Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut doesn’t bring anything new to the cinematic table in terms of story or visual technique; what makes it exciting is her outstanding attention to detail. Having also been a Catholic high school senior in 2002, I knew I was in for something that was going to hit me where I live when I saw the image of Lady Bird’s titular protagonist(Saoirse Ronan) standing in the communion line with her arms folded over her chest. A fair amount of Lady Bird’s charm is based in nostalgia, the escapism of looking back to the past, whether part of a personal or historical timeline. Remember what it was like to have complicated feelings about Dave Matthews Band? Your first cell phone? Pretentiousness as the hallmark of a suitable boyfriend?
But nostalgia in Lady Bird isn’t a fully romanticized experience. Lady Bird breaks from the mold of movies with teenage protagonists focused on affluent, privileged families. Lady Bird’s family struggles with money, which colors most of the protagonist’s relationships. She dates Danny (Lucas Hedges) until she finds him kissing another boy; the scene where he pleads with her not to tell his parents that he’s gay is heartrending. And, relative to this blog, is Lady Bird’s larger-bodied best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). There’s a moment where the skinny Lady Bird casually mentions wanting to lose weight to Julie. “Really?” Julie responds, her bewilderment and self-consciousness immediately familiar to me and, I’m sure, most other fat audience members.
Lady Bird and Julie share a paradigmatic protagonist-sidekick dynamic. Lady Bird is louder and more confident; Julie is more reserved, and tends to follow her friend’s lead. Julie is also, typical of fat characters, more socially awkward than Lady Bird. Julie’s ineptitude is subtle and relatable, not clownish. She fawns over math teacher Mr. Bruno (Jake McDorman), but her crush never inflates to the point where she is a buffoon (or a victim); she is gracious when he introduces her to his pregnant wife. A sequence of characters auditioning for the school musical nicely illustrates the friends’ contrasting personalities: Lady Bird does a fiery rendition of the Barbra Streisand-popularized “Everybody Says Don’t,” while Julie opts for the gentle and out-of-place hymn “Prayer of St. Francis.” Julie, however, is cast in a substantial role in the musical while Lady Bird is relegated to the chorus. Julie also has a knack for math while Lady Bird struggles with her grades, resisting the trope of a fat character being worse at everything than their thin counterpart.
While the two girls are seemingly inseparable, Lady Bird decides in the second half of the school year that she wants to reinvent herself and ditches Julie in favor of attaching herself to rich, popular Jenna (Odeya Rush) and cool, intellectual Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). Jenna and Kyle are conventionally attractive, but also smirking and apathetic. Maintaining relationships with Jenna and Kyle means adopting a facade, a tactic completely alien to Lady Bird. Her first attempt to get Jenna’s attention is to insult Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) and suggest that a revenge prank is appropriate for a routine admonishment against violating the school uniform. Julie is shocked and reminds Lady Bird that she’s fond of the nun, which Lady Bird immediately denies. Lady Bird lies to Jenna about where she lives (a switch from describing herself to Danny as being “from the wrong side of the tracks”) and takes up smoking to impress Kyle.
Of course, Lady Bird is too headstrong to accommodate her new friends for long. She is seriously disillusioned after she has sex for the first time with Kyle, assuming it his first time too, only to have him casually reveal that he’s had several partners before her and is much more casual about sex than she. The breaking point comes on the way to prom. Lady Bird reluctantly agrees with their plan to ditch prom, but bristles when “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band comes on the radio and Kyle disparages it. There is a scene earlier in the film, after Lady Bird finds Danny cheating on her, where she and Julie are crying and singing along to “Crash Into Me.” No longer able to tolerate trying to be someone else, she tells Kyle to drive her to Julie’s home. When Jenna asks who Julie is, Lady Bird defiantly replies, “She’s my best friend.”
Part of Lady Bird’s attention to detail are the numerous loose threads that the film gives us. These aren’t plot holes, rather, accurate reflections that life rarely comes with neat conclusions, and rarely allows us to witness conclusions to struggles in which we aren’t immediately involved. We see supporting characters moving in and out of personal problems, only glimpsing their interior world long enough to see them as human beings. Kyle drops Lady Bird off at the apartment complex where Julie lives– confirming that, like Lady Bird, Julie is also an outsider at their school due to her family’s economic circumstances. Julie is revealed to be in her apartment, still in her bathrobe, crying. The audience never finds out why, we simply see Lady Bird ask for her forgiveness and convince her to come to prom. At prom, the reunited friends dance joyfully with each other and hang out until dawn, at which point Julie reveals that she is spending the summer with her dad and will be going to the local community college, while Lady Bird is moving away in the fall.
Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), prom night
The end of the film finds Lady Bird in her first days at Barnard in New York City. She seems to have synthesized her experiences over the course of the film, excited to be cool and worldly in the way that drew her to Kyle and Jenna, but also unrelentingly true to herself. At her first college party, she asserts her belief in God in a conversation with a self-assured atheist and, when asked her name, drops her self-appointed nickname and introduces herself by her given name, Christine. Even though Julie is not present in the latter portion of the movie, which focuses specifically on Lady Bird’s troubled relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), there is a direct parallel between Lady Bird asserting herself as Julie’s friend to Kyle and as a theist at the party in New York. Lady Bird’s relationship with Julie is the childhood that she’s leaving behind her, but also an essential part of who she is. Even if the two go their separate ways, we know that they are both better people for having learned how to apologize and forgive. Lady Bird suggests that all its characters could easily be the protagonist of their own movie. Although Julie fits the awkward fat friend trope, we also get glimpses of her inner life, suggestions that she has also had a coming of age over the course of the film. The resonant emotional honesty and compassion of Lady Bird redeems its reliance on stock character types.
Admittedly, I haven’t been great about keeping up with the Monthly Roundup feature. I like having an overview of the fat characters I’m exposed to as part of my regular moviegoing, but something about its current format doesn’t feel quite right, and I’ve decided to shelve it until I’m more confident about what I’m doing with it. However, I’m pleased to report that in the space of one short month (admittedly not a calendar month, but still), I have seen no less than four films with kickass fat female characters. Most amazingly, I only sought out one of the four because I knew in advance that it had a fat female character; the others were complete surprises. Check these out if you’re able.
