transgressive bodies

The Relationship Between Fitness and Self-Respect: Heavyweights (1995, dir. Steven Brill)

(CN: disordered eating and exercise)

I wasn’t a summer camp kid– my one experience was a week at Girl Scout camp between 7th and 8th grade–  but I can see why it’s such a popular setting for movies.  Camp is removed from civilization, but not to the point where survival is in question.  The characters find themselves in a setting outside their normal context (no parents! no bullies!), but still have to function within their temporary community.  There are rules, but those rules exist to facilitate having fun; there are authority figures, but they’re often lackadaisical, or at least easily avoided.  This anarchic context can be the site of recreation or re-creation, usually some of both.  It’s especially potent for adolescents, when summer comes with the hope that some alchemical process will occur over the long, hot days and you will return to school in the fall a better version of yourself.  You will have sex.  You will grow taller.  Your breasts will develop.  You will go on adventures.  And, of course, you will lose weight.

Heavyweights opens with Gerry (Aaron Schwartz) leaving school on the last day before summer vacation.  (The sequence is set to “Closer to Free” by the BoDeans, in case there was any doubt that this film came out in 1995.)  He is characterized as a typical sad sack fat kid: he misses his bus and has to walk home; he can’t throw a baseball over a fence; he stops at a lemonade stand and chugs an entire pitcher.  Upon arriving home, his parents tell him that he is being sent to Camp Hope.  The promotional video sucks him in with the promise of go-karts and the Blob, but he reacts indignantly when he learns that he’s being sent to a fat camp to take care of his ”problem,” as his dad calls it. “I’m not going to camp with a bunch of fat loads!” he protests, separating himself from his peers.

On the plane to camp, Gerry meets Roy (Keenan Thompson), who approaches and asks if he’s going to fat camp.  When Gerry defensively retorts that Roy is also fat, assuming that he is being insulted, Roy readily agrees with him.  Roy is the first self-accepting fat person we meet.  Roy becomes Gerry’s guide to Camp Hope, telling him that it’s a paradise because “nobody picks on you because you’re the fat kid, everybody’s the fat kid.”  (Roy is the only black kid in the movie, and becomes an emotionally supportive sidekick for Gerry, not unlike Al is for McClane in Die Hard.) An excited group of campers, including Gerry and Roy, are chaperoned from the airport to Camp Hope by Pat (Tom McGowan), an adult counselor who has spent every summer at Camp Hope since he was 10 years old.

heavyweights, the blob

Although ostensibly a place to lose weight, Camp Hope is obviously more of a safe space for fat kids.  Tim (Paul Feig), another counselor, “used to be one of us, but then he lost weight,” according to the campers.  They tease him about his “chicken legs,” which he responds to with good humor.  When Gerry arrives at Chipmunk Cabin, he confesses to slick wiseguy Josh (Shaun Weiss) that he snuck in some Oreos, which prompts his cabin mates to reveal their own contraband, kept in a communal supply under the cabin floorboards.  This is followed by a scene of the campers and Pat playing on the Blob.  Set to “The Blue Danube Waltz” and filmed in slow motion, the scene both suggests an idyllic transcendence from Gerry’s point of view, and is a reference to the scene in 2001: a Space Odyssey, where the story moves forward from the prehistoric era to the Space Age.  Similarly, Gerry finds himself millions of years removed from the brutality of being the picked-on fat kid, and achieves temporary weightlessness playing on the Blob with his new friends.  Although Camp Hope is a place where Gerry and his peers don’t have to worry about judgment and ridicule, it’s also not a place where they can push their personal boundaries.  Pat, a lifetime member of Camp Hope, is popular with the campers but isn’t confident enough to talk to Julie, the pretty camp nurse (Leah Lail).

The good times end abruptly, however, when the camp owners announce that they have declared bankruptcy and sold Camp Hope to Tony Perkis (Ben Stiller).  Tony is a fitness-obsessed motivational speaker who is “looking forward to interacting with children for the first time.”  He tells the campers he weighed 319 pounds when he was 12 years old, and had no self-esteem or self-respect.  He brings in a new staff of equally athletic, uniformed counselors and tells the campers their summer will be filmed for an infomercial to promote his weight loss regimen, Perkisize.  Pat is re-assigned to maintenance duties and replaced by the strict, generically European Lars (Tom Hodges).

Tony creates a strict and overly simplistic binary between healthy and unhealthy, paralleling good and bad.  “Anyone who brings candy into camp is not your friend,” he tells Gerry while searching Chipmunk Cabin for contraband snacks, “He is a destroyer.”  Perkisize consists of grueling exercise and unsafe levels of food restriction (Tony cancels lunch one day “due to lack of hustle”).  He and his staff are in charge because they are athletic, and therefore good, not because they know how to care for children.  Their lack of attention to what exercise is appropriate and feasible for their fat, preteen wards creates an immediate threat.  Julie says that, as a medical professional, she considers Perkicize dangerous.  Lars proves to be a negligent lifeguard with no understanding of how the buddy system works, and Tony punishes campers for gaining weight by taking them on a 20 mile “cleansing” (i.e. without food) hike up a mountain.  Pat tries to stop him, fearing for the campers’ safety, but is ignored and ridiculed because of his size. “The fat man is going to tell me what’s healthy!” Tony sneers. “Nobody really cares what you have to say.”

tony perkis, heavyweights, ben stiller, glide, slide

Tony’s binary view puts fat people squarely in the unhealthy/bad category.  His regime as camp director begins with Evaluation Day.  “The key word is ‘value,’” he explains over the camp loudspeaker.  “Do you have any? Not yet! But by the end of the summer this camp is going to be filled with skinny winners!”  (“Skinny weiners?” Roy jokes, showing the lack of enthusiasm he has for Tony’s plan.)  The kids cling to the old Camp Hope mentality, cheering for Simms when it is announced he is the heaviest boy at camp, but Tony works to break their spirit.  Tony expels Josh from camp for talking back to him.  He invites “jock camp” Camp MVP to play baseball against Camp Hope.  When Tim protests that getting their asses handed to them  won’t teach the kids anything about baseball, Tony retorts that it’s meant to teach them about “life.”  He doesn’t even stick around to see Camp MVP taunt his campers, nor does he seem to care when Camp MVP vandalizes their dock.  Later, he organizes a dance between Camp Hope and the unnamed “girl’s camp,” with the rationalization that making them feel insecure in front of a group of girls (who, of course, would never want to dance with them) will motivate them to lose weight.  It takes a lot of time and motivating from Pat, Tim, and Julie, but both sides eventually start dancing enthusiastically.  Before long, Tony breaks up the dance mid-song and tells the girls to leave, thanking them for their “efforts” and saying “[he knows] this hasn’t been easy,” despite them having as good a time as the boys– including one young couple sharing a kiss before separating.  He wants to instill in them his opinion that they are worthless because they are fat and need to achieve “value” through compliance to the Perkisize program.  There is a capitalist motivation behind this, as Tony wants to make his program into a successful business venture by convincing his future fat tv audience that they need his program in order to achieve value for themselves, but it also comes from a place of hatred for fat people.  Tony’s “motivation” is psychological abuse.

