings her body– both anger at her haters and defiant pride in herself– into her lyrics.

Deidre and Laney Rob a Train and GLOW: the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are on Netflix, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is currently in theaters, and Patti Cake$ is due for a wide release in July (I got to see it early thanks to the Chicago Critics Film Festival).

 

 

Gazing at Males: Magic Mike (2012, dir. Stephen Soderbergh), Magic Mike XXL (2015, dir. Gregory Jacobs), and the Fat Female Audience

Embarrassing confession time:  I have been picking away at this article for way too long.  Patrick had suggested Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL a while ago, and they are chock full of great discussion material, especially regarding the shifts between the original and the sequel. I was fascinated by a mainstream Hollywood movie that plays fast and loose with the gender roles of its straight male protagonists; then, there’s also the obvious topic of the noticeably more inclusive casting of audience members in XXL.  But how did they connect?  Though initially struggling to form a cohesive argument, I finally relied on this one weird trick:  I re-read the most famous essay in feminist film theory.  And amazingly, it was very helpful.  

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is the genesis of the term “male gaze.”  Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to describe a common dynamic in classic Hollywood film, in which the audience derives a dual and seemingly contradictory pleasure in the voyeurism of watching the people on screen (separating the audience and the character), but also seeing the characters as idealized versions of ourselves (bringing audience and character together).  And as the films utilizing this dynamic are produced in a patriarchal society (i.e. prioritizing the wants and experiences of men), female characters are on display for the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure, while male characters are powerful protagonists with whom the audience identifies. Often, these two dynamics synthesize in the romantic union of the male and female characters, creating the fantasy of being a powerful person who possesses the object of desire.  Magic Mike, especially XXL, disrupts these dynamics that Mulvey describes.   

True, none of the main characters in either film are fat.  Most of the fat characters I write about on CPBS aren’t protagonists.  While there are exceptions, as evidenced by most of the films in last year’s series on fat men and thin women, fat characters are usually minor supporting roles in a handful of scenes; this is especially obvious if you look at the writeups I’ve done of film festivals, etc.  It would be overly glib to say that there’s one reason why, but stemming from Mulvey’s theory of the audience seeking pleasure through identification with a protagonist, the common assumption is that audiences can’t/won’t empathise with a character who doesn’t embody certain social privileges.  Mulvey focuses on gender; but of course this struggle encompasses many identities.  At the writing of this article, whitewashing is again a popular topic of discussion, as the remake of Ghost in the Shell starring ScarJo just hit theaters.  But, as always, body size and composition is the spectrum we’ll be focusing on here.  And the fat characters of particular interest in Magic Mike and XXL are the fat women in Mike’s (Channing Tatum) audience.  

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I didn’t find or make screencaps of the fat audience members, please accept my apology in the form of Joe Manganiello in a sexy firefighter costume

Magic Mike starts with a flipping of the male gaze’s gender dynamic by establishing the relationship between female audience and male performer. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) titillates the audience by playfully reminding them that it is against the law to touch the dancers’ bodies (but then observes “a lot of law-breakers” in the audience); the women sitting in the dark respond with excited cheers.  This mirrors a common paradox that attractive female characters must embody of being on display for the audience’s visual consumption but not too actively sexual as to land on the wrong side of social judgment (or break the fantasy of being controllable).  Mike deals with this very judgment from the two main female characters, Brooke (Cody Horn) and Joanna (Olivia Munn).  Through their relationships with Mike, we see his need to move on from his current profession.  Joanna is willing to have casual sex with Mike and join him in orchestrating three-ways, but she isn’t willing to talk about her personal life with him and unceremoniously abandons him by revealing that she is engaged, which coincides with the completion of her PhD.  Brooke is consistently judgmental of Mike’s profession throughout the movie; although he accuses her of reducing him to his job, eventually both his bff Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and his boss Dallas screw him over, proving that her disapproval is merited.  Mike abruptly leaves the Kings, as Joanna left him, and shows up on Brooke’s doorstep.  His happy ending is the approval of the “normal”  character. His arc isn’t too different from the pattern I saw in films featuring fat men paired with thin women; Mike’s maturation make him attractive despite his excess (here his decadent profession, as opposed to his body), his reward is the love of a good (thin) woman.  This is a neat gender inversion of the story arc that Mulvey describes, wherein a female character “falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her… show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone.”  

