racism

Drawing the Divine: Depictions of Fatness and Race in Moana (2016, dir. John Musker, Ron Clements)

“Thou sayest thou didst see the god clearly; what was he like?”
“What his fancy chose; I was not there to order this.”

–Euripides, The Bacchae

Something I’ve always struggled with as the sole writer of this blog is the best way to include discussions of people of color.  Similarly to how Laura Mulvey famously observed that films are largely produced for an assumed (straight, cis) male audience, the US film industry largely also operates under the assumption of a white audience.  Often protagonists or other empathetic characters are white (traditionally of the WASP variety), while characters of other races or ethnicities are distanced from the audience.  As a white person, I am able to analyse and criticize what a film tells me about the people of color it depicts.  On the other hand, what I have to say is less vital to conversations about race in media than people speaking about how they see themselves. The lack of intersectionality in film often means little space for fat people of color, but when they are characters in film, they need to be included in the conversations I try to have on this blog– not with the intention of speaking over people of color talking about their own experiences and opinions, but rather to ensure that this blog is as inclusive as possible when looking at fat film characters.

That being said, last night I watched Moana for the first time.  Considering that Disney is, well, Disney, the amount of care they took in representing Polynesian cultures is notable, including an almost-all-Polynesian cast (I believe Alan Tudyk, who voices HeiHei the chicken, is the sole exception) and seeking approval from cultural experts before finalizing designs.  Plus, the titlular character (Auli’i Cravalho) is a courageous leader of her people whose adventure isn’t sidetracked by a compulsory romantic subplot.  As “Polynesian” is an umbrella term for many cultures and nationalities, the film’s world is a pastiche, with Moana being a character created by Disney and hailing from the fictional island of Motunui.  

The other principal character, the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), is a figure in legends across Polynesian cultures.  He’s also the reason I’m writing this post:  Moana’s Maui is a big dude.  Before the film’s theatrical release, there was pushback against his character designed from New Zealand Parliament Member Jenny Salesa, Samoan rugby player Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, and others, that “the depiction perpetuates offensive images of Polynesians as overweight,” as noted in this NY Times article about the development of Maui’s look for the film.  A similar article from The Guardian, focusing specifically on the controversy, quotes Will Ilolahia of the Pacific Island Media Association stating that a fat Maui is “typical American stereotyping,” contrasted with Maui’s depiction in his culture’s stories as “a person of strength, a person of magnitude and a person of a godly nature.”

The articles quote other Polynesian folks who saw Maui’s size as an indicator of strength.  The Guardian article includes a YouTube video by self-described “obese Polynesian” Isoa Kavakimotu who defends Maui’s body as “all about function, not aesthetics.”  (The video is worth watching, but be aware that it has a lot of flickering images.)  Samoan artist Michael Mulipola interpreted Maui’s physique as that of a traditional animated sidekick, noting that Maui’s “thick solid build represents power and strength,” and is “reminiscent of old school power lifters.”  David Derrick, an artist who worked on Moana and is of Samoan descent, made an insightful observation in the NY Times article: “I think a lot of those things come from people being very nervous and scared that a big company is portraying this beloved cultural character.”  Given Disney’s history– hell, given the history of big companies using cultural objects to create a product for mass consumption– that’s pretty fair.

Derrick’s comment called to mind the depiction of Dionysos/Bacchus in the Pastoral Symphony sequence in Disney’s Fantasia.  (The Bacchanal starts at 11:05 in the linked clip.) I’m much more familiar with Greco-Roman legend than I am Polynesian, and therefore am more confident in calling out Fantasia as an example of a cultural object being distorted for mass consumption.  The NY Times article points out that Maui is traditionally represented as a slender young man; the same is true of Dionysos in ancient Greek art.  Although always the god of wine, to the ancient Greeks, he was much more: a personification of the wild, the invoker of divine frenzy.  His ceremonies honoring him served as a ritualized transgression of social order. In many traditional stories, including Euripides’ drama The Bacchae, he calls women to join him in ecstatic revelry in the forest, away from their roles as wives and mothers.  In the Fantasia sequence, outside the context of his culture and de-fanged for a modern Christian audience, he is a stereotypical drunk.  The satyr and centaurs who revel with him are in contrast both in their slender bodies and their behavior.  Their dancing is neatly choreographed; they manage to keep Bacchus as on-track as possible.  The female centaurs flirt with him but never allow him to get too close.  They remain in control of themselves and the situation, a Homeric social guidance film.  Bacchus is not effeminate, as Dionysos is described in Greek stories to suggest that he occupies a space outside social categories;  rather he is emasculated, his wildness stripped of its divine power.  He’s merely “let himself go,” his fat body a symbol of excess that is tolerated for a joke but never fully embraced by those surrounding him.  Does Maui suffer the indignity of a similar process at the hands of Disney studios, 66 years later?  Even if he isn’t the protagonist, Maui does retain his heroic status in the film– he’s strong, brave, clever, and embarks on a heroic adventure to save the world.  Does the fact that he has a fat body, as opposed to previous artistic depictions, detract from his other characteristics?