(Returning to the dance for a moment:  it’s worth noting that the presence of female characters in the film is one of Heavyweights’ missteps.  Of the few female characters in the film, none are fat.  Julie is conventionally attractive, and while she supports the campers by trying to get Child Protective Services to investigate Tony and contributing to the expose video, she largely functions in the film as an object for Pat’s affections, a goal for him to obtain as his self-confidence increases with his ability to stand up to Tony.  The girl campers are all thin and conventionally attractive as well.  When one of the girl campers asks her friends, “Why don’t they just lose weight?” another girl snaps back, “Why don’t you teach them to throw up after every meal like you do?”  The joke makes a point about subverting the notion that thin people are automatically experts on healthy behaviors over fat people.  However, I think the more important takeaway is that having zero visibility for girls and women who aren’t thin, and then shaming girls and women for trying to obtain or maintain thinness, is a vicious cycle of sexist bullshit.)

Tony’s treatment of the campers is villainous, but it’s not an unusual attitude towards fat bodies.  Consider the martial language employed to advertise diet and exercise products (e.g. fat blasting), motivational workout sayings that portray pain as a desirable outcome, the success of The Biggest Loser.  The driving thought that unifies them is that a person’s body must undergo extreme means to meet a certain standard of fitness (although this usually means a certain weight and shape) in order to deserve respect, to have value.  Tony believes that by continually punishing the campers– even going so far as to remove the Blob from the lake, despite it being an incentive for them to go swimming– he can get them to lose weight and become people who he deems worthy of respect.

After Tony tells the campers their 20 mile hike has been “extended indefinitely” until they are in good enough shape to beat Camp MVP in a relay race and provide a happy ending for the infomercial, they rebel.  They outsmart and imprison Tony and liberate the camp with a bacchanalia of their favorite foods.  Even Tim joins in the celebration, ripping his shirt off and covering himself with s’mores.  As with the Blob scene earlier in the film, this scene is also slow motion and set to classical music, this time the overture from La Gazza Ladra, which is also featured in scenes of gang violence in A Clockwork Orange.  The reference to the droogs’ self-destructive nature is appropriate, as the campers’ unbridled hedonism proves to be almost as painful as Tony’s punishing workouts.  The next day the campers are covered in gunk and nursing hangovers.  Pat takes the opportunity to present a more moderate course of action.

heavyweights, la gazza ladra

Although the movie focuses more on the campers’ experience, Pat has been experiencing his fair share of character development, as we see through his interactions with Gerry.  Sitting together on the decommissioned go-kart track, Gerry tells Pat that he wants to “go fast” for once in his life, to which Pat responds by playfully pushing him around the track in the go-kart.  Later, Pat tells Gerry about his fantasy of being athletic like Camp MVP, and that he’s “tired of being the fat guy.”  Gerry tells Pat that he’s “cool, everybody knows that,” but asks him, “When are we gonna start sticking up for ourselves?”  Seeing that, although they have defeated Tony and his crew, the kids haven’t learned anything, Pat sees the opportunity for them to start making their wishes into reality.

Pat’s leadership of Camp Hope is different from both Tony’s and the campers’.  He talks about restraint and self-respect.  He never mentions weight loss in his speech, and speaks about these goals in terms of “we” and “us,” not stationing himself above the campers as Tony did.  We see scenes of Julie teaching a nutrition class, and the staff and campers exercising together as a group: some of them are walking briskly, others are running, but everyone is having a good time.  When Gerry’s parents come to visit for Parents Day, his father disappointedly remarks that he doesn’t look any different, but Gerry quickly responds that he “feels good,” which his mother admits is “important.”

Having defeated Tony, the remaining challenge for Camp Hope is their annual competition with Camp MVP, the Apache Relay.  (As is traditional with many summer camps in the USA, Camp Hope is not above a little tacky cultural appropriation, and the campers are dressed in American Indian costumes for the race.)  Camp Hope is used to losing every year, but the self-confidence and teamwork they have learned over the course of the summer pays off.  They cheer each other on and use their individual skills to stay in the competition.  Gerry is able to “go fast” in the go-kart race and is even able to use his fatness to his advantage, as Pat coaches him to “use [his] weight on the curves.”

As I’ve discussed in previous articles, fat characters often embody lack of moderation.  Heavyweights does use this stereotype to a certain extent, such as a scene in which a pack of underfed campers hungrily chase a cow around a field.  Heavyweights breaks this mold, though, by making Tony the ultimate figure of excess, culminating in an epic meltdown in front of the campers’ parents in which he tries to prove his physical superiority by walking barefoot on broken glass.  The ideal situation through which the campers find their happy ending is in line with real-life wellness philosophies like harm reduction and Health at Every Size: using self-respect as motivation, not a goal.  In the end, the campers don’t even place value having won a competition against rival Camp MVP, and Pat throws the Apache Relay trophy in the lake.  The campers become different people over the summer, but instead of achieving the change that Tony envisions for them, becoming “skinny weiners” like the Camp MVP kids, they find the ability to stand up for themselves and find confidence in their individual skills and interests.  It’s not the happy ending one would expect for fat characters, but it’s arguably the best one for fat kids to have as a cultural reference.

