the gaze

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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Trope Deep Dive: Fat Men and Thin Women in Judd Apatow Productions (Superbad, 2007, dir. Greg Mottola; Knocked Up, 2007, dir. Judd Apatow)

(CN: rape culture) As Superbad and Knocked Up are both Judd Apatow productions, they share many key elements:  not only cast and crew, among them Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and Bill Hader, but also a focus on young men who are reluctant to move on to the next phase of their lives, and how this reluctance affects both existing relationships and the ability to forge new ones.  Both films find our fat protagonists in situations demanding maturity, whether or not they are ready; both try to prepare through performing heterosexuality.  In Superbad, Seth (Jonah Hill) and his attached-at-the-hip best friend Evan (Michael Cera) are graduating high school and going to different colleges.  Instead of facing his feelings of loss, Seth focuses on getting Jules (Emma Stone) to date him for the summer so that he can practice having sex and start college as “the Iron Chef of pounding vag.”  In Knocked Up, Ben (Seth Rogen) has a one night stand with Alison (Katherine Heigl) that results in an unintended pregnancy; he tries to do the “right thing” by rushing into a relationship with her.  And it comes as no surprise that both women are portrayed as out of the protagonists’ “league.” Thinness is a major indicator of this quality that Jules and Alison both possess, that could be seen as “having it together:” they display self-control, competence, intelligence, and maturity, whereas Ben and Seth are characterized in a contrasting manner. 

[Something to bear in mind if you haven’t seen Superbad and your interest has been piqued: this is a movie that is very much located within rape culture. Its theme and story subvert expectations of teen sex comedies, but there is no getting around that for a lot of the film, the protagonists are planning to have sex with women who are too drunk to consent.  Even though their plan is hatched from ignorant naivete rather than, say, a pickup artist handbook, it does expose a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies that can be uncomfortable to watch.  Although rape culture isn’t the topic of this article, I feel that I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the film’s problematic aspects.]

Superbad is set in a high school community, thus character dynamics and situations are exposed largely through high school students gossiping and talking shit.  We get an idea of what the object of Seth’s affection is like before we even see her through Evan’s needling:  “Jules got incredibly hot over last summer and obviously doesn’t realize it because she’s still talking with you and flirting with you.”  Seth responds by running through a list of her former boyfriends who are more worthy than him, constructing her “league” of guys who are exceedingly athletic, handsome, and “the sweetest guy ever.”  We also see where our protagonists rank socially by a scene of Seth performing poorly in gym class and the number of times he is called a “pussy.”  Seth is both unpopular and disorderly, willfully ignoring school rules and bubbling over with sexual impulse. The guys have an innate sense that these traits need to be suppressed in order to be attractive.  An early scene finds Evan giving a heavily doctored account of his weekend exploits with Seth and Fogel (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) to Becca (Martha MacIsaac), the girl he likes.  As he speaks with forced maturity and nonchalance, the scene is cross-cut with flashbacks to the guys watching porn, drunkenly crashing his parents’ party, and puking in an alley after getting denied entrance to a strip club.  Jules, in contrast to Seth, is portrayed as more “together.”  She projects cool in every scene she’s in, through a balance of ease and self-control:  she’s a girl who laughs at dick jokes and can successfully throw a large party on short notice, generously providing alcohol for her guests even though she herself does not drink.  

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Seth and Jules have chemistry.  Actually, they have home ec!  Just making a little joke. I like to keep it light in the captions.

Although Seth has a history of awkwardly flirtatious encounters with Jules, he is convinced that the only way he can have sex with her is if her judgment is impaired through alcohol.  Seth convinces Evan that he too can score with Becca if she’s drunk.  “You know when you hear girls saying, ‘I was so shitfaced last night, I shouldn’t have fucked that guy”? We can be that mistake!”  Seth believes that if he (and, by extension, Evan) is going to have sex with someone, it’s due to poor decision-making rather than desire. This mindset motivates their extraordinary attempts to buy alcohol and get to Jules’ party.  Seth even discourages Evan from telling Becca how he feels about her instead of plying her affections with alcohol.  

