links

Drawing the Divine: Depictions of Fatness and Race in Moana (2016, dir. John Musker, Ron Clements)

“Thou sayest thou didst see the god clearly; what was he like?”
“What his fancy chose; I was not there to order this.”

–Euripides, The Bacchae

Something I’ve always struggled with as the sole writer of this blog is the best way to include discussions of people of color.  Similarly to how Laura Mulvey famously observed that films are largely produced for an assumed (straight, cis) male audience, the US film industry largely also operates under the assumption of a white audience.  Often protagonists or other empathetic characters are white (traditionally of the WASP variety), while characters of other races or ethnicities are distanced from the audience.  As a white person, I am able to analyse and criticize what a film tells me about the people of color it depicts.  On the other hand, what I have to say is less vital to conversations about race in media than people speaking about how they see themselves. The lack of intersectionality in film often means little space for fat people of color, but when they are characters in film, they need to be included in the conversations I try to have on this blog– not with the intention of speaking over people of color talking about their own experiences and opinions, but rather to ensure that this blog is as inclusive as possible when looking at fat film characters.

That being said, last night I watched Moana for the first time.  Considering that Disney is, well, Disney, the amount of care they took in representing Polynesian cultures is notable, including an almost-all-Polynesian cast (I believe Alan Tudyk, who voices HeiHei the chicken, is the sole exception) and seeking approval from cultural experts before finalizing designs.  Plus, the titlular character (Auli’i Cravalho) is a courageous leader of her people whose adventure isn’t sidetracked by a compulsory romantic subplot.  As “Polynesian” is an umbrella term for many cultures and nationalities, the film’s world is a pastiche, with Moana being a character created by Disney and hailing from the fictional island of Motunui.  

The other principal character, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), is a figure in legends across Polynesian cultures.  He’s also the reason I’m writing this post:  Moana’s Maui is a big dude.  Before the film’s theatrical release, there was pushback against his character designed from New Zealand Parliament Member Jenny Salesa, Samoan rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, and others, that “the depiction perpetuates offensive images of Polynesians as overweight,” as noted in this NY Times article about the development of Maui’s look for the film.  A similar article from The Guardian, focusing specifically on the controversy, quotes Will Ilolahia of the Pacific Island Media Association stating that a fat Maui is “typical American stereotyping,” contrasted with Maui’s depiction in his culture’s stories as “a person of strength, a person of magnitude and a person of a godly nature.”

The articles quote other Polynesian folks who saw Maui’s size as an indicator of strength.  The Guardian article includes a YouTube video by self-described “obese Polynesian” Isoa Kavakimotu who defends Maui’s body as “all about function, not aesthetics.”  (The video is worth watching, but be aware that it has a lot of flickering images.)  Samoan artist Michael Mulipola interpreted Maui’s physique as that of a traditional animated sidekick, noting that Maui’s “thick solid build represents power and strength,” and is “reminiscent of old school power lifters.”  David Derrick, an artist who worked on Moana and is of Samoan descent, made an insightful observation in the NY Times article: “I think a lot of those things come from people being very nervous and scared that a big company is portraying this beloved cultural character.”  Given Disney’s history– hell, given the history of big companies using cultural objects to create a product for mass consumption– that’s pretty fair.

Derrick’s comment called to mind the depiction of Dionysos/Bacchus in the Pastoral Symphony sequence in Disney’s Fantasia.  (The Bacchanal starts at 11:05 in the linked clip.) I’m much more familiar with Greco-Roman legend than I am Polynesian, and therefore am more confident in calling out Fantasia as an example of a cultural object being distorted for mass consumption.  The NY Times article points out that Maui is traditionally represented as a slender young man; the same is true of Dionysos in ancient Greek art.  Although always the god of wine, to the ancient Greeks, he was much more: a personification of the wild, the invoker of divine frenzy.  His ceremonies honoring him served as a ritualized transgression of social order. In many traditional stories, including Euripides’ drama The Bacchae, he calls women to join him in ecstatic revelry in the forest, away from their roles as wives and mothers.  In the Fantasia sequence, outside the context of his culture and de-fanged for a modern Christian audience, he is a stereotypical drunk.  The satyr and centaurs who revel with him are in contrast both in their slender bodies and their behavior.  Their dancing is neatly choreographed; they manage to keep Bacchus as on-track as possible.  The female centaurs flirt with him but never allow him to get too close.  They remain in control of themselves and the situation, a Homeric social guidance film.  Bacchus is not effeminate, as Dionysos is described in Greek stories to suggest that he occupies a space outside social categories;  rather he is emasculated, his wildness stripped of its divine power.  He’s merely “let himself go,” his fat body a symbol of excess that is tolerated for a joke but never fully embraced by those surrounding him.  Does Maui suffer the indignity of a similar process at the hands of Disney studios, 66 years later?  Even if he isn’t the protagonist, Maui does retain his heroic status in the film– he’s strong, brave, clever, and embarks on a heroic adventure to save the world.  Does the fact that he has a fat body, as opposed to previous artistic depictions, detract from his other characteristics?

