romance

Trope Deep Dive: Wrapping up Fat Men and Thin Women with Heavy (1995, dir. James Mangold)

I’d had Heavy in mind for the Trope Deep Dive from the start, and praises be to the movie gods, it went from “it’s a nice thought but I don’t know how I’ll get my hand on it” to “holy shit it’s on Netflix” over the course of working on this series.  Heavy was one of the first indie films I watched as a young person, partially due to my nascent interest in this subject and partially because it was largely filmed in the region where I grew up.  The film could be described as restrained; like its protagonist, Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), it’s very sparse and selective in what it has to say, focusing on a brief point in Vincent’s life where a beautiful young woman, Callie (Liv Tyler) takes a waitressing job at the restaurant he owns with his mother, Dolly (Shelly Winters).  Because it is such a simple story, it can be looked at in terms of the other films I’ve discussed over the past several months, as a means of highlighting shared qualities of the other twelve films I’ve discussed so far featuring romances between fat men and thin women.

Vincent is a middle-aged, single (presumably never-married) man living and sharing a family business with his mother that she had owned with his now-deceased father.  Vincent’s size is a source of insecurity which she glosses over.  In one particularly memorable scene, he skips breakfast and when she asks why, he gives “I’m fat” as the reason.  Her automatic response is to render his statement and the feelings behind it as invalid:  “You are not fat, you are not. Honey, you’re husky.  You’re well built.  You’re macho.”  “I am FAT, Ma,” he responds more forcefully, the only point in the film at which he confronts her.  Not uncommon to fat protagonists, Vincent’s size has to Mean Something, and we discover that his fatness is symptomatic of his arrested development.  Although he is characterized as a good cook, when he is at work we only see him making pizza, a food commonly associated with fatness.  When Callie suggests that he has the talent to be a chef if he studied at the Culinary Institute of America, Dolly and Delores (Debbie Harry), a waitress who has been working at Pete and Dolly’s for over a decade, shut down the idea before Vincent can get a word in:  “They would just charge a lot of money to teach him what he already knows.”  Of course there are fat gourmet chefs, so it’s not the neatest of dichotomies, but Vincent’s body and the food he makes are fatty and pedestrian, in comparison to the finer alternative offered by Callie.  Dolly also reveals that her desire to keep Victor at home making pizzas is an expression of her inability to accept her husband’s death:  “when you began to… grow… it was almost like I had him back again.”  Victor is in a role that keeps his family’s life in stasis as much as possible: looking like his father, taking care of his mother, and working his father’s job in the restaurant that still bears his father’s name.  When Dolly dies, he shows a similar unwillingness to move on, and only tells Callie that she died once she’s in the ground.  Perhaps it’s worth noting that Dolly is one of the few fat women in the films I’ve included in the trope deep dive; the only other one I can recall off the top of my head is also a mom–Kathy Bates in Angus.

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Vincent (Pruitt Taylor Vince), in domestic setting.

Stagnancy or need for maturation, especially when it means reliance on family in a manner deemed socially inappropriate to an eligible bachelor, is a common starting point for fat men who are romantic leads.  James in I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With, Danny in Only the Lonely, and Jack in Jack Goes Boating are all grown men living with family members.  Angus, Terri, and the Motel are about minors who naturally live with family, but are all in caretaking roles (Angus and Terri of sick relatives, Ernest of his family’s business) that afford them less autonomy than their peers. Dex in The Tao of Steve and Ben in Knocked Up don’t live with family of origin, but rather with a tight-knit group of friends who enable each others’ adolescent habits.  Living with (and caring for) family suggests a body equipped for domesticity and comfort, the attributes that would be preferable for a long-haul relationship.  Living with similarly slackerish friends suggests an adolescent indolence that requires fixing through maturity (ie. in the direction of a productive job and nuclear family).  

This domesticity and/or arrested development also usually comes with another layer of outsiderness or contempt, often based on the character’s fatness.  In Heavy, Vincent is held back over and over again by language based on his weight.  When he tries to assert himself as restaurant manager to Dolores, he is confronted by regular Leo (Joe Grifasi) on her behalf:  “Just because your mommy’s sick doesn’t mean you can shit on people, you fat fuck.”  Even though Vincent makes a reasonable demand (that Dolores be more civil to Callie, her coworker), his size and closeness to his mother are easily invoked to discredit him.  Even when he and Callie are able to share some alone time together, she describes him as “more to love,” trying to be congenial but ending up patronizing, especially considering that Vincent desperately wants her to return his feelings.  