Seth’s plan is incredibly unethical, though the film portrays it as a misbegotten product of his insecurity and selfishness.  The turning point for Seth is when he is forced to drop his scheming and finally allows himself to be vulnerable, allowing his unruliness to dissolve his prickly defensiveness instead of being used to transgress order to get what he wants.  We see him starting to let go at Jules’ party, telling the embarrassing stories of his adventures thus far to a group of peers, as Jules watches him from afar, smiling.  They go off alone, and he discovers that his plan is subverted by her “togetherness:”  not only does she not drink, she sets appropriate boundaries by saying she doesn’t want to make out with him when he is drunk.  He walks off, unable to handle his frustration and embarrassment.  Later, Jules finds him crying.  He tells her how disappointed he is that he blew his last chance “to make [her his] girlfriend for the summer,” and that he had been banking on her being drunk.  “You’d never get with me if you were sober.  Look at you!  Look at me!”

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In her essay “Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness,”  Neda Ulaby makes the following observation about why Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had so many ardent female fans at the height of his celebrity:  “[he] projected a desire to be viewed with longing, illustrating that the capacity to attract and hold such a look is as frequently a gender-neutral source of power as a gendered target of male exploitation” (Braziel and LaBesco 160).  I must admit a personal bias– I think Jonah Hill is a cutiepie– but no matter how much I try to stay mindful of Seth’s creepy attitude towards making Jules his conquest earlier in the movie, the sincerity and vulnerability of his sense of loss melts my heart every time I watch this scene.  It’s also effective on Jules, apparently, as the film ends with her inviting him to hang out at the mall the next day.

Knocked Up begins in a similar vein, with unruly man-child Ben and “together,” out of his “league” Alison hooking up after a night of drinking at a club.  The opening scenes illustrate who the characters are and how much their lives differ, with Ben and his friends goofing off and smoking pot in their mess of a house, while Alison wakes up early, takes her nieces to school, and holds it down at her glamorous job.  They are physically dissimilar as well; Alison works for the image-obsessed E! Network, and isn’t told to lose weight when she gets a promotion to be on-camera (they legally can’t do that), but is strongly encouraged to “tighten.”  Ben, on the other hand, is comfortably unkempt and chubby.  They cross paths at a nightclub when Alison is celebrating her promotion and Ben gets her a drink; “I rarely look this cool,” he admits.  Although there is nothing to suggest that either is planning to get the other drunk in order to get laid, their encounter is characterized by poor judgment, namely a miscommunication about a condom that results in pregnancy.  The next morning finds Alison looking with disgust at a naked Ben asleep in her bed; he is the “mistake” that Seth and Evan aspire to be in Superbad.  

This is probably a good opportunity to bring up a challenge that I face writing about the topic of fat characters in romantic/sexual situations:  I’m attracted to other fat people.  I don’t come at these movies from the assumed point of view that the fat characters are unpleasant to look at.  I can parse from Katherine Heigl’s acting, the camera angles, timing, etc. that naked Seth Rogen in one’s bed is unappealing and therefore funny, but that’s not a point of view to which I can relate to at all.  Knocked Up can be rightly criticized for being a story about an idealized woman and an underachieving guy falling in love, when the gender-swapped version of that story would never see the light of day, but this argument can be convincingly made based on the characters actions and lives.  From what I remember of publicized versions of this argument when Knocked Up came out, it often boiled down to their physical characteristics, which assumes that attraction is universal and objective, alienating not only fat people from this discourse, but people who desire fat people.  This idea even appears in discussions of size diversity: the AV Club published an article yesterday about body shaming in Hollywood, where one of the writers mentions “Seth Rogen and basically all of his romantic interests” as an example of “men paired with female co-stars who are objectively more attractive.”

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“Hooray!  Oh, wait, I mean… Gross? … um…?”

