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.
“You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.” Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout epic about the golden era of porn, Boogie Nights, flirts with the culturally subversive potential of the community on which it focuses. When I recently rewatched the film (having first seen it over a decade ago), the inversion of the male gaze jumped out at me. We do see female bodies in states of undress, meant to arouse, but Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg)– or to be more specific, Dirk’s 13 inch penis– is the sun at the center of Boogie Nights’ universe. Although the audience must wait until the very end of the 2 ½ hour film for the full frontal reveal, Dirk’s penis is very much a presence in the rest of the film. When he whips it out, the camera focuses on the character who is doing the gazing. The audience’s thrill and titillation is vicarious; we are invited to empathize with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), and others as they marvel at Dirk’s cock, instead of to consume depersonalized images of Dirk’s body. Similarly, during Dirk’s debut scene, the sight of him and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) fucking is distanced from the audience as Jack’s camera is literally put between us and them. The more clearly framed images are those of the cast as they watch Dirk’s performance; Scotty J’s (the dear departed Philip Seymour Hoffman) near-painful desire for Dirk, combined with the discomfort of holding up the boom mike, is of particular note. (More on him in a bit.)
Another aspect of the potential subversiveness of Boogie Nights is the characters’ sexual relationships. The main characters form a family of sorts, headed by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber. Treating each other with support and affection, the members of this family both mimic and exist outside the boundaries of the heterosexual nuclear family. While we don’t see them engaging in kink or sex between characters of the same gender, making sex into an art and a profession is queering, to a degree. Their lifestyles and sexual choices are used as reasons to marginalize them: Buck (Don Cheadle) is denied a business loan, Amber loses custody of her child, and Dirk is queer-bashed while hustling. (One of his attackers calls him “donkey dick,” turning the attribute that made him special in his community into an oddity.) Whereas sex in movies is usually burdened with emotional weight, a cause of strife and jealousy, most of the characters in Boogie Nights are effervescently casual about it. However, we are given a few subplots where characters divert from the free-love culture promoted by Jack and his crew. One is Little Bill’s (William H. Macy) blatant cuckolding by his wife (Nina Hartley), which culminates with him carrying out a murder-suicide; the other is Buck and Jessie (Melora Walters), who are pushed together as wallflowers at Jack’s Christmas party, marry, have a baby, and start a small business, executing so perfectly in line with the American dream that Buck’s commercial for his stereo store is dripping in red, white, and blue. The trajectory of both couples in the film ultimately comes down to the husbands’ agency; both of whom take themselves and their wives out of the industry because they don’t fit in. Little Bill and his wife apparently aren’t able to successfully navigate their relationship through her desire to have sex with other men– the film does not confirm whether or not she performs in Jack’s films, but casting real-life porn legend Nina Hartley in the role certainly implies she does. The implication that Buck is out of place comes through his clothing; he dresses like a cowboy, which customers at his part-time salesman job find off-putting and his co-star Becky (Nicole Ari Parker) tells him is no longer fashionable. When Jessie and Buck meet, he is dressed in a flamboyant new outfit with a braided wig, which he laughingly takes off as they warm up to each other, suggesting that he has been pretending to be someone else as part of Jack’s group, but has finally found someone he can be himself with.
The fat characters in Boogie Nights don’t make the choice to leave the community in the same way that Little Bill and Buck do, but neither do they have access to the inner circle, the ability to become true members of the family. Kurt (Ricky Jay), the Colonel, and Scotty J reflect the subversive aspects of the porn community, but in a less romanticized way than the thin, conventionally beautiful characters. Kurt, the director of photography, shows the same commitment to well-made porn that Jack does, but does not have the same emotional connection with his coworkers. In an early scene, he badgers Little Bill about the lighting for the next day’s shoot, oblivious to how distraught Little Bill is over finding his wife having sex in Jack’s driveway amid a circle of spectators. After Little Bill walks off, Kurt goes to join the spectators, placing his voyeuristic interests over the wellbeing of his colleague. The Colonel, who funds Jack’s films, initially comes off as avuncular and powerful, similar to Jack. However, this changes abruptly in 1980, as the new decade turns the harsh house lights on the party of the 1970s. He is arrested for child pornography, representing a corruption of Jack’s idealized porn goals. His pathetic rationalization, “I just want to watch,” is a creepy parallel of the self-conscious performance of Dirk and Amber’s sex scene in the first half of the film. This revelation is too much for the otherwise warm and indulgent Jack, who turns his back on his old friend. And then, there is the aforementioned Scotty J.
Scotty J is the only character who is meant to be read as queer, as his arc in the film is his crush on Dirk. Scotty enters the film through the side gate of Jack’s house during a pool party as two men carry an overdosing woman out the same way; the side portal into Jack’s world for the aspects of it that are not given much focus. “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate starts playing as Scotty sighs. Serving as his point of view, the camera pans across the the conventionally beautiful party-goers who might as well be a different species. Scotty’s skin is pale, hair is messy, and his clothing ill-fitting; his belly sticks out from under his tank top. His very posture is gauche; he tends to stand with his head tilted in a manner that suggests an awkward teenager. Once he zeroes in on Dirk, lounging in a beach chair, he approaches and forces an introduction with awkward small talk (“Nice to meet you.” “Me too.”). He fawns over Dirk, accompanying him from his dressing room to the set like an acolyte (as he chews on a pen in suggestion of where his mind is). His hero worship of Dirk contrasts with Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly), who treats Dirk as a competitor but is positioned in the film as his right-hand man, where Scotty is merely flitting around in the background. In a scene of the three men buying matching outfits, Scotty can’t quite button his pants, and looks awkward and out of place next to the other two. This brief moment in Dirk’s upward career trajectory is a moment of relatable awkwardness and ostracization for many fat viewers who have been part of a social clothes shopping expedition with thinner friends.
