fat women

“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.

Roundup: August 2015

(CN sexual assault) A summary of films I saw over the past month with fat characters that I didn’t write about.

Super (2010, dir. James Gunn)

Mr. Range (Don Mac) is a powerful drug dealer who does business with Jacques (Kevin Bacon).  Jacques has procured several women to entertain Mr. Range during their transaction, but Range insists on being alone with Sarah (Liv Tyler), who is high.  Jacques allows Range to take Sarah into a bedroom.  After she tells him she doesn’t want to have sex, he attempts to rape her.  Frank (Rainn Wilson) kills Mr. Range.  During Frank and Jacques’ climactic showdown, Jacques refers to Range as “that fat n—–.”

The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford)

Ma Joad is portrayed by Jane Darwell, who was also in The Ox-Bow Incident. The neo-Biblical feel of Steinbeck’s story features characters who are drawn very simplistically.  Ma is a pretty typical matriarch of a rural family in a lot of ways, but she is portrayed with dignity, as the Joad family’s strength and emotional center.

Confidential Report/Mr. Arkadin (1955, dir. Orson Welles)

The great man himself as the titular Mr. Arkadin, a powerful, wealthy criminal who can’t remember his own past.  Fat bit players include an indignant chef and a cigar-smoking retired general.

mr. arkadin, orson welles

Mommy (2015, dir. Xavier Dolan)

The great thing about Mommy is how it centers and humanizes characters who are often written as obnoxious cartoons, namely Steven, a teenage boy with behavioral issues (Antoine Olivier-Pilon), and Diane, his foul mouthed, fading beauty mom (Anne Dorval).  However, most of the other characters in the 2+ hour film are roughly drawn, more aides or impediments to the main characters than characters in themselves.  One of these characters is a fat woman who has assumed her husband’s position as editor of a magazine where Diane works.  The woman takes sadistic pleasure in firing Diane, telling her that she has no talent as a columnist and was only hired because her husband found her attractive.

F for Fake (1973, dir. Orson Welles)

The last film Orson Welles ever directed was a frenetic documentary about forgery and deception, featuring Welles himself as the narrator and master of ceremonies.  Until this point I haven’t written about fat documentary subjects I’ve come across because their weight has been purely incidental, but Welles’ role in his film was intentional (even if it was in part due to his ego).  He appears as an erudite and mischievous dynamo in a fabulous black cloak and hat: performing magic tricks, spinning glorious tales for the audience (both watching the film and situated around him at a fine restaurant and on a picnic) while at the same time reminding us that we can’t always trust what we see and hear.

PeeWee’s Big Adventure (1985, dir. Tim Burton)

There are a handful of fat characters in this film, all of whom pose a threat or impediment to PeeWee (Paul Rubens) to some degree: Francis Buxton (Mark Holton), a snotty rich kid who pays to have PeeWee’s bike stolen; Large Marge (Alice Nunn), the ghostly trucker who gives PeeWee a ride and a scare; Andy (Jon Harris), a trucker who wants to hurt PeeWee because he’s jealous of his relationship with his girlfriend Simone (Diane Salinger); and some members of the biker gang who want to torture and kill PeeWee, until he wins them over with his dancing:

“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:

Roundup: July 2015

Content note: self-harm.  A summary of films I saw over the past month featuring fat characters that I didn’t write about.

Chef (2014, dir. John Favreau)

A dramedy focused on a middle-aged man who is stagnating in his professional life and distanced from his family, with the most tantalizing cooking scenes I’ve seen since Eat Drink Man Woman.  Ramsey (Oliver Platt), a food blogger, criticizes Chef Carl’s (Jon Favreau) cooking, speculating that he has gained a lot of weight over his career because he “must be eating all the food that gets sent back to the kitchen.”  Despite the public dig at his size, everyone agrees that he’s a genius chef, and the front of house manager (Scarlett Johansson) has the hots for him.  When it is revealed that his critic is also fat, the dig seems somewhat hypocritical, and is followed by Carl lambasting him for making a living off of being mean.  Carl’s former father-in-law also subtly picks on him, remarking that he’s gained weight since they last saw each other.  Although there is an implication that Carl’s weight is a symptom of his professional stagnation and unhappy family life, there is no indication that he loses weight as he improves his relationship with his son and goes into business for himself.

