sexuality

Gazing at Males: Magic Mike (2012, dir. Stephen Soderbergh), Magic Mike XXL (2015, dir. Gregory Jacobs), and the Fat Female Audience

Embarrassing confession time:  I have been picking away at this article for way too long.  Patrick had suggested Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL a while ago, and they are chock full of great discussion material, especially regarding the shifts between the original and the sequel. I was fascinated by a mainstream Hollywood movie that plays fast and loose with the gender roles of its straight male protagonists; then, there’s also the obvious topic of the noticeably more inclusive casting of audience members in XXL.  But how did they connect?  Though initially struggling to form a cohesive argument, I finally relied on this one weird trick:  I re-read the most famous essay in feminist film theory.  And amazingly, it was very helpful.  

Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is the genesis of the term “male gaze.”  Mulvey uses psychoanalytic theory to describe a common dynamic in classic Hollywood film, in which the audience derives a dual and seemingly contradictory pleasure in the voyeurism of watching the people on screen (separating the audience and the character), but also seeing the characters as idealized versions of ourselves (bringing audience and character together).  And as the films utilizing this dynamic are produced in a patriarchal society (i.e. prioritizing the wants and experiences of men), female characters are on display for the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure, while male characters are powerful protagonists with whom the audience identifies. Often, these two dynamics synthesize in the romantic union of the male and female characters, creating the fantasy of being a powerful person who possesses the object of desire.  Magic Mike, especially XXL, disrupts these dynamics that Mulvey describes.   

True, none of the main characters in either film are fat.  Most of the fat characters I write about on CPBS aren’t protagonists.  While there are exceptions, as evidenced by most of the films in last year’s series on fat men and thin women, fat characters are usually minor supporting roles in a handful of scenes; this is especially obvious if you look at the writeups I’ve done of film festivals, etc.  It would be overly glib to say that there’s one reason why, but stemming from Mulvey’s theory of the audience seeking pleasure through identification with a protagonist, the common assumption is that audiences can’t/won’t empathise with a character who doesn’t embody certain social privileges.  Mulvey focuses on gender; but of course this struggle encompasses many identities.  At the writing of this article, whitewashing is again a popular topic of discussion, as the remake of Ghost in the Shell starring ScarJo just hit theaters.  But, as always, body size and composition is the spectrum we’ll be focusing on here.  And the fat characters of particular interest in Magic Mike and XXL are the fat women in Mike’s (Channing Tatum) audience.  

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I didn’t find or make screencaps of the fat audience members, please accept my apology in the form of Joe Manganiello in a sexy firefighter costume

Magic Mike starts with a flipping of the male gaze’s gender dynamic by establishing the relationship between female audience and male performer. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) titillates the audience by playfully reminding them that it is against the law to touch the dancers’ bodies (but then observes “a lot of law-breakers” in the audience); the women sitting in the dark respond with excited cheers.  This mirrors a common paradox that attractive female characters must embody of being on display for the audience’s visual consumption but not too actively sexual as to land on the wrong side of social judgment (or break the fantasy of being controllable).  Mike deals with this very judgment from the two main female characters, Brooke (Cody Horn) and Joanna (Olivia Munn).  Through their relationships with Mike, we see his need to move on from his current profession.  Joanna is willing to have casual sex with Mike and join him in orchestrating three-ways, but she isn’t willing to talk about her personal life with him and unceremoniously abandons him by revealing that she is engaged, which coincides with the completion of her PhD.  Brooke is consistently judgmental of Mike’s profession throughout the movie; although he accuses her of reducing him to his job, eventually both his bff Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and his boss Dallas screw him over, proving that her disapproval is merited.  Mike abruptly leaves the Kings, as Joanna left him, and shows up on Brooke’s doorstep.  His happy ending is the approval of the “normal”  character. His arc isn’t too different from the pattern I saw in films featuring fat men paired with thin women; Mike’s maturation make him attractive despite his excess (here his decadent profession, as opposed to his body), his reward is the love of a good (thin) woman.  This is a neat gender inversion of the story arc that Mulvey describes, wherein a female character “falls in love with the main male protagonist and becomes his property, losing her… show-girl connotations; her eroticism is subjected to the male star alone.”  

