fat studies

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

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

Or I suppose could finish watching Mad Men.”

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

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

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

mad men herb

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

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

mad men bath

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

mad men joan

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

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

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

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

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

mad men betty note

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

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

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

(CN dieting, death)

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

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

Laird Cregar, in a 1942 publicity still.

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

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

laird-cregar-02

Laird Cregar in Hangover Square

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

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

See Also:

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

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

(CN: rape)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Also:

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

(CN: disordered eating and exercise)

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

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

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

heavyweights, the blob

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

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

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

tony perkis, heavyweights, ben stiller, glide, slide

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

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

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

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

heavyweights, la gazza ladra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read it here!  Eee!

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

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

The DUFF, or: What Makes a Character Fat?

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

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

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

Spot the ugly fat person, win a prize!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(CW weight loss)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paranoia of Being a Fat Audience Member: Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-Ho, 2014); Lawrence of Arabia (dir. David Lean, 1962)

…and a few thoughts on why I started writing this blog.

Snowpiercer is a high concept sci-fi movie whose opening scenes are densely packed with exposition.  Humanity has fucked with the environment one final, glorious time, a handful of survivors have been circling the globe for the past 17 years via train in a self-sustaining and strictly hierarchal ecosystem.  We begin in the back of the train with our underclass protagonists.  Their existence is claustrophobic, dirty, meager, strictly regimented by cleaner passengers with uniforms and guns.  But the tipping point of their oppression comes when two of their children are taken for an unspecified purpose by Claude, the woman in yellow (Emma Levie):

image from moviestillsdb.com

It is a shocking scene: both for the sickening sense of doom that builds while she wordlessly measures the children’s height and arm length, and the dazzling nature of her appearance.  Claude’s appearance is the first time in the movie that we have seen the color yellow, the first time we have seen clean, glistening hair, the first time we have seen someone wearing eyeliner.  She glides through a jungle of filthy rags and dull uniforms with restraint, a beautiful, venomous creature.

Despite the allegorical nature of Snowpiercer, this isn’t a crude political cartoon where sides are drawn based on waistline.  Slim Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton) is a distillation of repressive politicians everywhere; Tanya (Octavia Spencer), mother to one of the kidnapped, is a determined fighter who convinces Curtis (Chris Evans) to make her part of the resistance team because her fat body is stronger than that of the skinny men helping him.  And yet we have a plump woman as the final straw before revolt, the spectacle of feminized wealth among drab poverty, the consumer of children.

It’s not like a larger body is Emma Levie’s only attribute; she’s effective at portraying the ice-cold Claude.  Snowpiercer is her second film; her debut was the titular role of Lena (2011), where she portrays an adolescent struggling with her weight.  I haven’t seen Lena, but the character’s struggle with body image is mentioned in every description of the film I’ve read, and it is the only professional baggage she brings to this role.

Lawrence of Arabia is a magnificent epic about T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British army officer, and his role in the Arab Revolt of World War I.  The film combines the macro-level war and sweeping views of the desert landscape with the micro-level of Lawrence’s navigation of identity between his British roots and love of the Arab people, conveyed through O’Toole’s passionate, charismatic performance.  He speaks about his sense of himself as an outsider in British society early in the film with his Bedouin guide:

LAWRENCE: [I am] from Oxfordshire.
TAFAS: Is that a desert country?
LAWRENCE: No; a fat country; fat people.
TAFAS: You are not fat?
LAWRENCE:  No. I’m different.

With this monosyllabic word, Lawrence could be, and probably is, referring to a number of dichotomies he perceives between himself and his fellow countrymen.  He is physically slimmer than his superior officers, but he is also portrayed in contrast to them as empathetic to the Arabic people, an unconventional thinker, and restless in his sense of himself and the world.  However, the “fatness” of Oxforshire, which we only see a glimpse of in the beginning sequence, also stands in contrast to Arabia: verdant and peaceful, as opposed to harsh and troubled.  A more forgiving and abundant land, whose residents presumably don’t have to resort to the extreme measures that Lawrence does, such as killing his close companions for the survival of the group he is leading.

image from flickersintime.com

Lawrence doesn’t position himself with Tafas and his people; just as “different” from the other British people, who are largely portrayed in Lawrence of Arabia as stuffy, bureaucratic colonizers. Is that the people who Lawrence is different from, the stout officers who make secret deals with the French to split up the land and resources of brown people?  Or is it a Britain that we don’t see, but stands in contrast to the ruthless, desperate shell of a man that Lawrence becomes in the second half of the film?

