the other

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?

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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.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Boys and Thin Girls: Angus (1995, dir. Patrick Read Johnson), The Motel (2005, dir. Michael Kang), Terri (2011, dir. Azazel Jacobs)

My intention with this series of posts about romantic storylines featuring fat men and thin women was to choose films using a specific parameter:  fat men and thin women who start a relationship during the course of the film and are still together when it ends.  This time around, that ended up being more of a hindrance than help.  I wanted to focus on adolescent characters, so I watched three films with fat male protagonists and plot summaries that suggested romance– AngusThe Motel* and Terri.  None of the three ended with the hero happily coupled with the object of his affections; The Motel and Terri end in explicit rejection.  This surprised me.  Certainly not all coming of age films focus on romance, or even use beginning a relationship to signify maturation.  Neither film I watched last summer with fat boy protagonists, Chubby and Heavyweights, had romantic storylines for their protagonists, though I suspect that’s more to do with the protagonists being closer to childhood than young adulthood.  I wanted stories of fat characters learning to believe in themselves to include at least some subversion of the assumption that they wouldn’t be able to find willing romantic partners. But as I have a prolific once-per-month posting average to maintain, plus these films have some interesting similarities and center fat characters more than most, I figure they’re worth talking about. 

As is required by the genre, all three young protagonists need to learn important life lessons in order to confront or transcend the difficult situations they find themselves in at the beginnings of their respective stories.  All three are outsiders.  Terri (Jacob Wysocki) and Angus(Charlie Talbert) are bullied and unpopular explicitly because they are fat.  This isn’t as much the case for The Motel’s Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), although he is not shown at his school nearly as much as the other two boys.  He is nonetheless othered due to his ethnicity and class status, as part of a Chinese-American family who eke out a living running a cheap motel.  It’s worth noting that all three have nontraditional family structures.  In addition to the dynamic of the family business and having a home culture that’s markedly different from that of the society around him, Ernest’s father abandoned their family.  Angus’ father died soon after Angus was born; his family consists of his tough-as-nails trucker mom (Kathy Bates) and his tough-as-nails grandfather (George C. Scott).  (Worth noting: in the short story that Angus is based on, “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune,”  his mother and father are both gay and remarried to stepparents of the same gender.  Moviegoing America apparently wasn’t ready for that particular configuration of loving but alternatively-structured family in the mid 90s.)  Both of Terri’s parents are MIA; his only family member is an uncle (Creed Bratton) who has an unnamed illness.  As part of their atypical families, the boys all must take on atypical roles for teenage boys.  Terri and Angus act as caretakers for their elder male relatives, while Ernest works housekeeping duty at the motel.  Not only are these roles feminized and serve to detract from any hope they have of conforming to romantic male lead standards as much as being fat does, but also detract from the amount of time they have to spend with their peers (and therefore mean fewer opportunities to meet and interact with girls).  

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Melissa (Ariana Richards) and Angus (Charlie Talbert), the Winter Ball Court/Unwilling Spectacle

Angus also features an interesting story beat around othering and feminization in terms of clothing.  Fat bodies in movies (and also in, you know, society) vacillate between invisible/excluded and hypervisible/spectacle.  When Angus is elected king of the Winter Ball as a prank, he is suddenly recategorized, going from having his achievements on the football field ignored to facing having to dance with his long-time crush in front of the whole school.  The intent/expectation that he will suffer humiliation is compounded when he has to rent a tuxedo, but despite protests that he wants a “socially acceptable” black tuxedo, his only option is purple.  But what seems like a cruel parody of the role he is supposed to embody becomes a symbol of his defiance, a dare for people to accept him instead of an invitation to mock him.  Terri and Ernest both have specific clothing, but it reinforces their invisibility.  Terri wears pajamas 24/7 (which I took as a symptom of depression), but nobody notices or asks except when his assistant principal makes him a special project.  Ernest tends to wear t-shirts that are garish, especially when compared to his mild personality; without saying anything, it’s obvious that they were purchased from a thrift store.

The combination of social isolation and difficult personal life also make the protagonists’ relationship with an older male figure important to their maturation.  Terri has a tenuous relationship with Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), the assistant principal who can act thoughtlessly at times, but also models the self-confidence and tenacity that Terri lacks, opening up to the depressed student before he himself is willing to open up.  Angus has Grandpa, whose motto is “screw ‘em.”  He is marrying a woman thirty years younger than him; his stubborn refusal to let others’ judgments sway his decisions and his ability to woo a beautiful woman despite being old and fat both inspire Angus and foreshadow his success with the girl he has a crush on.  Ernest’s grandfather (Stephen Chen) takes a very hands-off approach to parenting (but does pick on his weight).  Luckily for Ernest, he is the main character in an indie dramedy and is therefore destined to cross paths with an eccentric loose cannon who brings some fun and freedom into his seemingly hopeless life, Sam (Sung Kang).  Sam tries to be a surrogate father figure, teaching him how to drive and trying to convince him to stand up for himself.  However, Sam is also more toxic than Grandpa or Mr. Fitzgerald, as a self-destructive divorcee who manipulates Ernest into letting him stay at the motel without paying.  

In addition to older male characters who teach the protagonists how to navigate being an outsider, the love interest characters are also outsiders in their own rights.  Despite being a popular cheerleader, Melissa (Ariana Richards) is as much a victim of bullying as Angus, as her boyfriend Rick (James Van Der Beek) uses her as a pawn to try and humiliate our hero.  During the climactic scene at the school Winter Ball dance, she admits to Angus that not only is she as nervous as he is about being publicly humiliated, but she is also bulimic, something she had never told anyone else.  “Do you ever get tired of who you are?” she asks him.  “Do you know who you’re talking to?” he responds.  Terri has a crush on Heather (Olivia Crocicchia), who becomes a social outcast when a classmate fingers her in class.  This is partly Terri’s fault: his outsider status allows him moments of quiet observation where he sees the otherwise surreptitious sex act, his other classmates then see what he’s looking at and make a scene.  He does, however, attempt to make things right by defending her to Mr. Fitzgerald, who wants to expel her, and detracting unwanted attention from her in subsequent classes.  His support builds their friendship and gives him a shot with her when she suggests they hang out together after school.  Despite being conventionally attractive, in contrast to the protagonists, Heather and Melissa both have bodies that require regulation, Heather through slut-shaming and Melissa through an eating disorder.  In this way, they find empathy and companionship through the boys who are social pariahs for their own unruly bodies.  In The Motel, however, similarity is a problem.  Christine (Samantha Futerman), like Ernest, is part of a Chinese immigrant family and has an atypical childhood for an American kid, working at her family’s business. Unlike the other two films, their similar outsider status may be what prevents any potential romance.  When giving Ernest advice on romance, Sam tells him that Christine won’t want him because he reminds her of her upbringing, and she wants a boyfriend who will offer her escape.

