medicalization

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?

Domestic Terrorism: Feminized Violence in Misery (1990, dir. Rob Reiner)

BitchFlicks’ theme week for October 2015 is Violent Women, including an article I wrote on Misery, which features Kathy Bates’ breakout role as deranged nurse Annie Wilkes.  I’m happy to say that this is my third time being part of one of BitchFlicks’ theme weeks, and the subject is a complicated and fascinating one.  It probably goes without saying that I adore Kathy Bates, so I’m sure there will be more about her career on CPBS before long.

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“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.  

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

The Heart of a Champion: Chubby (2015, dir. Bruno Deville)

(CN: Eating disorders, suicide)

Fatness exists on a spectrum that is important to look at (but difficult to do in a way that isn’t objectifying or disrespectful).  Chubby’s protagonist, Kevin (David Thielemans), is on different place on this spectrum than many fat characters we’re used to seeing in film, especially fat children.  Gerry from Heavyweights is fat, but not to the same degree that Kevin is.  Both characters, roughly the same age, are weighed in their respective films; Kevin has 100 lbs on Gerry.  But it’s more than a number: after an opening shot of his doctor (Stefan Liberski) measuring him with a caliper and making a noise of disgust, the title card puts the word CHUBBY in bold letters over a closeup of his torso.  The outline of his nipples and bellybutton can frequently be seen through the fabric of his shirts.  A few scenes of him on a bicycle feature the sound of his heavy breathing.  Watching as someone from the United States, Kevin appears to have stepped out of a newsmagazine piece worrying over The Health of Our Children.  Kevin’s body is depicted in a confrontational manner.

A significant portion of the film is spent on the medical panic over Kevin’s body.  The opening scene of his physical exam culminates with his doctor telling him that his heart is like a vespa engine trying to power a truck, accompanied by the sound effect of a struggling motor over a closeup of Kevin’s chest.  This threat of cardiac trouble hangs over Kevin for the rest of the film and is fueled by other characters, like when his sister Océane (Themis Pauwels) says that he’s “committing suicide with creme brulee.”  His aquafit instructor (Francoise Bolliat) parallels his doctor, lecturing her class of overweight kids on the potential for overweight children to suffer heart attacks.  She also introduces an assistant instructor (Mehdi Douib), an amputee who is meant to “inspire” the children to lose weight by being athletic despite his disability.

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Kevin doesn’t respond directly to these barbs; rather, we see their effect more dramatically on his aquafit classmate, Alice (Lisa Harder).  Although not as fat as Kevin, she seems to have absorbed more of the devaluing messages levied at her.  She shows Kevin how to self-induce vomiting after their class, revealing that her mother taught her how.  She also brings Kevin up to the top of a tall building and tries to convince him to jump off with her.  Kevin is resistant to both the purging and suicide, which Alice sees as ways to solve her problems.  She tells him that she wants to kill herself because she believes that the afterlife has to be an improvement over her life.  Alice wants out of her body.  Indeed, she disappears for a significant portion of the film, only to reappear late in the third act with bandages on her wrists, which she wordlessly displays for Kevin’s benefit.  Her self-destructive behavior does seem like an attempt to get a response from him, but given how her body has been culturally framed both as something that is destroying her and should be destroyed for her own benefit, it’s not surprising that she would use self-harm to broadcast her presence, to try to inspire feelings of care in others.  Although Kevin does not attempt to harm himself, he does absorb the view of his body as in danger of being destroyed, when he assumes that an episode of hyperventilation during a stressful event is a heart attack.

Kevin’s personal development over the course of Chubby occurs at the intersection of fatness and masculinity, at turns both liberatory and problematic.  Kevin’s size is initially shown both as emasculating– his aquafit class shows him surrounded by girls, two bullies make comments about his breasts– and as a symptom of emasculation.  His father is absent, he lives with his two sisters and mother (Julie Ferrier), who is characterized as overbearing, if well-meaning.  (Moms are the worst, aren’t they?  In, like, every film, book, and tv show ever?)  She calls him “my little chick” and– in one creepy moment that I sincerely hope is just an innocent cultural norm that didn’t translate well– gropes his breast while cuddling him.  His doctor straight up tells his mother than Kevin needs a male role model in his life.