“Straighten, Tighten:” Intersections of Fatness and Queerness in The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols)

When I woke up on a Friday morning a few weeks ago to Twitter blowing up about SCOTUS declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, I was happy that my home country was finally moving away from a gender-discriminatory policy.  Not deliriously happy, mind you.  I feel some kinda way about the political energy and focus poured into marriage equality.  But I do have a sentimental side, and I see how much joy getting married has brought to the people in my life who decided to take the plunge.  (This post isn’t more timely because I traveled halfway across the country to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends.)  I had a solo mini-celebration for marriage equality that evening with The Birdcage, which I was fond of in high school and had been meaning to revisit.  I remembered the excellent comic performances; it’s enjoyable enough to take the film at face value.  What surprised me was how deeply I empathized with the character at the epicenter of the film’s tumultuous humor, Albert (Nathan Lane).

The opening scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) and their houseman Agador (Hank Azaria) cajole a hysterical Albert into rallying herself* for a drag performance ushers the audience into a first impression of her that is intertwined with her self-image. She describes herself as “fat and hideous”– a declaration Armand, her director and significant other, knows so well that he mouths the words along with her– and says that she’s “gained and lost over 100 pounds in the past year” in an effort to be thin and beautiful enough to maintain her star status and his love.  Although not an extremely large person, she does have a stocky body, where the other performers at the Birdcage (and many of the thong-clad extras in scenes of the public milieu of South Beach) are slender and muscular.

the birdcage, nathan lane, albert

Albert’s sensitivity and flamboyant nature are frequent sources of humor.  Armand and his son Val (Dan Futterman) react to Albert’s outbursts with a certain level of weariness that suggests a routine scenario for their family.  But even though she is an outlandish character in a farce, her anxieties come from a very real place.  The nonplussed reactions she receives from strangers, plus Val’s unwillingness to introduce her to his conservative future in-laws speak to her outsider status in the vast majority of the world.  Despite being a headliner who plays to sold-out houses and is more than willing to self-advocate, she lacks necessary social capital to navigate on her own outside her South Beach bubble.  In a subplot, she wants Armand to sign a palimony agreement so that she will be provided for in case their relationship ends.  Although talented, there is no denying that she is older and fatter than the other performers; who’s to say what her career would look like without Armand and the Birdcage?

The Goldmans’ underlying family tensions are exacerbated when Val declares his intention to marry Barbara (Callista Flockheart), the daughter of staunch conservative Senator Kevin Keely (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), who is Barbara Bush by way of Lady Macbeth.  Hit with scandal when Kevin’s “common redneck” colleague dies in bed with an underage black prostitute, Louise suggests using the wedding as a distraction technique to symbolize a return to family values.  Convinced that the Keelys will never connect themselves to a gay, Jewish** family, Val asks Armand to pretend he’s the father of the heterosexual “Coleman” family.  Val initially asks that Albert not be present for the Keelys’ dinner, but Armand insists they compromise and pretend that his companion is heterosexual Uncle Al.  Although the Goldmans want their son to be happy, there is ultimately no sugarcoating that Armand is willing to side with Val and pretend Albert isn’t part of their family unit so that Val can access a social institution the two of them can’t by ingratiating himself to a politician who thinks they’re destroying America.  Her reactions, oversized in most situations, are appropriate in this case. When she refers to herself as “the monster, the freak,” neither Armand nor Val deny that she is characterized thus by their plans to hide her.

For the Goldmans, achieving normalcy is largely about restraining (“straighten, tighten”).  Not only is Val the beneficiary of the charade, he is the main orchestrator, the ambassador of straightness in a queer enclave.  He is a man of few words, forever tolerantly waiting for the exuberance around him to die down.  “Don’t add, just subtract,” he repeatedly advises the Birdcage staff, who help transform the Goldmans’ colorful home into a “monastery.”  The subtraction includes wanting to present Katherine (Christine Baranski), Val’s biological mother, as Armand’s wife.  Albert can barely hide her discomfort around reserved, athletic Katherine, who owns and operates a successful gym.

the birdcage, nathan lane

Although Armand is more masculine and paternal than Albert, Val asks him to tone down his stereotypically gay mannerisms (eg. how he walks, talks, and gestures).  Armand, in turn, coaches Albert to restrain herself, emotionally and physically, in order to play is straight.  “Look at your pinky!  Look at your posture!”  He tells her to hold her unruly body more firmly and tone down her emotional responses.  Dismissing small setbacks (e.g. breaking a piece of toast) seems like a revelation to her:  “Of course!  There’s no need to get hysterical.  All I have to remember is I can always get more toast.”  But the couples’ desire to help their child achieve the life he wants comes at the expense of their own.  Right before the Keelys’ arrival, the family gathers in the master bedroom, their vivacity stripped away in the pursuit of heteronormativity.  Armand remarks that he looks like his grandfather, who “killed himself when he was 30.”  Their clothing and demeanors suggest a funeral, Albert the most uncomfortable of all.

The performance of straightness that the Goldmans put on is a wickedly funny inversion of the colorful, campy drag show that is their profession.  Agador calls himself “Spartacus” and lowers his voice by an octave or two, Armand is so stiff that Val feels the need to fabricate a football injury for his father, and Albert presents herself as an old-fashioned housewife from Smalltown, USA whose ludicrously conservative political views terrify her family, but manage to charm Kevin.  Appropriately, the Keelys themselves are practically drag versions of straight conservatives, wearing clothing so drab as to practically be Orwellian and barely hiding their elitist, repressive viewpoints under jes’ folks rhetoric.  One of my favorite moments in the film is after the two families first meet, when Kevin responds to a polite question about his trip to South Beach with a soporific monologue that spins out into a patriotic travelogue gone wrong.  Of course, they too look at the dinner party as a path to social legitimacy (or, as Louise puts it, “salvation”) that will hide their own connection to deviance.  The Keelys too have a fat skeleton in their closet, as Lousie tries to prevent Kevin from stress-bingeing on candy, and they are stalked by a tabloid journalist (Tom McGowan) who’s “put on so much weight since the Simpson trial.”

As a fat, gender nonconforming person, I deeply felt Albert’s need to be loved and, when people do express love for her, the fragility of her trust.  It’s rough living in an environment where people like you are constantly positioned as inherently unworthy of respect.  Even in the safety of home, family, and community, it is impossible to completely forget the hostility of the outside world, or how easy it is for that hostility to be present in a loved one.  As Albert says, fed up with the emotional burden of being a source of shame for Val, “…everyone laughs at me.  I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am.”  She says this as she is leaving for the cemetery, dramatically communicating that she feels she is dead to her family.  The scene is not completely serious, as her tone and gestures mimic a diva in a classic melodrama, but it does reflect the real emotional fallout that many LGBTQ people have experienced due to being rejected by their families, including suicide in some instances.

