embodiment

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men Wooing Thin Women: Hitch (2005, dir. Andy Tennant), The Tao of Steve (2000, dir. Jenniphr Goodman)

I like to present myself as a savvy, even cynical, consumer of media, so it’s a little embarrassing for me to admit my predilection for romantic movies.  After participating in the recent #fav7films on Twitter, 3 of my 7 turned out to focus on romantic relationships (4 of 10, if I include my extended list).  Look at this current series of articles!  A big part of this has to do with the escapist aspect of entertainment, which romantic movies have in spades by their nature.  They focus on the segments of relationships where people are acting their best, hormones at their strongest.  Even more grounded romantic films like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy involves relatively privileged people in idyllic settings; Before Sunset, the second installment (and my favorite), takes place in Paris, in real time, during the magic hour.  Of course, the characters who fall in love with each other are also idealized: they’re usually affluent (if one is poor, the other is wealthy), occupied with interesting jobs or aspirations, barely concealing beautiful inner lives just waiting to be shared, good-hearted, charming, and physically attractive.  Even an average Joe who finds themself as the romantic lead will usually have an iconic speech in their back pocket.  And, as I hope I’ve managed to convey in earlier posts, fat characters are almost always positioned as a detracting trait, counter to a happily-ever-after image.  There’s usually some form of compensation, some element that seems to say, “Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but this fat person deserves a chance.”  This can be Albert and Eva’s extraordinary chemistry (which, to be fair, is a solid example of a romantic film lacking idealization if you want to argue against my thesis), Jack’s and Marty’s pure-heartedness, Angus’ exceptional integrity/athleticism/intellect, or even Danny’s near-supernatural ability to call in a favor (erotic cronyism: only in Chicago).  Before this series we even have Louis in True Stories, who finds a bride through a love spell.  However, we also have narratives like Hitch and The Tao of Steve, which don’t make exceptions for their fat characters through exceptional  character traits, and rather focus on the implementation of romantic strategies to explain why a fat/unattractive man could successfully woo a thin/attractive woman.  

The narratives of these films are based on some assumptions that are misguided at best.  First, we have the homogenization of attraction: it’s not possible that a fat character would be seen as attractive because there are objective, universal standards that are embedded deep in the hearts and minds of the other characters, and of course, the audience.  One of the reasons I started writing CPBS was, in addition to being fat myself, I’m attracted to other fat people, so I get very lost during scenes where it’s supposed to be hilariously icky that Jack Black is naked.  (On top of, you know, the alienation when reminded that the entertainment industry uses bodies like mine as visual shorthand for garbage.)  Second, both Hitch and The Tao of Steve rely on the regressive heteronormative positioning of man as active pursuer of passive trophy woman, who has the “real” power of being able to veto the relationship.  It needs to be said that the overlap of these assumptions function to completely cut fat women out of the picture.  The Tao of Steve goes so far as to have protagonist Dex (Donal Logue) declare that he doesn’t fuck fat women.  “I am a fat-ist, I admit it.  I’m the worst kind of fat-ist, I’m a fat fat-ist.” What a delightful character I resigned myself to spend another hour watching!  Considering how this statement occurs early in the film, I suppose it’s supposed to communicate the immaturity that Dex grows out of to win the love of Syd (Greer Goodman), who is coincidentally thin.  Yet, since no fat women exist in the film, there’s nobody on the receiving end of this statement, just the abstract phantom of an unfuckable fat woman.  Hitch doesn’t even acknowledge that fat women exist.  We often think of fat women existing in rom coms as the Less Attractive Best Friend; Casey (Julie Ann Emery) is thin and pretty, her apparent outsider status is due to being Southern (Hitch being of the subgenre of rom coms that take place in Manhattan).  Wealthy, beautiful Allegra (Amber Valletta), the object of Albert’s (Kevin James) affections, turns out to be clumsy and awkward, but these traits are only highlighted at the end of the film when she talks about them while sitting on her gigantic yacht.  Her transgressions from physical idealization are manifest on her body during the end credits wedding dance party sequence, once the “chase” is over.  The object of longing is characterized by physical restraint– thinness, gracefulness, aloofness– which is as true for the mandatorily thin women characters as it is for the fat male characters pursuing them.  As Dex says in The Tao of Steve: “we pursue that which retreats from us.”  For Dex and Albert, restraint is the foundation of their respective strategies for getting women interested in them.  Of course, both learn the art of seduction from thin, traditionally attractive men.  

In Hitch, stereotypical accountant Albert hires Hitch (Will Smith), the “date doctor,” to teach him how to get his heiress client Allegra to notice him.  Hitch’s philosophy of falling in love comes from a painful experience he had in college of his first girlfriend (Robinne Lee) leaving him because he came on too strong, a heartbreak that was apparently potent enough to transform Charmingly Dorky Will Smith into Charmingly Suave Will Smith.  His philosophy does not include outright lying– he tells us in the opening narration that women want to see “the real you”– but he does say that “with no guile and no game, there’s no girl.”  He isn’t above manipulating situations, creating meetcutes for his clients.  Hitch teaches Albert how to dress and groom himself, but more importantly, how to rein in his dorkiness, which largely manifests as flailing physical comedy bits.  Albert is confident that his flamboyant dance moves will impress Allegra, but Hitch orders him to keep it to a dull two-step.  Albert can’t maintain control during their date, however, and busts out his ridiculous moves when Allegra isn’t looking at him, his physical tendency towards excess irresistable, even leading him to cheat on his regimen of increased regulation.  Hitch too ends up having to deal with his own body betraying him in appropriate ways when on dates with Sara, as he ends up accidentally knocking her into the Hudson River and having an allergic reaction that causes his face to swell up.  While mirroring his fat client’s awkwardness, Hitch also mirrors his emotional sincerity, as he struggles with wanting to get more involved with Sara than is his usual comfort level.