As opposed to typical scenes featuring female dancers, where the male audience is a source of some menace (I haven’t seen the whole of Striptease, but two of the dance scenes on YouTube include Demi Moore being grabbed inappropriately by audience members, as well as Burt Reynolds sitting in the corner and making creepy comments about how she’s an “angel”), the relationship between male dancers and female audience in the Magic Mike movies is free of tension.  The pleasure the audience receives from direct attention from the male entertainers is pure, even sheepish at times, as select VIPs allow the dancers to pick them up, lie them on the floor, tie them in sex slings, etc. without any attempts to go too far.  The exotic dancing is described as a service in both films, either embodying the fantasy of a one night stand, as per Dallas, or helping a woman find her “smile,” as per Mike.  If anything, Adam is the only character to really transgress professional boundaries, as he kisses an audience member during his debut dance and give a tab of ecstasy to a sorority sister during a house call.  

Magic Mike is focused on people struggling to realize their professional goals (or just make ends meet) in an unforgiving economic structure.  The stripping, while surely an entertaining spectacle for at least some of the audience, is almost incidental to the film’s themes.  As Magic Mike centers on Mike’s struggle to be a successful entrepreneur, the audience’s shrieks of delight and dollar bills symbolize the tyrannical demands of the market, showering him with money when he dances, while an apologetic bank employee (Betsy Brandt) withholds it when he tries to secure a loan to start his furniture business.  And although the women themselves have no nefarious motives, they provide the money and attention that draws Adam into the life of a debauched party boy.  XXL, on the other hand, focuses on Mike reconnecting with his friends, helping them move onto the next steps of their lives after Dallas abandons them, and coping with the stress of his new job and newly single status.  He does all these things by rediscovering the joy of stripping, namely, helping his audience find their “smile.”  Where the first film finds Mike concerned that Brooke only sees him as a “30 year old male stripper,” XXL states explicitly (ha) that Mike and the other Kings can use stripping to explore and assert themselves as individuals.  Mike strives to impress the female characters in XXL, but unlike the judgment of his profession that he meets in Magic Mike, he instead interacts with women who are mostly involved in exotic dance in one way or another along his journey to Myrtle Beach, and has to charm them into providing assistance to get him and the Kings there.  The political pathos is removed from Mike’s relationship with stripping in XXL, giving the viewer license to find pure erotic enjoyment in his performances.  And yet, XXL breaks even further away from the “show-girl” trope Mulvey described, in which “a woman performs within the narrative, the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined.”  Both films invert the roles that each gender plays in the dynamic, but in XXL, Mike’s friends assign personal meaning to male entertainment that gives more depth to their characters than they had in Magic Mike.  The sequel gives us more of the personalities of the Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa and allows them to wax philosophical about the male entertainment industry, which is celebrated as an opportunity for all women deserve to have their fantasies indulged and to be “queens,” as opposed to the first film, which presents a glittery sandpit that is controlled by deceitful owners like Dallas and eats naive young men like Adam for breakfast.  

A few different scenes in XXL explore the Kings’ relationship to their work, including one in which Ken (Matt Bomer) bonds with Andre (Donald Glover) over the meaning they find in male entertainment.  “These girls have to deal with men in their lives every day who don’t listen to them,” Andre observes.  “They don’t even ask them what they want.  All we gotta do is ask them what they want.  When they tell you, it’s a beautiful thing, man.  We’re like healers or something.”  A subsequent scene shows this philosophy in action when Ken meets an older woman (Jane McNeill) who confesses her husband won’t have sex with the lights on; he responds by telling her how beautiful she is, how she deserves to be happy, and sings her the song that she and her husband would listen to when they were first falling in love.  The moment is bittersweet (“I don’t think Hank can do that!” she tells him when his performance ends), but shows more depth to what the audience seeks from the performers than the “free fling of a fuck” Dallas describes in Magic Mike.  The Kings want to be the most effective entertainers possible; while the film plays out with the intent that the film audience see ourselves more as an extension of the Kings’ audience, there is joy in seeing the exhibition of their creativity and the gradual reveal of their personalities as much as there is of their oiled-up bits.  The culmination of XXL finds Mike and his friends (now calling themselves “Res-erection”) fully in their element and fully belonging to the audience; as emcee Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith) describes them, “a special kind of beast that can bring all the beauty out in you.”

