Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut doesn’t bring anything new to the cinematic table in terms of story or visual technique; what makes it exciting is her outstanding attention to detail. Having also been a Catholic high school senior in 2002, I knew I was in for something that was going to hit me where I live when I saw the image of Lady Bird’s titular protagonist(Saoirse Ronan) standing in the communion line with her arms folded over her chest. A fair amount of Lady Bird’s charm is based in nostalgia, the escapism of looking back to the past, whether part of a personal or historical timeline. Remember what it was like to have complicated feelings about Dave Matthews Band? Your first cell phone? Pretentiousness as the hallmark of a suitable boyfriend?
But nostalgia in Lady Bird isn’t a fully romanticized experience. Lady Bird breaks from the mold of movies with teenage protagonists focused on affluent, privileged families. Lady Bird’s family struggles with money, which colors most of the protagonist’s relationships. She dates Danny (Lucas Hedges) until she finds him kissing another boy; the scene where he pleads with her not to tell his parents that he’s gay is heartrending. And, relative to this blog, is Lady Bird’s larger-bodied best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). There’s a moment where the skinny Lady Bird casually mentions wanting to lose weight to Julie. “Really?” Julie responds, her bewilderment and self-consciousness immediately familiar to me and, I’m sure, most other fat audience members.
Lady Bird and Julie share a paradigmatic protagonist-sidekick dynamic. Lady Bird is louder and more confident; Julie is more reserved, and tends to follow her friend’s lead. Julie is also, typical of fat characters, more socially awkward than Lady Bird. Julie’s ineptitude is subtle and relatable, not clownish. She fawns over math teacher Mr. Bruno (Jake McDorman), but her crush never inflates to the point where she is a buffoon (or a victim); she is gracious when he introduces her to his pregnant wife. A sequence of characters auditioning for the school musical nicely illustrates the friends’ contrasting personalities: Lady Bird does a fiery rendition of the Barbra Streisand-popularized “Everybody Says Don’t,” while Julie opts for the gentle and out-of-place hymn “Prayer of St. Francis.” Julie, however, is cast in a substantial role in the musical while Lady Bird is relegated to the chorus. Julie also has a knack for math while Lady Bird struggles with her grades, resisting the trope of a fat character being worse at everything than their thin counterpart.
While the two girls are seemingly inseparable, Lady Bird decides in the second half of the school year that she wants to reinvent herself and ditches Julie in favor of attaching herself to rich, popular Jenna (Odeya Rush) and cool, intellectual Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). Jenna and Kyle are conventionally attractive, but also smirking and apathetic. Maintaining relationships with Jenna and Kyle means adopting a facade, a tactic completely alien to Lady Bird. Her first attempt to get Jenna’s attention is to insult Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) and suggest that a revenge prank is appropriate for a routine admonishment against violating the school uniform. Julie is shocked and reminds Lady Bird that she’s fond of the nun, which Lady Bird immediately denies. Lady Bird lies to Jenna about where she lives (a switch from describing herself to Danny as being “from the wrong side of the tracks”) and takes up smoking to impress Kyle.
Of course, Lady Bird is too headstrong to accommodate her new friends for long. She is seriously disillusioned after she has sex for the first time with Kyle, assuming it his first time too, only to have him casually reveal that he’s had several partners before her and is much more casual about sex than she. The breaking point comes on the way to prom. Lady Bird reluctantly agrees with their plan to ditch prom, but bristles when “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band comes on the radio and Kyle disparages it. There is a scene earlier in the film, after Lady Bird finds Danny cheating on her, where she and Julie are crying and singing along to “Crash Into Me.” No longer able to tolerate trying to be someone else, she tells Kyle to drive her to Julie’s home. When Jenna asks who Julie is, Lady Bird defiantly replies, “She’s my best friend.”
Part of Lady Bird’s attention to detail are the numerous loose threads that the film gives us. These aren’t plot holes, rather, accurate reflections that life rarely comes with neat conclusions, and rarely allows us to witness conclusions to struggles in which we aren’t immediately involved. We see supporting characters moving in and out of personal problems, only glimpsing their interior world long enough to see them as human beings. Kyle drops Lady Bird off at the apartment complex where Julie lives– confirming that, like Lady Bird, Julie is also an outsider at their school due to her family’s economic circumstances. Julie is revealed to be in her apartment, still in her bathrobe, crying. The audience never finds out why, we simply see Lady Bird ask for her forgiveness and convince her to come to prom. At prom, the reunited friends dance joyfully with each other and hang out until dawn, at which point Julie reveals that she is spending the summer with her dad and will be going to the local community college, while Lady Bird is moving away in the fall.
Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), prom night
The end of the film finds Lady Bird in her first days at Barnard in New York City. She seems to have synthesized her experiences over the course of the film, excited to be cool and worldly in the way that drew her to Kyle and Jenna, but also unrelentingly true to herself. At her first college party, she asserts her belief in God in a conversation with a self-assured atheist and, when asked her name, drops her self-appointed nickname and introduces herself by her given name, Christine. Even though Julie is not present in the latter portion of the movie, which focuses specifically on Lady Bird’s troubled relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), there is a direct parallel between Lady Bird asserting herself as Julie’s friend to Kyle and as a theist at the party in New York. Lady Bird’s relationship with Julie is the childhood that she’s leaving behind her, but also an essential part of who she is. Even if the two go their separate ways, we know that they are both better people for having learned how to apologize and forgive. Lady Bird suggests that all its characters could easily be the protagonist of their own movie. Although Julie fits the awkward fat friend trope, we also get glimpses of her inner life, suggestions that she has also had a coming of age over the course of the film. The resonant emotional honesty and compassion of Lady Bird redeems its reliance on stock character types.
Admittedly, I haven’t been great about keeping up with the Monthly Roundup feature. I like having an overview of the fat characters I’m exposed to as part of my regular moviegoing, but something about its current format doesn’t feel quite right, and I’ve decided to shelve it until I’m more confident about what I’m doing with it. However, I’m pleased to report that in the space of one short month (admittedly not a calendar month, but still), I have seen no less than four films with kickass fat female characters. Most amazingly, I only sought out one of the four because I knew in advance that it had a fat female character; the others were complete surprises. Check these out if you’re able.
Deidre and Laney Rob a Train (2017, dir. Sydney Freeland)
It’s not uncommon for a socially awkward protagonist high school girl to have a frenemy, someone in her social circle who is overly assertive and selfish, but gets away with it because of her social capital and ability to be manipulative. (Mean Girls. If it’s not patently obvious, I’m referencing Mean Girls.) In a subplot, Laney (Rachel Crow) is strong-armed into auditioning for a beauty pageant by Claire (Brooke Markham), a Lady Macbeth-in-training who is determined to become Miss Iowa and wants Laney to make her look better by comparison. Claire is ruthless, ambitious, struts around with a cute boy on her arm, and the film never so much as comments on the fact that she’s bigger than the other girls in the competition. I don’t automatically cotton to fat female antagonists for merely existing, but considering that Claire’s threat to Laney is fueled by her confidence, social prowess, and beauty, it’s heartening that the role was given to a larger-bodied actress.
GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (2012, dir. Brett Whitcomb)
A compelling documentary about the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a short-lived tv phenomenon in the late 80s that helped legitimize women in the world of professional wrestling. The film basically opens with footage from the tv show of two fat women, Mountain Fiji (Emily Dole) and Matilda the Hun (Dee Booher) throwing down in the ring. Although the other GLOW members featured in the documentary are thin and conventionally good-looking, Mt. Fiji and Matilda also stand out for their dedication to their craft. The other women talk about their time with GLOW as a fun adventure they had in their youth, mostly sending them on to other careers. As Matilda the Hun, a “glamazon” heel, Booehr views wrestling as her vocation, having struggled to wrestle in male-dominated venues long before being hired by GLOW, and continuing to wrestle long after it ends. Dole, a former Olympic-level shot putter, doesn’t have a story quite as happy as the others– the present-day segments show her struggling with health problems– but her reunion with the rest of the GLOW cast shows that not only was she one of the main faces on the show, but that her castmates truly looked up to her as the heart of the phenomenon.
A scripted series based on GLOW is releasing this summer on Netflix… we’ll see if they fuck it up, I guess!
Matilda the Hun
My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2017, dir. Dash Shaw)
I went into the theater thinking that the title was metaphorical, and I was dead wrong. Daria meets The Poseidon Adventure, with an inventive visual style along the lines of of Belladonna of Sadness. Dash (Jason Schwartzman), our protagonist, is a self-centered sophomore who sees himself as the star journalist of the school’s newspaper. He makes several comments about his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) being fat, but Assaf’s character design isn’t markedly different from the other not-fat characters. Lunchlady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon), however, is drawn fatter than the other characters, and her size belies remarkable strength and ability.
Patti Cake$ (2017, dir. Geremy Jasper)
An underdog story about Patricia “Killa P” Dumbrowski (Danielle Macdonald), a young woman from a working class town in northeast New Jersey who dreams of making it as a rapper. Her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) encourages her to share her talent with the world, but she feels held back by a host of reasons, including her peers who deride her for her size. Fatphobia isn’t the only problem she faces, though, and she channels her feelings her body– both anger at her haters and defiant pride in herself– into her lyrics.
Deidre and Laney Rob a Train and GLOW: the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are on Netflix, My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea is currently in theaters, and Patti Cake$ is due for a wide release in July (I got to see it early thanks to the Chicago Critics Film Festival).
Embarrassing confession time: I have been picking away at this article for way too long. Patrick had suggested Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL a while ago, and they are chock full of great discussion material, especially regarding the shifts between the original and the sequel. I was fascinated by a mainstream Hollywood movie that plays fast and loose with the gender roles of its straight male protagonists; then, there’s also the obvious topic of the noticeably more inclusive casting of audience members in XXL. But how did they connect? Though initially struggling to form a cohesive argument, I finally relied on this one weird trick: I re-read the most famous essay in feminist film theory. And amazingly, it was very helpful.
Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is the genesis of the term “male gaze.” Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to describe a common dynamic in classic Hollywood film, in which the audience derives a dual and seemingly contradictory pleasure in the voyeurism of watching the people on screen (separating the audience and the character), but also seeing the characters as idealized versions of ourselves (bringing audience and character together). And as the films utilizing this dynamic are produced in a patriarchal society (i.e. prioritizing the wants and experiences of men), female characters are on display for the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure, while male characters are powerful protagonists with whom the audience identifies. Often, these two dynamics synthesize in the romantic union of the male and female characters, creating the fantasy of being a powerful person who possesses the object of desire. Magic Mike, especially XXL, disrupts these dynamics that Mulvey describes.
True, none of the main characters in either film are fat. Most of the fat characters I write about on CPBS aren’t protagonists. While there are exceptions, as evidenced by most of the films in last year’s series on fat men and thin women, fat characters are usually minor supporting roles in a handful of scenes; this is especially obvious if you look at the writeups I’ve done of film festivals, etc. It would be overly glib to say that there’s one reason why, but stemming from Mulvey’s theory of the audience seeking pleasure through identification with a protagonist, the common assumption is that audiences can’t/won’t empathise with a character who doesn’t embody certain social privileges. Mulvey focuses on gender; but of course this struggle encompasses many identities. At the writing of this article, whitewashing is again a popular topic of discussion, as the remake of Ghost in the Shell starring ScarJo just hit theaters. But, as always, body size and composition is the spectrum we’ll be focusing on here. And the fat characters of particular interest in Magic Mike and XXL are the fat women in Mike’s (Channing Tatum) audience.
I didn’t find or make screencaps of the fat audience members, please accept my apology in the form of Joe Manganiello in a sexy firefighter costume
Magic Mike starts with a flipping of the male gaze’s gender dynamic by establishing the relationship between female audience and male performer. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) titillates the audience by playfully reminding them that it is against the law to touch the dancers’ bodies (but then observes “a lot of law-breakers” in the audience); the women sitting in the dark respond with excited cheers. This mirrors a common paradox that attractive female characters must embody of being on display for the audience’s visual consumption but not too actively sexual as to land on the wrong side of social judgment (or break the fantasy of being controllable). Mike deals with this very judgment from the two main female characters, Brooke (Cody Horn) and Joanna (Olivia Munn). Through their relationships with Mike, we see his need to move on from his current profession. Joanna is willing to have casual sex with Mike and join him in orchestrating three-ways, but she isn’t willing to talk about her personal life with him and unceremoniously abandons him by revealing that she is engaged, which coincides with the completion of her PhD. Brooke is consistently judgmental of Mike’s profession throughout the movie; although he accuses her of reducing him to his job, eventually both his bff Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and his boss Dallas screw him over, proving that her disapproval is merited. Mike abruptly leaves the Kings, as Joanna left him, and shows up on Brooke’s doorstep. His happy ending is the approval of the “normal” character. His arc isn’t too different from the pattern I saw in films featuring fat men paired with thin women; Mike’s maturation make him attractive despite his excess (here his decadent profession, as opposed to his body), his reward is the love of a good (thin) woman. This is a neat gender inversion of the story arc that Mulvey describes, wherein a female character “falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her… show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone.”
