beauty standards

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

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

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

fester 1

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

fester and pugsley

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

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

pugsley turkey

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

 

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

“You’re not such a dog as you think you are:” Marty (1955, dir. Delbert Mann)

I hadn’t heard of Marty until my partner recommended it for the blog, which was a little embarrassing when I found out how well-received it was in its day.  A low budget film version of a tv production, Marty won both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was a career highlight for star Ernest Borgnine, who until that point had been best known for his role as a villainous staff sergeant in From Here to Eternity. The trailer for The Catered Affair, Borgnine’s next film, perfectly illustrates the impact of Borgnine’s work in Marty.  Borgnine isn’t the star of The Catered Affair, nor is he the most glamorous star in the cast, but the studio used him as the spokesperson based on Marty’s warm reception by audiences.

The premise of Marty is modest and relatable, set in the present-day Bronx and following 24 hours in the life of Marty Piletti  (Borgnine).  We are introduced to Marty behind the counter of the neighborhood butcher shop where he works.  He helps two customers in a row who inquire about his little brother’s wedding, and as “what’s wrong” with Marty that he is a bachelor at 34.  Everyone in Marty’s life feels entitled to comment on his lack of a wife, a status to which he feels resigned.  His bachelorhood is not pathetic in and of itself, rather the pathos comes from the relationship-shaped hole in his life.  He doesn’t have much else going on besides his job (though he does have ambitions of buying the shop from his boss).  A conversation with his best friend Angie is largely a repetition of “What do you feel like doing tonight?” “I don’t know, what do you feel like doing?.”  At Angie’s suggestion, he phones a woman he had met a month prior– “the big girl,” as Angie describes her– to ask for a date.  We only see Marty’s half of the conversation, the camera slowly pushing in on his face as he is rejected (“the big girl” presumably being someone who ought to struggle with finding a date for Saturday night as well), highlighting his loneliness and vulnerability.  Marty is shy and socially awkward, but he explicitly attributes his bachelorhood to his size and physical appearance.  “Whatever it is that women like, I ain’t got it,” he tells his mother (Esther Minciotti) when she tries to convince him to spend his Saturday night at the dancehall where Marty’s cousin met his wife.  When she persists, his facade of resignation slips to reveal a raw, frustrated pain.  “I’m just a fat little man, a fat ugly man… you know what I’m gonna get for my trouble? Heartache, a big night of heartache.”  

marty_3

 

Marty and Angie go to the dance hall.  Angie quickly finds someone to dance with him, but after getting a quick once-over, the woman Marty asked for a dance turns him down.  As Marty is standing by himself, Clara (Betsy Blair) enters the film.  Paralleling Marty’s introduction, she is at the receiving end of someone’s disapproval:  her blind date is disappointed that he has to waste his Saturday night with someone as plain-looking as she.  He offers Marty $5 to take Clara off his hands; Marty refuses, and watches as Clara gets ditched regardless.  Marty becomes her knight in shining armor.  In a subsequent scene, the camera glides through the crowded dance floor to find Marty and Clara dancing together, commiserating over their unlucky social lives and finding refuge in each other.  “I’m really enjoying myself… you’re not such a dog as you think you are,” he tells her.  “Maybe I’m not such a dog as I think I am,” he adds after she tells him that she’s also having a good time.

As they get to know each other over the course of the night, we see that Clara and Marty are both kind, sensitive, optimistic people.  The romantic scenes in Marty are humble.  They lack the glamour of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out on the beach in From Here to Eternity, the Best Picture winner two years prior.  Despite being average-looking people walking down a city street and getting coffee in a diner, the vulnerability that Clara and Marty share is more heartrending than the most exquisite locale or best-sculpted cheekbones could ever be.  They admit to each other that they both cry easily, with a relief that borders on excitement in having found someone that relates to their experience.  Later on, Marty tells Clara about how depressed and directionless he felt after returning home from World War II, and reveals that he thought about ending his own life.  “I know,” is her gentle response that tells us everything we need to know about her own relationship with suicidal thoughts.  What would be their first kiss in any other romantic movie is discontinued by Clara’s discomfort; where any other romantic lead would react with force or indifference, Marty crumbles into frustration and self-loathing.  Instead, Clara expresses her affection for him through her words: “I know when you take me home I’m just going to lie in my bed and think about you.”

marty and clara

 