Even if the dancers aren’t normatively gendered in how they function in the films narrative, they are in physical presentation.  The implication is, of course, that the man capable of “fulfilling every woman’s wildest fantasies” is relegated to one body type.  And commonly, when men in movies are depicted as irresistable, the women chasing them are normatively attractive.  The fantasy is specifically that of a man’s wanting to have numerous beautiful women chasing after him.  However, the world of Magic Mike flips that to focus on the fantasy of a fun night of oogling hunks (without the drink minimum) by including a range of women in the audience.  The first movie falls short.  Notably, there are some audience members who are older women, but all are feminine and white.  The only fat woman in Magic Mike is chosen for VIP treatment by Richie (Joe Manganiello), but he “humorously” hurts his back when picking her up and has to stop his routine, leaving her standing awkwardly by herself on the stage.  XXL does an admirable job of diversifying the audience.  Not only do several scenes include fat women getting individual attention from the male entertainers, but there is a specific focus on black women.  We meet Rome, who addresses her black clientele as “queens” and repeatedly tells them that they are beautiful and deserving of attention from her sexy staff.  We see many fat women in the audience, including an extended scene with a fat black woman receiving attention from a male entertainer who picks her up with ease (and is played by former pro football player Michael Strahan).

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Rome, the queen in her castle, and Magic Mike (fka “White Chocolate”)

A pivotal moment in XXL hinges on an audience comprised of one fat woman:  Richie’s dance in the convenience store.  Richie (rolling on molly) wants to bring his wedding fantasy routine to fruition, but is insecure about his skills as a dancer.  Mike (also rolling on molly), in an attempt to make his friend understand that their work is less about impressive dance moves and more about making women happy, dares him to walk into a convenience store and make the bored-looking cashier (Lindsey Moser) smile.  Richie balks, not because the young woman is fat, but because she “looks like she’s never fucking smiled a fucking day in her entire life.”  And, because it is that kind of movie, Richie’s beloved Backstreet Boys start playing on the store speakers the minute he walks into the store.  Unlike the women who make up his intentional audience– and unlike the common stereotype of fat women as desperate for sex– the cashier doesn’t immediately notice him (much to his pouty disappointment).  He has to dramatically tear open a bag of Cheetos just to get her attention, and she doesn’t even smile until the end of his routine, when he cracks a joke.  Richie goes on a minor character development arc over the course of the scene, where he has to get in touch with his confidence and sense of presence to prove to himself that he doesn’t need Dallas’ direction to be a successful male entertainer.  And the sign of his success is the approval of a fat, female audience, as well of that of his friends (all of whom are rolling on molly).  

The other fat presence in the films must be mentioned, even if he doesn’t quite fit in with the discussion:  Tobias, the DJ (Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias).  He is a corrupting influence for Adam in the first film, giving him his first taste of GHB (or, as he calls it, “hey juice”) and supplying him MDMA to sell once he’s established himself as a dancer at Dallas’ club.  Adam foolishly loses $10,000 worth of pills that he and Tobias were supposed to sell.  This leads to two thugs trashing Mike’s apartment looking for restitution, while Tobias helplessly watches.  However, to the more mature Kings who are presumably a bit wiser in their choices, he is more of a helpful support.  In Magic Mike XXL, he drives the food truck to take them on their road trip to Myrtle Beach with the intention of being their emcee at the stripper convention–until he drives off the road while rolling and suffers a concussion.  In both films, Tobias is vaguely coded as queer. In Magic Mike, we are introduced to him using stereotypically gay mannerisms to make a joke.  In XXL, Tobias gets on stage dressed like Carmen Miranda at a voguing contest at a gay club; and considering that he wins the $400 prize after the Kings upstage the club’s regulars, he had better fucking be queer because that is the only way that such an incredibly cringe-worthy scene could be salvaged.  At the afterparty following the scene at the gay club, he sits at a campfire with the club’s fat drag queen emcee (Vicky Vox), while the other Kings are paired with thin, (presumably) cis women.  (This sequence includes a scene in which Mike meets Zoe [Amber Heard] and they bond over having “inner drag queens;” ick ick ick.)