Snowpiercer and Lawrence of Arabia have a few elements in common, but the reason that I chose to write about them in the same post is because I saw them within a day of each other (and both at the Music Box Theatre, check it out if you’re in Chicago), and the two moments in each that I discussed provoked similar responses in me.  How specific were these choices? I wondered.  Is fatness an intentional symbol on the part of the filmmaker, and if so, what is it representing?

I thought that I could write a blog about fat characters where the role of fatness would be more explicit, like Shallow Hal.  I didn’t give enough consideration to how ambiguous that role can be.

This is the insidiousness that comes with being different, with not belonging to your group, and how, like Lawrence, that feeling can provoke and corrode you.  You have something that marks you as an outsider, something you can’t leave at home when you walk out the door, and you don’t often have explicit knowledge of how it factors into how you’re seen.  One of the reasons I chose to write about fat people in movies because these are the images and connected values that are consumed by virtually everyone I interact with every day.  Not having a good read on a movie’s fat semiotics can leave me nonplussed in a way similar to wondering if my appearance was a factor on why I was passed over for a job.

I’m committed to continuing this project, but only a few entries in, this blog is already starting to feel like trying to make sense of a house of mirrors.  And like a house of mirrors, when the viewer sees themself everywhere, from every angle, they tend to become disoriented and lose trust in what is seen.

The Fat Person as Community Member: True Stories (1986, dir. David Byrne)

True Stories is a visit to Virgil, a small town in Texas where characters and situations are based on tabloid stories David Byrne collected while on tour and interwoven with songs like “Wild Wild Life” and “Puzzlin’ Evidence.”  This movie features John Goodman in one of his earliest roles, playing country bachelor Louis Fyne with a finely tuned balance of vulnerability and amiability.

Louis makes his size part of his identity, through the lens of bearishness.  At the night club, he refers to himself as “Louis the Dancing Bear;” this self-appointed nickname is reflected on his date with the Cute Woman (Alix Elias).  He describes his body, in a phrase you may have heard before, as “a very consistent, panda bear shape.”  There isn’t shame or self-hatred in this label; rather, Louis seems to use it to describe his size in relation to masculinity and vigor (as evidenced in the nightclub scene).  There isn’t an overt connection to the bear identity used in gay male subculture, but the sentiment is not dissimilar.

Similar to Maurice from Secrets and Lies, Louis is largely defined by emotions and creativity.  He is a snappy dresser, a singer/songwriter, and “just [wants] to be loved.”  He is preoccupied with finding a wife and settling down; we see him on dates with several mismatches throughout the movie.  We don’t see his size as a detraction from his potential as a husband; these connections don’t last due to personality or lifestyle differences.  There is one scene that depicts Louis’ relationship with a yogini, but since the movie was filmed in the 80s before yoga had become normalized the way it is today, I’m assuming that the humor in the scene is more based on his girlfriend being a hippy weirdo than on his inability to do yoga (likewise I assume that someone struggling with a yoga position was still a fresh joke at the time).  His quest for a bride goes to extremes: he makes a television commercial advertising himself as an eligible bachelor and enlists the spiritual help of a Vodou practicioner (Pops Staples) to help him find love.

(Quick sidenote about the aforementioned scene:  There are certainly many more insensitive and inaccurate portrayals of Vodou in American cinema, but its inclusion feels shoehorned in to make use of the song “Papa Legba.”  I don’t know enough about Vodou to talk about how authentic the ritual scene is, but considering that Papa Legba is associated with crossroads, travel, and communication, I’m skeptical.  To its merit, it does, along with the “Puzzlin’ Evidence” preacher, undermine assumptions about the homogeneity of religion in small town America that viewers would likely otherwise make about the film’s setting.)