The pain their loneliness causes is very real, but seems to be largely due to the opinions of others.  Clara is criticized for not being pretty, Marty is criticized for being bachelor.  The film does not portray marriage or a family life as intrinsically providing more happiness.  Marty’s mother and Aunt Katarina (Augusta Ciolli) lament the life of a widow; his cousin Tommy (Jerry Paris) and his wife Virginia (Karen Steele) squabble with each other over the wails of their newborn.  Marty’s friends focus on women who are “money in the bank” and fill their free time with drinking and trashy novels.  However, everyone focuses their pity on Marty, the fat “dog” who is 34 and unmarried, then ridicules him for spending the night with a woman who is too old and unattractive to be considered a worthy mate.  Clara’s introduction into Marty’s life reveals that his friends and family rely on him to stay in the state they they ostensibly pity.  Although these days it isn’t unusual for someone to be unmarried or even living with family in their 30s (I’m sure this is more true in New York City, considering the high cost of living), the implication for audiences of the time was that Marty is in a state of arrested development.  Borgnine plays him with an openness and vulnerability that borders on childlike.  I was impressed by the emotional maturity with which Mrs. Piletti was written, expecting her to be a two-dimensional Italian mama, but an early scene of her serving Marty his dinner, surrounding him with serving dishes, suggests that he is smothered by her, and that her smothering is the cause of his fatness.

The film ends on a hopeful, but uncertain note.  Initially, Marty gives in to the opinions of his friends and family, and avoids calling Clara.  We see the two lovers in their respective spheres, completely miserable.  Marty stands amidst a group of his friends outside their neighborhood bar, listening to the same “What do you feel like doing,” “I don’t know” conversation that has apparently reached Pinky and the Brain levels of repetitiveness.  The camera slowly zooms in on him, gradually edging his friends out of the scene as they suggest going to the movies or– if my interpretation of the euphemisms of the day is correct– soliciting sex workers.  Marty veritably explodes from frustration, breaking away from his friends and rushing to the payphone:

“You don’t like her, my mother don’t like her, she’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man! Well, all I know is I had a good time last night! I’m gonna have a good time tonight! If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me! If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad!”

Marty dials the phone.  As it rings, he sarcastically picks on Angie for being a bachelor, repeating the criticisms his customers threw at him in the opening scene.  Closing the phone booth door between himself and his loutish friend, we hear Marty saying, “Hello, Clara?” as the film fades to black.  Contrasting with other romantic films of the day like From Here to Eternity, which ends in dramatic heartbreak for Lancaster and Kerr’s characters, the ending of Marty is modest, but that’s what makes it so special.  We don’t know if Marty and Clara make a good couple in the long run, but the impact she has on him is enough for him to make two difficult choices in defiance of what he’s being told.  He stands up for her worthiness despite being told that she’s a “dog,” and he stands up for his choice to pursue love with her, despite implications that as a “fat, ugly man,” he isn’t capable of finding it.

“I can’t wait for people to see you, really see you:” Mad Men Season 5 (2012)

At the beginning of September, I saw Queen of Earth in theaters.  “Elisabeth Moss is such an incredible actress,” I thought to myself.  “I wish I could see her in more movies.

Or I suppose could finish watching Mad Men.”

I’m abominable at keeping up with series.  Mad Men is one of my all-time favorite television shows, but I had stopped watching at the end of season 5.  It’s been taunting me every time I get on Netflix, I want to watch it through the end myself instead of hearing spoilers for season 7, and, like I said, Elisabeth Moss.  Anyway, thereby hangs the tale of how I’ve been spending my viewing time this month.  I started with “Out of Town” (season 3, episode 1) to refresh my memory, and, as of writing this post, I’ve seen up through “Time Zones” (season 7, episode 1).  

It goes without saying, but one of the core themes of Mad Men is exploring the social change the US went through in the Sixties.  Its setting is a perfect lens for this conflict; not only is it largely set in the cultural vanguard of New York City, but it focuses on advertising, a profession helmed by the old guard who are tasked with staying current, producing media that is, at its self-professed best, orthodoxy in revolution’s clothing.  Consider Roger Sterling (John Slattery), an old-school mentality in a space-age office, a man who experiments with LSD and hallucinates being at the 1919 World Series.   