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Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) and Christine (Samatha Futerman), finding relief from their jobs together

Perhaps because of empathy gained from being an outsider, or because of the feminized roles they play in their family lives, the protagonists treat the girls with more respect than do their male peers.  (Given that there is no culmination in romance, especially for Ernest and Terri, The Motel and Terri risk a “nice guy” dynamic.)  While Terri protects Heather and respects her boundaries, his friend Chad plans to get her drunk and have sex with her because he thinks she’s an easy target due to her reputation. As mentioned above, Rick uses Melissa in a plan to humiliate Angus without her consent, then gets mad at her when she teaches Angus how to dance instead of allowing him to fail. Ernest stands by while three classmates of Christine’s trespass on her family’s property to skate and try to get her to give them free food.  She hesitantly agrees, uncomfortable with the idea but longing for their approval.  Even outside a romantic context, there is a tacit trust and intimacy between each pair that the female characters lack in other interactions with male peers.

Angus is the only film of the three that ends with ambiguous potential for romance.  Notably, Angus is also the most idealized protagonist. He makes a lot of self-deprecating comments about being fat, but he is on the football team, being considered for a prestigious magnet school, and is able to stand up for himself. He is able to physically overpower Rick, but can’t because he faces suspension. His character growth is about replacing his fists with words, naturally culminating in a speech that is the best moment in the film.  The last scene of the film is Melissa giving him a kiss on the cheek after he walks her home.  What’s to come of this we don’t know, but in all fairness, she did just get royally screwed over by her jerk boyfriend.  Some time to herself would be healthy.  Both Heather and Christine also deal with external circumstances that affect any desire for romance with Terri or Ernest, fatness not ever being an explicit factor.  Heather’s classmates have ostracized her due to being sexually active.  Terri has a chance to have sex with her (he doesn’t) because she is drunk.  She leaves a note for Terri asking that he not talk about the incident at school and emphasizing that she is his friend.  And in The Motel, as previously noted, Christine’s lack of attraction for Ernest may be due to associating romance with escape from her family life.

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Terri (Jacob Wysocki), concerned for Heather’s (Olivia Crocicchia) wellbeing

Although none of the films end happily with romance, they do end on hopeful notes as we see signs of maturation in the protagonists. Ultimately, the resolution has more to do with their relationships with their older male role models than their female love interests.  Angus, as previously noted, learns to solve his problems with dramatic speeches instead of violence and  discovers that idealized Melissa is a vulnerable human being, because he takes Grandpa’s advice to “screw ‘em” (repeated to him by Melissa) and does what he wants despite potentially being judged by others.  “I’d had my moment,” he tells the audience in the ending narration, “and then I heard my grandfather’s voice say to me, ‘Go have another.’”  After being rejected by Heather, Terri spends a day with Mr. Fitzgerald, not only for his own benefit but also to give the older man company, as he is separating from his wife and sleeping in his car on school grounds.  “She’s embarrassed,” he tells Mr. Fitzgerald.  “I’m not going to say anything if that’s what she’s worried about… I don’t think I’m read for all that stuff yet, anyway.”  “Who is, you know?” Mr. Fitzgerald responds.  The last shot is of Terri walking through the woods by himself, looking content.  The Motel’s climax sees Ernest confronting Sam, refusing to be manipulated and telling Sam that he has to leave the motel if he isn’t going to pay for his room.  Instead of having to passively accept that his father left him, he is able to actively reject a dad-analogue figure for not treating him with respect.  The boys all learn to value themselves despite the fatphobic (and in Ernest’s case, racist) rhetoric thrown at them; even if the expectation that a fat boy would fail at a romantic endeavor isn’t necessarily subverted, the expectation that a fat boy would fail to love himself is unquestionably skewered by all three films.

*If discussion about The Motel seems less detailed than the other two films, it’s because it was the first of the three I watched, and I lost my notes.  It’s definitely worth watching, though.

“I’m not going to let her be a joke:” What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, dir. Lasse Halström)

I’ve written previously on CPBS about trying to pin down the parameters of fatness.  My approach to selecting films and characters to write about is to see fat (and, implicitly, average/thin) as a contextual label that tacitly includes socially ascribed values, un/acceptability almost always being one of them.  This open definition has room for a range of body sizes and shapes, and thereby, a range of challenges.  Most characters, by virtue of being in widely distributed films, tend to be “Hollywood fat.”  The conflict attached to their size of their bodies is the inability to be accepted into systems that are usually criticized for being shallow and elitist.  Often the impact of their fatness on their character arc stays on that level.  Muriel Heslop may be ostracized by her peers for being fat, but she is able to walk into literally every bridal boutique in Sydney and try on dresses that they have in stock.  

It goes without saying that being demeaned based on narrow standards of physical acceptability is a real, common, and painful phenomenon, but leaving the fat person’s experience in the realm of “The jerks don’t think they’re beautiful but then they have some transformative life experiences and learn that they really are” is a vast oversimplification.  I believe that challenging viewers to empathize with people and situations they had prejudged or overlooked is one of the most powerful effects that cinema can have, and fat characters are usually in a relatively comfortable place for most viewers– which is why What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an essential addition to this blog.  Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates), aka Momma, is a fat woman whose weight and size impede her mobility; the impact this has on her children is a significant part of the plot.  She isn’t treated as a joke or a horror story.