Beauty and the Beast (1991, dir. Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise)

Several fat supporting characters: Belle’s proto-nerd father Maurice, who is considered an oddball by their community and needs to be saved twice; Lefou (literally “the fool” or “the madman”), Gaston’s toadie who worships him despite constant physical abuse and has a more grotesque character design than the other human characters; Cogsworth, the stuffy majordomo; and Mrs. Potts, the motherly cook. Perhaps of note, Disney is producing a live-action reboot, to be released in 2017, with three of these four characters portrayed by thinner actors.  Ian McKellen is playing Cogsworth, Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, and Kevin Kline is Maurice.  Lefou, the one villainous character of this group, will be portrayed by Josh Gad.

Withnail & I (1987, dir. Bruce Robinson)

A character study of two struggling London actors who scrape by on alcohol and bullshit.  Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and Marwood (Paul McGann) escape their dismal flat for a trip to the country, staying at a cottage owned by Withnail’s fat uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths).  Monty is wealthy and effete, a retired actor whose homosexuality is a defining characteristic (in his introductory scene, he discusses his love of gardening: “There is, you’ll agree, a certain je nais sans quoi, oh so very special, about a firm, young carrot.”)  His generosity and kindness are a godsend to the two destitute protagonists, and to an extent, he is an inversion of the trope of the fat incompetent, having his life more in order than the younger men, who can’t manage to clear out their kitchen sink for fear of what lives in it.  However, he is also the middle-class fuddy-duddy foil to their edgy, youthful rebel lifestyle, never questioning the lies they feed him.  Partially due to a comedy of errors and partially to Withnail’s dishonesty, Monty believes that Marwood is also gay and attempts to seduce him, to the younger man’s abject terror.  Monty is overly persistent, forcing his way into Marwood’s bedroom wearing a silk robe and eyeshadow.  He tries to force himself on Marwood, although he also pleads with him to not be ashamed of his sexuality, and only stops when Marwood tells him that he and Withnail are a couple, and that he doesn’t want to be untrue.  Monty backs off and leaves the cottage before they wake up in the morning, having left a note of apology.

The Tales of Hoffman (1951, dir. Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)

As with Beauty and the Beast, there are a handful of fat flunkies in this film that features several stories within stories.  Most of the fat characters are thin actors with big prosthetic bellies, including a few villains’ servants and, in one sequence, an ugly clown whose love for a ballerina is unrequited.  The one fat character portrayed by a fat actor is Andes (Philip Leaver), who is the servant of Stella (Moira Shearer).  Count Lindorf (Robert Helpmann) bribes Andres into allowing him to intercept a message from Stella to Hoffman (Robert Rounseville), which ultimately allows the Count to separate the lovers from each other.

Tangerine (2015, dir. Sean Baker)

There are a few minor fat characters in this film, the most prominent of whom is Jillian (Chelcie Lynn, who is a big deal on Vine), the madam of a “party room” at a sleazy motel that Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) breaks into looking for Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), the girl who’s been sleeping with her boyfriend.  It’s not a glamorous role, but none of the roles in this film are.  The protagonists aren’t fat, although a few girls make critical comments about Alexandra (Mya Taylor) for not having a flat stomach, but as transgender women of color, they are definitely marginalized based on their physical characteristics.  Tangerine is the most vivacious and humanizing portrayal of trans women of color in a film that I’ve seen since Paris Is Burning, and I can’t recommend it enough.

ABCs of Death, “W is for WTF?,” “X is for XXL” (2012, dir. John Schnepp; Xavier Gens)

I didn’t see the whole anthology, so there might be other fat people in the chapters I missed.  “W is for WTF?” features two fat men (John Schnepp and someone whose name I couldn’t find on IMDb) as members of a film production team who are struggling with a looming deadline to produce a W segment for ABCs of Death and can only come up with lazy ideas featuring beautiful women in skimpy outfits before the world descends into utter chaos.  “X is for XXL” follows a fat woman (actor unknown) who never speaks.  She is harassed in public several times due to her weight, and seems to be stalked by an ad campaign for a cereal that claims to have slimming properties.  Upon arriving home, she binges on food in a manner that verges on cartoonish (I believe she drinks olive oil straight from the bottle at one point).  She then goes into her bathroom with a knife and carves off her flesh, which intersperses with shots of the slim spokesmodel in the cereal commercial.

Interview: Jessica Conger, actor, Most Likely (2015, dir. Andrew Bemis)

Jessica Conger is a full-time waitress and part-time actor in the Boston area.  She performs regularly with the Post Meridian Radio Players of Somerville and is a film producer with Bang! Films production company.  When not serving food, acting, or attending school, Jess like to read mysteries and brew cider and beer. She and I first met in September 1998, when a mutual friend dragged me over to where she was sitting in the cafeteria before homeroom and said, “This is Jess.  She likes The X-Files too.”  Since that fateful morning, she’s been one of my best friends.  Last week, Jess and I sat down at our respective computers to discuss her on-screen work in Bang! Films’ upcoming feature length film, Most Likely.  (The link leads to the teaser video on Vimeo, which is NSFW.)

