embodiment

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”

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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?

Link: Nocturnal Animals and the Metaphor of Fat Women

If you don’t follow Your Fat Friend on Medium or Twitter, maybe you want to make that part of your New Year’s Resolution.  Her writing is insightful, emotionally resonant, and uncompromising.  Her most recent article is an open letter to director/fashion designer Tom Ford on his debut film Nocturnal Animals, specifically the use of fat women’s bodies as symbolic imagery and her own experience as part of a theater audience.

It was neither the first nor the last time an artist or intellectual I loved expressed their disdain for me. All because of the body I have. All because of the way I look.

I wonder if they ever imagined me reading or viewing their work. I wonder if they thought of lecturing me on the dangers of the body I have, or if they stop short, surmising that I might have heard that before.

I wonder if they know fat people, or if they’ve come to love any of us.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to let you know that I’m going to be busy with theater projects in January, so I won’t be able to update CPBS next month.  However, if you think you’d like to contribute a guest piece, please reach out to me with a pitch:  pandabearshape at gmail dot com.

I hope you have as safe and peaceful a holiday season as possible.

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.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Boys and Thin Girls: Angus (1995, dir. Patrick Read Johnson), The Motel (2005, dir. Michael Kang), Terri (2011, dir. Azazel Jacobs)

My intention with this series of posts about romantic storylines featuring fat men and thin women was to choose films using a specific parameter:  fat men and thin women who start a relationship during the course of the film and are still together when it ends.  This time around, that ended up being more of a hindrance than help.  I wanted to focus on adolescent characters, so I watched three films with fat male protagonists and plot summaries that suggested romance– AngusThe Motel* and Terri.  None of the three ended with the hero happily coupled with the object of his affections; The Motel and Terri end in explicit rejection.  This surprised me.  Certainly not all coming of age films focus on romance, or even use beginning a relationship to signify maturation.  Neither film I watched last summer with fat boy protagonists, Chubby and Heavyweights, had romantic storylines for their protagonists, though I suspect that’s more to do with the protagonists being closer to childhood than young adulthood.  I wanted stories of fat characters learning to believe in themselves to include at least some subversion of the assumption that they wouldn’t be able to find willing romantic partners. But as I have a prolific once-per-month posting average to maintain, plus these films have some interesting similarities and center fat characters more than most, I figure they’re worth talking about. 

As is required by the genre, all three young protagonists need to learn important life lessons in order to confront or transcend the difficult situations they find themselves in at the beginnings of their respective stories.  All three are outsiders.  Terri (Jacob Wysocki) and Angus(Charlie Talbert) are bullied and unpopular explicitly because they are fat.  This isn’t as much the case for The Motel’s Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), although he is not shown at his school nearly as much as the other two boys.  He is nonetheless othered due to his ethnicity and class status, as part of a Chinese-American family who eke out a living running a cheap motel.  It’s worth noting that all three have nontraditional family structures.  In addition to the dynamic of the family business and having a home culture that’s markedly different from that of the society around him, Ernest’s father abandoned their family.  Angus’ father died soon after Angus was born; his family consists of his tough-as-nails trucker mom (Kathy Bates) and his tough-as-nails grandfather (George C. Scott).  (Worth noting: in the short story that Angus is based on, “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune,”  his mother and father are both gay and remarried to stepparents of the same gender.  Moviegoing America apparently wasn’t ready for that particular configuration of loving but alternatively-structured family in the mid 90s.)  Both of Terri’s parents are MIA; his only family member is an uncle (Creed Bratton) who has an unnamed illness.  As part of their atypical families, the boys all must take on atypical roles for teenage boys.  Terri and Angus act as caretakers for their elder male relatives, while Ernest works housekeeping duty at the motel.  Not only are these roles feminized and serve to detract from any hope they have of conforming to romantic male lead standards as much as being fat does, but also detract from the amount of time they have to spend with their peers (and therefore mean fewer opportunities to meet and interact with girls).  

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Melissa (Ariana Richards) and Angus (Charlie Talbert), the Winter Ball Court/Unwilling Spectacle

Angus also features an interesting story beat around othering and feminization in terms of clothing.  Fat bodies in movies (and also in, you know, society) vacillate between invisible/excluded and hypervisible/spectacle.  When Angus is elected king of the Winter Ball as a prank, he is suddenly recategorized, going from having his achievements on the football field ignored to facing having to dance with his long-time crush in front of the whole school.  The intent/expectation that he will suffer humiliation is compounded when he has to rent a tuxedo, but despite protests that he wants a “socially acceptable” black tuxedo, his only option is purple.  But what seems like a cruel parody of the role he is supposed to embody becomes a symbol of his defiance, a dare for people to accept him instead of an invitation to mock him.  Terri and Ernest both have specific clothing, but it reinforces their invisibility.  Terri wears pajamas 24/7 (which I took as a symptom of depression), but nobody notices or asks except when his assistant principal makes him a special project.  Ernest tends to wear t-shirts that are garish, especially when compared to his mild personality; without saying anything, it’s obvious that they were purchased from a thrift store.