Kevin finds this role model in Patrick (Swann Arlaud), a gruff security guard and military commando.  Patrick is humorless and intense, reminiscent of Dwight Schrute from the Office, and rigidly conforms to a hyper-masculine ideal.  His trained attack dog is named for porn star Rocco Siffredi, and his life revolves around living up to his military ideal.  Kevin reveres him, following him around and becoming similarly obsessed with the commando lifestyle.  He exercises more vigorously under Patrick’s training than in his doctor-mandated aquafit class (and, to the delight of his doctor, loses 4 kilos) and finds the confidence to stand up to his bullies.  Patrick introduces Kevin to the Chief (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), an older fat man who owns the security company Patrick works for.  Chief coaches Kevin on how to take pride in his fat body, telling him that fat men inspire a sense of comfort in other people and that he should never let anyone make fun of his breasts.  He tells Kevin to eat salmon, as the omega 3 will protect his heart.  He also shows Kevin some fighting tactics that rely on having a fat body.  It always makes me happy when a fat film character shows a competence or skill unique to the experience of having a fat body, but this feeling was subverted to a degree by the cartoonish nature of Chief’s moves, specifically when he sits on Patrick’s face and farts.

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Although their example gives Kevin an identity to try on besides fat kid, neither Patrick nor Chief are well suited to being role models.  Kevin starts drinking beer and joins his two heroes in some petty burglary.  Late in the film, Chief shatters Kevin’s perception of Patrick by revealing that he was never in the military, citing his slight build and uneven legs as the reason why.  Indeed, Patrick visibly reacts whenever Chief makes a comment about his slight build.  Like Kevin, Patrick has been deemed inappropriate by a social institution because of his body.  He deals with that designation by clinging to military life and culture, and also by trying to assert his control over subjects more vulnerable to domination than himself.  Patrick doesn’t seem to like Kevin as much as he likes how Kevin idolizes him, and even seems jealous of the connection that Kevin and Chief share over being fat.  He tries to seduce Jennifer (Amelie Peterli), Kevin’s older sister, in an overly assertive manner, publicly giving her the third place medal that he and Rocco win in an obedience competition and asking her to “do the bitch.”  (That’s what the subtitles said.  I don’t know what “do the bitch” means, but it upsets Jennifer greatly.)  He recruits Kevin’s friend Mouk (Dodi Mbemba), a petite African kid whom Patrick refers to as a “terrorist,” into a training exercise for Rocco in which the dog is commanded to track and attack him.  Patrick’s treatment of Rocco is the most illustrative of his character, as he uses the dog as an accessory for his masculinity.  He doesn’t mistreat Rocco, but has no affection for him.  He trains the dog using German commands; for the first few scenes, both Kevin and I thought the dog’s name was “zurück,” the command Patrick uses to call Rocco to his side.  Patrick uses Rocco to show his own power, his ability to hurt and dominate someone else through his control of a potentially dangerous animal.  When Patrick needs to leave town or face arrest, he plans to sell Rocco to fund his escape.

Kevin’s heart, chest, and breasts are a recurring image in Chubby, symbolic of his physical health, but also his emotional wellbeing.  He spends much of the film believing that his heart is sick, and likewise idolizing Patrick, who suppresses his emotions and focuses on his ability to be a dominant masculine figure.  A more balanced paternal figure is conspicuously absent, as Kevin’s mother and father are newly separated.  Although he learns to be assertive and finds power in his fat body from his time with Patrick and Chief, the spiritual change doesn’t come for Kevin until the two men suddenly leave his life.  Passing out due to what he thinks is a heart attack, Kevin has a dream in which the doctors safe him via a transplant of Rocco’s heart, “a champion’s heart,” into his chest.  He wakes to find his father (Jean-Benoit Ugeux) by his bedside, a gentler (if flawed) paternal figure better suited for his needs a child.  His father gently corrects his assumptions about having a heart attack, telling his son that he has “the heart of a champion.”  After spending the film being impassive and making selfish choices, Kevin shows an emotional side, more oriented towards the needs of others.  He breaks down crying at the thought of Rocco being left to fend for himself.  He begs Mouk to forgive him.  He finds and adopts Rocco.  The final scene, like the beginning, finds Kevin sitting shirtless, but accompanied by Rocco and Alice instead of his doctor and mother, the sound of a human heart beating instead of an engine.  He is neither the failing vehicle his doctor describes, nor the heartless commando Patrick longs to be.  He is a human being, both capable and deserving of love.

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.