Status as a social outsider is common to the other fat male love interests.  All four of the school-age protagonists I’ve covered (in Superbad, the Motel, Angus, and Terri) are bullied.  The male love interests in Hitch, Knocked Up, Enough Said, and I Want Someone… are all coded as unattractive, at least in part due to their size.  I Want Someone… even focuses on how James’ weight impacts his work as an actor, when he can’t even get an audition for the remake of Marty because former teen pop idol Aaron Carter was cast as the lead.  Dex in The Tao of Steve is shown as being able to get laid despite being fat, and being unable to commit to a relationship in part due to his insecurity over his weight.  The female love interests, on the other hand, are thin and conventionally beautiful.  Additionally, in several cases, they have more social capital (or literal capital).  In Hitch, The Tao of Steve and Knocked Up, they have more money and/or more prestigious jobs than their male counterparts; in Superbad and Angus, they are more popular at school.  

Even if Callie is a waitress, ultimately she is an outsider to the world of the restaurant where Vincent feels stuck.  She is taking time off from college and aspires to be a photographer, which neither Dolores nor Dolly validate.   “Not everybody’s gotta go to college. Somebody’s gotta roll up their sleeves and do the work,” Dolly tells her during her interview.  There is a complimentary disdain between Callie and Dolly, even if Callie tries to put a friendly face on it.  Pete and Dolly’s is a temporary resting place for her while she figures things out, whereas it’s Dolly’s whole life.  Suggesting that Victor would want to go to school and work in a fancier establishment is an insult to Dolly, even if taking his feelings into consideration would be a more loving response than speaking on his behalf.  Callie’s separation from their world is embodied by her boyfriend Jeff (Evan Dando), a musician who refuses to step foot in the restaurant.  “I guess he thinks they’re all trash or something,” Callie tells her friends.  Victor finds an ambivalent place between the two, feeling separated from Callie but also wanting to expand his horizons.  After his mother dies, he takes a tour of the Culinary Institute of America.  His desire to free himself from stagnancy also comes in the form of trying to lose weight, a goal he starts pursuing when he sees Callie making out with Jeff.  The film’s hopeful ending includes a meetcute with the cashier at the grocery where he buys weight-loss shakes.

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I love how the posters have Liv Tyler’s image largest, suggesting that maybe she plays the protagonist, experiences some personal growth, reveals her inner world…? No, but she is the most normatively attractive of the main characters.

It’s not uncommon for movies with romantic narratives to include parallel self-improvement arcs for one or both of the characters falling in love.  However, Vincent’s weight-loss subplot in Heavy is an example of a pattern I’ve noticed across most of the films in the trope deep dive series: a fat man improving himself to become worthy of a thin woman’s love.  Heavy is similar to Superbad and Hitch, where a fat character changes himself and goes outside his comfort level to attract the attention of a thin love interest.  Knocked Up, Jack Goes Boating, The Tao of Steve, and Only the Lonely all feature fat men who are able to start a relationship with a thin woman, but need to change something about themselves to prove their commitment to her.  Of the remaining films:  Terri and The Motel end with the male protagonists being rejected by the objects of their affections;  the protagonists of I Want Someone… and Angus change for their own benefit and end up impressing their love interests as a result; and The Lobster and Enough Said engage with the aforementioned trope of men improving themselves to gain the love of women by actively criticizing it.  Although Victor’s focus is on his weight (and he isn’t actually successful in changing it over the course of the movie), other films feature more significantly life-changing choices in the interest of pursuing romance, including overall life improvement (Knocked Up, Jack Goes Boating), significantly changing a relationship dynamic with a parent (Only the Lonely), and dramatically quitting a job (Hitch).  This suggests that the romantic satisfaction in these films, for the female audience, is the idea of being a muse of sorts: her affection and approval are such valuable goals for him to achieve, she inspires him to become “better.”  The last lines of Jack Goes Boating illustrate this idea explicitly:  “I knew you’d be good.”  “I am, for you.”  The “for you” aspect of the sentiment connects neatly with the ideal of lifelong monogamy, where an individual person is unfulfilled without the one partner who sees them as beautiful and can unlock their hidden potential.  

Being able to love a fat outsider also speaks to a certain virtuous quality in the thin women characters.  It suggests a lack of elitism and an emotional integrity, the ability to see “real” beauty and find love without caving to social expectations.  When Callie and Vincent are alone, she tells him that he’s “cooler than someone would think.”  She’s also an aspiring photographer and finds him to be an interesting subject, bringing a lacking artistic sensibility to his world.  However, this willingness to look beyond convention doesn’t extend to the female characters themselves, who are all portrayed by actors who are popularly considered beautiful and/or coded within their film as desirable to other male characters besides their fat admirers.  Highlighting both the female characters’ desirability and the male characters’ capacity to care for her, often she is initially attracted to or in a relationship with a thin man who is not as good a fit for her as the fat romantic lead would be (The Tao of Steve, Hitch), doesn’t understand her the way that the fat romantic lead does (The Motel), or is an outright douchebag to her (Angus, Heavy).  

Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to assume that audience members would identify with characters involved in a romantic plot based on a shared gender.  Personally, I’ve frequently felt a certain alienation from these kinds of female characters in films, which I could attribute to being both fat and nonbinary, while also not fully identifying with the fat male characters who are in love with them.  But  to a certain extent, we watch films for the vicarious pleasure of seeing how characters react to specific circumstances; consider the post-modern horror convention of smugly outlining a survival plan for a slasher attack or zombie apocalypse.  And this group of films give us an expansion of what a romantic male lead would look like, while the image of a romantic female lead is very much in its lane.  (Apparently to have the sensibilities to look beyond beauty conventions, one actually has to be a female romantic lead in one of these movies.)  The divide in audience identification with these respective characters seems to be “Would I be able to attract someone like her?” versus “Would I be able to look past initial judgments and see that he loves me?”  Or, to put it in terms of how most of the plots play out, “I’ve won the love of a beautiful woman” versus “I’ve realized that I’m loved by a devoted man.”  The way this dynamic plays out in Heavy— at least, in Vincent’s imagination– highlights its problematic nature.  Vincent has a recurring daydream in which he finds Callie floating in the river, takes her home and cares for her– in every scene of the sequence, she is wet and her skin is bluish, as if she were dead.  Vincent is characterized by his timidity and seeming lack of live experience, so his dream is innocent, in a sense: his affection is expressed by caregiving, never sexual activity.  However, it is disturbing that the way he imagines a relationship with Callie is having her lifeless and dependent on him.  But Callie has a life of her own, and the film ends with them moving in their own separate directions.  

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Callie (Liv Tyler) and Vincent

As opposed to the kind of romantic film that end with a woman swept off her feet by a man who is wealthier (Pride and Prejudice, Pretty Woman) or lives more deeply than she (Dirty Dancing, All That Heaven Allows), the films I’ve looked at over the past several months largely find their romantic ideal in a man who is willing to make a change for the sake of a relationship.  This kind of arc isn’t exclusive to romantic stories pairing fat men with thin women (Shaun of the Dead, High Fidelity), but looking back at this series, I’m struck by the frequency with which it popped up.  Even if these films present a different idea of what a male romantic lead looks like– and considering that 9 out of the 13 are indies, one would expect at least some deviation from mainstream film standards– they are still mired in sexist, heteronormative ideas of how to a romance is formulated.  To be explicit: men act and women react; men strike forth to earn what they desire, women wait passively (or unknowingly) for their emotions to be stirred.  This dynamic also does a disservice to its presumably subversive male lead.  The journey of self-improvement, even if it doesn’t include weight loss, implies that he has to prove his worthiness.  It functions as a compensation, gives her a reason to fall in love with him.  Even in Angus and I Want Someone…, where the male protagonists respectively make decisions to face a fear and move out of mom’s house for their own good, their love interests start to return their feelings as an outcome.  The only film that is a true exception to this dynamic is Enough Said, in which Eva tries to get Albert to change his ways, only to have it blow up in her face and realize that having a flawed Albert in her life is better than no Albert at all.  It’s probably not a coincidence that Enough Said is the only film of this series with a female protagonist.  Even though a fair number of these films don’t explicitly make the male romantic interest’s weight a potential reason that he wouldn’t be seen as a viable partner, the need to “be good” in order to win her love, paired with being fat, is enough to keep these stories at least partly mired in the typical idea that a fat person can’t be “good” enough to be a mate.

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Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men Wooing Thin Women: Hitch (2005, dir. Andy Tennant), The Tao of Steve (2000, dir. Jenniphr Goodman)

I like to present myself as a savvy, even cynical, consumer of media, so it’s a little embarrassing for me to admit my predilection for romantic movies.  After participating in the recent #fav7films on Twitter, 3 of my 7 turned out to focus on romantic relationships (4 of 10, if I include my extended list).  Look at this current series of articles!  A big part of this has to do with the escapist aspect of entertainment, which romantic movies have in spades by their nature.  They focus on the segments of relationships where people are acting their best, hormones at their strongest.  Even more grounded romantic films like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy involves relatively privileged people in idyllic settings; Before Sunset, the second installment (and my favorite), takes place in Paris, in real time, during the magic hour.  Of course, the characters who fall in love with each other are also idealized: they’re usually affluent (if one is poor, the other is wealthy), occupied with interesting jobs or aspirations, barely concealing beautiful inner lives just waiting to be shared, good-hearted, charming, and physically attractive.  Even an average Joe who finds themself as the romantic lead will usually have an iconic speech in their back pocket.  And, as I hope I’ve managed to convey in earlier posts, fat characters are almost always positioned as a detracting trait, counter to a happily-ever-after image.  There’s usually some form of compensation, some element that seems to say, “Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but this fat person deserves a chance.”  This can be Albert and Eva’s extraordinary chemistry (which, to be fair, is a solid example of a romantic film lacking idealization if you want to argue against my thesis), Jack’s and Marty’s pure-heartedness, Angus’ exceptional integrity/athleticism/intellect, or even Danny’s near-supernatural ability to call in a favor (erotic cronyism: only in Chicago).  Before this series we even have Louis in True Stories, who finds a bride through a love spell.  However, we also have narratives like Hitch and The Tao of Steve, which don’t make exceptions for their fat characters through exceptional  character traits, and rather focus on the implementation of romantic strategies to explain why a fat/unattractive man could successfully woo a thin/attractive woman.  

