racism

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?

Who else but Fat Amy? Pitch Perfect (2012, dir. Jason Moore), Pitch Perfect 2 (2015, dir. Elizabeth Banks)

One of the inspirations for this blog was an article I came across on AV Club:  Fat Monday: 16 realistic depictions of overweight people in pop culture. (The comforting tagline: “Eddie Murphy doesn’t appear once on this list.”)  I appreciated the intention, but it didn’t go far enough for my liking (obviously).  “Realistic” is a bit of a red herring:  the list is more characters who are shown in a benign, or at least thought provoking, light.  And, as is a pervasive problem in the listicle genre, the one-paragraph synopses of why a particular character fits in with the theme don’t approach the complexities of the works they are part of.  I’ve already written about a few of the characters in the article, and more are on my to-do list.  The reason I bring it up now, however, is because this post is about the article’s poster girl:  Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), from the Pitch Perfect series.

This was my first time watching Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2.  I had heard mostly positive things about Fat Amy as a fat character and, having seen both movies this weekend, there are a fair number of refreshing aspects to her representation, especially in the first movie.  She proves her competence as a singer in her introductory scene, impressing Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) with her voice despite their focus on finding women with “bikini-ready bodies” to audition for the Barden Bellas.  She is also the most confident, no-fuck-giving character in the movie by far.  The aforementioned scene is also where she famously explains that she calls herself Fat Amy “so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.”  Her sense of humor is often outlandish, but her deadpan delivery suggests that she’s getting more out of confusing the other characters than of being perceived as funny.  The majority of comments characterizing Fat Amy as fat are self-referential but, surprisingly, not self-deprecating.  She casually remarks that she is surprised that her “sexy fat ass” was chosen to be part of the Bellas.  Fatness is part of how she sees herself, and isn’t a source of shame; rather, it’s a part of her identity that she modifies appropriately to her mood and context.  It felt oddly empowering as a fat viewer to hear her angrily threaten to “finish [someone] like a cheesecake.”  A small but extremely important detail is how Fat Amy isn’t afraid to call attention to her body.  She sprawls and flails.  She has a habit of nonchalantly slapping a rhythm on her belly, or cupping her breasts during a performance.  She inhabits her physical self and her space without apologizing or minimizing.

fat amy crushed it.gif

Significantly, Pitch Perfect doesn’t put Fat Amy in a position where she is dragging the group down.  There is a requisite joke about her being lazier than the other Bellas (while the other singers jog, Aubrey finds Fat Amy lying down, or as she calls it, “horizontal running”), but both films focus on Beca (Anna Kendrick) as the character with a problematic lack of commitment. As a group, the Bellas have to deal with a change in their image from normatively attractive young women to one that includes singers who don’t meet stereotypical sorority girl standards; the classic rag-tag underdogs in a story focuses on competition.  “I wanted the hot Bellas,” complains a frat brother who books the group to perform at a mixer, when shutting them down mid-song, “not this barnyard explosion.”  Even the senior Bellas, “twig bitches” Aubrey and Chloe, have bodies that defy expectations of femininity.  It’s common to see fat female characters in comedies as the source of gross or bizarre body humor in their respective movie, but Pitch Perfect spreads it around.  Aubrey struggles with  stress-triggered projectile vomiting, and soprano Chloe gains the ability to sing deep bass notes after a surgery to remove nodes on her vocal cords.

Although Fat Amy isn’t presented as grotesque or cartoonish, Pitch Perfect doesn’t extend the favor to other Bellas who aren’t straight and white, as Fat Amy is.  The most glaring contrast is Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), a black butch lesbian (with an incredible set of pipes) who is also larger bodied than the average young woman seen in a mainstream comedy. We first meet her at acapella auditions, where she is immediately misgendered.  She doesn’t come out to her chorus mates until towards the end of the first movie, although we get “hints” to her sexuality via shots of her leering at or groping other women, or other characters (including Fat Amy) making snide comments about her sexual orientation.  Even in Pitch Perfect 2, Cynthia Rose doesn’t become a fully realized character and is just a source of more gay jokes.  The audition sequence where we meet Cynthia Rose also introduces Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), who embodies the stereotype of the quiet Asian girl through a running gag where she says disturbing things in a soft voice that none of the other characters are able to hear.  In Pitch Perfect 2, Flo (Chrissie Fit) has joined the Bellas; where Cynthia Rose is a factory for jokes about lesbians creeping on straight girls, every line out of Flo’s mouth is a comment about how harsh and dangerous her life was in her unspecified Latin American home country.

