fat fuck

“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.  

mad men herb

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.

mad men bath

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.  

mad men joan

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.

mad men betty note

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.

“It’s Sick, Being a Virgin:” Fat Girl (2001, dir. Catherine Breillat)

(CN: rape)

Given that the subjects of my last two posts are films about fat kids that take place in summer, I decided to use the dwindling time that remains before Labor Day to write about a third film that utilizes these subjects.  Fat Girl is a coming-of-age story about two sisters on summer vacation with their family: chubby 13-year-old Anais (Anais Deboux) and slender 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida).

A scene in the middle of the film serves as a cypher for the central paradox of the sisters’ relationship.  Elena and Anais stand cheek to cheek, regarding themselves in the mirror.  “It’s funny. We really have nothing in common,” Elena says. “Look at you.  You have small, hard eyes, while mine are hazy.  But when I Iook deep into your eyes, it makes me feel Iike I belong, as if they were my eyes.”  The core of Fat Girl is these two girls, who contrast each other in some very essential ways, but are inexorably bound together by shared experiences.  Both are adolescents grappling with the early throes of sexuality, but their divergent appearances and ages leave them in different positions socially, affecting their worldviews.  Their different experiences come up in the first conversation we hear between them: Anais claims that boys run from her sister once they see that she “[reeks] of loose morals,” while Elena counters that boys don’t come near Anais in the first place because she’s a “fat slob.”  

The ways in which Anais and Elena deviate from cultural standards of conduct are notably different.  The Criterion DVD of Fat Girl includes an interview with Breillat after the film’s debut at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival, in which the director describes Anais’ fatness as her coping mechanism to deal with having her body and sexuality denied by those around her.  It would be liberatory if Anais’ body could exist without rationalization, but by now, reader, I think you and I have become used to a fat body paying the admission of meaning in order to be present in a film.  Anais is frequently shown eating in Fat Girl.  When Elena meets her summer love Fernando (Libero de Rienzo) at a cafe, their flirtation and first kiss is paralleled with Anais ordering and eating a banana split, “[her] favorite.”  The girls’ mother (Arsinee Khanjian) initially defends Anais when Elena criticizes her for eating “like a pig.”  At the end of the film, however, fed up with her daughters’ adolescent shenanigans, Mother snaps at her for opening a snack after they have a meal.  Anais’ transgression is explicitly evident on her body, making her an easy target of criticism by her family.  Elena’s sexual activity, however, is also transgressively excessive by cultural standards, especially considering her age.  She is waiting to have PiV sex with someone special, but has been sexually active with casual partners.  Elena is able to have her metaphorical cake and eat it too, satisfying her desire for sex without the effects of those desires physically manifesting on her body that would open her up to criticism and judgment, the kind of which she lavishes on Anais.  

Breillat’s BIFF interview delves more directly into her philosophy of the two sisters:  “Since [Anais’] body makes her unlovable, since she isn’t looked at and desired, she’s more intelligent about the world.  She can create herself and be herself, with a kind of rebellion, certainly, which is painful, but all the same, she exists.  While her sister, to her internal devastation, isn’t able to exist.”  Her analysis reduces the characters to what they experience based on their looks, but it is certainly an applicable factor to understanding not only the girls of Fat Girl, but the majority of female film characters.  Anais desires sex without romanticizing it, whereas Elena denies her desire for sex because she romanticizes it.  Anais wants her own sexual debut to be with a casual partner who won’t have the ability to brag about deflowering her, whereas Elena seeks a partner whose love will validate her decision.  Fernando is able to coax a reluctant Elena into sex acts through hollow declarations of love.  Anais, on the other hand, playacts being a manipulative lover, pretending two ladders in their swimming pool are different sex partners of hers.  She swims back and forth between each, whispering cliche lies and practicing kissing.  “Women aren’t like bars of soap, you know,” she tells her pretend-partner, “they don’t wear away.  On the contrary, each lover brings them more.”