The narratives of these films are based on some assumptions that are misguided at best.  First, we have the homogenization of attraction: it’s not possible that a fat character would be seen as attractive because there are objective, universal standards that are embedded deep in the hearts and minds of the other characters, and of course, the audience.  One of the reasons I started writing CPBS was, in addition to being fat myself, I’m attracted to other fat people, so I get very lost during scenes where it’s supposed to be hilariously icky that Jack Black is naked.  (On top of, you know, the alienation when reminded that the entertainment industry uses bodies like mine as visual shorthand for garbage.)  Second, both Hitch and The Tao of Steve rely on the regressive heteronormative positioning of man as active pursuer of passive trophy woman, who has the “real” power of being able to veto the relationship.  It needs to be said that the overlap of these assumptions function to completely cut fat women out of the picture.  The Tao of Steve goes so far as to have protagonist Dex (Donal Logue) declare that he doesn’t fuck fat women.  “I am a fat-ist, I admit it.  I’m the worst kind of fat-ist, I’m a fat fat-ist.” What a delightful character I resigned myself to spend another hour watching!  Considering how this statement occurs early in the film, I suppose it’s supposed to communicate the immaturity that Dex grows out of to win the love of Syd (Greer Goodman), who is coincidentally thin.  Yet, since no fat women exist in the film, there’s nobody on the receiving end of this statement, just the abstract phantom of an unfuckable fat woman.  Hitch doesn’t even acknowledge that fat women exist.  We often think of fat women existing in rom coms as the Less Attractive Best Friend; Casey (Julie Ann Emery) is thin and pretty, her apparent outsider status is due to being Southern (Hitch being of the subgenre of rom coms that take place in Manhattan).  Wealthy, beautiful Allegra (Amber Valletta), the object of Albert’s (Kevin James) affections, turns out to be clumsy and awkward, but these traits are only highlighted at the end of the film when she talks about them while sitting on her gigantic yacht.  Her transgressions from physical idealization are manifest on her body during the end credits wedding dance party sequence, once the “chase” is over.  The object of longing is characterized by physical restraint– thinness, gracefulness, aloofness– which is as true for the mandatorily thin women characters as it is for the fat male characters pursuing them.  As Dex says in The Tao of Steve: “we pursue that which retreats from us.”  For Dex and Albert, restraint is the foundation of their respective strategies for getting women interested in them.  Of course, both learn the art of seduction from thin, traditionally attractive men.  

In Hitch, stereotypical accountant Albert hires Hitch (Will Smith), the “date doctor,” to teach him how to get his heiress client Allegra to notice him.  Hitch’s philosophy of falling in love comes from a painful experience he had in college of his first girlfriend (Robinne Lee) leaving him because he came on too strong, a heartbreak that was apparently potent enough to transform Charmingly Dorky Will Smith into Charmingly Suave Will Smith.  His philosophy does not include outright lying– he tells us in the opening narration that women want to see “the real you”– but he does say that “with no guile and no game, there’s no girl.”  He isn’t above manipulating situations, creating meetcutes for his clients.  Hitch teaches Albert how to dress and groom himself, but more importantly, how to rein in his dorkiness, which largely manifests as flailing physical comedy bits.  Albert is confident that his flamboyant dance moves will impress Allegra, but Hitch orders him to keep it to a dull two-step.  Albert can’t maintain control during their date, however, and busts out his ridiculous moves when Allegra isn’t looking at him, his physical tendency towards excess irresistable, even leading him to cheat on his regimen of increased regulation.  Hitch too ends up having to deal with his own body betraying him in appropriate ways when on dates with Sara, as he ends up accidentally knocking her into the Hudson River and having an allergic reaction that causes his face to swell up.  While mirroring his fat client’s awkwardness, Hitch also mirrors his emotional sincerity, as he struggles with wanting to get more involved with Sara than is his usual comfort level.

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“Don’t ever do that again:” Hitch (Will Smith) offers Albert (Kevin James) constructive criticism on his dance moves

If the audience wasn’t already socially conditioned to view fat people as unworthy of love or desire, the opening sequence of The Tao of Steve makes this explicit, as three women Dex went to college with view his body with amused disgust and confess to each other that they all had sex with him back in the day.  Albert may be above average in optimism thinking he can win the heart of a millionaire, but Dex is damn near a curiosity.  Step up ladies and gents, marvel at the fat man who gets laid on a regular basis!  How does he do it?  Witty, intellectual Dex has hewn his seduction strategy from observing “the prototypical cool American male” in pop culture, specifically Steve McGarrett, Steve Austin, and Steve McQueen. “He never, ever tries to impress women but he always gets the girl.”  The Tao of Steve is Dex’s name for his three-part strategy for getting women to have sex with him: “eliminate your desire… be excellent in her presence.., retreat.” While Dex’s strategy appears to be based on respecting boundaries (wow), sharing interests (amazing), and socializing with women without any expectations of sex (gold star), his reasoning is pretty damn misogynist.  Dex says that, based on his looks, “technically [he] shouldn’t be getting laid” and thus women are confused and intrigued by his apparent lack of sexual interest in them, which causes them to assume that sleeping with him is a major achievement on their part, wherein reality he describes himself as being willing to have sex with any woman who has low enough standards (as long as she isn’t fat).  He justifies the Tao not working on Syd because she’s smarter than the women he usually is able to seduce.  However, the sex that he has is also largely meaningless as he doesn’t desire a connection beyond temporary pleasure with his sexual partners.  

