femininity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who else but Fat Amy? Pitch Perfect (2012, dir. Jason Moore), Pitch Perfect 2 (2015, dir. Elizabeth Banks)

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.

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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.

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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.

Domestic Terrorism: Feminized Violence in Misery (1990, dir. Rob Reiner)

BitchFlicks’ theme week for October 2015 is Violent Women, including an article I wrote on Misery, which features Kathy Bates’ breakout role as deranged nurse Annie Wilkes.  I’m happy to say that this is my third time being part of one of BitchFlicks’ theme weeks, and the subject is a complicated and fascinating one.  It probably goes without saying that I adore Kathy Bates, so I’m sure there will be more about her career on CPBS before long.

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“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.  

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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.

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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.  

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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.

“Straighten, Tighten:” Intersections of Fatness and Queerness in The Birdcage (1996, dir. Mike Nichols)

When I woke up on a Friday morning a few weeks ago to Twitter blowing up about SCOTUS declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states, I was happy that my home country was finally moving away from a gender-discriminatory policy.  Not deliriously happy, mind you.  I feel some kinda way about the political energy and focus poured into marriage equality.  But I do have a sentimental side, and I see how much joy getting married has brought to the people in my life who decided to take the plunge.  (This post isn’t more timely because I traveled halfway across the country to attend the wedding of one of my oldest friends.)  I had a solo mini-celebration for marriage equality that evening with The Birdcage, which I was fond of in high school and had been meaning to revisit.  I remembered the excellent comic performances; it’s enjoyable enough to take the film at face value.  What surprised me was how deeply I empathized with the character at the epicenter of the film’s tumultuous humor, Albert (Nathan Lane).

The opening scene in which Armand (Robin Williams) and their houseman Agador (Hank Azaria) cajole a hysterical Albert into rallying herself* for a drag performance ushers the audience into a first impression of her that is intertwined with her self-image. She describes herself as “fat and hideous”– a declaration Armand, her director and significant other, knows so well that he mouths the words along with her– and says that she’s “gained and lost over 100 pounds in the past year” in an effort to be thin and beautiful enough to maintain her star status and his love.  Although not an extremely large person, she does have a stocky body, where the other performers at the Birdcage (and many of the thong-clad extras in scenes of the public milieu of South Beach) are slender and muscular.

the birdcage, nathan lane, albert

Albert’s sensitivity and flamboyant nature are frequent sources of humor.  Armand and his son Val (Dan Futterman) react to Albert’s outbursts with a certain level of weariness that suggests a routine scenario for their family.  But even though she is an outlandish character in a farce, her anxieties come from a very real place.  The nonplussed reactions she receives from strangers, plus Val’s unwillingness to introduce her to his conservative future in-laws speak to her outsider status in the vast majority of the world.  Despite being a headliner who plays to sold-out houses and is more than willing to self-advocate, she lacks necessary social capital to navigate on her own outside her South Beach bubble.  In a subplot, she wants Armand to sign a palimony agreement so that she will be provided for in case their relationship ends.  Although talented, there is no denying that she is older and fatter than the other performers; who’s to say what her career would look like without Armand and the Birdcage?

The Goldmans’ underlying family tensions are exacerbated when Val declares his intention to marry Barbara (Callista Flockheart), the daughter of staunch conservative Senator Kevin Keely (Gene Hackman) and his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest), who is Barbara Bush by way of Lady Macbeth.  Hit with scandal when Kevin’s “common redneck” colleague dies in bed with an underage black prostitute, Louise suggests using the wedding as a distraction technique to symbolize a return to family values.  Convinced that the Keelys will never connect themselves to a gay, Jewish** family, Val asks Armand to pretend he’s the father of the heterosexual “Coleman” family.  Val initially asks that Albert not be present for the Keelys’ dinner, but Armand insists they compromise and pretend that his companion is heterosexual Uncle Al.  Although the Goldmans want their son to be happy, there is ultimately no sugarcoating that Armand is willing to side with Val and pretend Albert isn’t part of their family unit so that Val can access a social institution the two of them can’t by ingratiating himself to a politician who thinks they’re destroying America.  Her reactions, oversized in most situations, are appropriate in this case. When she refers to herself as “the monster, the freak,” neither Armand nor Val deny that she is characterized thus by their plans to hide her.