Anais’ sexual frustration means she observes and contemplates the sex lives of others, namely Elena’s.  Her observations are cynical, but more attuned to the film’s reality.  The audience may be accustomed to thinking of shots of Anais eating as grotesque or pitiable, but would a similar reaction be expected to the very long scene during which Fernando hounds Elena until she consents to anal sex?  Elena is too emotionally involved in the scene to see it for what it is, but Anais, who watches from across the room, is not.  The sex scenes in the film are shot from far away, putting Elena and Fernando on a stage of sorts.  We aren’t used to sex scenes looking like this; we usually see closeups of hands and faces– how Anais is shot as she tosses and turns in bed, awkwardly watching and trying to ignore the couple.  The audience is invited to empathize with her over Elena and Fernando.

Despite all the talk between Anais and Elena about sex, the act causes a rift in their relationship.  When Elena shows Anais the engagement ring that Fernando gave her as a proof of his love, Anais immediately smells a rat and begs Elena not to trust him.  While Elena and Fernando “go all the way,” we see Anais in her bed in the foreground, quietly crying.  Later, Fernando’s mother (Laura Betti)– a tacky woman who is the only other fat character– explains that Fernando stole her ring.  The girls’ mother asks Anais where Elena is, to which the girl impertinently replies that she is “not her keeper.”  Enraged, their mother ends the family vacation early.  On the way home, Anais attempts to comfort her sister.  “It’s sick that people think it’s their business. It’s sick, being a virgin,” she tells Elena, who is worried about their father’s reaction and can’t get over Fernando.

The film’s climax further parallels and separates the sisters.  Asleep at a highway rest stop, a trucker murders Elena and their mother, chases Anais into the woods, and rapes her.  Once again, the introduction of a male character demanding sex disrupts the relationships between the female characters.  And, as with Elena’s experience with Fernando, the rape is a desecration of the sex that she wants to have.  However, Anais’ reaction is to assert agency within the horrible situation.  She puts her arms around her assailant.  When the police find her in the morning, one tells another, “She says he didn’t rape her,” to which she defiantly adds, “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to.”  It’s a troubling ending; what first sprang to my mind when I saw it was how fat rape survivors are often met with disbelief or derision.  Breillat is a feminist, it would be difficult to believe that she would be dismissive of young girl being raped.  The film doesn’t excuse the attacker’s actions, but it does disturb the notion of Anais as a passive victim.  Elena’s experience was a subversion of her idealized notion of having sex (by her own definition) for the first time with someone she loved; once it became obvious that Fernando had duped her, she felt sadness and shame.  But according to Anais, “the first time should be with nobody.”  What happens to her at the end of the film should never happen to anyone, ever, but given that she refuses to describe it as a rape to the police, it seems she interpreted the trucker’s attack as a removal of the vulnerability she feared from a sexual debut with a future boyfriend.  She certainly does not want to be seen as vulnerable by the uniformed men surrounding her and her dead mother and sister.  Elena, whose appearance and ideas about sexuality conform to patriarchal values, has been destroyed by the events of the film.  But the outsider, Anais, defiantly survives.

I do agree with Breillat that being an outsider allows a critical vantage point; my own adolescent experience of feeling ostracized due to my weight was a major catalyst of my journey to become the faux-academic, buzzword-dropping, far-left feminist you’ve all come to know and tolerate.  On the other hand, Anais verges on being a didactic mouthpiece at times, and it’s undeniably problematic to suggest that her value system is so outside of the mainstream that she would be okay with being violently raped.  Fat Girl provides an effective critique of patriarchal sexual values, but beyond that, only a bleak non-alternative.

See Also:

The Foxy Merkins (2014, dir. Madeleine Olnek) and the Uncharted Territory of the Fat Lesbian Protagonist

This is super exciting for a few reasons.  A fat, gender nonconforming protagonist!  A film written, directed by, and starring queer women!  A film that passes the Bechdel Test so hard that it would fail the Bechdel Test if applied to its male characters!

And perhaps the most exciting part– at least, for me, but it’s my blog so that means my opinion is basically irrefutable objective fact– is that the awesome feminist film site BitchFlicks published my thoughts on The Foxy Merkins as part of their Theme Week on fatphobia/fat acceptance.