I hadn’t seen Knocked Up in several years; everything I remembered about its main conflict arose from Ben’s immaturity and lack of responsibility (e.g. not reading the baby books).  However, the second watch revealed a more nuanced relationship than Manchild Loves Overachiever.  Alison herself is emotionally mature and willing to give Ben a chance, but her emotionally stunted, thin family doesn’t contribute to that at all.  Alison’s polished mother (Joanna Kerns) frostily pressures her to get an abortion, threatening that her daughter’s job won’t like when pregnancy makes her fat.  The next scene shows Ben’s stoner dad calming his son’s fears with amused patience.  (These scenes are imbalanced, in my opinion, and it’s all Harold Ramis’ fault.  He is in the movie for maybe 4 minutes total, and he knocks it out of the park.  I think I got more choked up over his loss watching this scene than when I heard the news of his death.)  Moreover, Alison’s unhappily married sister and brother-in-law, Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd), are a symbol of impending doom.  Pete is so checked out of his life that he appears to be an animatronic Paul Rudd puppet, while Debbie is shallow and controlling, a near-constant voice of doubt in Alison’s ear.  “He’s overweight,” she tells her sister, “when does that end? …imagine how much bigger he’s gonna get.  That means he has bad genes.  Your kid is gonna be overweight.”  “Shit,” Alison whispers.  Alison’s “mistake” puts her in proximity to fatness, both through the weight that she gains over the course of her pregnancy, and her decision to give a relationship with Ben an actual chance, despite walking out of breakfast with him the morning after their hookup.

Like Seth in Superbad, Ben is characterized by his lack of traditionally masculine charms (big muscles and/or a big paycheck), but becomes lovable by being vulnerable and emotionally open.  His ultimate proving ground when Alison goes into labor. He proves that he is open to change and has taken on some of Alison’s “togetherness,” but unlike the rest of her family, prioritizes her feelings and wants.  He takes care of Alison through the knowledge he’s acquired about the birthing process and taking care of her emotional needs by setting boundaries with her ruthless obstetrician (Ken Jeong) and Debbie, who is also won over by Ben telling her to stay in the waiting room.  Proving that he can be mature and nurturing, Alison realizes how much she loves him, and the film ends with a montage of the happy family.  

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Look at ‘im go, defying traditional standards of masculinity.

Ulaby’s observation about Fatty Arbuckle also applies to Ben, as he moves beyond the goofy guy who was lucky enough to have a one-night stand with a beautiful woman and becomes someone who is willing to be vulnerable and open to change out of longing for her to love him.  Both films end with the protagonists facing their scary, uncertain futures– Seth and Evan separate from each other, Ben becomes a father– motivated by the reciprocated love of women who are out of their “league.”  The fat protagonists of these films show a different masculinity than is often seen in film, men who are desirable to women through their longing and vulnerability.  Regarding the kind of women who are desirable to men, though: if the audience wants a depiction of women that doesn’t reside on top of the traditional pedestal of togetherness, we must look elsewhere.

“I’m not going to let her be a joke:” What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, dir. Lasse Halström)

I’ve written previously on CPBS about trying to pin down the parameters of fatness.  My approach to selecting films and characters to write about is to see fat (and, implicitly, average/thin) as a contextual label that tacitly includes socially ascribed values, un/acceptability almost always being one of them.  This open definition has room for a range of body sizes and shapes, and thereby, a range of challenges.  Most characters, by virtue of being in widely distributed films, tend to be “Hollywood fat.”  The conflict attached to their size of their bodies is the inability to be accepted into systems that are usually criticized for being shallow and elitist.  Often the impact of their fatness on their character arc stays on that level.  Muriel Heslop may be ostracized by her peers for being fat, but she is able to walk into literally every bridal boutique in Sydney and try on dresses that they have in stock.  