cynthia rose

Ester Dean as Cynthia Rose, in promotional material for Pitch Perfect

The “fat positive” aspects of Fat Amy’s depiction aren’t just positioned against other characters who don’t share her privileged social identities.  Stacie’s (Alexis Knapp) function in the group as the humorously slutty Bella complicates the praise Pitch Perfect gets for showing Fat Amy’s active sex life.  Stacie’s sexuality is coded as excessive, a joke that becomes the majority of her screentime, whether Aubrey is trying to get her to tone down her dance moves or she’s referring to her vagina as a “hunter.”  However, we never see Stacie involved with anyone.  Fat Amy, on the other hand, is shown in the company of two hunks on her spring break and also makes comments about her own sexual prowess.  So why is the line drawn between Stacie and Fat Amy, where one’s sexuality is the butt of jokes and the other’s is an empowering aspect of who she is?  When we see Bumper (Adam DeVine) flirting with Fat Amy and getting shot down or hear Fat Amy talk about how she joined the Bellas because she needed to step back from her busy love life, we see her defying the expectations that we have for fat girls in movies, the assumption that nobody will want to have sex with her or that she won’t have the self-confidence to approach someone.  Stacie, however, is normatively attractive.  We expect that she has no shortage of willing sexual partners, and isn’t restraining herself in the way she is expected to; thus, she is deserving of ridicule.  The inconsistency between how the two characters are portrayed demeans Stacie and condescends to Fat Amy.

Unfortunately, the liberatory aspects of Fat Amy’s depiction in Pitch Perfect largely erode in the second film.  The opening sequence is perhaps the most telling, where Fat Amy experiences a costume malfunction at a high-profile performance and accidentally exposes her vulva to the tv cameras and the concert audience which includes the Obamas.  Typical to a comedy film, the audience reacts with disgust and terror, some even running away.  Although unintentional, her body is deemed excessive and the resulting outcry nearly destroys the Bellas.  A similar scene of disgust comes later in the film, where a romantic moment between Fat Amy and Bumper leads to them making out on the Treblemakers’ lawn, causing Bumper’s friends to run off to avoid looking at the couple.  The plotline of their relationship doesn’t meet the standards set for Fat Amy in the first film, where she brushes off his advances (though she raises the eyebrows of the other Bellas by having his number in her phone).  In Pitch Perfect 2, she and Bumper are hooking up.  He asks her to date him officially with a romantic dinner; she initially turns him down, saying that she’s a “free range pony who can’t be tamed,” but eventually realizes that she’s in love with him, winning him back with a rendition of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.”  Pitch Perfect, the main conflict of which is between the characters’ respective acapella groups, set them up as well-balanced, confident, trash talking foils.  Fat Amy disdains Bumper’s advances and flirts with aforementioned hunks; Bumper quits school for an opportunity to be John Mayer’s personal assistant.  However, in the second film, former antagonist Bumper has been humbled, now working as a college security guard and desperately trying to hang on to his past glory days as a college acapella big shot.  It is at this point that he becomes a suitable partner for Fat Amy.

Unlike so many other films with fat female characters, Pitch Perfect presents Fat Amy as a character whose fatness is a part of her identity without being a point of dehumanization, even if the sequel makes some significant compromises.  Unfortunately, other characters with marginalized identities are left behind as two-dimensional stereotypes.  Perhaps apt to the story of a college acapella group, Pitch Perfect‘s approach to diverse representation is a welcome update, but it’s hardly a new song.

Civil Rights, Fat Acceptance, and Protest in Hairspray (1988, dir. John Waters; 2007, dir. Adam Shankman)

[CW: racism. Unless I’m speaking specifically about one of the films, actors are credited thus: (Actor in Original/Actor in Remake). –TR]

I’m sure John Waters has scoffed at people who try to ascribe a specific political angle to his films, but I can’t help myself.  His outsider characters make me feel empowered by their vibrant, unapologetic weirdness.  Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is probably the most whitebread example of this character, but also one of the most lovable.  Tracy is a fat white teenage girl growing up in Baltimore in the Civil Rights Era.  Her family is working class, but she dreams of fame.  Her dancing skills lead to her being cast on The Corny Collins Show, an American Bandstand-style pop music and dance show, she becomes an ally to the black cast members who want the show to be de-segregated.  The film was adapted as a Broadway musical in 2002, which was made into a 2007 film starring Nikki Blonsky as Tracy and John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, a role originated by Divine.  Wanting to see how Hairspray’s portrayal of fatness changed after being elevated into the elite subgenre of films based on musicals based on films, I watched the two films back to back.

Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, 1988

I almost put this project aside before it began.  Tracy’s size and indefatigable spirit are essential parts of the story; I couldn’t imagine that much could change.  And yet, here we are.  The characters and story remain intact for the most part, but there is a noticeable change in how both fatness and race are portrayed.  The gains in nuance come with the loss of spirit, unfortunately, making the two Hairsprays into narratives that are complementary in their shortcomings.

Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, 2007

Tracy Turnblad is one of my favorite fat film characters.  She doesn’t let anything hold her back or stop her from being “big, blonde, and beautiful.”  Rich snob Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick/Brittany Snow) makes cruel comments about her weight, but Tracy still becomes a wildly popular public figure and wins the love of heartthrob Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard/Zac Efron).  It’s an idealized situation for a fat woman in the 1960s.  The 2007 remake is more explicit about the effect of sizeism on its characters: Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) refuses to hire Tracy for The Corny Collins Show because she’s fat, Tracy misunderstands something that Link says as a dig at her size.  Most of the added treatment of characters’ fatness in the remake is attached to Tracy’s mother.  John Travolta’s Edna is very insecure about her weight, to the point where she hasn’t left the house in 10 years because she doesn’t want the neighbors to see the weight she’s gained in that time.

Granted, the remake’s treatment of fatness is more grounded in reality.  Edna’s subplot reflects a tenet of fat acceptance: rejecting the idea that a fat person must put their life on hold until they achieve a certain weight.  It’s important to have narratives that reflect the struggle that many fat people have in accepting themselves and navigating a world that dismisses them based on their size, but that hardly has to be every narrative about fat people.  Fat characters who are doing their thing without angst or apology can be just as powerful; the optimism inspired by an idealized setting can mean as much as a more relatable tale. During her audition for The Corny Collins Show Ricki Lake’s Tracy construes her size as a boon, saying that she would be relatable to home viewers who are “pleasantly plump or chunky.” Divine’s Edna similarly charges into the role of Tracy’s agent with no worry that people might not take a fat housewife seriously.  The closest the remake comes to the original’s gleeful distortion of stereotypical depictions of fat people is Edna’s self-acceptance being conflated with her appetite (“You can’t stop my knife and fork when I see a Christmas ham,” she sings confidently during the finale).  Instead of being completely unapologetic about her deviance from expectations around beauty and propriety and moving forward with the rest of the film, as Divine’s Edna is, Travolta’s Edna starts the film as a sad fat stereotype, gets permission from Tracy, Maybelle, and her husband (Christopher Walken) to accept herself, and blossoms into a more comical fat stereotype.  Considering the amount of time the remake gives to Edna’s transformation, the results are disappointing.

Hairspray lacks much of Waters’ signature filth compared to his other films, but it’s hardly sanitized; this is evident when compared to the remake.  One of my favorite scenes from the original film is the Hefty Hideaway ad spot. Mr. Pinky (Alan J. Wendl), owner of the plus-size boutique, hires Tracy as his spokesperson.  It’s a moment that finds subversive power through the gleeful embracing of stereotypes.  Mr. Pinky keeps his store stocked with pastries.  “Eat up, girls, eat up,” he encourages his customers, “Big is beautiful!”  His commercial spot on The Corny Collins Show features Tracy modelling a chic ensemble, picking up a pink frosted pastry from a display at the end of the runway and taking a bite.  The modified exchange in the remake suggests a more comfortable approach to a fat-safe space for audiences.  The ad spot is gone. During her visit to the Hefty Hideaway, Mr. Pinky (Jerry Stiller) hands Tracy a platter of donuts, which she hands off without taking one, showing that she’s a “good fatty” with self-control.  The underlying current of lasciviousness is redirected into Mr. Pinky trying to guess Edna’s bra size, and his glee when she reveals that she is a few cup sizes larger than he had assumed.  The remake, presumably trying to give respectability to fatness the original does not, ends up repeating a regressive trope of fat women’s desirability being chalked up to larger breasts.