Searching online for a source to unpack the stereotype of fat Polynesians is proving difficult– I’m just turning up a lot of articles on reactions to Maui’s character design.  (Interesting sidenote: the titles of many of these articles describe Disney as “fat-shaming” or “body-shaming” Maui… drawing a character with a fat body is not “shaming” them, but no worries, it’s not like you’re being paid to use words accurately or anything.)   The pushback that I’ve seen is specifically focused on Maui’s size, and unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much of an explanation beyond that, suggesting that fatness is objectively and simply a bad thing.  Why is that the case, at least in the context of this discussion?  Assumptions about health is a likely suspect. The Guardian article mentions the high obesity rates in several Polynesian countries, as reported by the World Health Organization. Ilolahia’s statement suggests a connection between size, health, and colonialism. Even in Kavakimotu’s video defending Maui, he conflates fatness with unhealthiness, concluding that Maui isn’t fat/obese because of his physical prowess.  This is where we venture once more into the murky, mutable definition of what it means to be fat.  The reactions to Maui that I’ve seen thus far buy into the oversimplified narrative of fatness and health having an inversely proportional relationship.  It feels a bit cheap to point out that Maui is a cartoon character and a magical one at that, so questions of his health are somewhat moot to begin with.  But in the real world, athleticism and body size are more complicated than what’s being suggested.  While watching Moana, I asked myself if the desire to see Polynesian representation in film wouldn’t be better fulfilled by rewatching Whale Rider (to be honest, there was a lot about Moana that I found underwhelming).  And that thought came up again when reading about this controversy, considering that in Whale Rider, protagonist Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is trained to fight with the taiaha by her fat uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa).

Undoubtedly, the history of colonialism and racism continues to impact the quality of life of communities across the globe, including Polynesian folks.  And by not looking critically at what is implied when we talk about fatness leaves a lot unspoken about what kind of hurtful attributes get assigned to certain communities, and why.  But what is accomplished by suggesting that a fat character who comes from a marginalized community doesn’t belong in a heroic position, or even belong at all in a story about that community?  In fact, Maui is the biggest (human) character in the movie; does having a range of body types depicted still result in the promotion of a stereotype?  And considering that Maui’s character development redeems him as a hero in the eyes of his people, what the criticism of his body ultimately leads me to wonder is: where is the line between calling out stereotypes and playing into respectability politics?

Link: Nocturnal Animals and the Metaphor of Fat Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roundup: the 52nd Annual Chicago International Film Festival

It sucks that film criticism is a dwindling profession (and that I didn’t make life choices to result in it being my career), because I could live at film festivals.  I don’t do conventions, but I imagine that I like film fests for the same reason– it’s comforting to be in a space where everyone is excited for the same dorky reason that, in the harsh wilderness of the outside world, you feel relief if someone from the general population even knows what the heck you’re talking about.  And when there’s the opportunity to be in that space for two solid weeks?

20161010_130657

Well, that hasn’t been my experience yet, partially because I haven’t had the vacation time or the money for tickets, and partially because the first weekend of the Chicago International Film Festival (ChiFilmFest) is always the same weekend as the Music Box of Horrors.  But this year, finally, I had the opportunity to spend two solid days and then some at ChiFilmFest.  I skipped over the high profile entries that are going to be in theaters soon anyway (although I am looking forward to MoonlightLa La Land, The Handmaiden, and Arrival) and instead went for stuff that I’m not sure I’ll be able to see a second time, let alone in a theater: locally made indies, foreign films, shorts.  I don’t think I caught the breakout film of next year; the movies I saw ranged from underwhelming to pretty damn good.  I caught some interesting director Q&As, was part of the first audience in the US to see Andrzej Wajda’s final film, and got an obscene amount of free refills from the soda fountain at the concession stand.  The list of all the films I saw at ChiFilmFest are here.

The characters I saw were in wide variety, from an irrepressible Tibetan goatherd in Soul on a String to a closeted Quebecois track runner in 1:54.  There weren’t many instances where I was specifically impressed with representation of historically marginalized groups– notable exceptions were Pushing Dead‘s depiction of a person living with HIV/AIDS; the nuanced meditation on a young woman’s sexual agency in The View from Tall (cn: sexual harassment); and the rediscovery of black country blues artists during the 60s folk revival and its parallel to the civil rights movement in Two Trains Runnin’. And while there were some fat characters included in the 13 films I saw, none really stood out as anything different than the kind of representation I’ve grown accustomed to, unfortunately.  Here’s a quick rundown of them.