Deidre and Laney Rob a Train (2017, dir. Sydney Freeland)
It’s not uncommon for a socially awkward protagonist high school girl to have a frenemy, someone in her social circle who is overly assertive and selfish, but gets away with it because of her social capital and ability to be manipulative. (Mean Girls. If it’s not patently obvious, I’m referencing Mean Girls.) In a subplot, Laney (Rachel Crow) is strong-armed into auditioning for a beauty pageant by Claire (Brooke Markham), a Lady Macbeth-in-training who is determined to become Miss Iowa and wants Laney to make her look better by comparison. Claire is ruthless, ambitious, struts around with a cute boy on her arm, and the film never so much as comments on the fact that she’s bigger than the other girls in the competition. I don’t automatically cotton to fat female antagonists for merely existing, but considering that Claire’s threat to Laney is fueled by her confidence, social prowess, and beauty, it’s heartening that the role was given to a larger-bodied actress.
GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (2012, dir. Brett Whitcomb)
A compelling documentary about the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a short-lived tv phenomenon in the late 80s that helped legitimize women in the world of professional wrestling. The film basically opens with footage from the tv show of two fat women, Mountain Fiji (Emily Dole) and Matilda the Hun (Dee Booher) throwing down in the ring. Although the other GLOW members featured in the documentary are thin and conventionally good-looking, Mt. Fiji and Matilda also stand out for their dedication to their craft. The other women talk about their time with GLOW as a fun adventure they had in their youth, mostly sending them on to other careers. As Matilda the Hun, a “glamazon” heel, Booehr views wrestling as her vocation, having struggled to wrestle in male-dominated venues long before being hired by GLOW, and continuing to wrestle long after it ends. Dole, a former Olympic-level shot putter, doesn’t have a story quite as happy as the others– the present-day segments show her struggling with health problems– but her reunion with the rest of the GLOW cast shows that not only was she one of the main faces on the show, but that her castmates truly looked up to her as the heart of the phenomenon.
A scripted series based on GLOW is releasing this summer on Netflix… we’ll see if they fuck it up, I guess!
Matilda the Hun
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2017, dir. Dash Shaw)
I went into the theater thinking that the title was metaphorical, and I was dead wrong. Daria meets The Poseidon Adventure, with an inventive visual style along the lines of of Belladonna of Sadness. Dash (Jason Schwartzman), our protagonist, is a self-centered sophomore who sees himself as the star journalist of the school’s newspaper. He makes several comments about his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) being fat, but Assaf’s character design isn’t markedly different from the other not-fat characters. Lunchlady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), however, is drawn fatter than the other characters, and her size belies remarkable strength and ability.
Patti Cake$ (2017, dir. Geremy Jasper)
An underdog story about Patricia “Killa P” Dumbrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a young woman from a working class town in northeast New Jersey who dreams of making it as a rapper. Her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) encourages her to share her talent with the world, but she feels held back by a host of reasons, including her peers who deride her for her size. Fatphobia isn’t the only problem she faces, though, and she channels her feelings her body– both anger at her haters and defiant pride in herself– into her lyrics.
Deidre and Laney Rob a Train and GLOW: the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are on Netflix, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is currently in theaters, and Patti Cake$ is due for a wide release in July (I got to see it early thanks to the Chicago Critics Film Festival).
Hi folks, I know it’s been a while since my last article. I’ve been stretched a bit thin lately, but I have managed to do a bit of film writing. Check out my recent article for BitchFlicks on bisexuality in Jennifer’s Body. I’ve also recorded a small audio essay that is going to be included on FilmJive‘s upcoming episode on music in horror films, also on Jennifer’s Body. Why was I so invested in examining a film where Megan Fox makes out with a bespectacled geeky chick with messy hair? The world may never know.
I also wanted to talk a bit about my Monthly Roundup feature. I just started doing it last year without really explaining why. At my most prolific (read: unemployed), I write two articles a month for this blog, usually tackling one or two films per article. However, I see way more films than what I write about, usually at least two a week. Not all of them have fat characters, not all have fat characters worth writing about, and not all of them can fit in the amount of time I devote to writing CPBS. But while my articles take a close look at one or two films, I also want this blog to function as a reminder of the overall experience of what it’s like to be a fat person with a deep emotional investment in movies, how I see myself reflected in that respect on a macro level. So if the Roundup articles seem like weird, arbitrary inventories, I ask that you think of them more like month-sized montages of my personal cinephilic journey as is chronicled here, a condensed onslaught of trite physical jokes, incompetent flunkies, ‘Murrikans, and characters who are coded as fat but who you probably wouldn’t think of as such if you saw them on the checkout line at Target. (And if you’re at all interested in my hot takes on all of the movies that I see, you can check me out on Letterboxd).
This October, I’m very excited to have two spectacular movie binges on my schedule. This upcoming weekend, I’ll be at the Music Box of Horrors with my partner Patrick, a 24-hour horror movie marathon hosted by Chicago’s own Music Box Theater. In addition to my annual write-up of fat characters at the Music Box of Horrors, I’ll be doing the same for the selections I see at the Chicago International Film Festival the following weekend. One film at the Music Box of Horror this year has already been featured on CPBS: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As far as #ChiFilmFest, I’m mostly not sure what I’m getting into, but Middle Man does star Jim O’Heir, aka Jerry Gergich from Parks and Recreation.
That being said, I did see several films in September and August that featured fat characters:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, dir. Taika Waititi)
I saw this film at the Chicago Critics Film Fest earlier this year, and I liked it so damn much that I took advantage of its theatrical release coinciding with my birthday to see it on the big screen a second time. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a great fat character, and he deserves his own article. Just watch the damn movie.
Amadeus (1984, dir. Milos Forman)
A fictionalized account of Mozart’s (Tom Hulce) life and death in Vienna from the perspective of his rival Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Like any good period drama, the social scheming is as intricate as the music. The court of powerful Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) includes the syncophantic, and fat, Kappelmeister (Patrick Hines).