Although Tracy is white, the story’s action is largely propelled by racism.  The main conflict of the film is the struggle to integrate The Corny Collins Show, which has an all-white cast except for the monthly “Negro Day,” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Rita Brown/Queen Latifah).  By prioritizing Tracy’s perspective as she stands in solidarity with her black friends, Hairspray inescapably becomes a white savior narrative, which dramatically limits the impact of its critique of the racism it depicts.  The remake tries to compensate by increasing the focus on the black characters’ experiences with racism, but fails to give life to these moments without the original’s unruly, rebellious spirit and ultimately proves an ineffective counterbalance to the original film’s shortcoming.

The remake infuses a Message into the story by equating the struggles of fat people with those of black people.  Tracy supports Maybelle, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and Little Inez (Taylor Parks) because she relates to them as someone else who is “different,” and not seen on television.  Tracy’s sense of solidarity being due to ability to connect her personal struggles with those of others is an important element in stories about struggles for justice that isn’t emphasized in the original.  However, the film brings that equation into areas where it doesn’t really work.  In one scene that neatly synthesizes stereotypes about both fat people and black people, Edna is reluctant to allow Tracy to hang out at Maybelle’s record store, but is won over by a spread of fried chicken, cornbread, and collard greens during the sexy “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” number.

As with fatness, the remake sanitizes the original’s treatment of race.  The original seeks to align the audience’s empathy with the black characters and against the racist white grownups.  The satirical depiction of racist attitudes (presumably the ones John Waters heard growing up) doesn’t pull any punches.  Velma (Debbie Harry) and Amber try to discredit Tracy by insisting that she is “mulatto”.  Mrs. Pingleton panics when she has to walk through a black neighborhood, and we are cued in to the degree of her bigotry by a tribal drumming score. These moments are scrubbed out of the remake.   All three antagonists are still assholes, but taking them out of the tasteless, ridiculous light cast by the original only serves to soften the ugliness of their behavior.  Depictions of racism are also far less subtle.  The remake addresses cultural appropriation through a scene where Velma gets angry at the Dynamites for singing a song they wrote on Negro Day because it had previously appeared on a white episode.  This is a far more direct illustration than the original, where Link smarmily informs Tracy, “our souls are black, though our skin is white.”  Having realistic depictions of racism in the film while remaining family friendly creates a problematic need to gloss over certain aspects, such as police brutality.  When Tracy is on the run from the police and seeks shelter at Maybelle’s house, the danger of police backlash Maybelle would risk (to say nothing of her children) is not even a consideration, because they’re so grateful for the allyship Tracy has shown the Negro Day cast for– what?  a week?

Perhaps the most illustrative example of how each film regards outsiders is in the contrast of how the outsiders are portrayed attempting to demonstrate political power.  The protests in the original film are spontaneous, energetic, and disruptive, but their purpose changes from integrating The Corny Collins Show to freeing Tracy when she is sent to reform school.  The remake sees Tracy joining the black community for a somber candlelight march while Maybelle sings the slow, soulful “I Know Where I’ve Been.”  The focus stays on integration, which reduces the problematic aspects of the white savior narrative, but is also devoid of the flamboyant energy that pervades the other scenes.  Abruptly changing the tone of the film to express the black characters’ call for integration feels oddly distancing, as though the scene was added out of a sense of obligatory liberalism, and frames political protest as something that is not only rigidly somber, but embalmed in a specific point in history (i.e. the Sixties, when the Baby Boomers fixed everything before moving on to middle management positions).  A more vivacious protest scene would not only be better suited to a group of teenage dancers demanding their rightful place in rock ‘n roll, but would also be more engaging for the audience.

The moment that best overlaps the spirit of the original Hairspray with the sensibility of the remake is during the climax of the latter, when Inez forces her way onstage during the Miss Hairspray pageant and gains more votes for her dance moves than either Amber or Tracy.  By unapologetically ignoring the arbitrary and stifling rules put in place by white authority figures, Inez expresses herself and achieves her dream of dancing on The Corny Collins Show.  Her victory isn’t hers alone, though:  it is a victory for her marginalized community, and raises the happy ending above individual gain to large-scale progressive change.  But if the remake wants to take the civil rights aspect of the story more seriously, why not step away from the white savior narrative altogether and make Inez the protagonist?  Tracy Turnblad is an amazing fat heroine, but not an appropriate once for a story about racism.