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“Don’t ever do that again:” Hitch (Will Smith) offers Albert (Kevin James) constructive criticism on his dance moves

If the audience wasn’t already socially conditioned to view fat people as unworthy of love or desire, the opening sequence of The Tao of Steve makes this explicit, as three women Dex went to college with view his body with amused disgust and confess to each other that they all had sex with him back in the day.  Albert may be above average in optimism thinking he can win the heart of a millionaire, but Dex is damn near a curiosity.  Step up ladies and gents, marvel at the fat man who gets laid on a regular basis!  How does he do it?  Witty, intellectual Dex has hewn his seduction strategy from observing “the prototypical cool American male” in pop culture, specifically Steve McGarrett, Steve Austin, and Steve McQueen. “He never, ever tries to impress women but he always gets the girl.”  The Tao of Steve is Dex’s name for his three-part strategy for getting women to have sex with him: “eliminate your desire… be excellent in her presence.., retreat.” While Dex’s strategy appears to be based on respecting boundaries (wow), sharing interests (amazing), and socializing with women without any expectations of sex (gold star), his reasoning is pretty damn misogynist.  Dex says that, based on his looks, “technically [he] shouldn’t be getting laid” and thus women are confused and intrigued by his apparent lack of sexual interest in them, which causes them to assume that sleeping with him is a major achievement on their part, wherein reality he describes himself as being willing to have sex with any woman who has low enough standards (as long as she isn’t fat).  He justifies the Tao not working on Syd because she’s smarter than the women he usually is able to seduce.  However, the sex that he has is also largely meaningless as he doesn’t desire a connection beyond temporary pleasure with his sexual partners.  

Although initially acting under the belief that behaving in a stereotypically masculine way will attract the women they’re in love with, both Albert and Dex have to abandon this facade and be more sensitive and vulnerable to actually win Allegra’s and Syd’s hearts.  These traits are often associated with fat men as a way of showing their lack of masculinity, but here we have two very straight rom-coms where romancing a woman is successfully done by letting go of machismo.  In Hitch, Albert is contrasted with the thin male characters as the genuinely nice guy.  Hitch isn’t bad person, but he’s a player, emotionally distant and commitment-phobic.  Allegra’s ex-boyfriend, the prince of Sweden or something like that, is referred to in negative terms.  We’re also introduced to Vance (Jeffrey “Burn Notice” Donovan), a potential client who wants Hitch to teach him seduction skills in order to dump a woman after a one night stand.  Hitch thinks Albert is a lost cause and is only persuaded to take on his case when Albert reveals the selfless nature of his love:  “You know what it’s like getting up every day, feeling hopeless?  Feeling like the love of your life is waking up with the wrong man, but at the same time hoping that she finds happiness, even if it’s never gonna be with you?”  And sure, Hitch helps Albert gain confidence and talk to Allegra in the first place, but his genuine attributes win out in the end.  As mentioned before, Allegra reveals that she is attracted to Albert’s awkward, dorky ways because she sees those traits in herself and he makes her feel comfortable.  

As for Dex, being an unattached lothario comes much more naturally to him, but he’s only able to win Syd’s affections once he stops verbally sparring with her and allows himself to be vulnerable.  Casual sex with many different partners is Dex’s MO, but he feels genuine remorse when Syd reveals that he seduced her in college and is hurt that he doesn’t remember her.  He directly uses his fat body as evidence that he won’t hurt her again:  “Now I’m a fat fucking pig, and the guy that did that to you was a skinny, arrogant prick. Just give me one more chance.”  The logic behind this statement isn’t teased out, but it suggests that becoming fat has taught Dex something about humility.  From his actions over the course of the film, it seems more like he looks for temporary solace from the insecurity he feels over the changes in his body by seeking casual sex and hasn’t actually changed, especially considering that he lies to his date in order to blow her off and have this conversation with Syd.  She doesn’t buy it; however, he does keep making attempts to be a better person in order to win her affections.  As a means of apologizing, he repairs a motorcycle for her.  Where he was initially depending on Syd to drive him to and from work, his gift frees her from her obligation to him.  (Dex is constantly referencing philosophers and religious thinkers throughout the film.  When Syd shows up at his home to thank him for the motorcycle, he’s reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, a book that serves as the modern world’s reintroduction to Gnosticism, an early sect of Christianity that contradicted the patriarchal structures of Roman Catholicism by having gender-equitable roles within their organization and recognizing the feminine personhood of God.  Filmmaking!)  His striving to change himself continues as he goes camping with Syd and some friends despite his lack of outdoorsmanship, makes an attempt at dieting, and breaks up with the married woman he’d been sleeping with (Ayelet Kaznelson).  Getting punched out by his former lover’s husband (John Hines) is enough, and he and Syd have their second first kiss.  Even during sex with her, he drops the playboy facade and shows vulnerability and tenderness.  Unfortunately, that takes the form of being insecure about his body, as he requests that they turn the lights off.  