Tell us about Most Likely.  Who is your character?

I play Beth, an uptight woman who travels with her stoner roommate Phil, played by Kevin Sandberg, to her high school friend’s wedding in a remote area of New Hampshire.  Beth hasn’t seen anyone who is going to be at the wedding in years and is very anxious about it.  She feels lost in her life.  The movie takes place at the wedding over a weekend.  The bride, Chloe, played by Alex Fandel, has set up a weekend for her old friends and new ones to meet and join one of the happiest days of her life.  She probably did not expect it to go how it goes.

The Kickstarter for Most Likely mentions a naked yoga scene.  What was preparing for and shooting that scene like?

So, when Andrew Bemis was writing the script, he said that when he was stuck on something, he just thought about how to make me uncomfortable.  That’s how that scene got written.  We filmed that scene in the evening, in April, in New Hampshire.  It was seriously cold, about 40 degrees from what I remember.  There were crew members off to the sides with blankets for Rory and Alex between takes.  I felt so bad for them, at least I got to wear layers!  They did have some standard protective pieces on, lest we get a good shot of balls, but they were pretty naked.  For filming we usually ran through the scenes a few times with and without scripts and then did a wide shot, some closeups, and reverses. Shooting each scene takes several hours, usually. For this, because it was so cold, we ran through it once or twice and just sort of ran with it.  Rory was unsure of yoga moves and I and Kate Zarnay, a friend who visited the set that day, tried to give him a few tips on the best ones to perform naked.  I think downward dog got brought up a lot.  It was hard for me to get through takes without giggling because Rory is so fucking funny.

most likely, jessica conger, bang! films, andrew bemis

How do you deal with the negative cultural attitudes around fat women in movies and television? Have you ever felt discouraged from acting because of your size?

I drink a lot.  Really, I try to recognize that while Hollywood is the fucking worst, the way to get better roles for people of all representations is to make art yourself.  I can’t tell you the number of auditions I didn’t make the cut for because I wasn’t “the right look,” or the number of casting calls I didn’t even bother with because of the descriptions of the roles for women.  If every part requires 25-35 year old female actors who are of “lean build,” that cuts out so many talented actors.  I really believe that the Alien approach is perfect for so many roles which could be played by anyone:  write the script, go through the auditions, and cast the best people.  But I know that’s a pipe dream for anything mainstream.  So, I mostly stick to radio plays and acting in parts written for me.

A few months ago on Twitter, you self-identified as a fat actress and said that you like roles where your appearance isn’t part of your character’s story (e.g. nobody second-guesses your character as someone’s love interest because of her size).  In your opinion, are these characters fat characters because a fat actress is portraying them, or does being a fat character depend on fatness being an explicit part of the character’s story?

I think these characters are fat because a fat person is playing them.  In Most Likely, Beth could have been cast with a smaller actor– I am the largest woman in the cast– and it wouldn’t have changed the character a bit.  I do think that size can be an explicit part of a character, but if that is the character’s entire motivation, yawn, I’m not going to be interested.  I’m really interested in playing interesting, complex people.  I think most actors are.  If you think about it, how many mainstream movies would change if the lead actress had 20 or more pounds on her?  Maybe Bridget Jones’ outside would accurately reflect her diary woes, but it really wouldn’t change much.  What if Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig swapped roles in Bridesmaids?  The lead would be a lovable fuck-up fat woman trying to do her best, and the weirdo with heart would be the conventionally attractive thin woman.  Where would that change the plot?

Who is your favorite fat movie character?

This is such a difficult question.  Farva from Super Troopers or Ursula from The Little Mermaid.  Or Ken from In Bruges. Or Don Corleone from The Godfather.  Or Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane.  I like Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect, but that’s just because Rebel Wilson is a 10. I’m sure as soon as I hit send I’ll think of like 30 more.

You can contact Jess on Twitter @allybaster or via email at allybaster (at) gmail (dot) com.  Check out Most Likely‘s Kickstarter for updates on its progress.