As opposed to typical scenes featuring female dancers, where the male audience is a source of some menace (I haven’t seen the whole of Striptease, but two of the dance scenes on YouTube include Demi Moore being grabbed inappropriately by audience members, as well as Burt Reynolds sitting in the corner and making creepy comments about how she’s an “angel”), the relationship between male dancers and female audience in the Magic Mike movies is free of tension.  The pleasure the audience receives from direct attention from the male entertainers is pure, even sheepish at times, as select VIPs allow the dancers to pick them up, lie them on the floor, tie them in sex slings, etc. without any attempts to go too far.  The exotic dancing is described as a service in both films, either embodying the fantasy of a one night stand, as per Dallas, or helping a woman find her “smile,” as per Mike.  If anything, Adam is the only character to really transgress professional boundaries, as he kisses an audience member during his debut dance and give a tab of ecstasy to a sorority sister during a house call.  

Magic Mike is focused on people struggling to realize their professional goals (or just make ends meet) in an unforgiving economic structure.  The stripping, while surely an entertaining spectacle for at least some of the audience, is almost incidental to the film’s themes.  As Magic Mike centers on Mike’s struggle to be a successful entrepreneur, the audience’s shrieks of delight and dollar bills symbolize the tyrannical demands of the market, showering him with money when he dances, while an apologetic bank employee (Betsy Brandt) withholds it when he tries to secure a loan to start his furniture business.  And although the women themselves have no nefarious motives, they provide the money and attention that draws Adam into the life of a debauched party boy.  XXL, on the other hand, focuses on Mike reconnecting with his friends, helping them move onto the next steps of their lives after Dallas abandons them, and coping with the stress of his new job and newly single status.  He does all these things by rediscovering the joy of stripping, namely, helping his audience find their “smile.”  Where the first film finds Mike concerned that Brooke only sees him as a “30 year old male stripper,” XXL states explicitly (ha) that Mike and the other Kings can use stripping to explore and assert themselves as individuals.  Mike strives to impress the female characters in XXL, but unlike the judgment of his profession that he meets in Magic Mike, he instead interacts with women who are mostly involved in exotic dance in one way or another along his journey to Myrtle Beach, and has to charm them into providing assistance to get him and the Kings there.  The political pathos is removed from Mike’s relationship with stripping in XXL, giving the viewer license to find pure erotic enjoyment in his performances.  And yet, XXL breaks even further away from the “show-girl” trope Mulvey described, in which “a woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined.”  Both films invert the roles that each gender plays in the dynamic, but in XXL, Mike’s friends assign personal meaning to male entertainment that gives more depth to their characters than they had in Magic Mike.  The sequel gives us more of the personalities of the Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa and allows them to wax philosophical about the male entertainment industry, which is celebrated as an opportunity for all women deserve to have their fantasies indulged and to be “queens,” as opposed to the first film, which presents a glittery sandpit that is controlled by deceitful owners like Dallas and eats naive young men like Adam for breakfast.  

A few different scenes in XXL explore the Kings’ relationship to their work, including one in which Ken (Matt Bomer) bonds with Andre (Donald Glover) over the meaning they find in male entertainment.  “These girls have to deal with men in their lives every day who don’t listen to them,” Andre observes.  “They don’t even ask them what they want.  All we gotta do is ask them what they want.  When they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man.  We’re like healers or something.”  A subsequent scene shows this philosophy in action when Ken meets an older woman (Jane McNeill) who confesses her husband won’t have sex with the lights on; he responds by telling her how beautiful she is, how she deserves to be happy, and sings her the song that she and her husband would listen to when they were first falling in love.  The moment is bittersweet (“I don’t think Hank can do that!” she tells him when his performance ends), but shows more depth to what the audience seeks from the performers than the “free fling of a fuck” Dallas describes in Magic Mike.  The Kings want to be the most effective entertainers possible; while the film plays out with the intent that the film audience see ourselves more as an extension of the Kings’ audience, there is joy in seeing the exhibition of their creativity and the gradual reveal of their personalities as much as there is of their oiled-up bits.  The culmination of XXL finds Mike and his friends (now calling themselves “Res-erection”) fully in their element and fully belonging to the audience; as emcee Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) describes them, “a special kind of beast that can bring all the beauty out in you.”