This isn’t the first film I’ve seen with parallels between fatness and queerness, even if fatness is a less explicit factor in The Birdcage than In & Out.  They are barriers to achieving a goal (in both cases, a wedding that will provide social legitimacy).  Albert’s size doesn’t threaten Val and Barbara’s engagement, but she does worry that Armand isn’t attracted to her any longer and doesn’t want to make their partnership legally binding.  Albert’s body, specifically her emotions and mannerisms, is seen as excessive to the point of threatening the family’s social legitimacy.  Her queerness is irrepressible, and the men of the family take it upon themselves to orchestrate a solution.  However, once her influence is removed from the family, Val and Armand alone are not enough to win Kevin and Louise’s trust.  It is only through relying on her “threatening” inclinations to be feminine and maternal (Armand describes her as “practically a breast”), and her skill as a drag queen, that Albert can pass as Mother Coleman.  Once seen as a heterosexual, female mother, she becomes a legitimate (and favored) member of the family in the eyes of Kevin, who is the apex of power in the film, both in terms of social capital and allowing Val to marry Barbara.  The facade of normativity cannot be maintained for long, but the temporary diversion from her outcast status is enough for Albert to sustain the dinner party longer than Val or Armand could on their own.  Her drag skills come in handy again to prevent the Keelys from being spotted by the press, ending the film with a power reversal where the heterosexual elite are sheepishly reliant on the queers for a different kind of salvation than Louise originally anticipated.

Albert and Armand’s happy ending isn’t just because they get to be themselves, but because they triumph due to how their lives have been shaped by being marginalized.  It’s not an explicit score for the fat kids, like Hairspray, but it does find power in qualities that get combined with fatness: femininity, sensitivity, and excess.

*Albert identifies as a gay man and is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns.  There are several points in the movie where Albert shows a preference for feminine pronouns, thus my use of she/her/hers in this article.  Apologies if this is confusing.

** Sander Gilman’s Fat Boys: a Slim Book includes an interesting history of the conflation of Jews and fatness in the historical Gentile imagination.  Suffice it to say that there are stereotypical characteristics common to Jewishness, fatness, and effeminacy, such as a lack of athleticism and a penchant for heavy foods (“When the schnecken beckons!”).

Comparing Spy (2015, dir. Paul Feig) with Tammy (2014, dir. Ben Falcone)

I was skeptical of at first, due to Melissa McCarthy’s last few films receiving mediocre ratings, but I’m happy to report that Spy gloriously exceeded my expectations.  Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is a smart, capable CIA agent who has spent her career at a computer, doing support work for her suave partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law), who goes around the world on glamorous field assignments.  After she sees villainous Raina (Rose Byrne) kill Bradley and brag that she knows the identity of all of the CIA’s active spies, Susan goes undercover to avenge her fallen partner and prevent Raina from selling a nuclear weapon to terrorists.

melissa mccarthy, spy, spy 2015, paul feig, susan cooper

Spy is a great summer film.  I saw it this afternoon, and my throat is still sore from laughing so hard at the panoply of hilarious performances, with McCarthy as the leader of the pack.  I was notably delighted by Miranda Hart as Susanne’s gawky wingwoman Nancy, and Peter Serafinowicz, whom I recognized from his antagonistic straight man roles in Edgar Wright’s Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, as a relentlessly sleazy Italian agent.  The action scenes are thrilling without being overblown, and the two hour run-time flows by easily with spirited energy.

Spy is a highly entertaining action comedy that knows its limits, but does more than enough within them.  This factor alone makes it a notable improvement over Tammy, last summer’s comedy offering starring McCarthy.  Tammy has plenty of funny moments and empathizes with its fat, ill-mannered, working class protagonist as much as it throws obstacles in her path, but doesn’t do a very graceful job of balancing its goofy, vulgar humor with the more serious aspects of the story, such as Pearl’s (Susan Sarandon) self-destructive behavior, and the moments of emotional honesty and vulnerability do more bogging down than adding depth.  Which sucks, because there is an inherent transgressive joy to see two characters who would be pushed to the sidelines in most films leaving their stagnant lives behind in search of adventure.

melissa mccarthy, susan sarandon, tammy, ben falcone

By virtue of being an action film, as opposed to a road trip film, Spy doesn’t have the expectation of character development or emotionally laden moments.  Even so, Spy doesn’t shy away from the pathos Susan experiences as a fat misfit.  Despite being a multi-talented agent, Susan experiences multiple microaggressions related to her fatness that impact her confidence.  Bradley uses his advantageous position, as her mentor and her crush, to convince her that she isn’t suited for field work.  He treats her with condescension, gifting her a cartoonish cupcake pendant to thank her for her help.  There is no way a sophisticated globetrotter would think of something so tacky as an appropriate gift for someone he respected as a peer, whether or not he had romantic feelings for her.  She is only inspired to volunteer for a field assignment when her boss (Allison Janney) says that they need an operative who is invisible.  Susan is invisible, as she works in a world where anyone who matters, especially any woman who matters, is thin and chic.  Insulting banter is a large chunk of the film’s humor, and there is a recurring theme of characters criticizing each others’ style choices.  Even though Susan is never directly insulted for being fat, she is at an automatic vulnerability for the contempt of her peers and antagonists because her size prohibits her from dressing fashionably.  In the beginning of the film, she puts Bradley on a pedestal, admiring his tailored suits.  “This shirt doesn’t even have a label,” she says of her own blouse, in self-deprecating comparison.  The false identities she is given speak to how her appearance deems her to have a boring, pedestrian life: a single woman with 10 cats, a divorced mom of 4.  Even her fancy spy gadgets are stripped of any glamorous aspects that would accessorize her thinner colleagues, such as an all-purpose antidote disguised as a bottle of stool softeners.