As opposed to typical scenes featuring female dancers, where the male audience is a source of some menace (I haven’t seen the whole of Striptease, but two of the dance scenes on YouTube include Demi Moore being grabbed inappropriately by audience members, as well as Burt Reynolds sitting in the corner and making creepy comments about how she’s an “angel”), the relationship between male dancers and female audience in the Magic Mike movies is free of tension. The pleasure the audience receives from direct attention from the male entertainers is pure, even sheepish at times, as select VIPs allow the dancers to pick them up, lie them on the floor, tie them in sex slings, etc. without any attempts to go too far. The exotic dancing is described as a service in both films, either embodying the fantasy of a one night stand, as per Dallas, or helping a woman find her “smile,” as per Mike. If anything, Adam is the only character to really transgress professional boundaries, as he kisses an audience member during his debut dance and give a tab of ecstasy to a sorority sister during a house call.
Magic Mike is focused on people struggling to realize their professional goals (or just make ends meet) in an unforgiving economic structure. The stripping, while surely an entertaining spectacle for at least some of the audience, is almost incidental to the film’s themes. As Magic Mike centers on Mike’s struggle to be a successful entrepreneur, the audience’s shrieks of delight and dollar bills symbolize the tyrannical demands of the market, showering him with money when he dances, while an apologetic bank employee (Betsy Brandt) withholds it when he tries to secure a loan to start his furniture business. And although the women themselves have no nefarious motives, they provide the money and attention that draws Adam into the life of a debauched party boy. XXL, on the other hand, focuses on Mike reconnecting with his friends, helping them move onto the next steps of their lives after Dallas abandons them, and coping with the stress of his new job and newly single status. He does all these things by rediscovering the joy of stripping, namely, helping his audience find their “smile.” Where the first film finds Mike concerned that Brooke only sees him as a “30 year old male stripper,” XXL states explicitly (ha) that Mike and the other Kings can use stripping to explore and assert themselves as individuals. Mike strives to impress the female characters in XXL, but unlike the judgment of his profession that he meets in Magic Mike, he instead interacts with women who are mostly involved in exotic dance in one way or another along his journey to Myrtle Beach, and has to charm them into providing assistance to get him and the Kings there. The political pathos is removed from Mike’s relationship with stripping in XXL, giving the viewer license to find pure erotic enjoyment in his performances. And yet, XXL breaks even further away from the “show-girl” trope Mulvey described, in which “a woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined.” Both films invert the roles that each gender plays in the dynamic, but in XXL, Mike’s friends assign personal meaning to male entertainment that gives more depth to their characters than they had in Magic Mike. The sequel gives us more of the personalities of the Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa and allows them to wax philosophical about the male entertainment industry, which is celebrated as an opportunity for all women deserve to have their fantasies indulged and to be “queens,” as opposed to the first film, which presents a glittery sandpit that is controlled by deceitful owners like Dallas and eats naive young men like Adam for breakfast.
A few different scenes in XXL explore the Kings’ relationship to their work, including one in which Ken (Matt Bomer) bonds with Andre (Donald Glover) over the meaning they find in male entertainment. “These girls have to deal with men in their lives every day who don’t listen to them,” Andre observes. “They don’t even ask them what they want. All we gotta do is ask them what they want. When they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man. We’re like healers or something.” A subsequent scene shows this philosophy in action when Ken meets an older woman (Jane McNeill) who confesses her husband won’t have sex with the lights on; he responds by telling her how beautiful she is, how she deserves to be happy, and sings her the song that she and her husband would listen to when they were first falling in love. The moment is bittersweet (“I don’t think Hank can do that!” she tells him when his performance ends), but shows more depth to what the audience seeks from the performers than the “free fling of a fuck” Dallas describes in Magic Mike. The Kings want to be the most effective entertainers possible; while the film plays out with the intent that the film audience see ourselves more as an extension of the Kings’ audience, there is joy in seeing the exhibition of their creativity and the gradual reveal of their personalities as much as there is of their oiled-up bits. The culmination of XXL finds Mike and his friends (now calling themselves “Res-erection”) fully in their element and fully belonging to the audience; as emcee Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) describes them, “a special kind of beast that can bring all the beauty out in you.”
Even if the dancers aren’t normatively gendered in how they function in the films narrative, they are in physical presentation. The implication is, of course, that the man capable of “fulfilling every woman’s wildest fantasies” is relegated to one body type. And commonly, when men in movies are depicted as irresistable, the women chasing them are normatively attractive. The fantasy is specifically that of a man’s wanting to have numerous beautiful women chasing after him. However, the world of Magic Mike flips that to focus on the fantasy of a fun night of oogling hunks (without the drink minimum) by including a range of women in the audience. The first movie falls short. Notably, there are some audience members who are older women, but all are feminine and white. The only fat woman in Magic Mike is chosen for VIP treatment by Richie (Joe Manganiello), but he “humorously” hurts his back when picking her up and has to stop his routine, leaving her standing awkwardly by herself on the stage. XXL does an admirable job of diversifying the audience. Not only do several scenes include fat women getting individual attention from the male entertainers, but there is a specific focus on black women. We meet Rome, who addresses her black clientele as “queens” and repeatedly tells them that they are beautiful and deserving of attention from her sexy staff. We see many fat women in the audience, including an extended scene with a fat black woman receiving attention from a male entertainer who picks her up with ease (and is played by former pro football player Michael Strahan).
Rome, the queen in her castle, and Magic Mike (fka “White Chocolate”)
A pivotal moment in XXL hinges on an audience comprised of one fat woman: Richie’s dance in the convenience store. Richie (rolling on molly) wants to bring his wedding fantasy routine to fruition, but is insecure about his skills as a dancer. Mike (also rolling on molly), in an attempt to make his friend understand that their work is less about impressive dance moves and more about making women happy, dares him to walk into a convenience store and make the bored-looking cashier (Lindsey Moser) smile. Richie balks, not because the young woman is fat, but because she “looks like she’s never fucking smiled a fucking day in her entire life.” And, because it is that kind of movie, Richie’s beloved Backstreet Boys start playing on the store speakers the minute he walks into the store. Unlike the women who make up his intentional audience– and unlike the common stereotype of fat women as desperate for sex– the cashier doesn’t immediately notice him (much to his pouty disappointment). He has to dramatically tear open a bag of Cheetos just to get her attention, and she doesn’t even smile until the end of his routine, when he cracks a joke. Richie goes on a minor character development arc over the course of the scene, where he has to get in touch with his confidence and sense of presence to prove to himself that he doesn’t need Dallas’ direction to be a successful male entertainer. And the sign of his success is the approval of a fat, female audience, as well of that of his friends (all of whom are rolling on molly).