Even if the dancers aren’t normatively gendered in how they function in the films narrative, they are in physical presentation.  The implication is, of course, that the man capable of “fulfilling every woman’s wildest fantasies” is relegated to one body type.  And commonly, when men in movies are depicted as irresistable, the women chasing them are normatively attractive.  The fantasy is specifically that of a man’s wanting to have numerous beautiful women chasing after him.  However, the world of Magic Mike flips that to focus on the fantasy of a fun night of oogling hunks (without the drink minimum) by including a range of women in the audience.  The first movie falls short.  Notably, there are some audience members who are older women, but all are feminine and white.  The only fat woman in Magic Mike is chosen for VIP treatment by Richie (Joe Manganiello), but he “humorously” hurts his back when picking her up and has to stop his routine, leaving her standing awkwardly by herself on the stage.  XXL does an admirable job of diversifying the audience.  Not only do several scenes include fat women getting individual attention from the male entertainers, but there is a specific focus on black women.  We meet Rome, who addresses her black clientele as “queens” and repeatedly tells them that they are beautiful and deserving of attention from her sexy staff.  We see many fat women in the audience, including an extended scene with a fat black woman receiving attention from a male entertainer who picks her up with ease (and is played by former pro football player Michael Strahan).

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Rome, the queen in her castle, and Magic Mike (fka “White Chocolate”)

A pivotal moment in XXL hinges on an audience comprised of one fat woman:  Richie’s dance in the convenience store.  Richie (rolling on molly) wants to bring his wedding fantasy routine to fruition, but is insecure about his skills as a dancer.  Mike (also rolling on molly), in an attempt to make his friend understand that their work is less about impressive dance moves and more about making women happy, dares him to walk into a convenience store and make the bored-looking cashier (Lindsey Moser) smile.  Richie balks, not because the young woman is fat, but because she “looks like she’s never fucking smiled a fucking day in her entire life.”  And, because it is that kind of movie, Richie’s beloved Backstreet Boys start playing on the store speakers the minute he walks into the store.  Unlike the women who make up his intentional audience– and unlike the common stereotype of fat women as desperate for sex– the cashier doesn’t immediately notice him (much to his pouty disappointment).  He has to dramatically tear open a bag of Cheetos just to get her attention, and she doesn’t even smile until the end of his routine, when he cracks a joke.  Richie goes on a minor character development arc over the course of the scene, where he has to get in touch with his confidence and sense of presence to prove to himself that he doesn’t need Dallas’ direction to be a successful male entertainer.  And the sign of his success is the approval of a fat, female audience, as well of that of his friends (all of whom are rolling on molly).  

The other fat presence in the films must be mentioned, even if he doesn’t quite fit in with the discussion:  Tobias, the DJ (Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias).  He is a corrupting influence for Adam in the first film, giving him his first taste of GHB (or, as he calls it, “hey juice”) and supplying him MDMA to sell once he’s established himself as a dancer at Dallas’ club.  Adam foolishly loses $10,000 worth of pills that he and Tobias were supposed to sell.  This leads to two thugs trashing Mike’s apartment looking for restitution, while Tobias helplessly watches.  However, to the more mature Kings who are presumably a bit wiser in their choices, he is more of a helpful support.  In Magic Mike XXL, he drives the food truck to take them on their road trip to Myrtle Beach with the intention of being their emcee at the stripper convention–until he drives off the road while rolling and suffers a concussion.  In both films, Tobias is vaguely coded as queer. In Magic Mike, we are introduced to him using stereotypically gay mannerisms to make a joke.  In XXL, Tobias gets on stage dressed like Carmen Miranda at a voguing contest at a gay club; and considering that he wins the $400 prize after the Kings upstage the club’s regulars, he had better fucking be queer because that is the only way that such an incredibly cringe-worthy scene could be salvaged.  At the afterparty following the scene at the gay club, he sits at a campfire with the club’s fat drag queen emcee (Vicky Vox), while the other Kings are paired with thin, (presumably) cis women.  (This sequence includes a scene in which Mike meets Zoe [Amber Heard] and they bond over having “inner drag queens;” ick ick ick.)