Searching online for a source to unpack the stereotype of fat Polynesians is proving difficult– I’m just turning up a lot of articles on reactions to Maui’s character design.  (Interesting sidenote: the titles of many of these articles describe Disney as “fat-shaming” or “body-shaming” Maui… drawing a character with a fat body is not “shaming” them, but no worries, it’s not like you’re being paid to use words accurately or anything.)   The pushback that I’ve seen is specifically focused on Maui’s size, and unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much of an explanation beyond that, suggesting that fatness is objectively and simply a bad thing.  Why is that the case, at least in the context of this discussion?  Assumptions about health is a likely suspect. The Guardian article mentions the high obesity rates in several Polynesian countries, as reported by the World Health Organization. Ilolahia’s statement suggests a connection between size, health, and colonialism. Even in Kavakimotu’s video defending Maui, he conflates fatness with unhealthiness, concluding that Maui isn’t fat/obese because of his physical prowess.  This is where we venture once more into the murky, mutable definition of what it means to be fat.  The reactions to Maui that I’ve seen thus far buy into the oversimplified narrative of fatness and health having an inversely proportional relationship.  It feels a bit cheap to point out that Maui is a cartoon character and a magical one at that, so questions of his health are somewhat moot to begin with.  But in the real world, athleticism and body size are more complicated than what’s being suggested.  While watching Moana, I asked myself if the desire to see Polynesian representation in film wouldn’t be better fulfilled by rewatching Whale Rider (to be honest, there was a lot about Moana that I found underwhelming).  And that thought came up again when reading about this controversy, considering that in Whale Rider, protagonist Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is trained to fight with the taiaha by her fat uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa).

Undoubtedly, the history of colonialism and racism continues to impact the quality of life of communities across the globe, including Polynesian folks.  And by not looking critically at what is implied when we talk about fatness leaves a lot unspoken about what kind of hurtful attributes get assigned to certain communities, and why.  But what is accomplished by suggesting that a fat character who comes from a marginalized community doesn’t belong in a heroic position, or even belong at all in a story about that community?  In fact, Maui is the biggest (human) character in the movie; does having a range of body types depicted still result in the promotion of a stereotype?  And considering that Maui’s character development redeems him as a hero in the eyes of his people, what the criticism of his body ultimately leads me to wonder is: where is the line between calling out stereotypes and playing into respectability politics?

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Link: Every Single Word

A project best summed up by its subtitle:  Every Single Word Spoken by a Person of Color in [Mainstream Film Title].  Creator Dylan Marron (whom you probably know as Carlos on Welcome to Night Vale) creates videos that stitch together all of the speaking screentime that people of color have in well known films.  Even including intro titles and credits at the end, there has yet to be a video that runs over 1 minute.

His curation of films is a stroke of genius.  Of the 12 videos he’s posted so far, the oldest is from 2005, making this issue the problem of the generation who is most likely to come across ESW.  They are also largely films that tend to be favorites of those of us who fancy ourselves as smart people with good taste, neatly skewering the classist perceptions we often cling to about who is racist and who is “beyond” that.  Black Swan.  Her.  Frances Ha.  One of my personal favorites, Moonrise Kingdom, clocks in at 11 seconds.

Marron’s project doesn’t explicitly have anything to do with fat people, but his mission of exploring filmic representation (or lack thereof) of a marginalized group parallels that of CPBS.  If anything, I’d say his approach is more impactful (but my blog is still great you love it please don’t stop reading it).  He doesn’t include commentary or analysis, he just lets the facts about these films stand as testament to how people of color are largely absent from many American films and who they are when they are on screen (spoiler alert: a lot of people working service jobs).

Every Single Word can be found on tumblr.