The turning point of the film is the 1979 New Years Eve party, the last night of the idyllic 70s before the downturn into the 80s. Scotty transgresses the boundaries of his relationship with Dirk, first by revealing that he’s bought an identical Corvette, and then by trying to kiss him. Dirk shoves him away, and Scotty automatically apologizes, explaining “You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.” Scotty wants to know if he can be accepted as the desired object of Dirk’s gaze. Reflecting the emotional support and sexual open-mindedness shown by the family, Dirk is shocked but tries to be kind to Scotty as he but turns him down and returns to the rest of the party as quickly as he can. Boogie Nights is full of characters regretting choices that have separated them from their loved ones, but no moment is so visceral, uncomfortable, or intimate than the lingering closeup of Scotty J sitting in his ‘Vette, sobbing his heart out and repeating “I’m a fucking idiot” over and over.
After that turning point in the film, Scotty is swept along with the course of the other characters’ stories, assigned to watching them. He squirms uncomfortably in the background as Dirk starts his downward spiral of drugs and poor decision making. When the characters find second chances at the end of the film, he films the birth of Buck and Jessie’s baby. (During this montage, we also see the Colonel in prison, being abused by his cellmate.) Scotty is not ejected from his group of friends the way the Colonel is, but after being rejected by Dirk, is not given his own chance at growth or redemption. True to his personality, Scotty embodies an awkward position in Boogie Nights. He is a stand-in for the audience. Like Scotty, we able to gaze all we want at the porn actors who arouse our desire, but we are never able to touch them, to be with them. The feelings they invoke in us are ultimately fantasy. However, this is where Scotty’s story ends. The other characters grow and move on to other pursuits, just like we are able to move on to other experiences and aspects of our lives once we are through with our role as audience member, but Scotty remains mired in the role of unfulfilled gazer, an object of our pity (or derision). This too, is a flirtation with subversion that is ultimately fantasy: Scotty J is a disempowered gazer relative to the object of his gaze (Dirk), but given that he is fat and queer, the film is attempting to change the power relationship using someone who is already marginalized.
“I can’t wait for people to see you, really see you:” Mad Men Season 5 (2012)
At the beginning of September, I saw Queen of Earth in theaters. “Elisabeth Moss is such an incredible actress,” I thought to myself. “I wish I could see her in more movies.
Or I suppose could finish watching Mad Men.”
I’m abominable at keeping up with series. Mad Men is one of my all-time favorite television shows, but I had stopped watching at the end of season 5. It’s been taunting me every time I get on Netflix, I want to watch it through the end myself instead of hearing spoilers for season 7, and, like I said, Elisabeth Moss. Anyway, thereby hangs the tale of how I’ve been spending my viewing time this month. I started with “Out of Town” (season 3, episode 1) to refresh my memory, and, as of writing this post, I’ve seen up through “Time Zones” (season 7, episode 1).
It goes without saying, but one of the core themes of Mad Men is exploring the social change the US went through in the Sixties. Its setting is a perfect lens for this conflict; not only is it largely set in the cultural vanguard of New York City, but it focuses on advertising, a profession helmed by the old guard who are tasked with staying current, producing media that is, at its self-professed best, orthodoxy in revolution’s clothing. Consider Roger Sterling (John Slattery), an old-school mentality in a space-age office, a man who experiments with LSD and hallucinates being at the 1919 World Series.
Most of the main characters are very privileged, but because of this ubiquitous dynamic, the lack of diversity often presents opportunities to comment on itself. It can reveal how out of touch they are, such as Freddy Rumsen’s (Joel Murray) myopic opinions of women, or Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) petty complaints that today would come with #FirstWorldProblems attached. We see the limits that the characters who are of marginalized identities face in ways that effectively circumvent devices such as on-the-nose dramatic speeches, such as Don’s (Jon Hamm) unwillingness to believe that Sal (Bryan Batt) as a gay man could be the target of unwanted sexual advances, or an accounts wunderkind whose career is declared over after a disabling accident that would not prevent him from carrying out his essential job functions. Characters who face discrimination, even in smaller roles, are usually treated with empathy and given dimensions beyond the politics they symbolize. We are privy to glimpses into Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) personal lives, and we are spared no discomfort when characters we’ve known since the first episode mistreat them.
Given this tendency of Mad Men to open its characters and story up to historical meta-commentary, the way in which fat people are present on the show is somewhat disappointing. Most of the fat characters on the show are small roles, but embody stereotypes about fat people. Many of these roles are steeped in class, big-bodied folk tending to be Don’s plodding clients from less glamorous cities and industries, or blue collar bit roles. The larger roles tend to be people who embody stereotypical fat character traits. The most glaring example is Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), who shows up in season 5 when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is courting the Jaguar account. New Jersey and nouveau-riche, Herb is a vulgar contrast to the posh, British Jaguar bigwigs. He shamelessly uses his company’s account as leverage to get Joan (Christina Hendricks) to have sex with him. Usually, sex scenes on Mad Men are preceded by wordless, implicit seduction, or pithy statements of desire. The line Herb uses on Joan? “Lemme see ’em.” The pathos of the affront to Joan’s dignity and exploitation of her sexuality is heightened by the disgust implicated in her having sex with a fat man. Frustrated with Herb’s bossiness and unable to move past the idea that Joan exchanged sex with him for business, Don impulsively drops Jaguar. Breaking the news to the partners, he asks Joan if she doesn’t feel “300 pounds lighter.”
But you’ve seen the show. You know that I’m writing this article to talk about the fifth season story arc of one Mrs. Elizabeth “Betty” Hofstadt Francis (January Jones), shorthanded on the Internet as “Fat Betty.” Having divorced Don, married Henry, and moved her family into a mansion over the last two seasons, the next chapter in Betty’s adventure is noticeable weight gain, attributed to her boring life as a housewife. (On a practical level, the writers were working around January Jones’ pregnancy.) Having been a sophisticated, graceful presence for the past four seasons, we now have a Betty who sits on the couch with her hand in a box of Bugles like a common schlub. “Tea Leaves,” the episode where we see her physical change for the first time, is treated as spectacle. Betty is shown getting out of the tub as if to prove to the audience that yes, she really has gotten fat.
And really, the change isn’t that dramatic. Her body doesn’t seem to be that much larger than Joan’s, who is not read as fat.