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Dallas and Tobias watch the boys do their thing

The aspect of XXL that is quite unlike any mainstream film I’ve seen in recent memory is not only the focus on the importance of pleasure (both giving and receiving) to a fulfilled life, but that pursuit is reinforced as egalitarian.  And combined with Mulvey’s theory about the gaze, you get something pretty amazing.  Instead of women performing as erotic spectacle for a male audience, you have men performing for an audience comprised not only of women, but of older women, fat women, and women of color.  So the entity in the film that we, XXL’s audience, identify with is those people:  older women, fat women, women of color.  And it’s not for the purpose of learning something or becoming aware of an issue or struggle;  it’s just to have some fun and feel sexy for a bit.  It’s a subtle part of the movie, but it’s normalizing of these groups of marginalized women in a way that we rarely get to see.  Even if XXL doesn’t answer Mulvey’s call to break down the “cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures” that enable the male gaze, it’s a noteworthy bending of that system.

See Also:

Fluffy on being cast and performing in Magic Mike

AV Club:  Offscreen dialogue is key to one of Magic Mike XXL‘s most revealing scenes

Parabasis:  On Magic Mike XXL: Entertainment, Art, Fulfillment, and Big Dicks

A scene from Magic Mike where Channing Tatum dances to Ginuwine’s song “Pony”

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Roundup: March 2016

A summary of fat characters in films I saw over the last month but didn’t write about.

Take This Waltz (2011, dir. Sarah Polley)

This romantic drama follows Margot (Michelle Williams), a writer who finds herself torn between her loving, stable marriage to chef Lou (Seth Rogen) and her prickly, burgeoning crush on their rickshaw-driving artist neighbor, Daniel (Luke Kirby).  I was hesitant to include this because Rogen is thinner in this film than most of his work (he made this film around the same time as Green Hornet), but I decided to go with it as the film juxtaposes him with Daniel, who is very athletic (literally spending his days running around Toronto).

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Orgazmo (1997, dir. Trey Parker)

A self-consciously B comedy that is a sendup of low-budget action films, the porn industry, and (of course) Mormons, Orgazmo pits kung fu fighting Latter Day Saint Joe (Parker) against evil porn producer Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs).  Maxxx is fat, as are some of his cronies/actors Jizzmaster Zero (Ron Jeremy) and his dimwitted bodyguard whose name I didn’t write down (mea culpa, unsung hero).  But another notable scene pairs Joe with a fat porn actress called T-Rex (Ruby Hart, credited on IMDB as “The Fat Lady Stripper”), and touches on a number of tropes:  the ground shakes when T-Rex approaches, she is masculinized (her lines are dubbed with Parker doing a voiceover), she is crass and sexually voracious, Joe is terrified of her, and the onlookers are disgusted, with the exception of weirdo Dave the Lighting Guy (Matt Stone).  The scene can be found here (NSFW; typical Parker/Stone humor).

The Ladykillers (2004, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

A remake of a  1955 heist film that pits a group of thieves against an elderly Christian woman (Irma P. Hall) who unknowingly rents a room in her house to their grandiloquent ringleader (Tom Hanks).  In true Coen fashion, the film is peppered with idiosyncratic fat characters: a sweaty, easily-bribed boss (Stephen Root); a security guard who is constantly laughing and surrounded by food wrappers (Walter K. Jordan); a deputy sheriff who frequently naps at his desk (John McConnell).

The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)

One of Pixar’s best, in a world… where superheroes are forced into hiding as normal people, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to ignore his and his family’s special abilities.  Having to live as insurance agent Bob Parr, he gains weight and is referred to as fat at least a few times, but is still able to fight well enough to defeat a massive killbot single-handed.  Once he has the opportunity to put his super-strength to use again, an exercise montage helps him get back his trimmer physique.

