Fat on Film: Gender, Race and Body Size in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema 9781350114586, 9781350114579, 9781350114593


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Table of contents :
Cover
Contents
List of Figures
Series Editors’ Foreword
Acknowledgements
Introduction
1 A Critical Theorization of Fatness
2 The De-Masculinized Fat Male
3 Female Fatness as Non-Normative Femininity
4 The Funny Fat Body: Slapstick and Gross-Out
5 The Fat Eater: Food and Eating
6 The Fat Outsider
Conclusion
Bibliography
Filmography
Index
Recommend Papers

Fat on Film: Gender, Race and Body Size in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema
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Fat on Film

Library of Gender and Popular Culture From Mad Men to gaming culture, performance art to steampunk fashion, the presentation and representation of gender continues to saturate popular media. This series seeks to explore the intersection of gender and popular culture, engaging with a variety of texts – drawn primarily from Art, Fashion, TV, Cinema, Cultural Studies and Media Studies – as a way of considering various models for understanding the complementary relationship between ‘gender identities’ and ‘popular culture’. By considering race, ethnicity, class, and sexual identities across a range of cultural forms, each book in the series adopts a critical stance towards issues surrounding the development of gender identities and popular and mass cultural ‘products’.

For further information or enquiries, please contact the library series editors: Claire Nally: [email protected] Angela Smith: [email protected] Advisory Board:

Dr Kate Ames, Central Queensland University, Australia Prof Leslie Heywood, Binghampton University, USA Dr Michael Higgins, Strathclyde University, UK Prof Åsa Kroon, Örebro University, Sweden Dr Niall Richardson, Sussex University, UK Dr Jacki Willson, Central St Martins, University of Arts London, UK

Published and forthcoming titles: The Aesthetics of Camp: Post-Queer Gender and Popular Culture By Anna Malinowska Ageing Femininity on Screen: The Older Woman in Contemporary Cinema By Niall Richardson All-American TV Crime Drama: Feminism and Identity Politics in Law and Order: Special Victims Unit By Sujata Moorti and Lisa Cuklanz Bad Girls, Dirty Bodies: Sex, Performance and Safe Femininity By Gemma Commane Beyoncé: Celebrity Feminism in the Age of Social Media By Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs Conflicting Masculinities: Men in Television ­Period Drama By Katherine Byrne, Julie Anne Taddeo and James Leggott (Eds) Fat on Film: Gender, Race and Body Size in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema By Barbara Plotz Fathers on Film: Paternity and Masculinity in 1990s Hollywood By Katie Barnett Film Bodies: Queer Feminist Encounters with Gender and Sexuality in Cinema By Katharina Lindner Gay Pornography: Representations of Sexuality and Masculinity By John Mercer Gender and Austerity in Popular Culture: Femininity, Masculinity and Recession in Film and Television By Helen Davies and Claire O’Callaghan (Eds) The Gendered Motorcycle: Representations in Society, Media and Popular Culture By Esperanza Miyake Gendering History on Screen: Women Filmmakers and Historical Films By Julia Erhart Girls Like This, Boys Like That: The Reproduction of Gender in Contemporary Youth Cultures By Victoria Cann

The Gypsy Woman: Representations in Literature and Visual Culture By Jodie Matthews Love Wars: Television Romantic Comedy By Mary Irwin Masculinity in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema: Cyborgs, Troopers and Other Men of the Future By Marianne Kac-Vergne Moving to the Mainstream: Women On and Off Screen in Television and Film By Marianne Kac-Vergne and Julie Assouly (Eds) Paradoxical Pleasures: Female Submission in Popular and Erotic Fiction By Anna Watz Positive Images: Gay Men and HIV/AIDS in the Culture of ‘Post-Crisis’ By Dion Kagan Queer Horror Film and Television: Sexuality and Masculinity at the Margins By Darren Elliott-Smith Queer Sexualities in Early Film: Cinema and Male-Male Intimacy By Shane Brown Steampunk: Gender and the Neo-Victorian By Claire Nally Television Comedy and Femininity: Queering Gender By Rosie White Gender and Early television: Mapping Women’s Role in Emerging US and British Media, 1850–1950 By Sarah Arnold Tweenhood: Femininity and Celebrity in Tween Popular Culture By Melanie Kennedy Women Who Kill: Gender and Sexuality in Film and Series of the post-Feminist Era By David Roche and Cristelle Maury (Eds) Wonder Woman: Feminism, Culture and the Body By Joan Ormrod Young Women, Girls and Postfeminism in Contemporary British Film By Sarah Hill

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Fat on Film Gender, Race and Body Size in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema Barbara Plotz

BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC Bloomsbury Publishing Plc 50 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP, UK 1385 Broadway, New York, NY 10018, USA BLOOMSBURY, BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published in Great Britain 2020 Copyright © Barbara Plotz, 2020 Barbara Plotz has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as Author of this work. For legal purposes the Acknowledgements on p. xiv constitute an extension of this copyright page. Cover design: Charlotte Daniels Cover image: Jason Bateman and Melissa McCarthy in The Identity Thief (2013) directed by Seth Gordon (© Universal Pictures International France / Collection Christophel / ArenaPAL) All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc does not have any control over, or responsibility for, any third-party websites referred to or in this book. All internet addresses given in this book were correct at the time of going to press. The author and publisher regret any inconvenience caused if addresses have changed or sites have ceased to exist, but can accept no responsibility for any such changes. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress. ISBN: HB: 978-1-3501-1458-6 ePDF: 978-1-3501-1457-9 eBook: 978-1-3501-1459-3 Typeset by Integra Software Services Pvt. Ltd. To find out more about our authors and books visit www.bloomsbury.com and sign up for our newsletters

Gewidmet meinen Eltern

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Contents List of Figures Series Editors’ Foreword Acknowledgements Introduction 1 A Critical Theorization of Fatness 2 The De-Masculinized Fat Male 3 Female Fatness as Non-Normative Femininity 4 The Funny Fat Body: Slapstick and Gross-Out 5 The Fat Eater: Food and Eating 6 The Fat Outsider Conclusion Bibliography Filmography Index

x xii xiv 1 13 25 67 129 175 209 251 257 274 278

List of Figures 1

The fat black sidekick provides physical comedy in Kangaroo Jack (D: David McNally, P: Jerry Bruckheimer, 2003) 2 Big Mike marked as an outsider in a white environment in The Blind Side (D: John Lee Hancock, P: Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove & Gil Netter, 2009) 3 The feminized fat male slob in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (D: Rawson Marshall Thurber, P: Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller, 2004) 4 Shot emphasizing Paul’s ‘man breasts’ in Paul Blart: Mall Cop (D: Steve Carr, P: Barry Bernardi, Todd Garner, Jack Giarraputo, Kevin James & Adam Sandler, 2009) 5–6 Young Rasputia and young Norbit in Norbit (D: Brian Robbins, P: John Davis & Eddie Murphy, 2007) 7–8 Janice and Wesley in Wanted (D: Timur Bekmambetov, P: Jim Lemley, Jason Netter & Iain Smith, 2008) 9–10 Eric in Grown Ups (D: Dennis Dugan, P: Jack Giarraputo & Adam Sandler, 2010) 11 Hal attempting to lift Rosemary in Shallow Hal (D: Bobby & Peter Farrelly, P: Bobby & Peter Farrelly, Bradley Thomas & Charles B. Wessler, 2001) 12–13 Good Luck Chuck (D: Mark Helfrich, P: Tracey Edmonds, Mike Karz, Barry Karz & Brian Volk-Weiss, 2007)

38

41

48

56 84 89 145

151

164

List of Figures

14

15

16

White Goodman’s TV set in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (D: Rawson Marshall Thurber, P: Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller, 2004) White Goodman in front of his TV in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (D: Rawson Marshall Thurber, P: Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller, 2004) Effie in Dreamgirls (D: Bill Condon, P: Laurence Mark, 2006)

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188 230

Series Editors’ Foreword Body image and bodily representation are integral to gender studies, where visual representation is often regarded as marking out our gendered identity. Because of this image-led evaluation in our culture, there is a pressure to conform to certain ways of looking and being. Many of the books in this library cover this issue tangentially, attesting to this fact. This is something that has underpinned much of what is said in gender studies, perhaps most famously with Suzie Orbach’s seminal 1978 work, Fat Is a Feminist Issue. More than forty years later, Plotz’s study here shows that the ‘fat body’ is no longer just a feminist issue, but affects men’s and non-binary bodies too. She explores the way ‘deviant’ body image comes to be used as a narrative trope in contemporary Hollywood cinema, with a particular emphasis on the fat male or female body. As other books in the library show, films are not made in a social or cultural vacuum. Plotz explored how concerns over obesity have in turn influenced how fatness is used on film since the start of the twenty-first century. She charts how ‘fatphobia’ rises out of a discourse of obesity, despite the fact there is no one, settled definition of just what the ‘fat body’ should be. This can most clearly be seen in discussions of historical images, where fatness was traditionally associated with an indulgence and physical inaction that only the wealthiest could embody. However, as Plotz shows in this book, such diachronic changes can also exist in a short space of time, with the increased medicalization of body management seeing a downgrading of the upper limit for what is classed as ‘obese’ in the body mass index. In popular culture texts, Plotz explores how the fat body, whether male or female, is used across a range of tropes, such as the longstanding comedy role of the out-of-control, hyper-physical character.

Series Editors’ Foreword

xiii

The demonizing of the fat body in society, reflecting the contemporary notion of the dangerously deviant, irresponsible personality, is a trope that appears in cinema as the Dangerous Other, which Plotz explores through the different narratives that such characters can occupy. Where Plotz identifies tropes that relate to race, gender and sexuality, she also shows that social class can play a part in this in her corpus of Hollywood films, but to a much lesser degree. What she shows is that male fatness is still less stigmatized or frowned upon than female fatness by exploring how, in popular cinema, there exist many more unmarked, non-stereotyped representations of male fat characters than of their female counterparts. Nevertheless, although it is acceptable for men to take up space in a way it is not for women, a large number of those fat male representations that are marked present the fat male body as a ‘less than masculine’ body, feminized and/or infantilized. Conversely, whilst female fat characters are ‘less than feminine’, they symbolize a subversive power, aggression and independence. When it comes to race, as Plotz shows, this is often seen through the lens of the ‘white gaze’, where the fat body is explored through the point of view of the supposed white viewer. This book, therefore, shows a previously under-explored area of gender and film studies, yet intersects with many of the other books in this library where body image is central. Angela Smith and Claire Nally

Acknowledgements Parts of Chapter 2 were published as ‘Paul Blart and the Decline of White Working-Class Masculinities’, Fat Studies: An International Journal of Body Weight and Society 2, no. 2 (2013). I would like to thank Julia Köhne, who was the first to encourage me to engage with the representation of fatness in cinema; Johanna Dorer, who supervised my first academic project on the topic; Richard Dyer, who was the best PhD supervisor I could have wished for and without whom this book wouldn’t exist; Niall Richardson and Deborah Jermyn for their constructive contributions as examiners; the Department of Film Studies at King’s College London for providing me with an academic home for many years; Angela Smith and Claire Nally, the series editors, for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the ‘Library of Gender and Popular Culture’; Lisa Goodrum, who worked with me on the project when it was still with I.B. Tauris; and, finally, my friends in London and Austria for their constant, and persistent, support and encouragement.

Introduction This book investigates the representation of fatness in contemporary, popular American cinema and puts special focus on the ways fatness intersects with gender and race. As is probably the case with most first books, this topic has been in the making for a long time. My scholarly engagement with fatness began more than ten years ago when I was searching for a topic for my master’s dissertation in communication studies and at first settled on an analysis of gender in 1970s American and British horror films and their 2000s remakes. One of the relevant changes I noticed after a survey analysis was the appearance of fat women on the side of the monsters in a number of remakes, while in two cases minor non-monstrous characters that had been played by fat actresses in the originals had been slimmed down for the remakes.1 I searched for literature that would help me understand and analyse this development, but although there were already some critical works about fatness around, academic engagement with issues of representation of fatness and specifically cinematic representations seemed to be few and far between. Consequently, I decided to change the topic of my dissertation and went on to write about the fat woman as monster in film, which turned out to be a highly productive and satisfying experience.2 One issue I noticed during my work was how 1

2

Those films with newly introduced fat female monsters were The Wicker Man (Neil LaBute, 2006), Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003) and, to a certain degree, The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006), since here the fatness seemed to be much more essential to the character than in the original. The two from which the fat non-monstrous women had disappeared were Black Christmas (Glen Morgan, 2006) and Amityville Horror (Andrew Douglas, 2003). For the final result of this experience see Barbara Plotz, ‘Die filmische Repräsentation der dicken Frau als Monster’ (Diplomarbeit, University of Vienna, 2009).

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not just gender but also race clearly intersects with fatness, specifically in the American films I analysed. Certain stereotypes of black, female fatness that are related to wider and long-standing stereotypes of African American women such as the Mammy or the Sapphire kept coming up repeatedly, while ‘white trash’, ‘hillbilly’ stereotypes were maybe not as noticeable, but also present. A couple of years later I decided to continue my work on fat representation and embarked on a PhD on ‘Fatness, Race and Gender in Contemporary Popular American Cinema’, on the results of which this book is based. Since my first foray into the topic, there have been some relevant articles and book chapters published; however, this is the first book dedicated exclusively to the cinematic representation of fatness and the first broad study of this representation, providing a mapping of the most common tropes of fatness in contemporary Hollywood cinema.3 3

A brief list of relevant works on the representation of fatness: for cinema see e.g. Angela Stukator, ‘“It’s Not Over until the Fat Lady Sings”: Comedy, the Carnivalesque, and Body Politics’, in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 197–213; Linda Mizejewski, ‘Queen Latifah, Unruly Women, and the Bodies of Romantic Comedy’, Genders 46 (2007), accessed 12 July 2011, http://www.genders.org/g46/g46_mizejewski. html; Jerry Mosher, ‘Hard Boiled and Soft Bellied: The Fat Heavy in Film Noir’, in Screening Genders, eds. Krin Gabbard and William Luhr (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 141–154; Caroline Narby and Katherine Phelps, ‘As Big as a House: Representations of the Extremely Fat Woman and the Home’, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society 2, no. 2 (2013): 147–159; Santiago Fouz-Hernández, ‘Performing Fatness: Oversized Male Bodies in Recent Spanish Cinema’, in Performance and Spanish Film, eds. Dean Allbritton, Alejandro Melero, Tom Whittaker (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 204–219. For television see e.g. Kathleen K. Rowe, ‘Roseanne: Unruly Woman as Domestic Goddess’, Screen 31, no. 4 (1990): 408–419; Jerry Mosher, ‘Setting Free the Bears: Refiguring Fat Men on Television’, in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 141–154; Sonya C. Brown, ‘Body Image, Gender, Social Class, and Ethnicity on Glee’, Studies in Popular Culture 36, no. 2 (2014): 125–147; Jayne Raisborough, Fat Bodies, Health and the Media (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); May Friedman, ‘Mad/Fat/Diary: Exploring Contemporary Feminist Thought through My Mad Fat Diary’, Feminist Media Studies 17, no. 6 (2017): 1073–1087; Melissa Zimdars, Watching Our Weights: The Contradictions of Televising Fatness in the ‘Obesity Epidemic’ (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2019). For cinema and television see e.g. Katariina Kyrölä, The Weight of Images: Affect, Body Image and Fat in the Media (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2014); C. Marie Harker, ‘Fat Male Sexuality: The Monster in the Maze’, Sexualities 19, no. 8 (2016): 980–996. For the specific topic of the fat suit see e.g. Kathleen LeBesco, ‘Situating Fat Suits: Blackface,

Introduction

3

American cinema and specifically American popular cinema are, still, dominant across large parts of the globe. Their films might be informed by national contexts, but many of them, although not necessarily all of them, are nevertheless shown and seen all over the world, giving the question of its representations added relevance. Furthermore, the United States is also a special case when it comes to fatness: the British fat activist Charlotte Cooper correctly points out that both outside and inside the United States ‘the nationality of fat is regarded as American’, with the country globally being presented as THE fat nation.4 Anti-fatness-rhetoric, presented under the cover of the medicalized ‘war against the obesity epidemic’, has over the last fifteen to twenty years become omnipresent in American media, public and politics. (This is not to say that this kind of discourse is exclusive to the United States. Over the last decade, evoking the scare of the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ has become more and more popular with media and politicians in other countries as well, with the British public, for instance, also constantly being bombarded with headlines and initiatives talking about issues such as ‘childhood obesity’ or the ‘sugar tax’.) This rise in and normalization of fatphobia have not gone without resistance, leading to an increased activity in the American Fat Acceptance movement and consequently also to the establishment of its academic arm, Fat Studies. While Fat Acceptance

4

Drag, and the Politics of Performance’, Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 15, no. 2 (2005): 231–242; Katherina R. Mendoza, ‘Seeing through the Layers: Fat Suits and Thin Bodies in the Nutty Professor and Shallow Hal’, in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 280–288; Mia Mask, ‘Who’s behind That Fat Suit? Momma, Madea, Rasputia and the Politics of Cross-Dressing’, in Contemporary Black American Cinema: Race, Gender and Sexuality at the Movies, ed. Mia Mask (New York: Routledge, 2012), 155–174; Niall Richardson, Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 83–100; LeRohonda S. Manigault-Bryant, ‘Fat Spirit: Obesity, Religion, and Sapphmammibel in Contemporary Black Film’, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society 2, no. 1 (2013): 56–69. Charlotte Cooper, ‘Maybe It Should Be Called Fat American Studies’, in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 328.