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Dallas and Tobias watch the boys do their thing

The aspect of XXL that is quite unlike any mainstream film I’ve seen in recent memory is not only the focus on the importance of pleasure (both giving and receiving) to a fulfilled life, but that pursuit is reinforced as egalitarian.  And combined with Mulvey’s theory about the gaze, you get something pretty amazing.  Instead of women performing as erotic spectacle for a male audience, you have men performing for an audience comprised not only of women, but of older women, fat women, and women of color.  So the entity in the film that we, XXL’s audience, identify with is those people:  older women, fat women, women of color.  And it’s not for the purpose of learning something or becoming aware of an issue or struggle;  it’s just to have some fun and feel sexy for a bit.  It’s a subtle part of the movie, but it’s normalizing of these groups of marginalized women in a way that we rarely get to see.  Even if XXL doesn’t answer Mulvey’s call to break down the “cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures” that enable the male gaze, it’s a noteworthy bending of that system.

See Also:

Fluffy on being cast and performing in Magic Mike

AV Club:  Offscreen dialogue is key to one of Magic Mike XXL‘s most revealing scenes

Parabasis:  On Magic Mike XXL: Entertainment, Art, Fulfillment, and Big Dicks

A scene from Magic Mike where Channing Tatum dances to Ginuwine’s song “Pony”

Trope Deep Dive: Wrapping up Fat Men and Thin Women with Heavy (1995, dir. James Mangold)

I’d had Heavy in mind for the Trope Deep Dive from the start, and praises be to the movie gods, it went from “it’s a nice thought but I don’t know how I’ll get my hand on it” to “holy shit it’s on Netflix” over the course of working on this series.  Heavy was one of the first indie films I watched as a young person, partially due to my nascent interest in this subject and partially because it was largely filmed in the region where I grew up.  The film could be described as restrained; like its protagonist, Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), it’s very sparse and selective in what it has to say, focusing on a brief point in Vincent’s life where a beautiful young woman, Callie (Liv Tyler) takes a waitressing job at the restaurant he owns with his mother, Dolly (Shelly Winters).  Because it is such a simple story, it can be looked at in terms of the other films I’ve discussed over the past several months, as a means of highlighting shared qualities of the other twelve films I’ve discussed so far featuring romances between fat men and thin women.

Vincent is a middle-aged, single (presumably never-married) man living and sharing a family business with his mother that she had owned with his now-deceased father.  Vincent’s size is a source of insecurity which she glosses over.  In one particularly memorable scene, he skips breakfast and when she asks why, he gives “I’m fat” as the reason.  Her automatic response is to render his statement and the feelings behind it as invalid:  “You are not fat, you are not. Honey, you’re husky.  You’re well built.  You’re macho.”  “I am FAT, Ma,” he responds more forcefully, the only point in the film at which he confronts her.  Not uncommon to fat protagonists, Vincent’s size has to Mean Something, and we discover that his fatness is symptomatic of his arrested development.  Although he is characterized as a good cook, when he is at work we only see him making pizza, a food commonly associated with fatness.  When Callie suggests that he has the talent to be a chef if he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, Dolly and Delores (Debbie Harry), a waitress who has been working at Pete and Dolly’s for over a decade, shut down the idea before Vincent can get a word in:  “They would just charge a lot of money to teach him what he already knows.”  Of course there are fat gourmet chefs, so it’s not the neatest of dichotomies, but Vincent’s body and the food he makes are fatty and pedestrian, in comparison to the finer alternative offered by Callie.  Dolly also reveals that her desire to keep Victor at home making pizzas is an expression of her inability to accept her husband’s death:  “when you began to… grow… it was almost like I had him back again.”  Victor is in a role that keeps his family’s life in stasis as much as possible: looking like his father, taking care of his mother, and working his father’s job in the restaurant that still bears his father’s name.  When Dolly dies, he shows a similar unwillingness to move on, and only tells Callie that she died once she’s in the ground.  Perhaps it’s worth noting that Dolly is one of the few fat women in the films I’ve included in the trope deep dive; the only other one I can recall off the top of my head is also a mom–Kathy Bates in Angus.