Miller’s Crossing (1990, dir. Joel Coen)
While a more serious neo-noir from the Coen brothers about chaos breaking out between two organized crime syndicates over a sleazy bookie (John Tuturro), the film does of course include some outlandish supporting characters. In this case, it’s Johnny Caspar (the late, great Joe Polito), a fat mob boss with a comparably fat wife (Jeanette Kontomitras) and bratty son (Louis Charles Mounicou III).
Burke & Hare (2010, dir. John Landis)
This dark comedy is loosely based on the careers of real-life Victorian grave robbers William Burke (Simon Pegg) and William Hare (Andy Serkis), who begin to murder people when their natural supply of corpses that they sell to medical schools runs low. One murder includes the stalking of a fat man (Tom Urie) through the foggy night streets of Edinburgh. Burke and Hare manage to frighten him into having a heart attack. Shortly after, on an exam table in a medical school lecture hall, the professor grabs the man’s belly and dramatically declares his cause of death to be gluttony.
The Big Lebowski (1998, dir. Joel Coen)
It feels downright patronizing to summarize The Big Lebowski on a blog aimed at film geeks. But to summarize: Joe Polito has a small part as a private eye, the wealthy and short-tempered Mr. Lebowski (David Huddleston) is also a fat character, as is potential car-thief Larry (Jesse Flanagan). And, of course: Walter Sobchak. John Goodman’s magnum opus? Only history will tell.
Acceptability is a theme that comes up time and time again as I overthink the films I see. Achieving and maintaining acceptability is often essential to navigating the social sphere, yet also so fraught with paradoxical traps and narrowly-struck balances, it might as well be obtained by switching it with a bag of sand from a booby-trapped pedestal. Consider marriage. Weddings are often part of a happy ending, the culmination of a character arc about a couple who meet or whose relationship deepens due to the events of the movie. We expect the romantic love that our overwhelmingly heterosexual casts of characters experience to lead to marriage, just as we expect marriage to be a milestone in every person’s life. But be warned: despite the expectation to get married being a given, the desire to get married– especially if it’s a general goal– is a hallmark of the immature and the unstable (and usually female characters, what a coincidence). If you don’t get married by a certain age (especially you, ladies), you’re weird. But just, you know, be cool about it.
Muriel’s Wedding features a fat protagonist who is caught up in this paradox. The titular role was a breakout performance for Toni Collette, and it is often noted that she gained 40 pounds for the part. Muriel Heslop lives with her family in a small Australian tourist town full of small-minded people. She talks repeatedly about being a success, being someone, which is synonymous with her getting married. Carrying out traditionally feminine roles, especially marriage, is a major focus of the women in her life. The opening scene is frenemy Tania’s (Sophie Lee) wedding reception, as the tossed bridal bouquet plummets like a missile in slow motion from a cloudless sky, an image that repeats to break the film into three chapters (the first titled “The Bouquet”). When Muriel catches it from among a gaggle of single women, the others act as though catching the bride’s bouquet is tantamount to a law, instead of a superstitious ritual. Her friends tell her that she’s being “selfish” for catching it. “What’s the use of you having it, Muriel?,” her “friend” Janine (Belinda Jarrett) asks, “You’re never going to get married. You’ve never even had a boyfriend.” Even after Tania finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, she insists that she loves him, and as a bride, she’s “supposed to be euphoric.” Muriel’s friends decide to accompany Tania on her honeymoon trip and dump Muriel because she doesn’t fit their “mad” party image, explaining that she doesn’t wear the right clothing, listen to the right music, and– of course– is fat.
Muriel’s parents, Bill (Bill Hunter) and Betty (Jeanie Drynan), also fat characters, are the only married couple in the film. Betty especially is absorbed in her role as wife and mother. A quiet, absent-minded woman, she is obedient to her husband to the point of repeating him word for word when he tells her to do something and actively ignoring his poorly-concealed affair with thinner, glamorous cosmetics salesperson Deirdre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson). Bill is a city councilman who is obsessed with his image as a powerful man with powerful connections, constantly frustrated by his unemployed, “useless” children, whom he complains about and berates in front of his business associates.
Despite her flawed home life, Muriel longs to get married, which she equates with success and making something of herself. She lives in a dreamworld, covering her bedroom wall with photos of brides, listening obsessively to ABBA, and compulsively lying and shoplifting. In the context of her friends and family, however, the audience is apt to show more compassion for her idealistic escapism. Not until Muriel reconnects with her former classmate Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths) does she have an alternative to longing for a wedding day. Rhonda is a vivacious, chain-smoking troublemaker. “Stick with me because I’m wicked too,” she tells Muriel, assuming that her new-found friend is stepping out on a nonexistent fiancee. Rhonda admires Muriel for coming out of her shell and cheerfully informs Tania that her husband is sleeping with Nicole (Pippa Grandison), one of her sycophants. Rhonda and Muriel cement their bond through a lipsynced performance of “Waterloo” at a talent show, while Tania and Nicole brawl in the audience. Unwilling to return home and face her dad, from whom she’s stolen thousands of dollars, Muriel runs away to Sydney to live with Rhonda.
The repeated image of the bridal bouquet heralds in the second act, entitled “Sydney: City of Brides.” Formerly preoccupied with the fantasy of becoming someone else, Muriel makes it happen in Sydney. She changes her name to Mariel (“marry-el”). She gets a job at a video store, where she obsessively watches a tape of Diana and Charles’ royal wedding. She changes her look, forgoing a wavy ponytail and leopard print in an attempt to look like Tania for a straightened bob and leather pants, more akin to Rhonda’s style. When Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer, Mariel takes care of her. When Rhonda protests that she’s a burden, Mariel explains what their friendship has meant to her:
“When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I’d just stay in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. Sometimes I’d stay in there all day. But since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one ABBA song. It’s because now my life’s as good as an ABBA song. It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen’.”