For the Goldmans, achieving normalcy is largely about restraining (“straighten, tighten”).  Not only is Val the beneficiary of the charade, he is the main orchestrator, the ambassador of straightness in a queer enclave.  He is a man of few words, forever tolerantly waiting for the exuberance around him to die down.  “Don’t add, just subtract,” he repeatedly advises the Birdcage staff, who help transform the Goldmans’ colorful home into a “monastery.”  The subtraction includes wanting to present Katherine (Christine Baranski), Val’s biological mother, as Armand’s wife.  Albert can barely hide her discomfort around reserved, athletic Katherine, who owns and operates a successful gym.

the birdcage, nathan lane

Although Armand is more masculine and paternal than Albert, Val asks him to tone down his stereotypically gay mannerisms (eg. how he walks, talks, and gestures).  Armand, in turn, coaches Albert to restrain herself, emotionally and physically, in order to play is straight.  “Look at your pinky!  Look at your posture!”  He tells her to hold her unruly body more firmly and tone down her emotional responses.  Dismissing small setbacks (e.g. breaking a piece of toast) seems like a revelation to her:  “Of course!  There’s no need to get hysterical.  All I have to remember is I can always get more toast.”  But the couples’ desire to help their child achieve the life he wants comes at the expense of their own.  Right before the Keelys’ arrival, the family gathers in the master bedroom, their vivacity stripped away in the pursuit of heteronormativity.  Armand remarks that he looks like his grandfather, who “killed himself when he was 30.”  Their clothing and demeanors suggest a funeral, Albert the most uncomfortable of all.

The performance of straightness that the Goldmans put on is a wickedly funny inversion of the colorful, campy drag show that is their profession.  Agador calls himself “Spartacus” and lowers his voice by an octave or two, Armand is so stiff that Val feels the need to fabricate a football injury for his father, and Albert presents herself as an old-fashioned housewife from Smalltown, USA whose ludicrously conservative political views terrify her family, but manage to charm Kevin.  Appropriately, the Keelys themselves are practically drag versions of straight conservatives, wearing clothing so drab as to practically be Orwellian and barely hiding their elitist, repressive viewpoints under jes’ folks rhetoric.  One of my favorite moments in the film is after the two families first meet, when Kevin responds to a polite question about his trip to South Beach with a soporific monologue that spins out into a patriotic travelogue gone wrong.  Of course, they too look at the dinner party as a path to social legitimacy (or, as Louise puts it, “salvation”) that will hide their own connection to deviance.  The Keelys too have a fat skeleton in their closet, as Lousie tries to prevent Kevin from stress-bingeing on candy, and they are stalked by a tabloid journalist (Tom McGowan) who’s “put on so much weight since the Simpson trial.”

As a fat, gender nonconforming person, I deeply felt Albert’s need to be loved and, when people do express love for her, the fragility of her trust.  It’s rough living in an environment where people like you are constantly positioned as inherently unworthy of respect.  Even in the safety of home, family, and community, it is impossible to completely forget the hostility of the outside world, or how easy it is for that hostility to be present in a loved one.  As Albert says, fed up with the emotional burden of being a source of shame for Val, “…everyone laughs at me.  I’m quite aware of how ridiculous I am.”  She says this as she is leaving for the cemetery, dramatically communicating that she feels she is dead to her family.  The scene is not completely serious, as her tone and gestures mimic a diva in a classic melodrama, but it does reflect the real emotional fallout that many LGBTQ people have experienced due to being rejected by their families, including suicide in some instances.