It goes without saying that being demeaned based on narrow standards of physical acceptability is a real, common, and painful phenomenon, but leaving the fat person’s experience in the realm of “The jerks don’t think they’re beautiful but then they have some transformative life experiences and learn that they really are” is a vast oversimplification.  I believe that challenging viewers to empathize with people and situations they had prejudged or overlooked is one of the most powerful effects that cinema can have, and fat characters are usually in a relatively comfortable place for most viewers– which is why What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is an essential addition to this blog.  Bonnie Grape (Darlene Cates), aka Momma, is a fat woman whose weight and size impede her mobility; the impact this has on her children is a significant part of the plot.  She isn’t treated as a joke or a horror story.

Although the previous sentence isn’t something that can often be said of people of Darlene Cates’ size when they appear on a screen, make no mistake: the film doesn’t idealize or center Momma.  As with many marginalized and supporting characters, Momma functions as a symbol.  Similar to Misery’s Annie Wilkes, Momma can be equated with domestic stagnation.  She was “the prettiest girl around these parts” (the evidence of which is a photo of a younger, slender Momma on the family fridge) until her husband’s suicide.  Her weight is attributed to her prolonged bereavement, ensuring that she is “wedged” in the house that he built for his family.  “We don’t really move.  I mean we’d like to, but my mom is sort of attached to the house,” Gilbert (Johnny Depp) explains to manic pixie dream girl Becky (Juliette Lewis) with a wry half-smile, referring both to Momma’s limited mobility and her emotional constraints on leaving the house.  He continues describing his mother to Becky in terms that refer to both her size and her inability to move forward with her life:  “Did you ever see a beached whale on television? …that’s her.  That’s my mom.”  Hardly a compassionate description.  Compare her to Arnie (Leonardo diCaprio).  Gilbert is also responsible for his brother’s well-being, but highly mobile Arnie isn’t a barrier to Gilbert’s wanderlust, and is able to travel off into the sunset alongside him.  

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Momma comforts Arnie after one of his multiple attempts to climb the town’s water tower.

Momma’s stagnation also seems to affect her younger son in particular.  She cradles Arnie when he’s upset and refers to him with pet names like “my sunshine.”  Her infantilizing treatment of him contrasts with his impending 18th birthday, as well as the stress that Arnie’s siblings go through trying to rein in his childlike antics (such as climbing the town’s water tower), occasionally exploding in frustrated violence.  The film takes place roughly over the course of a week, during which time Arnie’s nose is bloodied both by his brother and younger sister.  

The house itself, symbolic of the Grape family and their baggage, is not in good condition. Gilbert’s handyman friend Tucker (John C. Reilly) observes that it has “a serious foundation problem.”   The house’s disrepair is attributed to the strain of bearing Momma’s weight; the few times we see her moving through the house are accompanied by the creaking and groaning of the floorboards under her feet; in one scene, her journey from the bathroom to the couch where she spends most of her time is intercut with shots of Tucker in the basement, observing the floorboards bending and showering dust from the impact of her footsteps.  As with other tensions that remain undiscussed, her children keep the house repairs a secret from her, sneaking boards into the basement to secure the floor that shakes under her feet.  The image recalls the cartoonish cliche of a fat person’s footsteps causing the ground to shake.

Momma’s inability/unwillingness to leave the house and reliance on her children to care for her tethers Gilbert to the house, stifling his dreams, which in practice comes across as his constant brooding.  The town is depicted as sapping Gilbert’s will to live.  Arnie’s comments lack a filter but usually skewer a situation’s truth.  “You’re getting smaller!” he crows at his brother during the film’s opening scene.  “You’re shrinking! Shrinking! Shrinking!”  But any dreams Gilbert has beyond getting out of his hometown are nebulous and largely unspoken, which Becky attributes to him always thinking about other people. Despite being a caretaker for both his mother and brother, his selflessness has definite limits. He has an affair with a married woman (Mary Steenburgen), makes insulting comments about his mother to Tucker and Becky, and gets angry and sullen with Becky when she talks about leaving town, even though she is literally travelling through in a camper.  If anyone in the family deserves to be characterized as always thinking of others, it’s older sister Amy (Laura Harrington), who is constantly in service of others onscreen, cooking for the family or helping her mother ambulate.  Amy’s happy ending is relegated to Gilbert’s narration, where he tells the audience that she gets a job managing a bakery in Des Moines, and that younger sister Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt) is looking forward to “switching schools,” presumably under her sister’s care.

