status quo

Gazing at Males: Magic Mike (2012, dir. Stephen Soderbergh), Magic Mike XXL (2015, dir. Gregory Jacobs), and the Fat Female Audience

Embarrassing confession time:  I have been picking away at this article for way too long.  Patrick had suggested Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL a while ago, and they are chock full of great discussion material, especially regarding the shifts between the original and the sequel. I was fascinated by a mainstream Hollywood movie that plays fast and loose with the gender roles of its straight male protagonists; then, there’s also the obvious topic of the noticeably more inclusive casting of audience members in XXL.  But how did they connect?  Though initially struggling to form a cohesive argument, I finally relied on this one weird trick:  I re-read the most famous essay in feminist film theory.  And amazingly, it was very helpful.  

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is the genesis of the term “male gaze.”  Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to describe a common dynamic in classic Hollywood film, in which the audience derives a dual and seemingly contradictory pleasure in the voyeurism of watching the people on screen (separating the audience and the character), but also seeing the characters as idealized versions of ourselves (bringing audience and character together).  And as the films utilizing this dynamic are produced in a patriarchal society (i.e. prioritizing the wants and experiences of men), female characters are on display for the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure, while male characters are powerful protagonists with whom the audience identifies. Often, these two dynamics synthesize in the romantic union of the male and female characters, creating the fantasy of being a powerful person who possesses the object of desire.  Magic Mike, especially XXL, disrupts these dynamics that Mulvey describes.   

True, none of the main characters in either film are fat.  Most of the fat characters I write about on CPBS aren’t protagonists.  While there are exceptions, as evidenced by most of the films in last year’s series on fat men and thin women, fat characters are usually minor supporting roles in a handful of scenes; this is especially obvious if you look at the writeups I’ve done of film festivals, etc.  It would be overly glib to say that there’s one reason why, but stemming from Mulvey’s theory of the audience seeking pleasure through identification with a protagonist, the common assumption is that audiences can’t/won’t empathise with a character who doesn’t embody certain social privileges.  Mulvey focuses on gender; but of course this struggle encompasses many identities.  At the writing of this article, whitewashing is again a popular topic of discussion, as the remake of Ghost in the Shell starring ScarJo just hit theaters.  But, as always, body size and composition is the spectrum we’ll be focusing on here.  And the fat characters of particular interest in Magic Mike and XXL are the fat women in Mike’s (Channing Tatum) audience.  

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I didn’t find or make screencaps of the fat audience members, please accept my apology in the form of Joe Manganiello in a sexy firefighter costume

Magic Mike starts with a flipping of the male gaze’s gender dynamic by establishing the relationship between female audience and male performer. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) titillates the audience by playfully reminding them that it is against the law to touch the dancers’ bodies (but then observes “a lot of law-breakers” in the audience); the women sitting in the dark respond with excited cheers.  This mirrors a common paradox that attractive female characters must embody of being on display for the audience’s visual consumption but not too actively sexual as to land on the wrong side of social judgment (or break the fantasy of being controllable).  Mike deals with this very judgment from the two main female characters, Brooke (Cody Horn) and Joanna (Olivia Munn).  Through their relationships with Mike, we see his need to move on from his current profession.  Joanna is willing to have casual sex with Mike and join him in orchestrating three-ways, but she isn’t willing to talk about her personal life with him and unceremoniously abandons him by revealing that she is engaged, which coincides with the completion of her PhD.  Brooke is consistently judgmental of Mike’s profession throughout the movie; although he accuses her of reducing him to his job, eventually both his bff Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and his boss Dallas screw him over, proving that her disapproval is merited.  Mike abruptly leaves the Kings, as Joanna left him, and shows up on Brooke’s doorstep.  His happy ending is the approval of the “normal”  character. His arc isn’t too different from the pattern I saw in films featuring fat men paired with thin women; Mike’s maturation make him attractive despite his excess (here his decadent profession, as opposed to his body), his reward is the love of a good (thin) woman.  This is a neat gender inversion of the story arc that Mulvey describes, wherein a female character “falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her… show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone.”  

As opposed to typical scenes featuring female dancers, where the male audience is a source of some menace (I haven’t seen the whole of Striptease, but two of the dance scenes on YouTube include Demi Moore being grabbed inappropriately by audience members, as well as Burt Reynolds sitting in the corner and making creepy comments about how she’s an “angel”), the relationship between male dancers and female audience in the Magic Mike movies is free of tension.  The pleasure the audience receives from direct attention from the male entertainers is pure, even sheepish at times, as select VIPs allow the dancers to pick them up, lie them on the floor, tie them in sex slings, etc. without any attempts to go too far.  The exotic dancing is described as a service in both films, either embodying the fantasy of a one night stand, as per Dallas, or helping a woman find her “smile,” as per Mike.  If anything, Adam is the only character to really transgress professional boundaries, as he kisses an audience member during his debut dance and give a tab of ecstasy to a sorority sister during a house call.  