Although the previous sentence isn’t something that can often be said of people of Darlene Cates’ size when they appear on a screen, make no mistake: the film doesn’t idealize or center Momma.  As with many marginalized and supporting characters, Momma functions as a symbol.  Similar to Misery’s Annie Wilkes, Momma can be equated with domestic stagnation.  She was “the prettiest girl around these parts” (the evidence of which is a photo of a younger, slender Momma on the family fridge) until her husband’s suicide.  Her weight is attributed to her prolonged bereavement, ensuring that she is “wedged” in the house that he built for his family.  “We don’t really move.  I mean we’d like to, but my mom is sort of attached to the house,” Gilbert (Johnny Depp) explains to manic pixie dream girl Becky (Juliette Lewis) with a wry half-smile, referring both to Momma’s limited mobility and her emotional constraints on leaving the house.  He continues describing his mother to Becky in terms that refer to both her size and her inability to move forward with her life:  “Did you ever see a beached whale on television? …that’s her.  That’s my mom.”  Hardly a compassionate description.  Compare her to Arnie (Leonardo diCaprio).  Gilbert is also responsible for his brother’s well-being, but highly mobile Arnie isn’t a barrier to Gilbert’s wanderlust, and is able to travel off into the sunset alongside him.  

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Momma comforts Arnie after one of his multiple attempts to climb the town’s water tower.

Momma’s stagnation also seems to affect her younger son in particular.  She cradles Arnie when he’s upset and refers to him with pet names like “my sunshine.”  Her infantilizing treatment of him contrasts with his impending 18th birthday, as well as the stress that Arnie’s siblings go through trying to rein in his childlike antics (such as climbing the town’s water tower), occasionally exploding in frustrated violence.  The film takes place roughly over the course of a week, during which time Arnie’s nose is bloodied both by his brother and younger sister.  

The house itself, symbolic of the Grape family and their baggage, is not in good condition. Gilbert’s handyman friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) observes that it has “a serious foundation problem.”   The house’s disrepair is attributed to the strain of bearing Momma’s weight; the few times we see her moving through the house are accompanied by the creaking and groaning of the floorboards under her feet; in one scene, her journey from the bathroom to the couch where she spends most of her time is intercut with shots of Tucker in the basement, observing the floorboards bending and showering dust from the impact of her footsteps.  As with other tensions that remain undiscussed, her children keep the house repairs a secret from her, sneaking boards into the basement to secure the floor that shakes under her feet.  The image recalls the cartoonish cliche of a fat person’s footsteps causing the ground to shake.

Momma’s inability/unwillingness to leave the house and reliance on her children to care for her tethers Gilbert to the house, stifling his dreams, which in practice comes across as his constant brooding.  The town is depicted as sapping Gilbert’s will to live.  Arnie’s comments lack a filter but usually skewer a situation’s truth.  “You’re getting smaller!” he crows at his brother during the film’s opening scene.  “You’re shrinking! Shrinking! Shrinking!”  But any dreams Gilbert has beyond getting out of his hometown are nebulous and largely unspoken, which Becky attributes to him always thinking about other people. Despite being a caretaker for both his mother and brother, his selflessness has definite limits. He has an affair with a married woman (Mary Steenburgen), makes insulting comments about his mother to Tucker and Becky, and gets angry and sullen with Becky when she talks about leaving town, even though she is literally travelling through in a camper.  If anyone in the family deserves to be characterized as always thinking of others, it’s older sister Amy (Laura Harrington), who is constantly in service of others onscreen, cooking for the family or helping her mother ambulate.  Amy’s happy ending is relegated to Gilbert’s narration, where he tells the audience that she gets a job managing a bakery in Des Moines, and that younger sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) is looking forward to “switching schools,” presumably under her sister’s care.

Momma also functions as a source of shame for Gilbert.  Their relationship is understandably complicated.  She holds him responsible for Arnie’s safety and he often fails her; she can’t move past her husband’s death, which results in additional burdens on Gilbert and his siblings.  However, his frustrations with her are ciphered as disgust at her size.  Gilbert’s desires, which Becky categorizes as selfless, include wanting Momma “to take aerobics classes,” prioritizing her unacceptable weight over her grief or her social isolation.  When Tucker asks Gilbert how Momma is doing, he replies “She’s fat.”  His friend defends her by saying, “She’s not the biggest I’ve ever seen.”  

Inextricable from Gilbert’s sense of shame is how Momma is treated as a spectacle, an experience not unfamiliar to many people of Momma’s size.  Momma was Darlene Cates’ first acting job; she was discovered by screenwriter Peter Hedges as a guest on Sally Jesse Raphael, talking about life at her size.  During the interview, she said, “I’ve always had this fantasy, this goal, of being able to go to the mall… and sit there, and not have anyone notice me.”  Fat characters, especially those who are Momma’s size, are often included in films as spectacle.  Whether for eliciting laughter or disgust (often both), they often solely exist for the purpose of the emotional reaction of the audience looking at their bodies.  Many of the townspeople making Momma into a spectacle are children, suggesting that the impulse to stare at her is immature.  In the beginning of the film, Gilbert is willing to help a neighborhood child peek into the living room window to get a glimpse of her, but doesn’t want to bring Becky home, as is an expected step in their blossoming romance.  He wants to stay outside the house, making snide comments to his friends and being safe in the crowd of spectators; being seen inside the house, as part of the family unit containing his unacceptably fat mother, is too much for him.  

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The Endora community, from Momma’s point of view.

Although Gilbert eventually brings Becky into the house, Momma herself shows more courage than he does.  After climbing the town water tower one too many times, the cops put Arnie in jail.  Momma responds by leaving the house for the first time in over seven years to get her son.  She tells her children to get her coat for her, but ends up going into town with a blanket thrown around her shoulders, a coat able to accommodate her likely being a difficult item to find.  She marches into the sheriff’s office, to the surprise of everyone present, and demands Arnie’s release without having to go through any procedures that the sheriff tries to insist are necessary.  Momma’ trip back to the car, assisted by Amy, is a gamut of children laughing at her and adults giving disgusted sidelong glances.  One man even snaps a photograph.  This scene is centrally composed of closeups of Momma and Amy, isolating them in the frame and focusing on their determination to get to the car in a dignified manner.  The gawkers are seen in longer shots; we see them in groups, how they outnumber the Grapes, their feelings of disgust nearly overwhelming.  The family is uncharacteristically quiet on the drive back home; during dinner, Ellen breaks a pane of glass throwing something at a group of children trying to sneak a peek at Momma.  Although the act of going to the town square is objectively small, it is the essence of one of the main reasons Momma doesn’t leave the house:  she is made to feel shame for who she is by nearly every passerby.  Her lack of hesitation to confront that in order to save Arnie from a scary situation makes the blanket around her shoulders look more like a hero’s cape than an ad hoc coat. In the next scene, Becky tells Gilbert that Momma’s actions were “so brave… you know that, right?”  He doesn’t respond, staring at the map of places to where Becky has traveled.