Most of the main characters are very privileged, but because of this ubiquitous dynamic, the lack of diversity often presents opportunities to comment on itself.  It can reveal how out of touch they are, such as Freddy Rumsen’s (Joel Murray) myopic opinions of women, or Pete’s (Vincent Kartheiser) petty complaints that today would come with #FirstWorldProblems attached.  We see the limits that the characters who are of marginalized identities face in ways that effectively circumvent devices such as on-the-nose dramatic speeches, such as Don’s (Jon Hamm) unwillingness to believe that Sal (Bryan Batt) as a gay man could be the target of unwanted sexual advances, or an accounts wunderkind whose career is declared over after a disabling accident that would not prevent him from carrying out his essential job functions.  Characters who face discrimination, even in smaller roles, are usually treated with empathy and given dimensions beyond the politics they symbolize.  We are privy to glimpses into Dawn (Teyonah Parris) and Ginsberg’s (Ben Feldman) personal lives, and we are spared no discomfort when characters we’ve known since the first episode mistreat them.  

mad men herb

Given this tendency of Mad Men to open its characters and story up to historical meta-commentary, the way in which fat people are present on the show is somewhat disappointing.  Most of the fat characters on the show are small roles, but embody stereotypes about fat people.  Many of these roles are steeped in class, big-bodied folk tending to be Don’s plodding clients from less glamorous cities and industries, or blue collar bit roles.  The larger roles tend to be people who embody stereotypical fat character traits.  The most glaring example is Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), who shows up in season 5 when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is courting the Jaguar account.  New Jersey and nouveau-riche, Herb is a vulgar contrast to the posh, British Jaguar bigwigs.  He shamelessly uses his company’s account as leverage to get Joan (Christina Hendricks) to have sex with him.  Usually, sex scenes on Mad Men are preceded by wordless, implicit seduction, or pithy statements of desire.  The line Herb uses on Joan?  “Lemme see ’em.”  The pathos of the affront to Joan’s dignity and exploitation of her sexuality is heightened by the disgust implicated in her having sex with a fat man.  Frustrated with Herb’s bossiness and unable to move past the idea that Joan exchanged sex with him for business, Don impulsively drops Jaguar.  Breaking the news to the partners, he asks Joan if she doesn’t feel “300 pounds lighter.”  

But you’ve seen the show.  You know that I’m writing this article to talk about the fifth season story arc of one Mrs. Elizabeth “Betty” Hofstadt Francis (January Jones), shorthanded on the Internet as “Fat Betty.”  Having divorced Don, married Henry, and moved her family into a mansion over the last two seasons, the next chapter in Betty’s adventure is noticeable weight gain, attributed to her boring life as a housewife.  (On a practical level, the writers were working around January Jones’ pregnancy.)  Having been a sophisticated, graceful presence for the past four seasons, we now have a Betty who sits on the couch with her hand in a box of Bugles like a common schlub.  “Tea Leaves,” the episode where we see her physical change for the first time, is treated as spectacle.  Betty is shown getting out of the tub as if to prove to the audience that yes, she really has gotten fat.

mad men bath

And really, the change isn’t that dramatic.  Her body doesn’t seem to be that much larger than Joan’s, who is not read as fat.  

mad men joan

The drama merely comes from the fact that her formerly slim body has become larger than it is supposed to be.

Broadly speaking (ha), this was a time when the mainstream American beauty ideal was not as extremely focused on thinness as today, but it was also a time when the expectation of women to adhere to a set of aesthetic norms was not met with resistance.  The women of Mad Men are all significantly impacted by their looks.  A fourth season focus group for Pond’s cold cream where the secretaries discuss their beauty routines quickly turns into a somber discussion of their fears of being alone and ignored because they aren’t beautiful enough.  The sentiment resonates throughout the show, particularly with Betty. She has done well, based on what she’s expected to as a middle class woman, largely in thanks to her charm and beauty.  Her life, however, is also the most empty. She finds little joy in being a wife or a mother.  Betty in a nutshell is best illustrated in season 3 episode “The Fog.”  Under anesthesia during Baby Gene’s birth, she has a dream in which her recently departed father tells her, “You are a house cat.  You are very important and have very little to do.”  Nothing and nobody in her life inspires her to try and be anything outside of a beautiful wife and mother.  (Considering how often characters read popular books of the day, I’m a little surprised we don’t see her thumbing through The Feminine Mystique.)  When she gains weight, she is pressured to restore the image she maintained as Don’s wife.  Henry’s (Christopher Stanley) mother Pauline (Pamela Dunlap) tells Betty to ask her doctor for diet pills, since she is still of an age where her looks need to be pleasing to men.  Ironically, Henry doesn’t care about her weight gain:  “I don’t know how many ways to say it, but I don’t see it.”  “I know,” Betty snaps back, “Your mother’s obese.”  In her mind, it isn’t possible that Henry genuinely finds her beautiful; his view has been distorted by his fat, overbearing mother.