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Dex (Donal Logue) and Syd (Greer Goodman) in The Tao of Steve:  Maybe you can’t stand him now, but just wait until the third act…

Both Hitch and The Tao of Steve find romance in a man changing himself to prove himself worthy of a woman:  Albert sheds his timidity, Dex his aloofness.  Their respective strategies even work at first:  Syd warms up to Dex when she sees him “be excellent” with his kindergarten students, Albert gets Allegra to notice him when he stands up to his patronizing boss on her behalf.  But the real connections don’t form until they rid themselves of the structured restrain they had been relying on as seduction methods; one might say that they let themselves go.   And even though Dex and Albert embody fat stereotypes (slovenly nerd and slovenly stoner, respectively) that are usually positioned as worthy of ridicule, the films want us to root for and empathize with them.  They are posited as diamonds in the rough, willing to polish themselves for the women they love, suggesting that they would do anything to make Syd and Allegra happy.  The idea that Albert and Dex as fat men can be seen as viable partners is initially explained by their employing of seduction strategies, “tricking” their respective partners into finding them attractive.  The romance doesn’t come from them being conventionally attractive as much as it does them being improved by the grace of loving these women who passively wait to be seduced.  As with the dynamic we see in Superbad and Knocked Up, the female characters serve as inspiration for the male characters to grow as people.  The escapist element is the idea of a partner who will facilitate your self-improvement (if you’re a dude), or who will change themselves to impress you (if you’re a lady).  It’s the internal version of a makeover or training montage done for the sake of impressing a partner, not the basis for a healthy relationship.  I said in a previous article that I want to see fat characters involved in escapist, whirlwind romances, but not if there isn’t a happy medium between the fantasy of a budding romance and tropes that aren’t bad ideas in the real world.

See Also:

Your Fat Friend: “She’s Not Even That Fat!” But I Am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women after Marty: Only the Lonely (1991, dir. Chris Columbus); I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With (2007, dir. Jeff Garlin)

The impulse to revisit old stories is a strong one that long pre-dates the advent of film, but it’s not hugely controversial to say that many movie remakes and adaptations usually pale in comparison to the original.  Sometimes a change in setting and/or time can be a welcome take– A Fistful of Dollars is considered a classic right along with Yojimbo, for instance– but often, the remake speaks to the continued relevance of the original, whether intentionally or not.  Both Only the Lonely and I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With are heavily inspired by Marty, focusing on the emotional lives of fat bachelors in their thirties who live with their mothers.  Marty is widely regarded as, to use the words of I Want Someone…’s protagonist James, “a perfect movie,” so it’s not surprising that these films that pay homage to it don’t reach its artistic heights.  However, both are interesting when seen in conversation with Marty, as they respectively take their inspirational concepts to more romanticized and more cynical places.

I was looking forward to, and then disappointed by, Only the Lonely.  Its character motivations and development are simplistic, especially relative to the scale of the action.  Marty may seem overly modest with its timeline of one weekend in which two people meet and decide whether or not to see each other again, but the tight focus on the characters’ inner lives is a much more potent draw than Danny (John Candy) and Theresa’s (Ally Sheedy) courtship where their second date is on Halloween and their wedding scheduled for Christmastime.  Only the Lonely is also less equitable in sympathy for its characters, focusing more on getting the audience to root for Danny than build any potential complexity into the situation. Marty’s mother experiences anxiety triggered by her niece and nephew wanting her widowed sister to move out of their home to make way for a new baby.  Motivated by fear of abandonment, she criticizes Marty for wanting to date Clara, but in prior scenes, she is portrayed as a kind woman who wants her son to be happy.  Compare this to Rose Muldoon (Maureen O’Hara) in Only the Lonely, who is similarly afraid of abandonment, but is depicted more as an obstacle to Danny’s happiness than a grounded, relatable person.  Rose has a long history of not only “telling it like it is” (i.e. making insensitive remarks to whomever she pleases, including critical remarks about people’s ethnicities), but uses guilt to manipulate Danny to the point where the audience sees his vivid, anxious imaginings of her dying horribly because he wasn’t there to protect her.  Her fear of abandonment is not without grounds, as Danny’s brother Patrick (Kevin Dunn) is unwilling to let her move into his home in the suburbs, but she also has the potential for companionship from her neighbor Nick (Anthony Quinn), who is in love with her (and whom she initially rejects for being Greek).  Instead of Rose being frightened by the plight of another widow, Danny is spurred into seizing the day by an elderly bachelor friend (Milo O’Shea) who implores him not to end up the same way.

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Danny and Theresa on their first date, a picnic at Comiskey Park.  Even though the filming location for Danny and Rose’s house is a 5 minute walk to Wrigley Field.  Pick a damn side, executive producer John Hughes.