Momma also functions as a source of shame for Gilbert.  Their relationship is understandably complicated.  She holds him responsible for Arnie’s safety and he often fails her; she can’t move past her husband’s death, which results in additional burdens on Gilbert and his siblings.  However, his frustrations with her are ciphered as disgust at her size.  Gilbert’s desires, which Becky categorizes as selfless, include wanting Momma “to take aerobics classes,” prioritizing her unacceptable weight over her grief or her social isolation.  When Tucker asks Gilbert how Momma is doing, he replies “She’s fat.”  His friend defends her by saying, “She’s not the biggest I’ve ever seen.”  

Inextricable from Gilbert’s sense of shame is how Momma is treated as a spectacle, an experience not unfamiliar to many people of Momma’s size.  Momma was Darlene Cates’ first acting job; she was discovered by screenwriter Peter Hedges as a guest on Sally Jesse Raphael, talking about life at her size.  During the interview, she said, “I’ve always had this fantasy, this goal, of being able to go to the mall… and sit there, and not have anyone notice me.”  Fat characters, especially those who are Momma’s size, are often included in films as spectacle.  Whether for eliciting laughter or disgust (often both), they often solely exist for the purpose of the emotional reaction of the audience looking at their bodies.  Many of the townspeople making Momma into a spectacle are children, suggesting that the impulse to stare at her is immature.  In the beginning of the film, Gilbert is willing to help a neighborhood child peek into the living room window to get a glimpse of her, but doesn’t want to bring Becky home, as is an expected step in their blossoming romance.  He wants to stay outside the house, making snide comments to his friends and being safe in the crowd of spectators; being seen inside the house, as part of the family unit containing his unacceptably fat mother, is too much for him.  

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The Endora community, from Momma’s point of view.

Although Gilbert eventually brings Becky into the house, Momma herself shows more courage than he does.  After climbing the town water tower one too many times, the cops put Arnie in jail.  Momma responds by leaving the house for the first time in over seven years to get her son.  She tells her children to get her coat for her, but ends up going into town with a blanket thrown around her shoulders, a coat able to accommodate her likely being a difficult item to find.  She marches into the sheriff’s office, to the surprise of everyone present, and demands Arnie’s release without having to go through any procedures that the sheriff tries to insist are necessary.  Momma’ trip back to the car, assisted by Amy, is a gamut of children laughing at her and adults giving disgusted sidelong glances.  One man even snaps a photograph.  This scene is centrally composed of closeups of Momma and Amy, isolating them in the frame and focusing on their determination to get to the car in a dignified manner.  The gawkers are seen in longer shots; we see them in groups, how they outnumber the Grapes, their feelings of disgust nearly overwhelming.  The family is uncharacteristically quiet on the drive back home; during dinner, Ellen breaks a pane of glass throwing something at a group of children trying to sneak a peek at Momma.  Although the act of going to the town square is objectively small, it is the essence of one of the main reasons Momma doesn’t leave the house:  she is made to feel shame for who she is by nearly every passerby.  Her lack of hesitation to confront that in order to save Arnie from a scary situation makes the blanket around her shoulders look more like a hero’s cape than an ad hoc coat. In the next scene, Becky tells Gilbert that Momma’s actions were “so brave… you know that, right?”  He doesn’t respond, staring at the map of places to where Becky has traveled.