Civil Rights, Fat Acceptance, and Protest in Hairspray (1988, dir. John Waters; 2007, dir. Adam Shankman)

[CW: racism. Unless I’m speaking specifically about one of the films, actors are credited thus: (Actor in Original/Actor in Remake). –TR]

I’m sure John Waters has scoffed at people who try to ascribe a specific political angle to his films, but I can’t help myself.  His outsider characters make me feel empowered by their vibrant, unapologetic weirdness.  Hairspray’s Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is probably the most whitebread example of this character, but also one of the most lovable.  Tracy is a fat white teenage girl growing up in Baltimore in the Civil Rights Era.  Her family is working class, but she dreams of fame.  Her dancing skills lead to her being cast on The Corny Collins Show, an American Bandstand-style pop music and dance show, she becomes an ally to the black cast members who want the show to be de-segregated.  The film was adapted as a Broadway musical in 2002, which was made into a 2007 film starring Nikki Blonsky as Tracy and John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, a role originated by Divine.  Wanting to see how Hairspray’s portrayal of fatness changed after being elevated into the elite subgenre of films based on musicals based on films, I watched the two films back to back.

Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, 1988

I almost put this project aside before it began.  Tracy’s size and indefatigable spirit are essential parts of the story; I couldn’t imagine that much could change.  And yet, here we are.  The characters and story remain intact for the most part, but there is a noticeable change in how both fatness and race are portrayed.  The gains in nuance come with the loss of spirit, unfortunately, making the two Hairsprays into narratives that are complementary in their shortcomings.

Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, 2007

Tracy Turnblad is one of my favorite fat film characters.  She doesn’t let anything hold her back or stop her from being “big, blonde, and beautiful.”  Rich snob Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick/Brittany Snow) makes cruel comments about her weight, but Tracy still becomes a wildly popular public figure and wins the love of heartthrob Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard/Zac Efron).  It’s an idealized situation for a fat woman in the 1960s.  The 2007 remake is more explicit about the effect of sizeism on its characters: Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer) refuses to hire Tracy for The Corny Collins Show because she’s fat, Tracy misunderstands something that Link says as a dig at her size.  Most of the added treatment of characters’ fatness in the remake is attached to Tracy’s mother.  John Travolta’s Edna is very insecure about her weight, to the point where she hasn’t left the house in 10 years because she doesn’t want the neighbors to see the weight she’s gained in that time.

Granted, the remake’s treatment of fatness is more grounded in reality.  Edna’s subplot reflects a tenet of fat acceptance: rejecting the idea that a fat person must put their life on hold until they achieve a certain weight.  It’s important to have narratives that reflect the struggle that many fat people have in accepting themselves and navigating a world that dismisses them based on their size, but that hardly has to be every narrative about fat people.  Fat characters who are doing their thing without angst or apology can be just as powerful; the optimism inspired by an idealized setting can mean as much as a more relatable tale. During her audition for The Corny Collins Show Ricki Lake’s Tracy construes her size as a boon, saying that she would be relatable to home viewers who are “pleasantly plump or chunky.” Divine’s Edna similarly charges into the role of Tracy’s agent with no worry that people might not take a fat housewife seriously.  The closest the remake comes to the original’s gleeful distortion of stereotypical depictions of fat people is Edna’s self-acceptance being conflated with her appetite (“You can’t stop my knife and fork when I see a Christmas ham,” she sings confidently during the finale).  Instead of being completely unapologetic about her deviance from expectations around beauty and propriety and moving forward with the rest of the film, as Divine’s Edna is, Travolta’s Edna starts the film as a sad fat stereotype, gets permission from Tracy, Maybelle, and her husband (Christopher Walken) to accept herself, and blossoms into a more comical fat stereotype.  Considering the amount of time the remake gives to Edna’s transformation, the results are disappointing.