The drama merely comes from the fact that her formerly slim body has become larger than it is supposed to be.
Broadly speaking (ha), this was a time when the mainstream American beauty ideal was not as extremely focused on thinness as today, but it was also a time when the expectation of women to adhere to a set of aesthetic norms was not met with resistance. The women of Mad Men are all significantly impacted by their looks. A fourth season focus group for Pond’s cold cream where the secretaries discuss their beauty routines quickly turns into a somber discussion of their fears of being alone and ignored because they aren’t beautiful enough. The sentiment resonates throughout the show, particularly with Betty. She has done well, based on what she’s expected to as a middle class woman, largely in thanks to her charm and beauty. Her life, however, is also the most empty. She finds little joy in being a wife or a mother. Betty in a nutshell is best illustrated in season 3 episode “The Fog.” Under anesthesia during Baby Gene’s birth, she has a dream in which her recently departed father tells her, “You are a house cat. You are very important and have very little to do.” Nothing and nobody in her life inspires her to try and be anything outside of a beautiful wife and mother. (Considering how often characters read popular books of the day, I’m a little surprised we don’t see her thumbing through The Feminine Mystique.) When she gains weight, she is pressured to restore the image she maintained as Don’s wife. Henry’s (Christopher Stanley) mother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap) tells Betty to ask her doctor for diet pills, since she is still of an age where her looks need to be pleasing to men. Ironically, Henry doesn’t care about her weight gain: “I don’t know how many ways to say it, but I don’t see it.” “I know,” Betty snaps back, “Your mother’s obese.” In her mind, it isn’t possible that Henry genuinely finds her beautiful; his view has been distorted by his fat, overbearing mother.
Betty’s story arc largely overlaps with her experience of dis-ease. Her doctor, giving her an exam before prescribing diet pills, finds a lump on her thyroid. She worries that she is dying, especially after a chance meeting with a friend in an advanced stage of cancer. However, once she is told that the tumor is benign, the immediately describes herself as “just fat.” Her fatness is attributed by the show to mental dis-ease. In order to “reduce,” she goes to Weight Watchers meetings, which function as a support group with discussions about healthy ways to deal with troubling emotions and stressful situations (assuming that the participants are the weight they are due to over-use of food as a coping mechanism).
As I’ve previously discussed, fat film characters aren’t determined by specific physical measurements, but rather by their bodies in relation to the bodies (and attached expectations) of the other characters. Her own husband claims not to see a difference, or at least doesn’t care. However, Betty is fat because of who she’s being compared to. Not only is she fat compared to what her body looked like in the past (she was a model when she met Don) and what Mad Men’s audience expects to see, but she is fat compared to Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré). Betty’s first appearance in season 5, “Tea Leaves,” is of her struggling to squeeze her larger body into a dress, then declining to go to the event she was preparing for because of her inability to close the zipper. Her larger body is a shocking spectacle, as we have grown accustomed to a specific image of Betty. This sequence is immediately followed by slender Megan in her underwear– no shapewear for her!– effortlessly slipping into her own dress on the way to a client dinner with Don. In a later episode, “Dark Shadows,” Betty glimpses Megan’s body, thin like hers once was, in a state of undress. Their following exchange immediately has an acidic edge to it; cut to Betty going to the fridge as soon as she gets home and spraying Reddi-Whip into her mouth before thinking better of it and spitting it into the sink, standing alone in her dark kitchen. As with the dresses, this crass image of Betty stands in contrast to an idealized one of Megan: in the previous episode “Lady Lazarus,” Megan performs as a chipper housewife for a Cool Whip commercial pitch that charms everyone except Peggy.
At first, Betty’s spite may come across as baseless. Betty chose to end her and Don’s marriage after she had already fallen in love with Henry, with whom she is much happier. Despite Don’s numerous infidelities during their marriage, he didn’t get involved with Megan until after they had divorced and Betty remarried. It’s not like she’s still in love with her ex-husband, for and about whom she barely has a civil word. But still Betty treats Megan with a petty acrimony that is similar to the relationship Don has with employees of rival firms. The sense of competition Betty feels between herself and Megan has less to do with Don than it does with how she sees herself. Her weight gain means that she’s failed as a woman and wife– as Pauline tells her, one of her essential functions is being attractive, which is impossible above a certain weight (Henry’s opinion notwithstanding). Thus Betty’s reactions to Megan focus on subverting her legitimacy as a woman and wife. After seeing Megan’s slim body, Betty finds a note from Don praising his current wife’s loveliness on the back of one of Bobby’s drawings. (The drawing of a harpooned whale would be an accurate illustrations of how Betty feels about herself.) Her jealousy leads her to reveal to Sally that Don had been married to someone else before he and Betty had met, and encourages her to ask Megan about the details. The suggestion associating Megan with Don’s deceit leads the volatile teenager to call her stepmother a “phony.” Unable to change her negative perception of herself, or the pathetic cultural trope of “sad, fat housewife” she’s found herself in, Betty lashes out at Megan, someone vulnerable to the same pain she is experiencing.
Betty is also seen relative to Pauline, her mother-in-law. Betty describes her as “obese,” assuming that Henry is unable to be disgusted by her weight gain because his mother has wrongly desensitized him. As a younger, childless woman and new bride, Megan’s position in life is Betty’s past, unable to be regained. Pauline, a grandmother with grown children, is her future. But it seems a bleak one; not only is Pauline fat, but she gets her way by being bossy and unpleasant. She takes care of the children when Betty and Henry are away, and somehow manages to be a worse influence on Sally than Betty, speaking with fondness of her emotionally abusive father and telling her young granddaughter the details of the Richard Speck murders in a manner that ghoulishly verges on fetishistic. Betty is caught between Megan and Pauline, unable to retain her equivalence to the former and terrified of becoming the latter.