“Straighten, Tighten:” Intersections of Fatness and Queerness in The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols)

When I woke up on a Friday morning a few weeks ago to Twitter blowing up about SCOTUS declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, I was happy that my home country was finally moving away from a gender-discriminatory policy.  Not deliriously happy, mind you.  I feel some kinda way about the political energy and focus poured into marriage equality.  But I do have a sentimental side, and I see how much joy getting married has brought to the people in my life who decided to take the plunge.  (This post isn’t more timely because I traveled halfway across the country to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends.)  I had a solo mini-celebration for marriage equality that evening with The Birdcage, which I was fond of in high school and had been meaning to revisit.  I remembered the excellent comic performances; it’s enjoyable enough to take the film at face value.  What surprised me was how deeply I empathized with the character at the epicenter of the film’s tumultuous humor, Albert (Nathan Lane).

The opening scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) and their houseman Agador (Hank Azaria) cajole a hysterical Albert into rallying herself* for a drag performance ushers the audience into a first impression of her that is intertwined with her self-image. She describes herself as “fat and hideous”– a declaration Armand, her director and significant other, knows so well that he mouths the words along with her– and says that she’s “gained and lost over 100 pounds in the past year” in an effort to be thin and beautiful enough to maintain her star status and his love.  Although not an extremely large person, she does have a stocky body, where the other performers at the Birdcage (and many of the thong-clad extras in scenes of the public milieu of South Beach) are slender and muscular.

the birdcage, nathan lane, albert

Albert’s sensitivity and flamboyant nature are frequent sources of humor.  Armand and his son Val (Dan Futterman) react to Albert’s outbursts with a certain level of weariness that suggests a routine scenario for their family.  But even though she is an outlandish character in a farce, her anxieties come from a very real place.  The nonplussed reactions she receives from strangers, plus Val’s unwillingness to introduce her to his conservative future in-laws speak to her outsider status in the vast majority of the world.  Despite being a headliner who plays to sold-out houses and is more than willing to self-advocate, she lacks necessary social capital to navigate on her own outside her South Beach bubble.  In a subplot, she wants Armand to sign a palimony agreement so that she will be provided for in case their relationship ends.  Although talented, there is no denying that she is older and fatter than the other performers; who’s to say what her career would look like without Armand and the Birdcage?

The Goldmans’ underlying family tensions are exacerbated when Val declares his intention to marry Barbara (Callista Flockheart), the daughter of staunch conservative Senator Kevin Keely (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), who is Barbara Bush by way of Lady Macbeth.  Hit with scandal when Kevin’s “common redneck” colleague dies in bed with an underage black prostitute, Louise suggests using the wedding as a distraction technique to symbolize a return to family values.  Convinced that the Keelys will never connect themselves to a gay, Jewish** family, Val asks Armand to pretend he’s the father of the heterosexual “Coleman” family.  Val initially asks that Albert not be present for the Keelys’ dinner, but Armand insists they compromise and pretend that his companion is heterosexual Uncle Al.  Although the Goldmans want their son to be happy, there is ultimately no sugarcoating that Armand is willing to side with Val and pretend Albert isn’t part of their family unit so that Val can access a social institution the two of them can’t by ingratiating himself to a politician who thinks they’re destroying America.  Her reactions, oversized in most situations, are appropriate in this case. When she refers to herself as “the monster, the freak,” neither Armand nor Val deny that she is characterized thus by their plans to hide her.

For the Goldmans, achieving normalcy is largely about restraining (“straighten, tighten”).  Not only is Val the beneficiary of the charade, he is the main orchestrator, the ambassador of straightness in a queer enclave.  He is a man of few words, forever tolerantly waiting for the exuberance around him to die down.  “Don’t add, just subtract,” he repeatedly advises the Birdcage staff, who help transform the Goldmans’ colorful home into a “monastery.”  The subtraction includes wanting to present Katherine (Christine Baranski), Val’s biological mother, as Armand’s wife.  Albert can barely hide her discomfort around reserved, athletic Katherine, who owns and operates a successful gym.

the birdcage, nathan lane

Although Armand is more masculine and paternal than Albert, Val asks him to tone down his stereotypically gay mannerisms (eg. how he walks, talks, and gestures).  Armand, in turn, coaches Albert to restrain herself, emotionally and physically, in order to play is straight.  “Look at your pinky!  Look at your posture!”  He tells her to hold her unruly body more firmly and tone down her emotional responses.  Dismissing small setbacks (e.g. breaking a piece of toast) seems like a revelation to her:  “Of course!  There’s no need to get hysterical.  All I have to remember is I can always get more toast.”  But the couples’ desire to help their child achieve the life he wants comes at the expense of their own.  Right before the Keelys’ arrival, the family gathers in the master bedroom, their vivacity stripped away in the pursuit of heteronormativity.  Armand remarks that he looks like his grandfather, who “killed himself when he was 30.”  Their clothing and demeanors suggest a funeral, Albert the most uncomfortable of all.