Although initially acting under the belief that behaving in a stereotypically masculine way will attract the women they’re in love with, both Albert and Dex have to abandon this facade and be more sensitive and vulnerable to actually win Allegra’s and Syd’s hearts.  These traits are often associated with fat men as a way of showing their lack of masculinity, but here we have two very straight rom-coms where romancing a woman is successfully done by letting go of machismo.  In Hitch, Albert is contrasted with the thin male characters as the genuinely nice guy.  Hitch isn’t bad person, but he’s a player, emotionally distant and commitment-phobic.  Allegra’s ex-boyfriend, the prince of Sweden or something like that, is referred to in negative terms.  We’re also introduced to Vance (Jeffrey “Burn Notice” Donovan), a potential client who wants Hitch to teach him seduction skills in order to dump a woman after a one night stand.  Hitch thinks Albert is a lost cause and is only persuaded to take on his case when Albert reveals the selfless nature of his love:  “You know what it’s like getting up every day, feeling hopeless?  Feeling like the love of your life is waking up with the wrong man, but at the same time hoping that she finds happiness, even if it’s never gonna be with you?”  And sure, Hitch helps Albert gain confidence and talk to Allegra in the first place, but his genuine attributes win out in the end.  As mentioned before, Allegra reveals that she is attracted to Albert’s awkward, dorky ways because she sees those traits in herself and he makes her feel comfortable.  

As for Dex, being an unattached lothario comes much more naturally to him, but he’s only able to win Syd’s affections once he stops verbally sparring with her and allows himself to be vulnerable.  Casual sex with many different partners is Dex’s MO, but he feels genuine remorse when Syd reveals that he seduced her in college and is hurt that he doesn’t remember her.  He directly uses his fat body as evidence that he won’t hurt her again:  “Now I’m a fat fucking pig, and the guy that did that to you was a skinny, arrogant prick. Just give me one more chance.”  The logic behind this statement isn’t teased out, but it suggests that becoming fat has taught Dex something about humility.  From his actions over the course of the film, it seems more like he looks for temporary solace from the insecurity he feels over the changes in his body by seeking casual sex and hasn’t actually changed, especially considering that he lies to his date in order to blow her off and have this conversation with Syd.  She doesn’t buy it; however, he does keep making attempts to be a better person in order to win her affections.  As a means of apologizing, he repairs a motorcycle for her.  Where he was initially depending on Syd to drive him to and from work, his gift frees her from her obligation to him.  (Dex is constantly referencing philosophers and religious thinkers throughout the film.  When Syd shows up at his home to thank him for the motorcycle, he’s reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, a book that serves as the modern world’s reintroduction to Gnosticism, an early sect of Christianity that contradicted the patriarchal structures of Roman Catholicism by having gender-equitable roles within their organization and recognizing the feminine personhood of God.  Filmmaking!)  His striving to change himself continues as he goes camping with Syd and some friends despite his lack of outdoorsmanship, makes an attempt at dieting, and breaks up with the married woman he’d been sleeping with (Ayelet Kaznelson).  Getting punched out by his former lover’s husband (John Hines) is enough, and he and Syd have their second first kiss.  Even during sex with her, he drops the playboy facade and shows vulnerability and tenderness.  Unfortunately, that takes the form of being insecure about his body, as he requests that they turn the lights off.  

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Dex (Donal Logue) and Syd (Greer Goodman) in The Tao of Steve:  Maybe you can’t stand him now, but just wait until the third act…