Compared to Tammy, the audience has less of a challenge in sympathizing with Susan.  Susan is impressive.  She holds her own in a field that demands over-achievement: she is a skilled fighter, focused under pressure, and has incredible attention to detail and analytical ability.  Tammy can’t haul herself over a low fast-food restaurant counter, has a hair-trigger temper, and doesn’t know who Mark Twain is.  Like Susan, Tammy struggles with a lack of regard from other people, but this is shown to be partly due to her abrasiveness (which she readily admits).  It would be easy to dismiss Tammy as a fat stereotype engineered for crude laughs, but we could just as easily criticize how Susan is written as overly idealized, as her flaws-that-aren’t-really-flaws (she doesn’t know how to act in a fancy restaurant, just like you in the audience!  She struggles with a lack of confidence that she quickly finds via a sexy international espionage adventure!) pale in comparison to how kickass she is.  However, both characters offer different ways of depicting how fat woman are marginalized.  We witnesses that marginalization on-screen in Spy, as Susan is belittled even though she does everything right.  However, when confronted with Tammy, we struggle with that marginalization in our own reactions to its titular protagonist.

Portraying Strong Female Characters, Except When It Doesn’t: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015, dir. George Miller)

(Just a reminder, all CPBS articles potentially contain spoilers.)

This afternoon, I had the pleasure of engaging in BitchFlicks‘ weekly Twitter discussion, the topic of which was Mad Max: Fury Road.  Fury Road is a decent action film that makes up in style what it lacks in story and character detail, but it’s getting a lot of attention as a potentially feminist action film.  I tend towards skepticism when regarding mainstream media attempts at true progressivism, as I’m more likely to dwell on the problematic stuff that remains a constant.  A lot of the contributors to this afternoon’s discussion were more optimistic in their view of the film, which led me to concede that I was overlooking the positive aspects of Fury Road.  It’s amazing to see a big budget action film that features women defending themselves, standing up to the bad guy, striking out into the unknown, and doing it all because they know they can rely on each other.  Despite being the titular character, Max (Tom Hardy) plays more of a supporting role to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  Over the course of their adventure, the two learn to trust each other and work together without resorting to a compulsory romance.  Furiosa’s goal is to liberate the Wives, five women who are sex slaves to Immortan Joe (Hugh Kyes-Byrne), a tyrant who controls a large source of water, and return with them to her matriarchal homeland, the Green Place.

However, Fury Road is a mixed bag with regards to body diversity.  Furiosa is an amputee, which is pretty huge, considering she’s the protagonist.  However, there are other people in the film whose disabilities aren’t quite as cool (Furiosa gets a neat-looking robotic arm), and seem to be present as props to convey how harsh life is in this desert setting.  Fat people are present in the film, but don’t fare very well.  When Joe is introduced, we see him in a room full of fat naked women whose lactating breasts are being pumped by machines.  These women are presumably his wives as well, or at least other women whose bodies are being exploited by him alongside the Wives.  Physical exploitation is a recurring presence in Fury Road.  Max is initially captured and held by Joe’s war boys so that his blood can be harvested.  The Wives are being exploited by Joe for sexual and reproductive purposes; they graffiti the walls of their rooms for Joe to find when he discovers they have escaped, bearing messages that they are not objects, and refuse to give birth to future warlords.  However, Max and the Wives escape from and confront their oppressors, while the nameless, voiceless fat women have no agency in this way.  The fat women’s bodies are in sharp contrast to those of the Wives– all five actresses playing the Wives have careers as models, and they are clothed in gauzy, pure white fabric.  The fat women do re-appear at the end of the film after Joe’s reign of terror has been overcome, giving the thirsty masses full access to Joe’s water reserves.  Although they participate in the liberation of the Citadel, that role reflected their earlier state captivity a little too closely for me to feel that there was true redemption.  They seemed to be stuck in an affliation with nourishing and abundance which made me uncomfortable, given the unsettling imagery of their captivity.

Another problematic fat figure is Joe’s ally, the People Eater (John Howard).  Although not given much in the way of characterization beyond being a Mini Boss, the People Eater’s fatness is linked to a sense of sadomasochistic hedonism, which are intended to inspire disgust in the audience.  The People Eater’s shirt has holes cut in it so that his nipples stick out; he wears clamps and chains on them that he has a habit of playing with.  He also has a metal grating covering his nose, which I interpreted as suggesting syphilis, which can cause the flesh of the nose to rot in advanced stages.  In the days before medical interventions, the decayed nose was a stigmatic mark of immorality.  Apparently, everything old is new again.  He also has exaggeratedly fat feet which eventually lead to his undoing, as Max forces his foot onto the gas pedal that leads him to crash.

There’s a lot about Fury Road that is refreshing in terms of representation, but the fat bodies present in the film get burdened with some tired tropes that detracted from my enjoyment of it.  One of the main ideas that the film presents is that bodies aren’t objects; unfortunately, that message doesn’t extend in practice too far beyond the normatively attractive characters.

The Foxy Merkins (2014, dir. Madeleine Olnek) and the Uncharted Territory of the Fat Lesbian Protagonist

This is super exciting for a few reasons.  A fat, gender nonconforming protagonist!  A film written, directed by, and starring queer women!  A film that passes the Bechdel Test so hard that it would fail the Bechdel Test if applied to its male characters!

And perhaps the most exciting part– at least, for me, but it’s my blog so that means my opinion is basically irrefutable objective fact– is that the awesome feminist film site BitchFlicks published my thoughts on The Foxy Merkins as part of their Theme Week on fatphobia/fat acceptance.

You can read it here!  Eee!

And if you haven’t already seen it, check out The Foxy Merkins on Netflix watch instantly.  It’s a hoot and a half.

I’ll be doing an article roundup of the rest of fat Theme Week in a few days, as well as taking in a few films at the Chicago Critics Film Festival over the next week, so there might be something from that.

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

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

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

Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, 1988

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

Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(CW: mental illness, weight loss, ableism)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irrepressible Body: In & Out (1997, dir. Frank Oz)

(CW weight loss)

Maybe after this blog becomes wildly successful and they make the Tessa Racked biopic, the opening scene summarizing my childhood and heralding my adult preoccupation with queer liberation and fat people in movies could very well when I was 12 years old and saw In & Out in theaters. At the time, however, it had two main draws. It was rated PG-13, and some scenes had been filmed a town over from where I lived. If you haven’t seen this film and are so inspired, I urge you to spend some of it admiring the background. I had positive memories of it and wanted to see how it held up over time.