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has been around since 1969, when the first official organization was founded in New York, it took longer for Fat Studies to be established, with its beginnings usually dated back to the mid-2000s. Esther D. Rothblum, the editor of the academic journal Fat Studies and coeditor of The Fat Studies Reader, describes the field in the following words: Fat Studies is a field of scholarship that critically examines societal attitudes about body weight and appearance, and that advocates equality for all people with respect to body size. Fat Studies seeks to remove the negative associations that society has about fat and the fat body. It regards weight, like height, as a human characteristic that varies widely across any population.5

My approach to investigating fatness is firmly situated within the field of Fat Studies and therefore aims for a critical analysis of cinematic representations in the context of larger societal structures and discourses regarding body size and weight. By providing the first sustained study of the representation of fatness in a wide range of contemporary film texts I also intend to demonstrate the fruitfulness and relevance of film analysis for the project of Fat Studies, while at the same time introducing a Fat Studies approach to the discipline of Film Studies, which has so far remained largely ignorant of critical – or any other kind of – analysis of fat representation. I also aim to show the relevance of race for the constructs of fatness, specifically in an American context, and thereby situate myself within a growing tendency within Fat Studies that addresses issues of intersectionality and attempts to overcome a certain ‘colourblindness’, which whitedominated Fat Studies has been criticized for.6 In terms of gender, 5

6

Esther D. Rothblum, ‘Editorial: Why a Journal on Fat Studies?’ Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 3. See Laura Jennings, ‘Intersectionality Matters: Addressing Colorblindness in Fat Studies’ (paper presented at the Fat Studies area of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association 2015 National Conference, New Orleans, 1–4 April 2015).

Introduction

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intersectionality has always been a fixed part of Fat Studies, however, this has de facto often meant a focus on female fatness, underpinned by a feminist criticism of the highly gendered nature of fatphobia. While I fully subscribe to this criticism, I see an engagement with both femininity and masculinity as essential to an investigation of gender constructs and therefore this book also discusses male fatness. Being part of Fat Acceptance and Fat Studies entails a deliberate use of the words ‘fat’ and ‘fatness’. Since ‘obesity’ is a highly medicalized term, expressing the conceptualization of fatness as a disease, and ‘overweight’ implies that there is an ideal weight one should not exceed, Fat Acceptance and Fat Studies reject either term, using instead ‘fat’ and ‘fatness’ for the purpose of re-appropriation and re-signification. ***

When analysing fat representation, the issue of how exactly to define ‘fat’, and accordingly which characters to select for analysis, comes up rather quickly, which highlights how the social constructedness of this category is more obvious than those of other categories such as gender or race. Who counts as fat and who doesn’t can vary over time, can vary from one nation/culture/region to the other and can depend on class, race and gender identity. Outside of the medical body mass index (BMI), there are no clear cut-off points, to decide who is fat and who isn’t, and even the BMI is subject to change, as became evident in 1997 when the WHO decided to lower the threshold between normal and overweight from 27 to 25. While I could rely on my own knowledge of current American body ideals to make the choice whether or not to include a character, I have instead decided to focus on those characters that are ‘marked’ as fat by the text itself, meaning that they are explicitly addressed as fat by the film’s dialogue and/ or they are stereotyped and Othered as fat. This also means that a

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number of representations that, prima facie, might seem relevant are not part of this study, since they are effectively unmarked.7 The main reason for restricting this study to contemporary films, which I define as having been released since 2000, is the fact that this is the same period during which the obesity discourse and thereby fatphobia became virulent, in particular in the United States. Thus, my book is focused on those years since in order to analyse the cinematic representations of the era of the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’. I decided to focus on mainstream, Hollywood cinema, excluding experimental or independent cinema, unless, as in the case of Precious (Lee Daniels, 2006), the film was produced as an independent film but then achieved mainstream success. While it would have been relevant and rewarding to also analyse the representation of fatness outside of the Hollywood mainstream, it would have gone against the objective of this book, which is to provide a mapping of exactly those tropes that are widely circulated and widely seen by audiences. As it is, almost all films analysed were commercially successful, both domestically and internationally, several of them spawning sequels or becoming franchises, such as The Hangover, Kung Fu Panda or Pitch Perfect. Consequently, the images of fatness analysed in this book are those that have a strong presence in people’s lives; those that fat people are most likely to see of themselves, those that even children are familiar with from a young age on, those that form a tapestry of society. Their relevance lies in how they reflect, mediate and articulate contemporary discourses on fatness, and thereby also in their impact on how people perceive and understand fatness. I didn’t include every single Hollywood film I found that features a fat character because that would have gone beyond the scope of this book, but I attempted on several levels to get a broad picture of the range of representations. First, I made sure to include not only 7

I will address some of those representations in the conclusion.

Introduction

7

comedy, which is the most dominant genre and also the one with the most prominent fat characters, but also drama, animation, horror, musical and action films. However, while I rely on an analysis of genre conventions when and where their interplay with representations of fatness demands it, most prominently in the discussion of ‘The Funny Fat Body’ in Chapter 4, this book is not intended to be a genre study. I am interested rather in analysing representational continuities across genre borders, and this book will show how the same trope is often utilized in a similar manner in seemingly very diverse genres, such as gross-out comedy and drama, or musical and backwoods horror. A further criterion for the selection of films was the type of role played by fat characters. I included both fat characters that were central to their films, representations that often, although not always, also gained wide publicity, and some fat characters that only played very minor roles and usually weren’t mentioned in the publicity surrounding their films. (The final list of the fifty-six films analysed can be found in the book’s filmography under ‘Corpus’.) The most common form of analysing representations of marginalized groups is the analysis of stereotypes. So far there exists no theory on the stereotypes of fatness and I have also decided to forgo this approach. I rely thereby on Steve Neale’s argument that using stereotypes as an analytical category can be limiting, insofar as the details and complexities of the text as a whole are often neglected for the sake of the focus on the stereotype.8 Instead I prefer the looser and wider concept of tropes, which I understand as recurrent ways of representation. The main objective of this book is to elucidate how through the representational tropes analysed characters and bodies are constructed and marked as ‘fat’ and how the categories of race and 8

Steve Neale, ‘The Same Old Story: Stereotypes and Difference’, in The Screen Education Reader: Cinema, Television, Culture, eds. Manuel Alvardo, Edward Buscombe, and Richard Collins (London: Macmillan, 1993), 41–43.

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gender inflect these constructs and markers. I argue that ‘fat’ doesn’t simply describe a certain body size; rather, it is a cultural construct and the representations analysed reify this construct. What Richard Dyer states about the othering of black people – ‘black people are marked as black (are not just “people”)’9 – can be equally applied to the representation of fatness: fat people are no just ‘people’, they are marked as fat, and my analysis aims to show the specifics of these markers. While class plays a role and is mentioned throughout the study, it is for several reasons not part of the study’s main objective: first, class is not as clearly a bodily and embodied concept as race and gender. While race and gender are categories that are carried by the body, and consequently all bodies are immediately readable as belonging to a certain category of race and gender – including those in-between categories of mixed-race and trans-/intergender – the same doesn’t apply to class. Certain bodies and body types, although not all, might carry certain connotations of class, but even those are only connotations and not clearly readable markers. Second, one of my main interests lies in the question of how fat signifies differently depending on race and gender, and how its constructs intersect and interplay with those of race and gender, specifically in the context of the United States and its long history of racialized gender constructs. While fatness is certainly classed, namely as being ‘lower class’, the representations of fatness seem less inflected by differences in class, but more often by class as a racialized phenomenon. This can be seen, e.g. in the anxieties of white masculinity being played out on the white fat working-class body in Paul Blart (Chapter 2), in the interplay of fatness, white femininity and class in Bridesmaids (Chapter 3), or in the stark differences in the depiction of white and black members of the working class as social outsiders (Chapter 6). Consequently, 9

Richard Dyer, White (London: Routledge, 1997), 143.

Introduction

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class is a relevant aspect of my analysis, but not to the same extent as gender and race. For the actual analysis I engaged in close textual analysis for which I attempted to bring Fat Studies into the field of Film Studies by integrating Fat Studies paradigms with Film Studies paradigms of form and genre. I also incorporated Cultural Studies approaches to provide a special focus on gender and race. The discussion and application of these different fields and disciplines enabled me to recognize and draw out the cinematic markers of fatness. While Film Studies and Cultural Studies are well-established fields, Fat Studies is still developing and for this reason the first chapter provides a survey of the discourses within Fat Studies that have been most relevant for the development of my analysis and argumentation. This will allow me to situate my discussion within contemporary Fat Studies and will at the same time provide a critical overview of societal conceptualizations and constructions of fatness. The next two chapters focus explicitly on gender and how a distortion of normative gender roles is one of the predominant markers and constructs of fatness. Male fatness is still less stigmatized and frowned upon than female fatness, indicative of which is the fact that in popular cinema there exist many more unmarked, nonstereotyped representations of male fat characters than of their female counterparts. Nevertheless, although it is acceptable for men to take up space in a way it is not for women, a large number of those fat male representations that are marked present the fat male body as a ‘less than masculine’ body, de-masculinized, feminized and/or infantilized. Chapter 2 analyses these representations and also considers how this non-normative gender identity relates to racialized constructs of masculinity, such as the stereotype of the asexual, childish black male or the so-called ‘crisis of (white) masculinity’. In the case of femininities, fatness has an even stronger impact on normative gender

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identities than in the case of masculinities. Chapter 3 outlines how contemporary popular American cinema repeatedly places fat female characters within representational categories outside of traditional, normative gender roles, reifying the notion of fat women being ‘less than feminine’. The categories analysed include sexual and physical aggressiveness, dominance over others and female independence. The racialized nature of these images of fatness and how they relate to long-standing stereotypes of African American femininity as well as to constructs of white femininity are also examined. Comedy is the genre in contemporary Hollywood cinema that features fat characters most frequently. But fat characters are not just a popular staple of film comedy in general; they are particularly popular as participants of slapstick and gross-out, the sub-genres of physical comedy. Chapter 4 shows how these films mark fatness as hyper-physicality and as a physicality out of control, thereby perpetuating commonplace stereotypes. It highlights the gendered and racialized representations of the fat body in gross-out comedy, as well as the characteristics of ‘fat slapstick’, which turns fatness itself into the basis of the comic effect. In recent decades the issues of eating and fatness seem to have become even more inextricable than before, with mainstream discourses of fatness usually proclaiming it to be a consequence of – the wrong kind of – eating. The association between the two issues has strong negative connotations, and consequently many representations don’t depict eating in a positive or neutral manner but rather express anxieties about contemporary eating practices. Chapter 5 analyses the figure of the fat eater and its predominant tropes, investigating their connection with contemporary food anxieties as well as wider social anxieties of Western culture. It shows how commonplace stereotypes of fatness are perpetuated through these tropes and also addresses the gendered, classed and racialized connotations of the depicted eating practices.

Introduction

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The final chapter focuses on those fat characters deliberately positioned as outsiders by the film text and analyses whether this positioning reinforces their marginalization or rather criticizes the constructs and social structures it is based on.

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1

A Critical Theorization of Fatness Fat Studies has a sustained interest in analysing the origins and roots of modern-day fatphobia and linking those with present-day constructs and discourses of fatness. One development that in a historical perspective is seen as decisive for the beginnings of fatphobia is the establishment of the concept of normalcy in the nineteenth century. Joyce L. Huff highlights this in her investigation of William Banting, one of the first proponents of the reducing diet, who published his dieting pamphlet A Letter on Corpulence in 1863. Huff sees this new fear of the fat body as a reaction to the increasing pressure to normalize within a society that more and more relied on mass production techniques, thereby creating a physical environment based on the assumption of an average – ‘normal’ – body.1 In her argument Huff draws heavily on Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power and how its emergence at the end of the eighteenth/beginning of the nineteenth century is reliant on the concept of the norm. According to Foucault, in the disciplinary society individuals are ranked within a hierarchical order/system, dependent on how close their bodies or behaviour are to what is postulated as norm and thereby as ideal, which is how they are disciplined to conform to this postulate.2 A consequence of this development was the fascination with quantification, which allowed for the exact allocation of individuals within the hierarchy

1

2

Joyce L. Huff, ‘A “Horror of Corpulence”: Interrogating Bantingism and Mid-NineteenthCentury Fat-Phobia’, in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 45. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 2nd ed. (1977; New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 181–184.

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of normalization.3 Huff also draws attention to current discussions about several American airlines and their decision to charge fat passengers higher fares. She sees these decisions as prime examples of how the social imperative to conform to normalcy serves the interests of corporations – who construct our present-day environment – and negates the interests of the individual.4 These processes of normalization and quantification were relevant pre-conditions for the medicalization of fatness, a development which itself is seen within Fat Studies as decisive for present-day configurations of society’s anti-fat bias. Michael Gard and Jan Wright point out how in terms of weight, the need to quantify led to the introduction of height-weight charts by insurance companies and the invention of scales for doctor’s surgeries in the early twentieth century, which ‘allowed normality to be captured in a formula, which could be brought to bear to confirm aesthetic and moral judgments about body shape and size’.5 They also point out how the popularization of the term ‘obesity’ – which equals a certain weight with disease – contributed to the medicalization of fatness.6 The present-day biomedical and health discourse on obesity is the dominant discourse on fatness and the discourse from which all proponents of Fat Studies distance themselves. A number of medical and health professionals work on dissecting the supposedly obvious causality between ‘obesity’ and bad health, and instead propagate the ‘Health at Every Size’ (HAES) approach, which is based on the assumption that not body weight, but diet and exercise are decisive in

3 4

5

6

Huff, ‘A “Horror of Corpulence”’, 46; Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 193. Joyce L. Huff, ‘Access to the Sky: Airplane Seats and Fat Bodies as Contested Spaces’, in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 20. Michael Gard and Jan Wright, The Obesity Epidemic: Science, Morality and Ideology (London: Routledge, 2005), 179. Ibid., 180.

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terms of health.7 Closely related to HAES is the critical examination of how the discourses on fatness and health, exemplified by the term ‘obesity epidemic’, function and specifically how they work in terms of the marginalization and oppression of fatness. One important argument within the field is the connection between anxieties regarding capitalism and consumerism and their displacement onto fat bodies. In his historical analysis of the beginnings of modern fatphobia Peter Stearns suggests that the rise of consumerism and the emergence of greater social and personal freedoms at the turn of the century in the United States were at odds with existing Victorian-puritan, protestant attitudes regarding selfdiscipline and asceticism. Consequently, the ideal of the slim body developed to compensate for these new freedoms and as a way for the individual to be an avid consumer but still display (self-)control and discipline.8 Amy Erdman Farrell agrees with this assessment and shows how in cartoons and postcards at the end of the nineteenth century not only did fat people appear as an object of mockery but they were usually depicted as members of the middle class who were excessively and tastelessly enjoying those aforementioned new pleasures and freedoms that had until then been privileges of the upper class.9 Paul Campos relates this argument to the presence and sees fatphobia as a convenient vehicle to catalyse national anxieties regarding the continued excessiveness of America and its citizens on various levels like consumerism, but also imperialism or the exploitation of

7

8

9

One of the best-known proponents of HAES is Linda Bacon; see Linda Bacon, Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2009). For an overview over HAES see Deb Burgard, ‘What Is “Health at Every Size”?’ in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 41–53. Peter N. Stearns, Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West (New York: New York University Press, 2003), 54–68. Amy Erdman Farrell, Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 39–43.

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natural resources.10 He also points to the fact that fat anxiety allows to make scapegoats out of those who are actually the least excessive consumers – members of the poor and working classes – and also offers a welcome opportunity to openly discriminate against other marginalized groups like African Americans, Hispanics or women. Campos suggests that the current fatphobia can be understood as ‘moral panic’, a societal phenomenon in which a group or behaviour is construed as deviant and consequently demonized as a threat to society as a whole.11 Kathleen LeBesco comes to the same conclusion and outlines in detail how the current discourse within the American public constitutes ‘fat panic’.12 Gard and Wright similarly highlight issues of morality as being at the core of the notion of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and specifically recognize the familiar narrative of Western decadence and decline being replayed in the discourse: ‘The “obesity epidemic” is, in short, a modern-day story of sloth and gluttony.’13 What enables this present-day moralization of health is the ideology of neoliberalism and specifically its paradigms of anti-intervention, individualization and responsibilization.14 While society and state are absolved of any responsibility, the neoliberal citizen is constructed as being solely in charge of their own circumstances, risks and fate. 10

11 12

13 14

Paul Campos, The Diet Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health (New York: Gotham Books, 2005), 234. Ibid., 248. Kathleen LeBesco, ‘Fat Panic and the New Morality’, in Against Health: How Health Became the New Morality, eds. Jonathan M. Metzl and Anna Kirkland (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 73–75. Gard and Wright, 6. Pat O’Malley defines responsibilization as follows: ‘Responsibilization is a term developed in the governmentality literature to refer to the process whereby subjects are rendered individually responsible for a task which previously would have been the duty of another – usually a state agency – or would not have been recognized as a responsibility at all. The process is strongly associated with neo-liberal political discourses, where it takes on the implication that the subject being responsibilized has avoided this duty or the responsibility has been taken away from them in the welfare state era and managed by an expert or government agency.’ – Pat O’Malley, ‘Responsibilization’, in The SAGE Dictionary of Policing, eds. Alison Wakefield and Jenny Fleming (Los Angeles: Sage, 2009), 276.