This isn’t the first film I’ve seen with parallels between fatness and queerness, even if fatness is a less explicit factor in The Birdcage than In & Out.  They are barriers to achieving a goal (in both cases, a wedding that will provide social legitimacy).  Albert’s size doesn’t threaten Val and Barbara’s engagement, but she does worry that Armand isn’t attracted to her any longer and doesn’t want to make their partnership legally binding.  Albert’s body, specifically her emotions and mannerisms, is seen as excessive to the point of threatening the family’s social legitimacy.  Her queerness is irrepressible, and the men of the family take it upon themselves to orchestrate a solution.  However, once her influence is removed from the family, Val and Armand alone are not enough to win Kevin and Louise’s trust.  It is only through relying on her “threatening” inclinations to be feminine and maternal (Armand describes her as “practically a breast”), and her skill as a drag queen, that Albert can pass as Mother Coleman.  Once seen as a heterosexual, female mother, she becomes a legitimate (and favored) member of the family in the eyes of Kevin, who is the apex of power in the film, both in terms of social capital and allowing Val to marry Barbara.  The facade of normativity cannot be maintained for long, but the temporary diversion from her outcast status is enough for Albert to sustain the dinner party longer than Val or Armand could on their own.  Her drag skills come in handy again to prevent the Keelys from being spotted by the press, ending the film with a power reversal where the heterosexual elite are sheepishly reliant on the queers for a different kind of salvation than Louise originally anticipated.

Albert and Armand’s happy ending isn’t just because they get to be themselves, but because they triumph due to how their lives have been shaped by being marginalized.  It’s not an explicit score for the fat kids, like Hairspray, but it does find power in qualities that get combined with fatness: femininity, sensitivity, and excess.

*Albert identifies as a gay man and is referred to with both masculine and feminine pronouns.  There are several points in the movie where Albert shows a preference for feminine pronouns, thus my use of she/her/hers in this article.  Apologies if this is confusing.

** Sander Gilman’s Fat Boys: a Slim Book includes an interesting history of the conflation of Jews and fatness in the historical Gentile imagination.  Suffice it to say that there are stereotypical characteristics common to Jewishness, fatness, and effeminacy, such as a lack of athleticism and a penchant for heavy foods (“When the schnecken beckons!”).

The Alien Gender: Under the Skin (2014, dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Content warning: discussions of transphobia, violence, sexual assault

This isn’t a piece about fat characters, but I think a piece about transgressive bodies, especially when it’s such a strong theme in one of the best movies of the first half of 2014, is appropriate for this site. I also wrote a short piece about the perception of time in Boyhood compared with other Linklater films, also unrelated to fat characters, which you can find here on my Tumblr. This is also a work in progress, so feedback would be extra appreciated. I’m not super enthralled with how it’s currently organized, but I’ve been working on it for a hot minute and I wanted to share my ideas.

yesterday i went to the daley center to provide moral support for a friend who had a court appearance.  on the way in, there are metal detectors, with two separate lines for “male” and “female.”  i pretended the signs meant my preference for the security guard’s gender, should the state deem it necessary for a stranger to put their hands in my pants.  i hoped that of the group of folks who would potentially show up, the one friend who knows about my nonbinary gender identity would be there so i could vent to her.  she wasn’t able to make it.

on the way back to the l, a guy stopped me on the street because i’m a “lady with short hair,” and he was selling salon services to “ladies” to do lady things like buy product to enhance some of the hair on my lady body and get the rest of it removed. i usually try to end these kinds of sales pitches as soon as possible, but i was so nonplussed at being categorized as a “lady” every other sentence, i let him go on for several minutes before turning him down.

there’s no space for me here.  you don’t know who i am.

attraction to cisgender women is difficult for me because my internalized transphobia often gets in the way, the nagging proviso to experiencing those erotic or romantic feelings that invariably tells me that she’s better than me, because she’s doing gender “right.”  as you might imagine, those contrasting feelings are prone to arise when i see an actress in a movie.  but i didn’t feel that way about scarlett johansson’s unnamed character in under the skin— perhaps because she is so achingly beautiful in this movie it overwhelmed my hangups, or perhaps because she isn’t a cisgender woman.