The Fat Detective and the Rogue Cowboy: Die Hard (1988, dir John McTiernan); Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990, dir Renny Harlan)

My last few posts have focused on male/masculine fat best friends.  Thus far I haven’t sought out films specifically for their portrayals of fat people– or, to be more accurate, I’ve been heard to whine “But I don’t wanna rewatch Bridesmaids”– so it’s not surprising that most of the films default to having male protagonists with another man, somehow coded as less heroic, in a support role.  I decided to lean into the trend and revisit the first two Die Hard films.  I first saw Die Hard and Die Hard 2:  Die Harder a few years ago; while I wasn’t actively looking at the role that body size plays in the character dynamics, I found the developing bromance between John McClane (Bruce Willis) and Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) to be one of the more intriguing parts of the film.

As we’ve seen in previous films, McClane and Powell form a contrasting duo; the differences between them go beyond body type and race.  Both are archetypal cop characters, but from opposite ends of that spectrum.  McClane is a fiercely independent male power fantasy.  Explicitly identified with cowboys, he’s the rogue agent who breaks all the rules because his ideas are invariably more effective than the protocols set by those in power.  Even his personal life finds him bristling against cooperation: he has become estranged from his family because of his reluctance to leave New York after his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) lands a great job in Los Angeles.  There were several reasons that I prefer the original movie to the sequel, which isn’t surprising in and of itself, but the most unexpected reason was that I don’t find McClane nearly as interesting when he’s put in a situation that requires teamwork.  It’s somewhat surprising that he outranks Powell by the second film. 

McClane is defined by his profession, but specifically by being part of the NYPD.  New York City as part of McClane’s identity is an expression of regionalism, but it also seems to be an inherent part of his stubbled, streetwise masculinity.  He is out of place at the Nakatomi Christmas party, especially when another man greets him with a kiss on the cheek, and is practically a different species than Ellis (Hart Bochner), Holly’s smarmy, coke-snorting coworker.  The film portrays association with LA as a symptom of a character being phony and weak:  after moving to LA, Holly goes by her maiden name; McClane has a much harder time gaining respect with his LAPD badge in Die Hard 2.   Even the local news team turns into a minor antagonist, as reporter Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) forces himself into the McClane home for the sake of his scoop.

McClane’s likability and authenticity comes not only from Bruce Willis’ charisma, but from his alliances with average joes, especially black men.  McClane is initially characterized as an unpretentious populist by making friends with his limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White)– naturally, he sits shotgun and puts his kids’ giant teddybear in the back seat where the LA phonies ride.  In the sequel, McClane forms an alliance with nerdy director of communications Leslie Barnes (Art Evans).  However, he is more brusque with other average joe characters: possibly due to the stress of having so many people standing between him and the bad guys, or a change in director and writing team, but it may be that LA is rubbing off on McClane.  However, the role of Grounding Black Friend is fulfilled most strongly by Sgt. Powell, both in terms of the depth of their relationship and by balancing out the milieu of upper class white LA.

Powell is a by-the-book cop, representing the everyman who supports and roots for McClane.  He isn’t as phony as the other LA-based characters, but he is an emasculated figure.  His lack of power is visually manifested through fat stereotypes; in both Die Hard and Die Hard 2, he is introduced by an armful of Twinkies.  In the first film, he tells a convenience store cashier that the Twinkies are for his pregnant wife, which is met with skepticism.  McClane is also introduced while fulfilling a paternal role– wrangling a giant teddy bear for his children– but flirts with a pretty flight attendant in the process.  Powell doesn’t have the skilled action hero control of McClane:  he doesn’t realize that the Nakatomi Tower is overrun by bad guys until McClane throws one of them onto the hood of his cop car.