I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With also has a wider scope than its predecessor, in that the focus is on James’ (Jeff Garlin) career troubles as well as his desire for love. Marty tells Clara about his dream of buying the butcher shop where he works, but we don’t see it plague him to the extent that frustration with acting does James.  Acting shares a significant similarity with relationships:  both pursuits require making oneself vulnerable to judgment and rejection, as both require the approval of other people to happen.  James finds that his fatness explicitly affects his success at both.  He books a job on a mean-spirited candid camera-style show; when he expresses doubts about the show’s ethics, the director (Paul Mazursky) encourages him by saying that he’s “got the whole fat guy thing wrapped up.”  Later, James is shocked to discover that not only is a remake of Marty being cast, but that he was passed over to audition for the title role, which he’s confident he would be great for.  His bewilderment is only exacerbated as seemingly nobody he talks is familiar with Marty, which he describes as “a perfect movie.”  He storms the auditions, where a group of conventionally beautiful women are waiting to read for the role of Clara, and discovers that the titular role has been given to Aaron Carter, and Gina Gershon will be playing Marty’s mother.  “Marty’s mom is hot?” James asks in disbelief.  “She is now,” the casting director (Roger Bart) replies.  James’ skill or lack thereof is a moot point, as he is disqualified from substantial roles due to his age and appearance.  Although James’ story includes more comedy than Marty’s, it’s fairly obvious that Garlin is also creating this film from a very personal perspective.  

As with Marty, Only the Lonely and I Want Someone… feature protagonists who live with their mothers.  Both films also suggest that their protagonist are fat and reluctant to move on to a more independent lifestyle at least partly due to these overly close relationships with mothers who provide food.  James’ mother (Mina Kolb) cooks food that he can’t seem to resist, including a scene where he tries to leave the dinner table due to frustration with her nagging, yet doesn’t because he’s still hungry.  James admits that he lives with his mother because it’s “comfortable,” but also because he worries for her safety.  His mom, however, isn’t as stagnating a force in his life as she appears at first glance:  she encourages him to crash the audition for Marty, and when he tells her that he wants to move out, she expresses relief.  In the denouement sequence where James is getting his shit together, he mentions that not only is he living alone now, but he sees his mother infrequently, suggesting that they are both happier with independent lives.  As mentioned above, in Only the Lonely, Rose smothers Danny to a hyperbolic degree.  In the opening scene, she picks on him for eating yogurt for breakfast instead of his usual Danish, saying he’s “anorexic” and that yogurt is “sissy” when he tells her that he’s “trying to cut back.”  Paradoxically, by encouraging him to maintain a masculinized attitude towards food (ie. prioritizing taste over health concerns), she emasculates him by passively controlling his choices.  His later inability to cook dinner for Theresa shows that he relies on Rose to cook for him.

As much as living with his mother at 38 suggests that Danny retains a childlike dependence on Rose, any immaturity is tempered by virtue. He fails at making dinner for Theresa and is a low-ranking police officer, but later in the film he talks about becoming a cop and living with his mother as choices he made in the wake of his father’s death to take care of his family, re-casting a seemingly pathetic life as the result of selflessness.  His size becomes a symbol of his ability to protect Theresa, as shown in a scene where he helps her sneak out of the house by using his larger body to hide her from Rose’s view.  It’s played for laughs, but speaks to the way in which Only the Lonely gives Candy’s fat body romantic potential.  Protection is what Theresa wants from a romantic partner:  someone who “will always stand up for [her], who will never let [her] down.” Their size disparity is also gendered, as his largeness also calls attention to how petite she is, how appropriate her physique is for a female love interest. When Rose meets Theresa, she criticizes her for being too thin (the Hollywood screenplay equivalent of saying that perfectionism is your biggest flaw during a job interview).  Even his seemingly humble job has perks, as he has connections all over the city that allow him to, among other things: picnic on the field at Comiskey Park, commandeer a fire truck on short notice in the middle of the night, and get an Amtrak train to make an unscheduled stop.  His ability to be a provider proves nothing short of magical in his quest to win Theresa’s heart.   

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James’ meetcute with Beth, in which she gives him a free ice cream sundae.

In I Want Someone…, James’ fatness is suggested to influence every change in his love life over the course of the narrative.  A woman he is dating breaks up with him at the beginning of the film, in part because he’s “in terrible shape,” although she then denies that it has anything to do with him being fat.  Later, he goes on a date with Beth (Sarah Silverman), a manic pixie dream girl who works at an ice cream parlor. He can’t quite believe he’s on a date with her, as he explains, because she’s a “hottie” and he’s “Baron von Fat.”  She responds by assuring him he’s not fat.  A more thoughtful response from her might have been to reassure him of her interest– James is told a few times throughout the movie that he isn’t fat, which comes across as obvious bullshit given the influence his size has on the narrative.  After they sleep together, she reveals that she had never been with a fat man before and she wanted to experiment, before telling him that she doesn’t want to see him again.  James’ fatness is something that his potential romantic partners must treat as an exception, whether positively or negatively, usually the latter.  The positive interaction is with Stella (Bonnie Hunt), who he meets in the jazz section of a record store.  He feels confident flirting with her after her coworker (Amy Sedaris– this cast, right?) lets it slip that she’s a “chubby chaser.”  Although flustered and full of denial when he asks her about it, the James-getting-his-shit-together sequence includes her at a performance of his, watching him with admiration.  Their romantic potential is ambiguous, but their rapport is undeniable, having mutual interests and easily joking around with each other.  Compare this to Danny: he hasn’t dated in a while before Theresa, but his fatness is never explicitly mentioned as an influencing factor.  Even after he proposes to Theresa, his brother suggests that he could do better than someone as “plain” as her; Danny must convince his family (regarding his brother, by “convince” I mean “punch so hard he flies halfway across the room”) that she is worthy of his love.  As with Marty, there is pressure to not commit to a “dog,” but if Danny has had any similar experiences to Marty or James striking out with a woman because of their appearance, it’s glossed over by the film.  Theresa’s “baggage” is shown in a charming light.  She is extremely introverted, which both makes her seem like someone in need of a big protector, and also feels like an echo of Sheedy’s most famous role as Allison in The Breakfast Club.  (Consider that at this point in her career, Sheedy was a few years post-Brat Pack; compare to Betsy Blair, who had been blacklisted by HUAC during the production of Marty).  Her job at her father’s funeral home is talked about as being a turn-off (Rose calls her a “ghoul”), but she is able to express her quirky, artistic side by doing the deceased’s makeup to make them resemble old movie stars, which is totally appropriate for a ritualized expression of grief.