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Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), in domestic setting.

Stagnancy or need for maturation, especially when it means reliance on family in a manner deemed socially inappropriate to an eligible bachelor, is a common starting point for fat men who are romantic leads.  James in I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, Danny in Only the Lonely, and Jack in Jack Goes Boating are all grown men living with family members.  Angus, Terri, and the Motel are about minors who naturally live with family, but are all in caretaking roles (Angus and Terri of sick relatives, Ernest of his family’s business) that afford them less autonomy than their peers. Dex in The Tao of Steve and Ben in Knocked Up don’t live with family of origin, but rather with a tight-knit group of friends who enable each others’ adolescent habits.  Living with (and caring for) family suggests a body equipped for domesticity and comfort, the attributes that would be preferable for a long-haul relationship.  Living with similarly slackerish friends suggests an adolescent indolence that requires fixing through maturity (ie. in the direction of a productive job and nuclear family).  

This domesticity and/or arrested development also usually comes with another layer of outsiderness or contempt, often based on the character’s fatness.  In Heavy, Vincent is held back over and over again by language based on his weight.  When he tries to assert himself as restaurant manager to Dolores, he is confronted by regular Leo (Joe Grifasi) on her behalf:  “Just because your mommy’s sick doesn’t mean you can shit on people, you fat fuck.”  Even though Vincent makes a reasonable demand (that Dolores be more civil to Callie, her coworker), his size and closeness to his mother are easily invoked to discredit him.  Even when he and Callie are able to share some alone time together, she describes him as “more to love,” trying to be congenial but ending up patronizing, especially considering that Vincent desperately wants her to return his feelings.  

Status as a social outsider is common to the other fat male love interests.  All four of the school-age protagonists I’ve covered (in Superbad, the Motel, Angus, and Terri) are bullied.  The male love interests in Hitch, Knocked Up, Enough Said, and I Want Someone… are all coded as unattractive, at least in part due to their size.  I Want Someone… even focuses on how James’ weight impacts his work as an actor, when he can’t even get an audition for the remake of Marty because former teen pop idol Aaron Carter was cast as the lead.  Dex in The Tao of Steve is shown as being able to get laid despite being fat, and being unable to commit to a relationship in part due to his insecurity over his weight.  The female love interests, on the other hand, are thin and conventionally beautiful.  Additionally, in several cases, they have more social capital (or literal capital).  In Hitch, The Tao of Steve and Knocked Up, they have more money and/or more prestigious jobs than their male counterparts; in Superbad and Angus, they are more popular at school.  

Even if Callie is a waitress, ultimately she is an outsider to the world of the restaurant where Vincent feels stuck.  She is taking time off from college and aspires to be a photographer, which neither Dolores nor Dolly validate.   “Not everybody’s gotta go to college. Somebody’s gotta roll up their sleeves and do the work,” Dolly tells her during her interview.  There is a complimentary disdain between Callie and Dolly, even if Callie tries to put a friendly face on it.  Pete and Dolly’s is a temporary resting place for her while she figures things out, whereas it’s Dolly’s whole life.  Suggesting that Victor would want to go to school and work in a fancier establishment is an insult to Dolly, even if taking his feelings into consideration would be a more loving response than speaking on his behalf.  Callie’s separation from their world is embodied by her boyfriend Jeff (Evan Dando), a musician who refuses to step foot in the restaurant.  “I guess he thinks they’re all trash or something,” Callie tells her friends.  Victor finds an ambivalent place between the two, feeling separated from Callie but also wanting to expand his horizons.  After his mother dies, he takes a tour of the Culinary Institute of America.  His desire to free himself from stagnancy also comes in the form of trying to lose weight, a goal he starts pursuing when he sees Callie making out with Jeff.  The film’s hopeful ending includes a meetcute with the cashier at the grocery where he buys weight-loss shakes.

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I love how the posters have Liv Tyler’s image largest, suggesting that maybe she plays the protagonist, experiences some personal growth, reveals her inner world…? No, but she is the most normatively attractive of the main characters.