You can read it here!  Eee!

And if you haven’t already seen it, check out The Foxy Merkins on Netflix watch instantly.  It’s a hoot and a half.

I’ll be doing an article roundup of the rest of fat Theme Week in a few days, as well as taking in a few films at the Chicago Critics Film Festival over the next week, so there might be something from that.

The Irrepressible Body: In & Out (1997, dir. Frank Oz)

(CW weight loss)

Maybe after this blog becomes wildly successful and they make the Tessa Racked biopic, the opening scene summarizing my childhood and heralding my adult preoccupation with queer liberation and fat people in movies could very well when I was 12 years old and saw In & Out in theaters. At the time, however, it had two main draws. It was rated PG-13, and some scenes had been filmed a town over from where I lived. If you haven’t seen this film and are so inspired, I urge you to spend some of it admiring the background. I had positive memories of it and wanted to see how it held up over time.

Summary of the plot: a rural town in Indiana is sent into upheaval when high school English teacher Howard (Kevin Kline) is outed by former student turned celebrity Cameron (Matt Dillon) during an Oscar acceptance speech. Howard is surprised that Cameron perceives him as gay, as he is marrying Emily (Joan Cusack) in a week’s time. Emily has more than the desire for a lifetime commitment invested in their wedding: not only has their engagement lasted 3 years, but Emily has lost 75 pounds in order to be a thin bride.

in & out, kevin kline, howard brackett, joan cusack, emily montgomery

In & Out uses topical humor liberally, but two unutilized mid-nineties news stories actually fit in neatly with the film’s subject matter: the supposed discoveries of a “gay gene” and a “fat gene.” Biological determination is often used as an excuse for fatness or queerness to exist within a culture where “normal” people are straight and thin. We aren’t unnatural, we’re born that way. However, as Kathleen LeBesco points out: “This form of narration is particularly dangerous, however, in that the uses of biological research can cut both ways: science might be used as the basis for legal protection and moral respectability just as easily as it might be used as the proof of pathology and justification for eradication” (Rothblum and Solovay 77).

In & Out takes the optimistic approach to biological determinism. The film speaks not only to the virtue of acceptance, but also the folly of suppression. Emily’s and Howard’s bodies betray the false selves they have created in the interest of fitting into a heteronormative ideal, the achievement of which is in service to unobtainable cultural ideals and in conflict with their true natures. She is not a thin bride, he is not a groom who wants to have sex with a thin bride, “Macho Man” plays over the end credits. However, In & Out doesn’t fully deconstruct the conventional understandings of acceptability that constrict its characters.

Kline gracefully portrays Howard’s ambiguity with an undertone of innocence. In the beginning of the film, he doesn’t seem to be actively denying his sexuality as much as he’s lived his life in a completely heterocentric world without any cause to question his straight identity. Howard’s straightness becomes less and less viable as the film begins to question the omnipresence of heterosexuality, and characterizes it as a bundle of compulsory, restrictive gendered stereotypes. “At all costs, avoid rhythm, grace, and pleasure,” he is instructed by a self-help tape during an attempt to unlock his machismo; the audience immediately knows that musical-loving Howard will not be able to maintain this abstinence for long. But even when he isn’t consciously embracing it, his gayness is constructed in the film as an innate physical aspect. Even a casting choice suggests that Howard’s sexual orientation is a genetic trait: Howard’s mother is played by Debbie Reynolds, a gay icon who is best known for her roles in studio musicals like Singing in the Rain. His body is constantly betraying him, even as he tries to assert his straightness (as it is conflated in the film with manliness). When Cameron “outs” him at the Oscars, Howard’s shocked reaction includes letting his wrist go limp. In the best scene in the film, Howard tests his masculinity by trying not to dance to “I Will Survive,” but cannot prevent his body’s reaction to the disco beat.

