This time last month, I was chiding people on Twitter to not become politically complacent just because we’ll have a woman president. Funny how your expectations can be pulled out from under you, isn’t it? Not really funny ha-ha in this case, more funny sob-sob. I can only imagine a lot of folks reading right now have been having similar reactions to the election of DJT, processing a lot of difficult emotions and wondering how to move forward as individuals, families, and communities.
This time last month, I was trying to figure out how I want to wrap up the trope deep dive on fat man/thin woman romance storylines, but for the past two weeks or so, I’ve felt locked up. Not only have I felt overwhelmed and struggling to prioritize, but I had a bit of an existential crisis over this blog. (I’ve been having crises over lots of things, but I’m a gold-medal compartmentalizer and will focus on CPBS.) If I’m being completely honest, this has been coming for a while. I feel like I’m just hitting the same points over and over. I’m not sure why I’m still at it. Given that I’m feeling lost, for multiple reasons, I thought this would be a good chance to pause, step back. and think about my underlying reasons for continuing to write this blog, especially at this particular historical moment. A Four of Swords post, if you’ll indulge a Tarot metaphor. (and if you are a fat-positive cinephile who reads Tarot: can we be friends please?)
Given the breadth and depth of issues that we as a country have to come to terms with, it felt/feels like cinematic representation of fat people is a topic that’s overly niche. Thankfully, I received a jolt of inspiration from this thread on twitter from Ariel of Bad Fat Broads:
I couldn’t have said it better myself, and definitely not in a handful of tweets. The treatment of fat people connects to the treatment of other marginalized groups, and the fictional worlds that we see in films connect to how we understand the world we live in. CPBS is inherently political. My writing style tends to downplay that fact, I think, as I try to balance my critiques with giving you, the reader, space for your own reactions and analyses. This is also the reason that I rarely linger on connections to my personal life. But maybe that underlying premise gets lost.
Problematic cinema doesn’t have the dire nature of situations like the Dakota Access Pipeline or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. However, even if art and entertainment don’t sustain us as organisms, they do sustain us as human beings. How does it make you feel when you see a character in a movie that you relate to in a very specific and personal way, maybe an aspect of yourself that you don’t often think about or something you’ve never seen addressed before on film? How does it feel when something very personal to you manifests on screen in an ignorant or cruel way? And when that seems to be the only way you’re allowed to see it?
And like any other institution in a kyriarchy, the film industry replicates the oppressive power dynamics in which it operates, leading to situations such as studios covering up sexual assault, racist casting practices, or workplace safety violations that lead to injury and death. As with Ariel’s allusion to the concern about removal of access to health insurance, these dynamics play out in similar fashions across institutions. Rape culture, racism, and worker exploitation are not solely found in the film industry, and neither is the marginalization of fat people.
These examples come from the act of making movies, but of course, this CPBS focuses on the movies themselves, specifically fictional narrative works. As with all popular art, the politics of movies exist in a cycle with no easily defined beginning (if there is a beginning at all…). Specific ideas inform how films are produced, the films give audiences specific stories and images that normalize these ideas, some of those audience members make new films. This cycle isn’t always a bad thing; my guess is you had your heart warmed this past Halloween at least once by a little girl in a Rey or Ghostbusters costume. Fictional movies can even be influential in changing how a society operates, such as Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, which influenced the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. CPBS is concerned with cinema as the outcome of established ideas about how people can be categorized, especially based on their physical attributes, especially especially who on the screen has the most adipose tissue. If you didn’t know already.
But even if we don’t have cinema, in most situations, we have stories. The stories that we tell speak to who we are. There are explicit examples, of course, like stories containing moral lessons or commemorating historical events, but no story, and certainly no film, exists in a cultural vaccum. Our stories contain patterns, which often turn into tropes or cliches, the kind of thing we see so often that our minds jump to an expectation without a second thought. An example of this that I love is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. In this unique blend of a longitudinal case study and hangout film, there are two scenes where protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is engaged in risky behavior– playing with circular saw blades, and texting while driving. Although the almost-three-hour movie establishes from the start that Mason’s life does not contain extraordinary conflict, as an audience member, I found myself growing very tense during these moments. Why? Because from the educational shorts I was shown in grade school to the moody indie dramas I snootily absorb as an adult, I have been conditioned to expect the direst of consequences from poor decision-making. Even if a more conventional story beat isn’t created explicitly to warn of the potential dangerous outcomes of a behavior, it does speak to the standard desire for situations in movies to be at the extremes of human experience. This is also true for characters, mired in their own cycle of expectations around what the embodiments of various tropes look like. We conflate personality with physical features. Who is the hero? With whom are we invited to empathise? Who is in the position of receiving our scorn? Our pity? Our revulsion? A lot of the time, we know who these characters are without having to be explicitly told. CPBS is concerned with the audience expectations that exist when a fat person is in a movie, and how films satisfy or subvert those expectations.
I’ve spent my whole life in the USA, and I’ve only been spending it since the early 80s. I don’t know what it’s like to live outside this cultural and political context. While I am critical of it on many levels, I have trouble imagining what the alternatives would look like, especially when it comes to art. But I don’t believe that a truly just society would normalize the commodification of bodies; relative to this blog is artists’ bodies being objectified by the demand for profitable entertainment, instead of purely being implemented as a medium for expression. Athletes in contact sports put themselves at risk of fatal injuries, intensified by the pressure to be stronger, faster, more intense, while the institution minimizes knowledge of the risk. Sex workers whose labor revolves around performance are frequently subject to requests or demands that transgress their professional boundaries. Transgender women are often used as joke fodder on the screen and often subject to violence and discrimination in real life. People who work in arts & entertainment are subject to harsh criticism of their bodies, demands for regulation, perfection. One doesn’t have to look further than the magazine rack at the average supermarket checkout lane to see that sensationalized narratives get written onto bodies as famous people shockingly gain weight, lose weight, age, get sick, or get pregnant. Bodies are measured, judged, categorized, for their entertainment value, which often eclipses being seen as an equal. Performance has paradoxical powers of distancing us from the people we are watching and giving us an opportunity to know their experiences. CPBS is concerned with discerning how and when films invite objectification of or empathy for fat characters. One work can even do both, depending on the approach of the audience. Take for example Hamilton, the Broadway sensation that I respect but don’t have much interest in. Many people of color feel empowered by seeing themselves in the kind of historical narrative they’re often excluded from, in a performance space that they are similarly often excluded from. On the other hand, consider this weekend’s backlash against the Broadway cast for politely confronting the VP elect when he was in the audience, a man who believes in policies that would cause direct harm to the people he sees fit to provide him with an evening’s entertainment.
The last point that I want to make about what I strive for in this film has already been alluded to, as far as parallels between struggles and keeping a realistic perspective on how cinema fits into a larger cultural landscape. To refer again to Ariel’s tweets, people don’t exist as one identity, and bigoted mindsets aren’t usually contained to one specific group. CPBS strives for an intersectional analysis, maintaining awareness of how other social categorizations exist in the films discussed, and how fatness exists in conjunction with these other categories. Not only is this approach realistic to who people actually are, it helps to look at what it means to be a fat character. For example, consider how fatness impacts gender, often counterbalancing traditional masculinity with the suggestion of domesticity and sensitivity, and subverting traditional femininity by prioritizing the pursuit of one’s own pleasure over self-restraint and adherence to standards.
Maintaining the progress that we and our forebears have made towards living free and dignified lives requires constant maintenance. That includes being able to analyze the media that we consume, demanding that our culture recognizes us as fully human, and seeing others in that light as well. It’s my hope that this blog will contribute to your engagement with those tasks in some way.