Hairspray lacks much of Waters’ signature filth compared to his other films, but it’s hardly sanitized; this is evident when compared to the remake.  One of my favorite scenes from the original film is the Hefty Hideaway ad spot. Mr. Pinky (Alan J. Wendl), owner of the plus-size boutique, hires Tracy as his spokesperson.  It’s a moment that finds subversive power through the gleeful embracing of stereotypes.  Mr. Pinky keeps his store stocked with pastries.  “Eat up, girls, eat up,” he encourages his customers, “Big is beautiful!”  His commercial spot on The Corny Collins Show features Tracy modelling a chic ensemble, picking up a pink frosted pastry from a display at the end of the runway and taking a bite.  The modified exchange in the remake suggests a more comfortable approach to a fat-safe space for audiences.  The ad spot is gone. During her visit to the Hefty Hideaway, Mr. Pinky (Jerry Stiller) hands Tracy a platter of donuts, which she hands off without taking one, showing that she’s a “good fatty” with self-control.  The underlying current of lasciviousness is redirected into Mr. Pinky trying to guess Edna’s bra size, and his glee when she reveals that she is a few cup sizes larger than he had assumed.  The remake, presumably trying to give respectability to fatness the original does not, ends up repeating a regressive trope of fat women’s desirability being chalked up to larger breasts.

Although Tracy is white, the story’s action is largely propelled by racism.  The main conflict of the film is the struggle to integrate The Corny Collins Show, which has an all-white cast except for the monthly “Negro Day,” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Rita Brown/Queen Latifah).  By prioritizing Tracy’s perspective as she stands in solidarity with her black friends, Hairspray inescapably becomes a white savior narrative, which dramatically limits the impact of its critique of the racism it depicts.  The remake tries to compensate by increasing the focus on the black characters’ experiences with racism, but fails to give life to these moments without the original’s unruly, rebellious spirit and ultimately proves an ineffective counterbalance to the original film’s shortcoming.

The remake infuses a Message into the story by equating the struggles of fat people with those of black people.  Tracy supports Maybelle, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and Little Inez (Taylor Parks) because she relates to them as someone else who is “different,” and not seen on television.  Tracy’s sense of solidarity being due to ability to connect her personal struggles with those of others is an important element in stories about struggles for justice that isn’t emphasized in the original.  However, the film brings that equation into areas where it doesn’t really work.  In one scene that neatly synthesizes stereotypes about both fat people and black people, Edna is reluctant to allow Tracy to hang out at Maybelle’s record store, but is won over by a spread of fried chicken, cornbread, and collard greens during the sexy “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” number.

As with fatness, the remake sanitizes the original’s treatment of race.  The original seeks to align the audience’s empathy with the black characters and against the racist white grownups.  The satirical depiction of racist attitudes (presumably the ones John Waters heard growing up) doesn’t pull any punches.  Velma (Debbie Harry) and Amber try to discredit Tracy by insisting that she is “mulatto”.  Mrs. Pingleton panics when she has to walk through a black neighborhood, and we are cued in to the degree of her bigotry by a tribal drumming score. These moments are scrubbed out of the remake.   All three antagonists are still assholes, but taking them out of the tasteless, ridiculous light cast by the original only serves to soften the ugliness of their behavior.  Depictions of racism are also far less subtle.  The remake addresses cultural appropriation through a scene where Velma gets angry at the Dynamites for singing a song they wrote on Negro Day because it had previously appeared on a white episode.  This is a far more direct illustration than the original, where Link smarmily informs Tracy, “our souls are black, though our skin is white.”  Having realistic depictions of racism in the film while remaining family friendly creates a problematic need to gloss over certain aspects, such as police brutality.  When Tracy is on the run from the police and seeks shelter at Maybelle’s house, the danger of police backlash Maybelle would risk (to say nothing of her children) is not even a consideration, because they’re so grateful for the allyship Tracy has shown the Negro Day cast for– what?  a week?

Perhaps the most illustrative example of how each film regards outsiders is in the contrast of how the outsiders are portrayed attempting to demonstrate political power.  The protests in the original film are spontaneous, energetic, and disruptive, but their purpose changes from integrating The Corny Collins Show to freeing Tracy when she is sent to reform school.  The remake sees Tracy joining the black community for a somber candlelight march while Maybelle sings the slow, soulful “I Know Where I’ve Been.”  The focus stays on integration, which reduces the problematic aspects of the white savior narrative, but is also devoid of the flamboyant energy that pervades the other scenes.  Abruptly changing the tone of the film to express the black characters’ call for integration feels oddly distancing, as though the scene was added out of a sense of obligatory liberalism, and frames political protest as something that is not only rigidly somber, but embalmed in a specific point in history (i.e. the Sixties, when the Baby Boomers fixed everything before moving on to middle management positions).  A more vivacious protest scene would not only be better suited to a group of teenage dancers demanding their rightful place in rock ‘n roll, but would also be more engaging for the audience.