Ultimately, Betty is not a fat character. Fatness is a phase for her, an expression of her internal struggle that fades as we move into season 6. The cause of her weight loss, we are led to assume, is due to adherence to Weight Watchers, but also comes with a return to her roles as wife and mother. In the second to last episode of season 5, “Commissions and Fees,” Sally is visiting Megan and Don in the city, but gets her first period. Scared, she takes a taxi back to Rye to be with Betty, who feels validated by being relied on for comfort and wisdom. As Betty smugly tells Megan on the phone, “she just needed her mother.” In season 6, Henry tells Betty that he has decided to run for office, and that he can’t wait for people to “really see [her]”. Whether due to the pressure of being highly visible or finding fulfillment in a role she enjoyed enacting when married to Don, by “The Better Half,” the eighth episode of the season, Betty is once more the slender blonde we’ve come to know and have ambivalent feelings towards. The episode hammers home that her attractiveness has been restored. We initially see her in a gown at a political fundraiser, being propositioned by a strange man. Confessing this to Henry on the drive home leads to the couple making out. Later in the episode, Don ogles a beautiful woman at a gas station. The camera pans up a pair of bare legs to reveal they belong to Betty. Appropriate to its protagonist, Mad Men has a brief liaison with exploring how complex, relatable characters are affected by fat stigma, but ultimately can’t commit.
Hangover Square (1945, dir. John Brahm) and the Tragedy of Laird Cregar
(CN dieting, death)
Art that foreshadows the death of its creator– especially the death of a younger artist– contains an emotional gravity that’s hard to put into words. This is certainly true for artists who intentionally create art to communicate their pain and self-destructive tendencies, like Elliott Smith or Amy Winehouse, but for a film actor, a particularly significant last work can retrospectively take on an element of particularly poignant, even eerie, tragedy. I have never seen this phenomenon unfold quite like Laird Cregar’s performance in Hangover Square, which I saw last night at the Noir City Film Festival.
Hangover Square is a haunting Victorian tale of George Bone (Cregar), a composer who suffers from stress-induced, murderous fugue states. Despite his formidable, brooding physical presence, George is gentle and sensitive, vulnerable to the opinion of others by the very nature of his vocation. His friendship with his pretty blonde neighbor Barbara (Faye Marlowe) would be romantic in any other film, but is chaste in this one. George lives a life of solitude, obsessed with his art. Although his life’s work is classical music and he is hard at work on a concerto commissioned by Barbara’s father Sir Henry (Alan Napier), he is distracted by femme fatale Netta (Linda Darnell), who manipulates him into composing popular songs for her to perform. Netta leads him on for the sake of her own rising star, but has her eye on svelte theater producer Eddie (Glenn Langan) as a mate.
Hangover Square was Laird Cregar’s only starring role. He had a successful career as a character actor, his 6’3″, 300 lb body contributing to effective portrayals of villains, his characters often significantly older than the twentysomething actor. He performed with and has been compared to Vincent Price. However, Cregar grew tired of being typecast. He wanted to be a leading man, but saw his weight as a barrier, describing his character type as “a grotesque.” Starting in 1942, he crash dieted and used amphetamines to lose over 100 lbs. In 1944, he starred in The Lodger, a horror film about a man who may be Jack the Ripper, followed by his leading role in Hangover Square. Not satisfied with the results of his diet, Cregar opted for weight loss surgery in late 1944. The stress that the operation caused his body led to a fatal coronary a month later, two months before the release of Hangover Square. He was 31.
As one might expect from a film whose protagonist kills people, Hangover Square doesn’t end well for George. Trying to arrest him for Netta’s murder, Scotland Yard follows him to the debut of his concerto. He starts a fire in an attempt to evade them, which rages out of control. Everyone must evacuate the building before the performance is complete, despite his attempts to force the musicians to continue. In desperation, he sits at the piano and continues from where the fleeing orchestra has left off. The last image of the film is of George playing his masterwork as he is consumed by smoke and flames.
Cregar’s performance of George Bone serves as a grimly appropriate memorial, struggling with his mind that both created and destroyed, just as Cregar himself struggled with a career that allowed him to pursue his art but confined him in stock character roles due to his appearance. The role he was slated for after Hangover Square went to Vincent Price. We’ll never know if Cregar’s career could likely have been as fruitful and celebrated as his colleague’s.
The Relationship Between Fitness and Self-Respect: Heavyweights (1995, dir. Steven Brill)
(CN: disordered eating and exercise)
I wasn’t a summer camp kid– my one experience was a week at Girl Scout camp between 7th and 8th grade– but I can see why it’s such a popular setting for movies. Camp is removed from civilization, but not to the point where survival is in question. The characters find themselves in a setting outside their normal context (no parents! no bullies!), but still have to function within their temporary community. There are rules, but those rules exist to facilitate having fun; there are authority figures, but they’re often lackadaisical, or at least easily avoided. This anarchic context can be the site of recreation or re-creation, usually some of both. It’s especially potent for adolescents, when summer comes with the hope that some alchemical process will occur over the long, hot days and you will return to school in the fall a better version of yourself. You will have sex. You will grow taller. Your breasts will develop. You will go on adventures. And, of course, you will lose weight.
Heavyweights opens with Gerry (Aaron Schwartz) leaving school on the last day before summer vacation. (The sequence is set to “Closer to Free” by the BoDeans, in case there was any doubt that this film came out in 1995.) He is characterized as a typical sad sack fat kid: he misses his bus and has to walk home; he can’t throw a baseball over a fence; he stops at a lemonade stand and chugs an entire pitcher. Upon arriving home, his parents tell him that he is being sent to Camp Hope. The promotional video sucks him in with the promise of go-karts and the Blob, but he reacts indignantly when he learns that he’s being sent to a fat camp to take care of his ”problem,” as his dad calls it. “I’m not going to camp with a bunch of fat loads!” he protests, separating himself from his peers.