Mariel’s life with Rhonda fulfills the emotional needs previously met by listening to ABBA. Instead of music that prioritizes the harmonizing of two female voices, Muriel has a life centered around her friendship with another woman, where she has the power to reinvent herself. Although Mariel’s family still insists on calling her Muriel, Rhonda honors her friend’s new name without hesitation. Despite the external changes, though, Mariel is still connected to her past as Muriel Heslop of Porpoise Spit. Her family feels the repercussions of her stealing, and her father is brought up on charges of accepting bribes, which he claims he was forced to do after Muriel cleaned out his bank account. Also, she still longs to be a bride, and makes a hobby out of trying on wedding gowns at every boutique in Sydney. She sees marriage as the ultimate step in her transformation, being able to leave behind the perception the folks back home have of her once and for all:
“If I can get married it means I’ve changed, I’m a new person… Because who would want to marry me… I’m not her anymore, I’m me… Muriel Heslop! Stupid, fat, and useless! I hate her! I’m not going back to being her again.”
This obsession drives a wedge between her and Rhonda. The two women face their individual situations in very different ways. Rhonda is transformed involuntarily, as a life-saving surgery takes her ability to walk. She survives by clinging to who she knows herself to be, continuing to smoke, wear combat boots, and tell people off when they condescend to her for being in a wheelchair. Mariel runs from her loneliness and painful past through self-transformation and lies. Her quest for a husband further separates her from Rhonda. She meets David Van Arckle (Daniel Lapaine), a South African swimmer who is looking for a marriage of convenience so he can compete in the Olympics on the Australian team. Mariel leaves her friend without help and unable to pay the rent, giving Rhonda no choice but to move back to Porpoise Spit with her mother.
The third act is entitled “Mariel’s Wedding:” at first glance a culmination of the story, but slightly off in some significant ways. Tania and the other girls from Porpoise Spit are her bridesmaids, while a neglected Rhonda sits off to the side. A giddy Mariel marches down the aisle to “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do,” apparently needing ABBA in her life again. The congregants don’t look happy for her, but rather stare at her as if she is a spectacle. Her groom is reluctant and stunned. Although Bill walks her down the aisle, Betty is not present, arriving late and sitting in the back. Deirdre takes her place as mother of the bride and Mariel marches past her without acknowledging her. On their wedding night, David asks Mariel what kind of person would marry someone they don’t even know. When she points out that he has done the same thing, he insists defensively, “I want to win. All my life, I’ve wanted to win.” “Me too,” she responds. Mariel has achieved her goal, her transformation is supposedly complete, but Rhonda confronts her after the ceremony and tries to give her friend a reality check: “Mariel Van Arckle stinks. She’s not half the person Muriel Heslop was.”
The mother of the bride, at the back of the church.
Mariel seems content to sit in her living room and watch her wedding video over and over, but the fantasy ends with the news of her mother’s death. After accidentally shoplifting a pair of sandals and needing Bill to bail her out (he tells the cops that she’s “not quite right”), he decides to leave her for Deirdre once and for all, making her feel as useless as he tells his children they are: “They say I wasn’t elected to the state government that time because my family wasn’t up to scratch… I never had a bloody chance.” Even in her death, Bill tries to force Betty into the role of diffident mother. Deirdre makes an off-key attempt at comforting Mariel by telling her that Betty’s death was a “sacrifice” that will convince the judge to go easy on Bill at his trial. “She’ll be glad in the end her life amounted to something,” she says, before making passive-aggressive digs at Betty’s housekeeping skills. Joanie (Gabby Millgate), Muriel’s fat sister who has largely spent the film smirking at her older sister, tearfully reveals that Betty committed suicide, but that Bill got rid of the pills she used to cover it up. However, Betty’s anger and hurt can’t be totally erased: Muriel’s little brother tells her that their mother set the backyard on fire because their brother wouldn’t mow it.
The breaking point for Mariel is Betty’s funeral, where Bill is preoccupied with his ability to get a faxed message of condolence from a former prime minister, and Betty’s eulogy states that Mariel’s wedding was the happiest day of her life. Mariel runs out of the church, where David is waiting for her. She breaks up with him, finally accepting that their marriage is a lie and can’t continue: “I tell so many lies, one day I won’t know I’m doing it.” (Of course, she does this after they sleep together.) She also restores use of the name she was given at birth.
Not that you can blame her.
In breaking up with David, Muriel embarks on a new, honest chapter in her life, but also leaves behind the world that her father, and by extension the rest of Porpoise Spit, in which success means building an attractive, happy personal image, at the expense of relationships with others. Bill is relentless in talking about himself as an influential man, the savior of Porpoise Spit who brings in resorts and high rises, the father who dumps his devoted wife for a glitzy businesswoman uninterested in caring for his children. Tania is hellbent on riding the wave of high school popularity as long as she can, maintaining her beautiful party girl image and forcing herself to be happy in her marriage, even though neither her nor her husband have much stake in commitment (“But Rose Biggs sucked your husband’s cock!” “I know. I sucked her husband’s cock, and it made me realize, we all make mistakes.”) Even the town of Porpoise Spit is built on tourism, relying on an image of happiness and fun in order to survive. Her entire world is founded in deception, but only Muriel seems to be characterized as a liar and cheat, excessive fat girl Muriel who is arrested for shoplifting during her friend’s wedding and dumped by her so-called friends for her inability to cultivate a specific image as successfully as they. It’s telling that Muriel doesn’t lose any weight over the events of the film; her look changes, but becomes more low key and is not remarked on. The film shows her becoming a more authentic, honest person, something that doesn’t require weight loss or a makeover.
Throughout the movie, Rhonda is the only one interested in rooting for Muriel as she really is. She actively chooses to befriend dorky Muriel over Tania and her friends, she inspires Muriel to leave Porpoise Spit. She even overlooks Muriel’s lies about being engaged, and is only angry when Muriel abandons her in her time of need. Rhonda’s friendship is the natural source of redemption for Muriel. Muriel breaks up with her family, giving her dad a portion of the money she stole from him and telling him that he has to take responsibility for her siblings “and tell them they’re not useless.” Free of Bill’s influence, Muriel then rescues Rhonda, who is living with her overbearing mother and tortured by social calls from Tania and company. Rhonda forgives Muriel, calls Tania and her friends a bunch of cocksuckers, and immediately leaves for Sydney with her friend. Outraged (despite having copped to sucking someone’s cock a minute earlier), Tania chases them to the taxi, screaming defensively, “Who do you think you are to call me [a cocksucker]? I’m married! I’m beautiful!” Neither Muriel (for whom Tania feels contempt) nor Rhonda (for whom Tania feels pity) are “on her level,” so it’s unthinkable that they should have the last word.