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Robert Crawford points out how specifically in the US context the reframing of health as an issue of the individual was decisive not only for a rebuttal in the 1970s of prolonged attempts to establish a national health care system but also for the ideological project of responsibilization as a whole: ‘The new health consciousness became a model of and a model for what individual responsibility or its putative absence would differentially bestow and thus served as an embodied replication of individual responsibility for economic well-being.’15 The central responsibility of the neoliberal individual is that of being a responsible consumer and Julie Guthman notes how due to the conflation of eating and consumption, thinness is viewed as the embodiment of responsible consumption, and therefore takes centre stage within contemporary discourses of health. She also highlights the contradictions of the ideal neoliberal subject being an enthusiastic consumer while at the same time being expected to display a high level of self-control and how spending money on being thin constitutes the perfect solution to these potentially conflicting imperatives.16 Kathleen LeBesco draws attention to how fat citizens are constructed not only as failed consumers but also as inadequate workers, who are unable to fulfil their duty as productive members of a capitalist economy.17 In the United States these discourses have become very explicit over the last decade, as can be seen in various governmental campaigns that openly declare a ‘war on obesity’ and decidedly link patriotism with slimness. Next to the alleged costs of obesity-related illnesses for employers, these campaigns focus heavily on the large part of the national health care costs for which obesity is

15 16

17

Robert Crawford, ‘Health as a Meaningful Social Practice’, Health 10, no. 4 (2006): 409. Julie Guthman, ‘Neoliberalism and the Constitution of Contemporary Bodies’, in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 193. Kathleen LeBesco, Revolting Bodies? The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004), 55.

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supposedly directly responsible, thereby constructing fat individuals as a liability to the state and establishing slimness as a precondition for being a proper American citizen. Accordingly, in 2001 then Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G.  Thompson proclaimed that ‘all Americans – as their patriotic duty – [should] lose 10 pounds’.18 Foucault’s concepts of biopolitics and biopower are often applied within Fat Studies in order to explain and analyse these discourses of obesity and citizenship. In A History of Sexuality Foucault describes how from the seventeenth century on the modern state increasingly began to consolidate its power via the control of life as opposed to the control of death, which used to be the practice previously, in the state ruled by an absolute sovereign. This control of life consists of, on the one hand, the disciplining of the individual’s body and, on the other hand, the regulation of the body of the population as a whole.19 Foucault emphasizes that this focus on life does not entail a higher regard for people’s right to live or well-being and points to discriminatory practices like racism, which are based on the exclusion – or even killing – of certain members of a state’s population based on the justification that they are supposedly endangering the life of the population as a whole.20 One of the main characteristics of this biopower is the fact that it is productive as opposed to  the repressive sovereign power. ‘Hence there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the  subjugation of bodies and the control of populations, marking the beginning of an era of “biopower”.’21 The discourses regarding the 18

19

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April Michelle Herndon, ‘Collateral Damage from Friendly Fire? Race, Nation, Class and the “War Against Obesity”’, Social Semiotics 15, no. 2 (2005): 127–141. Michel Foucault, A History of Sexuality: An Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1985), 136–140. See also Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège De France 1975–76 (New York: Picador, 2003), 255–257. Foucault, Sexuality, 140.

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‘obesity epidemic’ and the knowledges and practices it produces are a contemporary example of the workings of biopower and biopolitics.22 April Michelle Herndon observes how these discourses never mention the costs of fatphobia to fat people – due to e.g. discrimination on the job market or higher health insurance rates – and also specifically target social groups already in danger of being discriminated against, namely the poor and working classes, people of colour and immigrants.23 Herndon, Campos and LeBesco, among others, all agree on the fact that this is evidence of a sublimation of certain types of prejudice like classism, racism and xenophobia into the sentiment of fatphobia.24 What is particularly convenient about these discourses is the aforementioned responsibilization of fatness and how it can be applied to explain and justify the low economic status of certain groups: if fatness is seen as a consequence of the individual’s laziness and lack of self-control, then the fact that it is a condition commonly found among those with a low social status assists in the – neoliberal – assumption that the poor are themselves responsible for their poverty and disadvantages, just as they are for their fat bodies.25 Accordingly, Susan Bordo points out how in the discursive construction of fatness, she does not necessarily see issues of class location but rather of social mobility at work, since the fat body is coded as devoid of all those ‘managerial abilities’ – like ambition, self-discipline but also the willingness to conform – that

22

23 24 25

See e.g. Guthman, ‘Neoliberalism’; and the anthology Biopolitics and the ‘Obesity Epidemic’: Governing Bodies, eds. Jan Wright and Valerie Harwood (New York: Routledge, 2009). Herndon, 132. See LeBesco, ‘Fat Panic and the New Morality’, 75; Herndon, 136; Campos, 88, 248. See Friedrich Schorb, ‘Keine “Happy Meals” für die Unterschicht! Zur symbolischen Bekämpfung der Armut’, in Kreuzzug gegen Fett: Sozialwissenschaftliche Aspekte des gesellschaftlichen Umgangs mit Übergewicht und Adipositas, eds. Henning SchmidtSemisch and Friedrich Schorb (Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 2008), 107.

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in contemporary society are associated with upward mobility.26 Proponents of Fat Studies point out that this link between fatness and downward social mobility does exist, but that it is actually the result of social discrimination and stigma.27 As already mentioned, next to class issues, contemporary American fatphobia has a decidedly racial bias, with many of the proponents of the ‘war on obesity’ explicitly addressing minorities – mostly Hispanics and African Americans – and their supposed inclination to fatness.28 Azzarito draws attention to how these racialized discourses, campaigns or interventions do not only homogenize ethnic groups but also thereby naturalize race and more specifically reclaim race as a biological category through the category of fatness.29 She also points out how since the 1950s dieting campaigns have tended to promote as healthy food that is considered fashionable by the white upper class, while immigrants and/or ethnic minorities were taught that their cuisine is less preferable in terms of health and fitness benefits, dieting thereby effectively functioning as a tool of assimilation to white Anglo-American ideals.30 Natalie Boero makes a similar observation in her analysis of the role of mother blame in contemporary anti-obesity discourses and highlights how dieting programmes not only very often ‘educate’ mothers of colour to abstain from preparing ‘ethnic cuisine’ but also often suggest that eating in extended families or community 26

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29 30

Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 195. See e.g. Paul Ernsberger, ‘Does Social Class Explain the Connection between Weight and Health?’ in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 27; Charlotte Cooper, Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size (London: The Women’s Press, 1998), 81–82. For a critical overview of some of these campaigns see Herndon, and Laura Azzarito, ‘The Rise of Corporate Curriculum: Fatness, Fitness, and Whiteness’, in Biopolitics and the ‘Obesity Epidemic’: Governing Bodies, eds. Jan Wright and Valerie Harwood (New York: Routledge, 2009), 183–198. Azzarito, 189. Ibid., 187.

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groups can contribute to childhood obesity. ‘In this sense, culture is ethnic, and eating standardized, low and non-fat “green light” foods prepared within the context of the nuclear family comes to be seen as the “natural” and “healthy” way to eat.’31 The disdain for family structures outside of the white middle-class ideal being played out via anti-fatness discourses is not a solely recent phenomenon either. Paula Saukko examines the work of the influential psychiatrist Hilde Bruch, who studied obesity among immigrant children in New York at the end of the 1930s. While Bruch very much distanced herself from eugenicist theories linking fatness with certain ‘races’, she instead posited that the lifestyle of the children’s families was to blame and, as Saukko highlights, thereby criticized those aspects in which the immigrants diverted from the American white middleclass ideal, thereby providing another earlier example of how fatphobic discourses work to assimilate ethnic minorities.32 Farrell goes back further in history in her analysis of how the category of fatness is utilized in order to reify the category of race and highlights the pivotal role fatness played in the construction of race and racial hierarchies taking place in the nineteenth century. The construction of these hierarchies was among other things heavily reliant on the observation of bodily markers, which were categorized as signs of either evolutionary primitivity or superiority, all with the aim of securely situating the white man at the top of these scales. What is often overlooked though in the contemporary literature on these processes and what Farrell argues is how fatness was seen as one of the key indicators of ‘racial and evolutionary inferiority’. ‘Fatness […]

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Natalie Boero, ‘Fat Kids, Working Moms, and the “Epidemic of Obesity”: Race, Cass, and Mother Blame’, in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 116. Paula Saukko, ‘Fat Boys and Goody Girls: Hilde Bruch’s Work on Eating Disorders and the American Anxiety about Democracy, 1930–1960’, in Weighty Issues: Fatness and Thinness as Social Problems, eds. Jeffery Sobal and Donna Maurer (New York: Aldine, 1999), 37.

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served as yet another attribute demarcating the divide between civilization and primitive cultures, whiteness and blackness, good and bad.’33 Such racial hierarchies were also always gender hierarchies, with the woman usually considered to be situated one step below her male counterpart. The category of fatness further contributed to this as well, since women were seen to be more prone to fatness than men and this supposed inclination served as an additional indicator of their lower position on the evolutionary scale.34 Furthermore, Farrell identifies another aspect of female fatness that within the mind-set of nineteenth-century evolutionary thinking made it correlate with a low level of civilization, namely the fact that it blurs boundaries between genders, bringing women closer to men in terms of size and strength. A lack of clear differentiation between the genders was seen as typical of ‘uncivilized’, ‘primitive’ peoples, while the strict gender roles of white Europeans and Americans were positioned as the result of evolutionary progress.35 Next to class and race, issues of gender also inform the marginalization and construction of fatness. Many scholars such as Cecilia Hartley, Jana Evans Braziel or Samantha Murray have argued that fatphobia and fat oppression have a decidedly gendered bias, affecting women to a much greater extent than men.36 Hartley points out how women in general are expected not to take up too much space, an imperative expressed not only in ever-shrinking

33 34 35 36

Farrell, 64. Ibid. Ibid., 62–63. See Cecilia Hartley, ‘Letting Ourselves Go: Making Room for the Fat Body in Feminist Scholarship’, in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 60–73; Jana Evans Braziel, ‘Sex and Fat Chics: Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body’, in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 231–255; Samantha Murray, The ‘Fat’ Female Body (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

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bodily ideals but also in the kind of reined-in body language deemed socially acceptable for women.37 She also adds that in particular the notion of women exceeding the size of men, whether through height, fatness or muscle, is frowned upon due to threatening an essential part of traditional gender roles, namely women’s status of ‘physical subordination’.38 Braziel demonstrates how misogyny and fatphobia are inherently linked in Western thought by tracing the association of excessive – and also soft – corporeality with moral inferiority and simultaneously femininity back to ancient Greek discourses.39 She highlights the Christian and Cartesian dichotomies of mind/male vs. body/female and how female fatness is a ‘hyperbolized’ expression of these: ‘Fat is feminine.’40 One point noted by many regarding the intersection of fatness and gender specifically in contemporary society is how the increasing importance of a slimmer and therefore more unattainable body ideal can be seen in the context of a backlash against feminism and its achievements. Hartley notes: ‘As women have claimed intellectual and economic power for themselves, culture has simply found new ways for them to be inferior.’41 Since, as already discussed, fatness is also racialized, black and white female fatness to a certain degree carry different connotations. Andrea Elizabeth Shaw, drawing on Mary Condé, argues: ‘Superimposing fat onto the black female body doubles its representative status as the antithesis of white femininity, since the dominant perspective on fatness in Western culture replicates the view of what blackness is already understood as

37 38 39 40 41

Hartley, 61. Ibid., 62. Braziel, 237–242. Ibid., 241. Hartley, 62.

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denoting: bodily indiscipline and rebellion.’42 The constructs of fatness align themselves with constructs of blackness and black femininity, which is why fatness – to a certain degree – is more normalized in black women than in white women.43 What these theoretical approaches show is how common and widespread discourses and configurations of fatness have to be seen in the context of specific economic, political and social structures. These theorizations particularly highlight the power dynamics and imbalances that inform fatphobia and that fatphobia in turn feeds back into. Cinematic representations are part of this process – reflecting the gendered, racialized and classed constructs of fatness and simultaneously further contributing to them.

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Andrea Elizabeth Shaw, The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 50; Mary Condé, ‘Fat Women and Food’, in Beyond the Pleasure Dome: Writing and Addiction from the Romantics, eds. Sue Vice, Matthew Campbell, and Tim Armstrong (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 124–131. Shaw, 8.

2

The De-Masculinized Fat Male Some public, media and academic discourses claim that in contemporary Western society men’s physical attractiveness and thereby also their bodies are held to increasingly high standards, with body image playing a central role within normative masculinity that is almost beginning to approximate its relevance for constructs of femininity. While I agree that men are not free of the pressures entailed by virulent fatphobic body ideals and the increased disciplining of the body – and this chapter is testament to that – there seem to be qualitative differences in how these dynamics play out in terms of male and female embodiment. Male fatness is still less stigmatized and frowned upon than female fatness, indicative of which is the fact that in popular cinema there exist many more unmarked, nonstereotyped representations of male fat characters than of their female counterparts.1 Nevertheless, although it is acceptable for men to take up space in a way it is not for women, a large number of those fat male representations that are marked present the fat male body as a ‘less than masculine’ body, de-masculinized, feminized and/or infantilized. These differing types of representation indicate a distinction between that which is perceived to be the acceptable and that which is seen as the unacceptable fat male body. In Fat Boys Sander Gilman traces the history of the representation of male fatness through various examples from Western art and literature as well as popular culture, and what he highlights is the continuity of 1

For a further critical assessment of the gendered differences regarding body image see Niall Richardson, Transgressive Bodies: Representations in Film and Popular Culture (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 11–14.

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exactly this distinction between the acceptable and the unacceptable.2 Already in earlier centuries when fatness was presumably still socially permitted and connoting wealth and power, the powerful were not perceived as obese but as plump or fat, according to Gilman an important distinction to make. Gilman further cites examples from the early modern period and the writings of the reformation that draw a line between the merely huge or gigantic male body on the one hand and the actually obese body on the other.3 One clear difference Gilman pinpoints is how the unacceptable obese (male) body is often imagined as bloated and puffy, whereas the acceptable fat body is a solid body. He sees examples of this distinction, for instance, in Martin Luther’s writings which describe the physicality of immoral non-believers in terms evoking a bloated and soft body, while not using the same terms for those morally good believers who ‘receive(s) sustenance from God’ or ‘endure being stuffed by Satan’.4 For a further example Gilman also points to Juliet McMaster’s analysis of Charles Dickens and her argument that Dickens’s novels feature positively depicted energetic ‘fat-cheery’ as well as negatively depicted inert ‘fatbloated’ boys.5 Niall Richardson focuses on the differences in terms of the social construction and acceptability of male and female fatness but still points out a dichotomy very similar to Gilman’s dichotomy of solid vs. bloated fatness. He identifies a more widespread acceptance of male fatness in normative, heterosexual culture which he relates to several circumstances: men, as opposed to women, are being held less accountable for not living up to body image ideals; men are allowed to take up space, not only by having ‘spacious’ bodies but also in 2

3 4 5

Sander Gilman, Fat Boys: A Slim Book (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 11. Ibid., 53–54. Ibid., 54–57. Ibid., 142; Juliet McMaster, Dickens the Designer (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1987), 25.

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terms of body language; male slobbishness – a trait associated with fatness – is socially tolerated while normative femininity is expected to stay within the limits of middle-class decorum.6 Furthermore, he observes the importance of ‘bulk’ and how the reading of male fat as masculine bulk – as opposed to feminine fat – contributes to this gendered perception of fatness. The key point, according to Richardson, is that bulk is not simply fat but a combination of muscle and fat, which is acquired in order to increase strength. ‘ “Bulk” is a masculine feature which denotes strength and power unlike simple “fat,” which denotes inactivity, slothfulness, and the ultimate feminine trait – passivity.’7 Similarly to Gilman’s ‘puffy’ fat body, here again it is the soft type of fat that is feminized and devalued, whereas the hard and solid ‘bigness’ is tolerated or even appraised. This notion of soft corporeality being associated with femininity and hardness being associated with masculine embodiment can be traced throughout Western history and in general entails the softness being constructed as inferior and/or threatening.8 Another gendered connotation of fatness is a lack of control, the fat body being presumed to be a body out of control. As Sam Stoloff points out in his analysis of Fatty Arbuckle, masculinity is constructed as an expression of bodily control; hence the fat body cannot be seen as a masculine body.9 In her study of the contemporary normative body Susan Bordo also argues how closely softness of the body and associations with a lack of control are related. She identifies ‘the bulge’, ‘the soft, loose or “wiggly” ’ parts

6 7 8

9

Richardson, 77–78, 82. Ibid., 94. See Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 193–208, and Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies I: Women, Floods, Bodies, History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987), 249–362. Sam Stoloff, ‘Normalizing Stars: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Hollywood Consolidation’, in American Silent Film: Discovering Marginalized Voices, eds. Gregg Bachman and Thomas J. Slater (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), 162.