of course, that last observation comes from my interpretation of the movie.  we have no information about how she identifies in terms of her gender, if she even has one.  she acts and dresses in ways women are expected to, we see that she has breasts and it’s strongly implied that she has a vulva.  she scores a woman-bingo if we’re playing by binary gender rules.  these are all trappings of her human disguise, though. under the skin (ooh) of her gender normativity is a body and history that subverts expectations.  this isn’t someone who has been designated female by a medical professional, based on her anatomy.  she isn’t human, her body is outside of our human knowledge of what peoples’ bodies look like.  we don’t have the language to describe her body or her identity, and the film doesn’t give it to us.

i read several articles about under the skin before seeing it in theaters when it came to chicago in april.  there was a repeating observation of viewers feeling detached from her, seeing her as a “non-character.”  i was shaken by my reaction to the film, because despite johansson’s reserved performance, i felt a deep sense of relation to her.  i honestly thought there was something wrong with me; i have since realized that odd feeling of recognition stemmed from looking at someone who is disguised as a woman, but just below the surface has a self that is outside the normative understanding of gender.

that last sentence can function both as my reaction to under the skin and as a nano-memoir.

the film begins with the literal construction of her body: her eye is assembled, her voice is trained. the first scene where we see her whole is in the mall, where she buys a fur coat, a second skin that suggests sensuality, that she can access through consumerism.  this is how she acts for most of the film, through the conscious artifice of being a woman, acting out femininity as a means to an end in ways that reflect culturally constructed desires and expectations.

on the prowl, she embodies the phallic mother archetype, the woman who wields masculine power while retaining her femininity (paradoxical in the context of patriarchy). perhaps a more familiar variation on this archetype would be the “modern” woman, who remains sexually pleasing to men while adopting the competitive, unemotional approach to work and sex that men supposedly aspire to.  while the people on the beach react emotionally, struggling to save their family members despite lacking the physical strength to do so, she remains opportunistically focused on her goal.  her disregard for the welfare of a baby seems especially shocking from some-body who is presumed to have an innate maternal instinct.

she caters to a “typical” straight male fantasy: a gorgeous woman who finds you interesting and propositions you.  the static shots from hidden cameras in the van during these scenes even suggest the low-budget voyeurism of amateur porn.  i haven’t heard anybody who has seen under the skin question the believability or logic of this sequence of events that repeats itself and flows without hesitation from the men, even when she brings them to dilapidated buildings– despite driving a large, windowless van– then into a room with a physics-defying lighting scheme.  however, she is simultaneously embodying the male role in this scenario, calling out to the object of her desire from the driver’s seat, an interaction that plays out in popular fantasy (e.g. bang bus) and reality (e.g. multiple times every day out of car windows across the globe). her third victim is first seen hollering at her from a car window; later, a male driver stuck in the same traffic jam as she sends a rose to her van.  she fulfills a dual role in this fantasy, allowing the straight male viewer to simultaneously imagine what it would be like to be propositioned by scarlett johansson and what it would be like to be as alluring as scarlett johansson in his traditionally gendered role of propositioner, the role he may even resume as soon as he drives his own vehicle out of the cinema parking lot.

Under-The-Skin-trailer-2

the scenes of the seduced men being devoured are heavily coded as feminine.  mica levi’s score is buzzing and mechanical, but the soundtrack of the men descending into the blackness to their fates is an eerie deconstruction of music from a seduction scene in a more conventionally romantic movie.  (levi described this part of the score as something the character puts on like makeup.)  the act of killing is not the physical violence associated with masculine-coded combat, although we see from the beach scene that she is capable of that kind of violence.  no, this killing is the climax of an act of seduction that is never consummated, man brought to ruin through the promise of sex.  she undresses as she walks away, hips swaying and glances beckoning, the man in pursuit. here she embodies another archetypal paradox: she is walking the line between virgin and whore, simultaneously sexually available and untouched. it is as if she has learned how to be a woman through the lens of commercialism: her gender performance is intensely focused on attracting, ingratiating, persuading, creating the illusion of uniqueness and intimacy when each interaction is ultimately the same thing.