Magic Mike is focused on people struggling to realize their professional goals (or just make ends meet) in an unforgiving economic structure.  The stripping, while surely an entertaining spectacle for at least some of the audience, is almost incidental to the film’s themes.  As Magic Mike centers on Mike’s struggle to be a successful entrepreneur, the audience’s shrieks of delight and dollar bills symbolize the tyrannical demands of the market, showering him with money when he dances, while an apologetic bank employee (Betsy Brandt) withholds it when he tries to secure a loan to start his furniture business.  And although the women themselves have no nefarious motives, they provide the money and attention that draws Adam into the life of a debauched party boy.  XXL, on the other hand, focuses on Mike reconnecting with his friends, helping them move onto the next steps of their lives after Dallas abandons them, and coping with the stress of his new job and newly single status.  He does all these things by rediscovering the joy of stripping, namely, helping his audience find their “smile.”  Where the first film finds Mike concerned that Brooke only sees him as a “30 year old male stripper,” XXL states explicitly (ha) that Mike and the other Kings can use stripping to explore and assert themselves as individuals.  Mike strives to impress the female characters in XXL, but unlike the judgment of his profession that he meets in Magic Mike, he instead interacts with women who are mostly involved in exotic dance in one way or another along his journey to Myrtle Beach, and has to charm them into providing assistance to get him and the Kings there.  The political pathos is removed from Mike’s relationship with stripping in XXL, giving the viewer license to find pure erotic enjoyment in his performances.  And yet, XXL breaks even further away from the “show-girl” trope Mulvey described, in which “a woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined.”  Both films invert the roles that each gender plays in the dynamic, but in XXL, Mike’s friends assign personal meaning to male entertainment that gives more depth to their characters than they had in Magic Mike.  The sequel gives us more of the personalities of the Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa and allows them to wax philosophical about the male entertainment industry, which is celebrated as an opportunity for all women deserve to have their fantasies indulged and to be “queens,” as opposed to the first film, which presents a glittery sandpit that is controlled by deceitful owners like Dallas and eats naive young men like Adam for breakfast.  

A few different scenes in XXL explore the Kings’ relationship to their work, including one in which Ken (Matt Bomer) bonds with Andre (Donald Glover) over the meaning they find in male entertainment.  “These girls have to deal with men in their lives every day who don’t listen to them,” Andre observes.  “They don’t even ask them what they want.  All we gotta do is ask them what they want.  When they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man.  We’re like healers or something.”  A subsequent scene shows this philosophy in action when Ken meets an older woman (Jane McNeill) who confesses her husband won’t have sex with the lights on; he responds by telling her how beautiful she is, how she deserves to be happy, and sings her the song that she and her husband would listen to when they were first falling in love.  The moment is bittersweet (“I don’t think Hank can do that!” she tells him when his performance ends), but shows more depth to what the audience seeks from the performers than the “free fling of a fuck” Dallas describes in Magic Mike.  The Kings want to be the most effective entertainers possible; while the film plays out with the intent that the film audience see ourselves more as an extension of the Kings’ audience, there is joy in seeing the exhibition of their creativity and the gradual reveal of their personalities as much as there is of their oiled-up bits.  The culmination of XXL finds Mike and his friends (now calling themselves “Res-erection”) fully in their element and fully belonging to the audience; as emcee Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) describes them, “a special kind of beast that can bring all the beauty out in you.”

Even if the dancers aren’t normatively gendered in how they function in the films narrative, they are in physical presentation.  The implication is, of course, that the man capable of “fulfilling every woman’s wildest fantasies” is relegated to one body type.  And commonly, when men in movies are depicted as irresistable, the women chasing them are normatively attractive.  The fantasy is specifically that of a man’s wanting to have numerous beautiful women chasing after him.  However, the world of Magic Mike flips that to focus on the fantasy of a fun night of oogling hunks (without the drink minimum) by including a range of women in the audience.  The first movie falls short.  Notably, there are some audience members who are older women, but all are feminine and white.  The only fat woman in Magic Mike is chosen for VIP treatment by Richie (Joe Manganiello), but he “humorously” hurts his back when picking her up and has to stop his routine, leaving her standing awkwardly by herself on the stage.  XXL does an admirable job of diversifying the audience.  Not only do several scenes include fat women getting individual attention from the male entertainers, but there is a specific focus on black women.  We meet Rome, who addresses her black clientele as “queens” and repeatedly tells them that they are beautiful and deserving of attention from her sexy staff.  We see many fat women in the audience, including an extended scene with a fat black woman receiving attention from a male entertainer who picks her up with ease (and is played by former pro football player Michael Strahan).

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Rome, the queen in her castle, and Magic Mike (fka “White Chocolate”)

A pivotal moment in XXL hinges on an audience comprised of one fat woman:  Richie’s dance in the convenience store.  Richie (rolling on molly) wants to bring his wedding fantasy routine to fruition, but is insecure about his skills as a dancer.  Mike (also rolling on molly), in an attempt to make his friend understand that their work is less about impressive dance moves and more about making women happy, dares him to walk into a convenience store and make the bored-looking cashier (Lindsey Moser) smile.  Richie balks, not because the young woman is fat, but because she “looks like she’s never fucking smiled a fucking day in her entire life.”  And, because it is that kind of movie, Richie’s beloved Backstreet Boys start playing on the store speakers the minute he walks into the store.  Unlike the women who make up his intentional audience– and unlike the common stereotype of fat women as desperate for sex– the cashier doesn’t immediately notice him (much to his pouty disappointment).  He has to dramatically tear open a bag of Cheetos just to get her attention, and she doesn’t even smile until the end of his routine, when he cracks a joke.  Richie goes on a minor character development arc over the course of the scene, where he has to get in touch with his confidence and sense of presence to prove to himself that he doesn’t need Dallas’ direction to be a successful male entertainer.  And the sign of his success is the approval of a fat, female audience, as well of that of his friends (all of whom are rolling on molly).  