There’s a fine balancing act that goes into portraying marginalized characters, as far as how to show them dealing with with social obstacles and how those experiences affect their internal worlds.  On one hand, we have James, who can only find some form of acceptance professionally or romantically when put into a box based on his fatness. Women are interested in him as a novelty or a fetish, and he is relegated to specific roles by his size and then denied them in preference of a younger, thinner actor.  On the other hand, we have Danny: his fatness is not ignored by the film, but just as far as it makes him a cuddly teddy-bear.  His extended bachelorhood is squarely blamed on his family dynamic, which feels like an unrealistic oversimplification.  Even unapologetic, confident fat people have to deal with haters, and that has an impact on how anyone navigates their professional and love lives.  On the other hand, lots of fat people are in happy relationships and/or have successful careers (including Garlin himself, who was making Curb Your Enthusiasm by the time he was the same age as James).  But even in real lives that are more complicated and nuanced; one take or the other can feel more resonant.  Sometimes we want the soft edges of a Hollywood rom-com, other times the gruffer indie comedy feels more appropriate.  So while I didn’t necessarily feel that these films are equal in terms of the amount of thought put into their creation (I mean Theresa tells Danny she’s trying to learn how to assert herself then she asserts herself when Rose insults her and then immediately BREAKS UP WITH DANNY BECAUSE SHE WAS ABLE TO DO THE THING SHE DIDN’T THINK SHE COULD DO AND HE DIDN’T DO IT FOR HER COME ON WHAT IS THAT okay I’m done now I promise), on a macro level, we need to have access to both points of view. Although dialing back the mom-hate just a notch would be nice.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women and Baggage: Enough Said (2013, dir. Nicole Holofcener); Jack Goes Boating (2010, dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Romantic plots in films often focus on idealized characters with few if any flaws (or flaws that are actually attractive, like an adorably clumsy woman or a widower who broods over his loss in an appealingly sensitive manner). And sure, considering that a film has a short amount of time in which to get the audience rooting for a character, getting us to the height of rapture when two characters kiss for the first time has to be a pretty hard sell. But this also means that the characters usually come from a very specific stock: conventionally attractive, young, uncomplicated lives and backstories. Two people who are set up to perfectly transition from attraction to love to a happy lifetime together. There’s little if any baggage: complicating factors that would detract from the audience’s confidence in a happy ending, such as characters being divorced, or lacking social skills. Considering how often fatness is a visible signifier of both age and an inability to have one’s life “together,” it’s not surprising that fat characters would come laden with traits or histories that would detract from them being ideal mates. Although seen less frequently in films, romantic films like Jack Goes Boating and Enough Said that involve a character who is fatter and older than the typical leading man tend to be infinitely more interesting and relatable; they carry more weight, so to speak. Jack Goes Boating, similar to Marty, follows a budding romance between perennially single Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who originated the role of Jack in the original play and also directs) and Connie (Amy Ryan); Enough Said is about skeptical divorcees Eva (Julia Louis Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini, in his final film performance).

Both Albert’s and Jack’s baggage includes a lack of finesse for adulting. Jack doesn’t know how to swim, and his cooking skills extend to what he can prepare on a hot plate. However, he acquires these skills as the film progresses to be worthy of Connie’s love, so he can rise to the tasks of holding a dinner party and taking her boating. These tasks, developing competence in food and exercise, are things that fat characters (not to mention fat people in real life) are expected to need and want. On the surface, his training is a pathway to him becoming a desirable mate, but more importantly, it speaks to an internal transformation. A big part of his education lies in visualization; he learns to see himself as someone who is a competent swimmer and cook as part of developing his confidence. And, as one would hope to see in a romantic film worth the price of admission, the development of Jack’s emotional life is paramount. Jack lacks the social skills and attainments one would expect from a man his age: not only is he single, he has never been in a serious relationship. His coworker and best friend Clyde (John Ortiz) and Clyde’s wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin Vega) are seemingly his sole connection to the outer world. Their apartment is the main domestic setting featured in the film, and we never see where Jack lives (although he mentions that he lives in his uncle’s basement). His sense of social propriety, as we often see with fat characters, is a bit off-kilter. He is shy and a man of few words, barely engaging when a beautiful Italian client tries to start a conversation with him. He is a fan of reggae music, the assumed reason that he sports some truly janky dreds in his fine, blonde hair. Preparing for his blind date with Connie, he comments to himself about needing to dress well: cut to him on the date in a button-down shirt and his omnipresent knit beanie as they eat Chinese takeout in Clyde and Lucy’s kitchen.