The other fat presence in the films must be mentioned, even if he doesn’t quite fit in with the discussion: Tobias, the DJ (Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias). He is a corrupting influence for Adam in the first film, giving him his first taste of GHB (or, as he calls it, “hey juice”) and supplying him MDMA to sell once he’s established himself as a dancer at Dallas’ club. Adam foolishly loses $10,000 worth of pills that he and Tobias were supposed to sell. This leads to two thugs trashing Mike’s apartment looking for restitution, while Tobias helplessly watches. However, to the more mature Kings who are presumably a bit wiser in their choices, he is more of a helpful support. In Magic Mike XXL, he drives the food truck to take them on their road trip to Myrtle Beach with the intention of being their emcee at the stripper convention–until he drives off the road while rolling and suffers a concussion. In both films, Tobias is vaguely coded as queer. In Magic Mike, we are introduced to him using stereotypically gay mannerisms to make a joke. In XXL, Tobias gets on stage dressed like Carmen Miranda at a voguing contest at a gay club; and considering that he wins the $400 prize after the Kings upstage the club’s regulars, he had better fucking be queer because that is the only way that such an incredibly cringe-worthy scene could be salvaged. At the afterparty following the scene at the gay club, he sits at a campfire with the club’s fat drag queen emcee (Vicky Vox), while the other Kings are paired with thin, (presumably) cis women. (This sequence includes a scene in which Mike meets Zoe [Amber Heard] and they bond over having “inner drag queens;” ick ick ick.)
Dallas and Tobias watch the boys do their thing
The aspect of XXL that is quite unlike any mainstream film I’ve seen in recent memory is not only the focus on the importance of pleasure (both giving and receiving) to a fulfilled life, but that pursuit is reinforced as egalitarian. And combined with Mulvey’s theory about the gaze, you get something pretty amazing. Instead of women performing as erotic spectacle for a male audience, you have men performing for an audience comprised not only of women, but of older women, fat women, and women of color. So the entity in the film that we, XXL’s audience, identify with is those people: older women, fat women, women of color. And it’s not for the purpose of learning something or becoming aware of an issue or struggle; it’s just to have some fun and feel sexy for a bit. It’s a subtle part of the movie, but it’s normalizing of these groups of marginalized women in a way that we rarely get to see. Even if XXL doesn’t answer Mulvey’s call to break down the “cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures” that enable the male gaze, it’s a noteworthy bending of that system.
It was neither the first nor the last time an artist or intellectual I loved expressed their disdain for me. All because of the body I have. All because of the way I look.
I wonder if they ever imagined me reading or viewing their work. I wonder if they thought of lecturing me on the dangers of the body I have, or if they stop short, surmising that I might have heard that before.
I wonder if they know fat people, or if they’ve come to love any of us.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to let you know that I’m going to be busy with theater projects in January, so I won’t be able to update CPBS next month. However, if you think you’d like to contribute a guest piece, please reach out to me with a pitch: pandabearshape at gmail dot com.
I hope you have as safe and peaceful a holiday season as possible.
A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.
Take This Waltz (2011, dir. Sarah Polley)
This romantic drama follows Margot (Michelle Williams), a writer who finds herself torn between her loving, stable marriage to chef Lou (Seth Rogen) and her prickly, burgeoning crush on their rickshaw-driving artist neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby). I was hesitant to include this because Rogen is thinner in this film than most of his work (he made this film around the same time as Green Hornet), but I decided to go with it as the film juxtaposes him with Daniel, who is very athletic (literally spending his days running around Toronto).
Orgazmo (1997, dir. Trey Parker)
A self-consciously B comedy that is a sendup of low-budget action films, the porn industry, and (of course) Mormons, Orgazmo pits kung fu fighting Latter Day Saint Joe (Parker) against evil porn producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs). Maxxx is fat, as are some of his cronies/actors Jizzmaster Zero (Ron Jeremy) and his dimwitted bodyguard whose name I didn’t write down (mea culpa, unsung hero). But another notable scene pairs Joe with a fat porn actress called T-Rex (Ruby Hart, credited on IMDB as “The Fat Lady Stripper”), and touches on a number of tropes: the ground shakes when T-Rex approaches, she is masculinized (her lines are dubbed with Parker doing a voiceover), she is crass and sexually voracious, Joe is terrified of her, and the onlookers are disgusted, with the exception of weirdo Dave the Lighting Guy (Matt Stone). The scene can be found here (NSFW; typical Parker/Stone humor).
The Ladykillers (2004, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
A remake of a 1955 heist film that pits a group of thieves against an elderly Christian woman (Irma P. Hall) who unknowingly rents a room in her house to their grandiloquent ringleader (Tom Hanks). In true Coen fashion, the film is peppered with idiosyncratic fat characters: a sweaty, easily-bribed boss (Stephen Root); a security guard who is constantly laughing and surrounded by food wrappers (Walter K. Jordan); a deputy sheriff who frequently naps at his desk (John McConnell).
The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)
One of Pixar’s best, in a world… where superheroes are forced into hiding as normal people, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to ignore his and his family’s special abilities. Having to live as insurance agent Bob Parr, he gains weight and is referred to as fat at least a few times, but is still able to fight well enough to defeat a massive killbot single-handed. Once he has the opportunity to put his super-strength to use again, an exercise montage helps him get back his trimmer physique.
Meet the Fokkens/Ouwehoeren (2012, dir. Rob Schröder, Gabriëlle Provaas)
I usually don’t include fat people in documentaries that I see; in most cases, a subject being fat is happenstance. That is the case here– a profile of Louise and Martine Fokken, Dutch twin sisters who were sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district for over 50 years, and just happen to be fat (although photos show that they were slimmer in their youth). Although fatness isn’t explicitly discussed, they are contrasted with their slimmer, younger colleagues and laughed at by some passerby. The idea of older, fatter women being sexually active, as well as objects of desire, is unthinkable to many people; making it the subject of a full-length documentary is a necessary subversion of assumptions about who sex workers are.
Usually when I post links to interesting articles, they’re a few years old, things I’ve stumbled across doing research or something of that sort. But today, I’m delighted to be able to signal boost something that not only was released today, but that I came across listening to the radio on the way to work. NPR’s Morning Edition ran a piece about two recently published novels whose protagonists struggle with fatness, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad and Dietland by Sarai Walker. The piece isn’t about film (although Walker’s novel is being turned into a TV show and she mentions film when talking about the need for more fat characters in media), but it does touch on many points that are familiar territory for this blog: the need to deconstruct the narrative of a sad fat person finding happiness when they lose weight, the intersections of gender and fatness, and the difficulty and necessity of reclaiming the word “fat.” Plus it’s an article from a mainstream news source about fat people that doesn’t go into Obesity Epidemic Panic Mode. Not too shabby.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Acceptability is a theme that comes up time and time again as I overthink the films I see. Achieving and maintaining acceptability is often essential to navigating the social sphere, yet also so fraught with paradoxical traps and narrowly-struck balances, it might as well be obtained by switching it with a bag of sand from a booby-trapped pedestal. Consider marriage. Weddings are often part of a happy ending, the culmination of a character arc about a couple who meet or whose relationship deepens due to the events of the movie. We expect the romantic love that our overwhelmingly heterosexual casts of characters experience to lead to marriage, just as we expect marriage to be a milestone in every person’s life. But be warned: despite the expectation to get married being a given, the desire to get married– especially if it’s a general goal– is a hallmark of the immature and the unstable (and usually female characters, what a coincidence). If you don’t get married by a certain age (especially you, ladies), you’re weird. But just, you know, be cool about it.