Betty’s story arc largely overlaps with her experience of dis-ease.  Her doctor, giving her an exam before prescribing diet pills, finds a lump on her thyroid.  She worries that she is dying, especially after a chance meeting with a friend in an advanced stage of cancer.  However, once she is told that the tumor is benign, the immediately describes herself as “just fat.”  Her fatness is attributed by the show to mental dis-ease.  In order to “reduce,” she goes to Weight Watchers meetings, which function as a support group with discussions about healthy ways to deal with troubling emotions and stressful situations (assuming that the participants are the weight they are due to over-use of food as a coping mechanism). 

As I’ve previously discussed, fat film characters aren’t determined by specific physical measurements, but rather by their bodies in relation to the bodies (and attached expectations) of the other characters.  Her own husband claims not to see a difference, or at least doesn’t care.  However, Betty is fat because of who she’s being compared to.  Not only is she fat compared to what her body looked like in the past (she was a model when she met Don) and what Mad Men’s audience expects to see, but she is fat compared to Don’s new wife, Megan (Jessica Paré).  Betty’s first appearance in season 5, “Tea Leaves,” is of her struggling to squeeze her larger body into a dress, then declining to go to the event she was preparing for because of her inability to close the zipper.  Her larger body is a shocking spectacle, as we have grown accustomed to a specific image of Betty.  This sequence is immediately followed by slender Megan in her underwear– no shapewear for her!– effortlessly slipping into her own dress on the way to a client dinner with Don.  In a later episode, “Dark Shadows,” Betty glimpses Megan’s body, thin like hers once was, in a state of undress.  Their following exchange immediately has an acidic edge to it; cut to Betty going to the fridge as soon as she gets home and spraying Reddi-Whip into her mouth before thinking better of it and spitting it into the sink, standing alone in her dark kitchen.  As with the dresses, this crass image of Betty stands in contrast to an idealized one of Megan:  in the previous episode “Lady Lazarus,” Megan performs as a chipper housewife for a Cool Whip commercial pitch that charms everyone except Peggy.

At first, Betty’s spite may come across as baseless.  Betty chose to end her and Don’s marriage after she had already fallen in love with Henry, with whom she is much happier.  Despite Don’s numerous infidelities during their marriage, he didn’t get involved with Megan until after they had divorced and Betty remarried.  It’s not like she’s still in love with her ex-husband, for and about whom she barely has a civil word.  But still Betty treats Megan with a petty acrimony that is similar to the relationship Don has with employees of rival firms.  The sense of competition Betty feels between herself and Megan has less to do with Don than it does with how she sees herself.  Her weight gain means that she’s failed as a woman and wife– as Pauline tells her, one of her essential functions is being attractive, which is impossible above a certain weight (Henry’s opinion notwithstanding).  Thus Betty’s reactions to Megan focus on subverting her legitimacy as a woman and wife.  After seeing Megan’s slim body, Betty finds a note from Don praising his current wife’s loveliness on the back of one of Bobby’s drawings.  (The drawing of a harpooned whale would be an accurate illustrations of how Betty feels about herself.)  Her jealousy leads her to reveal to Sally that Don had been married to someone else before he and Betty had met, and encourages her to ask Megan about the details.  The suggestion associating Megan with Don’s deceit leads the volatile teenager to call her stepmother a “phony.”  Unable to change her negative perception of herself, or the pathetic cultural trope of “sad, fat housewife” she’s found herself in, Betty lashes out at Megan, someone vulnerable to the same pain she is experiencing.

mad men betty note

Betty is also seen relative to Pauline, her mother-in-law.  Betty describes her as “obese,” assuming that Henry is unable to be disgusted by her weight gain because his mother has wrongly desensitized him.  As a younger, childless woman and new bride, Megan’s position in life is Betty’s past, unable to be regained.  Pauline, a grandmother with grown children, is her future.  But it seems a bleak one; not only is Pauline fat, but she gets her way by being bossy and unpleasant.  She takes care of the children when Betty and Henry are away, and somehow manages to be a worse influence on Sally than Betty, speaking with fondness of her emotionally abusive father and telling her young granddaughter the details of the Richard Speck murders in a manner that ghoulishly verges on fetishistic.  Betty is caught between Megan and Pauline, unable to retain her equivalence to the former and terrified of becoming the latter.