The combination of social isolation and difficult personal life also make the protagonists’ relationship with an older male figure important to their maturation.  Terri has a tenuous relationship with Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the assistant principal who can act thoughtlessly at times, but also models the self-confidence and tenacity that Terri lacks, opening up to the depressed student before he himself is willing to open up.  Angus has Grandpa, whose motto is “screw ‘em.”  He is marrying a woman thirty years younger than him; his stubborn refusal to let others’ judgments sway his decisions and his ability to woo a beautiful woman despite being old and fat both inspire Angus and foreshadow his success with the girl he has a crush on.  Ernest’s grandfather (Stephen Chen) takes a very hands-off approach to parenting (but does pick on his weight).  Luckily for Ernest, he is the main character in an indie dramedy and is therefore destined to cross paths with an eccentric loose cannon who brings some fun and freedom into his seemingly hopeless life, Sam (Sung Kang).  Sam tries to be a surrogate father figure, teaching him how to drive and trying to convince him to stand up for himself.  However, Sam is also more toxic than Grandpa or Mr. Fitzgerald, as a self-destructive divorcee who manipulates Ernest into letting him stay at the motel without paying.  

In addition to older male characters who teach the protagonists how to navigate being an outsider, the love interest characters are also outsiders in their own rights.  Despite being a popular cheerleader, Melissa (Ariana Richards) is as much a victim of bullying as Angus, as her boyfriend Rick (James Van Der Beek) uses her as a pawn to try and humiliate our hero.  During the climactic scene at the school Winter Ball dance, she admits to Angus that not only is she as nervous as he is about being publicly humiliated, but she is also bulimic, something she had never told anyone else.  “Do you ever get tired of who you are?” she asks him.  “Do you know who you’re talking to?” he responds.  Terri has a crush on Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who becomes a social outcast when a classmate fingers her in class.  This is partly Terri’s fault: his outsider status allows him moments of quiet observation where he sees the otherwise surreptitious sex act, his other classmates then see what he’s looking at and make a scene.  He does, however, attempt to make things right by defending her to Mr. Fitzgerald, who wants to expel her, and detracting unwanted attention from her in subsequent classes.  His support builds their friendship and gives him a shot with her when she suggests they hang out together after school.  Despite being conventionally attractive, in contrast to the protagonists, Heather and Melissa both have bodies that require regulation, Heather through slut-shaming and Melissa through an eating disorder.  In this way, they find empathy and companionship through the boys who are social pariahs for their own unruly bodies.  In The Motel, however, similarity is a problem.  Christine (Samantha Futerman), like Ernest, is part of a Chinese immigrant family and has an atypical childhood for an American kid, working at her family’s business. Unlike the other two films, their similar outsider status may be what prevents any potential romance.  When giving Ernest advice on romance, Sam tells him that Christine won’t want him because he reminds her of her upbringing, and she wants a boyfriend who will offer her escape.

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Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) and Christine (Samatha Futerman), finding relief from their jobs together

Perhaps because of empathy gained from being an outsider, or because of the feminized roles they play in their family lives, the protagonists treat the girls with more respect than do their male peers.  (Given that there is no culmination in romance, especially for Ernest and Terri, The Motel and Terri risk a “nice guy” dynamic.)  While Terri protects Heather and respects her boundaries, his friend Chad plans to get her drunk and have sex with her because he thinks she’s an easy target due to her reputation. As mentioned above, Rick uses Melissa in a plan to humiliate Angus without her consent, then gets mad at her when she teaches Angus how to dance instead of allowing him to fail. Ernest stands by while three classmates of Christine’s trespass on her family’s property to skate and try to get her to give them free food.  She hesitantly agrees, uncomfortable with the idea but longing for their approval.  Even outside a romantic context, there is a tacit trust and intimacy between each pair that the female characters lack in other interactions with male peers.