Muriel’s Wedding features a fat protagonist who is caught up in this paradox. The titular role was a breakout performance for Toni Collette, and it is often noted that she gained 40 pounds for the part. Muriel Heslop lives with her family in a small Australian tourist town full of small-minded people. She talks repeatedly about being a success, being someone, which is synonymous with her getting married. Carrying out traditionally feminine roles, especially marriage, is a major focus of the women in her life. The opening scene is frenemy Tania’s (Sophie Lee) wedding reception, as the tossed bridal bouquet plummets like a missile in slow motion from a cloudless sky, an image that repeats to break the film into three chapters (the first titled “The Bouquet”). When Muriel catches it from among a gaggle of single women, the others act as though catching the bride’s bouquet is tantamount to a law, instead of a superstitious ritual. Her friends tell her that she’s being “selfish” for catching it. “What’s the use of you having it, Muriel?,” her “friend” Janine (Belinda Jarrett) asks, “You’re never going to get married. You’ve never even had a boyfriend.” Even after Tania finds out that her husband has been cheating on her, she insists that she loves him, and as a bride, she’s “supposed to be euphoric.” Muriel’s friends decide to accompany Tania on her honeymoon trip and dump Muriel because she doesn’t fit their “mad” party image, explaining that she doesn’t wear the right clothing, listen to the right music, and– of course– is fat.
Muriel’s parents, Bill (Bill Hunter) and Betty (Jeanie Drynan), also fat characters, are the only married couple in the film. Betty especially is absorbed in her role as wife and mother. A quiet, absent-minded woman, she is obedient to her husband to the point of repeating him word for word when he tells her to do something and actively ignoring his poorly-concealed affair with thinner, glamorous cosmetics salesperson Deirdre Chambers (Gennie Nevinson). Bill is a city councilman who is obsessed with his image as a powerful man with powerful connections, constantly frustrated by his unemployed, “useless” children, whom he complains about and berates in front of his business associates.
Despite her flawed home life, Muriel longs to get married, which she equates with success and making something of herself. She lives in a dreamworld, covering her bedroom wall with photos of brides, listening obsessively to ABBA, and compulsively lying and shoplifting. In the context of her friends and family, however, the audience is apt to show more compassion for her idealistic escapism. Not until Muriel reconnects with her former classmate Rhonda Epinstalk (Rachel Griffiths) does she have an alternative to longing for a wedding day. Rhonda is a vivacious, chain-smoking troublemaker. “Stick with me because I’m wicked too,” she tells Muriel, assuming that her new-found friend is stepping out on a nonexistent fiancee. Rhonda admires Muriel for coming out of her shell and cheerfully informs Tania that her husband is sleeping with Nicole (Pippa Grandison), one of her sycophants. Rhonda and Muriel cement their bond through a lipsynced performance of “Waterloo” at a talent show, while Tania and Nicole brawl in the audience. Unwilling to return home and face her dad, from whom she’s stolen thousands of dollars, Muriel runs away to Sydney to live with Rhonda.
The repeated image of the bridal bouquet heralds in the second act, entitled “Sydney: City of Brides.” Formerly preoccupied with the fantasy of becoming someone else, Muriel makes it happen in Sydney. She changes her name to Mariel (“marry-el”). She gets a job at a video store, where she obsessively watches a tape of Diana and Charles’ royal wedding. She changes her look, forgoing a wavy ponytail and leopard print in an attempt to look like Tania for a straightened bob and leather pants, more akin to Rhonda’s style. When Rhonda is diagnosed with cancer, Mariel takes care of her. When Rhonda protests that she’s a burden, Mariel explains what their friendship has meant to her:
“When I lived in Porpoise Spit, I’d just stay in my room for hours and listen to ABBA songs. Sometimes I’d stay in there all day. But since I’ve met you and moved to Sydney, I haven’t listened to one ABBA song. It’s because now my life’s as good as an ABBA song. It’s as good as ‘Dancing Queen’.”
Mariel’s life with Rhonda fulfills the emotional needs previously met by listening to ABBA. Instead of music that prioritizes the harmonizing of two female voices, Muriel has a life centered around her friendship with another woman, where she has the power to reinvent herself. Although Mariel’s family still insists on calling her Muriel, Rhonda honors her friend’s new name without hesitation. Despite the external changes, though, Mariel is still connected to her past as Muriel Heslop of Porpoise Spit. Her family feels the repercussions of her stealing, and her father is brought up on charges of accepting bribes, which he claims he was forced to do after Muriel cleaned out his bank account. Also, she still longs to be a bride, and makes a hobby out of trying on wedding gowns at every boutique in Sydney. She sees marriage as the ultimate step in her transformation, being able to leave behind the perception the folks back home have of her once and for all:
“If I can get married it means I’ve changed, I’m a new person… Because who would want to marry me… I’m not her anymore, I’m me… Muriel Heslop! Stupid, fat, and useless! I hate her! I’m not going back to being her again.”
This obsession drives a wedge between her and Rhonda. The two women face their individual situations in very different ways. Rhonda is transformed involuntarily, as a life-saving surgery takes her ability to walk. She survives by clinging to who she knows herself to be, continuing to smoke, wear combat boots, and tell people off when they condescend to her for being in a wheelchair. Mariel runs from her loneliness and painful past through self-transformation and lies. Her quest for a husband further separates her from Rhonda. She meets David Van Arckle (Daniel Lapaine), a South African swimmer who is looking for a marriage of convenience so he can compete in the Olympics on the Australian team. Mariel leaves her friend without help and unable to pay the rent, giving Rhonda no choice but to move back to Porpoise Spit with her mother.
The third act is entitled “Mariel’s Wedding:” at first glance a culmination of the story, but slightly off in some significant ways. Tania and the other girls from Porpoise Spit are her bridesmaids, while a neglected Rhonda sits off to the side. A giddy Mariel marches down the aisle to “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do,” apparently needing ABBA in her life again. The congregants don’t look happy for her, but rather stare at her as if she is a spectacle. Her groom is reluctant and stunned. Although Bill walks her down the aisle, Betty is not present, arriving late and sitting in the back. Deirdre takes her place as mother of the bride and Mariel marches past her without acknowledging her. On their wedding night, David asks Mariel what kind of person would marry someone they don’t even know. When she points out that he has done the same thing, he insists defensively, “I want to win. All my life, I’ve wanted to win.” “Me too,” she responds. Mariel has achieved her goal, her transformation is supposedly complete, but Rhonda confronts her after the ceremony and tries to give her friend a reality check: “Mariel Van Arckle stinks. She’s not half the person Muriel Heslop was.”