in & out, debbie reynolds, kevin kline, joan cusack, wilford brimley, frank oz

Emily’s repeated sentiment is that she can’t believe that she is a thin bride; this not only conveys her happiness, but foreshadows that her current state is a fleeting fantasy. Of course, the fantasy alluded to is her and Howard’s romance, but her thin body is intrinsic. Even if Emily and Howard did get married, it’s not likely that she would be able to maintain a 75 pound weight loss in the long run, if multiple studies are to be believed. Even the threat that she will return to her original weight is verbalized as a threat that she will “start eating again,” a hyperbole that characterizes her goal as requiring the impossible denial of something essential, but also characterizes her as being a typical food-obsessed fat girl just underneath her controlled, trim surface. Emily’s quest to regulate her body is paralleled with Cameron’s supermodel girlfriend Sonya (Shalom Harlow), who includes vomiting as part of her daily agenda and is insulted by the suggestion that she eat a meal after a long trip. Thinness, like straightness, can only be achieved through hypervigilance and self-denial. As soon as the wedding is called off and Howard’s illusion of straightness has dissipated, Emily too begins to drop her illusion and seeks food to binge on. Her fantasy of being a thin bride leaves her collapsed in a heap in her wedding dress, wailing, “I’m starving!”

The least explicit but most present pressure on Howard and Emily to marry is the threat of being categorized as unmarriageable. When Emily blows up at Howard after he comes out during their wedding ceremony, she cries, “I base my entire concept of self-esteem on the fact that you’re willing to marry me!” For Emily, validation comes through marriage, which she sees as evidence that she is worth of love and desire. Deeper into her meltdown, she runs along the side of the road in her wedding dress, begging passing cars to marry her. Being a bride hinges on being thin. Emily describes herself as having been fat her whole life, but that she “didn’t want to waddle down the aisle.” She says that her deceased parents never thought she would get married; her fatness is the only given possibility as to why they would think that. But her achievement of this goal also depends on Howard’s heterosexuality. “You still want to [get married], right?” she asks him. “That’s why I transformed myself, isn’t it? Do you want me to start eating again? …I can, Howard! I’m very fragile!”

But Howard is also using Emily as a means of validating his own normalcy, as cancelling the wedding would mean disappointing his community’s expectations. Howard’s mother tells him immediately after suspecting he might be gay that she loves him no matter what, but forces him to marry so that she can have some excitement in her life through planning the wedding. The pressure to be regain his straight identity through getting married is most poignant at his school, as his beloved students suddenly become uncomfortable around him and Principal Halliwell (Bob Newhart) suggests that he could lose his job.

Although his friends and family all want to believe that he is straight, openly gay TV journalist Peter (Tom Selleck) thinks Howard is gay and calls him out on marrying Emily for the wrong reason. Peter encourages Howard to trust his friends and family will support him. His advice proves to be wise, as the town rallies around Howard in a Spartacus-esque show of solidarity at his school’s graduation ceremony, everyone declaring themselves to be gay as well. Howard maintains his place in his various social units, and the film ends with him attending his parents’ wedding vow renewal ceremony.

Emily’s victory comes when Cameron shows up to replace (and supersede) Howard as the desirer of her as an object. The handsome, successful actor confesses that he fell in love with her when she was a fatter student teacher who tutored him, and chooses her over his supermodel girlfriend (who he says “looks like a swizzle stick”).

Although given more license to exist, presumably her confidence and happiness still depend on being physically attractive. Cameron and Emily express their feelings for each other by reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet, using a literal performance of heterosexuality as a means of connecting to each other. Even if Howard and Emily end the film with more freedom to be themselves, this freedom was given to them by members of the entertainment industry. They are still bound by the somewhat modified cultural norms that initially pressured them into adopting false identities in the first place.

Ironically, it is the film itself that ultimately restricts Howard’s queerness and Emily’s fatness, as these traits are only present in the film in their lack. Howard’s sexual orientation is expressed solely as effete traits, the only erotic exchange with another man is a kiss that is performed as an experimentation (and didn’t even involve tongue). In an odd mirror image, Emily’s happy ending is solely behavioral– during the denouement dance party we see her eating cheese puffs– but we never see her as a fat person. Therein lies the discrepancy of the film’s message: are we truly accepting of something that we can’t bring ourselves to actually look at?