Pathologized Bodies, Pathologized Minds: Mary and Max (2009, dir. Adam Elliott)

(CW: mental illness, weight loss, ableism)

Mary and Max is one of those films that Netflix has been incessantly recommending to me for years and I kept putting off.  I recently ended up watching it (instead of, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi) because I noticed that the two titular characters are described as “a chubby 8-year-old Australian girl” and “an obese, adult New Yorker.”  The description of Max’s body stood out.  Other films on Netflix with fat protagonists that I’d come across tended to be more euphemistic.  Paradise: Hope is summarized as being about a girl sent to a “diet camp;”  the heroine of The Hairdresser is described as having a “plump figure;” and in tv series Drop Dead Diva, she’s “plus-sized.”  This could be influenced by gender; Max is a man, and the examples I was able to think of and find on Watch Instantly are about women.  However, when I searched “obesity,” the seven “titles related to obesity” that I got as results were all documentaries related to health and medicine, like The Waiting Room and Forks Over Knives.  As a claymation drama about friendship, Mary and Max seems to have more in common with the aforementioned female-lead narrative films, where fat characters must navigate a world that ostracizes them.  For Max, that ostracization often manifests as pathologization.

Deviating from my previous observation that films rarely tell us characters’ height and weight, Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) informs Mary (Bethany Whitmore, later Toni Collette) that he is 6 feet tall and weighs 352 lbs.  Max is described as obese in the text of the film, as one of several labels used by institutions to describe him as in need of fixing.  These labels mostly hinder him, but also help: Max was called for jury duty (a position he holds in high esteem) but was dismissed because he had been institutionalized, but later in the film criminal charges brought against him are dismissed because the court deems him “mentally deficient.”  Likewise, he is able to restore balance to his life through help from his psychiatrist and being institutionalized, but the medical system also limits him by describing him as disabled and in need of curing due to Asperger’s syndrome (as well as diagnosing him with obesity).  Max dissents.  He feels that living with Asperger’s (or being an “Aspie,” his preferred term) is as much a part of his identity as the color of his eyes.  He is an outsider, but he maintains the integrity and independence to see a world he doesn’t fit into as nonsensical because it doesn’t make allowances for him, instead of giving in to how the world has labeled him.  Max’s self-loyalty extends to his dietary habits.  He attends Overeaters Anonymous at the advice of his psychiatrist, but doesn’t seem to have any personal motivation for losing weight.  Rather, he takes pleasure in eating chocolate and creates new dishes that are more driven by taste than nutritional value.  Chocolate is important to both Max and Mary as a shared passion, and their correspondences include sending new types of chocolate to each other along with their letters.

Although the film situated Max in a world where he is labeled and ostracized by medical conditions, the film itself does not assign moral judgment to how Max functions or perceives the world.  Max’s eccentricities are occasionally a source of humor, such as his invisible friend Mr. Ravioli.  His fat body is not romanticized, as we often hear his heavy breathing (especially after he gains a significant amount of weight) and see the repeated image of his plumber’s crack when he sits at his typewriter.  But in a departure from how films often depict fat characters’ bodies as grotesque in comparison to thin characters’, the whole cast of Mary and Max is comparably rabelaisian.  I’ve never heard so much incidental farting in a film.  If nothing else, casting the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman to voice Max is a strong indication that the creators of the film intend for the audience to respect Max, as fat outsiders portrayed with warmth and humanity comprise Hoffman’s career.

Neurotypical Mary is better equipped to function in society than Max, but is a ultimately a less-fulfilled person than he.  She too is an outsider, but her sense of fulfillment is more subject to outside approval than her friend’s.  Her body even seems to be a concentration of her homogeneic suburban environment, which is filmed in sepia tint.  (Max’s New York is shown in black and white, perhaps a visual pun on how the Asperger’s mind tends to work.)  The first lines of the film’s narration describe Mary’s body in unappealing terms that highlight her brown-ness: “Mary Dinkle’s eyes were the color of muddy puddles.  She had a birthmark the color of poo.”  She too is fat, but fatness is more of a problem for her as garnering social disapproval than pathologization.  “I’m sad to hear you’re fat,” she writes to Max in one of their early exchanges, “I’m fat too, and mum says I’m growing up to be a heffer.”  When we see her as an adult, she is slimmer.  This physical transformation comes at the same time in her life as voluntary surgery to remove her birthmark and a makeover.  Unfortunately, when her crush Damian (Eric Bana) sees the “new and improved” Mary for the first time, he only comments on the dog shit stuck to her shoe.  Surface physical changes are not enough to free Mary from her indifferent, brown environment, nor from her reliance on Damian’s approval to fuel her self-confidence.  She writes to Max that she wasted her savings, and should have used them to fund a trip to New York.