The mother of the bride, at the back of the church.
Mariel seems content to sit in her living room and watch her wedding video over and over, but the fantasy ends with the news of her mother’s death. After accidentally shoplifting a pair of sandals and needing Bill to bail her out (he tells the cops that she’s “not quite right”), he decides to leave her for Deirdre once and for all, making her feel as useless as he tells his children they are: “They say I wasn’t elected to the state government that time because my family wasn’t up to scratch… I never had a bloody chance.” Even in her death, Bill tries to force Betty into the role of diffident mother. Deirdre makes an off-key attempt at comforting Mariel by telling her that Betty’s death was a “sacrifice” that will convince the judge to go easy on Bill at his trial. “She’ll be glad in the end her life amounted to something,” she says, before making passive-aggressive digs at Betty’s housekeeping skills. Joanie (Gabby Millgate), Muriel’s fat sister who has largely spent the film smirking at her older sister, tearfully reveals that Betty committed suicide, but that Bill got rid of the pills she used to cover it up. However, Betty’s anger and hurt can’t be totally erased: Muriel’s little brother tells her that their mother set the backyard on fire because their brother wouldn’t mow it.
The breaking point for Mariel is Betty’s funeral, where Bill is preoccupied with his ability to get a faxed message of condolence from a former prime minister, and Betty’s eulogy states that Mariel’s wedding was the happiest day of her life. Mariel runs out of the church, where David is waiting for her. She breaks up with him, finally accepting that their marriage is a lie and can’t continue: “I tell so many lies, one day I won’t know I’m doing it.” (Of course, she does this after they sleep together.) She also restores use of the name she was given at birth.
Not that you can blame her.
In breaking up with David, Muriel embarks on a new, honest chapter in her life, but also leaves behind the world that her father, and by extension the rest of Porpoise Spit, in which success means building an attractive, happy personal image, at the expense of relationships with others. Bill is relentless in talking about himself as an influential man, the savior of Porpoise Spit who brings in resorts and high rises, the father who dumps his devoted wife for a glitzy businesswoman uninterested in caring for his children. Tania is hellbent on riding the wave of high school popularity as long as she can, maintaining her beautiful party girl image and forcing herself to be happy in her marriage, even though neither her nor her husband have much stake in commitment (“But Rose Biggs sucked your husband’s cock!” “I know. I sucked her husband’s cock, and it made me realize, we all make mistakes.”) Even the town of Porpoise Spit is built on tourism, relying on an image of happiness and fun in order to survive. Her entire world is founded in deception, but only Muriel seems to be characterized as a liar and cheat, excessive fat girl Muriel who is arrested for shoplifting during her friend’s wedding and dumped by her so-called friends for her inability to cultivate a specific image as successfully as they. It’s telling that Muriel doesn’t lose any weight over the events of the film; her look changes, but becomes more low key and is not remarked on. The film shows her becoming a more authentic, honest person, something that doesn’t require weight loss or a makeover.
Throughout the movie, Rhonda is the only one interested in rooting for Muriel as she really is. She actively chooses to befriend dorky Muriel over Tania and her friends, she inspires Muriel to leave Porpoise Spit. She even overlooks Muriel’s lies about being engaged, and is only angry when Muriel abandons her in her time of need. Rhonda’s friendship is the natural source of redemption for Muriel. Muriel breaks up with her family, giving her dad a portion of the money she stole from him and telling him that he has to take responsibility for her siblings “and tell them they’re not useless.” Free of Bill’s influence, Muriel then rescues Rhonda, who is living with her overbearing mother and tortured by social calls from Tania and company. Rhonda forgives Muriel, calls Tania and her friends a bunch of cocksuckers, and immediately leaves for Sydney with her friend. Outraged (despite having copped to sucking someone’s cock a minute earlier), Tania chases them to the taxi, screaming defensively, “Who do you think you are to call me [a cocksucker]? I’m married! I’m beautiful!” Neither Muriel (for whom Tania feels contempt) nor Rhonda (for whom Tania feels pity) are “on her level,” so it’s unthinkable that they should have the last word.
Even though Muriel and Rhonda don’t have a romantic relationship, their love for each other is as redemptive and optimistic a happy ending as one would expect to find in a typical romantic comedy. Riding to the airport together, the two friends leave behind them a suffocating community and reliance on their naysaying families, finding something more important than acceptability in each other: a relationship where they can make mistakes and need help, without shame or rejection. Rhonda and Muriel shout their goodbyes to Porpoise Spit, and “Dancing Queen” plays, as Muriel’s happiness has once more become lived instead of listened to.
As I said in my previous post, 2015 was a great year for films with female protagonists. We saw a whole range of diverse characters and situations, from The Assassin to Tangerine, Girlhood to Iris. I also didn’t realize until I looked back at my blog posts from the past year that it was also the year of the female character right here on CPBS. Starting the year out with Ma Rainey in The Ox-Bow Incident, the majority of the films I wrote about had fat female characters worth talking about. It shouldn’t be surprising that the role of body size in beauty standards was a recurring theme in many of these films. Fatness is a complicated topic, but attractiveness is undeniably a factor in how it is considered. Many fat characters, especially women, are contrasted against a conventional idea of feminine beauty. That beauty can manifest as another character, perhaps the most explicit example being The DUFF, or the contrast between Anais and her sister in Fat Girl. Often, a character is being measured against an ideal (eg. Emily in In and Out, who is hellbent on achieving her fantasy of being a skinny bride) or expectation (eg. Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect, who subverts the presumption that the acapella group she is part of is made up solely of “twig bitches”). Even settings where a seemingly foundational social norm is rebelled against usually keep other hegemonic ideals intact, such as the gay community and household in The Birdcage where Albert feels devalued and ostracized both because of her size and gender expression. The unifying factor is a standard that has transcended agreement to become common “knowledge,” a fabricated rule that causes bona fide unhappiness when characters are deprecated in this way, which can even impede their ability to achieve their goals. Consider Susan’s outlandishly frumpy secret identities in Spy, which both make it difficult to blend in and communicate the lack of respect her coworkers have for her. In all of these cases, fat women characters face difficulties due to their bodies’ lack of social value. They are all deemed less valuable than their peers based on their bodies. As these characters embrace and/or prove their personal worth over the course of the film, the social fabrication of these standards and adherence to them are shown to be mutable and hollow, more of a hindrance than a motivation or guide.