Both Hitch and The Tao of Steve find romance in a man changing himself to prove himself worthy of a woman:  Albert sheds his timidity, Dex his aloofness.  Their respective strategies even work at first:  Syd warms up to Dex when she sees him “be excellent” with his kindergarten students, Albert gets Allegra to notice him when he stands up to his patronizing boss on her behalf.  But the real connections don’t form until they rid themselves of the structured restrain they had been relying on as seduction methods; one might say that they let themselves go.   And even though Dex and Albert embody fat stereotypes (slovenly nerd and slovenly stoner, respectively) that are usually positioned as worthy of ridicule, the films want us to root for and empathize with them.  They are posited as diamonds in the rough, willing to polish themselves for the women they love, suggesting that they would do anything to make Syd and Allegra happy.  The idea that Albert and Dex as fat men can be seen as viable partners is initially explained by their employing of seduction strategies, “tricking” their respective partners into finding them attractive.  The romance doesn’t come from them being conventionally attractive as much as it does them being improved by the grace of loving these women who passively wait to be seduced.  As with the dynamic we see in Superbad and Knocked Up, the female characters serve as inspiration for the male characters to grow as people.  The escapist element is the idea of a partner who will facilitate your self-improvement (if you’re a dude), or who will change themselves to impress you (if you’re a lady).  It’s the internal version of a makeover or training montage done for the sake of impressing a partner, not the basis for a healthy relationship.  I said in a previous article that I want to see fat characters involved in escapist, whirlwind romances, but not if there isn’t a happy medium between the fantasy of a budding romance and tropes that aren’t bad ideas in the real world.

See Also:

Your Fat Friend: “She’s Not Even That Fat!” But I Am.

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women and Baggage: Enough Said (2013, dir. Nicole Holofcener); Jack Goes Boating (2010, dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman)

Romantic plots in films often focus on idealized characters with few if any flaws (or flaws that are actually attractive, like an adorably clumsy woman or a widower who broods over his loss in an appealingly sensitive manner). And sure, considering that a film has a short amount of time in which to get the audience rooting for a character, getting us to the height of rapture when two characters kiss for the first time has to be a pretty hard sell. But this also means that the characters usually come from a very specific stock: conventionally attractive, young, uncomplicated lives and backstories. Two people who are set up to perfectly transition from attraction to love to a happy lifetime together. There’s little if any baggage: complicating factors that would detract from the audience’s confidence in a happy ending, such as characters being divorced, or lacking social skills. Considering how often fatness is a visible signifier of both age and an inability to have one’s life “together,” it’s not surprising that fat characters would come laden with traits or histories that would detract from them being ideal mates. Although seen less frequently in films, romantic films like Jack Goes Boating and Enough Said that involve a character who is fatter and older than the typical leading man tend to be infinitely more interesting and relatable; they carry more weight, so to speak. Jack Goes Boating, similar to Marty, follows a budding romance between perennially single Jack (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who originated the role of Jack in the original play and also directs) and Connie (Amy Ryan); Enough Said is about skeptical divorcees Eva (Julia Louis Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini, in his final film performance).

Both Albert’s and Jack’s baggage includes a lack of finesse for adulting. Jack doesn’t know how to swim, and his cooking skills extend to what he can prepare on a hot plate. However, he acquires these skills as the film progresses to be worthy of Connie’s love, so he can rise to the tasks of holding a dinner party and taking her boating. These tasks, developing competence in food and exercise, are things that fat characters (not to mention fat people in real life) are expected to need and want. On the surface, his training is a pathway to him becoming a desirable mate, but more importantly, it speaks to an internal transformation. A big part of his education lies in visualization; he learns to see himself as someone who is a competent swimmer and cook as part of developing his confidence. And, as one would hope to see in a romantic film worth the price of admission, the development of Jack’s emotional life is paramount. Jack lacks the social skills and attainments one would expect from a man his age: not only is he single, he has never been in a serious relationship. His coworker and best friend Clyde (John Ortiz) and Clyde’s wife Lucy (Daphne Rubin Vega) are seemingly his sole connection to the outer world. Their apartment is the main domestic setting featured in the film, and we never see where Jack lives (although he mentions that he lives in his uncle’s basement). His sense of social propriety, as we often see with fat characters, is a bit off-kilter. He is shy and a man of few words, barely engaging when a beautiful Italian client tries to start a conversation with him. He is a fan of reggae music, the assumed reason that he sports some truly janky dreds in his fine, blonde hair. Preparing for his blind date with Connie, he comments to himself about needing to dress well: cut to him on the date in a button-down shirt and his omnipresent knit beanie as they eat Chinese takeout in Clyde and Lucy’s kitchen.

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A rough start:  John Ortiz, Amy Ryan, and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Jack Goes Boating

As far as social skills, Albert is better-off than Jack. He’s been married, he has a good relationship with his daughter, he’s a witty conversationalist and actively pursues Eva. But the film uses this as a double-edged sword; unlike Jack, whose flaws are obscured by his taciturn nature, Albert’s flaws are magnified by his social baggage. Eva’s growing affection for Albert is complicated when she befriends his ex-wife Marianne (Catherine Keener), who is a walking inventory of his personal quirks. He describes himself as a slob, but Marianne harps to Eva on his slovenly habits, his inability to cook more than one dish and multiple failed diets, expressing disgust at his fatness. (“But he never got obese, right?” Eva asks, a note of desperation in her voice.) Although not as egregious as Jack, Albert does have his own antisocial quirks. He doesn’t have a nightstand, which Marianne (and then Eva) sees as a failure of obtaining adulthood; he wears sweatpants to an early date with Eva, which she finds inappropriate. Even his job, working as an archivist for a television museum, suggests the kind of drawbacks often associated with fat characters: sedentary tendencies, myopic geekiness (he can recall ancient television schedules from memory). His association with television in Eva’s mind, while part of an unusual profession at first, becomes a negative as Marianne’s caricature dehumanizes him in her mind: “I pictured the ex she was talking about as this fat, irritating slob and it turns out it’s Albert! Fat Albert! …A cartoon!”