Arnie has his 18th birthday, typically a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood, dependence to independence.  Perhaps still feeling the shame placed on her by the town from her trip to the sheriff’s office, Momma watches the festivities from a discreet window.  She and Gilbert have a heartfelt conversation in which she apologizes to him for being “this way” and he denies being ashamed of her.  In a gesture to both atone for the shame he has felt around Momma and to bring Becky more fully into his life, Gilbert asks Momma to allow him to bring Becky inside and meet her.  Momma, understandably, is initially resistant, but Gilbert persists:  “This is different.  Nobody’s gonna laugh.  I’m not gonna hurt you any more, Momma.”  She relents, and is introduced to Becky, who is young and pretty and slender, who embodies the person Momma was and the person Momma is compelled to measure herself against.  Momma’s impulse, literally right after the two of them shake hands, is to apologize for herself:  “I haven’t always been like this.”  “I haven’t always been like this,” Becky responds, neutralizing the expectation of shame or regret around Momma’s body, normalizing their differences.  Momma laughs, the tension in the room dissipates.

After the events of the day, Momma complies with a repeated request Amy makes of her in the beginning of the film and Gilbert’s unexpressed desire:  she moves.  Without fanfare, she ascends the stairs to a bedroom on the second floor.   The scene appears to unfold in real time and focuses both on her children’s reactions and the effort it takes for her to get up the stairs.  The soundtrack is largely her heavy breathing and the creaking of the staircase under her feet; her face shines with sweat once she reaches the second floor, and her children have to help her get into bed and rest.  Finally at peace in her relationship with Gilbert, she calls him her “knight in shimmering armor… you shimmer and you glow.”  Presumably because her body was not able to handle the strain, Momma dies while the family cleans up the remains of Arnie’s party.  As is the case with many heroes, Momma sacrifices herself for the sake of her loved ones.  

The family’s grief is compounded by a horrifying thought:  the police may have to call in extra manpower to remove Momma’s body from the house.  Ellen panics: “There’s gonna be a crowd.”  “She’s no joke… I’m not going to let her be a joke,” Gilbert vows.  Tragically, he finally returns to seeing his mother as someone worthy of dignity only after her personal agency has been eradicated.  Instead of trying to ignore or accept the stares of the townspeople, or try to fight against them, the family makes a radical decision to liberate Momma from them altogether.  The only way for Momma and her children to be freed from shame is to remove her body from the equation entirely, for her funeral to be the project of her family alone.  They remove their belongings from the house and light it on fire, with Momma’s body inside.  She is not the only one liberated by this act; freed of the dual constraints of Momma and the house their father built, Gilbert and Arnie are free to ride off into the sunset with Becky and the magical convoy of campers that roll through their town every summer.

Screenshot 2016-03-19 16.40.13

Because the film focuses on Gilbert’s personal conflict and growth, Momma’s depiction is mostly limited to her experiences as a fat person, and how her size affects her relationships with her family and her community.  Although this is a notable limitation, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is landmark for how it asks the audience to look at the story.  While Momma’s relationship with her family is complicated, especially with Gilbert, we are invited to empathize with her, and see the cruelty and negative effects of the judgmental gaze that is so often turned onto people of Momma’s size.  Considering that virtually all other pieces of media depicting people like Momma invite the audience to embody that judgmental gaze, the subverted viewpoint of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape makes it essential, despite its flaws.
See Also:

No Small Parts episode #8: Darlene Cates  A webseries dedicated to the lives and careers of character actors presents a heartfelt tribute to both Momma and Cates, who lives in Texas with her husband of 40+ years.  As a self-identified fat actor himself, webseries creator Brandon Hardesty makes a poignant comparison between his own career and Cates’:  “If I turned down every role where my weight is used as a one-off joke or a sight gag, I’d probably never work again.”  

