competence

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

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

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

Heavy-1995-3.jpg

Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), in domestic setting.

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

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

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

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

heavy-poster-3heavy-poster-3heavy-poster

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

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

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

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

heavy95rev

Callie (Liv Tyler) and Vincent

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

Advertisements

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

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

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

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

jonah-hill-emma-stone-superbad.jpg

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

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

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

b6da5d705932efa90fa00401fe0b2e03.jpg

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

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

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

Knocked-Up-seth-rogen-3917742-711-400

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

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

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

Seth-in-Knocked-Up-seth-rogen-14600967-853-480

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

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

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

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

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

 

bugs life heimlich

Oh boy.

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

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

inside-out-image-joy-sadness

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

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

Inside-Out-Riley-parents-hugging

Riley receives the support she needs once she acknowledges Sadness.

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

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

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

up garden hose

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

up badge

im not crying youre crying

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

 

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

 

See Also:

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

The Psychology of Inside Out

 

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.