Even though Muriel and Rhonda don’t have a romantic relationship, their love for each other is as redemptive and optimistic a happy ending as one would expect to find in a typical romantic comedy. Riding to the airport together, the two friends leave behind them a suffocating community and reliance on their naysaying families, finding something more important than acceptability in each other: a relationship where they can make mistakes and need help, without shame or rejection. Rhonda and Muriel shout their goodbyes to Porpoise Spit, and “Dancing Queen” plays, as Muriel’s happiness has once more become lived instead of listened to.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Mary and Max is one of those films that Netflix has been incessantly recommending to me for years and I kept putting off. I recently ended up watching it (instead of, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi) because I noticed that the two titular characters are described as “a chubby 8-year-old Australian girl” and “an obese, adult New Yorker.” The description of Max’s body stood out. Other films on Netflix with fat protagonists that I’d come across tended to be more euphemistic. Paradise: Hope is summarized as being about a girl sent to a “diet camp;” the heroine of The Hairdresser is described as having a “plump figure;” and in tv series Drop Dead Diva, she’s “plus-sized.” This could be influenced by gender; Max is a man, and the examples I was able to think of and find on Watch Instantly are about women. However, when I searched “obesity,” the seven “titles related to obesity” that I got as results were all documentaries related to health and medicine, like The Waiting Room and Forks Over Knives. As a claymation drama about friendship, Mary and Max seems to have more in common with the aforementioned female-lead narrative films, where fat characters must navigate a world that ostracizes them. For Max, that ostracization often manifests as pathologization.
Deviating from my previous observation that films rarely tell us characters’ height and weight, Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) informs Mary (Bethany Whitmore, later Toni Collette) that he is 6 feet tall and weighs 352 lbs. Max is described as obese in the text of the film, as one of several labels used by institutions to describe him as in need of fixing. These labels mostly hinder him, but also help: Max was called for jury duty (a position he holds in high esteem) but was dismissed because he had been institutionalized, but later in the film criminal charges brought against him are dismissed because the court deems him “mentally deficient.” Likewise, he is able to restore balance to his life through help from his psychiatrist and being institutionalized, but the medical system also limits him by describing him as disabled and in need of curing due to Asperger’s syndrome (as well as diagnosing him with obesity). Max dissents. He feels that living with Asperger’s (or being an “Aspie,” his preferred term) is as much a part of his identity as the color of his eyes. He is an outsider, but he maintains the integrity and independence to see a world he doesn’t fit into as nonsensical because it doesn’t make allowances for him, instead of giving in to how the world has labeled him. Max’s self-loyalty extends to his dietary habits. He attends Overeaters Anonymous at the advice of his psychiatrist, but doesn’t seem to have any personal motivation for losing weight. Rather, he takes pleasure in eating chocolate and creates new dishes that are more driven by taste than nutritional value. Chocolate is important to both Max and Mary as a shared passion, and their correspondences include sending new types of chocolate to each other along with their letters.
Although the film situated Max in a world where he is labeled and ostracized by medical conditions, the film itself does not assign moral judgment to how Max functions or perceives the world. Max’s eccentricities are occasionally a source of humor, such as his invisible friend Mr. Ravioli. His fat body is not romanticized, as we often hear his heavy breathing (especially after he gains a significant amount of weight) and see the repeated image of his plumber’s crack when he sits at his typewriter. But in a departure from how films often depict fat characters’ bodies as grotesque in comparison to thin characters’, the whole cast of Mary and Max is comparably rabelaisian. I’ve never heard so much incidental farting in a film. If nothing else, casting the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman to voice Max is a strong indication that the creators of the film intend for the audience to respect Max, as fat outsiders portrayed with warmth and humanity comprise Hoffman’s career.
Neurotypical Mary is better equipped to function in society than Max, but is a ultimately a less-fulfilled person than he. She too is an outsider, but her sense of fulfillment is more subject to outside approval than her friend’s. Her body even seems to be a concentration of her homogeneic suburban environment, which is filmed in sepia tint. (Max’s New York is shown in black and white, perhaps a visual pun on how the Asperger’s mind tends to work.) The first lines of the film’s narration describe Mary’s body in unappealing terms that highlight her brown-ness: “Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles. She had a birthmark the color of poo.” She too is fat, but fatness is more of a problem for her as garnering social disapproval than pathologization. “I’m sad to hear you’re fat,” she writes to Max in one of their early exchanges, “I’m fat too, and mum says I’m growing up to be a heffer.” When we see her as an adult, she is slimmer. This physical transformation comes at the same time in her life as voluntary surgery to remove her birthmark and a makeover. Unfortunately, when her crush Damian (Eric Bana) sees the “new and improved” Mary for the first time, he only comments on the dog shit stuck to her shoe. Surface physical changes are not enough to free Mary from her indifferent, brown environment, nor from her reliance on Damian’s approval to fuel her self-confidence. She writes to Max that she wasted her savings, and should have used them to fund a trip to New York.
Although adult Mary’s normative body and ability to navigate institutions like university successfully give her a certain amount of privilege over Max, he subverts the trope of fat best friend who exists to support the maturation of a thinner protagonist. In their initial correspondence, the two interact as peers, seeking advice and information from each other. The power dynamic shifts when Mary goes to university and studies psychology. This is hinted at when she is shown on campus reading a book by Oliver Sachs, a neurologist who has been criticized for exploiting his clients in the interest of his literary career. Mary finds a way of succeeding in the world that had previously rejected her, and through assimilating into that world, she adopts its pathologizing view of her friend. When Mary publishes a book about Asperger’s using Max as her case study without his permission, telling him that she hopes to find a “cure,” he reacts in anger. Instead of one of his typical wordy letters, he sends her the M typebar from his typewriter, dramatically cutting her off from receiving any further communication from him. This shifts the power dynamic in their relationship a third time. Max gains power over Mary, as his withdrawal prompts her to pulp every copy of her book before it can be sold and sends her spiralling into depression. She begs his forgiveness by mailing him the last can of her childhood comfort food, sweetened condensed milk, in her pantry. But even if this power dynamic contradicts the expected course of their relationship, it isn’t healthy for either of them. Mary falls deeper into depression and reliance on alcohol, while Max becomes bitter and angry. When Max learns how to forgive, both of them are redeemed. Max separates himself from the supportive outsider archetype not only through his expression of anger and withdrawal of support, but by developing as a character alongside his thinner, neurotypical friend.