The performance of straightness that the Goldmans put on is a wickedly funny inversion of the colorful, campy drag show that is their profession.  Agador calls himself “Spartacus” and lowers his voice by an octave or two, Armand is so stiff that Val feels the need to fabricate a football injury for his father, and Albert presents herself as an old-fashioned housewife from Smalltown, USA whose ludicrously conservative political views terrify her family, but manage to charm Kevin.  Appropriately, the Keelys themselves are practically drag versions of straight conservatives, wearing clothing so drab as to practically be Orwellian and barely hiding their elitist, repressive viewpoints under jes’ folks rhetoric.  One of my favorite moments in the film is after the two families first meet, when Kevin responds to a polite question about his trip to South Beach with a soporific monologue that spins out into a patriotic travelogue gone wrong.  Of course, they too look at the dinner party as a path to social legitimacy (or, as Louise puts it, “salvation”) that will hide their own connection to deviance.  The Keelys too have a fat skeleton in their closet, as Lousie tries to prevent Kevin from stress-bingeing on candy, and they are stalked by a tabloid journalist (Tom McGowan) who’s “put on so much weight since the Simpson trial.”

As a fat, gender nonconforming person, I deeply felt Albert’s need to be loved and, when people do express love for her, the fragility of her trust.  It’s rough living in an environment where people like you are constantly positioned as inherently unworthy of respect.  Even in the safety of home, family, and community, it is impossible to completely forget the hostility of the outside world, or how easy it is for that hostility to be present in a loved one.  As Albert says, fed up with the emotional burden of being a source of shame for Val, “…everyone laughs at me.  I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am.”  She says this as she is leaving for the cemetery, dramatically communicating that she feels she is dead to her family.  The scene is not completely serious, as her tone and gestures mimic a diva in a classic melodrama, but it does reflect the real emotional fallout that many LGBTQ people have experienced due to being rejected by their families, including suicide in some instances.

This isn’t the first film I’ve seen with parallels between fatness and queerness, even if fatness is a less explicit factor in The Birdcage than In & Out.  They are barriers to achieving a goal (in both cases, a wedding that will provide social legitimacy).  Albert’s size doesn’t threaten Val and Barbara’s engagement, but she does worry that Armand isn’t attracted to her any longer and doesn’t want to make their partnership legally binding.  Albert’s body, specifically her emotions and mannerisms, is seen as excessive to the point of threatening the family’s social legitimacy.  Her queerness is irrepressible, and the men of the family take it upon themselves to orchestrate a solution.  However, once her influence is removed from the family, Val and Armand alone are not enough to win Kevin and Louise’s trust.  It is only through relying on her “threatening” inclinations to be feminine and maternal (Armand describes her as “practically a breast”), and her skill as a drag queen, that Albert can pass as Mother Coleman.  Once seen as a heterosexual, female mother, she becomes a legitimate (and favored) member of the family in the eyes of Kevin, who is the apex of power in the film, both in terms of social capital and allowing Val to marry Barbara.  The facade of normativity cannot be maintained for long, but the temporary diversion from her outcast status is enough for Albert to sustain the dinner party longer than Val or Armand could on their own.  Her drag skills come in handy again to prevent the Keelys from being spotted by the press, ending the film with a power reversal where the heterosexual elite are sheepishly reliant on the queers for a different kind of salvation than Louise originally anticipated.

Albert and Armand’s happy ending isn’t just because they get to be themselves, but because they triumph due to how their lives have been shaped by being marginalized.  It’s not an explicit score for the fat kids, like Hairspray, but it does find power in qualities that get combined with fatness: femininity, sensitivity, and excess.

*Albert identifies as a gay man and is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns.  There are several points in the movie where Albert shows a preference for feminine pronouns, thus my use of she/her/hers in this article.  Apologies if this is confusing.

** Sander Gilman’s Fat Boys: a Slim Book includes an interesting history of the conflation of Jews and fatness in the historical Gentile imagination.  Suffice it to say that there are stereotypical characteristics common to Jewishness, fatness, and effeminacy, such as a lack of athleticism and a penchant for heavy foods (“When the schnecken beckons!”).