On the plane to camp, Gerry meets Roy (Keenan Thompson), who approaches and asks if he’s going to fat camp. When Gerry defensively retorts that Roy is also fat, assuming that he is being insulted, Roy readily agrees with him. Roy is the first self-accepting fat person we meet. Roy becomes Gerry’s guide to Camp Hope, telling him that it’s a paradise because “nobody picks on you because you’re the fat kid, everybody’s the fat kid.” (Roy is the only black kid in the movie, and becomes an emotionally supportive sidekick for Gerry, not unlike Al is for McClane in Die Hard.) An excited group of campers, including Gerry and Roy, are chaperoned from the airport to Camp Hope by Pat (Tom McGowan), an adult counselor who has spent every summer at Camp Hope since he was 10 years old.
Although ostensibly a place to lose weight, Camp Hope is obviously more of a safe space for fat kids. Tim (Paul Feig), another counselor, “used to be one of us, but then he lost weight,” according to the campers. They tease him about his “chicken legs,” which he responds to with good humor. When Gerry arrives at Chipmunk Cabin, he confesses to slick wiseguy Josh (Shaun Weiss) that he snuck in some Oreos, which prompts his cabin mates to reveal their own contraband, kept in a communal supply under the cabin floorboards. This is followed by a scene of the campers and Pat playing on the Blob. Set to “The Blue Danube Waltz” and filmed in slow motion, the scene both suggests an idyllic transcendence from Gerry’s point of view, and is a reference to the scene in 2001: a Space Odyssey, where the story moves forward from the prehistoric era to the Space Age. Similarly, Gerry finds himself millions of years removed from the brutality of being the picked-on fat kid, and achieves temporary weightlessness playing on the Blob with his new friends. Although Camp Hope is a place where Gerry and his peers don’t have to worry about judgment and ridicule, it’s also not a place where they can push their personal boundaries. Pat, a lifetime member of Camp Hope, is popular with the campers but isn’t confident enough to talk to Julie, the pretty camp nurse (Leah Lail).
The good times end abruptly, however, when the camp owners announce that they have declared bankruptcy and sold Camp Hope to Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller). Tony is a fitness-obsessed motivational speaker who is “looking forward to interacting with children for the first time.” He tells the campers he weighed 319 pounds when he was 12 years old, and had no self-esteem or self-respect. He brings in a new staff of equally athletic, uniformed counselors and tells the campers their summer will be filmed for an infomercial to promote his weight loss regimen, Perkisize. Pat is re-assigned to maintenance duties and replaced by the strict, generically European Lars (Tom Hodges).
Tony creates a strict and overly simplistic binary between healthy and unhealthy, paralleling good and bad. “Anyone who brings candy into camp is not your friend,” he tells Gerry while searching Chipmunk Cabin for contraband snacks, “He is a destroyer.” Perkisize consists of grueling exercise and unsafe levels of food restriction (Tony cancels lunch one day “due to lack of hustle”). He and his staff are in charge because they are athletic, and therefore good, not because they know how to care for children. Their lack of attention to what exercise is appropriate and feasible for their fat, preteen wards creates an immediate threat. Julie says that, as a medical professional, she considers Perkicize dangerous. Lars proves to be a negligent lifeguard with no understanding of how the buddy system works, and Tony punishes campers for gaining weight by taking them on a 20 mile “cleansing” (i.e. without food) hike up a mountain. Pat tries to stop him, fearing for the campers’ safety, but is ignored and ridiculed because of his size. “The fat man is going to tell me what’s healthy!” Tony sneers. “Nobody really cares what you have to say.”
Tony’s binary view puts fat people squarely in the unhealthy/bad category. His regime as camp director begins with Evaluation Day. “The key word is ‘value,’” he explains over the camp loudspeaker. “Do you have any? Not yet! But by the end of the summer this camp is going to be filled with skinny winners!” (“Skinny weiners?” Roy jokes, showing the lack of enthusiasm he has for Tony’s plan.) The kids cling to the old Camp Hope mentality, cheering for Simms when it is announced he is the heaviest boy at camp, but Tony works to break their spirit. Tony expels Josh from camp for talking back to him. He invites “jock camp” Camp MVP to play baseball against Camp Hope. When Tim protests that getting their asses handed to them won’t teach the kids anything about baseball, Tony retorts that it’s meant to teach them about “life.” He doesn’t even stick around to see Camp MVP taunt his campers, nor does he seem to care when Camp MVP vandalizes their dock. Later, he organizes a dance between Camp Hope and the unnamed “girl’s camp,” with the rationalization that making them feel insecure in front of a group of girls (who, of course, would never want to dance with them) will motivate them to lose weight. It takes a lot of time and motivating from Pat, Tim, and Julie, but both sides eventually start dancing enthusiastically. Before long, Tony breaks up the dance mid-song and tells the girls to leave, thanking them for their “efforts” and saying “[he knows] this hasn’t been easy,” despite them having as good a time as the boys– including one young couple sharing a kiss before separating. He wants to instill in them his opinion that they are worthless because they are fat and need to achieve “value” through compliance to the Perkisize program. There is a capitalist motivation behind this, as Tony wants to make his program into a successful business venture by convincing his future fat tv audience that they need his program in order to achieve value for themselves, but it also comes from a place of hatred for fat people. Tony’s “motivation” is psychological abuse.
(Returning to the dance for a moment: it’s worth noting that the presence of female characters in the film is one of Heavyweights’ missteps. Of the few female characters in the film, none are fat. Julie is conventionally attractive, and while she supports the campers by trying to get Child Protective Services to investigate Tony and contributing to the expose video, she largely functions in the film as an object for Pat’s affections, a goal for him to obtain as his self-confidence increases with his ability to stand up to Tony. The girl campers are all thin and conventionally attractive as well. When one of the girl campers asks her friends, “Why don’t they just lose weight?” another girl snaps back, “Why don’t you teach them to throw up after every meal like you do?” The joke makes a point about subverting the notion that thin people are automatically experts on healthy behaviors over fat people. However, I think the more important takeaway is that having zero visibility for girls and women who aren’t thin, and then shaming girls and women for trying to obtain or maintain thinness, is a vicious cycle of sexist bullshit.)