Summary of the plot: a rural town in Indiana is sent into upheaval when high school English teacher Howard (Kevin Kline) is outed by former student turned celebrity Cameron (Matt Dillon) during an Oscar acceptance speech. Howard is surprised that Cameron perceives him as gay, as he is marrying Emily (Joan Cusack) in a week’s time. Emily has more than the desire for a lifetime commitment invested in their wedding: not only has their engagement lasted 3 years, but Emily has lost 75 pounds in order to be a thin bride.

in & out, kevin kline, howard brackett, joan cusack, emily montgomery

In & Out uses topical humor liberally, but two unutilized mid-nineties news stories actually fit in neatly with the film’s subject matter: the supposed discoveries of a “gay gene” and a “fat gene.” Biological determination is often used as an excuse for fatness or queerness to exist within a culture where “normal” people are straight and thin. We aren’t unnatural, we’re born that way. However, as Kathleen LeBesco points out: “This form of narration is particularly dangerous, however, in that the uses of biological research can cut both ways: science might be used as the basis for legal protection and moral respectability just as easily as it might be used as the proof of pathology and justification for eradication” (Rothblum and Solovay 77).

In & Out takes the optimistic approach to biological determinism. The film speaks not only to the virtue of acceptance, but also the folly of suppression. Emily’s and Howard’s bodies betray the false selves they have created in the interest of fitting into a heteronormative ideal, the achievement of which is in service to unobtainable cultural ideals and in conflict with their true natures. She is not a thin bride, he is not a groom who wants to have sex with a thin bride, “Macho Man” plays over the end credits. However, In & Out doesn’t fully deconstruct the conventional understandings of acceptability that constrict its characters.

Kline gracefully portrays Howard’s ambiguity with an undertone of innocence. In the beginning of the film, he doesn’t seem to be actively denying his sexuality as much as he’s lived his life in a completely heterocentric world without any cause to question his straight identity. Howard’s straightness becomes less and less viable as the film begins to question the omnipresence of heterosexuality, and characterizes it as a bundle of compulsory, restrictive gendered stereotypes. “At all costs, avoid rhythm, grace, and pleasure,” he is instructed by a self-help tape during an attempt to unlock his machismo; the audience immediately knows that musical-loving Howard will not be able to maintain this abstinence for long. But even when he isn’t consciously embracing it, his gayness is constructed in the film as an innate physical aspect. Even a casting choice suggests that Howard’s sexual orientation is a genetic trait: Howard’s mother is played by Debbie Reynolds, a gay icon who is best known for her roles in studio musicals like Singing in the Rain. His body is constantly betraying him, even as he tries to assert his straightness (as it is conflated in the film with manliness). When Cameron “outs” him at the Oscars, Howard’s shocked reaction includes letting his wrist go limp. In the best scene in the film, Howard tests his masculinity by trying not to dance to “I Will Survive,” but cannot prevent his body’s reaction to the disco beat.

in & out, debbie reynolds, kevin kline, joan cusack, wilford brimley, frank oz

Emily’s repeated sentiment is that she can’t believe that she is a thin bride; this not only conveys her happiness, but foreshadows that her current state is a fleeting fantasy. Of course, the fantasy alluded to is her and Howard’s romance, but her thin body is intrinsic. Even if Emily and Howard did get married, it’s not likely that she would be able to maintain a 75 pound weight loss in the long run, if multiple studies are to be believed. Even the threat that she will return to her original weight is verbalized as a threat that she will “start eating again,” a hyperbole that characterizes her goal as requiring the impossible denial of something essential, but also characterizes her as being a typical food-obsessed fat girl just underneath her controlled, trim surface. Emily’s quest to regulate her body is paralleled with Cameron’s supermodel girlfriend Sonya (Shalom Harlow), who includes vomiting as part of her daily agenda and is insulted by the suggestion that she eat a meal after a long trip. Thinness, like straightness, can only be achieved through hypervigilance and self-denial. As soon as the wedding is called off and Howard’s illusion of straightness has dissipated, Emily too begins to drop her illusion and seeks food to binge on. Her fantasy of being a thin bride leaves her collapsed in a heap in her wedding dress, wailing, “I’m starving!”

The least explicit but most present pressure on Howard and Emily to marry is the threat of being categorized as unmarriageable. When Emily blows up at Howard after he comes out during their wedding ceremony, she cries, “I base my entire concept of self-esteem on the fact that you’re willing to marry me!” For Emily, validation comes through marriage, which she sees as evidence that she is worth of love and desire. Deeper into her meltdown, she runs along the side of the road in her wedding dress, begging passing cars to marry her. Being a bride hinges on being thin. Emily describes herself as having been fat her whole life, but that she “didn’t want to waddle down the aisle.” She says that her deceased parents never thought she would get married; her fatness is the only given possibility as to why they would think that. But her achievement of this goal also depends on Howard’s heterosexuality. “You still want to [get married], right?” she asks him. “That’s why I transformed myself, isn’t it? Do you want me to start eating again? …I can, Howard! I’m very fragile!”

But Howard is also using Emily as a means of validating his own normalcy, as cancelling the wedding would mean disappointing his community’s expectations. Howard’s mother tells him immediately after suspecting he might be gay that she loves him no matter what, but forces him to marry so that she can have some excitement in her life through planning the wedding. The pressure to be regain his straight identity through getting married is most poignant at his school, as his beloved students suddenly become uncomfortable around him and Principal Halliwell (Bob Newhart) suggests that he could lose his job.

Although his friends and family all want to believe that he is straight, openly gay TV journalist Peter (Tom Selleck) thinks Howard is gay and calls him out on marrying Emily for the wrong reason. Peter encourages Howard to trust his friends and family will support him. His advice proves to be wise, as the town rallies around Howard in a Spartacus-esque show of solidarity at his school’s graduation ceremony, everyone declaring themselves to be gay as well. Howard maintains his place in his various social units, and the film ends with him attending his parents’ wedding vow renewal ceremony.

Emily’s victory comes when Cameron shows up to replace (and supersede) Howard as the desirer of her as an object. The handsome, successful actor confesses that he fell in love with her when she was a fatter student teacher who tutored him, and chooses her over his supermodel girlfriend (who he says “looks like a swizzle stick”).

Although given more license to exist, presumably her confidence and happiness still depend on being physically attractive. Cameron and Emily express their feelings for each other by reciting lines from Romeo and Juliet, using a literal performance of heterosexuality as a means of connecting to each other. Even if Howard and Emily end the film with more freedom to be themselves, this freedom was given to them by members of the entertainment industry. They are still bound by the somewhat modified cultural norms that initially pressured them into adopting false identities in the first place.