 reginald veljohnson, die hard, al powell, powell, sgt powell, twinkies

Powell is sensitive and emasculated when compared with McClane, but his sensitivity also serves as a strength, in line with the fat detective trope.  Not only does Powell form a correct hunch that McClane is a cop, but he does so after one brief conversation. Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), Powell’s superior, arrives just as this conversation ends.  His approach to the as-yet-unnamed McClane is cautious, but the audience is more attuned to the need for immediate action:  his blowhard skepticism reads like a waste of precious time.  Powell also proves himself to be a step ahead of Robinson when he correctly surmises that the terrorists are shooting at the cops’ floodlights, which Robinson loudly repeats as his own revelation once the lights are starting to shatter.  However, Powell is a team player.  While he directly disagrees with Robinson, he ultimately lacks McClane’s ability to undermine authority.  At one point, Robinson interrupts Powell and McClane’s conversation, snatching the radio from Powell’s hand.  Powell grimaces at the affront, but says nothing.  McClane, on the other hand, responds to Robinson’s demand that the LAPD take over by calling him a “jerkoff” and demands that he give the radio back to Powell.

Powell’s fat detective sensitivity also facilitates the growth of his relationship with McClane.  The initial conversation where Powell establishes that McClane is a cop is also enough for them to decide not only to trust each other, but to form an alliance; by their first sign-off, they are calling each other “partner.” The two partners provide each other with necessary information, but Powell also provides the moral support McClane needs, including making McClane laugh by reciting the ingredients of a Twinkie and telling him “I love you, and so do a lot of the other guys down here.”

It’s worth noting that the majority of Powell and McClane’s relationship takes place via radio; they are essentially two voices connecting with each other.  In the context of a mainstream action film, McClane is white and athletic, aspects of a default representation of legitimacy.  Not so for Powell, who is marginalized as a fat person and as a black person.  However, on the radio, Powell is separated from the aspects of his corporeality that could otherwise detract from McClane viewing him as legitimate.  We see the different ways McClane and Robinson treat Powell; we could chalk it up to McClane being a heroic everyman and Robinson being a blowhard boss, but it’s worth considering the fact that McClane is separated from the preconceived notions that are inexorably tied to Powell’s body.

The most obvious marker of Powell’s lack of (masculine) power is that he’s been put on desk duty because he has lost his ability to shoot his gun, following an incident where he accidentally shot and killed a kid.  He triumphantly regains the ability to fill a human body with bullets at the end of the film, when it means defending McClane from the final bad guy. Even if the scene is a black cop killing a homicidal Aryan, in light of the recent publicized lack of accountability from police departments for police brutality, it’s very uncomfortable to consider that regaining the ability to kill is considered a happy resolution to Powell’s character arc.

reginald veljohnson, mcclane, bruce willis, powell, al powell, john mcclane, die hard

Despite having his masculinity redeemed through his friendship with McClane at the end of Die Hard, Powell fills the same role of less masculine, more cooperative foil in his brief appearance in Die Hard 2.  He faxes a criminal background check to McClane as he chews on a Twinkie, gently laughing at his friend’s refusal to “wake up and smell the 90s” and learn how to use the technology that has become a basic tool of his profession, untameable cowboy that he is.  And again, Powell is more of a friend to McClane than the other law enforcement in the film, notably Captain Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), the head of airport police who impedes McClane’s process every step of the way, along with his brother Sgt. Lorenzo (Robert Costanzo).  Both of the Lorenzos are fat; McClane calls Captain Lorenzo a “fat ass” during their unending tennis match of insults.  All three fat characters are shown as ineffectual cops when compared to McClane; the Lorenzos’ ineffectiveness comes from complacency and arrogance, treating McClane rudely while failing to see the big picture.  Captain Lorenzo initially describes himself as a “big fish” in a “little pond,” but towards the end of the film, he is dismissed as a “bureaucrat.”  He is unable to see reality; namely, that John McClane, Supercop is in his airport trying to foil an unfolding terrorist plot.  Powell, on the other hand, realizes what’s going on, but isn’t able to garner the respect needed to convey it to those around him.

dennis franz, die hard 2

Captain Lorenzo and Powell are both fat men who are socially inappropriate.  They have character arcs where the begin their film with problematic relationships to their profession that are ultimately corrected through their association with McClane.  Powell is initially deferential and emasculated (relative to the world of male power fantasy), but finds the strength to argue with his superior in order to advocate for McClane, and then the ability to shoot his gun in order to defend McClane.  Lorenzo, on the other hand, is rigid and arrogant, but is eventually humbled when McClane proves the worth of his disorderly methods.  I see race as the more component of the difference in these fat characters’ trajectories.  McClane spends Die Hard and Die Hard 2 clashing with power-hungry white men (whether military-trained terrorists or jagoff yuppies) and building alliances with salt-of-the-earth black men.  We know that he will never become the former because of how he treats the latter, and the latter ultimately exist to accessorize McClane’s quests.  The politics of fat in Die Hard cannot be separated from similar questions about the politics of race.