Arnie has his 18th birthday, typically a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, dependence to independence.  Perhaps still feeling the shame placed on her by the town from her trip to the sheriff’s office, Momma watches the festivities from a discreet window.  She and Gilbert have a heartfelt conversation in which she apologizes to him for being “this way” and he denies being ashamed of her.  In a gesture to both atone for the shame he has felt around Momma and to bring Becky more fully into his life, Gilbert asks Momma to allow him to bring Becky inside and meet her.  Momma, understandably, is initially resistant, but Gilbert persists:  “This is different.  Nobody’s gonna laugh.  I’m not gonna hurt you any more, Momma.”  She relents, and is introduced to Becky, who is young and pretty and slender, who embodies the person Momma was and the person Momma is compelled to measure herself against.  Momma’s impulse, literally right after the two of them shake hands, is to apologize for herself:  “I haven’t always been like this.”  “I haven’t always been like this,” Becky responds, neutralizing the expectation of shame or regret around Momma’s body, normalizing their differences.  Momma laughs, the tension in the room dissipates.

After the events of the day, Momma complies with a repeated request Amy makes of her in the beginning of the film and Gilbert’s unexpressed desire:  she moves.  Without fanfare, she ascends the stairs to a bedroom on the second floor.   The scene appears to unfold in real time and focuses both on her children’s reactions and the effort it takes for her to get up the stairs.  The soundtrack is largely her heavy breathing and the creaking of the staircase under her feet; her face shines with sweat once she reaches the second floor, and her children have to help her get into bed and rest.  Finally at peace in her relationship with Gilbert, she calls him her “knight in shimmering armor… you shimmer and you glow.”  Presumably because her body was not able to handle the strain, Momma dies while the family cleans up the remains of Arnie’s party.  As is the case with many heroes, Momma sacrifices herself for the sake of her loved ones.  

The family’s grief is compounded by a horrifying thought:  the police may have to call in extra manpower to remove Momma’s body from the house.  Ellen panics: “There’s gonna be a crowd.”  “She’s no joke… I’m not going to let her be a joke,” Gilbert vows.  Tragically, he finally returns to seeing his mother as someone worthy of dignity only after her personal agency has been eradicated.  Instead of trying to ignore or accept the stares of the townspeople, or try to fight against them, the family makes a radical decision to liberate Momma from them altogether.  The only way for Momma and her children to be freed from shame is to remove her body from the equation entirely, for her funeral to be the project of her family alone.  They remove their belongings from the house and light it on fire, with Momma’s body inside.  She is not the only one liberated by this act; freed of the dual constraints of Momma and the house their father built, Gilbert and Arnie are free to ride off into the sunset with Becky and the magical convoy of campers that roll through their town every summer.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 16.40.13

Because the film focuses on Gilbert’s personal conflict and growth, Momma’s depiction is mostly limited to her experiences as a fat person, and how her size affects her relationships with her family and her community.  Although this is a notable limitation, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is landmark for how it asks the audience to look at the story.  While Momma’s relationship with her family is complicated, especially with Gilbert, we are invited to empathize with her, and see the cruelty and negative effects of the judgmental gaze that is so often turned onto people of Momma’s size.  Considering that virtually all other pieces of media depicting people like Momma invite the audience to embody that judgmental gaze, the subverted viewpoint of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape makes it essential, despite its flaws.
See Also:

No Small Parts episode #8: Darlene Cates  A webseries dedicated to the lives and careers of character actors presents a heartfelt tribute to both Momma and Cates, who lives in Texas with her husband of 40+ years.  As a self-identified fat actor himself, webseries creator Brandon Hardesty makes a poignant comparison between his own career and Cates’:  “If I turned down every role where my weight is used as a one-off joke or a sight gag, I’d probably never work again.”  

How Fat Characters Function as Part of the Gang in Pixar Films: A Bug’s Life (1997, dir. John Lasseter), Up (2009, dir. Pete Docter), Inside Out (2015, dir. Pete Docter and Ronnie DelCarmen)

Over the past 20 years, Pixar, it goes without saying but I need a way to start this post so bear with me, has become a name synonymous with quality animation and heartfelt stories.  While an element of the fantastic is an essential part of every Pixar film, the best ones are also relatable, sensitive observations of near-universal emotional struggles.  The films often deal with themes of loss and maturation, either through the change of the status quo or being separated from a loved one.  While life tends to hit us with these kinds of experiences over and over again, they are particularly poignant for young people; grownups watching these films get the double whammy of relating to the characters’ experiences and seeing them through the lens of nostalgia, remembering what it was like being a kid and struggling with sharing the spotlight, or rebelling against parental expectations.  When a film is emotionally impactful on such a deep level, it’s because it gives us characters who are relatable and realistic, even if they are robots or talking fish.  Perhaps because they are aimed at children, these films tend to rely on classic structures of storytelling, including their interpersonal dynamics:  often these films are driven by a motley crew  of colorful characters and/or a mismatched pair.  Since the ideal balance to strike is an initially accessible film that invites the young audience to a more challenging level of observation, the challenge (as I see it) is to move past easy generalizations and stereotypes that could exist as the individual characters within these more easily understood relationships and stories.  With regards to fat characters who are part of these commonly seen social structures*, three Pixar films show varying degrees of success at thoughtful, nuanced portrayals.

A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s second feature-length film; while visually it is a great leap forward from the animation in Toy Story, it never reaches the emotional heights of its predecessor.  In an ant colony whose survival depends on teamwork, bumbling inventor Flik (Dave Foley) is a liability.  After accidentally destroying the offering of food that a gang of grasshoppers extorts from the colony in return for “protection,” Flik is exiled under the pretense of being sent to find “warrior bugs” to help the ants defy the grasshoppers. Stumbling across a circus troupe, he mistakenly assumes them to be warriors; the troupe, in turn, mistakenly assumes Flik is hiring them for a performance.  The motley crew circus troupe is a marked contrast to the mass conformity of the ant colony, but besides having neat tricks and personal quirks, they aren’t fleshed out.  Unsurprising, considering that the plot is basically Seven Samurai in less than half the runtime, and there are eight characters in the troupe (nine, if you don’t count Tuck and Roll as a combined entity).  The troupe includes Frances, a snarky ladybug with a chip on his shoulder from being misgendered one too many times (Dennis Leary), Manny, a mystical praying mantis magician (Jonathan Harris), and this guy:

 

bugs life heimlich

Oh boy.