The other fat presence in the films must be mentioned, even if he doesn’t quite fit in with the discussion:  Tobias, the DJ (Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias).  He is a corrupting influence for Adam in the first film, giving him his first taste of GHB (or, as he calls it, “hey juice”) and supplying him MDMA to sell once he’s established himself as a dancer at Dallas’ club.  Adam foolishly loses $10,000 worth of pills that he and Tobias were supposed to sell.  This leads to two thugs trashing Mike’s apartment looking for restitution, while Tobias helplessly watches.  However, to the more mature Kings who are presumably a bit wiser in their choices, he is more of a helpful support.  In Magic Mike XXL, he drives the food truck to take them on their road trip to Myrtle Beach with the intention of being their emcee at the stripper convention–until he drives off the road while rolling and suffers a concussion.  In both films, Tobias is vaguely coded as queer. In Magic Mike, we are introduced to him using stereotypically gay mannerisms to make a joke.  In XXL, Tobias gets on stage dressed like Carmen Miranda at a voguing contest at a gay club; and considering that he wins the $400 prize after the Kings upstage the club’s regulars, he had better fucking be queer because that is the only way that such an incredibly cringe-worthy scene could be salvaged.  At the afterparty following the scene at the gay club, he sits at a campfire with the club’s fat drag queen emcee (Vicky Vox), while the other Kings are paired with thin, (presumably) cis women.  (This sequence includes a scene in which Mike meets Zoe [Amber Heard] and they bond over having “inner drag queens;” ick ick ick.)

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Dallas and Tobias watch the boys do their thing

The aspect of XXL that is quite unlike any mainstream film I’ve seen in recent memory is not only the focus on the importance of pleasure (both giving and receiving) to a fulfilled life, but that pursuit is reinforced as egalitarian.  And combined with Mulvey’s theory about the gaze, you get something pretty amazing.  Instead of women performing as erotic spectacle for a male audience, you have men performing for an audience comprised not only of women, but of older women, fat women, and women of color.  So the entity in the film that we, XXL’s audience, identify with is those people:  older women, fat women, women of color.  And it’s not for the purpose of learning something or becoming aware of an issue or struggle;  it’s just to have some fun and feel sexy for a bit.  It’s a subtle part of the movie, but it’s normalizing of these groups of marginalized women in a way that we rarely get to see.  Even if XXL doesn’t answer Mulvey’s call to break down the “cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures” that enable the male gaze, it’s a noteworthy bending of that system.

See Also:

Fluffy on being cast and performing in Magic Mike

AV Club:  Offscreen dialogue is key to one of Magic Mike XXL‘s most revealing scenes

Parabasis:  On Magic Mike XXL: Entertainment, Art, Fulfillment, and Big Dicks

A scene from Magic Mike where Channing Tatum dances to Ginuwine’s song “Pony”

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Trope Deep Dive: Wrapping up Fat Men and Thin Women with Heavy (1995, dir. James Mangold)

I’d had Heavy in mind for the Trope Deep Dive from the start, and praises be to the movie gods, it went from “it’s a nice thought but I don’t know how I’ll get my hand on it” to “holy shit it’s on Netflix” over the course of working on this series.  Heavy was one of the first indie films I watched as a young person, partially due to my nascent interest in this subject and partially because it was largely filmed in the region where I grew up.  The film could be described as restrained; like its protagonist, Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), it’s very sparse and selective in what it has to say, focusing on a brief point in Vincent’s life where a beautiful young woman, Callie (Liv Tyler) takes a waitressing job at the restaurant he owns with his mother, Dolly (Shelly Winters).  Because it is such a simple story, it can be looked at in terms of the other films I’ve discussed over the past several months, as a means of highlighting shared qualities of the other twelve films I’ve discussed so far featuring romances between fat men and thin women.

Vincent is a middle-aged, single (presumably never-married) man living and sharing a family business with his mother that she had owned with his now-deceased father.  Vincent’s size is a source of insecurity which she glosses over.  In one particularly memorable scene, he skips breakfast and when she asks why, he gives “I’m fat” as the reason.  Her automatic response is to render his statement and the feelings behind it as invalid:  “You are not fat, you are not. Honey, you’re husky.  You’re well built.  You’re macho.”  “I am FAT, Ma,” he responds more forcefully, the only point in the film at which he confronts her.  Not uncommon to fat protagonists, Vincent’s size has to Mean Something, and we discover that his fatness is symptomatic of his arrested development.  Although he is characterized as a good cook, when he is at work we only see him making pizza, a food commonly associated with fatness.  When Callie suggests that he has the talent to be a chef if he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, Dolly and Delores (Debbie Harry), a waitress who has been working at Pete and Dolly’s for over a decade, shut down the idea before Vincent can get a word in:  “They would just charge a lot of money to teach him what he already knows.”  Of course there are fat gourmet chefs, so it’s not the neatest of dichotomies, but Vincent’s body and the food he makes are fatty and pedestrian, in comparison to the finer alternative offered by Callie.  Dolly also reveals that her desire to keep Victor at home making pizzas is an expression of her inability to accept her husband’s death:  “when you began to… grow… it was almost like I had him back again.”  Victor is in a role that keeps his family’s life in stasis as much as possible: looking like his father, taking care of his mother, and working his father’s job in the restaurant that still bears his father’s name.  When Dolly dies, he shows a similar unwillingness to move on, and only tells Callie that she died once she’s in the ground.  Perhaps it’s worth noting that Dolly is one of the few fat women in the films I’ve included in the trope deep dive; the only other one I can recall off the top of my head is also a mom–Kathy Bates in Angus.