Ultimately, Betty is not a fat character.  Fatness is a phase for her, an expression of her internal struggle that fades as we move into season 6.  The cause of her weight loss, we are led to assume, is due to adherence to Weight Watchers, but also comes with a return to her roles as wife and mother.  In the second to last episode of season 5, “Commissions and Fees,” Sally is visiting Megan and Don in the city, but gets her first period.  Scared, she takes a taxi back to Rye to be with Betty, who feels validated by being relied on for comfort and wisdom.  As Betty smugly tells Megan on the phone, “she just needed her mother.”  In season 6, Henry tells Betty that he has decided to run for office, and that he can’t wait for people to “really see [her]”.  Whether due to the pressure of being highly visible or finding fulfillment in a role she enjoyed enacting when married to Don, by “The Better Half,” the eighth episode of the season, Betty is once more the slender blonde we’ve come to know and have ambivalent feelings towards.  The episode hammers home that her attractiveness has been restored.  We initially see her in a gown at a political fundraiser, being propositioned by a strange man.  Confessing this to Henry on the drive home leads to the couple making out.  Later in the episode, Don ogles a beautiful woman at a gas station.  The camera pans up a pair of bare legs to reveal they belong to Betty.  Appropriate to its protagonist, Mad Men has a brief liaison with exploring how complex, relatable characters are affected by fat stigma, but ultimately can’t commit.

Hangover Square (1945, dir. John Brahm) and the Tragedy of Laird Cregar

(CN dieting, death)

Art that foreshadows the death of its creator– especially the death of a younger artist– contains an emotional gravity that’s hard to put into words.  This is certainly true for artists who intentionally create art to communicate their pain and self-destructive tendencies, like Elliott Smith or Amy Winehouse, but for a film actor, a particularly significant last work can retrospectively take on an element of particularly poignant, even eerie, tragedy.  I have never seen this phenomenon unfold quite like Laird Cregar’s performance in Hangover Square, which I saw last night at the Noir City Film Festival.

Laid Cregar, in a publicity still for Rings on Her Fingers (1942)

Laird Cregar, in a 1942 publicity still.

Hangover Square is a haunting Victorian tale of George Bone (Cregar), a composer who suffers from stress-induced, murderous fugue states.  Despite his formidable, brooding physical presence, George is gentle and sensitive, vulnerable to the opinion of others by the very nature of his vocation.  His friendship with his pretty blonde neighbor Barbara (Faye Marlowe) would be romantic in any other film, but is chaste in this one.  George lives a life of solitude, obsessed with his art.  Although his life’s work is classical music and he is hard at work on a concerto commissioned by Barbara’s father Sir Henry (Alan Napier), he is distracted by femme fatale Netta (Linda Darnell), who manipulates him into composing popular songs for her to perform.  Netta leads him on for the sake of her own rising star, but has her eye on svelte theater producer Eddie (Glenn Langan) as a mate.

Hangover Square was Laird Cregar’s only starring role.  He had a successful career as a character actor, his 6’3″, 300 lb body contributing to effective portrayals of villains, his characters often significantly older than the twentysomething actor.  He performed with and has been compared to Vincent Price.  However, Cregar grew tired of being typecast.  He wanted to be a leading man, but saw his weight as a barrier, describing his character type as “a grotesque.”  Starting in 1942, he crash dieted and used amphetamines to lose over 100 lbs.  In 1944, he starred in The Lodger, a horror film about a man who may be Jack the Ripper, followed by his leading role in Hangover Square.  Not satisfied with the results of his diet, Cregar opted for weight loss surgery in late 1944.  The stress that the operation caused his body led to a fatal coronary a month later, two months before the release of Hangover Square.  He was 31.

laird-cregar-02

Laird Cregar in Hangover Square

As one might expect from a film whose protagonist kills people, Hangover Square doesn’t end well for George.  Trying to arrest him for Netta’s murder, Scotland Yard follows him to the debut of his concerto.  He starts a fire in an attempt to evade them, which rages out of control.  Everyone must evacuate the building before the performance is complete, despite his attempts to force the musicians to continue.  In desperation, he sits at the piano and continues from where the fleeing orchestra has left off.  The last image of the film is of George playing his masterwork as he is consumed by smoke and flames.