Ironically, it is the film itself that ultimately restricts Howard’s queerness and Emily’s fatness, as these traits are only present in the film in their lack. Howard’s sexual orientation is expressed solely as effete traits, the only erotic exchange with another man is a kiss that is performed as an experimentation (and didn’t even involve tongue). In an odd mirror image, Emily’s happy ending is solely behavioral– during the denouement dance party we see her eating cheese puffs– but we never see her as a fat person. Therein lies the discrepancy of the film’s message: are we truly accepting of something that we can’t bring ourselves to actually look at?

Fat Fuck: Nymphomaniac (2014, dir. Lars von Trier) and Concussion (2013, dir. Stacie Passon)

[CW diet talk, discussion of consensual sex]

Two recent films, Nymphomaniac and Concussion, spend ample time exploring the marginalized sexualities of their (thin) female protagonists. Joe (Charlotte Gainsboug/Stacy Martin), the titular character of von Trier’s epic, labels herself as a nymphomaniac and constructs her life around her insatiable libido; Abby (Robin Weigert), the heroine of Passon’s directorial debut, is a lesbian who subverts her life as a mainstream upper middle-class homemaker by involving herself in sex work. Both women have fat sex partners over the course of their respective stories, neither of whom function as a source of comedy or disgust.

A common observation of fat characters is that they possess an inappropriate sexuality relative to thin characters in the same film, either lacking in sexual desire or experience (based on the assumption that nobody wants to have sex with fat people) or being too assertive or indulgent with regards to their sexuality (based on the assumption that fat people desire more and control themselves less than thin people). Fat people in movies are often treated as de facto repugnant or pathetic, but even more so when they are seen as sexual beings. A portrayal of fat people experiencing lust the same as thin people, even being accepted as a thin person’s lover, is enough to make these movies stand out as unusually fair-minded with regards to body diversity. However, both F and Woman #1 are portrayed as less exciting than their thin counterparts, and evoke a sense of family and domesticity, elements which the protagonists of both films are trying to avoid or escape.

Nymphomaniac presents a series of flashbacks, where Joe relates her story Seligman (Stellan Skaarsgard), an asexual bookworm who compares the details of her life to his various intellectual pursuits. As the title suggests, a large portion of these flashbacks deal with Joe’s sex life. Nearing the end of Volume 1, almost 2 hours in, I found myself getting bored with scene after scene of Joe having rather vanilla sex with male partners, mostly young and thin. F’s arrival was perfectly timed. Joe describes a time when her sex life was a perfect balance of harmonizing elements, like a polyphonic organ piece, with F (Nicolas Bro) as the bass voice. If memory serves, this is the first time we see someone go down on Joe, shown in extreme closeup. F focuses on Joe and her satisfaction. “Without words, he knew exactly what I wanted, where he should touch me and what he should do. The most sacred goal for F was my orgasm.” Because he is so trustworthy and stable, Joe privileges him with activities she does not her other sexual partners. While she explains this in voice over, we see him gently washing her in a bathtub.

nicolas bro, nymphomaniac, stacy martin

The entire time we see Joe and F together, he is clothed and she is naked, heightening the contrast between their ages and body sizes. F is not Joe’s only extragenerational partner, but he is certainly the most paternal. Immediately after seeing them have sex, we cut to an image of Joe sitting on F’s lap, giggling as he tells her a fairytale. F’s arrival in Joe’s story immediately follows the death of her father (Christian Slater); perhaps it is not coincidental that she would so fondly remember a lover who would be “reassuring” and a “foundation,” while so strongly feeling the absence in her life of her dad, who provided her with a sense of security and consistency. F also contrasts with H, a previous lover of Joe’s who leaves his wife and children– his role as a father– to be with her. We have no information of who F is outside of his relationship with Joe, but if he is a father (or some other form of caregiver), he manages to merge the elements of that identity with being Joe’s lover.

F is accepting of Joe’s multiple partners and is actively in deference to her lifestyle, as he often arrives early and patiently waits for her in his car (which was bought used, she points out) with a bouquet of flowers, or in Joe’s living room while she has sex with someone else in the bedroom. F’s patience an example of one of Nymphomaniac‘s strong points: the refreshingly personal and straightforward portrayal of deviations (so to speak) from normative sexuality: monogamous, possessive, not extractable from idealized romantic love. However, F seems emasculated and powerless when Joe compares him to the other members of Joe’s sexual polyphony– and this comparison is explicitly illustrated, in split screen. G (Christian Gade Bjerrum), designated the second voice, is “the only one [Joe] had to and wanted to wait for.” Instead of arriving early, G stands on her threshold when she invites him in, entering as he pleases. Joe finds this exciting because it takes away her control of the situation; she compares G to a predatory wild cat. The sex that she has with G is rough and feral, polarized from F’s “predictable” lovemaking. The two create a spectrum of sexual experience that is beyond limited descriptions of a binary of straight/gay (sometimes expanding to dominant/submissive). As we see an image of a leopard killing a deer, representing G, we also see F waiting in his car for Joe to see him. In between these two is the cantus firmus, Jerome, the closest character to a typical One True Love a viewer might expect to see in a film that focuses on a woman’s love life. These series of images also show Joe’s face while she has sex with them. With G she is wantonly excited; with Jerome she seems transported by the intimacy and soulfulness of their lovemaking; but with F she appears placid and peaceful.

nymphomaniac, lars von trier, stacy martin, shia la boeuf, nicolas bro

Joe describes F as essential to her happiness, but ultimately unsatisfying on his own; Jerome, however, she entreats to “fill all [her] holes,” to complete her, and the fate of the film brings them back together again and again. Even if F displays generosity beyond her other lovers and is seemingly supernatural in his ability to anticipate her desires, what he offers is ultimately incomplete on its own.

Concussion‘s opening sequence is composed of voice overs of women talking about maintaining their aging bodies and images of a gym, showing a spin class of fit women in slow motion, sneaking competitive glances at each other. The film is about a lot of things– queer assimilation, aging– but the body is a prominent and recurring theme. Abby’s dissatisfaction with her life as a stay-at-home is brought to a head by a concussion she suffers accidentally at the hands of her son; there is an early scene of her running on a treadmill until she vomits. She deals with the dissatisfaction by going back to work in New York City, then patronizing sex workers, then finally becoming a sex worker herself, seeing women clients at the condo she is renovating. Like her protagonist, director Stacie Passon is a lesbian, and Concussion does step away from the normative male gaze in some significant ways, including showing sex between women who do not have all the characteristics required to be a woman with a sex life by most films. Some of the women Abby has sex with are older, some have extensive tattoos, one client has a mastectomy scar, and– in case you haven’t guessed where I’m going with this– another is fat.