Meet the Fokkens/Ouwehoeren (2012, dir. Rob Schröder, Gabriëlle Provaas)

I usually don’t include fat people in documentaries that I see; in most cases, a subject being fat is happenstance.  That is the case here– a profile of Louise and Martine Fokken, Dutch twin sisters who were sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district for over 50 years, and just happen to be fat (although photos show that they were slimmer in their youth).  Although fatness isn’t explicitly discussed, they are contrasted with their slimmer, younger colleagues and laughed at by some passerby.  The idea of older, fatter women being sexually active, as well as objects of desire, is unthinkable to many people; making it the subject of a full-length documentary is a necessary subversion of assumptions about who sex workers are.

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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.

“It’s Sick, Being a Virgin:” Fat Girl (2001, dir. Catherine Breillat)

(CN: rape)

Given that the subjects of my last two posts are films about fat kids that take place in summer, I decided to use the dwindling time that remains before Labor Day to write about a third film that utilizes these subjects.  Fat Girl is a coming-of-age story about two sisters on summer vacation with their family: chubby 13-year-old Anais (Anais Deboux) and slender 15-year-old Elena (Roxane Mesquida).

A scene in the middle of the film serves as a cypher for the central paradox of the sisters’ relationship.  Elena and Anais stand cheek to cheek, regarding themselves in the mirror.  “It’s funny. We really have nothing in common,” Elena says. “Look at you.  You have small, hard eyes, while mine are hazy.  But when I Iook deep into your eyes, it makes me feel Iike I belong, as if they were my eyes.”  The core of Fat Girl is these two girls, who contrast each other in some very essential ways, but are inexorably bound together by shared experiences.  Both are adolescents grappling with the early throes of sexuality, but their divergent appearances and ages leave them in different positions socially, affecting their worldviews.  Their different experiences come up in the first conversation we hear between them: Anais claims that boys run from her sister once they see that she “[reeks] of loose morals,” while Elena counters that boys don’t come near Anais in the first place because she’s a “fat slob.”  

The ways in which Anais and Elena deviate from cultural standards of conduct are notably different.  The Criterion DVD of Fat Girl includes an interview with Breillat after the film’s debut at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival, in which the director describes Anais’ fatness as her coping mechanism to deal with having her body and sexuality denied by those around her.  It would be liberatory if Anais’ body could exist without rationalization, but by now, reader, I think you and I have become used to a fat body paying the admission of meaning in order to be present in a film.  Anais is frequently shown eating in Fat Girl.  When Elena meets her summer love Fernando (Libero de Rienzo) at a cafe, their flirtation and first kiss is paralleled with Anais ordering and eating a banana split, “[her] favorite.”  The girls’ mother (Arsinee Khanjian) initially defends Anais when Elena criticizes her for eating “like a pig.”  At the end of the film, however, fed up with her daughters’ adolescent shenanigans, Mother snaps at her for opening a snack after they have a meal.  Anais’ transgression is explicitly evident on her body, making her an easy target of criticism by her family.  Elena’s sexual activity, however, is also transgressively excessive by cultural standards, especially considering her age.  She is waiting to have PiV sex with someone special, but has been sexually active with casual partners.  Elena is able to have her metaphorical cake and eat it too, satisfying her desire for sex without the effects of those desires physically manifesting on her body that would open her up to criticism and judgment, the kind of which she lavishes on Anais.  

Breillat’s BIFF interview delves more directly into her philosophy of the two sisters:  “Since [Anais’] body makes her unlovable, since she isn’t looked at and desired, she’s more intelligent about the world.  She can create herself and be herself, with a kind of rebellion, certainly, which is painful, but all the same, she exists.  While her sister, to her internal devastation, isn’t able to exist.”  Her analysis reduces the characters to what they experience based on their looks, but it is certainly an applicable factor to understanding not only the girls of Fat Girl, but the majority of female film characters.  Anais desires sex without romanticizing it, whereas Elena denies her desire for sex because she romanticizes it.  Anais wants her own sexual debut to be with a casual partner who won’t have the ability to brag about deflowering her, whereas Elena seeks a partner whose love will validate her decision.  Fernando is able to coax a reluctant Elena into sex acts through hollow declarations of love.  Anais, on the other hand, playacts being a manipulative lover, pretending two ladders in their swimming pool are different sex partners of hers.  She swims back and forth between each, whispering cliche lies and practicing kissing.  “Women aren’t like bars of soap, you know,” she tells her pretend-partner, “they don’t wear away.  On the contrary, each lover brings them more.”