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of the body as unacceptable, even on thin bodies, and the ideal as a tight and firm body, ‘in other words a body that is protected against eruption from within, whose internal processes are under control’.10 The softness of the body is read as an immediate result of a lack of control, and considering the association of normative masculinity with control, this is a reading further contributing to the gendering of softness and thereby fatness. Lee Monaghan puts it in a nutshell in his sociological study of contemporary male fatness: ‘Fat oppression [is] a real, emergent process that is not tied to female bodies though it is aimed at bodies that are positioned as feminine (…) regardless of their biological sex.’11 In this chapter I will analyse those representations of the fat male body that depict it as ‘less than masculine’ and will investigate the specificities and similarities of a range of characters. The first section will engage with modes of infantilization, including black and white characters, whereas the second section will deal exclusively with white characters, namely with films in which anxieties of white masculinity are played out on the fat male body.

Infantilization The notion of the fat male body being that of a child rather than that of a man can be recognized in certain examples of the children’s film,  in which the character of the fat best friend is positioned as the more childish, less mature one as compared to the slim male protagonist. These films are part of a tradition within children’s fiction that sees the fat boy playing the part of the less masculine 10

11

Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 190. Lee F. Monaghan, Men and the War on Obesity: A Sociological Study (London: Routledge, 2008), 6.

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and thereby less capable one, often presented in order to validate the protagonist’s own masculinity.12 Both Monster House (Gil Kenan, 2006) and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Thor Freudenthal, 2010) focus on pre-pubescent boys who are at the brink between childhood and adolescence, an age where the question of maturity is particularly relevant since being immature equals still being a child while being mature means being already a teenager. The animation film Monster House is set in a stereotypically idyllic white American suburb and tells the story of DJ, who observes eerie happenings taking place in the house across the street and consequently discovers that the house is actually haunted by the evil ghost of the owner’s dead – fat – wife. DJ’s fat best friend Chowder is at DJ’s side throughout the film but despite his active participation in their adventures he is constantly portrayed as the more childish and less masculine one. Already in his first scene Chowder is shown to be very clumsy – he runs into the car of DJ’s parents – a characterization repeated in several other scenes. Being clumsy equals not being in control of one’s body, a notion not only associated with the fat body, the body seemingly out of control, but also with the lack of motor skills of early childhood. Furthermore, Chowder is depicted as the more playful and careless one, thereby getting himself and others occasionally into trouble, while DJ acts as the more sensible and grown-up one. Most noticeable, though, is Chowder’s tendency to behave like a coward and panic easily, which is conveyed through him screaming a lot in situations where DJ either manages to stay calm or, even if we can hear 12

See Jerry Mosher, ‘Survival of the Fattest: Contending with the Fat Boy in Children’s Ensemble Film’, in Where the Boys Are: Cinemas of Masculinity and Youth, eds. Murray Pomerance and Frances Gateward (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 70–71, and Jean Webb, ‘“Voracious Appetites”: The Construction of “Fatness” in the Boy Hero in English Children’s Literature’, in Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature, eds. Kara K. Keeling and Scott T. Pollard (London: Routledge, 2009), 120. A prominent example named by both Webb and Mosher is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and its two film adaptations Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963; Harry Hook, 1990).

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DJ screaming as well, it is always Chowder who is shown in a frenzy and with his mouth wide open. The open mouth marks Chowder’s body as an open body and thereby a grotesque body, which is opposed to the static, closed-off classical body, and a common representation of the fat body.13 What this association with the grotesque also does is to connect Chowder with the feminine body, since the grotesque body per se evokes association with the feminine body, which is constructed as a non-normative and open body.14 As Mary Russo argues about male grotesque embodiment: ‘their identities as such are produced through an association with the feminine as the body marked by difference.’15 In accordance with this, it is the slim DJ who in the finale saves Chowder, destroys the house and gets to kiss Jenny, the girl both the boys have a crush on, thereby asserting his masculinity. This characterization of the fat boy as the more childish one can also be seen in the comedy Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which explicitly deals with the transition from childhood to adolescence. The film depicts how its protagonist Greg starts middle school full of dread and desperately tries to fit into this new social context in which being a child is no longer socially acceptable. What Greg himself sees more and more as an obstacle in his quest for popularity is his fat best friend Rowley who is portrayed as still very childlike and far from the hegemonic adolescent masculinity to which Greg attempts to approximate. What makes Rowley seem so childlike – next to a general playfulness, his clumsiness and the fact that he is still close to his mother – is his ignorance of, or disregard for, the social pressures

13

14

15

On the grotesque body see Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1936; repr., Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 303–367; on the fat body as grotesque body see Stukator, 202–203. On the grotesque body as a feminine body see Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (London: Routledge, 1995). Ibid., 13.

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which seem to guide Greg so thoroughly, including anxieties about his non-normative physicality. Greg constantly talks about still being short and small and in one scene, where they have to take off their shirts during PE, he voices his discomfort at having to expose his body in front of the more masculine boys, while Rowley, on the other hand, is completely un-self-conscious about his fat body and even playing around with his love handles. In the middle school world of Diary of a Wimpy Kid normative physicality is decisive in determining social status. All three boys that share the position of outsider with Greg, and whom Greg himself sees as beneath him on the social ladder, display a non-normative body: next to the fat Rowley, we see Fregley, who is described as having ‘hygiene problems’ and who displays the abject physicality of bodily fluids associated with early childhood, and Chirag, a small Indian boy, who is introduced by Greg with the words ‘Thank God for Chirag Gupta’, thereby alluding to the fact that because of Chirag, Greg is at least not the smallest boy in middle school. The fat body, the – obviously – abject body and the non-white body are aligned here in their lack of normative masculine embodiment. The film itself is ambiguous in terms of the representation of Rowley’s fatness. On the one hand, it confirms and utilizes the stereotype of the childish fat boy; on the other hand, it ridicules Greg’s opportunistic and normative way of thinking by showing how Rowley actually becomes the popular one by staying true to himself, while Greg’s desperate attempts at popularity turn out to be counterproductive, only getting him into increasingly embarrassing situations and endangering his friendship with Rowley. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017) is a superhero film that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and also a coming-of-age comedy. Jeffrey A. Brown has analysed superhero narratives, with their focus on unremarkable men transforming into embodiments of traditional ideals of masculinity, as allegories

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of male adolescence,16 yet Spider-Man goes further than allegory. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is Spider-Man and struggles with the responsibilities and possibilities of being a superhero but also with high school, not upsetting his aunt too much, and having a crush on a schoolmate. While this would be the perfect set-up to position his fat best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) as the less mature one, with whom the protagonist can be juxtapositioned to highlight the latter’s maturity and masculinity, the film actually provides relatively little of that. Yes, there are scenes in which Ned fulfils aspects of the trope, e.g. when he reacts overly excited, and thereby quite ‘uncool’, upon finding out that Peter is Spider-Man, when he embarrasses Peter in front of Liz, his crush, or when after the showdown he won’t stop talking about his one act of heroism which compared to what Peter has done seems barely worth mentioning. However, there are several aspects that soften the stereotype: in some instances, Ned actually acts as the more mature one, e.g. when he tries to dissuade Peter from overriding the safety mode of his Spider-Man costume. In addition, Ned is excellent with computers, without being presented as ‘nerdier’ than Peter, but rather as someone whose skills support Peter in his endeavours. The aforementioned act of heroism by Ned is also given a certain relevance, since it consists of saving Peter’s life. Considering that this film is a relatively recent one, the fact that the trope of the fat best friend has been toned down could be read as an indication of a growing awareness in Hollywood when it comes to fat representations. Unfortunately, Ned’s sole appearance in Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo), which came out in 2018 and thereby a year after Spider-Man, doesn’t support this. In the scene Peter and Ned are on a school bus and Peter asks Ned to cause a distraction, so that he can escape from the bus unobserved. However, when Ned turns around and spots through the window the reason for Peter’s request, 16

Jeffrey A. Brown, The Modern Superhero in Film and Television: Popular Genre and American Culture (New York: Routledge, 2017), 43.

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namely an attack on New York by Aliens, he immediately reacts by panicking and screaming, providing the necessary distraction without any intent. While Peter also actively features and fights in the rest of the film, the character of Ned is reduced to this appearance as the hysterical and de-masculinized fat friend, whose sole purpose is comic relief. Not necessarily relegated to representations of fatness, male childishness has been an essential part of a certain tradition within film comedy that relies heavily on the character of the comedian, therefore named ‘Comedian Comedy’ by Steven Seidman.17 The comedian in these films acts like a child disrupting the world of the adult, ignorant of the rules he keeps breaking and thereby causing chaos and comedy. Zack Galifianakis performs a similar type of character in both The Hangover franchise and Due Date (Todd Phillips, 2010), building on a persona established in his previous work as stand-up comedian and integrating the trope of the infantilized fat male with the traditions of the ‘Comedian Comedy’. In general, male characters lacking maturity have become quite ubiquitous in Hollywood cinema in recent years, to an extent that Negra and Tasker describe ‘the centralisation of the “boy-man” ’ as ‘one of the most distinct representational trends in contemporary Hollywood’.18 However, immature does not equate infantile, and while the other male members of the casts of The Hangover franchise and Due Date can and have been analysed in the context of immaturity, it is Galifianakis’s characters that play the part of the ‘boy-man in extremis’.19 His characters continuously display

17

18

19

Steven Seidman, Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981), 100–130. Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker, ‘Neoliberal Frames and Genres of Inequality: Recessionera Chick Flicks and Male-Centred Corporate Melodrama,’ European Journal of Cultural Studies 16, no. 3 (2013): 349. Hannah Hamad, Postfeminism and Paternity in Contemporary U.S. Film (New York: Routledge, 2014), 103; see ibid., 100–104, for a relevant analysis of male immaturity in The Hangover, The Hangover Part II and Due Date.

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the kind of character trait that Seidman describes as ‘a childlike unawareness of how things function’ or ‘basic stupidity’, for instance when he knocks over someone else’s suitcase but refuses to pick it up because ‘You are not supposed to touch other people’s luggage at the airport!’ or when he asks whether the Caesar’s Palace hotel in Las Vegas was actually the palace of Caesar. The fact that in both Due Date and The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009) other characters explicitly refer to him as child further contributes to this impression. In addition, he doesn’t seem to possess any shame in terms of his sexuality – masturbating in front of Ethan in Due Date, not wearing any pants in front of his friends in The Hangover – and at the same time does not exhibit a normative adult sexuality: in The Hangover he doesn’t know what a used condom looks like and although he gets a love interest in the third instalment of the series, The Hangover Part III (Todd Phillips, 2013), his interactions with her only serve to highlight his lack of experience and maturity. (When they first kiss, he immediately drops his trousers with the words ‘I saw it once, in a pornography.’) His character in Due Date does not overtly display this type of ignorance, yet he is without any kind of romantic or sexual attachment and does not mention any past relationships or sexual experiences either. What is noticeable is the fact that in both films Galifianakis’s character causes a disruption of other male characters’ path to a hetero-normative masculine identity, in The Hangover almost keeping Doug from attending his own wedding, in Due Date almost keeping Ethan from attending the birth of his own child. However, in both cases this disruption remains safely contained, the childish fat male character contributing to what is basically an extended adventure before order is re-established. Geoff King points out how this childishness of the ‘Comedian Comedy’ when manifested by black characters can at times come uncomfortably close to certain racist stereotypes like the ‘Coon’,

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which are based on the infantilization of African Americans.20 The infantilization of not just African Americans but the racial Other in general has a long standing tradition in Western culture leading back to colonialism, which relied on this dynamic in order to construct the colonized as ‘embodying an earlier stage of individual human or broad cultural development’.21 This presumed lack of development and maturity justified the subjugation under the rule of the colonizers, since the colonized were presented as incapable of taking care of themselves, and continues to persist till the present day (e.g. in the notion of the ‘underdevelopment’ of certain non-Western countries).22 In the context of African American masculinity this construct has taken on specific configurations since slavery, when male slaves were not given the same patriarchal privileges as white men – ownership rights, authority over women and children – and were thereby demasculinized and infantilized.23 Robyn Wiegman describes how abolition and emancipation led to a shift in these gender configurations: ‘While the slavery period often envisioned the Uncle Tom figure as the signification of the “positive good” of a system that protected and cared for its black “children,” once emancipated, these children became virile men who wanted for themselves the ultimate symbol of white civilization: the white woman.’24 Despite seemingly contradictory at first, Stuart Hall explains that this dramatic switch is the result of a certain binary logic underlying representational regimes – and

20 21

22 23

24

Geoff King, Film Comedy (London: Wallflower Press, 2002), 145. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994), 139. Ibid., 140. For a discussion of this ‘subordinated masculinity’ see e.g. Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1994), 137, 141–143. Robyn Wiegman, American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 96.

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specifically stereotypes – in which an overt or conscious construct is deliberately designed in order to cover up a suppressed construct. In the case of black masculinity the fantasy and fear of an aggressive, voracious black (male) sexuality was – and still is – covered up by notions of a childlike asexuality, leading to seemingly incongruous images of the asexual and harmless ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Coon’ on the one hand and the violent and savage ‘Buck’ on the other.25 In a number of mainstream Hollywood films black fat male characters are depicted according to those stereotypes of de-sexualization and infantilization, their fatness contributing to these images of de-masculinization. Kangaroo Jack (David McNally, 2003) is an action-comedy and buddy movie, featuring Jerry O’Connell as Charlie, the white slim protagonist, and Anthony Anderson as Louis, his best friend and fat black sidekick. The plot revolves around the two of them being sent by Charlie’s stepfather, a mobster boss, to Australia to deliver a package, which leads to them experiencing all kinds of trouble in the Australian outback. Throughout the film the comedy relies on the general ineptitude of the pair and quite often more specifically on their lack of masculinity. What is noticeable, though, is how Louis is constantly presented as more emasculated and childish than Charlie, breaking into an Aretha Franklin song, shouting hysterically ‘I love you, Mama’ before plunging down a garbage chute, crying when things go wrong, often talking with a high-pitched voice and shown with his mouth wide open, owning a small dog named ‘Waffles’, carrying with him candy which makes Charlie ask him whether he is actually four years old, and constantly exhibiting irresponsible and thoughtless behaviour reminiscent of a child. This gendering of

25

Stuart Hall, ‘The Spectacle of the “Other”’, in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. Stuart Hall (London: Sage, 1997), 262; for the cinematic representation of these stereotypes see Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (New York: Continuum, 2001).

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the interracial buddy movie is common practice within American cinema as has been pointed out by Donald Bogle, Yvonne Tasker and Patricia Hill Collins. In films such as Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) or Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987), to name the classics of the genre, the black buddies frequently play not only the minor role, sidekick or even smaller, but moreover they are also depicted as the emasculated, feminized, physically less capable part of the duo, often in some way serving the more traditionally masculine white buddy and thereby constituting no threat to the hegemony of white masculinity.26 ‘The white masculine body retains its privilege as the primary site of power.’27 In Kangaroo Jack two scenes stand out in terms of demasculinization, insofar as Louis is not only depicted as the less masculine one, but in particular his fat body is put into the spotlight in order to contrast with and highlight Charlie’s masculinity. In the first of these scenes, Charlie gets to kiss Jessie, a female wildlife ranger joining the pair on their adventure, while they are swimming semi-nakedly under a waterfall. The scene not only features closeups of Charlie’s naked well-toned upper-body but also dialogue that conveys how attractive Jessie finds him and in particular his body. Their ‘romantic moment’ is interrupted by Louis hollering and dive bombing into the water right next to them. Like Charlie he is also only clad in his pants but in contrast to the white slim body his semi-naked fat black body is not presented as erotic or sexual but merely as providing  – physical – comedy. In the second scene, Charlie saves Louis who through his own fault is hanging from a cliff and close to plunging to his death. Louis plays the passive part here, and when Charlie mutters ‘You have really got to cut back on the 26

27

Bogle, 276; Yvonne Tasker, Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema (London: Routledge, 1993), 44–45; Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, 2005), 171. Wiegman, 143.

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pie!’ under the duress of barely being able to pull Louis up, Louis’s weight is highlighted as contributing to this passivity. In the vein of those two scenes, Charlie regaining his masculinity is developed as one of the main issues of the film. He starts out at the beginning of the film as a hairdresser, whose masculinity is questioned because of his occupation, and who is being patronized and accused of having ‘chicken blood’ by his stepfather, but in the end he proves his masculinity not only by saving the day during their adventure in Australia but in the film’s epilogue is shown to have become rich by inventing a new hair product line based on Australian berries and to have married Jessie, the wildlife ranger. While Louis is still with him on the yacht on which the epilogue takes place and is also mentioned as being Charlie’s partner in their hair product company, he is not shown lounging on the deck of the yacht reading the newspaper as Charlie is, but is again used as comic relief, when he – again – does a water bomb into the pool of the yacht, his jump shown in a low-angle shot, highlighting his wobbling big belly and also his open mouth (see Figure 1). The slim white man fulfils the norms of masculinity by gaining financial success and ‘getting the girl’, whereas the fat black man is presented as de-sexualized comic relief. This de-sexualization of the

Figure 1  The fat black sidekick provides physical comedy in Kangaroo Jack (D: David McNally, P: Jerry Bruckheimer, 2003).