Although adult Mary’s normative body and ability to navigate institutions like university successfully give her a certain amount of privilege over Max, he subverts the trope of fat best friend who exists to support the maturation of a thinner protagonist.  In their initial correspondence, the two interact as peers, seeking advice and information from each other.  The power dynamic shifts when Mary goes to university and studies psychology.  This is hinted at when she is shown on campus reading a book by Oliver Sachs, a neurologist who has been criticized for exploiting his clients in the interest of his literary career.  Mary finds a way of succeeding in the world that had previously rejected her, and through assimilating into that world, she adopts its pathologizing view of her friend.  When Mary publishes a book about Asperger’s using Max as her case study without his permission, telling him that she hopes to find a “cure,” he reacts in anger.  Instead of one of his typical wordy letters, he sends her the M typebar from his typewriter, dramatically cutting her off from receiving any further communication from him.  This shifts the power dynamic in their relationship a third time.  Max gains power over Mary, as his withdrawal prompts her to pulp every copy of her book before it can be sold and sends her spiralling into depression.   She begs his forgiveness by mailing him the last can of her childhood comfort food, sweetened condensed milk, in her pantry.  But even if this power dynamic contradicts the expected course of their relationship, it isn’t healthy for either of them.  Mary falls deeper into depression and reliance on alcohol, while Max becomes bitter and angry.  When Max learns how to forgive, both of them are redeemed.  Max separates himself from the supportive outsider archetype not only through his expression of anger and withdrawal of support, but by developing as a character alongside his thinner, neurotypical friend.

A third important factor that suggests the film wants us to empathize with Max instead of pathologize him is how he subverts the easy symbolism of his size.  Max is a fat character, but his size is not a physical indicator of greed or insatiability: he is able to achieve satisfaction.  He has three life goals, all of which are acquisitions of things outside of himself:  he wants a lifetime supply of chocolate, a complete collection of Noblet figurines, and a friend.  These goals seem to have foundation in Max’s concrete way of thinking, as opposed to avarice.  In fact, when Max is able to achieve the first two goals when he wins the lottery, he gives the rest of the money to his neighbor.  Max might not even see his death at the end of the film as tragic.  Mary finds him with a contented smile on his face as he gazes at her letters while The Noblets, their shared ideal of friendship, plays on TV.  For Max, their long-distance relationship was fulfilling without them ever being in the same room.

Mary and Max presents us with flawed, eccentric characters who struggle to exist in communities that don’t accommodate them.  However, by focusing on their inner lives and their own means of communicating their feelings and experiences, the film invites the viewer to empathize with the protagonists instead of agreeing with the labels and judgments they are forced to live with.  Despite being lumps of clay, Mary and Max are considerably more human than many of the flesh-and-blood fat characters given to us by cinema.

The Grotesque: Shock Corridor (1962, dir. Samuel Fuller)

Go on stage, while I’m nearly delirious?
I don’t know what I’m saying or what I’m doing!

— “Vesti la giubba,” Pagliacci, Ruggero Leoncavallo

[CW: mental illness, ableism]

An Icarus myth for the post-Freudian era, Shock Corridor follows Johnny (Peter Breck), a ruthless journalist who goes undercover at a psych ward to solve a murder and write a Pulitzer-winning article, but suffers damage to his own mind in the process.  The murder mystery plays out with all the complexity of a videogame fetch quest, but the the film has cult status due to its evocative exploration of the protagonist’s downfall.  Exploitation excitement is applied liberally, including how the plot kicks off:  Johnny gains admittance to the mental hospital by pretending that he has an overwhelming sexual attraction to his sister– played by his exotic dancer girlfriend Carol (Constance Towers)– which manifests in part as a fetish for long hair.

Once inside, he meets a number of astonishing characters among his fellow patients, who can be roughly separated into two categories.  The first category is patient-characters, those with a tragic backstory steeped in social conflict that causes delusions of a false identity; of note is Trent (Hari Rhodes, whose performance blazes), a young black man whose sanity crumpled under the racist backlash of being the first black student at a segregated college, and now believes himself to be a white supremacist and founder of the KKK.  The second is patient-caricatures, bit players who crudely cater to the conflation of mental illness with freakishness, such as the predacious pack of nymphomaniacs who assault Johnny, or the catatonic schizophrenics furnishing the ward hallway where much of the action takes place.