Tony’s treatment of the campers is villainous, but it’s not an unusual attitude towards fat bodies. Consider the martial language employed to advertise diet and exercise products (e.g. fat blasting), motivational workout sayings that portray pain as a desirable outcome, the success of The Biggest Loser. The driving thought that unifies them is that a person’s body must undergo extreme means to meet a certain standard of fitness (although this usually means a certain weight and shape) in order to deserve respect, to have value. Tony believes that by continually punishing the campers– even going so far as to remove the Blob from the lake, despite it being an incentive for them to go swimming– he can get them to lose weight and become people who he deems worthy of respect.
After Tony tells the campers their 20 mile hike has been “extended indefinitely” until they are in good enough shape to beat Camp MVP in a relay race and provide a happy ending for the infomercial, they rebel. They outsmart and imprison Tony and liberate the camp with a bacchanalia of their favorite foods. Even Tim joins in the celebration, ripping his shirt off and covering himself with s’mores. As with the Blob scene earlier in the film, this scene is also slow motion and set to classical music, this time the overture from La Gazza Ladra, which is also featured in scenes of gang violence in A Clockwork Orange. The reference to the droogs’ self-destructive nature is appropriate, as the campers’ unbridled hedonism proves to be almost as painful as Tony’s punishing workouts. The next day the campers are covered in gunk and nursing hangovers. Pat takes the opportunity to present a more moderate course of action.
Although the movie focuses more on the campers’ experience, Pat has been experiencing his fair share of character development, as we see through his interactions with Gerry. Sitting together on the decommissioned go-kart track, Gerry tells Pat that he wants to “go fast” for once in his life, to which Pat responds by playfully pushing him around the track in the go-kart. Later, Pat tells Gerry about his fantasy of being athletic like Camp MVP, and that he’s “tired of being the fat guy.” Gerry tells Pat that he’s “cool, everybody knows that,” but asks him, “When are we gonna start sticking up for ourselves?” Seeing that, although they have defeated Tony and his crew, the kids haven’t learned anything, Pat sees the opportunity for them to start making their wishes into reality.
Pat’s leadership of Camp Hope is different from both Tony’s and the campers’. He talks about restraint and self-respect. He never mentions weight loss in his speech, and speaks about these goals in terms of “we” and “us,” not stationing himself above the campers as Tony did. We see scenes of Julie teaching a nutrition class, and the staff and campers exercising together as a group: some of them are walking briskly, others are running, but everyone is having a good time. When Gerry’s parents come to visit for Parents Day, his father disappointedly remarks that he doesn’t look any different, but Gerry quickly responds that he “feels good,” which his mother admits is “important.”
Having defeated Tony, the remaining challenge for Camp Hope is their annual competition with Camp MVP, the Apache Relay. (As is traditional with many summer camps in the USA, Camp Hope is not above a little tacky cultural appropriation, and the campers are dressed in American Indian costumes for the race.) Camp Hope is used to losing every year, but the self-confidence and teamwork they have learned over the course of the summer pays off. They cheer each other on and use their individual skills to stay in the competition. Gerry is able to “go fast” in the go-kart race and is even able to use his fatness to his advantage, as Pat coaches him to “use [his] weight on the curves.”
As I’ve discussed in previous articles, fat characters often embody lack of moderation. Heavyweights does use this stereotype to a certain extent, such as a scene in which a pack of underfed campers hungrily chase a cow around a field. Heavyweights breaks this mold, though, by making Tony the ultimate figure of excess, culminating in an epic meltdown in front of the campers’ parents in which he tries to prove his physical superiority by walking barefoot on broken glass. The ideal situation through which the campers find their happy ending is in line with real-life wellness philosophies like harm reduction and Health at Every Size: using self-respect as motivation, not a goal. In the end, the campers don’t even place value having won a competition against rival Camp MVP, and Pat throws the Apache Relay trophy in the lake. The campers become different people over the summer, but instead of achieving the change that Tony envisions for them, becoming “skinny weiners” like the Camp MVP kids, they find the ability to stand up for themselves and find confidence in their individual skills and interests. It’s not the happy ending one would expect for fat characters, but it’s arguably the best one for fat kids to have as a cultural reference.
“Straighten, Tighten:” Intersections of Fatness and Queerness in The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols)
When I woke up on a Friday morning a few weeks ago to Twitter blowing up about SCOTUS declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, I was happy that my home country was finally moving away from a gender-discriminatory policy. Not deliriously happy, mind you. I feel some kinda way about the political energy and focus poured into marriage equality. But I do have a sentimental side, and I see how much joy getting married has brought to the people in my life who decided to take the plunge. (This post isn’t more timely because I traveled halfway across the country to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends.) I had a solo mini-celebration for marriage equality that evening with The Birdcage, which I was fond of in high school and had been meaning to revisit. I remembered the excellent comic performances; it’s enjoyable enough to take the film at face value. What surprised me was how deeply I empathized with the character at the epicenter of the film’s tumultuous humor, Albert (Nathan Lane).
The opening scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) and their houseman Agador (Hank Azaria) cajole a hysterical Albert into rallying herself* for a drag performance ushers the audience into a first impression of her that is intertwined with her self-image. She describes herself as “fat and hideous”– a declaration Armand, her director and significant other, knows so well that he mouths the words along with her– and says that she’s “gained and lost over 100 pounds in the past year” in an effort to be thin and beautiful enough to maintain her star status and his love. Although not an extremely large person, she does have a stocky body, where the other performers at the Birdcage (and many of the thong-clad extras in scenes of the public milieu of South Beach) are slender and muscular.
Albert’s sensitivity and flamboyant nature are frequent sources of humor. Armand and his son Val (Dan Futterman) react to Albert’s outbursts with a certain level of weariness that suggests a routine scenario for their family. But even though she is an outlandish character in a farce, her anxieties come from a very real place. The nonplussed reactions she receives from strangers, plus Val’s unwillingness to introduce her to his conservative future in-laws speak to her outsider status in the vast majority of the world. Despite being a headliner who plays to sold-out houses and is more than willing to self-advocate, she lacks necessary social capital to navigate on her own outside her South Beach bubble. In a subplot, she wants Armand to sign a palimony agreement so that she will be provided for in case their relationship ends. Although talented, there is no denying that she is older and fatter than the other performers; who’s to say what her career would look like without Armand and the Birdcage?