It’s not uncommon for movies with romantic narratives to include parallel self-improvement arcs for one or both of the characters falling in love.  However, Vincent’s weight-loss subplot in Heavy is an example of a pattern I’ve noticed across most of the films in the trope deep dive series: a fat man improving himself to become worthy of a thin woman’s love.  Heavy is similar to Superbad and Hitch, where a fat character changes himself and goes outside his comfort level to attract the attention of a thin love interest.  Knocked Up, Jack Goes Boating, The Tao of Steve, and Only the Lonely all feature fat men who are able to start a relationship with a thin woman, but need to change something about themselves to prove their commitment to her.  Of the remaining films:  Terri and The Motel end with the male protagonists being rejected by the objects of their affections;  the protagonists of I Want Someone… and Angus change for their own benefit and end up impressing their love interests as a result; and The Lobster and Enough Said engage with the aforementioned trope of men improving themselves to gain the love of women by actively criticizing it.  Although Victor’s focus is on his weight (and he isn’t actually successful in changing it over the course of the movie), other films feature more significantly life-changing choices in the interest of pursuing romance, including overall life improvement (Knocked Up, Jack Goes Boating), significantly changing a relationship dynamic with a parent (Only the Lonely), and dramatically quitting a job (Hitch).  This suggests that the romantic satisfaction in these films, for the female audience, is the idea of being a muse of sorts: her affection and approval are such valuable goals for him to achieve, she inspires him to become “better.”  The last lines of Jack Goes Boating illustrate this idea explicitly:  “I knew you’d be good.”  “I am, for you.”  The “for you” aspect of the sentiment connects neatly with the ideal of lifelong monogamy, where an individual person is unfulfilled without the one partner who sees them as beautiful and can unlock their hidden potential.  

Being able to love a fat outsider also speaks to a certain virtuous quality in the thin women characters.  It suggests a lack of elitism and an emotional integrity, the ability to see “real” beauty and find love without caving to social expectations.  When Callie and Vincent are alone, she tells him that he’s “cooler than someone would think.”  She’s also an aspiring photographer and finds him to be an interesting subject, bringing a lacking artistic sensibility to his world.  However, this willingness to look beyond convention doesn’t extend to the female characters themselves, who are all portrayed by actors who are popularly considered beautiful and/or coded within their film as desirable to other male characters besides their fat admirers.  Highlighting both the female characters’ desirability and the male characters’ capacity to care for her, often she is initially attracted to or in a relationship with a thin man who is not as good a fit for her as the fat romantic lead would be (The Tao of Steve, Hitch), doesn’t understand her the way that the fat romantic lead does (The Motel), or is an outright douchebag to her (Angus, Heavy).  

Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to assume that audience members would identify with characters involved in a romantic plot based on a shared gender.  Personally, I’ve frequently felt a certain alienation from these kinds of female characters in films, which I could attribute to being both fat and nonbinary, while also not fully identifying with the fat male characters who are in love with them.  But  to a certain extent, we watch films for the vicarious pleasure of seeing how characters react to specific circumstances; consider the post-modern horror convention of smugly outlining a survival plan for a slasher attack or zombie apocalypse.  And this group of films give us an expansion of what a romantic male lead would look like, while the image of a romantic female lead is very much in its lane.  (Apparently to have the sensibilities to look beyond beauty conventions, one actually has to be a female romantic lead in one of these movies.)  The divide in audience identification with these respective characters seems to be “Would I be able to attract someone like her?” versus “Would I be able to look past initial judgments and see that he loves me?”  Or, to put it in terms of how most of the plots play out, “I’ve won the love of a beautiful woman” versus “I’ve realized that I’m loved by a devoted man.”  The way this dynamic plays out in Heavy— at least, in Vincent’s imagination– highlights its problematic nature.  Vincent has a recurring daydream in which he finds Callie floating in the river, takes her home and cares for her– in every scene of the sequence, she is wet and her skin is bluish, as if she were dead.  Vincent is characterized by his timidity and seeming lack of live experience, so his dream is innocent, in a sense: his affection is expressed by caregiving, never sexual activity.  However, it is disturbing that the way he imagines a relationship with Callie is having her lifeless and dependent on him.  But Callie has a life of her own, and the film ends with them moving in their own separate directions.  