Cregar’s performance of George Bone serves as a grimly appropriate memorial, struggling with his mind that both created and destroyed, just as Cregar himself struggled with a career that allowed him to pursue his art but confined him in stock character roles due to his appearance.  The role he was slated for after Hangover Square went to Vincent Price.  We’ll never know if Cregar’s career could likely have been as fruitful and celebrated as his colleague’s.

See Also:

Virtual Virago: Heavy: the Life and Films of Laird Cregar

Interview: Jessica Conger, actor, Most Likely (2015, dir. Andrew Bemis)

Jessica Conger is a full-time waitress and part-time actor in the Boston area.  She performs regularly with the Post Meridian Radio Players of Somerville and is a film producer with Bang! Films production company.  When not serving food, acting, or attending school, Jess like to read mysteries and brew cider and beer. She and I first met in September 1998, when a mutual friend dragged me over to where she was sitting in the cafeteria before homeroom and said, “This is Jess.  She likes The X-Files too.”  Since that fateful morning, she’s been one of my best friends.  Last week, Jess and I sat down at our respective computers to discuss her on-screen work in Bang! Films’ upcoming feature length film, Most Likely.  (The link leads to the teaser video on Vimeo, which is NSFW.)

Tell us about Most Likely.  Who is your character?

I play Beth, an uptight woman who travels with her stoner roommate Phil, played by Kevin Sandberg, to her high school friend’s wedding in a remote area of New Hampshire.  Beth hasn’t seen anyone who is going to be at the wedding in years and is very anxious about it.  She feels lost in her life.  The movie takes place at the wedding over a weekend.  The bride, Chloe, played by Alex Fandel, has set up a weekend for her old friends and new ones to meet and join one of the happiest days of her life.  She probably did not expect it to go how it goes.

The Kickstarter for Most Likely mentions a naked yoga scene.  What was preparing for and shooting that scene like?

So, when Andrew Bemis was writing the script, he said that when he was stuck on something, he just thought about how to make me uncomfortable.  That’s how that scene got written.  We filmed that scene in the evening, in April, in New Hampshire.  It was seriously cold, about 40 degrees from what I remember.  There were crew members off to the sides with blankets for Rory and Alex between takes.  I felt so bad for them, at least I got to wear layers!  They did have some standard protective pieces on, lest we get a good shot of balls, but they were pretty naked.  For filming we usually ran through the scenes a few times with and without scripts and then did a wide shot, some closeups, and reverses. Shooting each scene takes several hours, usually. For this, because it was so cold, we ran through it once or twice and just sort of ran with it.  Rory was unsure of yoga moves and I and Kate Zarnay, a friend who visited the set that day, tried to give him a few tips on the best ones to perform naked.  I think downward dog got brought up a lot.  It was hard for me to get through takes without giggling because Rory is so fucking funny.

most likely, jessica conger, bang! films, andrew bemis

How do you deal with the negative cultural attitudes around fat women in movies and television? Have you ever felt discouraged from acting because of your size?

I drink a lot.  Really, I try to recognize that while Hollywood is the fucking worst, the way to get better roles for people of all representations is to make art yourself.  I can’t tell you the number of auditions I didn’t make the cut for because I wasn’t “the right look,” or the number of casting calls I didn’t even bother with because of the descriptions of the roles for women.  If every part requires 25-35 year old female actors who are of “lean build,” that cuts out so many talented actors.  I really believe that the Alien approach is perfect for so many roles which could be played by anyone:  write the script, go through the auditions, and cast the best people.  But I know that’s a pipe dream for anything mainstream.  So, I mostly stick to radio plays and acting in parts written for me.

A few months ago on Twitter, you self-identified as a fat actress and said that you like roles where your appearance isn’t part of your character’s story (e.g. nobody second-guesses your character as someone’s love interest because of her size).  In your opinion, are these characters fat characters because a fat actress is portraying them, or does being a fat character depend on fatness being an explicit part of the character’s story?