The Goldmans’ underlying family tensions are exacerbated when Val declares his intention to marry Barbara (Callista Flockheart), the daughter of staunch conservative Senator Kevin Keely (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), who is Barbara Bush by way of Lady Macbeth. Hit with scandal when Kevin’s “common redneck” colleague dies in bed with an underage black prostitute, Louise suggests using the wedding as a distraction technique to symbolize a return to family values. Convinced that the Keelys will never connect themselves to a gay, Jewish** family, Val asks Armand to pretend he’s the father of the heterosexual “Coleman” family. Val initially asks that Albert not be present for the Keelys’ dinner, but Armand insists they compromise and pretend that his companion is heterosexual Uncle Al. Although the Goldmans want their son to be happy, there is ultimately no sugarcoating that Armand is willing to side with Val and pretend Albert isn’t part of their family unit so that Val can access a social institution the two of them can’t by ingratiating himself to a politician who thinks they’re destroying America. Her reactions, oversized in most situations, are appropriate in this case. When she refers to herself as “the monster, the freak,” neither Armand nor Val deny that she is characterized thus by their plans to hide her.
For the Goldmans, achieving normalcy is largely about restraining (“straighten, tighten”). Not only is Val the beneficiary of the charade, he is the main orchestrator, the ambassador of straightness in a queer enclave. He is a man of few words, forever tolerantly waiting for the exuberance around him to die down. “Don’t add, just subtract,” he repeatedly advises the Birdcage staff, who help transform the Goldmans’ colorful home into a “monastery.” The subtraction includes wanting to present Katherine (Christine Baranski), Val’s biological mother, as Armand’s wife. Albert can barely hide her discomfort around reserved, athletic Katherine, who owns and operates a successful gym.
Although Armand is more masculine and paternal than Albert, Val asks him to tone down his stereotypically gay mannerisms (eg. how he walks, talks, and gestures). Armand, in turn, coaches Albert to restrain herself, emotionally and physically, in order to play is straight. “Look at your pinky! Look at your posture!” He tells her to hold her unruly body more firmly and tone down her emotional responses. Dismissing small setbacks (e.g. breaking a piece of toast) seems like a revelation to her: “Of course! There’s no need to get hysterical. All I have to remember is I can always get more toast.” But the couples’ desire to help their child achieve the life he wants comes at the expense of their own. Right before the Keelys’ arrival, the family gathers in the master bedroom, their vivacity stripped away in the pursuit of heteronormativity. Armand remarks that he looks like his grandfather, who “killed himself when he was 30.” Their clothing and demeanors suggest a funeral, Albert the most uncomfortable of all.
The performance of straightness that the Goldmans put on is a wickedly funny inversion of the colorful, campy drag show that is their profession. Agador calls himself “Spartacus” and lowers his voice by an octave or two, Armand is so stiff that Val feels the need to fabricate a football injury for his father, and Albert presents herself as an old-fashioned housewife from Smalltown, USA whose ludicrously conservative political views terrify her family, but manage to charm Kevin. Appropriately, the Keelys themselves are practically drag versions of straight conservatives, wearing clothing so drab as to practically be Orwellian and barely hiding their elitist, repressive viewpoints under jes’ folks rhetoric. One of my favorite moments in the film is after the two families first meet, when Kevin responds to a polite question about his trip to South Beach with a soporific monologue that spins out into a patriotic travelogue gone wrong. Of course, they too look at the dinner party as a path to social legitimacy (or, as Louise puts it, “salvation”) that will hide their own connection to deviance. The Keelys too have a fat skeleton in their closet, as Lousie tries to prevent Kevin from stress-bingeing on candy, and they are stalked by a tabloid journalist (Tom McGowan) who’s “put on so much weight since the Simpson trial.”
As a fat, gender nonconforming person, I deeply felt Albert’s need to be loved and, when people do express love for her, the fragility of her trust. It’s rough living in an environment where people like you are constantly positioned as inherently unworthy of respect. Even in the safety of home, family, and community, it is impossible to completely forget the hostility of the outside world, or how easy it is for that hostility to be present in a loved one. As Albert says, fed up with the emotional burden of being a source of shame for Val, “…everyone laughs at me. I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am.” She says this as she is leaving for the cemetery, dramatically communicating that she feels she is dead to her family. The scene is not completely serious, as her tone and gestures mimic a diva in a classic melodrama, but it does reflect the real emotional fallout that many LGBTQ people have experienced due to being rejected by their families, including suicide in some instances.
This isn’t the first film I’ve seen with parallels between fatness and queerness, even if fatness is a less explicit factor in The Birdcage than In & Out. They are barriers to achieving a goal (in both cases, a wedding that will provide social legitimacy). Albert’s size doesn’t threaten Val and Barbara’s engagement, but she does worry that Armand isn’t attracted to her any longer and doesn’t want to make their partnership legally binding. Albert’s body, specifically her emotions and mannerisms, is seen as excessive to the point of threatening the family’s social legitimacy. Her queerness is irrepressible, and the men of the family take it upon themselves to orchestrate a solution. However, once her influence is removed from the family, Val and Armand alone are not enough to win Kevin and Louise’s trust. It is only through relying on her “threatening” inclinations to be feminine and maternal (Armand describes her as “practically a breast”), and her skill as a drag queen, that Albert can pass as Mother Coleman. Once seen as a heterosexual, female mother, she becomes a legitimate (and favored) member of the family in the eyes of Kevin, who is the apex of power in the film, both in terms of social capital and allowing Val to marry Barbara. The facade of normativity cannot be maintained for long, but the temporary diversion from her outcast status is enough for Albert to sustain the dinner party longer than Val or Armand could on their own. Her drag skills come in handy again to prevent the Keelys from being spotted by the press, ending the film with a power reversal where the heterosexual elite are sheepishly reliant on the queers for a different kind of salvation than Louise originally anticipated.