Heimlich (Joe Ranft) is an actor in the troupe, performing sketches with Slim the Walkingstick (David Hyde Pierce) and Frances.  He speaks with a German accent, reminiscent of fat German gourmands like Augustus Gloop.  Heimlich is just as brave (or not) and just as competent a performer (or not) as the rest of his troupe, but fat stereotypes are largely what differentiate him as an individual from his friends.  He is shown eating much more frequently than the other characters– compare this to the grasshoppers, who are greedy enough to exploit the ants for exorbitant amounts of food, are not portrayed as fat, with the possible exception of dimwitted toadie Molt (Richard Kind), who is smaller and broader than his ringleader brother Hopper (Kevin Spacey, chewing the vocal scenery).  Heimlich’s hunger is shown as inappropriate; he stops a performance to ask an audience member to share their candy corn wit him.  Even his name suggests inappropriate eating.  There are jokes and story beats based on the size of his body, such as getting wedged in tight spaces and other characters struggling to pick him up.  Heimlich’s prodigious consumption, while being a defining character trait, also serves a practical purpose in that he is preparing to transform into a butterfly (perhaps a nod to The Very Hungry Caterpillar). He looks forward to the day when he will be a “beautiful butterfly;” when he finally emerges from his chrysalis, he looks like the same character with slightly different markings and tiny wings that aren’t capable of lifting him.  He is, however, overjoyed at his “beautiful wings” and doesn’t acknowledge that he can’t fly with them, suggesting that his happiness in his appearance is tied to a lack of awareness of his own body.   

Last year’s Inside Out met with near-universal rave reviews for its innovative concept.  The story is simple: an 11-year-old girl Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) has trouble adjusting when her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.  The majority of the film plays out in Riley’s mind, a spacey environment ruled by her anthropomorphized emotions: Joy (Amy Poelher), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).  Riley is a happy kid with a secure life, so Joy is her ruling emotion.  During the substantial exposition, Joy explains how the seemingly negative emotions of Anger, Fear, and Disgust help Riley stay safe, but talks about Sadness as a nonessential.  Starting out as a motley crew of these five emotions, the film quickly shifts to become about a mismatched pair trying to work together, as Joy and Sadness are flung to the recesses of Riley’s long-term memory banks in a moment of panic.  On top of being opposite emotions, Joy and Sadness have contrasting looks: 

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Sadness is fat.  Her outfit of a shapeless sweater and glasses is gauche. She slouches and hides behind her hair and speaks in a soft voice.  She is the visual opposite of Joy, who has a slim body, boundless energy, a pixie cut and a feminine, form-fitting dress, who skates gracefully along with Riley and literally glows.  Sadness’ introduction in the film is accompanied by the strains of a tuba.  Her movements are sluggish; she is droops uncertainly over the control panel.  At one point, she is “too sad to walk;” Joy literally drags her around by the foot.  (Of note:  when Sadness collapses, the sound effect used is practically the same as the one in A Bug’s Life when Heimlich collapses. I described it in my notes as “blurpy.”)  

After its theatrical release, several articles and thinkpieces were published about Sadness being a fat character (none of which particularly resonated with me, to be honest, but they aren’t hard to Google if you’re curious).  Slender Joy (Amy Poehler) is the character who children are more conditioned by other media to like.  She looks like Tinkerbell and acts like Woody.  She’s also the protagonist, the emotion who takes the lead in Riley’s mind and narrates the story.  As Riley is learning to express grief in the external world, Joy is learning to accept Sadness’ importance in Riley’s life, and that memories can have a complex mix of emotions attached to them.  Along with Riley and Joy’s character growth, Sadness also learns that she plays an important role in Riley’s life and that there are times where it’s appropriate for her to be at the helm.  In fact, Sadness’ initial contribution to her and Joy’s journey, being able to navigate the maze of Long Term Memory, is due to Joy’s lack of faith in her, as Joy directed her to read their procedural manuals in Headquarters to keep her out of “trouble.”  Notwithstanding, her self-doubt seems to be learned from Joy’s constant attempts to prevent her from doing anything (and, externally, Riley dealing with the expectation to be her parents’ “happy girl”).  The thin character’s opinion of the fat character is largely what validates her existence.  It is worthy of note that, during glimpses into other characters’ minds, Sadness is always a fat character, but the leader emotion changes.  Sadness is in control of Riley’s mother’s mind, but is more thoughtful and measured than Riley’s Sadness.

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Riley receives the support she needs once she acknowledges Sadness.

Even if the character designers were not consciously saying to themselves “fat people are sad, therefore let’s make this character fat,” their intent was to portray a character whom others do not want to be around, whose presence is a detraction, a character who is only accepted after others undergo growth and maturation.  And they made that character look like a fat woman.  The sticking point when it comes to representations of characters from oft-stereotyped groups, like fat people, is the impossibility of seeing even a well-meaning depiction independent of those numerous experiences of a character being fat for a Reason, to communicate something about their personality or present their body as symbolic of something.  You know, the reason for this blog being a thing.  Maybe it would be different if there were more fat characters whose body size was incidental, in addition to having as complex a portrayal as characters of other shapes and sizes.  

In other words, it would be great to see more characters in the vein of Russell from Up.  Russell (Jordan Nagai) is a tenacious, talkative Wilderness Explorer scout who is hellbent on earning a badge for assisting the elderly (“I’ve got to help you cross something!” he tells Carl when they first meet).  In his attempt to assist grieving widower Carl (Ed Asner), he is pulled along on an adventure to Paradise Falls, a remote spot in South America that Carl’s departed wife Ellie dreamed of visiting.  Carl and Russell initially seem to have nothing in common, but eventually it’s revealed that they are on very common missions, avoiding grief by clinging to symbolic material possessions.  Carl conflates the house that he and Ellie shared with his lost love, talking to the house as though it was her and attaching it to helium balloons to he can float it to her dream spot to live out the rest of his days alone/with “her.”  Russell’s dedication to being a Wilderness Explorer and earning his badge is an attempt to bring his estranged father back into his life, hoping that his father will participate in the badge pinning ceremony.  