“You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.” Boogie Nights (1997, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout epic about the golden era of porn, Boogie Nights, flirts with the culturally subversive potential of the community on which it focuses.  When I recently rewatched the film (having first seen it over a decade ago), the inversion of the male gaze jumped out at me.  We do see female bodies in states of undress, meant to arouse, but Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg)– or to be more specific, Dirk’s 13 inch penis– is the sun at the center of Boogie Nights’ universe.  Although the audience must wait until the very end of the 2 ½ hour film for the full frontal reveal, Dirk’s penis is very much a presence in the rest of the film.  When he whips it out, the camera focuses on the character who is doing the gazing.  The audience’s thrill and titillation is vicarious; we are invited to empathize with Rollergirl (Heather Graham), the Colonel (Robert Ridgely), and others as they marvel at Dirk’s cock, instead of to consume depersonalized images of Dirk’s body.  Similarly, during Dirk’s debut scene, the sight of him and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) fucking is distanced from the audience as Jack’s camera is literally put between us and them.  The more clearly framed images are those of the cast as they watch Dirk’s performance; Scotty J’s (the dear departed Philip Seymour Hoffman) near-painful desire for Dirk, combined with the discomfort of holding up the boom mike, is of particular note. (More on him in a bit.)

phillip seymour hoffman, boogie nights, scotty j

Another aspect of the potential subversiveness of Boogie Nights is the characters’ sexual relationships.  The main characters form a family of sorts, headed by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and Amber. Treating each other with support and affection, the members of this family both mimic and exist outside the boundaries of the heterosexual nuclear family. While we don’t see them engaging in kink or sex between characters of the same gender, making sex into an art and a profession is queering, to a degree.  Their lifestyles and sexual choices are used as reasons to marginalize them:  Buck (Don Cheadle) is denied a business loan, Amber loses custody of her child, and Dirk is queer-bashed while hustling.  (One of his attackers calls him “donkey dick,” turning the attribute that made him special in his community into an oddity.)  Whereas sex in movies is usually burdened with emotional weight, a cause of strife and jealousy, most of the characters in Boogie Nights are effervescently casual about it. However, we are given a few subplots where characters divert from the free-love culture promoted by Jack and his crew.  One is Little Bill’s (William H. Macy) blatant cuckolding by his wife (Nina Hartley), which culminates with him carrying out a murder-suicide; the other is Buck and Jessie (Melora Walters), who are pushed together as wallflowers at Jack’s Christmas party, marry, have a baby, and start a small business, executing so perfectly in line with the American dream that Buck’s commercial for his stereo store is dripping in red, white, and blue.  The trajectory of both couples in the film ultimately comes down to the husbands’ agency; both of whom take themselves and their wives out of the industry because they don’t fit in.  Little Bill and his wife apparently aren’t able to successfully navigate their relationship through her desire to have sex with other men– the film does not confirm whether or not she performs in Jack’s films, but casting real-life porn legend Nina Hartley in the role certainly implies she does.  The implication that Buck is out of place comes through his clothing; he dresses like a cowboy, which customers at his part-time salesman job find off-putting and his co-star Becky (Nicole Ari Parker) tells him is no longer fashionable.  When Jessie and Buck meet, he is dressed in a flamboyant new outfit with a braided wig, which he laughingly takes off as they warm up to each other, suggesting that he has been pretending to be someone else as part of Jack’s group, but has finally found someone he can be himself with.

The fat characters in Boogie Nights don’t make the choice to leave the community in the same way that Little Bill and Buck do, but neither do they have access to the inner circle, the ability to become true members of the family.  Kurt (Ricky Jay), the Colonel, and Scotty J reflect the subversive aspects of the porn community, but in a less romanticized way than the thin, conventionally beautiful characters.  Kurt, the director of photography, shows the same commitment to well-made porn that Jack does, but does not have the same emotional connection with his coworkers.  In an early scene, he badgers Little Bill about the lighting for the next day’s shoot, oblivious to how distraught Little Bill is over finding his wife having sex in Jack’s driveway amid a circle of spectators.  After Little Bill walks off, Kurt goes to join the spectators, placing his voyeuristic interests over the wellbeing of his colleague.  The Colonel, who funds Jack’s films, initially comes off as avuncular and powerful, similar to Jack.  However, this changes abruptly in 1980, as the new decade turns the harsh house lights on the party of the 1970s.  He is arrested for child pornography, representing a corruption of Jack’s idealized porn goals.  His pathetic rationalization, “I just want to watch,” is a creepy parallel of the self-conscious performance of Dirk and Amber’s sex scene in the first half of the film.  This revelation is too much for the otherwise warm and indulgent Jack, who turns his back on his old friend.  And then, there is the aforementioned Scotty J.