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Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), in domestic setting.

Stagnancy or need for maturation, especially when it means reliance on family in a manner deemed socially inappropriate to an eligible bachelor, is a common starting point for fat men who are romantic leads.  James in I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, Danny in Only the Lonely, and Jack in Jack Goes Boating are all grown men living with family members.  Angus, Terri, and the Motel are about minors who naturally live with family, but are all in caretaking roles (Angus and Terri of sick relatives, Ernest of his family’s business) that afford them less autonomy than their peers. Dex in The Tao of Steve and Ben in Knocked Up don’t live with family of origin, but rather with a tight-knit group of friends who enable each others’ adolescent habits.  Living with (and caring for) family suggests a body equipped for domesticity and comfort, the attributes that would be preferable for a long-haul relationship.  Living with similarly slackerish friends suggests an adolescent indolence that requires fixing through maturity (ie. in the direction of a productive job and nuclear family).  

This domesticity and/or arrested development also usually comes with another layer of outsiderness or contempt, often based on the character’s fatness.  In Heavy, Vincent is held back over and over again by language based on his weight.  When he tries to assert himself as restaurant manager to Dolores, he is confronted by regular Leo (Joe Grifasi) on her behalf:  “Just because your mommy’s sick doesn’t mean you can shit on people, you fat fuck.”  Even though Vincent makes a reasonable demand (that Dolores be more civil to Callie, her coworker), his size and closeness to his mother are easily invoked to discredit him.  Even when he and Callie are able to share some alone time together, she describes him as “more to love,” trying to be congenial but ending up patronizing, especially considering that Vincent desperately wants her to return his feelings.  

Status as a social outsider is common to the other fat male love interests.  All four of the school-age protagonists I’ve covered (in Superbad, the Motel, Angus, and Terri) are bullied.  The male love interests in Hitch, Knocked Up, Enough Said, and I Want Someone… are all coded as unattractive, at least in part due to their size.  I Want Someone… even focuses on how James’ weight impacts his work as an actor, when he can’t even get an audition for the remake of Marty because former teen pop idol Aaron Carter was cast as the lead.  Dex in The Tao of Steve is shown as being able to get laid despite being fat, and being unable to commit to a relationship in part due to his insecurity over his weight.  The female love interests, on the other hand, are thin and conventionally beautiful.  Additionally, in several cases, they have more social capital (or literal capital).  In Hitch, The Tao of Steve and Knocked Up, they have more money and/or more prestigious jobs than their male counterparts; in Superbad and Angus, they are more popular at school.  

Even if Callie is a waitress, ultimately she is an outsider to the world of the restaurant where Vincent feels stuck.  She is taking time off from college and aspires to be a photographer, which neither Dolores nor Dolly validate.   “Not everybody’s gotta go to college. Somebody’s gotta roll up their sleeves and do the work,” Dolly tells her during her interview.  There is a complimentary disdain between Callie and Dolly, even if Callie tries to put a friendly face on it.  Pete and Dolly’s is a temporary resting place for her while she figures things out, whereas it’s Dolly’s whole life.  Suggesting that Victor would want to go to school and work in a fancier establishment is an insult to Dolly, even if taking his feelings into consideration would be a more loving response than speaking on his behalf.  Callie’s separation from their world is embodied by her boyfriend Jeff (Evan Dando), a musician who refuses to step foot in the restaurant.  “I guess he thinks they’re all trash or something,” Callie tells her friends.  Victor finds an ambivalent place between the two, feeling separated from Callie but also wanting to expand his horizons.  After his mother dies, he takes a tour of the Culinary Institute of America.  His desire to free himself from stagnancy also comes in the form of trying to lose weight, a goal he starts pursuing when he sees Callie making out with Jeff.  The film’s hopeful ending includes a meetcute with the cashier at the grocery where he buys weight-loss shakes.

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I love how the posters have Liv Tyler’s image largest, suggesting that maybe she plays the protagonist, experiences some personal growth, reveals her inner world…? No, but she is the most normatively attractive of the main characters.