A third important factor that suggests the film wants us to empathize with Max instead of pathologize him is how he subverts the easy symbolism of his size. Max is a fat character, but his size is not a physical indicator of greed or insatiability: he is able to achieve satisfaction. He has three life goals, all of which are acquisitions of things outside of himself: he wants a lifetime supply of chocolate, a complete collection of Noblet figurines, and a friend. These goals seem to have foundation in Max’s concrete way of thinking, as opposed to avarice. In fact, when Max is able to achieve the first two goals when he wins the lottery, he gives the rest of the money to his neighbor. Max might not even see his death at the end of the film as tragic. Mary finds him with a contented smile on his face as he gazes at her letters while The Noblets, their shared ideal of friendship, plays on TV. For Max, their long-distance relationship was fulfilling without them ever being in the same room.
Mary and Max presents us with flawed, eccentric characters who struggle to exist in communities that don’t accommodate them. However, by focusing on their inner lives and their own means of communicating their feelings and experiences, the film invites the viewer to empathize with the protagonists instead of agreeing with the labels and judgments they are forced to live with. Despite being lumps of clay, Mary and Max are considerably more human than many of the flesh-and-blood fat characters given to us by cinema.
My last few posts have focused on male/masculine fat best friends. Thus far I haven’t sought out films specifically for their portrayals of fat people– or, to be more accurate, I’ve been heard to whine “But I don’t wanna rewatch Bridesmaids”– so it’s not surprising that most of the films default to having male protagonists with another man, somehow coded as less heroic, in a support role. I decided to lean into the trend and revisit the first two Die Hard films. I first saw Die Hard and Die Hard 2: Die Harder a few years ago; while I wasn’t actively looking at the role that body size plays in the character dynamics, I found the developing bromance between John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to be one of the more intriguing parts of the film.
As we’ve seen in previous films, McClane and Powell form a contrasting duo; the differences between them go beyond body type and race. Both are archetypal cop characters, but from opposite ends of that spectrum. McClane is a fiercely independent male power fantasy. Explicitly identified with cowboys, he’s the rogue agent who breaks all the rules because his ideas are invariably more effective than the protocols set by those in power. Even his personal life finds him bristling against cooperation: he has become estranged from his family because of his reluctance to leave New York after his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) lands a great job in Los Angeles. There were several reasons that I prefer the original movie to the sequel, which isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the most unexpected reason was that I don’t find McClane nearly as interesting when he’s put in a situation that requires teamwork. It’s somewhat surprising that he outranks Powell by the second film.
McClane is defined by his profession, but specifically by being part of the NYPD. New York City as part of McClane’s identity is an expression of regionalism, but it also seems to be an inherent part of his stubbled, streetwise masculinity. He is out of place at the Nakatomi Christmas party, especially when another man greets him with a kiss on the cheek, and is practically a different species than Ellis (Hart Bochner), Holly’s smarmy, coke-snorting coworker. The film portrays association with LA as a symptom of a character being phony and weak: after moving to LA, Holly goes by her maiden name; McClane has a much harder time gaining respect with his LAPD badge in Die Hard 2. Even the local news team turns into a minor antagonist, as reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) forces himself into the McClane home for the sake of his scoop.
McClane’s likability and authenticity comes not only from Bruce Willis’ charisma, but from his alliances with average joes, especially black men. McClane is initially characterized as an unpretentious populist by making friends with his limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White)– naturally, he sits shotgun and puts his kids’ giant teddybear in the back seat where the LA phonies ride. In the sequel, McClane forms an alliance with nerdy director of communications Leslie Barnes (Art Evans). However, he is more brusque with other average joe characters: possibly due to the stress of having so many people standing between him and the bad guys, or a change in director and writing team, but it may be that LA is rubbing off on McClane. However, the role of Grounding Black Friend is fulfilled most strongly by Sgt. Powell, both in terms of the depth of their relationship and by balancing out the milieu of upper class white LA.
Powell is a by-the-book cop, representing the everyman who supports and roots for McClane. He isn’t as phony as the other LA-based characters, but he is an emasculated figure. His lack of power is visually manifested through fat stereotypes; in both Die Hard and Die Hard 2, he is introduced by an armful of Twinkies. In the first film, he tells a convenience store cashier that the Twinkies are for his pregnant wife, which is met with skepticism. McClane is also introduced while fulfilling a paternal role– wrangling a giant teddy bear for his children– but flirts with a pretty flight attendant in the process. Powell doesn’t have the skilled action hero control of McClane: he doesn’t realize that the Nakatomi Tower is overrun by bad guys until McClane throws one of them onto the hood of his cop car.
Powell is sensitive and emasculated when compared with McClane, but his sensitivity also serves as a strength, in line with the fat detective trope. Not only does Powell form a correct hunch that McClane is a cop, but he does so after one brief conversation. Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), Powell’s superior, arrives just as this conversation ends. His approach to the as-yet-unnamed McClane is cautious, but the audience is more attuned to the need for immediate action: his blowhard skepticism reads like a waste of precious time. Powell also proves himself to be a step ahead of Robinson when he correctly surmises that the terrorists are shooting at the cops’ floodlights, which Robinson loudly repeats as his own revelation once the lights are starting to shatter. However, Powell is a team player. While he directly disagrees with Robinson, he ultimately lacks McClane’s ability to undermine authority. At one point, Robinson interrupts Powell and McClane’s conversation, snatching the radio from Powell’s hand. Powell grimaces at the affront, but says nothing. McClane, on the other hand, responds to Robinson’s demand that the LAPD take over by calling him a “jerkoff” and demands that he give the radio back to Powell.
Powell’s fat detective sensitivity also facilitates the growth of his relationship with McClane. The initial conversation where Powell establishes that McClane is a cop is also enough for them to decide not only to trust each other, but to form an alliance; by their first sign-off, they are calling each other “partner.” The two partners provide each other with necessary information, but Powell also provides the moral support McClane needs, including making McClane laugh by reciting the ingredients of a Twinkie and telling him “I love you, and so do a lot of the other guys down here.”