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black buddy is not specific to Kangaroo Jack but, as Collins observes, a common feature of the interracial buddy movie in general, thereby safely containing any threats that would arise from an active black male sexuality.28 In Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Steve Carr, 2009) Leon is a minor fat black character with little screen time but he similarly fulfils the function of validating the masculinity of the white protagonist, although in this case not the slim but the fat white protagonist. Leo works in the same mall as Paul Blart and together with several others is taken hostage by a group of robbers. Paul attempts to free the hostages, an undertaking at which he at one point almost succeeds by pulling them up to an air conditioning shaft. However, his plan fails due to Leo being too heavy to get up into the shaft. He is shown dangling helplessly in the air before finally the rope breaks under his weight and he plummets to the ground, causing thereby the other hostages to crash through the ceiling as well. Paul’s masculinity is questioned throughout the film, but he is still allowed to regain it at the end, whereas Leo and his fat black body merely feature as a passive obstacle. Glen in Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007), also played by Anthony Anderson from Kangaroo Jack, only plays a minor role as well, but what little we see of him firmly marks him as an infantilized, Coon-like character. Despite being announced as a brilliant hacker before he is first introduced, everything after seems to be in contrast to this notion of superiority. He is shown to still live at home with his grandmother and his brother, with whom he enjoys playing rather childish video games. In almost all of his scenes he acts slightly hysterical, screams a lot with a high-pitched voice and is presented as a coward. In his last scene, despite deploying his very useful skills as a hacker while being under siege from the ‘bad robots’, his masculinity is again questioned by the fact that the other three characters present – including one 28

Collins, 168–170.

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woman – are firing weapons at their attackers while he is merely screaming and typing away at the computer. His very colourful and childlike clothing as well as the fact that he announces at one point that he is still a virgin further contributes to this representation as infantilized and de-masculinized. Despite not being contrasted as obviously with the white protagonist as the fat black male characters in Paul Blart or Kangaroo Jack, Glen can still be seen as contributing to the validation of the protagonist’s masculinity, as Lisa Purse points out. She argues that the appeal of Sam, the protagonist of Transformers, is based in part on his verbal as well as physical humour, and that racial stereotyping is employed in the film in order to make minor male characters – such as the fat Glen – seem more ridiculous than Sam, thereby providing a necessary contrast.29 With Michael, or ‘Big Mike’, the drama The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) presents a fat black character different from the Coon-like figures discussed so far, but it also firmly infantilizes and de-masculinizes him. Michael is not only fat; he is also very tall as well as strong, and throughout the film his being out-of-size combined with his race is used to mark him as an outsider in a predominantly white environment, often emphasized through mise-en-scène and framing. This becomes most obvious when the Tuohys, his white adoptive family, include him in their family photograph for their Christmas card. In the picture the two adults are sitting, only their two biological, not yet grown, children and Mike are standing, this arrangement additionally emphasizing Mike’s height. Furthermore, not only is he the only one wearing casual clothing but also his shirt is blue and light-blue, two colours almost completely absent from the rest of the frame which is dominated by the black and red that the white family is wearing. This others him even more and also puts

29

Lisa Purse, Contemporary Action Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 113.

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Figure 2  Big Mike marked as an outsider in a white environment in The Blind Side (D: John Lee Hancock, P: Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove & Gil Netter, 2009).

even more emphasis on the large expanse of space taken up by his body (see Figure 2). Next to his size, his strength is equally decisive, since it is what makes him a good footballer and thereby enables the ascent from homeless teenager to successful professional athlete that the film depicts. The film goes to great lengths, however, to contain this strength – and the possible threat evolving from a physically strong black male body – through characterization and plot. Michael is continuously depicted as non-aggressive, to the extent that when he begins to play football the coach complains about how he is not like other students from bad backgrounds, who are usually happy to find an outlet for their pentup anger in the game. Here it is also his fatness, and how it makes him soft in a literal and psychological sense, that is addressed. The coach comments on the impression Mike will make on their opponents with the words: ‘At least they’ll be afraid until they realize he’s a

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marshmallow. Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.’ Yes, Mike is big and strong, but he is also fat and it is his fatness, the ‘marshmallow’-ness, the coach alludes to when he wants to express how harmless and nonmasculine, ‘like Jane’, Mike actually is. Consequently, he only becomes aggressive enough to be a good footballer after Sandra Bullock’s character instructs him to imagine his team members as the members of his adoptive family whom he has to protect from the opposing team, thereby appealing to his strong protective streak which is constantly addressed in the film. It is only for protecting people and more specifically white people that Michael displays his physical strength, therefore remaining safely unthreatening. His sexuality is equally contained by presenting him as a teenager who never displays any kind of interest in sex, with Leanne in one scene even talking about how he got nightmares from going to a strip club. The only time black male sexuality does make an appearance in the film is when Michael is confronted with some guys from his old neighbourhood, who are depicted as stereotypical black thugs and accordingly make lewd remarks about Michael’s white adoptive mother and sister. The ‘good’ de-sexualized, childlike Michael is here juxtaposed with the other side of the stereotype, namely the sexually aggressive black man, who constitutes a threat to the white woman. The character of the infantilized fat man, or boy, can take on different forms as this section has shown, with race being a decisive factor for the specificities of the representation. In the children’s films the white fat boy is utilized in order to deal with issues of maturity and (pre-) adolescence, which can mean either a validation of the masculinity of the slim boy as in Monster House or a more critical engagement with hegemonic adolescent masculinities as in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The ‘Comedian Comedy’ similarly positions the white fat male character in relation to a trajectory of male development, although here it is

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the path of the slim male characters to an adult hetero-normative masculine identity, which the fat character temporarily – and for the pleasure of the audience – interrupts. The films that feature infantilized black male characters very much build on long-standing stereotypes of the childish, asexual black man. When positioned in relation to a white male character their lack of masculinity is used to validate the masculinity of the white protagonists. When positioned in relation to a white female character, as in The Blind Side, the fatness of the black male character contributes to his characterization as a docile, asexual, overgrown child, who poses no threat to the white woman.

Anxieties of contemporary white masculinity White men within American society as well as other Western countries have experienced a loss in power and privilege over the last decades, since the social movements of the 1960s began to severely question their social, economic and political predominance. This loss in status and the related ongoing upheaval and erosion of the traditional, heteronormative gender system has led to a widespread discourse focusing on male anxieties resulting from these changes, often subsuming these developments under the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’.30 Within Hollywood cinema a large number of films and representations can be seen – and have been analysed – as relating to these anxieties, from the Die Hard films, through Michael Douglas’s beleaguered men in Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993) and Disclosure (Barry Levinson, 1994) to the angry young men of Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), or the corporate melodrama The

30

For a critical analysis of the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ see Tim Edwards, Cultures of Masculinity (London: Routledge, 2006), 7–24.

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Company Men (John Wells, 2010), to name a few examples.31 The cinematic male body is often a pivotal site for these discourses to play out on and, consequently, the fat male body has come to be utilized in order to engage with these anxieties of white masculinity.

The white everyman The films in this section engage with the question of which type of masculinity is desirable for men these days and all three of them – each in different ways – clearly deny hypermasculinity as a possible option, instead propagating a certain middle ground between, on the one hand, hypermasculinity and, on the other hand, de-masculinization, which in these films is embodied by the fat male body. The three films are Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004), Get Smart (Peter Segal, 2008) and Just Friends (Roger Kumble, 2005), and while they are all comedies they quite differ in terms of plot but still share a basic structure: the hypermasculine male characters are antagonistic figures or even the villain of the plot while the protagonists are presented as the less masculine – but still not fully de-masculinized – ‘Everyman’. Kyle Kusz analyses this focus on the everyman and the simultaneous vilification of hypermasculinity in Dodgeball and several other contemporary Hollywood films. He sees it as a way of denying the continuing hegemony of white masculinity by projecting all kinds of privilege onto hypermasculinity, demonizing and/or parodying it, contrasting it with a more conventional white masculinity and

31

For a more detailed analysis of white male anxieties in recent Hollywood cinema see Nicola Rehling, Extra-Ordinary Men: White Heterosexual Masculinity in Contemporary Popular Cinema (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009), and chapter one and two of Fred Pfeil, White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference (London: Verso, 1995). For an analysis of the ‘crisis of masculinity’ in The Company Men in the context of the recession see Negra and Tasker, ‘Neoliberal Frames’, 344–361.

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thereby situating the white everyman as the underdog-hero.32 Valerie Palmer-Mehta offers a slightly different assessment of this endorsement of the ‘Average Joe’, which she sees as part of a wider phenomenon, titled by her as ‘mediocre masculinity’. She bases her analysis largely on one American TV-show – The Man Show (1999–2014) – but also names other examples such as The King of Queens (1998–2007), Family Guy (1999–), The Drew Carey Show (1995–2004) or Everybody Loves Raymond (1996–2005), which feature unremarkable – white – men as protagonists and heroes. Palmer-Mehta posits ‘mediocre masculinity’ as a new type of hegemonic masculinity, developed out of an increased difficulty for men to live up to cultural ideals of masculinity – in particular new ideals of attractiveness – combined with the wish to still possess the privilege that hegemonic masculinity entails, leading to male mediocrity being presented as the new ideal.33 Taking into account Kusz and Palmer-Mehta, two ideological functions of the focus on the average man can be distinguished: on the one hand it serves to cover up the still existing privileges of white masculinity and on the other hand it makes it easier for men to live up to the ideals of masculinity.34 I will show how in the films of this section male fatness functions as the other extreme on a continuum of masculinity, a demarcation point set in order to demonstrate that although men don’t need to be hypermasculine they are not allowed to go too far in their lack of masculinity either. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story engages with the issue of body image in a very obvious way, as can already be seen in the opening 32

33

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Kyle W. Kusz, ‘Remasculinizing American White Guys in/through New Millennium American Sport Films’, Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics 11, no. 2–3 (2008): 209–226. Valerie Palmer-Mehta, ‘Men Behaving Badly: Mediocre Masculinity and The Man Show’, The Journal of Popular Culture 42, no. 6 (2009): 1053–1072. This is not to say that the ‘average male’ has never appeared in cinema before – many roles of James Stewart or Tom Hanks are prominent earlier examples – but to highlight that certain contemporary representations of this type can be seen as related to the contemporary ‘crisis of masculinity’.

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sequence, which consists of a TV spot for the fitness studio owned by White Goodman (Ben Stiller), the antagonistic figure of the film. The spot features White walking through his busy studio while spouting phrases that are exaggerations of contemporary self-improvement/ pro-fitness and pro-diet slogans such as ‘Tired of being overweight and underattractive?’ or ‘It’s only your fault if you don’t hate yourself enough to do something about it’. Next to White, who is quite muscular himself, the spot also contains many shots and in particular close-ups of other well-toned bodies, female and male, that conform to contemporary body image ideals. Stiller’s over-the-top acting as well as the flashy zooms and jump cuts contribute to the overall impression of an obvious parody of actual diet and fitness ads. Here as well as in later scenes the film mocks contemporary body cult – and thereby the cult of slimness – and bases its comedy on this mocking. This scene has two mirror scenes in the film, both taking place at ‘Average Joe’s’, the fitness studio owned by the protagonist Peter Le Fleur (Vince Vaughn). The first scene introduces the studio and its customers and shows Peter arriving for work in the morning. Together with Peter the audience meets a number of male employees and customers – supporting characters in the film – none of whom are muscular but mostly are either young, gawky and pasty, or middle-aged and a bit podgy. The second of those scenes comes at the end of the film and is more obviously intended as a mirror scene, since now we get to see Peter in a TV spot for ‘Average Joe’s’. Peter’s slogan couldn’t be more different from White’s: ‘I’m Peter LeFleur and I’m here to tell you that you are perfect just the way you are.’ This very accepting message gets dampened slightly by the follow-up ‘But if you feel like losing a few pounds, getting healthier, and making friends in the process, then Average Joe’s is the place for you’, yet is still in stark contrast to the first TV-spot we saw. However, this acceptance of the non-perfect body does not seem to extend to everyone but is very much restricted to the white male

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body. Almost all the customers of Peter shown in either of the mirror scenes are white men and throughout the film White Goodman and his group of muscular baddies is contrasted with the – average – male heroes from ‘Average Joe’s’. The bodies of the few female characters with any actual screen time conform to contemporary female body image ideals, the only exception being a fat girl who appears in a flashback and is mockingly presented as the stereotype of the inappropriately confident fat woman.35 But also in terms of male body image the film makes sure to show that its body acceptance only goes so far. The clearly fat – not just soft, pudgy or chubby – white man makes his appearance as the fat former self of White Goodman – played by Stiller in a fat-suit – which is shown to almost haunt White and make him even more determined in his body fascism. The fat White re-appears in the last scene of the film, after White has lost his studio and his company to Peter and reacted to these events by re-gaining a lot of weight. This scene is also a mirror scene to the beginning of the film when Peter wakes up to the TV spot of White’s ‘Globo Gym’ on his TV while now the tables have turned, and it is White who is watching the ‘Average Joe’ spot. Just like Peter, White is also sitting on a couch in his flat, but what in Peter’s case was a slightly messy place is in White’s case almost filthy, with food covering every available surface as well as White himself, who is shown in a static low-angle frontal medium-shot wearing a half-open bath robe, in a shot overall emphasizing his fatness. After a very short scene in which White grumbles about Peter having defeated him, the credits start to roll, but White returns again after the credits in another scene in which he breaks the fourth wall and complains about how boring and predictable not only the ending of the film but Hollywood cinema in general is. He then puts on the song ‘Milkshake’ by Kelis and starts to sing and jiggle his ‘man breasts’ while still looking at the camera 35

For more on this scene and the sexually confident fat woman see Chapter 2, p. 93, 97–98.

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Figure 3  The feminized fat male slob in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (D: Rawson Marshall Thurber, P: Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller, 2004).

(see Figure 3). When he’s finished he addresses the audience in a reproachful tone with: ‘Happy? Fatty make a funny.’ On the one hand, the absurdity of the sequence and the closing comment can be read as a critique of the standard stereotypical Hollywood representation of fat characters. On the other hand, the scene is also meant to elicit laughter based on the feminization of male fatness, thereby being critical but also re-affirming of the stereotype at the same time.36 Moreover, fat masculinity is here positioned as the Other, the actual loser of the film, asserting that although men don’t have to be hypermasculine, hard-working and ambitious, they are not allowed to go too far in their lack of masculinity either. The fat man is positioned as the other extreme, just as hypermasculinity, with the middle ground presented as desirable in terms of masculinity. What Kusz – specifically in regard to Dodgeball – also points out is that the hypermasculinity of the slim White Goodman is presented as secretly anxious and insecure.37 This representation of presumed hypermasculinity as secretly-not-so-masculine has other facets, 36 37

On how parody often reaffirms the object of its ridicule see King, 108. Kusz, 218.

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namely the association with homosexuality made in one scene in which White is lifting weights with his sidekick in his office, both of them calling each other ‘my bitch’ and slapping each other’s behind, with the camera then panning to include a statue of two naked male figures wrestling, their positions implying intercourse rather than actual wrestling. This aspect of the character of White Goodman fits in with an observation by Niall Richardson who argues that despite an often-debated increase of the relevance of male beauty and body ideals, in contemporary society the not-perfectly-shaped male body is still commonly presented as normative, whereas the ‘in-shape, toned and gym-sculpted [male] physique’ is connoted as either gay, due to an assumed vanity associated with gay culture, or ‘unhinged’. Since there is no strong social pressure for men to achieve physical beauty – as there is for women – the reasons for them to undergo the effort to attain it can seem dubious.38 Get Smart, the remake of the 1960s TV show of the same name, is an example of the spy spoof genre, which parodies films like the Bond franchise and thereby often also addresses the type of masculinity presented in those films. Early on in the film when we first see the protagonist Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) arriving at his workplace, the fictional American intelligence agency CONTROL, we are not only introduced to characters and setting but also to an ongoing conflict between different types of masculinities which remains an issue throughout the film. Within the agency constant tensions exist between, on the one side, the field agents – hypermasculine, overly confident Macho-types of the James Bond variety – and, on the other side, the analysts, who are less masculine, and less confident, but highly intelligent nerds. As Lori Kendall points out, the ‘nerd’ is a quite contradictory type of masculinity and can also signify hypermasculinity: ‘The nerd stereotype includes aspects of 38

Richardson, 77–78.