Comparing Spy (2015, dir. Paul Feig) with Tammy (2014, dir. Ben Falcone)

I was skeptical of at first, due to Melissa McCarthy’s last few films receiving mediocre ratings, but I’m happy to report that Spy gloriously exceeded my expectations.  Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is a smart, capable CIA agent who has spent her career at a computer, doing support work for her suave partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who goes around the world on glamorous field assignments.  After she sees villainous Raina (Rose Byrne) kill Bradley and brag that she knows the identity of all of the CIA’s active spies, Susan goes undercover to avenge her fallen partner and prevent Raina from selling a nuclear weapon to terrorists.

melissa mccarthy, spy, spy 2015, paul feig, susan cooper

Spy is a great summer film.  I saw it this afternoon, and my throat is still sore from laughing so hard at the panoply of hilarious performances, with McCarthy as the leader of the pack.  I was notably delighted by Miranda Hart as Susanne’s gawky wingwoman Nancy, and Peter Serafinowicz, whom I recognized from his antagonistic straight man roles in Edgar Wright’s Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, as a relentlessly sleazy Italian agent.  The action scenes are thrilling without being overblown, and the two hour run-time flows by easily with spirited energy.

Spy is a highly entertaining action comedy that knows its limits, but does more than enough within them.  This factor alone makes it a notable improvement over Tammy, last summer’s comedy offering starring McCarthy.  Tammy has plenty of funny moments and empathizes with its fat, ill-mannered, working class protagonist as much as it throws obstacles in her path, but doesn’t do a very graceful job of balancing its goofy, vulgar humor with the more serious aspects of the story, such as Pearl’s (Susan Sarandon) self-destructive behavior, and the moments of emotional honesty and vulnerability do more bogging down than adding depth.  Which sucks, because there is an inherent transgressive joy to see two characters who would be pushed to the sidelines in most films leaving their stagnant lives behind in search of adventure.

melissa mccarthy, susan sarandon, tammy, ben falcone

By virtue of being an action film, as opposed to a road trip film, Spy doesn’t have the expectation of character development or emotionally laden moments.  Even so, Spy doesn’t shy away from the pathos Susan experiences as a fat misfit.  Despite being a multi-talented agent, Susan experiences multiple microaggressions related to her fatness that impact her confidence.  Bradley uses his advantageous position, as her mentor and her crush, to convince her that she isn’t suited for field work.  He treats her with condescension, gifting her a cartoonish cupcake pendant to thank her for her help.  There is no way a sophisticated globetrotter would think of something so tacky as an appropriate gift for someone he respected as a peer, whether or not he had romantic feelings for her.  She is only inspired to volunteer for a field assignment when her boss (Allison Janney) says that they need an operative who is invisible.  Susan is invisible, as she works in a world where anyone who matters, especially any woman who matters, is thin and chic.  Insulting banter is a large chunk of the film’s humor, and there is a recurring theme of characters criticizing each others’ style choices.  Even though Susan is never directly insulted for being fat, she is at an automatic vulnerability for the contempt of her peers and antagonists because her size prohibits her from dressing fashionably.  In the beginning of the film, she puts Bradley on a pedestal, admiring his tailored suits.  “This shirt doesn’t even have a label,” she says of her own blouse, in self-deprecating comparison.  The false identities she is given speak to how her appearance deems her to have a boring, pedestrian life: a single woman with 10 cats, a divorced mom of 4.  Even her fancy spy gadgets are stripped of any glamorous aspects that would accessorize her thinner colleagues, such as an all-purpose antidote disguised as a bottle of stool softeners.

Compared to Tammy, the audience has less of a challenge in sympathizing with Susan.  Susan is impressive.  She holds her own in a field that demands over-achievement: she is a skilled fighter, focused under pressure, and has incredible attention to detail and analytical ability.  Tammy can’t haul herself over a low fast-food restaurant counter, has a hair-trigger temper, and doesn’t know who Mark Twain is.  Like Susan, Tammy struggles with a lack of regard from other people, but this is shown to be partly due to her abrasiveness (which she readily admits).  It would be easy to dismiss Tammy as a fat stereotype engineered for crude laughs, but we could just as easily criticize how Susan is written as overly idealized, as her flaws-that-aren’t-really-flaws (she doesn’t know how to act in a fancy restaurant, just like you in the audience!  She struggles with a lack of confidence that she quickly finds via a sexy international espionage adventure!) pale in comparison to how kickass she is.  However, both characters offer different ways of depicting how fat woman are marginalized.  We witnesses that marginalization on-screen in Spy, as Susan is belittled even though she does everything right.  However, when confronted with Tammy, we struggle with that marginalization in our own reactions to its titular protagonist.