shock corridor, samuel fuller, peter breck

Among the inmates of the hospital that Johnny meets is Pagliacci (Larry Tucker), a fat man who is mentally immersed in opera.  Pagliacci occupies a space in between these two kinds of inmate.  He isn’t a patient-caricature: he has a name, a personality, an ongoing relationship with Johnny.  He is more like the patient-characters, those patients whom the audience are shown to be something apart from their mental illness.  The veracity of these personal details are open to question, however; Johnny’s voiceover, serving as an objective narrator, gives us information about the patient-characters’ lives before they talk about themselves.  Pagliacci is not afforded this confirmation.  Similarly, the three patient-characters have lucid moments where they monologue about their personal histories, explicitly detailing how contemporary issues intersected with their personal struggles (a signature of Samuel Fuller films), whereas Pagliacci is never given a monologue that connects him to a macro-level conflict.

The entire film can be read as grotesque, but its most vivid embodiment is Pagliacci.  I use this term not as an aesthetic or value judgment on his body, but in reference to the grotesque as an artistic concept, “a hesitation between horror and comedy… often rooted heavily in the physical…the inside becomes the outside, and the outside becomes the inside.”  He manifests the grotesque through a presence that speaks to the threat of potential disorder, through his defiance of easy categorization, and through his subversion of expectations set up by the other characters.

Pagliacci delivers the chaos and abnormality that the audience expects from a film set in an asylum.  When the audience is still being introduced to the hospital as the movie’s main setting, he starts a melee in the cafeteria.  This facet of the character is arguably the one most blatantly symbolized the most by actor Larry Tucker’s body.  Pagliacci is not husky or chubby: he is markedly fatter than most film characters, even most people than the “typical” audience member would know in real life.  His body differentiates him from the other characters, and likely alienates him from viewers, making him more of a spectacle than a sympathetic character.  The patient-characters all have some external display of their psychological conflict– Stuart wears a Civil War-era hat, Trent obsessively makes Klan hoods out of pillowcases, Boden sits on the floor like a child and draws with his crayons– but Pagliacci’s difference is intrinsic to his body, a body unlike any other on the screen.  He also has longer hair than any of the other male patients and is the only one with a beard, adding to the physical manifestation of his abnormality.  However, his mental state and personal history is hidden behind a veil of music, the external event that brought him to the hospital forever a mystery– the Samuel Fuller School of Psychology teaches us that mental illness is triggered by stressful life events– unlike the other patient-characters, whose histories are richly communicated to the audience.

shock corridor, samuel fuller, peter breck, larry tucker

The fat body is often used as a warning to straight-sized people: this could be you, if you fail to regulate your own body according to social norms.  Pagliacci is a portent of Johnny’s loss of control, and the last scene shows a catatonic Johnny who has indeed lost control of his body. But Shock Corridor’s horror is fueled by losing control over one’s brain.  Johnny has dangerously neglected to regulate his mind by entering into the world of the mental hospital, and the film tracks the downfall that is due to that choice.  Pagliacci also provides foreshadowing for Johnny’s fate through the script: “When we’re asleep, no one can tell a sane man from an insane man.”  Late in the film, Johnny’s breakdown begins when he hallucinates an indoor rainstorm.  “I like the rain,” Pagliacci comments peacefully, validating his friend’s psychosis. Now that Johnny is also insane, Pagliacci has shifted from the childish kookiness he displays at the beginning of the film to placidity. Johnny screams in fear and agony, causing Pagliacci to chuckle.  “That was such a sour note, John.  You were way off key.”

Pagliacci conducts himself socially in a way that is markedly different from the other patients.  He is the first patient Johnny interacts with, and is the only one to initiate interaction (except for the nymphomaniacs).  After Johnny has been shown his room, Pagliacci welcomes him, grabbing his hair and putting his arm around Johnny’s shoulders.  He rouses him from sleep several times.  His transgression of social boundaries, coupled with his annoying habits and erratic behaviors, fulfill the audience’s expectations of him based on both his size and his insanity.  Fat movie characters often act in socially inappropriate ways, tied closely to the idea that fat people are stupid and lack control, while at the same time providing comic relief or plot-driving villainy.  This overlaps with how mentally ill people are often portrayed, acting in outlandish ways to signify their lack of control and provide a spectacle for the audience, usually making us fear for the protagonist’s safety.  And between comic and horrific lies the grotesque.