Russell is far from an idealized character, but his imperfections aren’t mapped onto the size of his body.  He is socially unaware, but this is more due to being an excitable 8-year-old who’s been given an opportunity to geek out about his hobby.  His limitations are not completely conflated with the size of his body.  He fails at assembling a tent, which is a near-requisite joke about camping.  He struggles to climb the garden hose tether leading from the ground to the house– related to a lack of athleticism, but when it means saving his friends, he is able to climb it with no problem.  He brings a supply of chocolate bars with him, a pretty typical fat kid trait, but once he sees that Kevin the bird likes chocolate, he becomes more interested in using it as a tool of strengthening their relationship than eating it himself.  

up garden hose

Although he loses his GPS device almost immediately, Russell serves as Carl’s guide in a few important ways. Russell has knowledge of the natural world and camping that help on their adventure, such as identifying dangerous stormclouds and bandaging Kevin’s leg after she is attacked.   More importantly, though, both characters have to learn to let go of their original goals and the items they make important, a move which is spearheaded by Russell.  After Carl chooses to save his house over Kevin the bird, Russell throws his Wilderness Explorer sash to the ground in disgust, giving up “assisting the elderly” in order to assist Kevin, whose life is at stake.  After this gesture, Carl flies the house after Russell, but has to discard the furniture and other mementos of his life with Ellie out to make it light enough to get airborne.  Although Carl is the elder, he follows Russell’s example.  At Russell’s pinning ceremony, Carl awards him the soda cap pin Ellie gave him when they were children which he wears on his lapel throughout the film, “for performing above and beyond the call of duty.”

up badge

im not crying youre crying

Although Pixar films have certain shared traits that serve as brand DNA, the varying creators attached to different projects and the apparent market demand for sequels and spinoffs (which often mean a decrease in quality) mean that not every film they produce lives up to their reputation of superior family entertainment, nor does an exceptional concept or visual achievement say anything about the consideration of what it means to be an outsider beyond the context of said film’s immediate story.

 

*Not fat societies, mind you. WALL-E to be discussed at a later date.

 

See Also:

Does Inside Out Get Sadness Wrong? (with link to a more comprehensive NY Times article)

The Psychology of Inside Out

 

“Anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time:” The Addams Family and Addams Family Values (1991 and 1993, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)

At first I was ambivalent about Uncle Fester, but it didn’t take much research to convince me that he is a fat character.  On his Wikipedia page, there is a quote from creator Charles Addams describing him as “fat with pudgy little hands and feet.”  Although his body is obscured under his black robe, he has usually been portrayed by larger-bodied actors, such as Jackie Coogan on the 1960s television series and Kevin Chamberlin in the original Broadway cast of the 2010 musical.  But as this is a film blog, the focus will be narrowed on the first two films and entertainment pillars of my childhood, the Addams Family and Addams Family Values, with Christopher Lloyd wearing a fat suit to play Uncle Fester.

I have yet to address fat suits on CPBS.  The only role I’ve looked at that utilized a fat suit is John Travolta’s in the Hairspray remake, which I didn’t talk about in the article.*  The reasons for putting an actor in a fat suit vary based on the film, but there are similarities between Travolta wearing one in Hairspray and Lloyd in the Addams Family movies, which is the spectacle of celebrity.  In either film, a fat actor could easily have been cast, but both Lloyd and Travolta are well-known names to mainstream audiences.  On top of this, putting both of these actors in a fat suit creates a spectacle based on their public personas that serves as a draw for the film.  Travolta’s abrupt left turn from his usual roles as a handsome leading man was one of the main sources of buzz around Hairspray, and Lloyd’s portrayal of Fester fits in with his reputation for playing characters whose offbeat looks indicate an offbeat personality.  I’m hard pressed to think of a fat actor for either movie who would have been suited to the role and at a comparable level of fame.  (My initial thought for a recast of Fester would be Pruitt Taylor Vince, master of creepy weirdos, but even today he is at the “hey it’s that guy” level of fame.)  Of course, this creates a vicious cycle in which a studio wants to hire someone at a certain level of fame, but there is a dearth of fat actors as well known as they want, so a thinner actor is put in a fat suit, preventing fat actors from reaching greater levels of notability.  Of course, fat actors are far from the only marginalized group to experience this vicious cycle, as disabled actors, actors of color, and queer/trans actors are often overlooked in favor of performers from more privileged groups who go on to give “brave” performances as marginalized characters– or whose characters are (re)written to have that privilege.

fester 1

Fester as a character has changed through the years and various media incarnations of the Addams Family (although his ability to light a lightbulb by holding it in his mouth has been consistent).  In the films, Fester has brutish tendencies and is as gleefully morbid as the rest of his kin, but he is ultimately someone who is gullible, tender-hearted, and lonely.  In both The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, Fester’s story revolves around finding a connection with his family in spite of being duped by a manipulative woman.  When introduced in The Addams Family, he has been convinced that he is Gordon Craven, son of overbearing loan shark and con woman Abigail Craven (Elisabeth Wilson).  He and his mother “pretend” that he is long-lost Uncle Fester as a means of stealing the Addams fortune. Fester-as-Gordon-pretending-to-be-Fester is often perplexed, in way over his head in the Addams’ world and doing a poor job of convincing them that he is Gomez’s (Raul Julia) long-lost brother.  Despite believing he is only pretending to be Fester, the relationship he fosters with Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) raises a sense of belonging with the Addamses.  As introverted, lurking Fester is a foil to debonair, zealous Gomez, chubby Pugsley is a foil to his svelter sister.  Wednesday is intense, dour and sadistic, where her brother is easygoing and (like his uncle) gullible, always playing the victim to Wednesday’s torturer in their games. Fester’s love for the family as a whole grows to the point where he is able to stand up to his villainous faux mother in their defense.  A flash of insight strikes (literally, in the form of a bolt of lightning and Fester’s head) and the prodigal uncle’s true identity is restored.  His redeemed status in the family is illustrated in the film’s final scene set on Halloween, with Pugsley having opted to dress up as his uncle.