It’s not uncommon for movies with romantic narratives to include parallel self-improvement arcs for one or both of the characters falling in love.  However, Vincent’s weight-loss subplot in Heavy is an example of a pattern I’ve noticed across most of the films in the trope deep dive series: a fat man improving himself to become worthy of a thin woman’s love.  Heavy is similar to Superbad and Hitch, where a fat character changes himself and goes outside his comfort level to attract the attention of a thin love interest.  Knocked Up, Jack Goes Boating, The Tao of Steve, and Only the Lonely all feature fat men who are able to start a relationship with a thin woman, but need to change something about themselves to prove their commitment to her.  Of the remaining films:  Terri and The Motel end with the male protagonists being rejected by the objects of their affections;  the protagonists of I Want Someone… and Angus change for their own benefit and end up impressing their love interests as a result; and The Lobster and Enough Said engage with the aforementioned trope of men improving themselves to gain the love of women by actively criticizing it.  Although Victor’s focus is on his weight (and he isn’t actually successful in changing it over the course of the movie), other films feature more significantly life-changing choices in the interest of pursuing romance, including overall life improvement (Knocked Up, Jack Goes Boating), significantly changing a relationship dynamic with a parent (Only the Lonely), and dramatically quitting a job (Hitch).  This suggests that the romantic satisfaction in these films, for the female audience, is the idea of being a muse of sorts: her affection and approval are such valuable goals for him to achieve, she inspires him to become “better.”  The last lines of Jack Goes Boating illustrate this idea explicitly:  “I knew you’d be good.”  “I am, for you.”  The “for you” aspect of the sentiment connects neatly with the ideal of lifelong monogamy, where an individual person is unfulfilled without the one partner who sees them as beautiful and can unlock their hidden potential.  

Being able to love a fat outsider also speaks to a certain virtuous quality in the thin women characters.  It suggests a lack of elitism and an emotional integrity, the ability to see “real” beauty and find love without caving to social expectations.  When Callie and Vincent are alone, she tells him that he’s “cooler than someone would think.”  She’s also an aspiring photographer and finds him to be an interesting subject, bringing a lacking artistic sensibility to his world.  However, this willingness to look beyond convention doesn’t extend to the female characters themselves, who are all portrayed by actors who are popularly considered beautiful and/or coded within their film as desirable to other male characters besides their fat admirers.  Highlighting both the female characters’ desirability and the male characters’ capacity to care for her, often she is initially attracted to or in a relationship with a thin man who is not as good a fit for her as the fat romantic lead would be (The Tao of Steve, Hitch), doesn’t understand her the way that the fat romantic lead does (The Motel), or is an outright douchebag to her (Angus, Heavy).  

Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to assume that audience members would identify with characters involved in a romantic plot based on a shared gender.  Personally, I’ve frequently felt a certain alienation from these kinds of female characters in films, which I could attribute to being both fat and nonbinary, while also not fully identifying with the fat male characters who are in love with them.  But  to a certain extent, we watch films for the vicarious pleasure of seeing how characters react to specific circumstances; consider the post-modern horror convention of smugly outlining a survival plan for a slasher attack or zombie apocalypse.  And this group of films give us an expansion of what a romantic male lead would look like, while the image of a romantic female lead is very much in its lane.  (Apparently to have the sensibilities to look beyond beauty conventions, one actually has to be a female romantic lead in one of these movies.)  The divide in audience identification with these respective characters seems to be “Would I be able to attract someone like her?” versus “Would I be able to look past initial judgments and see that he loves me?”  Or, to put it in terms of how most of the plots play out, “I’ve won the love of a beautiful woman” versus “I’ve realized that I’m loved by a devoted man.”  The way this dynamic plays out in Heavy— at least, in Vincent’s imagination– highlights its problematic nature.  Vincent has a recurring daydream in which he finds Callie floating in the river, takes her home and cares for her– in every scene of the sequence, she is wet and her skin is bluish, as if she were dead.  Vincent is characterized by his timidity and seeming lack of live experience, so his dream is innocent, in a sense: his affection is expressed by caregiving, never sexual activity.  However, it is disturbing that the way he imagines a relationship with Callie is having her lifeless and dependent on him.  But Callie has a life of her own, and the film ends with them moving in their own separate directions.  

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Callie (Liv Tyler) and Vincent

As opposed to the kind of romantic film that end with a woman swept off her feet by a man who is wealthier (Pride and Prejudice, Pretty Woman) or lives more deeply than she (Dirty Dancing, All That Heaven Allows), the films I’ve looked at over the past several months largely find their romantic ideal in a man who is willing to make a change for the sake of a relationship.  This kind of arc isn’t exclusive to romantic stories pairing fat men with thin women (Shaun of the Dead, High Fidelity), but looking back at this series, I’m struck by the frequency with which it popped up.  Even if these films present a different idea of what a male romantic lead looks like– and considering that 9 out of the 13 are indies, one would expect at least some deviation from mainstream film standards– they are still mired in sexist, heteronormative ideas of how to a romance is formulated.  To be explicit: men act and women react; men strike forth to earn what they desire, women wait passively (or unknowingly) for their emotions to be stirred.  This dynamic also does a disservice to its presumably subversive male lead.  The journey of self-improvement, even if it doesn’t include weight loss, implies that he has to prove his worthiness.  It functions as a compensation, gives her a reason to fall in love with him.  Even in Angus and I Want Someone…, where the male protagonists respectively make decisions to face a fear and move out of mom’s house for their own good, their love interests start to return their feelings as an outcome.  The only film that is a true exception to this dynamic is Enough Said, in which Eva tries to get Albert to change his ways, only to have it blow up in her face and realize that having a flawed Albert in her life is better than no Albert at all.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Enough Said is the only film of this series with a female protagonist.  Even though a fair number of these films don’t explicitly make the male romantic interest’s weight a potential reason that he wouldn’t be seen as a viable partner, the need to “be good” in order to win her love, paired with being fat, is enough to keep these stories at least partly mired in the typical idea that a fat person can’t be “good” enough to be a mate.