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both hypermasculinity (intellect, rejection of sartorial display, lack of “feminine” social and relational skills) and perceived feminization (lack of sports ability, small body size, lack of sexual relationships with women).’39 In Get Smart the representation of the nerds strongly favours the de-masculinizing aspects of the stereotype and also shows that not only a ‘small body size’ but also a ‘fat body size’ can be part of it. Maxwell in his present-day slim body is situated in-between those two extremes, machos and nerds, but we see flashbacks of him 150 pounds heavier, played by Carell in a fat suit, when he was still an analyst/nerd and because of his physical shortcomings unable to attain what he aspired to, namely becoming an agent. In his new slim body he gets promoted to field agent, thereby distancing himself from the de-masculinized nerds, who are represented by one slim Asian guy and one other fat white guy. Here again, as in Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the Asian male character is aligned with the fat white male character in their lack of normative masculinity. The two nerds are likeable characters and loyal to Maxwell but nevertheless they are presented as clumsy and cowardly. Women – or femininity – are deliberately excluded from these power dynamics: Anne Hathaway might play one of the larger roles in the film, but her character is the top-secret field agent no one ever gets to meet, and therefore not part of inner-office rivalries and competition. The one female member of CONTROL that we see as part of the office is a short fat woman dressed in men’s clothes, who appears in one scene only, in which the boss comes in and greets everyone with ‘Hello guys. No offense, Marlene. Nice tie!’ This scene highlights the homosociality underlying the social context of the film’s story – and also the association of female fatness with masculinity.40

39

40

Lori Kendall, ‘“The Nerd Within”: Mass Media and the Negotiation of Identity among Computer-Using Men’, The Journal of Men’s Studies 7, no. 3 (1999): 356. For more on this association see Chapter 3.

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However, it remains important that the protagonist Maxwell does not approximate the masculinity of the agents too much, since they are either portrayed as chauvinistic – and not too bright – bullies, or, in one case, even worse, as traitor and the actual villain of the film. Maxwell himself is not overly competent as an agent; the conventions of the genre of the spy spoof film demand that he and his attempts at a controlled, cool, Bond-like masculinity are depicted as occasionally incompetent, but he is still competent enough when it counts. Moreover, what is particularly remarkable is how Max’s empathy, his sensitivity and his understanding of their enemies as human beings are presented as his special skill or weapon, which in one scene even allows him to save his and his colleague’s lives. A trait associated with femininity is depicted here not only as strength but also as a skill that sets Max apart from the other, more brutish, hypermasculine agents and puts him at an advantage. What is particularly relevant in terms of the representation of male fatness here is that, just like Dodgeball, Get Smart establishes a continuum in which hypermasculinity is placed on one end and de-masculinized fatness on the other, and posits normative masculinity, as embodied by present-day slim Max, as the in-between: not too masculine, but not the de-masculinized fat man either. The third film of this section, Just Friends, is a romantic comedy and like other examples of this genre deals with the issue of female desire; only here it is approached from a decidedly male point of view, which seems to ask ‘What do women really want?’ or more precisely ‘What kind of masculinity do they want?’ The prologue shows us what women apparently do not want, namely the protagonist Chris as a fat teenager, played by Ryan Reynolds in a fat suit. He is desperately in love with his best friend Jamie, who would rather date the quarterback of the football team than him. After a painful public rejection, Chris leaves his hometown and the film jumps ten years ahead to the present, in which Chris has not only lost weight – Ryan Reynolds without the

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fat suit – but also has styled himself into the kind of alpha-male-guy he thinks women want: successful at his job, emotionally aloof and a far cry from the ‘nice, fat guy’ of his adolescence. When he is forced to visit his hometown, the question of whom or rather what his old flame Jamie wants comes up again and makes Chris wonder what kind of man he is supposed to be. On the one hand the film answers that question by negating Chris’s new alpha-male personality as a viable option. Jamie herself is clearly not impressed by his new aloof personality and his tendency to show off. Chris’s new-found masculinity is also very obviously mocked in one scene where he feels obliged to prove his manhood by winning a hockey game against a group of children, only to get completely humiliated. Furthermore, as in Dodgeball, here again the notion of hypermasculinity secretly not being very masculine at all – in particular in terms of an excessive body cult – comes up when Chris exclaims dramatically that he can’t have pancakes for lunch because ‘I haven’t had sweets in ten years, do you know what this would do to my stomach?’, upon which Jamie sardonically mollifies him: ‘Relax, little girl, you can have my sandwich and I’ll have your pancakes.’ Excessive dieting is equated with femininity and thereby marked as incompatible with normative masculinity. In addition, the film introduces another character, Dusty, as a competitor for Jamie’s affection who at first seems to embody all the characteristics of the New Man, but then turns out to be a class-A macho cunningly putting on an act in order to deceive and seduce women. Here again, the macho is the baddie of the film, and what Jamie wants in the end is Chris – just as he is – without any of his Macho-affectations. But just as hypermasculinity, the fatness of Chris’s adolescence is also negated as a viable type of masculinity. The flashbacks show him as a pushover and exhibiting very effeminate manners, which are played for laughs. Moreover, although the film tries to emphasize that it is not his new body that in the end leads to him ‘getting the girl’,

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Jamie – when they first meet again – is nevertheless shown to be very thrilled by this new body. Overall, the film tells another variation of the narrative of fatness as spoiled identity that has to be left behind in order to attain happiness. Once again, hypermasculinity is one extreme, de-masculinized fatness the other, and what is presented as viable for men is the in-between.

The decline of white working-class masculinities and Paul Blart41 Paul Blart: Mall Cop came out in 2009 and despite being bashed – or ignored – by the critics it became a surprise-hit, opening at Number 1 at the American box-office and ranking at 19 in the domestic yearly box-office charts, quite a success, particularly considering the film’s modest budget of $25 million. It was also the first feature film the comedian Kevin James had to carry (as a leading man) on his own, his previous roles either being on television – notably in the popular The King of Queens (1998–2007) – or as co-star to bigger names such as Will Smith in Hitch (Andy Tennant, 2005) or Adam Sandler in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (Dennis Dugan, 2007). In Paul Blart James plays the title character, who works as a security guard in a suburban shopping mall and struggles with his personal as well as his professional life until one day the mall gets invaded by a group of robbers, giving Paul Blart the chance to prove himself as a hero. Paul Blart is also fat, and his construction as fat is an intrinsic element of his characterization, the comedy of the film and its engagement with certain issues of masculinity. This utilization of fatness as a symbol for anxieties of white working-class masculinity is not a new phenomenon, as Jerry Mosher 41

An earlier version of this section was published as ‘Paul Blart and the Decline of White Working-Class Masculinities’, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society 2, no. 2 (2013): 173–182.

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highlights in his work on fat male characters on American television shows in the second half of the twentieth century. Mosher contends that since the 1950s the fat white male body on television has come to symbolize the loss of power of white patriarchy in general – the ‘crisis of masculinity’ – but has been particularly popular in the representation of white male working-class characters who struggle to keep up with corporate America. In his discussion of the highly popular sitcom Cheers (1982–93) Mosher observes how the character of the fat accountant Norm relates to a change within male workingclass occupations taking place since the 1980s, namely a shift from skilled labour to service industry jobs, which lack the physical masculinity of the earlier jobs.42 This shift is part of the global transition from Fordism – the era of industrialism – to post-industrial post-Fordism and its domination by the IT and service sector. In terms of employment this has led to a development that has been described by social sciences as a ‘feminization of labour’: it entails, on the one hand, a rising number of women in employment and, on the other hand, working-class men nowadays predominantly taking up jobs in the service industry which offer not only less social prestige but also less financial security than traditional male industry jobs.43 On this process, Donna Haraway argues that work ‘is being redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether performed by men or women. To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as reserve labor force, seen less as workers than as servers’.44 Next to this loss of prestige, income and security these new jobs also offer less ‘physical masculinity’, as Weis, Proweller

42 43

44

Mosher, ‘Setting Free the Bears’, 179. On this phenomenon see e.g. Cristina Morini, ‘The Feminization of Labour in Cognitive Capitalism’, Feminist Review 87, no. 1 (2007): 40–59. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 166.

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and Centrie point out: ‘Most of the truly “masculine” jobs, those that demand hard physical labor, are gone, replaced by jobs (…) that do not offer the “hard” real confrontation with physicality, that was embedded in jobs of former years, jobs that encouraged the production of a certain type of masculinity.’45 In Paul Blart anxieties about the decline of white working-class masculinities – in particular about the ‘feminization of (male) labour’ – are played out on the fat white male body, and I will argue that the film not only addresses these anxieties but also attempts to mollify them by allowing a certain transformation of the protagonist and thereby ideological ambiguity in terms of the representation of – white male – fatness.46 Much of the comedy of Paul Blart is based on presenting Paul as de-masculinized, as can already be observed in the first scene of the film. The scene takes place at a police academy and after a couple of establishing shots we see a tracking shot of a row of candidates, a teacher giving them instructions off-screen. The candidates are all male, broad shouldered, tall and overall quite masculine looking. When the tracking shot eventually reaches Paul and stops on him, he does stand out, not only because he is fat but also due to his small height, which makes for a visual interruption of the previous line of men, who are all of the same tall height. The next shot begins with an extreme close-up in slow motion of Paul’s chest while he is running, emphasizing the fact that he has ‘man breasts’ which are moving

45

46

Lois Weis, Amira Proweller, and Craig Centrie, ‘Excavating a “Moment in History”: Privilege and Loss inside White Working-Class Masculinity’, in Off White: Readings on Power, Privilege, and Resistance, eds. Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Linda Powell Pruitt, and April Burns (London: Routledge, 2004), 129. Next to Mosher I also have to mention Deborah McPhail’s work which stimulated my argument. She highlights the feminization of male labour as one of the contributing factors to anxieties regarding fat white, middle-class men in early Cold War Canada; Deborah McPhail, ‘What to Do with the “Tubby Hubby”? “Obesity,” the Crisis of Masculinity, and the Nuclear Family in Early Cold War Canada’, Antipode 41, no. 5 (2009): 1021–1050.

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Figure 4  Shot emphasizing Paul’s ‘man breasts’ in Paul Blart: Mall Cop (D: Steve Carr, P: Barry Bernardi, Todd Garner, Jack Giarraputo, Kevin James & Adam Sandler, 2009).

up and down. Whereas the first shot singles Paul out as not being masculine enough, the second shot goes further and clearly feminizes him. Longhurst posits that ‘man breasts’ do not only feminize men because breasts are symbols of feminine sexuality but also due to them being coded as fluid rather than solid and fluidity being associated with feminine corporality (see Figure 4).47 The positioning of Paul as non-masculine and his association with femininity continue throughout the film, partly in rather small narrative or visual details: he does not own a car, which would be coded as properly masculine, but instead drives a Segway scooter, inside as well as outside of his job; he gets embarrassingly drunk in one scene, which shows that he cannot hold his drink; he admits that he cannot grow a beard. The biggest part in his de-masculinization though is played by his job as a security guard at the mall, a profession emblematic of the decline of white working-class masculinity in 47

Robyn Longhurst, ‘“Man-breasts”: Spaces of Sexual Difference, Fluidity and Abjection’, in Spaces of Masculinities, eds. Bettina van Hoven and Kathrin Hörschelmann (London: Routledge, 2005), 173.

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the age of post-Fordism. In the case of Paul’s job as a mall security guard, this lack of masculine prestige and authority is made obvious by the close relation to a profession that is still provided with those undiluted markers of masculinity, namely the job of the police officer. Throughout the film, in a number of scenes, the comedy plays on exactly this gap, in particular on Paul’s attempts to bridge it and attain some of that authority. At the beginning of the film, when his mother and daughter don’t accept his claims of being too busy to date because of the responsibilities of his job, he exasperatedly calls them ‘civilians’, thereby pretentiously implying that what he does is akin to being in the military or the police. When he first talks to Amy, his love interest, she calls him a ‘security guard’ to which he responds that it is actually ‘security officer’, again seemingly taking his job too seriously. In the same scene he also checks in with his colleague with the words ‘Officer Blart, reporting from sector 3D’ to which the colleague responds with a baffled ‘What the hell are you bothering me for?’, thereby exposing Paul’s attempt to pose as a military-like figure to impress Amy. He later on also confesses to having made up for himself an oath to protect the mall, again attempting to simulate the proceedings of the ‘properly masculine’ security professions. Two of the most embarrassing scenes for Paul are those in which he attempts to act on the authority granted by being a security guard, in order to be confronted with the reality of his job not providing him with any authority. In the first scene he holds up an old man driving through the mall on a scooter and wants to issue him a citation for reckless driving. Here Paul is heavily emulating the behaviour of a cop, which in itself already comes across as pretentious and ridiculous. What is particularly humiliating for Paul though is the complete lack of respect on the part of the man on the scooter, who decides to ignore Paul and just continues driving, even dragging Paul along for a bit, when Paul physically tries to stop the scooter.

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The second scene takes place in a lingerie store where Paul gets called to in order to settle a dispute between two female customers. The two at first don’t pay him much attention and when he intervenes by asking after their IDs, one of them – who is fat – tells him clearly that she won’t show him her ID. When Paul tries to gain the upper hand by telling her that she should be careful since he has the authority to make a civilian’s arrest, she is completely unimpressed and points out that everyone has that authority, to which a female sales assistant, who has kept to the background until then, agrees emphatically. Once again, Paul’s attempts to display his authority as a security guard are crushed and ridiculed by the fact that his job does not actually provide him with any authority. His humiliation is continued in the rest of the scene, when in an attempt to gain her sympathy he – inadvertently – insults the fat woman and she responds by beating him up. What comes to the forefront here is not only how fatness interferes with normative gender identities, rendering men weak and feminine, women aggressive and masculine. This upheaval of traditional gender roles is also exactly what is not just humiliating for Paul in this scene, but for white men suffering under the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’ in general: no longer being superior to those who in the past used to be in a position of less power, namely white women and people of colour. This notion of white masculinity being ‘under siege’, of not being in control anymore, is also evident in the depiction of Paul’s personal life, here again connected with the image of the fat woman and in this case also the woman of colour. When we first see his family, we find out that the mother of his daughter was an illegal Latina immigrant, who married Paul only to gain citizenship and consequently left him and their daughter. This information is conveyed in an exchange between Paul and his daughter, while they are together with his mother filling out his profile for an online dating platform. When his

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daughter asks him what he is looking for in a woman, Paul replies with, ‘Well your mother certainly had something special’ which is when the camera cuts to a photograph of him and his ex-wife, sitting on a donkey in the desert, her wearing a sombrero, some chords of Mexican-sounding music playing while the image is shown. What is most noticeable about the image, though, is that his ex-wife is not only fat, but bigger than Paul himself, a fact that seems to be mocked here in the dialogue by the phrase ‘had something special’, although not actually by Paul himself, who seems to have genuinely cared for his ex-wife. Furthermore, next to the visual reply of what was special about her, namely her being fat, we also get a verbal reply from the daughter who sarcastically deadpans: ‘Yeah, illegal immigrant status.’ The ex-wife’s fatness, ethnicity and nationality are all linked here, in this figure of the non-submissive woman who tricks and thereby dominates the ‘poor white male’. The group of robbers and hostage takers whom Paul manages to defeat in the end, thereby redeeming his masculinity, mostly consists of white men, yet is overall multi-ethnic and coded as ‘urban’ and thereby opposed to the white space of the suburban shopping mall.48 Firstly, the methods of transport they use within the mall, such as skateboards and mini-BMX bikes, are clearly associated with urban youth cultures. Similarly, Parkour, the ‘free running’ technique performed very prominently and skilfully by two members of colour of the group, is an urban phenomenon and has its origins in the multicultural banlieues of Paris.49 The white members of the 48

49

On the construction of the suburbs as white and the inner cities as black see Martha R. Mahoney, ‘Segregation, Whiteness, and Transformation’, University of Pennsylvania Law Review 143, no. 5 (1995): 1659–1684; on this construct in film and fiction see Robert Beuka, SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), in particular 187–196. On the multi-cultural origins of Parkour and also the difference between the American suburbs and Parisian banlieues see Bill Marshall, ‘Running across the Rooves of Empire: Parkour and the Postcolonial City’, Modern & Contemporary France 18, no. 2 (2010): 165–167.

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group are mostly heavily tattooed, bald or long-haired, completing the impression of the sub- and multi-cultural urban youth attacking the mall. What increases the threat of this vision is their superiority over the white working-class man personified by Paul: they are presented as smart, technologically savvy and slim and very much in control of their bodies, as displayed by their way of moving through the mall. Nevertheless, since Paul Blart does not only just engage with anxieties about the current state of white working-class masculinity but also attempts to mollify them, we see a shift in the depiction of the protagonist during the second half of the film. In a series of action sequences, it is shown how Paul succeeds in defeating the robbers and hostage takers, taking them out one by one. The element of mockery remains, yet the balance between competence and incompetence on the part of Paul shifts over the course of the film as becomes evident in a comparison of his first physical confrontation with the baddies with the last. The first confrontation occurs when Paul tries to run and hide from two of the robbers. He has to crawl into a ventilation shaft attached to the ceiling in one of the stores of the mall but gets discovered when his stomach starts making loud noises, upon which the robbers attack the ventilation shaft with a hockey stick. The shaft – with Paul in it – eventually breaks from the ceiling, thereby knocking unconscious one of his attackers while the other one decides to run. Paul might manage to take one of the robbers out, yet the scene contributes relatively little to him regaining his masculinity. Firstly, he does not actively seek out the confrontation but actually tries to avoid it. Secondly, his body is presented as out of his control: his stomach not keeping quiet when he wills it to and his whole body inadvertently acting as a weapon when the ventilation shaft breaks down. Overall, Paul’s body and in particular the fact that it is big enough to have the ventilation shaft collapse is here still mainly used as a source of comedy.