Recently, I saw a film that illustrated this same idea, but rather than providing a fat character to root for, the focus is on the ridiculousness of the figures making these judgments. Milos Forman’s 1967 farce The Firemen’s Ball skewers the inept bureaucracy of communist Czechoslovakia. Despite this specific intention, its observations can be mapped onto structures of control in other contexts where authority is suspect. The film’s humor is derived from the ineptitude of a company of firefighters organizing a ball for their community: the cursory reasoning that informs their decision-making, their selfishness and pettiness, their expectations juxtaposed with their hapless inability to control the unfolding and increasingly chaotic events of the evening.
As the ball begins, the Entertainment Committee (it should be noted that all the firefighters in the film are middle-aged men) is in a room separate from the festivities, crowded around a magazine photo of contestants in an international beauty pageant. They make up a typical boys’ club, crowded together with pints of beer and cigarettes, arguing about the logistics of the beauty pageant they intend to run during the ball. They “sensibly” arrive to only allowing the eight “most beautiful” young women at the ball to participate; the one crowned beauty queen will have the honor of presenting a gift to the elderly former chairman of the fire department. This subplot puts the male gaze in front of the camera, under the guise of carrying out an official ranking of beauty as entertainment. The results are hilariously uncomfortable. Subsequent scenes feature three committee members approaching young women with the dubious honor of having been selected as pageant contestants as they carry out their self-appointed duty with an undercurrent of embarrassed self-awareness at how boorishly they are acting with the most paper-thin of excuses. They argue about how to judge which women are the most attractive: by their breasts, faces, or legs. They skulk around the edges of the dance floor and peer at women from the balcony. The women they approach largely react with confusion, and the committee awkwardly tries to filter out undesirables who are nominated by proud parents or foolishly assume that a means of entertainment at an event would be open to anyone interested.
The squeamish licentiousness of the beauty pageant takes place in a room separated from the ball, where many more firefighters than the entertainment committee are gathered behind a table to inspect the contestants as they rehearse. Even if the “judges” of the pageant tell themselves that they are acting for the good of the event, the reactions of the young women’s parents suggest that they aren’t fooling anyone. A mother of one of the young women escorts her into the room and cheerfully insists on staying to “find out what it’s all about,” to the dismay of the firemen (who eventually get her to leave by electing one of their ranks to ask her for a dance). One man begs the committee to include his daughter Ruzena, a larger-bodied girl than the other contestants. Her father tries to poke his head in the door every time it opens, despite having begged them to make her a part of the pageant. A second father bursts in and drags his daughter from the room, telling the entertainment committee that they are “dirty old geezers.” This illustrates the paradox of being considered a beautiful woman in a patriarchal system: the desire to be attractive paired with the anxiety over attraction leading to trouble.
The artificial nature of the beauty pageant was, in my experience, made further obvious by a lack of context. Forman probably wasn’t taking the reception of his film 50 years down the line into consideration, but as a Millennial raised on Hollywood, it was difficult to determine how I was expected to judge these women’s looks. Against expectation, the events leading up to the beauty pageant rehearsal do nothing to clue the audience into which of the women is supposed the be the belle of the ball. The entertainment committee approaches several girls in the beginning of the movie who aren’t part of the final eight; one appears very drunk, another very disinterested. A young woman (whom I found attractive) is randomly grabbed from the dance floor and recruited; she complains that she wasn’t actually chosen. What we really have to go off is the reactions of the firefighters. For instance, I thought Ruzena was rather pretty (she looks a bit like Molly Ringwald), but after she enters the rehearsal room, one fireman assures another, “Don’t worry, they’ll improve.” His opinion is also complicated by an earlier scene where Ruzena has sex with her dance partner; even if the committee doesn’t find her attractive, she is desired. As a viewer, I was relying on the literal male gaze to understand the dynamics of the scene, who I was supposed to see as attractive and who wasn’t desirable. This gaze is, unsurprisingly, reflected by the camera, with shots that follow the leers of the entertainment committee and focus on eroticized body parts while they assess the female ball attendees.
The commencement of the pageant serves is an effective tonic for the underlying creepiness of the rehearsal scene. The entertainment committee’s authority over the beauty pageant– indeed, the structure of the beauty pageant itself– quickly erodes. The contestants are reluctant to parade up to the stage; first one, then all of them, run off the dance floor and seek sanctuary together in the ladies’ room. Once they begin to run off, chaos breaks out. The audience, chanting “we want the queen,” carry laughing women from the crowd to the stage. The entertainment committee gathers outside the women’s restroom, begging the contestants to come out, as the audience cheers for a fat, middle-aged woman who stands on the stage, wearing the crown intended for the winner and waving to the crowd. The former chairman, the original intended beneficiary of the pageant, sits alone and neglected in the crowd. Eventually, the firemen are distracted from trying to salvage the beauty pageant by the sound of a siren: cut to a community member’s farmhouse, burning to the ground.
The genesis of this chaos is trying to be and create something one isn’t and can’t: a group of firemen from a small Czech town attempting a replication of an international beauty pageant with themselves as the judges, with only a magazine and their own imaginations as blueprints. While under the pretense of benefiting the community– they are, after all, the entertainment committee for this large gathering– they shift the focus away from what the partygoers might want and towards their own desire to be in control, to be the ones surrounding themselves with beautiful women at the mercy of their judgment. The firemen are engaged in the pageant, but the audience is indifferent and the contestants are apathetic, then uncooperative. While focused on trying to maintain control and conform to a specific prefabricated fantasy, the firemen forgo their true responsibility to the community, neglecting to respond to a fire alarm until a fire is out of control. It’s a story that we see replicated time and time again in various institutions: adherence to precedent and retention of power trumps purpose and critical thought. Consider how recently, for instance, the Academy Awards nominations for 2016 yet again pass over innovative, critically acclaimed films and work done by people of color in favor of nominees who adhere more closely to conventional, traditional tastes and expectations. Likewise, most of the films we see feature characters who exist within audience expectations and stereotypes. Some films like The Firemen’s Ball make this dynamic part of their focus, but all films are influenced by it in their creation, distribution, and reception.
One of the inspirations for this blog was an article I came across on AV Club: Fat Monday: 16 realistic depictions of overweight people in pop culture. (The comforting tagline: “Eddie Murphy doesn’t appear once on this list.”) I appreciated the intention, but it didn’t go far enough for my liking (obviously). “Realistic” is a bit of a red herring: the list is more characters who are shown in a benign, or at least thought provoking, light. And, as is a pervasive problem in the listicle genre, the one-paragraph synopses of why a particular character fits in with the theme don’t approach the complexities of the works they are part of. I’ve already written about a few of the characters in the article, and more are on my to-do list. The reason I bring it up now, however, is because this post is about the article’s poster girl: Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), from the Pitch Perfect series.