Fat Fuck: Nymphomaniac (2014, dir. Lars von Trier) and Concussion (2013, dir. Stacie Passon)

[CW diet talk, discussion of consensual sex]

Two recent films, Nymphomaniac and Concussion, spend ample time exploring the marginalized sexualities of their (thin) female protagonists. Joe (Charlotte Gainsboug/Stacy Martin), the titular character of von Trier’s epic, labels herself as a nymphomaniac and constructs her life around her insatiable libido; Abby (Robin Weigert), the heroine of Passon’s directorial debut, is a lesbian who subverts her life as a mainstream upper middle-class homemaker by involving herself in sex work. Both women have fat sex partners over the course of their respective stories, neither of whom function as a source of comedy or disgust.

A common observation of fat characters is that they possess an inappropriate sexuality relative to thin characters in the same film, either lacking in sexual desire or experience (based on the assumption that nobody wants to have sex with fat people) or being too assertive or indulgent with regards to their sexuality (based on the assumption that fat people desire more and control themselves less than thin people). Fat people in movies are often treated as de facto repugnant or pathetic, but even more so when they are seen as sexual beings. A portrayal of fat people experiencing lust the same as thin people, even being accepted as a thin person’s lover, is enough to make these movies stand out as unusually fair-minded with regards to body diversity. However, both F and Woman #1 are portrayed as less exciting than their thin counterparts, and evoke a sense of family and domesticity, elements which the protagonists of both films are trying to avoid or escape.

Nymphomaniac presents a series of flashbacks, where Joe relates her story Seligman (Stellan Skaarsgard), an asexual bookworm who compares the details of her life to his various intellectual pursuits. As the title suggests, a large portion of these flashbacks deal with Joe’s sex life. Nearing the end of Volume 1, almost 2 hours in, I found myself getting bored with scene after scene of Joe having rather vanilla sex with male partners, mostly young and thin. F’s arrival was perfectly timed. Joe describes a time when her sex life was a perfect balance of harmonizing elements, like a polyphonic organ piece, with F (Nicolas Bro) as the bass voice. If memory serves, this is the first time we see someone go down on Joe, shown in extreme closeup. F focuses on Joe and her satisfaction. “Without words, he knew exactly what I wanted, where he should touch me and what he should do. The most sacred goal for F was my orgasm.” Because he is so trustworthy and stable, Joe privileges him with activities she does not her other sexual partners. While she explains this in voice over, we see him gently washing her in a bathtub.

nicolas bro, nymphomaniac, stacy martin

The entire time we see Joe and F together, he is clothed and she is naked, heightening the contrast between their ages and body sizes. F is not Joe’s only extragenerational partner, but he is certainly the most paternal. Immediately after seeing them have sex, we cut to an image of Joe sitting on F’s lap, giggling as he tells her a fairytale. F’s arrival in Joe’s story immediately follows the death of her father (Christian Slater); perhaps it is not coincidental that she would so fondly remember a lover who would be “reassuring” and a “foundation,” while so strongly feeling the absence in her life of her dad, who provided her with a sense of security and consistency. F also contrasts with H, a previous lover of Joe’s who leaves his wife and children– his role as a father– to be with her. We have no information of who F is outside of his relationship with Joe, but if he is a father (or some other form of caregiver), he manages to merge the elements of that identity with being Joe’s lover.