It’s worth noting that the majority of Powell and McClane’s relationship takes place via radio; they are essentially two voices connecting with each other. In the context of a mainstream action film, McClane is white and athletic, aspects of a default representation of legitimacy. Not so for Powell, who is marginalized as a fat person and as a black person. However, on the radio, Powell is separated from the aspects of his corporeality that could otherwise detract from McClane viewing him as legitimate. We see the different ways McClane and Robinson treat Powell; we could chalk it up to McClane being a heroic everyman and Robinson being a blowhard boss, but it’s worth considering the fact that McClane is separated from the preconceived notions that are inexorably tied to Powell’s body.
The most obvious marker of Powell’s lack of (masculine) power is that he’s been put on desk duty because he has lost his ability to shoot his gun, following an incident where he accidentally shot and killed a kid. He triumphantly regains the ability to fill a human body with bullets at the end of the film, when it means defending McClane from the final bad guy. Even if the scene is a black cop killing a homicidal Aryan, in light of the recent publicized lack of accountability from police departments for police brutality, it’s very uncomfortable to consider that regaining the ability to kill is considered a happy resolution to Powell’s character arc.
Despite having his masculinity redeemed through his friendship with McClane at the end of Die Hard, Powell fills the same role of less masculine, more cooperative foil in his brief appearance in Die Hard 2. He faxes a criminal background check to McClane as he chews on a Twinkie, gently laughing at his friend’s refusal to “wake up and smell the 90s” and learn how to use the technology that has become a basic tool of his profession, untameable cowboy that he is. And again, Powell is more of a friend to McClane than the other law enforcement in the film, notably Captain Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), the head of airport police who impedes McClane’s process every step of the way, along with his brother Sgt. Lorenzo (Robert Costanzo). Both of the Lorenzos are fat; McClane calls Captain Lorenzo a “fat ass” during their unending tennis match of insults. All three fat characters are shown as ineffectual cops when compared to McClane; the Lorenzos’ ineffectiveness comes from complacency and arrogance, treating McClane rudely while failing to see the big picture. Captain Lorenzo initially describes himself as a “big fish” in a “little pond,” but towards the end of the film, he is dismissed as a “bureaucrat.” He is unable to see reality; namely, that John McClane, Supercop is in his airport trying to foil an unfolding terrorist plot. Powell, on the other hand, realizes what’s going on, but isn’t able to garner the respect needed to convey it to those around him.
Captain Lorenzo and Powell are both fat men who are socially inappropriate. They have character arcs where the begin their film with problematic relationships to their profession that are ultimately corrected through their association with McClane. Powell is initially deferential and emasculated (relative to the world of male power fantasy), but finds the strength to argue with his superior in order to advocate for McClane, and then the ability to shoot his gun in order to defend McClane. Lorenzo, on the other hand, is rigid and arrogant, but is eventually humbled when McClane proves the worth of his disorderly methods. I see race as the more component of the difference in these fat characters’ trajectories. McClane spends Die Hard and Die Hard 2 clashing with power-hungry white men (whether military-trained terrorists or jagoff yuppies) and building alliances with salt-of-the-earth black men. We know that he will never become the former because of how he treats the latter, and the latter ultimately exist to accessorize McClane’s quests. The politics of fat in Die Hard cannot be separated from similar questions about the politics of race.
I watched Planes, Trains & Automobiles for the first time ever this weekend; not only did it make me feel more confident in my decision to forego the trip from Chicago to New York and back for the holiday weekend, but it gave me a chance to take in one of the best beloved performances from fat character legend John Candy. PT&A is a simple premise that spins wildly out of control: Neal Page (Steve Martin) is a marketing executive who is trying to get back home to Chicago from NYC on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. He’s going to make a 6 pm flight, until things Go Awry, due in equal parts to bad luck and Del Griffith (John Candy), a bumbling shower curtain ring salesman.
Del embodies so many facets of an archetypal fat guy, watching this film made me wish I had a Bingo card with size-based stereotypes in the squares (coming soon from Panda Bear Shape Industries™). He’s uncouth, messy, clumsy, and sponges off Neal. He is frequently snacking and overburdened by materiality, specifically his massive trunk. His wardrobe isn’t too loud on its own (except those pajamas), but he does tend to look unstylish and frumpy next to his traveling companion’s tailored grey business attire.
Despite these shortcomings, Del is also optimistic, friendly, and a savvy traveler. The combination of wanting to help and having specialized knowledge ultimately make him indispensable to Neal, and thus does our thin, straight-laced protagonist gain a loose cannon fat best friend.
Both Neal and Del are straight white dudes, not uncommon for two main characters in a film from the US, but some of the tension between them lies in class (reflected in their differing body sizes). Neal starts the film in an executive boardroom in midtown Manhattan, whereas Del is a travelling salesman. Both men are shown to have strengths and faults due to their social standing. Whereas Neal is shown to have a happy, stable home life and has the literal capital to fund most of their adventure, he is also judgmental and rude, angering people who would otherwise be able to help him. Del is crude and graceless, but also charismatic, seemingly having friends all over the travel industry and getting an entire bus of strangers to participate in a sing-along.
I hope PT&A would be a very different movie if it were made today (and not made by John Hughes), in that I hope it would not be almost exclusively from Neal’s point of view. It seems like a specifically 80s choice to assume that the audience would be able to identify an uptight, entitled yuppie whose blonde nuclear family is so pristine they might as well be shrink wrapped. The story can easily be seen from Del’s point of view, as the film readily concedes in one of the best-acted, pivotal scenes in the film.