Both films depict romance as developing slowly and with some ambivalence; after all, Connie and Eva have baggage of their own. Connie is as awkward and shy as Jack; on their first date, she tells a lengthy story about her father’s declining health and death that leaves Jack confused as how to respond. Although a middle aged woman, she is just starting out in her career making sales calls, a job that Lucy evidently pulled strings to get for her. A man assaults her on the subway, leaving her with both physical and emotional wounds. She’s later sexually harassed by her boss. There’s also the suggestion that she hasn’t had much experience of being cared for as an adult, as Jack is emboldened to learn how to prepare a meal when she tells him that nobody’s ever cooked for her before. While she likes Jack, her experiences make trusting him a difficult task. He patiently gives her her space; during scenes where they are intimate, Connie sets clear boundaries that he respects. They talk about what they each want in a partner, both have modest goals. Jack wants someone who is positive and likes music, and won’t sleep with other men. Connie wants someone with “a sense he can tell me the truth, a sense of humor, has a job, patient, like you, sexy…” “I can be some of those things,” Jack responds. Perhaps because he is an unconventional romantic lead, there is no expectation for a conventionally dramatized sex scene (e.g. no dialogue, propped against a wall), or hyperbolic dialogue about the profundity of their love. The world of the film gives space for something more messy and human, where ordinary people have to negotiate trauma and inexperience, and find happiness in other flawed people.

Both divorcees, Albert and Eva are understandably cautious about developing a serious relationship. Eva, it’s worth noting, expresses reluctance to give him her phone number because “he’s kind of fat… he’s got this big belly.” After their first date, she bashfully admits attraction to him: “I wasn’t attracted to him at first because he’s not handsome in the typical way, but now I find him kind of sexy.” She later says that their “shared middle agedness” is sexy to her; while she has her reservations, partly because of his appearance and partly due to her own baggage, she is ultimately attracted to Albert as a fat, older man. Although she is able to move past the cultural imperative to be attracted to someone youthful and thin, this is in part because of her ability to relate to the phase of life he’s in. They both have daughters going off to college. Eva’s hesitance seemingly comes from the dangers of being able to relate to Albert. Her fascinated discomfort with Marianne’s rants about her ex-husband put Eva on the offense to “fix” potential problems in her future relationship with him. Eva starts to harp on Albert for a few different Marianne-highlighted personal quirks; unsurprisingly, food is one of them. She criticizes his eating habits in front of her friends and tells him, to his justified embarrassment, that she’s going to “buy him a calorie book.” While completely uncalled-for behavior, it does tie in to her own insecurities about her eating habits, as her ex-husband had a habit of bringing home foods that she was trying to avoid but couldn’t when they were still living together. Eva tries to use Marianne as “a human TripAdvisor” to decide if a relationship with Albert is worth the emotional risk; however, she does this at the expense of owning and taking responsibility for her own shortcomings. She jeopardizes her ability for Albert to trust her and exploits Marianne’s trust, hiding the truth from both of them. A subplot reflects her desire to avoid emotionally turbulent situations, where Eva starts hanging out with her daughter Ellen’s (Tracey Fairaway) best friend Chloe (Tavi Gevinson). Eva begins to neglect Ellen because she is having trouble dealing with the impending loss of her child to a college on the other side of the country. By treating Chloe as a surrogate daughter, Eva can willfully ignore the wedge of distance and maturity being forced between her and her actual daughter, just as she tries to use Marianne’s complaints to ward off disappointment with Albert.

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Enough Said: James Gandolfini, Julia Louis Dreyfus, and more chemistry than an entire season of Breaking Bad

Another detraction from an idealized relationship in both films is the juxtaposition of the budding romances with their friends’ unhappy marriages. Both relationship foils– Clyde and Lucy in Jack Goes Boating, Eva’s friends Sarah (Toni Colette) and Will (Ben Falcone) in Enough Said— feature thinner male characters, but neither couple is particularly happy. In addition to swimming and cooking, Jack learns harsh realities about relationships, as Clyde and Lucy reveal that there have been multiple infidelities over the course of their marriage, casting a shadow of concern over his potential future with Connie. Sarah and Will are more of a comedic foil than dramatic, but they still constantly bicker; adding in Marianne and Eva’s ex Peter (Toby Huss), romantic relationships in Enough Said seem to have a cyclical nature that create complicated family networks of currents and exes, whereas Jack Goes Boating is more linear and binary, split into the lonely single and the dissatisfied married.