F is accepting of Joe’s multiple partners and is actively in deference to her lifestyle, as he often arrives early and patiently waits for her in his car (which was bought used, she points out) with a bouquet of flowers, or in Joe’s living room while she has sex with someone else in the bedroom. F’s patience an example of one of Nymphomaniac‘s strong points: the refreshingly personal and straightforward portrayal of deviations (so to speak) from normative sexuality: monogamous, possessive, not extractable from idealized romantic love. However, F seems emasculated and powerless when Joe compares him to the other members of Joe’s sexual polyphony– and this comparison is explicitly illustrated, in split screen. G (Christian Gade Bjerrum), designated the second voice, is “the only one [Joe] had to and wanted to wait for.” Instead of arriving early, G stands on her threshold when she invites him in, entering as he pleases. Joe finds this exciting because it takes away her control of the situation; she compares G to a predatory wild cat. The sex that she has with G is rough and feral, polarized from F’s “predictable” lovemaking. The two create a spectrum of sexual experience that is beyond limited descriptions of a binary of straight/gay (sometimes expanding to dominant/submissive). As we see an image of a leopard killing a deer, representing G, we also see F waiting in his car for Joe to see him. In between these two is the cantus firmus, Jerome, the closest character to a typical One True Love a viewer might expect to see in a film that focuses on a woman’s love life. These series of images also show Joe’s face while she has sex with them. With G she is wantonly excited; with Jerome she seems transported by the intimacy and soulfulness of their lovemaking; but with F she appears placid and peaceful.

nymphomaniac, lars von trier, stacy martin, shia la boeuf, nicolas bro

Joe describes F as essential to her happiness, but ultimately unsatisfying on his own; Jerome, however, she entreats to “fill all [her] holes,” to complete her, and the fate of the film brings them back together again and again. Even if F displays generosity beyond her other lovers and is seemingly supernatural in his ability to anticipate her desires, what he offers is ultimately incomplete on its own.

Concussion‘s opening sequence is composed of voice overs of women talking about maintaining their aging bodies and images of a gym, showing a spin class of fit women in slow motion, sneaking competitive glances at each other. The film is about a lot of things– queer assimilation, aging– but the body is a prominent and recurring theme. Abby’s dissatisfaction with her life as a stay-at-home is brought to a head by a concussion she suffers accidentally at the hands of her son; there is an early scene of her running on a treadmill until she vomits. She deals with the dissatisfaction by going back to work in New York City, then patronizing sex workers, then finally becoming a sex worker herself, seeing women clients at the condo she is renovating. Like her protagonist, director Stacie Passon is a lesbian, and Concussion does step away from the normative male gaze in some significant ways, including showing sex between women who do not have all the characteristics required to be a woman with a sex life by most films. Some of the women Abby has sex with are older, some have extensive tattoos, one client has a mastectomy scar, and– in case you haven’t guessed where I’m going with this– another is fat.

Abby’s fat client (Daria Rae Feneis) is only known as Woman #1, all clients of Abby’s only being referred to by numbers. It would be easy to see someone patronizing a sex worker as a sign of their inability to attract a partner without the exchange of money, and that sex workers will do anything (or anyone) as long as they’re paid. However, the film makes clear that Abby wants to have sex with Woman #1. Abby is very particular about her clients: she is not willing to go to their homes, and she insists on having coffee with them first, even though The Girl (Emily Kinney), her manager, screens them. Abby even rejects her first potential client for doing homework while she waits for their rendezvous. Abby wants to have sex with Woman #1 as an individual, not solely because she wants (or needs) the money.

daria feneis, concussion

Woman #1 embodies some characteristics often seen in fat film characters. She initiates the conversation awkwardly, talking about a Women’s Studies class she is taking where she has to draw her vulva and talk about her drawing in every class. She even brings a folder of these drawings to show Abby, who politely declines, recreating a common dynamic in films where a fat person’s social inappropriateness is highlighted or regulated by a thinner person. (Slight tangent: as someone who has taken over a dozen Women’s and Gender Studies courses– none at NYU, granted– this class exercise strikes me as absurd.) Women #1 describes drawing her vulva as having a force field around it, because she is 23 and has never had sex or even been kissed. The character comes across as shy and awkward (although she is very pretty), and her lack of experience is never explicitly linked to her weight, but given the setting and sexual/relational experience of the other characters, her late-bloomer status sticks out like a sore thumb. Women #1’s appointment with Abby– a first time for both of them– is quietly drawn out with tension and tenderness. Abby reassures her that she doesn’t have to do anything, can stop at any time, and Abby will do things that she wants to do. Woman #1 is still awkward, however; she neglects to take off her backpack, and after their kiss, she remarks that Abby “smells like oranges.”