her lair’s physical aspects symbolize cisgender women’s bodies.  where means of violence in movies are commonly and often iconically phallic, the consumption of the men by the blackness is vaginal.  beneath the surface is womblike: darker than the surface where she walks, the naked men look small and indistinct, like fetuses, and are suspended in a liquid.  the third victim reaches out to touch the previous victim, both of them in a regressed state of helplessness.  their fate is to have their insides sucked out, leaving limp bags of skin. we don’t know her reasons, but it is a vivid depiction of the culturally ingrained fear for men of being sucked dry by a seductive woman, for financial or emotional security.

images of glasglow street life are transposed on each other, building into a kinetic golden haze from which her visage emerges, aphrodite arising from the foam of social embodiment.  however, she is reflecting femininity of a culture where to be feminine is to be vulnerable.  her balancing act of passing as a woman is unsustainable, as going through the world as a woman leaves her open to violence, such as when the group of young men attack her van, demanding she get out of her seat of power.

the change comes when she picks up the man with facial deformities. people with disabilities are marginalized in many ways, including commonly having their gender identity or sexuality denied or ignored by the able-bodied people around them.  he is not playing by the normative script of her seduction; he doesn’t enter their interaction with the assumption that she would be sexually available to him.  she has to convince him of the situation’s reality, which requires making more of a connection with him.  there is more negotiation, more probing questions, beyond assessing how long before someone would notice him missing.  he questions the reality of the situation; instead of the static hidden camera shots, we see a closeup of his hands as he pinches himself, then him looking around her lair.  on some level, he realizes the artificiality of the situation, which speaks to a hidden truth.  “look at me,” she commands him, ostensibly to direct his focus towards the seduction.  she is in closer proximity to him than the others, fully naked in front of one of her conquests for the first time.  he is not the only one being commanded to look, for it is this scene where we first see her featureless alien form, her true self.  he asks if he’s dreaming; she confirms that he is.  even if this is a way of pacifying him, she is admitting that the seduction is an illusion, that she is an illusion.  after the man with facial deformities descends into the blackness, we see a closeup of her in profile, with a mid shot of her alien form superimposed over her.  we see her true, transgressive body.

when leaving the lair, she stops and gazes at herself in a mirror for a long time.  this largely wordless film leaves much to individual interpretation; some see the change in her as an attempt to become human, or growing empathy with humans, but i see this moment as the first time she truly confronts her human disguise as it contrasts with her alien self, and her ability to perform her previous gender role is subverted.  she frees the man with facial deformities, leaving him naked in a field, mirroring her own state: vulnerable, wandering through an unfamiliar environment.

she abandons her van on the side of the road and wanders through a fog bank, emerging on the other side. she is no longer able to perform as an idealized paradox of woman, but is still in her woman disguise.  without the end of seducing victims into her lair, what is her means?  her womanness does not exist on its own as an authentic identity for her, it is a disguise that fulfills a function.

she seems repelled by sensuality: she is without her fur coat, and cannot ingest chocolate cake.  she has lost her phallic power both in terms of external symbols and personal drive.  she wanders aimlessly, at the mercy of the elements; she trades in her van for a seat on a bus being driven by a man who warns her that she is underdressed for the cold.  she only vocalizes to admit to the concerned man that she needs help, after he asks her repeatedly.  the vacuum left by the loss of her formerly powerful gender role practically fills itself, the concerned man and bus driver write vulnerability onto her.  she replaces her own coat with the concerned man’s, and takes shelter in his guest room instead of her van and alien lair. she has become the damsel in distress.

when i first saw the film, i balked at the idea that the concerned man would have been as generous and trusting if not to a beautiful young white woman, but on the second viewing, i similarly wondered if she would have accepted his offer if he wasn’t a decent-looking man.  the closest she comes to interacting with human women is when a group of young clubgoers sweep her along with them, where she looks so confused that it borders on concern. i am skeptical that her performance of femininity includes interacting with women.

she has no script for the care she receives from the concerned man.  she remains silent and passive as he helps her in the ways he assumes she needs help.  he carries her over a puddle, leads her tentatively down a set of stairs. she initiates sex with him, but does so by childishly holding her face to him for a kiss and takes a passive role during their lovemaking, lying still under him in his bed, still wearing her lacy pink camisole.  it’s ambiguous as to how much of this is due to her genuine love for him and how much is due to not knowing how else to drive an interaction with a human being, grasping at scraps of knowledge of how to act in this new permutation of femininity.