Like the patient-characters and Johnny, we are given insight into Pagliacci’s mind.  However, unlike the memories of life on the outside shared by the patient-characters or Johnny’s increasingly frantic scheming, Pagliacci’s thoughts are music, specifically “Largo al Factotum” from Giacomo Rossinni’s opera The Barber of Seville (aka “Figaro Figaro Figaro”).  This is the song that Pagliacci sings constantly, creating a repetitive, off-key soundtrack that quickly becomes annoying.  What is most likely is that the opera references in Shock Corridor are chosen for their recognizability.  However, intentional or not, they create an interesting paradox: a character whose mind is apparently looping an aria from a comedy about a clever jack-of-all-trades who helps two people fall in love, but whose namesake is a tragedy about an actor who murders his unfaithful wife.  After singing “Largo al Factotum” while he mimes stabbing Johnny, paralleling how Canio stabs his wife and her lover at Pagliacci’s climax, he recites its final line “La commedia è finita!”  (Pagliacci is Italian for “clowns,” referring to the main characters’ travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. Canio is the protagonist’s name, the character on whom the image of the sad operatic clown is based.)  Once again, Pagliacci is situated between categories.

Pagliacci subverts Johnny’s expectations of his fellow patients.  Johnny’s motivation in going undercover at the mental hospital is to solve a murder, and his motivation for solving the murder is to win the Pulitzer Prize as a reward for his stunt.  Even in solving the murder, he has no interest in raising concerns about the safety and fair treatment of the hospital patients (in contrast to Nellie Bly’s investigative journalism, presumably a historical inspiration for the film).  Johnny treats his fellow patients as means to an end, treating the murder witnesses with empathy and understanding until they have lucid moments of reality.  When this seeming miracle occurs, they want to talk about their lives and their trauma, but Johnny only wants to ask them about Sloane’s murder.  Even when speaking to the final witness, who reveals that the murderer is an orderly who rapes patients, Johnny can only focus on getting the final piece of information needed to solve the murder.  In a sense, the way Johnny treats the patient-characters is a microcosm of the way Fuller treats them, avoiding the temptation to create well-rounded characters who are living with mental illness in favor of human megaphones for his opinions on controversial issues and puzzles for his protagonist to solve.  Pagliacci, however, is not a passive font of information waiting for Johnny to open him up.  He does confirm that Sloane was killed in the kitchen with a knife, and demonstrates to Johnny that the hospital patients are capable of lucidity (what a revelation).  But he reveals these things to Johnny on his own initiative.  He pushes himself on Johnny.  This serves to both protect the protagonist, such as encouraging him to chew gum to help him fall asleep, and to terrorize him, reminding the audience of the potential danger Johnny is in.

Pagliacci tells Johnny that he “died of a heart attack caused by overweight [sic],” and claims that many people came to his funeral because “they wanted to make sure [he] was dead.”  In claiming a fatal heart attack and funeral as part of his history, Pagliacci presents himself as a living dead man, another paradox.  This is a small but curious moment in the film, one that unsurprisingly lingered in my mind.  Pagliacci subverts the pathologization of his body, a “morbidly obese” body that is prescriptively assigned an early heart attack and death, a fate that he claims but obviously has not come to pass.  Perhaps he shares more in common with the other patient-characters than at first glance.  Perhaps, in accordance with Shock Corridor’s logic, Pagliacci’s mental illness stems from being told so often that his heart would give out that his mind finally accepted the role of a dead man as the only acceptable way to exist in a culture that assigns fat people an early death, similarly to how Trent’s mind assumed the role of a white supremacist to exist in a culture that maintains racism as the status quo.  This moment speaks to a mind uncontrolled by psychiatry, materialized in a physique uncontrolled by medicine.

He then tells Johnny that he killed his wife: “I despite butchery!  I didn’t want my wife to die like Sloane, so I gently sang her to sleep.”  Obviously Pagliacci is alive, so this statement throws a shadow of doubt over the rest of his words.  Is Johnny sleeping next to a murderer?  Or is Pagliacci conflating his own history with his namesake’s plot?  Disorienting the truth of Shock Corridor also undermines what the audience expects from Pagliacci.  Is he the dangerous person we expect from a mentally ill character?  Or is he guilty of the crime of passion we expect from the climax of a dramatic opera?  Is he the degenerate we expect fat men to be?

The grotesque unsettles us, presents us with something outside our ordinary experience that provokes simultaneous, divergent reactions.  The paradoxes in Pagliacci’s identity put us as audience members at this crossroads.  Is he the dead man to be pitied, the zany buffoon to be laughed at, or the unstable murderer to be feared?  We don’t have one simple reaction to Pagliacci, but all three options are common ways the audience is led to react to fat characters, and none of the possibilities lead to empathy.