Albert and Armand’s happy ending isn’t just because they get to be themselves, but because they triumph due to how their lives have been shaped by being marginalized. It’s not an explicit score for the fat kids, like Hairspray, but it does find power in qualities that get combined with fatness: femininity, sensitivity, and excess.
*Albert identifies as a gay man and is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns. There are several points in the movie where Albert shows a preference for feminine pronouns, thus my use of she/her/hers in this article. Apologies if this is confusing.
** Sander Gilman’s Fat Boys: a Slim Book includes an interesting history of the conflation of Jews and fatness in the historical Gentile imagination. Suffice it to say that there are stereotypical characteristics common to Jewishness, fatness, and effeminacy, such as a lack of athleticism and a penchant for heavy foods (“When the schnecken beckons!”).
The Story of Self-Improvement: Results (2015, dir. Andrew Bujalski) and Welcome to Me (2015, dir. Shira Piven)
Fatphobia is a complicated beast both in terms of genesis and expression, but in the USA, it is often partnered with the cultural preoccupation with self-improvement. This country has a history that pushes to the forefront stories of people who better their lot in life through willpower, gumption, and a maverick spirit: wilderness pioneers, rags-to-riches entrepreneurs, social visionaries. As inspiring as it can be, this idea of self-improvement often intersects with problematic ideas, such as the belief that buying the right product will be life-transforming, or improvements that tacitly require groups who have been fucked over by the aforementioned pioneers and entrepreneurs (and who the visionaries died trying to liberate) to assimilate into hegemonic standards.
As self-improvement focuses on an individual, its narrative is often written onto bodies. Consider the popular and long-lived meme of “before’ and “after” photos in weight loss product advertising. #notyourbeforephoto has been used by fat activists to rebel against this meme that positions our bodies as in need of fixing. On the flipside, this article by a woman recovering from anorexia talks about the troubling co-option of photos of thin people living with eating disorders as “after” photos, deconstructing the idea that thinness equals health and happiness.
The diet ad meme is often pathetic in its transparency, ensuring that the subject is more neatly dressed, in better lighting, and wearing a happier expression in the “after.” Despite the impassioned personal testimonies from activists and cheesy commercials that border on self-satire, the idea that the shape and size of one’s body equates to one’s mental and emotional well-being persists in popular media. Two indie dramedies currently in theaters serve as criticism of the idea that a thin, athletic body is a sign of emotional and mental wellbeing.
Results focuses on gym owner Trevor (Guy Pearce) and personal trainer Kat (Colbie Smulders), a mismatched pair who try to help client Danny (Kevin Corrigan) with his fitness goals. At first blush, it seems like Trevor and Kat have their lives more together than Danny does. Trevor is looking to grow his business and bring his fitness philosophy to the world; Kat is his star trainer and isn’t afraid to remind her boss of that fact. Danny, meanwhile, is a schlemiel dealing with life-changing events that have left him single, alone in a new city, and a millionaire. He describes himself as “pudgy;” his average body shape and below average grooming habits are more noticeable when compared to the athletic, clean cut gym bunnies who he constantly, if inadvertently, confuses. Despite joining Trevor’s gym with the stated goal of wanting to be able to take a punch, we quickly discover that Danny’s life is largely empty and directionless. He is socially awkward and uses his newfound wealth as a blunt tool to fix his problems, like making Craigslist posts offering hundreds of dollars in compensation for people willing to procure a cat for him and show him how to use his new tv. However, as the film progresses, Trevor and Kat show cracks in their own well-toned walls. Trevor, too goal-oriented for much self-reflection, makes a long trip to meet his fitness idol Grigory (Anthony Michael Hall), who criticizes his fitness philosophy and has no respect for him. Kat’s caustic streak widens into near-chaos as she scrambles to figure out the next step in her own life. Ultimately, none of them are in control of their own lives, and Kat and Trevor’s inability to untangle their feelings for each other shows their internal lives to be as messy as Danny’s. To Danny’s credit, he is direct and honest, even if he struggles to express himself appropriately.
Welcome to Me follows Alice (Kristin Wiig), a woman who filters her struggles with mental illness through fad diets and the gospel of Oprah. After winning $86 million in the lottery, she decides to go off her meds in favor of a high-protein diet, move into a casino, and fund her own talk show on an infomercial network. Alice’s show, entitled Welcome to Me, is an expression of how she sees her world, and her role in it; she is both the brave survivor whose life stories are material for segments and the self-actualized host who dispenses wisdom and motivation. The segments include dramatized re-enactments. Some serve as a form of catharsis for Alice, giving her a chance to confront conflicts from her past in an environment that she controls, but others illustrate her belief that she is a role model to her friends and family, much like Oprah is for her. One scene re-enacts her and her best friend Gina (Linda Cardinelli) shopping for bathing suits. The actress Alice has cast to depict Gina is significantly larger than real-life Gina, and the scripted conversation filtered through Alice’s memory revolves around Alice coaching Gina to find the self-confidence to wear a two-piece. This depiction offends Gina, who tells an uncaring Alice that she is comfortable with her body and simply prefers one-piece bathing suits. The friend’s roles are reversed in their real lives, with Gina having been a steadfast support and guide for Alice since their childhood. Late in the film, Gina delivers an impassioned monologue to Alice, telling her that her self-absorption and lack of empathy makes her a terrible friend. Deciding to leave Alice, Gina cries in frustration, “Fuck you for making me fat on your show!” On the last episode of Welcome to Me, Alice apologizes to Gina and acknowledges how much she values her as a friend. The episode includes a re-enactment of Gina being a source of emotional support for Alice during a difficult time in her life; this time, the actress depicting Gina is slender and petite.
Both Results and Welcome to Me reach ambiguous conclusions: the protagonists grow as people, but still have long ways to go in their quests for happiness. There is a sense of contentment with this ambiguity, however, as the films show the inherent problems with the idea that self-actualization is easily and automatically obtained through a fitness philosophy or a high protein diet. We’re all struggling, and nobody has a magic bullet to fix that, no matter how low their body fat percentage.