The moment that best overlaps the spirit of the original Hairspray with the sensibility of the remake is during the climax of the latter, when Inez forces her way onstage during the Miss Hairspray pageant and gains more votes for her dance moves than either Amber or Tracy.  By unapologetically ignoring the arbitrary and stifling rules put in place by white authority figures, Inez expresses herself and achieves her dream of dancing on The Corny Collins Show.  Her victory isn’t hers alone, though:  it is a victory for her marginalized community, and raises the happy ending above individual gain to large-scale progressive change.  But if the remake wants to take the civil rights aspect of the story more seriously, why not step away from the white savior narrative altogether and make Inez the protagonist?  Tracy Turnblad is an amazing fat heroine, but not an appropriate once for a story about racism.

I Can’t Believe I’m Writing About Scooby-Doo

Last week, there were a few mentions in my corner of the blogosphere about the new Scooby-Doo movie, Frankencreepy, in which Daphne is put under a curse that makes her “lose her good looks” (according to a statement from Warner Brothers).  Her loss of good looks equates to her thin body becoming fat and her straight hair becoming curly… frizzy… well, you can’t really tell exactly what they were going for due to the animation style, but she’s gained quite a bit of texture.

I read some analyses of this artistic choice which I’ll link to below that do a good job of spelling out the shitty implications that the movie makes about being fat and how it tries to mitigate the effects of that implication by having Fred tell her that she’s still pretty.  However, I think it’s important to look at what in our culture is influencing this storyline, eg. beauty standards based on whiteness.

Beauty, as in the eye of the beholder kind, is nuanced and shifting based on era, culture, subjectivity, and lots of other factors.  If Fred think that Daphne is pretty under the curse, that’s real and valid (even if Daphne shouldn’t base her self worth on his opinion maybe).  But it’s vital to recognize the difference between that and hegemonic beauty standards, ideas about which bodies are good and valid that function as maintenance of power structures.

The culturally reinforced idea of fat=ugly exists at the intersection of a lot of power imbalances, among them sexism, classism, ableism, and racism.  The exotification of fat serves to objectify and other black women’s bodies, from the Hottentot Venus to the appropriation of twerking as an edgy accessory for skinny white pop stars– the same A-list celebrities whose cultural capital would plummet if their bodies looked the same as their backup dancers’.  Similarly, the equation of a fat body with beauty is, in the context of white colonialism, seen as quaint or curious or wrong; the white beauty ideal always positioned as the one to strive for.  A well-known anecdote (at least in feminist and eating disorder recovery communities) is how rates of eating disorders among adolescent girls in Fiji increased dramatically after the introduction of Western television, their local beauty standards uprooted and replaced by imported images of glamorized thinness.  This handful of examples and analysis is a cursory explanation, and I hope to explore the concept more deeply in future blog posts, but the idea we’re working with here is that the feminine ideal is the white body, and the white body is thin.

Along the same lines, the ideal feminine body is also crowned with long, light, straight hair.  Coarsely textured hair– hair in its natural state for the majority of black people– is seen as a hallmark of being out of control, inappropriate, not beautiful.  This standard has long been used in the US to marginalize black people for being “too” black, from churches that would only allow membership for people who could pass a fine tooth comb through their hair without it snagging, to hair style standards in the US Army that were only removed after being skewered on The Daily Show.

Am I saying that the creators of Scooby-Doo: Frankencreepy are white supremacists?  Not consciously.  Or maybe they are conscious white supremacists, I’m not really interested in giving them the benefit of the doubt.  In Tom Burns’ essay on Frankencreepy, linked to below, he points out that the movie could very well have removed Daphne’s “good looks” by turning her into a monster.  It’s not like this movie is devoid of the fantastic.  But instead, how the movie portrays her loss of her “good looks” is by removing two physical features that are hallmarks of white beauty standards.  That is how she is cursed.  Admittedly I haven’t seen the movie, but given she’s the heroine in a kid’s movie, I feel safe in assuming that her “good looks” are returned to her by the end of the movie.  Her nightmare is over, she is returned to her full status as pretty white girl.

But what does that say about viewers– likely very young viewers– who have fat bodies and/or natural hair that don’t change at the end of the movie like Daphne’s?  Do they not have access to the comfort of a happy ending?  Are they cursed?

And what kind of malicious force would cast an evil spell at a child?

 

Related articles:

The Good Men Project: Why Is the New Scooby-Doo Trying to Fat Shame Daphne?

Dances with Fat: Scooby Dooby Don’t