The Story of Self-Improvement: Results (2015, dir. Andrew Bujalski) and Welcome to Me (2015, dir. Shira Piven)

Fatphobia is a complicated beast both in terms of genesis and expression, but in the USA, it is often partnered with the cultural preoccupation with self-improvement.  This country has a history that pushes to the forefront stories of people who better their lot in life through willpower, gumption, and a maverick spirit: wilderness pioneers, rags-to-riches entrepreneurs, social visionaries.  As inspiring as it can be, this idea of self-improvement often intersects with problematic ideas, such as the belief that buying the right product will be life-transforming, or improvements that tacitly require groups who have been fucked over by the aforementioned pioneers and entrepreneurs (and who the visionaries died trying to liberate) to assimilate into hegemonic standards.

As self-improvement focuses on an individual, its narrative is often written onto bodies.  Consider the popular and long-lived meme of “before’ and “after” photos in weight loss product advertising.  #notyourbeforephoto has been used by fat activists to rebel against this meme that positions our bodies as in need of fixing.  On the flipside, this article by a woman recovering from anorexia talks about the troubling co-option of photos of thin people living with eating disorders as “after” photos, deconstructing the idea that thinness equals health and happiness.

The diet ad meme is often pathetic in its transparency, ensuring that the subject is more neatly dressed, in better lighting, and wearing a happier expression in the “after.”  Despite the impassioned personal testimonies from activists and cheesy commercials that border on self-satire, the idea that the shape and size of one’s body equates to one’s mental and emotional well-being persists in popular media.  Two indie dramedies currently in theaters serve as criticism of the idea that a thin, athletic body is a sign of emotional and mental wellbeing.

results, colbie smulders, kevin corrigan

Results focuses on gym owner Trevor (Guy Pearce) and personal trainer Kat (Colbie Smulders), a mismatched pair who try to help client Danny (Kevin Corrigan) with his fitness goals.  At first blush, it seems like Trevor and Kat have their lives more together than Danny does.  Trevor is looking to grow his business and bring his fitness philosophy to the world; Kat is his star trainer and isn’t afraid to remind her boss of that fact.  Danny, meanwhile, is a schlemiel dealing with life-changing events that have left him single, alone in a new city, and a millionaire.  He describes himself as “pudgy;” his average body shape and below average grooming habits are more noticeable when compared to the athletic, clean cut gym bunnies who he constantly, if inadvertently, confuses.  Despite joining Trevor’s gym with the stated goal of wanting to be able to take a punch, we quickly discover that Danny’s life is largely empty and directionless.  He is socially awkward and uses his newfound wealth as a blunt tool to fix his problems, like making Craigslist posts offering hundreds of dollars in compensation for people willing to procure a cat for him and show him how to use his new tv.  However, as the film progresses, Trevor and Kat show cracks in their own well-toned walls.  Trevor, too goal-oriented for much self-reflection, makes a long trip to meet his fitness idol Grigory (Anthony Michael Hall), who criticizes his fitness philosophy and has no respect for him.  Kat’s caustic streak widens into near-chaos as she scrambles to figure out the next step in her own life.  Ultimately, none of them are in control of their own lives, and Kat and Trevor’s inability to untangle their feelings for each other shows their internal lives to be as messy as Danny’s.  To Danny’s credit, he is direct and honest, even if he struggles to express himself appropriately.

Welcome to Me follows Alice (Kristin Wiig), a woman who filters her struggles with mental illness through fad diets and the gospel of Oprah.  After winning $86 million in the lottery, she decides to go off her meds in favor of a high-protein diet, move into a casino, and fund her own talk show on an infomercial network.  Alice’s show, entitled Welcome to Me, is an expression of how she sees her world, and her role in it; she is both the brave survivor whose life stories are material for segments and the self-actualized host who dispenses wisdom and motivation.  The segments include dramatized re-enactments.  Some serve as a form of catharsis for Alice, giving her a chance to confront conflicts from her past in an environment that she controls, but others illustrate her belief that she is a role model to her friends and family, much like Oprah is for her.  One scene re-enacts her and her best friend Gina (Linda Cardinelli) shopping for bathing suits.  The actress Alice has cast to depict Gina is significantly larger than real-life Gina, and the scripted conversation filtered through Alice’s memory revolves around Alice coaching Gina to find the self-confidence to wear a two-piece.  This depiction offends Gina, who tells an uncaring Alice that she is comfortable with her body and simply prefers one-piece bathing suits.  The friend’s roles are reversed in their real lives, with Gina having been a steadfast support and guide for Alice since their childhood.  Late in the film, Gina delivers an impassioned monologue to Alice, telling her that her self-absorption and lack of empathy makes her a terrible friend.  Deciding to leave Alice, Gina cries in frustration,  “Fuck you for making me fat on your show!”  On the last episode of Welcome to Me, Alice apologizes to Gina and acknowledges how much she values her as a friend.  The episode includes a re-enactment of Gina being a source of emotional support for Alice during a difficult time in her life; this time, the actress depicting Gina is slender and petite.