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Callie (Liv Tyler) and Vincent

As opposed to the kind of romantic film that end with a woman swept off her feet by a man who is wealthier (Pride and Prejudice, Pretty Woman) or lives more deeply than she (Dirty Dancing, All That Heaven Allows), the films I’ve looked at over the past several months largely find their romantic ideal in a man who is willing to make a change for the sake of a relationship.  This kind of arc isn’t exclusive to romantic stories pairing fat men with thin women (Shaun of the Dead, High Fidelity), but looking back at this series, I’m struck by the frequency with which it popped up.  Even if these films present a different idea of what a male romantic lead looks like– and considering that 9 out of the 13 are indies, one would expect at least some deviation from mainstream film standards– they are still mired in sexist, heteronormative ideas of how to a romance is formulated.  To be explicit: men act and women react; men strike forth to earn what they desire, women wait passively (or unknowingly) for their emotions to be stirred.  This dynamic also does a disservice to its presumably subversive male lead.  The journey of self-improvement, even if it doesn’t include weight loss, implies that he has to prove his worthiness.  It functions as a compensation, gives her a reason to fall in love with him.  Even in Angus and I Want Someone…, where the male protagonists respectively make decisions to face a fear and move out of mom’s house for their own good, their love interests start to return their feelings as an outcome.  The only film that is a true exception to this dynamic is Enough Said, in which Eva tries to get Albert to change his ways, only to have it blow up in her face and realize that having a flawed Albert in her life is better than no Albert at all.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Enough Said is the only film of this series with a female protagonist.  Even though a fair number of these films don’t explicitly make the male romantic interest’s weight a potential reason that he wouldn’t be seen as a viable partner, the need to “be good” in order to win her love, paired with being fat, is enough to keep these stories at least partly mired in the typical idea that a fat person can’t be “good” enough to be a mate.

Roundup: the 52nd Annual Chicago International Film Festival

It sucks that film criticism is a dwindling profession (and that I didn’t make life choices to result in it being my career), because I could live at film festivals.  I don’t do conventions, but I imagine that I like film fests for the same reason– it’s comforting to be in a space where everyone is excited for the same dorky reason that, in the harsh wilderness of the outside world, you feel relief if someone from the general population even knows what the heck you’re talking about.  And when there’s the opportunity to be in that space for two solid weeks?

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Well, that hasn’t been my experience yet, partially because I haven’t had the vacation time or the money for tickets, and partially because the first weekend of the Chicago International Film Festival (ChiFilmFest) is always the same weekend as the Music Box of Horrors.  But this year, finally, I had the opportunity to spend two solid days and then some at ChiFilmFest.  I skipped over the high profile entries that are going to be in theaters soon anyway (although I am looking forward to MoonlightLa La Land, The Handmaiden, and Arrival) and instead went for stuff that I’m not sure I’ll be able to see a second time, let alone in a theater: locally made indies, foreign films, shorts.  I don’t think I caught the breakout film of next year; the movies I saw ranged from underwhelming to pretty damn good.  I caught some interesting director Q&As, was part of the first audience in the US to see Andrzej Wajda’s final film, and got an obscene amount of free refills from the soda fountain at the concession stand.  The list of all the films I saw at ChiFilmFest are here.

The characters I saw were in wide variety, from an irrepressible Tibetan goatherd in Soul on a String to a closeted Quebecois track runner in 1:54.  There weren’t many instances where I was specifically impressed with representation of historically marginalized groups– notable exceptions were Pushing Dead‘s depiction of a person living with HIV/AIDS; the nuanced meditation on a young woman’s sexual agency in The View from Tall (cn: sexual harassment); and the rediscovery of black country blues artists during the 60s folk revival and its parallel to the civil rights movement in Two Trains Runnin’. And while there were some fat characters included in the 13 films I saw, none really stood out as anything different than the kind of representation I’ve grown accustomed to, unfortunately.  Here’s a quick rundown of them.

(CN: discussion of sexual assault)

“Superbia” (dir. Luca Toth)

An animated short that could be most simplistically described as a surreal world made up of two warring societies of men and women.  I’m not going to pretend that I understood what the film is trying to say, but it was cool to see characters drawn in a variety of sizes and shapes.