Louis is a character of excess, but instead of making him an outlier or moral lesson, this trait fits him in perfectly with the other characters in the movie.  Swoozie Kurtz plays a woman who is so lazy she elects to spend her life in bed watching tv.  In one scene, the Narrator (David Byrne) has dinner with the Culvers, a well-to-do married couple who have not spoken directly to each other in years.  Slothfulness and social maladjustment are usually attributes of fat characters, turning them into buffoons and isolating them from the thin characters around them, but none of these characters are fat.  Virgil is a community that is united in its paradoxically banal weirdness.

This unity is further evidenced in the group lip-sync that is kicked off by an energetic fat woman in a fierce yellow jumpsuit, and the fashion show that seamlessly includes fat people who model everything from business suits to powder blue formal wear to vegetation.  These scenes also incorporate age and racial diversity in a low-key way; this just happens to be a small town where different people come together to share their love of modeling grass suits and pretending to sing.

True Stories is about a community, but if one had to choose a protagonist, Louis is the most likely candidate.  The Narrator joins the audience in outsider status, learning about Virgil’s inhabitants through the course of the movie, but the detached quality of Byrne’s performance and details such as the self-aware fakeness of his driving scenes render him as an abstraction, a lens through which we can gaze at the town.  Louis, on the other end of the spectrum, is more human than the other characters.  In a movie that embraces performance and artifice, the most grounded moment comes at the end of Louis’ date with the Cute Woman, where they put aside their small-town geniality and admit that they aren’t making a love connection:

Goodman’s performance and Louis’ character relative to the other citizens of Virgil make True Stories stand in contrast to many films where fat people are depicted with the intent of rendering them as less relatable or sympathetic to the audience than their thin counterparts.

A few things I’m still pondering:  to what extent is Louis an embodiment of Virgil?  Is his size connected with perceptions of Virgil as a cookie-cutter small town USA, the ugly American stereotype that often comes packaged in a big body?

Emotional Intelligence and Fatness: Secrets and Lies (1996; dir. Mike Leigh)

Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a middle-class black optometrist, seeks out and connects with her birth mother, Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), a white factory worker and general hot mess, inadvertently inheriting the rest of her biological family at the same time.  Secrets and Lies received critical acclaim upon its release, including the Palm d’Or and several Oscar nominations, largely for its talented cast and nuanced characters.  This includes Maurice, Cynthia’s financially better-off brother who is trying to keep his cooling marriage alive, played by Timothy Spall (or, as nerds might know him better, Peter “Wormtail” Pettigrew).

In Fat Boys: a Slim Book, Sander L. Gilman analyzes different ways fat male bodies are used in Western cultural narratives to signify values and beliefs about human nature.  One of the archetypes he discusses is the fat detective, largely citing British characters such as Dr. Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald on the BBC series Cracker, as portrayed by Robbie Coltrane (if this blog takes off, I’m apparently going to have to do at least one post about Harry Potter).

“His oversized body invokes… his mode of inquiry… Such an obese body seems more feminine, but certainly not female; it is expressive of the nature of the way the detective seems to ‘think.’  His thought processes strike us as intuitive and emotional rather than analytic and objective.  In other words, the fat detective’s body is read as feminine.”  (Gilman, 154, 155)

Maurice isn’t a detective, but like the fat detectives Gilman describes, he does rely on intuitive and emotional skills to navigate both his personal and professional lives.  He often becomes a paternal figure in both of these spheres.  However, instead of being cold or autocratic (or absent, like every biological father in the film) his approach to fatherly tasks is gentle and nurturing.

When we see him in his role as a portrait photographer, he is interacting in a warm manner with a diverse array of people in varying situations, from a nervous bride to a bitter plaintiff, trying to make a connection and get them to smile.  While his detached offscreen voice and constant insistence on drawing his subjects’ attentions to his camera give him an air of authority, what comes across more strongly in these scenes is a sense that Maurice can see beauty and humanity in everyone in front of his lens.  These traits also apply to his role as a businessman.