The marked division between the two films is their ideas about if and how people change. Jack Goes Boating takes a more romantic approach: Jack dedicates himself to self-improvement once he meets Connie, but also learns that the reason she loves him is because he strives to be someone who can make her wishes come true. After the dinner he cooks her is accidentally ruined, she calms his shame by telling him how what she appreciates is that he cooked for her, even if they weren’t able to eat the meal. This message is explicit in the last lines of the movie: “I knew you’d be good,” Connie tells Jack admiringly. “I am for you,” he responds. On the other hand, Enough Said finds its resolution in the acceptance of flaws. Albert breaks up with Eva after discovering she’s allowed Marianne to “poison” their relationship. Despite hearing over and over about the worst version of him, she drives by his house often, finding that she misses him. When he sees her parked across the street from his home one day, it leads to the first interaction since their breakup, where they admit that they’ve missed each other. He tells her that he bought a nightstand (something she had been bothered about); she is surprised, but when he admits that he was just teasing her, she laughs, glowing as she looks at him. Eva, the thin, seemingly more “together” adult, is the one who has to change for the relationship to work, letting go of Marianne’s seemingly wise perspective about his shortcomings and solely focusing on her affection for his deadpan sense of humor and gratitude that he still has feelings for her.

Neither film ends with a grand pronouncement of love, or any other epic resolution. These characters aren’t timeless testaments to the power of love: they are charming but quotidian, flawed and wounded, but in ways that make them relatable. While I am looking forward to the day where I go to the movies and see a fat character swept up in a fairytale romance, seeing one in a more grounded, realistic film like Enough Said or Jack Goes Boating has more significance for me. My favorite films are the ones where I can relate to the characters, where the situations they confront feel true to my own experiences; in part, this is why I wish I saw more characters with physiques like my own. When a romantic story includes the anxiety of a failed date or the ambivalence of seeing a lover’s unattractive quirks, the honesty of those situations– the baggage that can be more believably ascribed to characters who aren’t young or normatively attractive– draws me in more fully than any scenario Nicholas Sparks could think up. If there is an upside to having a physicality that is denied idealization, I think that’s probably it.

See Also:

Vulture:  The Toughest Scene I Wrote: Enough Said‘s Ending

Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men with Thin Women

Romantic love is a fraught topic for this blog.  It’s an incredibly common motivation in film, but one that fat characters are so often disconnected from.  Frequently, they are assumed to be undesirable, unlucky in love (whether unable to attract a mate or part of an unhappy couple), non-sexual, or grotesquely hypersexualized.  Not including this post, I’ve written about fat characters in 112 movies that I’ve watched since starting this blog in June 2014.  Here’s the breakdown of romantic relationships including fat people that start during and last through the ends of those films, by size and gender (both of which are, of course, rigid binaries):

Fat man, thin woman: 6
Fat woman, thin man: 4
Fat man, fat woman: 2
Fat woman, thin woman: 1

Although not a large or representative sampling of film as a whole, fat romance is present in a little over 10%.  In addition, notice the most frequent pairing:  when fat characters have storylines where they and another character fall in love, it’s commonly a fat man paired with a thin woman, who is commonly conventionally attractive.  

I wanted to look at this trope, but was struggling to pick a title or two.  I have the excellent fortune to have a partner who works at a brick-and-mortar video store, and thus access to thousands of titles.  I called him at work.

“Do you have Only the Lonely?”
“No.”
“Do you have King Ralph?”
“No.”

Apparently, my fortune has its limits when crossing paths with my thing for 90s rom coms.  I explained to Patrick that I was looking for a movie in which a fat man and a thin, conventionally attractive woman fall in love, and are still together at the end of the film. I had called during a slow night; when I arrived at the store an hour later, this pile was waiting for me:

 

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And he had only gone through the comedy section and pulled films based on his personal knowledge of the plots.

It’s not like this phenomenon is shrouded in mystery.  In a culture where most filmmakers are straight men, and art has traditionally catered to the straight male gaze, there is more leeway for a male character to be a relatable Joe Six Pack (or lack thereof) and less for a female character to deviate from widely accepted beauty standards.  On top of this, most widely-distributed films get made with box office numbers in mind.  The result:  something “refreshing” or “progressive” usually takes a baby step or two away from convention, fearful of alienating audiences (and operating under the assumption that the audience isn’t already alienated).  However, because the change in convention is so often discrete, it’s easier to isolate and inspect what it means to have fatness as an element in an otherwise normative film romance.  Does fatness have an effect on how love and desire are portrayed?  Gender?  Does having a fat lover reify the expectation that a female character conform to beauty standards, or does it provide opportunity to subvert those expectations?  Is there a film out there that meets the aforementioned criteria and includes people of color besides The Nutty Professor?

Since this dynamic crops up time and time again in the pool of films that are appropriate topics for CPBS, I intend to take a closer look at it through a series of articles. Do you remember last year, when I said I was going to do a series of articles about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career and then I didn’t?  This will be kind of like that, except this time, it will actually exist.  I’m starting with two films that I have easy access to: Superbad and Knocked Up.