(CN: discussion of sexual assault)

“Superbia” (dir. Luca Toth)

An animated short that could be most simplistically described as a surreal world made up of two warring societies of men and women.  I’m not going to pretend that I understood what the film is trying to say, but it was cool to see characters drawn in a variety of sizes and shapes.

Night of 1000 Hours (dir. Virgil Widrich)

A magical realist murder mystery and allegory about historical responsibility, in which one Austrian family’s entire history comes to visit on the same night.  A notable fat character is a blowhard World War I-era police chief who is more concerned with maintaining rule of law than he is with bringing about justice.

Afterimage (dir. Andrzej Wajda)

A biopic of the final years in the life of Polish abstract painter Władysław Strzemiński and his losing struggle against the government-mandated rise of socialist realism in art in post-WWII Poland. There was another line-towing fat police officer, a relatively small part.

Imperfections (dir. David Singer)

Cute, funny heist movie that, not unlike a Coen Brothers film, has a lot of quirky bit parts embodied by fat people, including an obnoxious department store manager, a mob heavy who asks the guy he’s trying to intimidate if he can use his bathroom, and a socially awkward guy who just wants to buy some drugs.

Middle Man (dir. Ned Crowley)

A black comedy that reminded me a bit of last year’s submission Entertainment, this film stars Jim O’Heir (Jerry from Parks and Recreation) as an overly-optimistic square headed to Las Vegas to fulfill his dreams of being a standup comic, but gets waylaid when he makes a bloody pact with a mysterious stranger.  (O’Heir joked during the Q&A afterwords that he would have been off the project if they were able to cast Jonah Hill.)  He’s the only fat character on the screen, but another fat historical figure is invoked.  And as temptation is a big theme in this movie, I want to tell you how I avoided what could have been the most obnoxious “well, actually” moment of my life thus far:

At the screening, writer/director Ned Crowley and Jim O’Heir were in attendance to do a q&a. There’s a scene in the film where a character has a speech that uses a historical anecdote to illustrate a point. The anecdote in question was the story of Fatty Arbuckle raping a woman at a party with a champagne bottle so severely that she died from the resulting injuries.

Now, I don’t have a time machine, but I do know that contemporary film historians largely agree that Fatty Arbuckle was not guilty of this crime and unjustly crucified by the media and resulting moral panic. And one of the reasons I know this is because I’ve read the essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness” by Neda Ulaby, which is included in the essay collection Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (ed. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco), which I happened to have brought with me to the theater to read in between films. Plus I was sitting in the front section of the theater, so I both literally and figuratively could have thrown the book at the screenwriter. But I’m too classy (or is it spineless?) to do such a thing.

Link: Spooky podcasts for your ears

October’s been a busy month for me, and that agenda has included being a guest on some fantastic podcasts you should check out to help get into that holiday spirit:

First off, we have Tracks of the Damned, a podcast of horror film commentary tracks hosted by Director’s Club alum Patrick Ripoll.  Patrick is making commentary tracks on the Scream series for the month of October, and you can hear me on the Scream 3 episode, which also includes a rambling discussion sparked by a listener’s question about women in horror.

I’m also featured on Film Jive’s Halloween special, Soundtrack of Terror Vol. 2, a compilation of mini audio essays on favorite music from horror film.  My contribution was on “Through the Trees” by Low Shoulder from Jennifer’s Body.  Thanks to Zach, Simone, and Andrew for inviting me back, after including my piece on Night of the Hunter on Soundtrack of Terror Vol. 1.

And last but certainly not least, I was happy to be back on Creepypodsta, the creepypasta podcast hosted by Jeff Kowalski.  Louisa Herron and I discuss the first episode of SyFy’s Channel Zero, based on Candle Cove, the creepypasta that the three of us discussed on the podcast’s very first episode.  The episode drops on November 3, so keep your eye on that space.  Jeff and Louisa also cohost the podcast Seeing Red(dit).

Have a safe and happy Halloween, everyone!

 

 

Historical vs. Modern Abortion Narratives in Dirty Dancing (1987, dir. Emile Ardolino) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982, dir. Amy Heckerling)

Check out my article on BitchFlicks for their current theme week: Ladies of the 1980s, where I compare two abortion narratives in mainstream Hollywood films of the 1980s and how their historical settings take them in different directions.  It’s not about fat characters (sadly, I couldn’t find a graceful segue to talk about Wayne Knight’s role as the obnoxious master of ceremonies in Dirty Dancing), but looking at how movies portray medical procedures with cultural baggage isn’t too far removed from how movies portray bodies with cultural baggage.  I’ll get you next time, Wayne.