Fat men and thin women and a few thoughts about The Lobster (2016, dir, Yorgos Lanthimos)

I’ve been looking forward to The Lobster for quite some time.  I haven’t seen Lanthimos’ breakthrough Dogtooth (I know, I know), but I am a sucker for an unusual premise, and “a hotel where people are transformed into animals if they don’t fall in love” is just that.  The initial buzz has been good, but what caught my eye was AV Club’s review* that lingered on the description of Colin Farrell’s “doughy” body.

The Lobster takes place in an absurd distopia that is childlike in its rigidity, directness, and simplistic logic. A law that requires adults to be in a romantic relationship drives the entire film, as newly-dumped David (Farrell) finds himself at a hotel where he has 45 days to make a love connection lest he be turned into an animal, or choose to live in the wilderness with the hermitic Loners.  It’s a darkly funny critique of the idealization of romantic relationships, the belief that everyone is capable and desiring of a lifelong, monogamous relationship free of complicating factors.  This is a world where bisexuality has been phased out, where the basis of a “good match” means sharing a common characteristic like frequent nosebleeds.  The film criticizes conventional wisdom about falling in love, and casting an actor known for roles in action films and his good looks as a middle-aged milquetoast with a potbelly– and including ample scenes of him in states of undress– is made part of the film’s subversive tone as much as the sterile mise en scene and alienating dialogue.  Weight is added to Farrell’s body with the intention of depriving the audience of a (conventionally) handsome romantic hero.  His friends at the hotel are similarly characterized by physical traits that are meant to detract from them being ideal mates: a man with a lisp (John C. Reilly) and a man with a limp (Ben Whishaw).

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If having Farrell gain weight to play David is intended to suggest that the search for romance is bound to end eventually in disappointingly ordinariness, the visual language does not extend in the same way to his female costars.  Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Angeliki Papoulia and Jessica Barden all play characters whose words and actions embody the awkward absurdity of the film’s world, but visually, they retain more of the physical idealized qualities.  And as members of the Loner group, Weisz and Seydoux spend most of their screen time swathed in plastic ponchos with “no” makeup and messy hair, but all of these women are conventionally attractive and thin, as compared to not only a heavier Farrell, but also actors like Reilly and Michael Smiley who, unlike Weisz and Seydoux, probably aren’t landing any modelling gigs.

Overall, The Lobster is great.  It strikes a marvelous balance between being accessible and surreal, entertaining and thought-provoking.  I’d much rather see a film of its caliber that doesn’t use the cultural baggage attached to fat bodies (and bodies with disabilities) as easy visual language to convey its thesis, but then again, it would be foolish of me to come out of seeing The Lobster with the expectation of having my dreams come true.

 

*I’ve used AV Club before for examples of how fat characters and actors are talked about in pop culture discourse, and just for the record, I don’t mean to pick on AV Club.  They just happen to be a website that I frequent for film reviews, news, etc.,they do a fine job on the whole, and I don’t find them to be particularly toxic.

April 2016 Roundup

I’ve had a busy week, but better late than never!  Here’s a summary of fat characters in films I saw over the past month but didn’t write about.

The Lady Eve (1941, dir. Preston Sturges)

Classic screwball romantic comedy in which con artist Jean (Barbara Stanwyck) tries to swindle wealthy nerd Charles (Henry Fonda) and loses her heart in the process.  Two father figures in the movie are fat men: the Colonel (Charles Coburn), Jean’s partner in crime who pretends to be her father, is debonair yet heartless;  Horace (Eugene Palette), Charles’ tycoon father, is a blustering blue-collar type who made a fortune by brewing the Ale that Won for Yale.

Midnight Special (2016, dir. Jeff Nichols)

In this moody sci-fi drama about a Kid with Powers, there’s a small role of a child psychologist (Dana Gourrier) who is a competent, serious professional who does her job in an intense, high-security military setting and just happens to be fat.  And that’s it.  Which is fine by me.

Faces (1968, dir. John Cassavetes)

Dang, this is a good movie.  A cinema verite look at a crumbling marriage over the course of a night, as Richard (John Marley) spends the night with Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) a sex worker he frequently patronizes, while his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) picks up Chet (Seymour Cassel) a playboy she and her friends meet at a club.  Although all the characters in the film are portrayed as lonely people desperate for some way to remedy the emptiness of their lives, a few fat minor characters come across as particularly pathetic.  Maria’s friend Florence (Dorothy Gulliver) practically begs Chet to pay attention to her, while two of Jeannie’s other clients (Fred Draper and Val Avery) become angry to the point of aggression when threatened by Richard’s presence in Jeannie’s home.