This was my first time watching Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2. I had heard mostly positive things about Fat Amy as a fat character and, having seen both movies this weekend, there are a fair number of refreshing aspects to her representation, especially in the first movie. She proves her competence as a singer in her introductory scene, impressing Aubrey (Anna Camp) and Chloe (Brittany Snow) with her voice despite their focus on finding women with “bikini-ready bodies” to audition for the Barden Bellas. She is also the most confident, no-fuck-giving character in the movie by far. The aforementioned scene is also where she famously explains that she calls herself Fat Amy “so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” Her sense of humor is often outlandish, but her deadpan delivery suggests that she’s getting more out of confusing the other characters than of being perceived as funny. The majority of comments characterizing Fat Amy as fat are self-referential but, surprisingly, not self-deprecating. She casually remarks that she is surprised that her “sexy fat ass” was chosen to be part of the Bellas. Fatness is part of how she sees herself, and isn’t a source of shame; rather, it’s a part of her identity that she modifies appropriately to her mood and context. It felt oddly empowering as a fat viewer to hear her angrily threaten to “finish [someone] like a cheesecake.” A small but extremely important detail is how Fat Amy isn’t afraid to call attention to her body. She sprawls and flails. She has a habit of nonchalantly slapping a rhythm on her belly, or cupping her breasts during a performance. She inhabits her physical self and her space without apologizing or minimizing.
Significantly, Pitch Perfect doesn’t put Fat Amy in a position where she is dragging the group down. There is a requisite joke about her being lazier than the other Bellas (while the other singers jog, Aubrey finds Fat Amy lying down, or as she calls it, “horizontal running”), but both films focus on Beca (Anna Kendrick) as the character with a problematic lack of commitment. As a group, the Bellas have to deal with a change in their image from normatively attractive young women to one that includes singers who don’t meet stereotypical sorority girl standards; the classic rag-tag underdogs in a story focuses on competition. “I wanted the hot Bellas,” complains a frat brother who books the group to perform at a mixer, when shutting them down mid-song, “not this barnyard explosion.” Even the senior Bellas, “twig bitches” Aubrey and Chloe, have bodies that defy expectations of femininity. It’s common to see fat female characters in comedies as the source of gross or bizarre body humor in their respective movie, but Pitch Perfect spreads it around. Aubrey struggles with stress-triggered projectile vomiting, and soprano Chloe gains the ability to sing deep bass notes after a surgery to remove nodes on her vocal cords.
Although Fat Amy isn’t presented as grotesque or cartoonish, Pitch Perfect doesn’t extend the favor to other Bellas who aren’t straight and white, as Fat Amy is. The most glaring contrast is Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean), a black butch lesbian (with an incredible set of pipes) who is also larger bodied than the average young woman seen in a mainstream comedy. We first meet her at acapella auditions, where she is immediately misgendered. She doesn’t come out to her chorus mates until towards the end of the first movie, although we get “hints” to her sexuality via shots of her leering at or groping other women, or other characters (including Fat Amy) making snide comments about her sexual orientation. Even in Pitch Perfect 2, Cynthia Rose doesn’t become a fully realized character and is just a source of more gay jokes. The audition sequence where we meet Cynthia Rose also introduces Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), who embodies the stereotype of the quiet Asian girl through a running gag where she says disturbing things in a soft voice that none of the other characters are able to hear. In Pitch Perfect 2, Flo (Chrissie Fit) has joined the Bellas; where Cynthia Rose is a factory for jokes about lesbians creeping on straight girls, every line out of Flo’s mouth is a comment about how harsh and dangerous her life was in her unspecified Latin American home country.
Ester Dean as Cynthia Rose, in promotional material for Pitch Perfect
The “fat positive” aspects of Fat Amy’s depiction aren’t just positioned against other characters who don’t share her privileged social identities. Stacie’s (Alexis Knapp) function in the group as the humorously slutty Bella complicates the praise Pitch Perfect gets for showing Fat Amy’s active sex life. Stacie’s sexuality is coded as excessive, a joke that becomes the majority of her screentime, whether Aubrey is trying to get her to tone down her dance moves or she’s referring to her vagina as a “hunter.” However, we never see Stacie involved with anyone. Fat Amy, on the other hand, is shown in the company of two hunks on her spring break and also makes comments about her own sexual prowess. So why is the line drawn between Stacie and Fat Amy, where one’s sexuality is the butt of jokes and the other’s is an empowering aspect of who she is? When we see Bumper (Adam DeVine) flirting with Fat Amy and getting shot down or hear Fat Amy talk about how she joined the Bellas because she needed to step back from her busy love life, we see her defying the expectations that we have for fat girls in movies, the assumption that nobody will want to have sex with her or that she won’t have the self-confidence to approach someone. Stacie, however, is normatively attractive. We expect that she has no shortage of willing sexual partners, and isn’t restraining herself in the way she is expected to; thus, she is deserving of ridicule. The inconsistency between how the two characters are portrayed demeans Stacie and condescends to Fat Amy.
Unfortunately, the liberatory aspects of Fat Amy’s depiction in Pitch Perfect largely erode in the second film. The opening sequence is perhaps the most telling, where Fat Amy experiences a costume malfunction at a high-profile performance and accidentally exposes her vulva to the tv cameras and the concert audience which includes the Obamas. Typical to a comedy film, the audience reacts with disgust and terror, some even running away. Although unintentional, her body is deemed excessive and the resulting outcry nearly destroys the Bellas. A similar scene of disgust comes later in the film, where a romantic moment between Fat Amy and Bumper leads to them making out on the Treblemakers’ lawn, causing Bumper’s friends to run off to avoid looking at the couple. The plotline of their relationship doesn’t meet the standards set for Fat Amy in the first film, where she brushes off his advances (though she raises the eyebrows of the other Bellas by having his number in her phone). In Pitch Perfect 2, she and Bumper are hooking up. He asks her to date him officially with a romantic dinner; she initially turns him down, saying that she’s a “free range pony who can’t be tamed,” but eventually realizes that she’s in love with him, winning him back with a rendition of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” Pitch Perfect, the main conflict of which is between the characters’ respective acapella groups, set them up as well-balanced, confident, trash talking foils. Fat Amy disdains Bumper’s advances and flirts with aforementioned hunks; Bumper quits school for an opportunity to be John Mayer’s personal assistant. However, in the second film, former antagonist Bumper has been humbled, now working as a college security guard and desperately trying to hang on to his past glory days as a college acapella big shot. It is at this point that he becomes a suitable partner for Fat Amy.
Unlike so many other films with fat female characters, Pitch Perfect presents Fat Amy as a character whose fatness is a part of her identity without being a point of dehumanization, even if the sequel makes some significant compromises. Unfortunately, other characters with marginalized identities are left behind as two-dimensional stereotypes. Perhaps apt to the story of a college acapella group, Pitch Perfect‘s approach to diverse representation is a welcome update, but it’s hardly a new song.