Anais’ sexual frustration means she observes and contemplates the sex lives of others, namely Elena’s.  Her observations are cynical, but more attuned to the film’s reality.  The audience may be accustomed to thinking of shots of Anais eating as grotesque or pitiable, but would a similar reaction be expected to the very long scene during which Fernando hounds Elena until she consents to anal sex?  Elena is too emotionally involved in the scene to see it for what it is, but Anais, who watches from across the room, is not.  The sex scenes in the film are shot from far away, putting Elena and Fernando on a stage of sorts.  We aren’t used to sex scenes looking like this; we usually see closeups of hands and faces– how Anais is shot as she tosses and turns in bed, awkwardly watching and trying to ignore the couple.  The audience is invited to empathize with her over Elena and Fernando.

Despite all the talk between Anais and Elena about sex, the act causes a rift in their relationship.  When Elena shows Anais the engagement ring that Fernando gave her as a proof of his love, Anais immediately smells a rat and begs Elena not to trust him.  While Elena and Fernando “go all the way,” we see Anais in her bed in the foreground, quietly crying.  Later, Fernando’s mother (Laura Betti)– a tacky woman who is the only other fat character– explains that Fernando stole her ring.  The girls’ mother asks Anais where Elena is, to which the girl impertinently replies that she is “not her keeper.”  Enraged, their mother ends the family vacation early.  On the way home, Anais attempts to comfort her sister.  “It’s sick that people think it’s their business. It’s sick, being a virgin,” she tells Elena, who is worried about their father’s reaction and can’t get over Fernando.

The film’s climax further parallels and separates the sisters.  Asleep at a highway rest stop, a trucker murders Elena and their mother, chases Anais into the woods, and rapes her.  Once again, the introduction of a male character demanding sex disrupts the relationships between the female characters.  And, as with Elena’s experience with Fernando, the rape is a desecration of the sex that she wants to have.  However, Anais’ reaction is to assert agency within the horrible situation.  She puts her arms around her assailant.  When the police find her in the morning, one tells another, “She says he didn’t rape her,” to which she defiantly adds, “Don’t believe me if you don’t want to.”  It’s a troubling ending; what first sprang to my mind when I saw it was how fat rape survivors are often met with disbelief or derision.  Breillat is a feminist, it would be difficult to believe that she would be dismissive of young girl being raped.  The film doesn’t excuse the attacker’s actions, but it does disturb the notion of Anais as a passive victim.  Elena’s experience was a subversion of her idealized notion of having sex (by her own definition) for the first time with someone she loved; once it became obvious that Fernando had duped her, she felt sadness and shame.  But according to Anais, “the first time should be with nobody.”  What happens to her at the end of the film should never happen to anyone, ever, but given that she refuses to describe it as a rape to the police, it seems she interpreted the trucker’s attack as a removal of the vulnerability she feared from a sexual debut with a future boyfriend.  She certainly does not want to be seen as vulnerable by the uniformed men surrounding her and her dead mother and sister.  Elena, whose appearance and ideas about sexuality conform to patriarchal values, has been destroyed by the events of the film.  But the outsider, Anais, defiantly survives.

I do agree with Breillat that being an outsider allows a critical vantage point; my own adolescent experience of feeling ostracized due to my weight was a major catalyst of my journey to become the faux-academic, buzzword-dropping, far-left feminist you’ve all come to know and tolerate.  On the other hand, Anais verges on being a didactic mouthpiece at times, and it’s undeniably problematic to suggest that her value system is so outside of the mainstream that she would be okay with being violently raped.  Fat Girl provides an effective critique of patriarchal sexual values, but beyond that, only a bleak non-alternative.

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