Ma Vie en Rose (1997, dir. Alain Berliner)

This is a sweet film about Ludo (Georges du Fresne), a transgender 7 year old who wants to be accepted as a girl.  Unsurprisingly, this is easier said than done, as her family and community react to her love of dresses and dolls with confusion and disapproval.  The repercussions of transphobia on her family as a whole largely come from Albert (Daniel Hanssens), a fat man who is Ludo’s father’s boss. He is rather conservative, and is scandalized when Ludo holds a play-wedding wherein she “marries” his son Jerome (Julien Riviere), putting her father’s job in jeopardy.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women in Judd Apatow Productions (Superbad, 2007, dir. Greg Mottola; Knocked Up, 2007, dir. Judd Apatow)

(CN: rape culture) As Superbad and Knocked Up are both Judd Apatow productions, they share many key elements:  not only cast and crew, among them Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Bill Hader, but also a focus on young men who are reluctant to move on to the next phase of their lives, and how this reluctance affects both existing relationships and the ability to forge new ones.  Both films find our fat protagonists in situations demanding maturity, whether or not they are ready; both try to prepare through performing heterosexuality.  In Superbad, Seth (Jonah Hill) and his attached-at-the-hip best friend Evan (Michael Cera) are graduating high school and going to different colleges.  Instead of facing his feelings of loss, Seth focuses on getting Jules (Emma Stone) to date him for the summer so that he can practice having sex and start college as “the Iron Chef of pounding vag.”  In Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) has a one night stand with Alison (Katherine Heigl) that results in an unintended pregnancy; he tries to do the “right thing” by rushing into a relationship with her.  And it comes as no surprise that both women are portrayed as out of the protagonists’ “league.” Thinness is a major indicator of this quality that Jules and Alison both possess, that could be seen as “having it together:” they display self-control, competence, intelligence, and maturity, whereas Ben and Seth are characterized in a contrasting manner. 

[Something to bear in mind if you haven’t seen Superbad and your interest has been piqued: this is a movie that is very much located within rape culture. Its theme and story subvert expectations of teen sex comedies, but there is no getting around that for a lot of the film, the protagonists are planning to have sex with women who are too drunk to consent.  Even though their plan is hatched from ignorant naivete rather than, say, a pickup artist handbook, it does expose a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies that can be uncomfortable to watch.  Although rape culture isn’t the topic of this article, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the film’s problematic aspects.]

Superbad is set in a high school community, thus character dynamics and situations are exposed largely through high school students gossiping and talking shit.  We get an idea of what the object of Seth’s affection is like before we even see her through Evan’s needling:  “Jules got incredibly hot over last summer and obviously doesn’t realize it because she’s still talking with you and flirting with you.”  Seth responds by running through a list of her former boyfriends who are more worthy than him, constructing her “league” of guys who are exceedingly athletic, handsome, and “the sweetest guy ever.”  We also see where our protagonists rank socially by a scene of Seth performing poorly in gym class and the number of times he is called a “pussy.”  Seth is both unpopular and disorderly, willfully ignoring school rules and bubbling over with sexual impulse. The guys have an innate sense that these traits need to be suppressed in order to be attractive.  An early scene finds Evan giving a heavily doctored account of his weekend exploits with Seth and Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to Becca (Martha MacIsaac), the girl he likes.  As he speaks with forced maturity and nonchalance, the scene is cross-cut with flashbacks to the guys watching porn, drunkenly crashing his parents’ party, and puking in an alley after getting denied entrance to a strip club.  Jules, in contrast to Seth, is portrayed as more “together.”  She projects cool in every scene she’s in, through a balance of ease and self-control:  she’s a girl who laughs at dick jokes and can successfully throw a large party on short notice, generously providing alcohol for her guests even though she herself does not drink.  

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Seth and Jules have chemistry.  Actually, they have home ec!  Just making a little joke. I like to keep it light in the captions.

Although Seth has a history of awkwardly flirtatious encounters with Jules, he is convinced that the only way he can have sex with her is if her judgment is impaired through alcohol.  Seth convinces Evan that he too can score with Becca if she’s drunk.  “You know when you hear girls saying, ‘I was so shitfaced last night, I shouldn’t have fucked that guy”? We can be that mistake!”  Seth believes that if he (and, by extension, Evan) is going to have sex with someone, it’s due to poor decision-making rather than desire. This mindset motivates their extraordinary attempts to buy alcohol and get to Jules’ party.  Seth even discourages Evan from telling Becca how he feels about her instead of plying her affections with alcohol.  

Seth’s plan is incredibly unethical, though the film portrays it as a misbegotten product of his insecurity and selfishness.  The turning point for Seth is when he is forced to drop his scheming and finally allows himself to be vulnerable, allowing his unruliness to dissolve his prickly defensiveness instead of being used to transgress order to get what he wants.  We see him starting to let go at Jules’ party, telling the embarrassing stories of his adventures thus far to a group of peers, as Jules watches him from afar, smiling.  They go off alone, and he discovers that his plan is subverted by her “togetherness:”  not only does she not drink, she sets appropriate boundaries by saying she doesn’t want to make out with him when he is drunk.  He walks off, unable to handle his frustration and embarrassment.  Later, Jules finds him crying.  He tells her how disappointed he is that he blew his last chance “to make [her his] girlfriend for the summer,” and that he had been banking on her being drunk.  “You’d never get with me if you were sober.  Look at you!  Look at me!”

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In her essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness,”  Neda Ulaby makes the following observation about why Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had so many ardent female fans at the height of his celebrity:  “[he] projected a desire to be viewed with longing, illustrating that the capacity to attract and hold such a look is as frequently a gender-neutral source of power as a gendered target of male exploitation” (Braziel and LaBesco 160).  I must admit a personal bias– I think Jonah Hill is a cutiepie– but no matter how much I try to stay mindful of Seth’s creepy attitude towards making Jules his conquest earlier in the movie, the sincerity and vulnerability of his sense of loss melts my heart every time I watch this scene.  It’s also effective on Jules, apparently, as the film ends with her inviting him to hang out at the mall the next day.