the sex scene becomes arguably the most jarring and sad scene of the film when she realizes mid-coitus that something is horribly wrong.  she pushes him off her and inspects her crotch with a light before tossing it aside despondently.   oliver balaam of abstract magazine read this moment as her discovery that the engineers of her human body did not factor in her ability to have sex or take pleasure in it when constructing her disguise.  i saw her shock as the realization of what is expected of her body during sex, something that had not been part of her femininity informed by normative marginalization of honest discussion of sex, and her rejection of it.  i can understand balaam’s interpretation, even if i’m not willing to dismiss my own in favor of it, because both of us saw her distress at a sexual role that had been constructed for her by outside forces (either others of her own kind or human cultural expectations).

again, she is alone, on foot, this time in the wilderness.  the final sequence of the film could be interpreted as the tables being turned on her, but i don’t think it’s that simple.  i don’t believe that the scene was constructed as poetic justice; rather, i think it builds on her interactions with the concerned man and speaks to the inescapability of being seen as vulnerable when one is feminine.  there are parallels between the logger’s victimization of her and her victimization of her male passengers.  the conversation he strikes up gauges her lack of power (she is alone and unfamiliar with her surroundings), much like the line of questioning she conducts with her passengers.  the bothy is her third place of rest in the film.  unlike her lair or the concerned man’s home, it is a public place, accessible to anyone. away from her alien directive, or the expectations of a romantic relationship with the concerned man, she sleeps peacefully.  her prone form is superimposed over the trees being tossed in the wind, suggesting that she is able to find a comfortable, natural state in this solitude.

Under the Skin Official Trailer

once more, her freedom and solitude is not a state where she can find and assert her own identity; rather, the logger makes her a victim.  while being pursued through the woods, she attempts to drive away in the logger’s truck, but is only able to make herself more vulnerable by setting off its alarm, in direct contrast to the power and agency afforded her by her van.  the same music that scored her seductions plays sickeningly over this scene. there is a significant difference between the two:  rather than being a mysterious, abstracted act of violence that leaves the audience wondering her motives and goals, we know exactly why he is chasing and subduing her, what he sees, and what he intends to do.

her disguise has been coming apart– lipstick gone, fur coat replaced with a borrowed one; jeans and boots dirty, and finally, when her human skin tears in the logger’s hands.  she has endured mounting strains over the course of the film: the gendered cycle she is expected to carry out over and over, despite knowing that she being seen as a hollow illusion of herself;  the confusion and lack of direction once she leaves that forced disguise behind; the new identity she gains on the bus, and how she is unable or unwilling to achieve the romantic/sexual satisfaction tacit to that identity;  her ultimate inability to escape violent power struggles.  her disguise, her attempt to function in a system that was not constructed for her and never considered her existence to begin with, cannot be sustained.  she removes her skin, revealing a featureless, androgynous alien with skin like starstuff.  she holds her beautiful face in her hands, the eyes through which she perceived the human kyriarchy now gazing at her true self.  despite its authenticity, this is a self that cannot exist for long, that will not be allowed to exist, as the logger returns to set her on fire.  this stands in sickening parallel to the very real dangers that transgender women often face if they are discovered to be trans.  (note: in this comparison i am not suggesting that transwomen are “wearing a woman disguise”– transwomen are women– as she does in the film, rather that these are people who risk harm when they are discovered to subvert social expectations about their bodies.)  she collapses at the edge of a field as snow falls, the black smoke of her remains ascending to the sky she presumably came from and dissipating, as white snowflakes descend on the camera.  perhaps it is a natural elegy for her, or perhaps it is the way of the world overtaking and dissipating her.

under the skin speaks to the toxicity of gender roles, how the expectations that the place on everyone can be misleading at best and destructive at worst.  in it, i see an outsider who stands as an allegory for how i try to maintain my woman disguise through enacting roles written on me by others, and my fears of what will happen if that disguise tears too much.