scotty j gif

Scotty J is the only character who is meant to be read as queer, as his arc in the film is his crush on Dirk.  Scotty enters the film through the side gate of Jack’s house during a pool party as two men carry an overdosing woman out the same way; the side portal into Jack’s world for the aspects of it that are not given much focus.  “You Sexy Thing” by Hot Chocolate starts playing as Scotty sighs.  Serving as his point of view, the camera pans across the the conventionally beautiful party-goers who might as well be a different species.  Scotty’s skin is pale, hair is messy, and his clothing ill-fitting; his belly sticks out from under his tank top.  His very posture is gauche; he tends to stand with his head tilted in a manner that suggests an awkward teenager.  Once he zeroes in on Dirk, lounging in a beach chair, he approaches and forces an introduction with awkward small talk (“Nice to meet you.” “Me too.”).  He fawns over Dirk, accompanying him from his dressing room to the set like an acolyte (as he chews on a pen in suggestion of where his mind is).  His hero worship of Dirk contrasts with Reed Rothchild (John C Reilly), who treats Dirk as a competitor but is positioned in the film as his right-hand man, where Scotty is merely flitting around in the background.  In a scene of the three men buying matching outfits, Scotty can’t quite button his pants, and looks awkward and out of place next to the other two.  This brief moment in Dirk’s upward career trajectory is a moment of relatable awkwardness and ostracization for many fat viewers who have been part of a social clothes shopping expedition with thinner friends.

The turning point of the film is the 1979 New Years Eve party, the last night of the idyllic 70s before the downturn into the 80s. Scotty transgresses the boundaries of his relationship with Dirk, first by revealing that he’s bought an identical Corvette, and then by trying to kiss him.  Dirk shoves him away, and Scotty automatically apologizes, explaining “You look at me sometimes. I want to know if you like me.”  Scotty wants to know if he can be accepted as the desired object of Dirk’s gaze.  Reflecting the emotional support and sexual open-mindedness shown by the family, Dirk is shocked but tries to be kind to Scotty as he but turns him down and returns to the rest of the party as quickly as he can.  Boogie Nights is full of characters regretting choices that have separated them from their loved ones, but no moment is so visceral, uncomfortable, or intimate than the lingering closeup of Scotty J sitting in his ‘Vette, sobbing his heart out and repeating “I’m a fucking idiot” over and over.

scotty j car

After that turning point in the film, Scotty is swept along with the course of the other characters’ stories, assigned to watching them.  He squirms uncomfortably in the background as Dirk starts his downward spiral of drugs and poor decision making.  When the characters find second chances at the end of the film, he films the birth of Buck and Jessie’s baby.  (During this montage, we also see the Colonel in prison, being abused by his cellmate.)  Scotty is not ejected from his group of friends the way the Colonel is, but after being rejected by Dirk, is not given his own chance at growth or redemption.  True to his personality, Scotty embodies an awkward position in Boogie Nights.  He is a stand-in for the audience.  Like Scotty, we able to gaze all we want at the porn actors who arouse our desire, but we are never able to touch them, to be with them. The feelings they invoke in us are ultimately fantasy.  However, this is where Scotty’s story ends.  The other characters grow and move on to other pursuits, just like we are able to move on to other experiences and aspects of our lives once we are through with our role as audience member, but Scotty remains mired in the role of unfulfilled gazer, an object of our pity (or derision).  This too, is a flirtation with subversion that is ultimately fantasy: Scotty J is a disempowered gazer relative to the object of his gaze (Dirk), but given that he is fat and queer, the film is attempting to change the power relationship using someone who is already marginalized.