Knocked Up begins in a similar vein, with unruly man-child Ben and “together,” out of his “league” Alison hooking up after a night of drinking at a club.  The opening scenes illustrate who the characters are and how much their lives differ, with Ben and his friends goofing off and smoking pot in their mess of a house, while Alison wakes up early, takes her nieces to school, and holds it down at her glamorous job.  They are physically dissimilar as well; Alison works for the image-obsessed E! Network, and isn’t told to lose weight when she gets a promotion to be on-camera (they legally can’t do that), but is strongly encouraged to “tighten.”  Ben, on the other hand, is comfortably unkempt and chubby.  They cross paths at a nightclub when Alison is celebrating her promotion and Ben gets her a drink; “I rarely look this cool,” he admits.  Although there is nothing to suggest that either is planning to get the other drunk in order to get laid, their encounter is characterized by poor judgment, namely a miscommunication about a condom that results in pregnancy.  The next morning finds Alison looking with disgust at a naked Ben asleep in her bed; he is the “mistake” that Seth and Evan aspire to be in Superbad.  

This is probably a good opportunity to bring up a challenge that I face writing about the topic of fat characters in romantic/sexual situations:  I’m attracted to other fat people.  I don’t come at these movies from the assumed point of view that the fat characters are unpleasant to look at.  I can parse from Katherine Heigl’s acting, the camera angles, timing, etc. that naked Seth Rogen in one’s bed is unappealing and therefore funny, but that’s not a point of view to which I can relate to at all.  Knocked Up can be rightly criticized for being a story about an idealized woman and an underachieving guy falling in love, when the gender-swapped version of that story would never see the light of day, but this argument can be convincingly made based on the characters actions and lives.  From what I remember of publicized versions of this argument when Knocked Up came out, it often boiled down to their physical characteristics, which assumes that attraction is universal and objective, alienating not only fat people from this discourse, but people who desire fat people.  This idea even appears in discussions of size diversity: the AV Club published an article yesterday about body shaming in Hollywood, where one of the writers mentions “Seth Rogen and basically all of his romantic interests” as an example of “men paired with female co-stars who are objectively more attractive.”

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“Hooray!  Oh, wait, I mean… Gross? … um…?”

I hadn’t seen Knocked Up in several years; everything I remembered about its main conflict arose from Ben’s immaturity and lack of responsibility (e.g. not reading the baby books).  However, the second watch revealed a more nuanced relationship than Manchild Loves Overachiever.  Alison herself is emotionally mature and willing to give Ben a chance, but her emotionally stunted, thin family doesn’t contribute to that at all.  Alison’s polished mother (Joanna Kerns) frostily pressures her to get an abortion, threatening that her daughter’s job won’t like when pregnancy makes her fat.  The next scene shows Ben’s stoner dad calming his son’s fears with amused patience.  (These scenes are imbalanced, in my opinion, and it’s all Harold Ramis’ fault.  He is in the movie for maybe 4 minutes total, and he knocks it out of the park.  I think I got more choked up over his loss watching this scene than when I heard the news of his death.)  Moreover, Alison’s unhappily married sister and brother-in-law, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), are a symbol of impending doom.  Pete is so checked out of his life that he appears to be an animatronic Paul Rudd puppet, while Debbie is shallow and controlling, a near-constant voice of doubt in Alison’s ear.  “He’s overweight,” she tells her sister, “when does that end? …imagine how much bigger he’s gonna get.  That means he has bad genes.  Your kid is gonna be overweight.”  “Shit,” Alison whispers.  Alison’s “mistake” puts her in proximity to fatness, both through the weight that she gains over the course of her pregnancy, and her decision to give a relationship with Ben an actual chance, despite walking out of breakfast with him the morning after their hookup.

Like Seth in Superbad, Ben is characterized by his lack of traditionally masculine charms (big muscles and/or a big paycheck), but becomes lovable by being vulnerable and emotionally open.  His ultimate proving ground when Alison goes into labor. He proves that he is open to change and has taken on some of Alison’s “togetherness,” but unlike the rest of her family, prioritizes her feelings and wants.  He takes care of Alison through the knowledge he’s acquired about the birthing process and taking care of her emotional needs by setting boundaries with her ruthless obstetrician (Ken Jeong) and Debbie, who is also won over by Ben telling her to stay in the waiting room.  Proving that he can be mature and nurturing, Alison realizes how much she loves him, and the film ends with a montage of the happy family.  

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Look at ‘im go, defying traditional standards of masculinity.

Ulaby’s observation about Fatty Arbuckle also applies to Ben, as he moves beyond the goofy guy who was lucky enough to have a one-night stand with a beautiful woman and becomes someone who is willing to be vulnerable and open to change out of longing for her to love him.  Both films end with the protagonists facing their scary, uncertain futures– Seth and Evan separate from each other, Ben becomes a father– motivated by the reciprocated love of women who are out of their “league.”  The fat protagonists of these films show a different masculinity than is often seen in film, men who are desirable to women through their longing and vulnerability.  Regarding the kind of women who are desirable to men, though: if the audience wants a depiction of women that doesn’t reside on top of the traditional pedestal of togetherness, we must look elsewhere.

Link: Is Hamlet fat?

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