welcome to me, alice klieg, kristen wiig

Both Results and Welcome to Me reach ambiguous conclusions: the protagonists grow as people, but still have long ways to go in their quests for happiness. There is a sense of contentment with this ambiguity, however, as the films show the inherent problems with the idea that self-actualization is easily and automatically obtained through a fitness philosophy or a high protein diet.  We’re all struggling, and nobody has a magic bullet to fix that, no matter how low their body fat percentage.

Portraying Strong Female Characters, Except When It Doesn’t: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, dir. George Miller)

(Just a reminder, all CPBS articles potentially contain spoilers.)

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of engaging in BitchFlicks‘ weekly Twitter discussion, the topic of which was Mad Max: Fury Road.  Fury Road is a decent action film that makes up in style what it lacks in story and character detail, but it’s getting a lot of attention as a potentially feminist action film.  I tend towards skepticism when regarding mainstream media attempts at true progressivism, as I’m more likely to dwell on the problematic stuff that remains a constant.  A lot of the contributors to this afternoon’s discussion were more optimistic in their view of the film, which led me to concede that I was overlooking the positive aspects of Fury Road.  It’s amazing to see a big budget action film that features women defending themselves, standing up to the bad guy, striking out into the unknown, and doing it all because they know they can rely on each other.  Despite being the titular character, Max (Tom Hardy) plays more of a supporting role to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  Over the course of their adventure, the two learn to trust each other and work together without resorting to a compulsory romance.  Furiosa’s goal is to liberate the Wives, five women who are sex slaves to Immortan Joe (Hugh Kyes-Byrne), a tyrant who controls a large source of water, and return with them to her matriarchal homeland, the Green Place.

However, Fury Road is a mixed bag with regards to body diversity.  Furiosa is an amputee, which is pretty huge, considering she’s the protagonist.  However, there are other people in the film whose disabilities aren’t quite as cool (Furiosa gets a neat-looking robotic arm), and seem to be present as props to convey how harsh life is in this desert setting.  Fat people are present in the film, but don’t fare very well.  When Joe is introduced, we see him in a room full of fat naked women whose lactating breasts are being pumped by machines.  These women are presumably his wives as well, or at least other women whose bodies are being exploited by him alongside the Wives.  Physical exploitation is a recurring presence in Fury Road.  Max is initially captured and held by Joe’s war boys so that his blood can be harvested.  The Wives are being exploited by Joe for sexual and reproductive purposes; they graffiti the walls of their rooms for Joe to find when he discovers they have escaped, bearing messages that they are not objects, and refuse to give birth to future warlords.  However, Max and the Wives escape from and confront their oppressors, while the nameless, voiceless fat women have no agency in this way.  The fat women’s bodies are in sharp contrast to those of the Wives– all five actresses playing the Wives have careers as models, and they are clothed in gauzy, pure white fabric.  The fat women do re-appear at the end of the film after Joe’s reign of terror has been overcome, giving the thirsty masses full access to Joe’s water reserves.  Although they participate in the liberation of the Citadel, that role reflected their earlier state captivity a little too closely for me to feel that there was true redemption.  They seemed to be stuck in an affliation with nourishing and abundance which made me uncomfortable, given the unsettling imagery of their captivity.

Another problematic fat figure is Joe’s ally, the People Eater (John Howard).  Although not given much in the way of characterization beyond being a Mini Boss, the People Eater’s fatness is linked to a sense of sadomasochistic hedonism, which are intended to inspire disgust in the audience.  The People Eater’s shirt has holes cut in it so that his nipples stick out; he wears clamps and chains on them that he has a habit of playing with.  He also has a metal grating covering his nose, which I interpreted as suggesting syphilis, which can cause the flesh of the nose to rot in advanced stages.  In the days before medical interventions, the decayed nose was a stigmatic mark of immorality.  Apparently, everything old is new again.  He also has exaggeratedly fat feet which eventually lead to his undoing, as Max forces his foot onto the gas pedal that leads him to crash.

There’s a lot about Fury Road that is refreshing in terms of representation, but the fat bodies present in the film get burdened with some tired tropes that detracted from my enjoyment of it.  One of the main ideas that the film presents is that bodies aren’t objects; unfortunately, that message doesn’t extend in practice too far beyond the normatively attractive characters.

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.