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A rough start:  John Ortiz, Amy Ryan, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating

As far as social skills, Albert is better-off than Jack. He’s been married, he has a good relationship with his daughter, he’s a witty conversationalist and actively pursues Eva. But the film uses this as a double-edged sword; unlike Jack, whose flaws are obscured by his taciturn nature, Albert’s flaws are magnified by his social baggage. Eva’s growing affection for Albert is complicated when she befriends his ex-wife Marianne (Catherine Keener), who is a walking inventory of his personal quirks. He describes himself as a slob, but Marianne harps to Eva on his slovenly habits, his inability to cook more than one dish and multiple failed diets, expressing disgust at his fatness. (“But he never got obese, right?” Eva asks, a note of desperation in her voice.) Although not as egregious as Jack, Albert does have his own antisocial quirks. He doesn’t have a nightstand, which Marianne (and then Eva) sees as a failure of obtaining adulthood; he wears sweatpants to an early date with Eva, which she finds inappropriate. Even his job, working as an archivist for a television museum, suggests the kind of drawbacks often associated with fat characters: sedentary tendencies, myopic geekiness (he can recall ancient television schedules from memory). His association with television in Eva’s mind, while part of an unusual profession at first, becomes a negative as Marianne’s caricature dehumanizes him in her mind: “I pictured the ex she was talking about as this fat, irritating slob and it turns out it’s Albert! Fat Albert! …A cartoon!”

Both films depict romance as developing slowly and with some ambivalence; after all, Connie and Eva have baggage of their own. Connie is as awkward and shy as Jack; on their first date, she tells a lengthy story about her father’s declining health and death that leaves Jack confused as how to respond. Although a middle aged woman, she is just starting out in her career making sales calls, a job that Lucy evidently pulled strings to get for her. A man assaults her on the subway, leaving her with both physical and emotional wounds. She’s later sexually harassed by her boss. There’s also the suggestion that she hasn’t had much experience of being cared for as an adult, as Jack is emboldened to learn how to prepare a meal when she tells him that nobody’s ever cooked for her before. While she likes Jack, her experiences make trusting him a difficult task. He patiently gives her her space; during scenes where they are intimate, Connie sets clear boundaries that he respects. They talk about what they each want in a partner, both have modest goals. Jack wants someone who is positive and likes music, and won’t sleep with other men. Connie wants someone with “a sense he can tell me the truth, a sense of humor, has a job, patient, like you, sexy…” “I can be some of those things,” Jack responds. Perhaps because he is an unconventional romantic lead, there is no expectation for a conventionally dramatized sex scene (e.g. no dialogue, propped against a wall), or hyperbolic dialogue about the profundity of their love. The world of the film gives space for something more messy and human, where ordinary people have to negotiate trauma and inexperience, and find happiness in other flawed people.

Both divorcees, Albert and Eva are understandably cautious about developing a serious relationship. Eva, it’s worth noting, expresses reluctance to give him her phone number because “he’s kind of fat… he’s got this big belly.” After their first date, she bashfully admits attraction to him: “I wasn’t attracted to him at first because he’s not handsome in the typical way, but now I find him kind of sexy.” She later says that their “shared middle agedness” is sexy to her; while she has her reservations, partly because of his appearance and partly due to her own baggage, she is ultimately attracted to Albert as a fat, older man. Although she is able to move past the cultural imperative to be attracted to someone youthful and thin, this is in part because of her ability to relate to the phase of life he’s in. They both have daughters going off to college. Eva’s hesitance seemingly comes from the dangers of being able to relate to Albert. Her fascinated discomfort with Marianne’s rants about her ex-husband put Eva on the offense to “fix” potential problems in her future relationship with him. Eva starts to harp on Albert for a few different Marianne-highlighted personal quirks; unsurprisingly, food is one of them. She criticizes his eating habits in front of her friends and tells him, to his justified embarrassment, that she’s going to “buy him a calorie book.” While completely uncalled-for behavior, it does tie in to her own insecurities about her eating habits, as her ex-husband had a habit of bringing home foods that she was trying to avoid but couldn’t when they were still living together. Eva tries to use Marianne as “a human TripAdvisor” to decide if a relationship with Albert is worth the emotional risk; however, she does this at the expense of owning and taking responsibility for her own shortcomings. She jeopardizes her ability for Albert to trust her and exploits Marianne’s trust, hiding the truth from both of them. A subplot reflects her desire to avoid emotionally turbulent situations, where Eva starts hanging out with her daughter Ellen’s (Tracey Fairaway) best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson). Eva begins to neglect Ellen because she is having trouble dealing with the impending loss of her child to a college on the other side of the country. By treating Chloe as a surrogate daughter, Eva can willfully ignore the wedge of distance and maturity being forced between her and her actual daughter, just as she tries to use Marianne’s complaints to ward off disappointment with Albert.

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Enough Said: James Gandolfini, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and more chemistry than an entire season of Breaking Bad

Another detraction from an idealized relationship in both films is the juxtaposition of the budding romances with their friends’ unhappy marriages. Both relationship foils– Clyde and Lucy in Jack Goes Boating, Eva’s friends Sarah (Toni Colette) and Will (Ben Falcone) in Enough Said— feature thinner male characters, but neither couple is particularly happy. In addition to swimming and cooking, Jack learns harsh realities about relationships, as Clyde and Lucy reveal that there have been multiple infidelities over the course of their marriage, casting a shadow of concern over his potential future with Connie. Sarah and Will are more of a comedic foil than dramatic, but they still constantly bicker; adding in Marianne and Eva’s ex Peter (Toby Huss), romantic relationships in Enough Said seem to have a cyclical nature that create complicated family networks of currents and exes, whereas Jack Goes Boating is more linear and binary, split into the lonely single and the dissatisfied married.