Angus is the only film of the three that ends with ambiguous potential for romance.  Notably, Angus is also the most idealized protagonist. He makes a lot of self-deprecating comments about being fat, but he is on the football team, being considered for a prestigious magnet school, and is able to stand up for himself. He is able to physically overpower Rick, but can’t because he faces suspension. His character growth is about replacing his fists with words, naturally culminating in a speech that is the best moment in the film.  The last scene of the film is Melissa giving him a kiss on the cheek after he walks her home.  What’s to come of this we don’t know, but in all fairness, she did just get royally screwed over by her jerk boyfriend.  Some time to herself would be healthy.  Both Heather and Christine also deal with external circumstances that affect any desire for romance with Terri or Ernest, fatness not ever being an explicit factor.  Heather’s classmates have ostracized her due to being sexually active.  Terri has a chance to have sex with her (he doesn’t) because she is drunk.  She leaves a note for Terri asking that he not talk about the incident at school and emphasizing that she is his friend.  And in The Motel, as previously noted, Christine’s lack of attraction for Ernest may be due to associating romance with escape from her family life.

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Terri (Jacob Wysocki), concerned for Heather’s (Olivia Crocicchia) wellbeing

Although none of the films end happily with romance, they do end on hopeful notes as we see signs of maturation in the protagonists. Ultimately, the resolution has more to do with their relationships with their older male role models than their female love interests.  Angus, as previously noted, learns to solve his problems with dramatic speeches instead of violence and  discovers that idealized Melissa is a vulnerable human being, because he takes Grandpa’s advice to “screw ‘em” (repeated to him by Melissa) and does what he wants despite potentially being judged by others.  “I’d had my moment,” he tells the audience in the ending narration, “and then I heard my grandfather’s voice say to me, ‘Go have another.’”  After being rejected by Heather, Terri spends a day with Mr. Fitzgerald, not only for his own benefit but also to give the older man company, as he is separating from his wife and sleeping in his car on school grounds.  “She’s embarrassed,” he tells Mr. Fitzgerald.  “I’m not going to say anything if that’s what she’s worried about… I don’t think I’m read for all that stuff yet, anyway.”  “Who is, you know?” Mr. Fitzgerald responds.  The last shot is of Terri walking through the woods by himself, looking content.  The Motel’s climax sees Ernest confronting Sam, refusing to be manipulated and telling Sam that he has to leave the motel if he isn’t going to pay for his room.  Instead of having to passively accept that his father left him, he is able to actively reject a dad-analogue figure for not treating him with respect.  The boys all learn to value themselves despite the fatphobic (and in Ernest’s case, racist) rhetoric thrown at them; even if the expectation that a fat boy would fail at a romantic endeavor isn’t necessarily subverted, the expectation that a fat boy would fail to love himself is unquestionably skewered by all three films.

*If discussion about The Motel seems less detailed than the other two films, it’s because it was the first of the three I watched, and I lost my notes.  It’s definitely worth watching, though.

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.

“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.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 16.40.13

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.”  

Link: Is Hamlet fat?

When we talk about the lack of representation for marginalized groups in media, we often make creating new characters and stories synonymous with meeting the need for greater diversity.  This is, undoubtedly, vital to the continuing evolution of art and entertainment in a changing culture that is moving towards a more accurate and inclusive reflection of its audiences.  But just as vital is revisiting classic works for new (or, as the case may be, very old) interpretations of who the characters are.  Being the default is the nature of privilege, which in US culture looks like being white, male, able-bodied, cisgender, straight, thin, Christian, etc. etc. until proven otherwise.  Thus, fictional characters are often presumed to fit in this intersection of identities unless explicitly characterized as other– and are often cast in spite of being characterized as other.  So it was a surprise but hardly a shock when I stumbled across an article at Slate suggesting that Shakespeare could have written Hamlet with the intention he be played by a fat actor.  In every representation I could think of, Hamlet has been played by a relatively thin actor.  The photos of Hamlets in the article start with the angular Benedict Cumberbatch, and don’t include the film versions starring Ethan Hawke, Kenneth Branagh, or Mel Gibson.  The article does, however, make an interesting argument based in the text for Hamlet to be fat and ends with an interpretation the kind of which I try to get at in my writing here on CPBS.  Check it out.

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:

 

bugs life heimlich

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: 

inside-out-image-joy-sadness

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.

Inside-Out-Riley-parents-hugging

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.  

up garden hose

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.”

up badge

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

 

Domestic Terrorism: Feminized Violence in Misery (1990, dir. Rob Reiner)

BitchFlicks’ theme week for October 2015 is Violent Women, including an article I wrote on Misery, which features Kathy Bates’ breakout role as deranged nurse Annie Wilkes.  I’m happy to say that this is my third time being part of one of BitchFlicks’ theme weeks, and the subject is a complicated and fascinating one.  It probably goes without saying that I adore Kathy Bates, so I’m sure there will be more about her career on CPBS before long.

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