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By the end of the film the depiction of Paul – and his body – has changed. In the showdown, he manages to catch up with Veck, the leader of the robbers, who is still holding Paul’s daughter and Amy hostage. Paul engages in hand-to-hand-combat with Veck, from which Paul emerges as the winner, managing to knock his opponent to the floor and cuff him. During this confrontation Paul’s body is still used for laughs when his shirt rucks up and the other characters stare baffled at the large tattoo on his back, which he apparently got during a drunken episode depicted earlier in the film. Yet, here it is not his body as a fat and/or out of control body that is mocked. More importantly, his taking out his opponent is actually due to the capabilities of his body and Paul’s control over it, not the result of an unplanned accident. Furthermore, this intervention saves his daughter and his love interest, thereby letting Paul fulfil the traditional role of the masculine protector. What remains though, and can be seen throughout all the confrontations of the second half of the film, is a certain ambiguity and irony in the presentation of Paul’s transformation from hapless security guard to action hero, a tendency most obvious in the happyending scene after the showdown. What happens on the one hand is that Paul confesses his love to Amy, who reciprocates his feelings and kisses him, the film thereby sticking to the traditional formula of ‘guy gets the girl in the end’. Worth mentioning here is also that a fat male character is being paired with a slim and conventionally pretty woman, while fat female characters in mainstream film are only rarely granted such a fate, but are more often single, or paired with a fat and/ or not conventionally attractive man.50 50

See for instance the roles of Melissa McCarthy, who, similar to Kevin James, is a contemporary fat star, mainly works in comedy and got her break in television, but has – until recently at least – mostly either been cast as single, as in The Back-Up Plan (Alan Poul, 2010) and Identity Thief (Seth Gordon, 2013), or been paired with fat/not conventionally attractive partners, as in Life as We Know It (Greg Berlanti, 2010) and Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011). However, in recent years some of her roles, and also those of Rebel Wilson, seem to break with this tendency, as I discuss in Chapter 3.

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Additionally, Paul is approached by the police officer in charge, who offers him a job as a state trooper, which is what he wasn’t masculine enough for at the beginning of the film. Despite his earlier ambitions Paul declines the offer and replies with the words: ‘Thank you, sir. But I think I’m gonna stick with what I do best. It’s protecting the people of the West Orange Pavilion Mall.’ With this line the film drives home an important aspect of Paul’s transformation and the film’s happy ending: Paul does not only regain his masculinity but moreover does so by demonstrating the importance of his profession, and he gets to take pride in what he does, in his low-prestige, underpaid serviceindustry job. Anxieties about the feminization of male labour are mollified here by presenting Paul’s job as an in fact highly honourable task, endowed with the masculine prestige it seemed to be lacking at the beginning of the film. On the other hand, what we see is how when Paul walks up to Amy he is shown in exaggerated slow motion, a cheesy over-the-top 1980s power ballad and the sunrise in the background further contributing to a sense of parody. Additionally, the card, which contains Paul’s confession of love, reads, ‘Amy, you are like a great meal. You make me feel stuffed … with feelings!’ and thereby utilizes stereotypes of fatness to mock Paul. The film employs irony here in order to allow multiple meanings and readings: yes, Paul regains his masculinity, but the film invites us just as much to partake in his triumph as to further mock him. This type of dynamic has been theorized by Linda Hutcheon in her argument that irony can be utilized as a tool to reach a wide audience: a text that invites various and opposing readings allows for multiple meanings to co-exist and thereby manages to appeal to different types of audiences at the same time.51 Paul Blart is a product of commercial cinema and by employing irony it can maximize its audience by reaching those who laugh at the mocking, 51

Linda Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London: Routledge, 1995), 35.

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fatphobic representation as well as those who gain enjoyment from seeing the fat everyman succeed. That it is only the white male whose anxiety is of concern is made clear by how fat female and male characters of colour as well as fat female white characters are deployed by the film. Paul’s ex-wife is an absent character, only presented to mock her fatness as well as to mock Paul for having been tricked by her. The other adult fat female character, the customer in the lingerie store, is purely stereotyped as the aggressive, masculine fat woman, who also refuses to acknowledge that she is fat – another stereotype in the representation of female fatness. Paul’s daughter Maya is also fat and racialized as Latina and, although she does not get stereotyped, her character mostly functions as part of the ‘save the girl’ storyline, which allows Paul to fulfil the traditional role of masculine protector. In addition, it is she who calls her own Latina mother an ‘illegal immigrant’, thereby distancing herself from her own ethnic background. Leon, the one fat black male character, is a likeable figure, but, as previously mentioned, his fatness becomes an obstacle to Paul’s heroic endeavours in one decisive scene, thereby validating Paul’s masculinity. In Paul Blart: Mall Cop the fat male body is utilized in order to engage with anxieties about the current state of white working-class masculinities. This engagement at first takes the form of fatphobic mockery, relying on the construction of the fat male body as demasculinized, and presenting it as the embodiment of the perceived inadequacies and loss of privilege of contemporary manhood. Nevertheless, in the end the fat white man is allowed to regain his dignity and masculinity, thereby re-assuring male members of the working class of their continued position of privilege. What is noticeable, though, is, on the one hand, how irony is employed in the depiction of this transformation, which enables both fatphobic and fat-positive readings, and, on the other hand, how it is only the representation of white male fatness that is allowed this ambiguity.

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The film’s sequel, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (Andy Fickman, 2015), which came out six years later, offers, for the most, more of the same. It de-masculinizes, mocks and stereotypes its protagonist along the same lines as the first part, but in the end presents him as the hero who saves the day, thereby also the honour of his profession, and ‘gets the girl’. (Or, in this case, rather ‘girls’, since we see two women expressing their interest in him.) The only notable difference lies in how the film at one point explicitly addresses the connection between Paul’s physicality, his job and the disregard he experiences. It does so by showing Paul give a speech at a conference for security guards in which he himself makes this point: ‘why do we do it? Why do we walk a beat, knowing that on a typical day you’ll get zero pats on the back? You know what you will get? A whole lotta [sic] ridicule. I get it – we’re easy targets, people call us heavy, skinny, lumpy and point out our bad skin.’ While the speech doesn’t go further in its discussion of this connection, one of the later action sequences harks back to it, by conveying a strong sense of a community of non-normative bodies hitting back and getting their due share of acknowledgement, albeit, of course, with the usual touch of irony. In that sequence Paul faces down the villains of the film, together with four fellow security guards whom he has met at the conference. Paul presents his colleagues to his opponents and thereby also the audience by introducing them and letting them step forward each separately into a hotel corridor in which he has been confronted by the film’s villain. The camera shows them in long- and mid-shots, which together with Paul’s grandiose introduction of them – he makes a big show out of presenting his ‘associates’ – highlight how none of them look like typical action heroes. Three of them are middle-aged men, either fat or at least displaying a paunch that in middle-aged men is maybe not necessarily perceived as fat but definitely not as athletic, and the fourth is a fat woman. However, despite this mocking presentation of

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them, in the ensuing physical confrontation with their younger and slimmer opponents they miraculously prevail, just as Paul did in the first instalment. What is also worth pointing out is the ethnic composition of Paul’s group of unexpected heroes: while two of them are white men, one of them is of South Asian, presumably Indian, origin, and the one woman of the group is African American. While this might, at least slightly, move away the focus from a notion of white masculinity hitting back, on the other hand, the racial component seems rather highlighted by a B-plot of the film, in which a young, slim, goodlooking, smartly dressed, heavily accented Hispanic security guard is built up as Paul’s antagonist. While they end up working together in the finale of the film, Paul is still shown to triumph over him by having the security guard’s girlfriend fall in love with him, to which Paul reacts graciously by persuading her to stay with her boyfriend. The masculinity of the fat white working-class man has, once again, been asserted and the film ends with another ironic happy-ending, in which Paul catches the eye of a female police officer, only to then immediately have her horse kick him against a car, in an extreme case of ‘fat slapstick’, a representational structure I will engage with in the next chapter. ***

This chapter has argued that a dominant marker of male fatness is demasculinization, and that the trope of the de-masculinized fat male character appears in different forms and contexts, with race being a decisive factor. De-masculinized black characters are infantilized and based on already existing stereotypes within American culture of the asexual, childish black man. Their de-masculinization and thereby their fatness are utilized mainly in relation to the white protagonist, who either has his masculinity validated through the contrast with

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the black fat man or – in the case of the female protagonist of The Blind Side – does not need to feel threatened by black male sexuality and can also take credit for supporting the helpless, childlike black man. Although something similar can be said for the white infantilized characters, the details are slightly different. Firstly, two of them are actually still boys – presented as more childish than the slim protagonists, yes, but still boys – not like the black characters grown men presented as boys. Secondly, in one of those two films, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the fat boy does not merely exist to validate the slim boy’s masculinity but rather to question his attempts to obtain a normative – adolescent – masculinity. The second set of films analysed deal with anxieties of white masculinity, specifically with issues relating to the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’. White male fatness does not only validate the masculinity of the slim white protagonists in these films; more importantly it functions as the Other, that which  – like hypermasculinity – is positioned as outside of normative, ‘average’, white masculinity. The one exception and overall most ambiguous representation of demasculinized fatness can be found in the Paul Blart films, in which the fat protagonist at first gets mocked but in the end is allowed to regain his masculinity, thereby providing commentary on but also reassurance of the status of white, in this case working-class, masculinity.

3

Female Fatness as Non-Normative Femininity In contemporary society physical attractiveness and with it adherence to a certain type of body image have become the pinnacle of normative femininity. The association of femininity with beauty and the social expectation of women to comply with certain beauty ideals are not recent developments in themselves, yet what has changed over the last century are the (un-)attainability of those ideals and at the same time their increasing importance within the constructs of femininity. Feminist critics such as Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi and Kim Chernin have pointed out how female beauty ideals have risen in prominence since the struggles of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, and how consequently those ideals can be seen in the context of a patriarchal retribution for the social, political and cultural rights gained by women since then.1 Sandra Lee Bartky notes: ‘Normative femininity is coming more and more to be centred on woman’s body – not its duties and obligations or even its capacity to bear children, but its sexuality, more precisely, its presumed heterosexuality and its appearance.’2 Bartky applies Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power to explain how these physical ideals of femininity are being forced upon, but 1

2

Kim Chernin, The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness (New York: HarperPerennial, 1981), 96–110; Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War against Women (London: Vintage, 1992), 237–255; Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women (London: Vintage, 1991), 10–11, 15–19, 66–72. Sandra Lee Bartky, ‘Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’, in The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, ed. Rose Weitz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 41–42.

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also internalized and perpetuated by women. Slimness is at the centre  of contemporary ideals of feminine beauty, thereby making the fat female body the epitome of non-normative femininity. Thus, female fatness carries connotations of being in opposition to hegemonic gender roles, regardless of whether individual fat women themselves actually do or do not participate in the disciplinary practices described by Bartky.3 Angela Stukator analyses these associations with anti-patriarchal resistance and links the fat woman with the topos of the ‘unruly woman’ as described by Kathleen Rowe.4 Rowe identifies the unruly woman as a tradition present in literary and social history, revolving around female resistance against societal limitations: ‘This topos  (…) reverberates whenever women, especially women’s bodies, are considered excessive – too fat, too mouthy, too old, too dirty, too pregnant, too sexual (or not sexual enough) for the norms of conventional gender representation.’5 Rowe’s analysis is ambivalent regarding the actual subversive potential of this topos and she notes how despite its transgressive potential it is also commonly employed not to celebrate anti-patriarchal femininities but rather to demonize or ridicule them.6 Stukator comes to a similar conclusion in her assessment of the contemporary, fat unruly woman in American popular culture. Although she mentions positive examples such as Miss Piggy in The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, 1979) – albeit ambivalently positive – or John Water’s Hairspray (1988), overall, Stukator argues, American mainstream films employ the fat, unruly

3

4 5 6

Charlotte Cooper stresses the need for a distinction between cultural meanings conveyed by the fat female body and the actual, manifold, lives of fat women. She points out that ‘fat women as anti-patriarchal rebels’ might be a flattering stereotype, but a stereotype nonetheless. See Cooper, Fat and Proud, 88–90. Stukator, 199. Rowe, ‘Roseanne’, 410. See Kathleen Rowe, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 3, 193–194.

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woman in order to confirm the hegemonic, reactionary gender and body politics she is placed in opposition to.7 What has so far been left unmentioned is the issue of race and how it relates to the constructs of normative femininity. Whiteness is an  essential part of normative femininity in general and also of feminine ideals of physical attractiveness in particular. Patricia Hill Collins points out how in the American context milky white skin and long, blond, silky hair have traditionally been considered to be the epitome of female beauty, thereby immediately excluding African American women from these ideals and situating them as less attractive by default. Collins also highlights the relevance of colourism and how those African American women deemed beautiful by public discourse are usually quite light-skinned, naming Halle Berry as one prominent example.8 A more recent phenomenon, which in its singularity confirms this general bias, is the success and popularity of the dark-skinned Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, who  herself has  repeatedly publicly addressed the fact that societal ideals of beauty always made her feel less than adequate because of her dark skin. In general, African American women have not just been constructed as being outside of normative gender roles in terms of physical appearance but have been considered as ‘less than feminine’ and thereby often as ‘less than human’ ever since slavery. During slavery African Americans were denied the patriarchal family structures of white society and thereby also the gendered subjectivities that were – and still are – considered to be essential aspects of modern personhood. This de-humanization was an integral part of the dynamics of slavery and colonialism and in the case of black women allowed for open mistreatment as well as exploitation of 7 8

Stukator, 197–211. Collins, 194–195.

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their labour.9 Hilary McD. Beckles notes on this: ‘The black woman was ideologically constructed as essentially “non-feminine,” in so far as primacy was placed upon her alleged muscular capabilities, physical strength, aggressive carriage and sturdiness. Pro-slavery writers, furthermore, presented the black woman as devoid of the feminine tenderness and graciousness in which the white woman was tightly wrapped.’10 Collins points out the relevance of class for the formation of normative gender roles and how the fact that even after emancipation African American women could rarely afford not to undertake paid work outside the home further contributed to their exclusion from the white, middle-class ideal of the domestic mother and wife.11 In terms of representation, these dynamics of gender, race and class have resulted in a number of black, female stereotypes which, although slightly adapted over time, have persisted since slavery and share a characterization of black women as being outside of normative femininity. Fatness is an essential aspect of one of those stereotypes, the Mammy, who might be strongly associated with maternal qualities, but whose asexuality and complete opposition to normative (white) ideals of female beauty nevertheless mark her as not fully feminine.12 Also outside of this stereotype the de-feminizing capacities of fatness are utilized very commonly in the depiction of images of black women as less than feminine, as indicated by the number of black characters analysed in this chapter: out of twentysix female characters overall, ten are African American, a rather high number considering the overall lack of representation of African American women in contemporary mainstream American cinema. 9

10

11 12

See Hortense J. Spillers, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64–81, and Wiegman, 62–69. Hilary McD. Beckles, Centering Woman: Gender Discourses in Caribbean Slave Society (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1999), 10. Collins, 198–199. See Shaw, 20.

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Physically aggressive Violence and in particular physical violence are strongly associated with the constructs of masculinity and consequently in strong opposition to normative femininity. Male violence is to a certain degree supported and encouraged by heteronormative gender roles: men are supposed to be active and aggressive, able to take care of and physically protect themselves and their families, women and children.13 The complementary female role expects women to be passive and helpless, as well as to take care of the family by being nurturing and caring, traits and activities contradictory to physically attacking and harming someone.14 Owen Heathcote points out how consequently male violence is made to seem natural whereas ‘the violence of women has to be explained in order to make it intelligible’.15 One area of society in which this gender discrepancy becomes obvious is the public and media treatment of women accused of, or found guilty of, violent crimes. Compared to their male counterparts these women and their actions are usually given extra attention and are highly sensationalized, whether in the case of female serial killers such as Aileen Wuornos, (alleged) one-time murderers such as Amanda Knox, or terrorists such as the female members of the German Baader-Meinhof group in the 1970s. Ann Lloyd suggests that a woman committing violent crimes is seen as ‘doubly deviant’: ‘Not only is she being tried for her crime, but how she measures up to the idea of proper womanhood is also being judged.’16

13

14 15

16

See Hilary Neroni, The Violent Woman: Femininity, Narrative, and Violence in Contemporary American Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 20. See Karen Boyle, Media and Violence: Gendering the Debates (London: Sage, 2005), 95. Owen Heathcote, ‘Hermeneutic Circles and Cycles of Violence: “La fille aux yeux d’or,” “Histoire d’O,” “Les guérillères”’, South Central Review, no. 19.4–20.1 (2002–03): 44. Ann Lloyd, Doubly Deviant, Doubly Dammed: Society’s Treatment of Violent Women (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 36.