I think these characters are fat because a fat person is playing them.  In Most Likely, Beth could have been cast with a smaller actor– I am the largest woman in the cast– and it wouldn’t have changed the character a bit.  I do think that size can be an explicit part of a character, but if that is the character’s entire motivation, yawn, I’m not going to be interested.  I’m really interested in playing interesting, complex people.  I think most actors are.  If you think about it, how many mainstream movies would change if the lead actress had 20 or more pounds on her?  Maybe Bridget Jones’ outside would accurately reflect her diary woes, but it really wouldn’t change much.  What if Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig swapped roles in Bridesmaids?  The lead would be a lovable fuck-up fat woman trying to do her best, and the weirdo with heart would be the conventionally attractive thin woman.  Where would that change the plot?

Who is your favorite fat movie character?

This is such a difficult question.  Farva from Super Troopers or Ursula from The Little Mermaid.  Or Ken from In Bruges. Or Don Corleone from The Godfather.  Or Charles Foster Kane from Citizen Kane.  I like Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect, but that’s just because Rebel Wilson is a 10. I’m sure as soon as I hit send I’ll think of like 30 more.

You can contact Jess on Twitter @allybaster or via email at allybaster (at) gmail (dot) com.  Check out Most Likely‘s Kickstarter for updates on its progress.

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.

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 DUFF, or: What Makes a Character Fat?

In wide release as of last week, The DUFF is about Bianca (Mae Whitman), a senior in high school who is told that she is a Designated Ugly Fat Friend, someone whose social value lies in making her friends look more attractive by comparison.  This premise has not gone without critique.  From Genevieve Koski’s review on the Dissolve:

The idea of a “DUFF”—a “designated ugly fat friend,” or the less-attractive person hot people keep around to make them seem more desirable and approachable—is hideous, offensive, and shallow. And to its credit, The DUFF treats it as such. The idea of Arrested Development’s Mae Whitman, a just barely unconventionally attractive, objectively not-fat actor being a DUFF is even more hideous, offensive, and shallow. And to its detriment, The DUFF doesn’t do enough to undermine that idea.

When an actress who is straight-sized (if not willowy) is cast as someone who is devalued because of the size of her body, does that representation highlight the unobtainable exclusivity of  beauty standards, or uphold them by eclipsing the potential for featuring an actress whose body deviates even further from those standards?  According to its defenders, The DUFF concludes that it’s best to embrace who you are, but is that necessarily synonymous with critiquing culturally established beauty standards?  Frankly, I don’t want to schlep downtown in the cold and pay $11 to find out for myself, but the DUFF kerfuffle did bring to light something I’ve been wondering for a while:  what establishes a character as fat?

Spot the ugly fat person, win a prize!

In our day-to-day lives, we have indicators from various institutions as to whether or not we are fat.  The body mass index (BMI) is a commonly used, if flawed, tool in the medical field.  Mass-produced goods like clothing give us indication about what bodies are supposed to look like.  However, it’s unusual for a film to explicitly state a character’s height and weight, or their clothing size.  Of the films that I’ve reviewed on this blog so far, the closest that we’ve come to information about a character’s height/weight or clothing size is In & Out, where Emily reveals that she used to be 75 pounds heavier.

“Fat” as a descriptor goes beyond quantifiable data.  Mae Whitman obviously isn’t fat by clothing size or BMI standards, but she was cast as a “fat” character.  Even if she can buy clothing in the same store as her peers and her doctor doesn’t tell her to lose weight, Whitman’s body is further than co-star Bella Thorne’s from the established Hollywood ideal.  The measurement that The DUFF uses to consider someone beautiful and thin is objectionable, but it is hardly unprecedented, even in Whitman’s own career.  Her previous roles include characters whose function in the story is to be undesirable in comparison to someone else.  These roles include Mary Elizabeth in Perks of Being a Wallflower, who is less desirable as a girlfriend than Sam (Emma Watson); Roxy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, where her relationship with Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is dismissed as a “bicurious” phase;  and her arguably best-known role as as Ann Veal in Arrested Development.  Ann has many qualities that make the Bluths question her suitability as a girlfriend for George Michael (Michael Cera), such as her far-right Christian beliefs and her predilection for mayoneggs, but her appearance is an undeniable factor. His father Michael’s (Jason Bateman) numerous Freudian slips when referring to her include “Ann-Hog,” and when George Michael points her out to Uncle Gob (Will Arnett), he puzzledly responds, “What, is she funny or something?”  Ann is the butt of these jokes, but so are the Bluths themselves, as the series’ humor is often driven by characterizing them as shallow California elitists.  So no, the common person on the street would probably not characterize Mae Whitman as fat or ugly, but that’s the point: the viewpoint that’s being presented is not the common person’s, it’s a viewpoint coming from the apex of cultural power and privilege.