The marked division between the two films is their ideas about if and how people change. Jack Goes Boating takes a more romantic approach: Jack dedicates himself to self-improvement once he meets Connie, but also learns that the reason she loves him is because he strives to be someone who can make her wishes come true. After the dinner he cooks her is accidentally ruined, she calms his shame by telling him how what she appreciates is that he cooked for her, even if they weren’t able to eat the meal. This message is explicit in the last lines of the movie: “I knew you’d be good,” Connie tells Jack admiringly. “I am for you,” he responds. On the other hand, Enough Said finds its resolution in the acceptance of flaws. Albert breaks up with Eva after discovering she’s allowed Marianne to “poison” their relationship. Despite hearing over and over about the worst version of him, she drives by his house often, finding that she misses him. When he sees her parked across the street from his home one day, it leads to the first interaction since their breakup, where they admit that they’ve missed each other. He tells her that he bought a nightstand (something she had been bothered about); she is surprised, but when he admits that he was just teasing her, she laughs, glowing as she looks at him. Eva, the thin, seemingly more “together” adult, is the one who has to change for the relationship to work, letting go of Marianne’s seemingly wise perspective about his shortcomings and solely focusing on her affection for his deadpan sense of humor and gratitude that he still has feelings for her.

Neither film ends with a grand pronouncement of love, or any other epic resolution. These characters aren’t timeless testaments to the power of love: they are charming but quotidian, flawed and wounded, but in ways that make them relatable. While I am looking forward to the day where I go to the movies and see a fat character swept up in a fairytale romance, seeing one in a more grounded, realistic film like Enough Said or Jack Goes Boating has more significance for me. My favorite films are the ones where I can relate to the characters, where the situations they confront feel true to my own experiences; in part, this is why I wish I saw more characters with physiques like my own. When a romantic story includes the anxiety of a failed date or the ambivalence of seeing a lover’s unattractive quirks, the honesty of those situations– the baggage that can be more believably ascribed to characters who aren’t young or normatively attractive– draws me in more fully than any scenario Nicholas Sparks could think up. If there is an upside to having a physicality that is denied idealization, I think that’s probably it.

See Also:

Vulture:  The Toughest Scene I Wrote: Enough Said‘s Ending

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-03-19 17.16.25

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2016-03-19 16.40.13

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

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

Link: Is Hamlet fat?

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

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

 

“You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.” Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout epic about the golden era of porn, Boogie Nights, flirts with the culturally subversive potential of the community on which it focuses.  When I recently rewatched the film (having first seen it over a decade ago), the inversion of the male gaze jumped out at me.  We do see female bodies in states of undress, meant to arouse, but Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg)– or to be more specific, Dirk’s 13 inch penis– is the sun at the center of Boogie Nights’ universe.  Although the audience must wait until the very end of the 2 ½ hour film for the full frontal reveal, Dirk’s penis is very much a presence in the rest of the film.  When he whips it out, the camera focuses on the character who is doing the gazing.  The audience’s thrill and titillation is vicarious; we are invited to empathize with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), and others as they marvel at Dirk’s cock, instead of to consume depersonalized images of Dirk’s body.  Similarly, during Dirk’s debut scene, the sight of him and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) fucking is distanced from the audience as Jack’s camera is literally put between us and them.  The more clearly framed images are those of the cast as they watch Dirk’s performance; Scotty J’s (the dear departed Philip Seymour Hoffman) near-painful desire for Dirk, combined with the discomfort of holding up the boom mike, is of particular note. (More on him in a bit.)

phillip seymour hoffman, boogie nights, scotty j

Another aspect of the potential subversiveness of Boogie Nights is the characters’ sexual relationships.  The main characters form a family of sorts, headed by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber. Treating each other with support and affection, the members of this family both mimic and exist outside the boundaries of the heterosexual nuclear family. While we don’t see them engaging in kink or sex between characters of the same gender, making sex into an art and a profession is queering, to a degree.  Their lifestyles and sexual choices are used as reasons to marginalize them:  Buck (Don Cheadle) is denied a business loan, Amber loses custody of her child, and Dirk is queer-bashed while hustling.  (One of his attackers calls him “donkey dick,” turning the attribute that made him special in his community into an oddity.)  Whereas sex in movies is usually burdened with emotional weight, a cause of strife and jealousy, most of the characters in Boogie Nights are effervescently casual about it. However, we are given a few subplots where characters divert from the free-love culture promoted by Jack and his crew.  One is Little Bill’s (William H. Macy) blatant cuckolding by his wife (Nina Hartley), which culminates with him carrying out a murder-suicide; the other is Buck and Jessie (Melora Walters), who are pushed together as wallflowers at Jack’s Christmas party, marry, have a baby, and start a small business, executing so perfectly in line with the American dream that Buck’s commercial for his stereo store is dripping in red, white, and blue.  The trajectory of both couples in the film ultimately comes down to the husbands’ agency; both of whom take themselves and their wives out of the industry because they don’t fit in.  Little Bill and his wife apparently aren’t able to successfully navigate their relationship through her desire to have sex with other men– the film does not confirm whether or not she performs in Jack’s films, but casting real-life porn legend Nina Hartley in the role certainly implies she does.  The implication that Buck is out of place comes through his clothing; he dresses like a cowboy, which customers at his part-time salesman job find off-putting and his co-star Becky (Nicole Ari Parker) tells him is no longer fashionable.  When Jessie and Buck meet, he is dressed in a flamboyant new outfit with a braided wig, which he laughingly takes off as they warm up to each other, suggesting that he has been pretending to be someone else as part of Jack’s group, but has finally found someone he can be himself with.