fester and pugsley

In Addams Family Values, Fester begins the film with his identity intact.  He is gleefully ghoulish, not unlike his family members, but as he is no longer bumbling through a con, we see that he is genuinely awkward, shy, and oblivious.  In the first film, Gomez waxes nostalgic about what a ladies’ man Fester used to be (while they watch a home movie in which young Fester sticks his finger in his date’s ear), but in the second film, he can barely look at object of his affection Debbie (Joan Cusack, arguably doing her finest work), let alone talk to her. Like Abigail, Debbie is a criminal who survives on deceit and wants to use Fester to get her hands on the Addams fortune. She is a “black widow” who marries, then kills, rich bachelors.  No longer reacting to the Addams’ world out of ignorance, Fester is purely unintelligent, to the point of being childlike.  While seducing him, Debbie confesses that she is a virgin; he doesn’t know what that means.  This doesn’t logically match up with the rest of the family, making Fester look particularly idiotic. In an earlier scene, Wednesday tells a less-informed peer that she has a new baby brother because her parents had sex; this is played for laughs, but apparently Gomez and Morticia (Anjelica Huston) don’t shy away from candid biological discussions.  Plus, considering that Morticia and her mother both practice some dark form of magic, you’d think they would have vials of virgin blood or something like that lying around the mansion.  When Debbie tells him what a virgin is, he confesses that he is one as well, again highlighting his naivete.  Fester’s role as vulnerable outsider is used primarily for laughs (as in this scene) and conflict, where the rest of the family must save him from Debbie, who attempts to turn him into a “normal” person, more to her liking, before bumping him off.  Compare this to a thinner outsider with a goth aesthetic in a comedic modern-day fantasy released a few years earlier: the titular character of Edward Scissorhands.  Edward (Johnny Depp) is also socially awkward, vulnerable, and longing for love.  However, unlike Fester, his loneliness and vulnerability are romanticized.  Despite having dangerous blades for hands, Edward is an artist who doesn’t want to harm anyone.  Fester is sweet and caring, but also delights in mayhem and grotesquerie. Edward’s love for Kim is pure and chivalric,  as opposed to Fester’s love for Debbie, which is misguided and dangerous.  Edward is a source of creativity and wonder for the mundane community he tries to live in, while Fester is merely an oddity.  

In a subplot, Fester’s young proteges find themselves in a similar dilemma.  Thanks to Debbie’s influence, Wednesday and Pugsley are also removed from their home and threatened with assimilation into normalcy at Camp Chippewa, a summer camp “for privileged young people.”  Camp Chippewa is a microcosm of the mundane world that the Addams are normally apart from, where people with non-normative bodies and identities are marginalized and attractive, athletic WASPs rule.  Wednesday and Pugsley befriend Joel (David Krumholtz), a nebbishy kid with multiple allergies.  The privileged-privileged campers, led by ultra-snob Amanda (Mercedes McNab) and enabled by chipper camp directors Becky (Christine Baranski) and Gary (Peter MacNicol), torture the outsiders with condescending mock-concern.   According to Becky, the WASPy campers “are going to set an example to show that anyone, no matter how odd or pale or chubby, can still have a good time!,”  while completely disregarding the needs and preferences of the marginalized campers. When the annual summer camp pageant is announced as a tribute to Thanksgiving, Wednesday is cast as Pocohontas, the leader of the Indians (played by the other outsider kids), and Pugsley as a fat-suit wearing turkey whose part includes a song begging the audience to kill and eat him.  And of course, as the Internet reminds us every Thanksgiving, Wednesday leads the other misfits in a spectacular rebellion

pugsley turkey

The Addams family is a subversion of American values, delighting in death and misery where most people would rather not think about such topics.  The family and their ilk include not only a Gothic aesthetic and diabolical values (Morticia laments that, as a busy wife and mother, she doesn’t have enough time to “seek out the dark forces and join their hellish crusade”), but an embracing of non-normative bodies.  In The Addams Family, Fester is re-introduced to Flora and Fauna, a ravishing pair of conjoined twins whom he courted as a young man.  Extras in scenes of the extended Addams family and friends include little people.  While this isn’t exactly liberatory, as little people are often present in films as little more than “weird” set dressing, it reinforces the idea that the Addams’ world embraces difference, along with death and destruction.  Although the inverting of social expectations fuels much of the humor in the film, perceptive audience members may wonder what the films are saying that these are also characters who passionately pursue their interests, are proud of their family history, care deeply about each other, and don’t exclude anyone based on ability or appearance.  

 

* …but I will talk about now.  John Travolta in a fat suit reflects my overall opinion of the Hairspray remake, namely that its admirable attempt to be more empathetic to the marginalized characters it portrays is undermined by its move towards wider mainstream acceptance as a movie.  One would expect to see a name as big as Travolta’s attached to the role of Edna, but John Travolta, a straight A-list celebrity who is an open and enthusiastic member of a religion that decries homosexuality, is a far cry from originator Divine a fat drag queen whose name was synonymous with trashiness.  In the remake, Edna is given more emotional depth in the form of being unwilling to leave the house until she loses weight (or, as actually happens, until she is empowered by Tracy to do so), but the casting choice was not to give this role– a potentially valuable career opportunity for a less famous actor– to someone who would have experienced the anxiety of being in a public space where they are reviled for what they look like.  Rather, the role went to someone whose reason to feel anxiety about appearing in public would likely be his immense popularity.

“It’s Sick, Being a Virgin:” Fat Girl (2001, dir. Catherine Breillat)

(CN: rape)

Given that the subjects of my last two posts are films about fat kids that take place in summer, I decided to use the dwindling time that remains before Labor Day to write about a third film that utilizes these subjects.  Fat Girl is a coming-of-age story about two sisters on summer vacation with their family: chubby 13-year-old Anais (Anais Deboux) and slender 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida).

A scene in the middle of the film serves as a cypher for the central paradox of the sisters’ relationship.  Elena and Anais stand cheek to cheek, regarding themselves in the mirror.  “It’s funny. We really have nothing in common,” Elena says. “Look at you.  You have small, hard eyes, while mine are hazy.  But when I Iook deep into your eyes, it makes me feel Iike I belong, as if they were my eyes.”  The core of Fat Girl is these two girls, who contrast each other in some very essential ways, but are inexorably bound together by shared experiences.  Both are adolescents grappling with the early throes of sexuality, but their divergent appearances and ages leave them in different positions socially, affecting their worldviews.  Their different experiences come up in the first conversation we hear between them: Anais claims that boys run from her sister once they see that she “[reeks] of loose morals,” while Elena counters that boys don’t come near Anais in the first place because she’s a “fat slob.”  