Even if it’s positioned in different places based on the context, there exists a boundary that divides bodies with an acceptable amount of fat tissue and bodies with an excessive amount.  Fat bodies.  Marilyn Wann offers a thought-provoking meta-description of fat, saying that it “functions as a floating signifier, attaching to individuals based on a power relationship, not a physical measurement.”  (“Forward,” The Fat Studies Reader)

One of the reasons that fat has become one of my main intellectual preoccupations is because of my own disorienting experiences being a fat character in other people’s lives.  According to the BMI, I am obese.  Most clothing lines don’t make clothes in my size.  However, my body is usually accommodated in public spaces (e.g. I’ve not yet had to pay for a second seat on an airplane), and I don’t suffer a tenth of the harassment that some of my larger friends do.  So while I’m fat, I occupy a weird in-between social space where thin(ner) people have no qualms about saying horrible things about Fat People to me, or express disgust at how fat they themselves are.  At least once, the average-height adult making the latter observation weighed half as much as I did.  I don’t think someone larger than me has ever complained to me about their weight in that way. “Ugh, I’m so fat, I’m so disgusting.”  And what, I wonder, does that make me?  Hearing virulent rants about Fat People is equally confusing for me.  Am I the Ambassador of Fat, tasked with the diplomatic mission of returning to my people with the message to stop ruining society and being so gross?

I’ve never had the nerve to ask a thinner person to tease out the meaning behind their statement, or even why they felt it appropriate to say.  There have been a handful of times when these comments have felt like a passive-aggressive attempt to shame or scold me, but I can extrapolate from 30 years of being around humans that the majority aren’t intentionally including me, even if they inherently are.  People often describe themselves as “fat” as shorthand for feeling unattractive or unhealthy.  Applying Wann’s quote, “fat” is used in this context to express how someone feels their own body devalued– disempowered– in comparison to the thin ideal.  I’ve been on friendly terms with most of the people who have made disparaging comments to me about Fat People, the disempowered Other who should be ashamed of themselves for not being Us, without realising that I can’t/won’t detach myself from that Other.

But let’s return to the original question: what makes a film character fat?  When choosing characters to discuss for CPBS, the most obvious guideline I use is whether the movie explicitly labels them as fat.  Some characters conveniently describe their own bodies as fat, like Louis in True Stories or Pagliacci in Shock Corridor.  Some are labeled fat through another character’s observation, like Bianca in The DUFF. But a fair number of characters aren’t explicitly assessed in these terms.  Stereotypes can draw attention to a character’s fatness, like Sgt. Powell’s Twinkie habit in Die Hard, or Dale’s lack of confidence in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.  But as I talked about with regards to Emma Levie’s role in Snowpiercerit can be impossible to discern if a fat actor is in a role because they were the best person for the job regardless, or if their body is intended to symbolize a concept or visually reinforce a character trait or interpersonal dynamic (e.g. that timeless dramatic pairing, hottie/DUFF).

The former situation even raises further considerations about a character who is written as fat versus a character who is played by a fat person.  Would The DUFF be given more credit for exploring its subject matter if Sharon Rooney had been cast as Bianca?  No offense to Mae Whitman, but that would make me more willing to see it in theaters.  It would be a more sincere approach to feature an actress who could realistically be the fattest person in the room outside of a casting call for a Hollywood-made teen movie.  As with In & Out, if a film wants to make a point about fat people accepting their bodies, the actor in that role should be someone whose body actively challenges the audience’s expectations about what acceptable bodies look like.  But of course, not every fat character in a film is intended to carry a message about self-acceptance.  Individual films vary greatly in their agendas, cultural milieus, and viewpoints.

After 1400 words of thinkpiecing, I find myself no closer to universally applicable guidelines for who a fat character is, but I feel like ambiguity is the only thing that could accurately reflect the mutable nature of socially constructed power dynamics.  Leaving that process of discernment (especially when looking for topics for this blog) should probably remain in the intuitive realm, because the one common thread that I have found in the characters that I’ve written about thus far is that I find myself able to compare and contrast them to my own real-life experiences of being a fat person.  From my perspective, that’s enough to make them a member of the club.