During a subsequent visit, Abby finds the ingredients for a Master Cleanse in Woman #1’s bag, which her mother has given her to “start [her] off.” Abby assumes a maternal role in this scene, overriding Woman #1’s mother’s influence by giving her three books to read: Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex (“the Bible”), a book on vegetarianism, and a collection of Gandhi’s writings, which Abby describes as “an excellent book for weight loss.” (Another slight tangent. Overall I liked this movie, but the script rubbed me the wrong way at times, this line possibly being the worst example. I trust, reader, that I don’t have to go in-depth as to why it’s hugely problematic for rich white Americans to appropriate aspects of anti-colonial resistance to support their own assimilation into a beauty standard. I confess I’ve never read Gandhi’s writings, what about them makes them excellent for weight loss? Is Woman #1 supposed to fast? Because that slows your metabolism down. Is she supposed to use white guilt as an inspiration to be self-denying in her food choices? Does Gandhi talk about tips for cutting carbs at some point?) She then encourages Woman #1 to throw away her cleanse materials, “because that shit will kill you.” Woman #1 glows as she looks at Abby, who is treating her as a human being whose health needs to be prioritized, not a fatty problem to be eradicated using any means possible. I’m guessing that she experiences the latter attitude from the other people in her life more frequently than the former. We never find out if she herself wants to lose weight, though.

The third and final session we see between Abby and Woman #1 shows a progress in both of their explorations of sexuality. Their attitude with each other is relaxed and intimate; the camera is closer to them than ever. Woman #1 says that she read the books Abby loaned her, but didn’t lose any weight. This scene subverts the expected story beats that Woman #1 would have lost weight, or that a dramatic moment would occur between them (Abby giving some inspirational speech, Woman #1 revealing a dark secret), as the two laugh over this fact and move on with their conversation, as Abby strokes her hair affectionately. Woman #1 also says that she wants to move on from their arrangement and “try something new, like, maybe a guy.” The other woman who Abby loses to a man is Sam (Maggie Siff), another mom from her social group who shares a passionate liason with Abby, and understands her dissatisfaction, but ultimately decides to stay with her husband. Sam, like Woman #1, ties Abby to her inescapable role as a mother.

daria feneis, concussion

Losing her client is paralleled with scenes of Abby’s children waiting for her to pick them up at school, her failing to be a mother. As Abby has chosen to be unfaithful by having sex with women other than her wife, Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), she is also unfaithful to her role in her family in that she is mothering someone who is not one of her children, neglecting them in the process.

As so much of the energy and rhetoric of the needs of LGBT folks is channeled into marriage equality, and the “we’re just like you” message, there is a dearth of questioning the merits of a white picket house in the suburbs as a desirable goal. Marriage equality and liberal social values allow Abby and Kate to have their American dream in an affluent suburb, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Abby would find that dream ultimately as hollow as Lester does in American Beauty. (Considering this film is about college-educated white folks, the attainability of that goal unfortunately doesn’t figure in to its critique.) Concussion‘s main story raises some radical questions about values and stories that we take for granted. This spirit is extended to Woman #1 to an extent– Abby finds her desirable, she isn’t punished for not losing weight– but some toxic presumptions remains intact: the inherent awkwardness of fat people; the inherent struggle to not be fat, even when failing to meet that goal comes as no surprise.

Concussion is a bit unrefined and Nymphomaniac a bit arduous, but ultimately it was a pleasure to watch both them. Even in their failings, it’s always refreshing to consider a film’s drawbacks through a feminist lens that called for more consideration and nuance than “hey, this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.” Both have interesting things to say about women’s sexuality, and what it means for a woman to search for happiness and fulfillment. The combination of these ideas puts both protagonists at odds with domesticity. However, even in searching for personal evolution through sex, the characters find themselves in dynamics that parallel their roles as members of their respective families, both with fat lovers. Despite the radical portrayal of fat people as desirable, the films ultimately don’t go far enough, and saddle these characters with drawbacks that can neither offer liberation or stand up when compared with more normatively attractive partners.