The fat characters in Boogie Nights don’t make the choice to leave the community in the same way that Little Bill and Buck do, but neither do they have access to the inner circle, the ability to become true members of the family.  Kurt (Ricky Jay), the Colonel, and Scotty J reflect the subversive aspects of the porn community, but in a less romanticized way than the thin, conventionally beautiful characters.  Kurt, the director of photography, shows the same commitment to well-made porn that Jack does, but does not have the same emotional connection with his coworkers.  In an early scene, he badgers Little Bill about the lighting for the next day’s shoot, oblivious to how distraught Little Bill is over finding his wife having sex in Jack’s driveway amid a circle of spectators.  After Little Bill walks off, Kurt goes to join the spectators, placing his voyeuristic interests over the wellbeing of his colleague.  The Colonel, who funds Jack’s films, initially comes off as avuncular and powerful, similar to Jack.  However, this changes abruptly in 1980, as the new decade turns the harsh house lights on the party of the 1970s.  He is arrested for child pornography, representing a corruption of Jack’s idealized porn goals.  His pathetic rationalization, “I just want to watch,” is a creepy parallel of the self-conscious performance of Dirk and Amber’s sex scene in the first half of the film.  This revelation is too much for the otherwise warm and indulgent Jack, who turns his back on his old friend.  And then, there is the aforementioned Scotty J.

scotty j gif

Scotty J is the only character who is meant to be read as queer, as his arc in the film is his crush on Dirk.  Scotty enters the film through the side gate of Jack’s house during a pool party as two men carry an overdosing woman out the same way; the side portal into Jack’s world for the aspects of it that are not given much focus.  “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate starts playing as Scotty sighs.  Serving as his point of view, the camera pans across the the conventionally beautiful party-goers who might as well be a different species.  Scotty’s skin is pale, hair is messy, and his clothing ill-fitting; his belly sticks out from under his tank top.  His very posture is gauche; he tends to stand with his head tilted in a manner that suggests an awkward teenager.  Once he zeroes in on Dirk, lounging in a beach chair, he approaches and forces an introduction with awkward small talk (“Nice to meet you.” “Me too.”).  He fawns over Dirk, accompanying him from his dressing room to the set like an acolyte (as he chews on a pen in suggestion of where his mind is).  His hero worship of Dirk contrasts with Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly), who treats Dirk as a competitor but is positioned in the film as his right-hand man, where Scotty is merely flitting around in the background.  In a scene of the three men buying matching outfits, Scotty can’t quite button his pants, and looks awkward and out of place next to the other two.  This brief moment in Dirk’s upward career trajectory is a moment of relatable awkwardness and ostracization for many fat viewers who have been part of a social clothes shopping expedition with thinner friends.

The turning point of the film is the 1979 New Years Eve party, the last night of the idyllic 70s before the downturn into the 80s. Scotty transgresses the boundaries of his relationship with Dirk, first by revealing that he’s bought an identical Corvette, and then by trying to kiss him.  Dirk shoves him away, and Scotty automatically apologizes, explaining “You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.”  Scotty wants to know if he can be accepted as the desired object of Dirk’s gaze.  Reflecting the emotional support and sexual open-mindedness shown by the family, Dirk is shocked but tries to be kind to Scotty as he but turns him down and returns to the rest of the party as quickly as he can.  Boogie Nights is full of characters regretting choices that have separated them from their loved ones, but no moment is so visceral, uncomfortable, or intimate than the lingering closeup of Scotty J sitting in his ‘Vette, sobbing his heart out and repeating “I’m a fucking idiot” over and over.

scotty j car

After that turning point in the film, Scotty is swept along with the course of the other characters’ stories, assigned to watching them.  He squirms uncomfortably in the background as Dirk starts his downward spiral of drugs and poor decision making.  When the characters find second chances at the end of the film, he films the birth of Buck and Jessie’s baby.  (During this montage, we also see the Colonel in prison, being abused by his cellmate.)  Scotty is not ejected from his group of friends the way the Colonel is, but after being rejected by Dirk, is not given his own chance at growth or redemption.  True to his personality, Scotty embodies an awkward position in Boogie Nights.  He is a stand-in for the audience.  Like Scotty, we able to gaze all we want at the porn actors who arouse our desire, but we are never able to touch them, to be with them. The feelings they invoke in us are ultimately fantasy.  However, this is where Scotty’s story ends.  The other characters grow and move on to other pursuits, just like we are able to move on to other experiences and aspects of our lives once we are through with our role as audience member, but Scotty remains mired in the role of unfulfilled gazer, an object of our pity (or derision).  This too, is a flirtation with subversion that is ultimately fantasy: Scotty J is a disempowered gazer relative to the object of his gaze (Dirk), but given that he is fat and queer, the film is attempting to change the power relationship using someone who is already marginalized.

“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.