Having reached a breaking point, Neal rants at Del about his shortcomings, especially his tendency to tell boring stories. Leading up to his speech, Del tells Neal that he’s “intolerant” and a “tight-ass.” There are several closeups of Del’s reaction, a truly heartrending mix of indignance and hurt. It’s unsurprising thatthis performance is often considered Candy’s best. His simple, dignified response is the kind of thing I’d want in needlepoint over my front door: “…You think what you want about me, I’m not changing. I like me.” Del even gets a stirring backup of Heartfelt Speech Synth Music, whereas Neal’s opening attack was strictly solo. The camerawork, on the other hand, suggests that the audience identify more closely with Neal. Their exchange is a series of angle and reverse-angle shots. During the bulk of Neal’s monologue, the camera shows both men in medium close-up shots; eventually, the shots of Del are slightly closer, bringing into focus the pain and vulnerability in his eyes. Having spoken his piece, Neal breaks this static stance and turns away from Del (and the camera), but Del remains in slightly zoomed in close-up when he begins his response. During his speech, the camera repeats the pattern, but starts with a comparable close-up to Neal before progressing much more quickly to an extreme close-up of his face, full of shame and regret. Del’s parting line allows him to move away from the camera into a full body shot, and back into bed, but Neal remains in closeup for another few shots, as he wordlessly shows his remorse and acceptance of Del by deciding to stay in their shared room for the rest of the night. Visually, the scene is focused on Neal developing empathy for Del, even though Del’s self-defense and assertion of his dignity could have been just as compelling a focus for the scene. But Neal has been designated as the character through whom the audience vicariously experiences the film, and Hughes has deemed in necessary for both Neal and the audience to be explicitly reminded by through a powerful speech that Del is a human being who deserves respect and compassion. It’s truly an effective scene, but as a viewer who readily identifies with fat schlub characters, it’s unnerving to think about the necessity of the scene’s function. Maybe I should keep a little speech like that in my wallet.
Ultimately, the film is about Neal’s emotional journey, both in travelling from his professional life to his family life (a few lines about neglecting his family in favor of work are shoehorned in here and there) and in coming to accept Del, despite his crass ways. The movie climaxes with Neal’s return home, significantly, with Del in tow. By the end of the film, Del has become singularly focused on getting Neal home in time for Thanksgiving dinner; after they arrive to Chicago, it is revealed that Del literally has nowhere to go, and sitting at the same L stop where Neal leaves him. Neal’s newfound empathy clues him into this, and it is Neal’s choice to include him in a relationship with actual significance; otherwise, having helped Neal achieve his initial goal, Del’s function as a character in the story is complete. For all we know, he would have sat at Van Buren and LaSalle indefinitely until another rich person in minor peril came along. Even Del’s admission to Neal that he is a homeless widower doesn’t have the same build of energy as Neal’s reunion with his wife, who is barely a character; the hook of the song that’s playing is “Everytime you go away you take a piece of me with you,” seemingly the sentiment that Neal’s wife feels for him. The last shot is of Del, smiling as he witnesses the reunion he has helped to bring about.
This is a film that gives us a fat character who is sweet, clever, and keenly aware of his self-worth, but ultimately less complete and presumably less relatable than the thinner, wealthier protagonist. As is often the case with best friend characters, especially ones from marginalized groups, a character who is otherwise interesting and likable on their own is ultimately dependent on their usefulness to the main character.
I just came back from seeing Big Hero 6, Disney’s latest offering loosely based on a Marvel series of the same name. Taking place in the San Fransokyo megalopolis and featuring technology not far off from Popular Science concept art, the story follows young technology whiz Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) in his quest to avenge his brother Tadashi’s (Daniel Henney) death with the help of Baymax (Scott Adsit), a “healthcare companion” robot invented by his late brother. In contrast with the rest of the world’s technology, which is sleek, fast, and colorful, Baymax is fat and white– his inflatable vinyl body was designed by Tadashi specifically to be huggable and comforting– and moves at a gentle, deliberate pace.
Big Hero 6‘s story and themes hit familiar beats for a family-focused animation, but one thing that impressed me about the film was how it deals with grief. It’s certainly common for a Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/etc. protagonist to have lost a family member or significant other, but Big Hero 6 deals with the grieving process more explicitly and realistically than most I’ve seen. The emotional process is comparable to my favorite Disney film, Lilo and Stitch: Lilo and her older sister Nani are struggling to reach a new normal after the loss of their parents, which is catalyzed with the arrival of Stitch in their lives (who is, coincidentally, also an adorable sci-fi creation). Where a lot of the grief and healing in Lilo and Stitch is refocused on the process of Stitch being taught empathy and accepted as part of the family, Big Hero 6 focuses explicitly on Hiro’s bereavement process, which is largely verbalized by Baymax. Since his prime directive is to heal people, Baymax makes decisions based on wanting to help Hiro recover from the loss of Tadashi, and scans Hiro’s brain activity to determine his mood. Baymax wants to heal Hiro by connecting him with social supports, namely Tadashi’s colleagues. Hiro, however, is convinced that finding and exacting revenge on the person responsible for Tadashi’s death will make him feel better, and enlists Baymax and his friends to join him in a hi-tech superhero team for this purpose. Hiro, who heretofore has channeled his genius into building battle bots, creates a warrior exoskeleton for Baymax. Baymax’s fat body, built with emotional support in mind, is hidden under an athletic body designed for conflict:
Baymax’s body, his true self hidden under the armor and intent that Hiro creates for him, is an anomaly among fat film characters. Baymax is fat for a reason. I don’t mean that he was drawn fat as shorthand for a characteristic such as hedonism or sloth. As previously mentioned, his creator specifically designed Baymax to be cuddly as part of his role as a healer, but he also saves Hiro’s life by cushioning his fall. Later in the film, Baymax saves the entire team by acting as a flotation device, abandoning his heavy battle armor to do so. Bear in mind, this film highlights how bodies and their augmentations act as instruments to achieve goals; even ingenuity, one of the main values that the protagonists must embody to win the day, is referred to as “using [one’s] big brain.” And in this context, a fat body is shown as having unique and valuable attributes to contribute.
That’s huge. (Pun partially intended.) However, Baymax is– with the exception of a minor antagonist at the beginning of the film– the only fat character in the movie. His fat body is manufactured, and given an unrealistic dimension by being inflatable. Baymax’s body is outside of factors that fat human bodies are judged by, such as perceived health and measurement against normative standards of attractiveness. An inflatable robot is a much safer choice for a fat hero than a fat human, but having a film where a fat character’s body is validated is a significant paradigm shift, even if that shift requires futuristic technology to happen.