wayne-knight-dirty-dancing-1987-photo-GC

Link: ‘You Cannot Shame Me’: 2 New Books Tear Down ‘Fat Girl’ Stereotypes

Usually when I post links to interesting articles, they’re a few years old, things I’ve stumbled across doing research or something of that sort.  But today, I’m delighted to be able to signal boost something that not only was released today, but that I came across listening to the radio on the way to work.  NPR’s Morning Edition ran a piece about two recently published novels whose protagonists struggle with fatness, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad and Dietland by Sarai Walker.  The piece isn’t about film (although Walker’s novel is being turned into a TV show and she mentions film when talking about the need for more fat characters in media), but it does touch on many points that are familiar territory for this blog:  the need to deconstruct the narrative of a sad fat person finding happiness when they lose weight, the intersections of gender and fatness, and the difficulty and necessity of reclaiming the word “fat.”  Plus it’s an article from a mainstream news source about fat people that doesn’t go into Obesity Epidemic Panic Mode.  Not too shabby.

Link: Is Hamlet fat?

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

Year in Review: 2015

Well, here it is, my ranked list of 2015 releases I saw.  This was a really incredible year for female characters.  While I tend to see arthouse releases and be biased in favor of films that focus on women and other traditionally marginalized characters, without really trying, 9 of my top 10 films  featured female protagonists.  Hopefully this will be a growing trend, and future lists will include more diverse protagonists– and directors.

Additionally, this was a notable year for female film characters on CPBS.  Among them:  I kicked the year off with an early fat, gender non-conforming female character: “Ma” Rainey from The Ox-Box Incident.  Two articles I wrote for BitchFlicks focused on fat female characters: Margaret from The Foxy Merkins and Annie Wilkes from Misery.  Although I still haven’t seen The DUFF, I did use Mae Whitman’s casting as a “designated ugly, fat friend” to contemplate what criteria determine a character as fat.  And, perhaps most exciting, I interviewed my best friend and self-identified fat actress Jessica Conger about her role in Most Likely.

Since I started doing a monthly roundup of fat characters mid-year, most films with fat characters will link to the relevant article.

  1. Duke of Burgundy 
  2. When Marnie Was There
  3. Tangerine
  4. Mommy
  5. Mistress America
  6. Carol
  7. Mad Max: Fury Road
  8. Clouds of Sils Maria
  9. The End of the Tour
  10. Spy
  11. It Follows
  12. Dope
  13. While We’re Young
  14. Spotlight
  15. They Look Like People
  16. Heart of a Dog
  17. Experimenter
  18. The Assassin
  19. Entertainment
  20. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (more…)

Link: The Creepypodsta Podcast, Episode 1

Admittedly this is veering away from the blog’s topic, but– aw shucks, it’s [the week of] Halloween, ain’t it?!

My friend Jeff had the great idea for a panel discussion podcast about creepypastas, and an even better idea to have me and our friend Louisa as guest panelists.  On the maiden voyage, we talk about Candle Cove, one of the best known creepypasta.

Check out the podcast, as well as Jeff’s other creative projects, at weaponizedlanguage.com.

Link: This is the exact moment that Jack Black became a movie star

In ongoing AV Club feature Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo analyzes the importance of specific film scenes.  His most recent article, he makes an argument for High Fidelity as Jack Black’s star-making vehicle, specifically his character Barry’s introduction to the film.

High Fidelity was my favorite film in late high school/early college.  These days, the shittier aspects of Rob’s (John Cusack) personality are more glaring and the endless ending is harder to tolerate, but I still have a great affection for it.  (Especially now that I live in Chicago!  I’ve been to the intersection of Milwaukee and Honore!  [It’s super gentrified!]  I read the Reader!)  Jack Black’s performance remains one of the film’s strongest aspects, and my affection for him as an actor has the same staying power that the film does, even though my film snobbery prevents me from seeing a fair chunk of his oeuvre.  I can’t get enough of his boundless energy and masterful ability to put some stank on a scene.  His work in Bernie is probably my favorite because those impulses are reined in enough to convincingly portray someone as gentle as Bernie Tiede, but emerge organically through his character’s love of music and theater.  (This scene is an excellent example, both because he’s being so dang adorable and because the bit player he’s singing to can’t keep a straight face.)  However, High Fidelity is probably the filmic apex of that Black magic.  Not only is Barry well-written, but given that he’s a pretty one-dimensional character, Black has the freedom to take him to the sublime heights of ridiculousness without losing the audience.

High-Fidelity-Mixtape-2

For all the side-eye I give fat character tropes on this blog, I do love when fat characters are vivacious agents of chaos.  It’s both a subversion of fat = slow/lazy and an outright denial of respectability politics, a grab at hyper-visibility and confrontation that provides a vicarious thrill for a fat introvert like yours truly.  Even if the institution doesn’t actually change once including someone like Jack Black or Rebel Wilson on the A-list, it feels good to see them win widespread recognition for playing a character who challenges everyone around them.