Night of 1000 Hours (dir. Virgil Widrich)

A magical realist murder mystery and allegory about historical responsibility, in which one Austrian family’s entire history comes to visit on the same night.  A notable fat character is a blowhard World War I-era police chief who is more concerned with maintaining rule of law than he is with bringing about justice.

Afterimage (dir. Andrzej Wajda)

A biopic of the final years in the life of Polish abstract painter Władysław Strzemiński and his losing struggle against the government-mandated rise of socialist realism in art in post-WWII Poland. There was another line-towing fat police officer, a relatively small part.

Imperfections (dir. David Singer)

Cute, funny heist movie that, not unlike a Coen Brothers film, has a lot of quirky bit parts embodied by fat people, including an obnoxious department store manager, a mob heavy who asks the guy he’s trying to intimidate if he can use his bathroom, and a socially awkward guy who just wants to buy some drugs.

Middle Man (dir. Ned Crowley)

A black comedy that reminded me a bit of last year’s submission Entertainment, this film stars Jim O’Heir (Jerry from Parks and Recreation) as an overly-optimistic square headed to Las Vegas to fulfill his dreams of being a standup comic, but gets waylaid when he makes a bloody pact with a mysterious stranger.  (O’Heir joked during the Q&A afterwords that he would have been off the project if they were able to cast Jonah Hill.)  He’s the only fat character on the screen, but another fat historical figure is invoked.  And as temptation is a big theme in this movie, I want to tell you how I avoided what could have been the most obnoxious “well, actually” moment of my life thus far:

At the screening, writer/director Ned Crowley and Jim O’Heir were in attendance to do a q&a. There’s a scene in the film where a character has a speech that uses a historical anecdote to illustrate a point. The anecdote in question was the story of Fatty Arbuckle raping a woman at a party with a champagne bottle so severely that she died from the resulting injuries.

Now, I don’t have a time machine, but I do know that contemporary film historians largely agree that Fatty Arbuckle was not guilty of this crime and unjustly crucified by the media and resulting moral panic. And one of the reasons I know this is because I’ve read the essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness” by Neda Ulaby, which is included in the essay collection Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco), which I happened to have brought with me to the theater to read in between films. Plus I was sitting in the front section of the theater, so I both literally and figuratively could have thrown the book at the screenwriter. But I’m too classy (or is it spineless?) to do such a thing.

May 2016 Roundup

A monthly rundown of the fat characters in films I saw this past month, but haven’t written articles about.

The Conjuring (2013, dir. James Wan)

Based on a true story, a family seeks the help of America’s foremost ghost-hunting couple when they discover their house is– spoiler alert– haunted.  One of the ghosts is a little boy who befriends the youngest daughter in the family, it is discovered that his mother was possessed by an evil presence and murdered him. Clairvoyant Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) has a vision of the boy’s mother, a fat woman, holding his corpse.

Inside Man (2006, dir. Spike Lee)

This intricate and engaging police procedural/bank heist/hostage situation movie has the enormous, diverse cast befitting a story that takes place in NYC.  My eye was caught by  Ashlie Atkinson, a fat character actress I like, as Mobile Command Officer Berk.  She was smart and professional, and fit in well with the rest of her team.

Best in Show (2000, dir. Christopher Guest)

One of my all-time favorite comedies.  Everyone in the cast is an idiot in their own special way, among them Harlan’s friend (Will Sasso), who can’t seem to wrap his mind around the fact that Harlan (Christopher Guest) and his bloodhound Hubert aren’t doing any fishing at the dog show.

The Seventh Seal (1957, dir. Ingmar Bergman)

This classic film looks at the range of human reactions when faced with the prospect of our own mortality, especially in times of crisis like the Black Plague.  Most famous, of course, is the knight Antonious Block (Max von Sydow) playing chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot) to buy himself some time.  A scene in an inn features a fat merchant (Benkt-Åke Benktsson) sitting with some friends, who conclude that the best way to confront the idea that they’re living in the end times is to “eat, drink, and be merry.”

 

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.

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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“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.”