I Can’t Believe I’m Writing About Scooby-Doo

Last week, there were a few mentions in my corner of the blogosphere about the new Scooby-Doo movie, Frankencreepy, in which Daphne is put under a curse that makes her “lose her good looks” (according to a statement from Warner Brothers).  Her loss of good looks equates to her thin body becoming fat and her straight hair becoming curly… frizzy… well, you can’t really tell exactly what they were going for due to the animation style, but she’s gained quite a bit of texture.

I read some analyses of this artistic choice which I’ll link to below that do a good job of spelling out the shitty implications that the movie makes about being fat and how it tries to mitigate the effects of that implication by having Fred tell her that she’s still pretty.  However, I think it’s important to look at what in our culture is influencing this storyline, eg. beauty standards based on whiteness.

Beauty, as in the eye of the beholder kind, is nuanced and shifting based on era, culture, subjectivity, and lots of other factors.  If Fred think that Daphne is pretty under the curse, that’s real and valid (even if Daphne shouldn’t base her self worth on his opinion maybe).  But it’s vital to recognize the difference between that and hegemonic beauty standards, ideas about which bodies are good and valid that function as maintenance of power structures.

The culturally reinforced idea of fat=ugly exists at the intersection of a lot of power imbalances, among them sexism, classism, ableism, and racism.  The exotification of fat serves to objectify and other black women’s bodies, from the Hottentot Venus to the appropriation of twerking as an edgy accessory for skinny white pop stars– the same A-list celebrities whose cultural capital would plummet if their bodies looked the same as their backup dancers’.  Similarly, the equation of a fat body with beauty is, in the context of white colonialism, seen as quaint or curious or wrong; the white beauty ideal always positioned as the one to strive for.  A well-known anecdote (at least in feminist and eating disorder recovery communities) is how rates of eating disorders among adolescent girls in Fiji increased dramatically after the introduction of Western television, their local beauty standards uprooted and replaced by imported images of glamorized thinness.  This handful of examples and analysis is a cursory explanation, and I hope to explore the concept more deeply in future blog posts, but the idea we’re working with here is that the feminine ideal is the white body, and the white body is thin.

Along the same lines, the ideal feminine body is also crowned with long, light, straight hair.  Coarsely textured hair– hair in its natural state for the majority of black people– is seen as a hallmark of being out of control, inappropriate, not beautiful.  This standard has long been used in the US to marginalize black people for being “too” black, from churches that would only allow membership for people who could pass a fine tooth comb through their hair without it snagging, to hair style standards in the US Army that were only removed after being skewered on The Daily Show.

Am I saying that the creators of Scooby-Doo: Frankencreepy are white supremacists?  Not consciously.  Or maybe they are conscious white supremacists, I’m not really interested in giving them the benefit of the doubt.  In Tom Burns’ essay on Frankencreepy, linked to below, he points out that the movie could very well have removed Daphne’s “good looks” by turning her into a monster.  It’s not like this movie is devoid of the fantastic.  But instead, how the movie portrays her loss of her “good looks” is by removing two physical features that are hallmarks of white beauty standards.  That is how she is cursed.  Admittedly I haven’t seen the movie, but given she’s the heroine in a kid’s movie, I feel safe in assuming that her “good looks” are returned to her by the end of the movie.  Her nightmare is over, she is returned to her full status as pretty white girl.

But what does that say about viewers– likely very young viewers– who have fat bodies and/or natural hair that don’t change at the end of the movie like Daphne’s?  Do they not have access to the comfort of a happy ending?  Are they cursed?

And what kind of malicious force would cast an evil spell at a child?

 

Related articles:

The Good Men Project: Why Is the New Scooby-Doo Trying to Fat Shame Daphne?

Dances with Fat: Scooby Dooby Don’t