Abby’s fat client (Daria Rae Feneis) is only known as Woman #1, all clients of Abby’s only being referred to by numbers. It would be easy to see someone patronizing a sex worker as a sign of their inability to attract a partner without the exchange of money, and that sex workers will do anything (or anyone) as long as they’re paid. However, the film makes clear that Abby wants to have sex with Woman #1. Abby is very particular about her clients: she is not willing to go to their homes, and she insists on having coffee with them first, even though The Girl (Emily Kinney), her manager, screens them. Abby even rejects her first potential client for doing homework while she waits for their rendezvous. Abby wants to have sex with Woman #1 as an individual, not solely because she wants (or needs) the money.

daria feneis, concussion

Woman #1 embodies some characteristics often seen in fat film characters. She initiates the conversation awkwardly, talking about a Women’s Studies class she is taking where she has to draw her vulva and talk about her drawing in every class. She even brings a folder of these drawings to show Abby, who politely declines, recreating a common dynamic in films where a fat person’s social inappropriateness is highlighted or regulated by a thinner person. (Slight tangent: as someone who has taken over a dozen Women’s and Gender Studies courses– none at NYU, granted– this class exercise strikes me as absurd.) Women #1 describes drawing her vulva as having a force field around it, because she is 23 and has never had sex or even been kissed. The character comes across as shy and awkward (although she is very pretty), and her lack of experience is never explicitly linked to her weight, but given the setting and sexual/relational experience of the other characters, her late-bloomer status sticks out like a sore thumb. Women #1’s appointment with Abby– a first time for both of them– is quietly drawn out with tension and tenderness. Abby reassures her that she doesn’t have to do anything, can stop at any time, and Abby will do things that she wants to do. Woman #1 is still awkward, however; she neglects to take off her backpack, and after their kiss, she remarks that Abby “smells like oranges.”

During a subsequent visit, Abby finds the ingredients for a Master Cleanse in Woman #1’s bag, which her mother has given her to “start [her] off.” Abby assumes a maternal role in this scene, overriding Woman #1’s mother’s influence by giving her three books to read: Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist classic The Second Sex (“the Bible”), a book on vegetarianism, and a collection of Gandhi’s writings, which Abby describes as “an excellent book for weight loss.” (Another slight tangent. Overall I liked this movie, but the script rubbed me the wrong way at times, this line possibly being the worst example. I trust, reader, that I don’t have to go in-depth as to why it’s hugely problematic for rich white Americans to appropriate aspects of anti-colonial resistance to support their own assimilation into a beauty standard. I confess I’ve never read Gandhi’s writings, what about them makes them excellent for weight loss? Is Woman #1 supposed to fast? Because that slows your metabolism down. Is she supposed to use white guilt as an inspiration to be self-denying in her food choices? Does Gandhi talk about tips for cutting carbs at some point?) She then encourages Woman #1 to throw away her cleanse materials, “because that shit will kill you.” Woman #1 glows as she looks at Abby, who is treating her as a human being whose health needs to be prioritized, not a fatty problem to be eradicated using any means possible. I’m guessing that she experiences the latter attitude from the other people in her life more frequently than the former. We never find out if she herself wants to lose weight, though.

The third and final session we see between Abby and Woman #1 shows a progress in both of their explorations of sexuality. Their attitude with each other is relaxed and intimate; the camera is closer to them than ever. Woman #1 says that she read the books Abby loaned her, but didn’t lose any weight. This scene subverts the expected story beats that Woman #1 would have lost weight, or that a dramatic moment would occur between them (Abby giving some inspirational speech, Woman #1 revealing a dark secret), as the two laugh over this fact and move on with their conversation, as Abby strokes her hair affectionately. Woman #1 also says that she wants to move on from their arrangement and “try something new, like, maybe a guy.” The other woman who Abby loses to a man is Sam (Maggie Siff), another mom from her social group who shares a passionate liason with Abby, and understands her dissatisfaction, but ultimately decides to stay with her husband. Sam, like Woman #1, ties Abby to her inescapable role as a mother.

daria feneis, concussion

Losing her client is paralleled with scenes of Abby’s children waiting for her to pick them up at school, her failing to be a mother. As Abby has chosen to be unfaithful by having sex with women other than her wife, Kate (Julie Fain Lawrence), she is also unfaithful to her role in her family in that she is mothering someone who is not one of her children, neglecting them in the process.

As so much of the energy and rhetoric of the needs of LGBT folks is channeled into marriage equality, and the “we’re just like you” message, there is a dearth of questioning the merits of a white picket house in the suburbs as a desirable goal. Marriage equality and liberal social values allow Abby and Kate to have their American dream in an affluent suburb, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Abby would find that dream ultimately as hollow as Lester does in American Beauty. (Considering this film is about college-educated white folks, the attainability of that goal unfortunately doesn’t figure in to its critique.) Concussion‘s main story raises some radical questions about values and stories that we take for granted. This spirit is extended to Woman #1 to an extent– Abby finds her desirable, she isn’t punished for not losing weight– but some toxic presumptions remains intact: the inherent awkwardness of fat people; the inherent struggle to not be fat, even when failing to meet that goal comes as no surprise.

Concussion is a bit unrefined and Nymphomaniac a bit arduous, but ultimately it was a pleasure to watch both them. Even in their failings, it’s always refreshing to consider a film’s drawbacks through a feminist lens that called for more consideration and nuance than “hey, this film doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.” Both have interesting things to say about women’s sexuality, and what it means for a woman to search for happiness and fulfillment. The combination of these ideas puts both protagonists at odds with domesticity. However, even in searching for personal evolution through sex, the characters find themselves in dynamics that parallel their roles as members of their respective families, both with fat lovers. Despite the radical portrayal of fat people as desirable, the films ultimately don’t go far enough, and saddle these characters with drawbacks that can neither offer liberation or stand up when compared with more normatively attractive partners.

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

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

— “Vesti la giubba,” Pagliacci, Ruggero Leoncavallo

[CW: mental illness, ableism]

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

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

shock corridor, samuel fuller, peter breck

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

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

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

shock corridor, samuel fuller, peter breck, larry tucker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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