The ways in which Anais and Elena deviate from cultural standards of conduct are notably different.  The Criterion DVD of Fat Girl includes an interview with Breillat after the film’s debut at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival, in which the director describes Anais’ fatness as her coping mechanism to deal with having her body and sexuality denied by those around her.  It would be liberatory if Anais’ body could exist without rationalization, but by now, reader, I think you and I have become used to a fat body paying the admission of meaning in order to be present in a film.  Anais is frequently shown eating in Fat Girl.  When Elena meets her summer love Fernando (Libero de Rienzo) at a cafe, their flirtation and first kiss is paralleled with Anais ordering and eating a banana split, “[her] favorite.”  The girls’ mother (Arsinee Khanjian) initially defends Anais when Elena criticizes her for eating “like a pig.”  At the end of the film, however, fed up with her daughters’ adolescent shenanigans, Mother snaps at her for opening a snack after they have a meal.  Anais’ transgression is explicitly evident on her body, making her an easy target of criticism by her family.  Elena’s sexual activity, however, is also transgressively excessive by cultural standards, especially considering her age.  She is waiting to have PiV sex with someone special, but has been sexually active with casual partners.  Elena is able to have her metaphorical cake and eat it too, satisfying her desire for sex without the effects of those desires physically manifesting on her body that would open her up to criticism and judgment, the kind of which she lavishes on Anais.  

Breillat’s BIFF interview delves more directly into her philosophy of the two sisters:  “Since [Anais’] body makes her unlovable, since she isn’t looked at and desired, she’s more intelligent about the world.  She can create herself and be herself, with a kind of rebellion, certainly, which is painful, but all the same, she exists.  While her sister, to her internal devastation, isn’t able to exist.”  Her analysis reduces the characters to what they experience based on their looks, but it is certainly an applicable factor to understanding not only the girls of Fat Girl, but the majority of female film characters.  Anais desires sex without romanticizing it, whereas Elena denies her desire for sex because she romanticizes it.  Anais wants her own sexual debut to be with a casual partner who won’t have the ability to brag about deflowering her, whereas Elena seeks a partner whose love will validate her decision.  Fernando is able to coax a reluctant Elena into sex acts through hollow declarations of love.  Anais, on the other hand, playacts being a manipulative lover, pretending two ladders in their swimming pool are different sex partners of hers.  She swims back and forth between each, whispering cliche lies and practicing kissing.  “Women aren’t like bars of soap, you know,” she tells her pretend-partner, “they don’t wear away.  On the contrary, each lover brings them more.”

Anais’ sexual frustration means she observes and contemplates the sex lives of others, namely Elena’s.  Her observations are cynical, but more attuned to the film’s reality.  The audience may be accustomed to thinking of shots of Anais eating as grotesque or pitiable, but would a similar reaction be expected to the very long scene during which Fernando hounds Elena until she consents to anal sex?  Elena is too emotionally involved in the scene to see it for what it is, but Anais, who watches from across the room, is not.  The sex scenes in the film are shot from far away, putting Elena and Fernando on a stage of sorts.  We aren’t used to sex scenes looking like this; we usually see closeups of hands and faces– how Anais is shot as she tosses and turns in bed, awkwardly watching and trying to ignore the couple.  The audience is invited to empathize with her over Elena and Fernando.

Despite all the talk between Anais and Elena about sex, the act causes a rift in their relationship.  When Elena shows Anais the engagement ring that Fernando gave her as a proof of his love, Anais immediately smells a rat and begs Elena not to trust him.  While Elena and Fernando “go all the way,” we see Anais in her bed in the foreground, quietly crying.  Later, Fernando’s mother (Laura Betti)– a tacky woman who is the only other fat character– explains that Fernando stole her ring.  The girls’ mother asks Anais where Elena is, to which the girl impertinently replies that she is “not her keeper.”  Enraged, their mother ends the family vacation early.  On the way home, Anais attempts to comfort her sister.  “It’s sick that people think it’s their business. It’s sick, being a virgin,” she tells Elena, who is worried about their father’s reaction and can’t get over Fernando.

The film’s climax further parallels and separates the sisters.  Asleep at a highway rest stop, a trucker murders Elena and their mother, chases Anais into the woods, and rapes her.  Once again, the introduction of a male character demanding sex disrupts the relationships between the female characters.  And, as with Elena’s experience with Fernando, the rape is a desecration of the sex that she wants to have.  However, Anais’ reaction is to assert agency within the horrible situation.  She puts her arms around her assailant.  When the police find her in the morning, one tells another, “She says he didn’t rape her,” to which she defiantly adds, “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to.”  It’s a troubling ending; what first sprang to my mind when I saw it was how fat rape survivors are often met with disbelief or derision.  Breillat is a feminist, it would be difficult to believe that she would be dismissive of young girl being raped.  The film doesn’t excuse the attacker’s actions, but it does disturb the notion of Anais as a passive victim.  Elena’s experience was a subversion of her idealized notion of having sex (by her own definition) for the first time with someone she loved; once it became obvious that Fernando had duped her, she felt sadness and shame.  But according to Anais, “the first time should be with nobody.”  What happens to her at the end of the film should never happen to anyone, ever, but given that she refuses to describe it as a rape to the police, it seems she interpreted the trucker’s attack as a removal of the vulnerability she feared from a sexual debut with a future boyfriend.  She certainly does not want to be seen as vulnerable by the uniformed men surrounding her and her dead mother and sister.  Elena, whose appearance and ideas about sexuality conform to patriarchal values, has been destroyed by the events of the film.  But the outsider, Anais, defiantly survives.

I do agree with Breillat that being an outsider allows a critical vantage point; my own adolescent experience of feeling ostracized due to my weight was a major catalyst of my journey to become the faux-academic, buzzword-dropping, far-left feminist you’ve all come to know and tolerate.  On the other hand, Anais verges on being a didactic mouthpiece at times, and it’s undeniably problematic to suggest that her value system is so outside of the mainstream that she would be okay with being violently raped.  Fat Girl provides an effective critique of patriarchal sexual values, but beyond that, only a bleak non-alternative.

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