Stuart (Ron Cook), the former owner of his photography studio, pays an unexpected visit, drunk and on the verge of aggression. Maurice patiently listens to him rant about his string of bad luck, but also sets firm boundaries around Stuart’s claim to his business and the stay of his visit, while his wife Monica (Phyllis Logan) and his assistant Jane (Elizabeth Berrington) wait nervously in the next room, expecting a conflict to erupt.

Maurice is in a paternal position in his family, although given that his and Cynthia’s father is long dead and Cynthia won’t even disclose who sired her own daughter Roxanne (Claire Rushbrook), this is his place by default.  He is a provider for his sister, niece, and wife, whose reliance on him and volatile relationships with each other are reaching a breaking point.  He describes his own situation best: “I’ve spent my entire life trying to make people happy, and the three people I love the most in the world hate each others’ guts, I’m in the middle, I can’t take it anymore!”  When the film opens, he hasn’t seen Cynthia in two years; backstory that makes him seem cold at first is quickly understood by the audience during their reunion scene, where her neediness for his affection uncomfortably borders on incestuous.  (She also jiggles his belly and makes a comment about how well-off he is, connecting his fatness to a bourgeois lifestyle that separates him from Cynthia and his working class roots).  His interactions with his wife Monica are similarly nurturing but off-kilter, despite his good intentions.  In an early scene in the movie, he comes home to find her frustrated over something she won’t talk about.  He tries to take her mind off whatever it is by offering to pour her a glass of wine and make small talk; however, his indirect approach backfires and leads to her storming out of the house.

During the climactic birthday party scene, kicked into high gear by Cynthia’s ill-timed confession that Hortense is her daughter, Maurice becomes an active force for repairing communication and relationships in his family.  “We’re all in pain,” he implores his loved ones, “Why can’t we share our pain?” He tells his family that Monica is infertile when she can’t bring herself to do so.  When Hortense is nearly paralyzed by her discomfort and isolation, he praises her bravery for seeking the truth and welcomes her to the family.  His ability to wrangle the mistruths and resentment that have built up for years with honesty and love are deeply moving to Jane:  “Oh Maurice, I wish I’d had a dad like you.  You’re lovely.”  He reaches across the table to take her hand as she breaks down crying.

Gilman’s analysis of the fat detective archetype includes another trait besides emotional sagacity: feminization.  Despite the masculine attributes discussed above, Maurice could not be described as a paragon of masculinity, especially the masculinity that is often celebrated in Western cinema.   His photography relies on empathy, intuition, and patience, and often has him as witness to familial scenarios.  His caretaker role in his own family is feminized as well, such as in scenes where he cares for Monica when she is bedridden (he would probably be described as “henpecked”).  The responsibility for his and Monica’s childlessness is placed on her body, but the lack of children also detracts from his virility.  Directly after the birthday party scene, we see Maurice and Monica spooning in bed together (a setting where previously we had only seen him taking care of her).  His plea to his family for greater communication has brought them closer together, but the sexuality between man and wife is only suggested: his bare chest, her nightie, the intimacy of the closeup shot.  Compare this to the more frankly sexual scene between Roxanne and her boyfriend.  Maurice stands in even greater contrast to his sister, who is firmly ensconced in roles and character traits that are “appropriate” to her gender.  Cynthia’s history and own sense of worth is strongly tied to her attractiveness to men (her “feminine charms”), her relationships to the people in her life, and her sexuality.

Fat bodies are degendered to a certain degree in Western culture, often detracting from the fat person being characterized fully within masculine power or feminine beauty.  Even the rare image of androgyny (that isn’t played for laughs) is usually conveyed with a slender body, such as Tilda Swinton’s.  In Maurice’s case, however, the softening of masculinity and embracing of traditionally feminine characteristics put him in a position to bring about family healing, and give the emotionally fraught story of Secrets and Lies a happy ending.