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One further indication of this perceived deviance is the common association of female violence with female sexual agency and often homosexuality. Karen Boyle, drawing on Lynda Hart, argues: ‘To desire – as to commit violence – requires a subjectivity that women in a patriarchal society have traditionally been denied. Women are supposed to be desired objects (a passive position), not desiring subjects (an active position).’17 Accordingly, several characters analysed in this section will also appear in the section on ‘Sexual Aggressiveness’, since they are both physically violent and sexually aggressive. Mainstream cinema often attempts to present but at the same time ideologically contain acts of female physical violence, e.g. by situating them in genres seemingly far removed from reality, such as action or science fiction, by over-emphasizing the feminine looks of the female character in question or by presenting those acts as comical.18 Several of the films analysed employ this last tactic and present the physical violence of the fat woman in a comedic context. One aspect of the violence shown in most of these films, which lends itself to a comedic presentation, is that it is a very physical, immediate, close-contact violence and therefore well suited to slapstick specifically: the fat women don’t use guns or poisons; they mostly use their own bodies to enact violence. Diana (Melissa McCarthy) in Identity Thief (Seth Gordon, 2013) kicks and punches her opponents, her signature move being a quick punch to the throat; in Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) Megan (also McCarthy) slaps and grapples with her friend on a couch; in Big Momma’s House the title character knees a neighbour, who keeps hassling her, in the groin; in Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012) Fat Amy enthusiastically joins an incipient brawl by kicking a guy in his groin; Rasputia in Norbit (Brian Robbins, 2007) constantly slaps or 17

18

Boyle, 108; Lynda Hart, Fatal Women: Lesbian Sexuality and the Mark of Aggression (London: Routledge, 1994). Lisa Purse, ‘Return of the “Angry Woman”: Authenticating Female Physical Action in Contemporary Cinema’, in Women on Screen: Feminism and Femininity in Visual Culture, ed. Melanie Waters (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 185–189.

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otherwise physically attacks her husband; in Madea’s Family Reunion (Tyler Perry, 2006) the title character on several occasions hits and slaps those behaving to her dislike. Two horror films don’t present their violence in a comedic way, but still show the fat woman engaged in similar, close-contact acts: in The Hills Have Eyes a nameless fat woman knocks a man unconscious with a baseball bat and in Dawn of the Dead an equally nameless newly manifested female zombie charges at one of the heroes with widespread arms before she gets shot. This type of violence and also the slapstick it often entails reinscribe and emphasize the physicality and presence of the body, thereby reinforcing the notion of fatness as hyper-physical. In addition, it also inflects the category of gender, showing the female characters breaking with traditional gender roles not just simply by being violent but also by infringing rules of bodily feminine decorum. Hilary Neroni assesses the violence enacted by the femme fatale in film noir as not too disruptive to the character’s femininity, since she usually either lets others do the killing for her or uses a gun and therefore does NOT engage in this type of close-contact violence. ‘She doesn’t need to sweat, grunt, move into awkward positions, or even mess up her hair while killing someone.’19 In the films analysed we can see the exact opposite dynamic at work, with the fat woman using her body in a way that is outside the boundaries of ‘ladylike’ decorum. Some of these physical acts of violence are also staged in a manner to draw attention not just to the body in general but to its fatness in particular. In Big Momma’s House ‘Big Momma’ attacks an intruder in her house by throwing herself and her whole body against him. She then bounces off of him and falls back on a bystander, who is knocked into a wall and then to the floor by her body’s weight.20 When Megan grapples with her friend Annie in Bridesmaids, she ends up 19 20

Neroni, 26. This is also a typical example of ‘Fat Slapstick’; see Chapter 4 for more on this.

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on top of Annie, basically sitting on her and holding her down with her weight. In Tower Heist (Brett Ratner, 2011) Odessa, a maid and participant in the eponymous heist, pushes her cleaning cart into an FBI agent, throwing her whole weight into the movement, thereby knocking him into the wall and into unconsciousness. The horrorfilm-inspired Monster House also draws attention to the weight and fatness of the fat woman, yet in a very different manner: it is not the actual body of a fat woman we see engaging in violence, but a house being possessed by the spirit of a dead fat woman. Nevertheless, what the house does to its victims is in accordance with common stereotypes of fatness: it swallows up people and also objects, turning its entrance into a giant mouth, a hallway carpet into a tongue and the cellar into a stomach. The film thereby heavily relies on the perception of fat people as greedy eaters and therefore still draws attention to the dead woman’s fatness. What some of these acts also convey is physical strength, a very non-feminine trait, in particular when women are shown to be physically stronger than men. In Norbit this type of gender reversal is particularly explicit in several scenes that focus on Rasputia’s physical strength, such as when she is a teenager and picks up two boys by the collar to smash their heads together, or when she throws her husband Norbit through a closed window. The fat female body in general carries connotations of physical strength and thereby compromises traditional gender roles based on the dichotomy of (physically) strong masculinity vs. (physically) weak femininity. The display of these connotations within the context of comedy stands in a genre tradition of showcasing transgressions and reversals of traditional gender roles, yet not in order to support them but to mock them and dispense fears surrounding them. In some cases, the comedy results from the deliberate contrast of the violent behaviour with a more traditionally feminine appearance or manners. In Identity Thief Diana elaborately complains about the

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damage done to her hair during the physical altercation, and not only swears in a non-ladylike way while doing so, but also kicks her opponent in the leg in the next second. Both Big Momma’s House and Madea’s Family Reunion utilize a similar dynamic by combining the traits of two different African American stereotypes within one character. On the one hand, Hattie Mae (‘Big Momma’) and Madea both fulfil the stereotype of the ‘Mammy’: they are fat, old and working class, they live in the American south, they like to cook and they have younger family members they take care of, thereby displaying their nurturing side. On the other hand, they are both prone to violence. In both films part of the comedy of the violence results from having two old, Mammy-like – and therefore supposedly nurturing – women behave in such an aggressive way; however, depicting African American women as violent is nothing new. While white, idealized, femininity has historically been constructed as restrained and frail, African American women, as part of their assumed lack of femininity, have often been culturally constructed as prone to aggressiveness and thereby also to physical violence. Kimberly Springer stresses how this characterization is an intrinsic part of the stereotype of the Sapphire, who is not just stubborn, sassy and bad-tempered, but also often tends to express those traits via acts of violence.21 The five African American characters analysed in this section all contain further elements of the Sapphire stereotype in addition to their violent behaviour. Odessa in Tower Heist is loud, outspoken and forthright, as are Hattie Mae in Big Momma’s House and Madea in Madea’s Family Reunion, who are both also quite overbearing, and Rasputia in Norbit, who is all of these things and also extremely rude. Furthermore, all four of them to a certain

21

Kimberly Springer, ‘Waiting to Set It Off: African American Women and the Sapphire Fixation’, in Reel Knockouts: Violent Women in the Movies, eds. Martha McCaughey and Neal King (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 176.

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degree display the body language associated with the Sapphire: ‘one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and rhythmically rocking her head.’22 Within my corpus the mother of the protagonist in Precious is the only violent, fat, black woman in a non-comedy, which is probably a decisive factor in her character not displaying this very caricatural type of body language. Nevertheless, she also fulfils the Sapphire stereotype by being physically and sexually abusive, negligent and berating towards her daughter, making her a prime example of what Patricia Hill Collins identifies as the ‘Bad Black Mother’, a ‘controlling image’ related to the Sapphire and the Jezebel.23 While there might not be an inherent difference between the acts of violence committed by black and white characters in these films, it can be seen that the violence of the black fat woman and its implications of non-normative femininity are in accordance with pre-existing stereotypes of African American women, making those characters immediately intelligible within the contexts of those stereotypes and therefore contributing to the stereotypes’ continuous perpetuation. The white characters do not fit into comparable stereotypes, simply because similarly specific, narrow and ubiquitous stereotypes of white femininity do not exist. Nevertheless, three out of the five white characters in this section carry connotations of ‘white trash’ and all three of those feature in horror films: the nameless fat woman in The Hills Have Eyes is a member of a group of disfigured cannibals who are living in ramshackle houses in the dessert and are dressing in tatters; the film doesn’t provide any background information about the nameless zombie in Dawn of the Dead but her soiled undergarment and her 22

23

David Pilgrim, ‘The Sapphire Caricature’, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, August 2008, edited 2012, accessed 29 September 2014, http://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/ sapphire/. Collins, 131.

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hairstyle also connote her as ‘white trash’; the dead woman whose spirit is possessing the eponymous Monster House was a member of a travelling circus of attractions when she was still alive. Next to the association of non-normative physicality and specifically fatness with lower social class, stereotypes about violent ‘white trash’, which in American cinema most prominently find their expression in Hillbilly horror films, also play into these representations. Overall, the depiction of fat women as violent and the type of violence they are shown to engage in reinforce the notion of them being outside of normative femininity. In addition, pre-existing racial stereotypes regarding the aggressiveness of black women, but also the violent tendencies of ‘white trash’, underpin these representations.

Dominating others In patriarchal society male dominance is a cornerstone of normative gender roles and structures. Fat women not only fall outside of normative femininity due to their previously discussed nonadherence to standards of physical attractiveness, their physicality also throws doubt on the seemingly natural order of men being taller, bigger and stronger than women and therefore being (physically) dominant. Accordingly, the films analysed in this section focus on  the fat woman being non-compliant with male dominance, depicting their fat female characters as non-submissive and often overbearing. Within European popular culture there exists a long-standing tradition of presenting female figures that don’t adhere to traditional gender roles and who instead of being submissive and passive dominate others, specifically men and often their husbands. Natalie Zemon Davis uses the term ‘woman on top’ to describe these figures and highlights their popularity and their diverse incarnations in folk

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and literature traditions of the early modern age.24 Davis emphasizes the progressive potential some of these incarnations carry but also points out that many others rather reinforce traditional gender roles: ‘Some portraits of her are so ferocious (…) that they preclude the possibility of fanciful release from or criticism of hierarchy.’25 Henry Jenkins’s analysis shows how this figure continued its existence in later time periods. He traces how the ‘woman on top’ was an essential part of the trope of ‘marital combat’, which was highly popular in vaudeville comedy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and also had a strong presence in early sound comedy.26 Jenkins refers to Davis in his work and comes to a similar conclusion in his assessment of the ambiguity of the gender politics involved. On the one hand, most of these comedies end with a reinstatement and thereby reassertion of male power, overall ‘expressing and exorcizing a masculine dread of feminine moral authority’.27 On the other hand, these films do give a large amount of screen time to women acting outside of normative gender roles and allow for a certain enjoyment of their behaviour.28 Kathleen Rowe also relies on Davis’s ‘woman on top’ in her theorization of the ‘unruly woman’ and names the intention to dominate men as one characteristic of this trope.29 Rowe points to the presence of the unruly woman in classical Hollywood comedy but also analyses appearances in the 1980s and 1990s such as Miss Piggy or Roseanne Arnold. Next to these comedic figures Rowe detects an increase in representations of the woman on top in the thriller and 24

25 26

27 28 29

Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘Women on Top: Symbolic Sexual Inversion and Political Disorder in Early Modern Europe’, in The Reversible World: Symbolic Inversion in Art and Society, ed. Barbara A. Babcock (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978), 147–190. Ibid., 157. Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 247, 250–256. Ibid., 275 Ibid., 276. Rowe, The Unruly Woman, 30–31.

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horror genre during the same time period, representations that are on the whole less sympathetic and instead more explicit expressions of patriarchal fears regarding female empowerment.30 Of the ten female characters analysed in this section, half are African American, again indicating the representation of African American women as ‘less than feminine’ in general but also pointing specifically to the notion of the ‘black matriarchy’, a notion going back to slavery. During slavery, male slaves were not given the same patriarchal privileges as white men – ownership rights, authority over women and children – leading to their symbolic erasure as fathers and a consequent discursive fixation on the role of black mothers. Hortense Spillers analyses this fixation and not only emphasizes how very far removed from any matriarchal power female slaves actually were but also highlights the continuous disparagement of this perceived dominance of women within African American familial structures and its evaluation as pathological during the twentieth century.31 In three films the notion of black matriarchy is particularly pronounced, since in all three films the fat women are not necessarily shown to dominate their husbands – who are absent or non-existent – but rather their children or other members of younger generations. In the comedy Grown Ups (Dennis Dugan, 2010) the matriarch in question is the mother-in-law of Kurt (Chris Rock), one of the film’s five protagonists, and is living with him, his wife and their children. Kurt is a stay-at-home dad and much of the comedy of his character is based on his acting like a stereotypical neglected housewife, e.g. getting upset about his cooking not being appreciated or complaining to his wife that she is working all the time and not paying him enough attention. This feminization of a male character is presented as laughable and fits in with the stereotype of the de-masculinized 30 31

Ibid., 193–194. Spillers, 62–69.

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African American man. His mother-in-law is an active part in this process, mostly by slamming him with disparaging and sometimes also explicitly feminizing remarks: when he complains about not being appreciated she shouts after him, ‘Looks like he’s having his time of the month again’, when his wife complains about his bad cooking skills the mother-in-law gloatingly adds, ‘You got told’, and in one scene she simply calls him ‘woman’ in order to insult him. In Precious the figure of the black matriarch takes on a more contemporary form in the character of Mary, the mother of the title character. As already mentioned, she constitutes a prime example of the ‘Bad Black Mother’: ‘Bad Black Mothers (BBM) are those who are abusive (extremely bitchy) and/or who neglect their children in utero or afterward.’32 Mary physically and sexually abuses her daughter, not only looks on as her husband sexually abuses Precious but also accuses Precious of having seduced him, and in addition constantly berates her and attempts to make her feel worthless. One aspect of Mary’s abusive relationship with Precious is also directly linked to fatness: in one scene we see Precious being forced to eat by her mother, although she has stated clearly that she is not hungry. That this is a regular occurrence is made clear in the follow-up scene, in which Precious tells her welfare case worker: ‘She say I eat all the time, but she always makin’ me eat. Then she call me a fat mess.’ The film not only in these scenes but in general aligns itself with certain contemporary discourses within the American public that see childhood fatness as a sign of parental neglect or abuse. Natalie Boero points out how ‘mother blame’ has become a distinct trend in the discourses of the ‘obesity epidemic’. ‘The weight of one’s children has increasingly become a litmus test of good mothering.’33 32 33

Collins, 131. Natalie Boero, ‘Fat Kids, Working Moms, and the “Epidemic of Obesity”: Race, Class, and Mother Blame’, in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 113.

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But Mary is not just a Bad Black Mother, she is also a ‘welfare queen’, another controlling image that evolved out of the Bad Black Mother in the 1980s, when the Reagan/Bush administrations attempted to racialize welfare in order to garner support among white voters for cuts to the welfare system.34 Mary and Precious live solely off the welfare system, with the mother’s attitude towards welfare being an important part of her characterization and also of the characterization of her overbearing and abusive relationship with Precious. She does not support Precious in her attempts to get a school education but repeatedly tells her that instead of going to school she should rather ‘take [her] ass down to the welfare’, since that would be of more use. She is also shown to be deliberately exploiting the welfare system by not even attempting to find work and also by accepting benefits on the pretence of Precious’ daughter living with them, while the child is in fact staying with Precious’ grandmother. Amy Erdman Farrell sees fatness as a decisive part of this image of the ‘welfare queen’ with – usually – too many children, since it contributes to the notion of an over-fertile black ‘body in excess’, ‘whose appetites for sex and food know no bounds’.35 Furthermore, what also makes fatness a relevant factor in this stereotype are those discourses that stress the high costs of obesity for the state and consequently represent the fat citizen as a liability to the nation and therefore a failed citizen.36 These discourses do align themselves very well with those claiming welfare beneficiaries to be exploiters of the state and both rely heavily on stereotypes of the lazy members of the poor and working classes. Madea from Madea’s Family Reunion is not a ‘welfare queen’, but also perpetuates certain stereotypes of black femininity. The character was originally created for a stage play and has since then appeared in a large number of commercially successful plays and films, all 34 35 36

Collins, 132. Farrell, 75, 135. Herndon, 127–141.

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of which were written and directed by the character’s creator, Tyler Perry. Although her own children are absent in Madea’s Family Reunion, Madea is still a very stereotypical black matriarch, in terms of both appearance and behaviour: she is fat; wears unflattering, old-fashioned dresses; takes in family members and non-family members alike to provide a home for, and she is also opinionated and overbearing, frequently giving out advice to those around her. Moreover, she is played by Tyler Perry himself in a fat suit, making her one example of the popular phenomenon of African American men donning double-drag, also seen in Norbit and Big Momma’s House. This phenomenon has been heavily criticized for its implications regarding both African American femininity and also masculinity, since it simultaneously reinforces stereotypes of the masculine black woman and the emasculated black man.37 The main plot of the Madea’s Family Reunion centres around Madea’s niece Lisa who is suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her fiancé. Lisa’s slim and conventionally attractive mother is positioned as the bad matriarch to Madea’s good matriarch, encouraging Lisa to stay with her fiancé for her own financial gain, whereas Madea suggests physical violence in retaliation for the abuse, a suggestion Lisa follows when she decides to leave him. Yet any possible progressive potential lying in this figure of the outspoken, self-assured fat black woman is complicated not just by the fact that Madea is played by a man, but that his masculinity is very obvious, since Perry forgoes more elaborate make-up and very much looks like a man dressed up as a woman. Manigault-Bryant notes: ‘Perry’s particular performance promotes masculine power while masking it. Madea’s strength derives from her obvious masculinity, not her perceived, parodied, or constructed femininity. Madea dominates the space, a seemingly 37

See LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, ‘Pause, Auntie Momma! Reading Religion in Tyler Perry’s Fat Drag’, in Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions, eds. LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, Tamura A. Lomax, and Carol B. Duncan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 180.

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“natural” feat given that Tyler Perry is over six feet tall.’38 In addition, Madea’s fatness is also frequently the butt of jokes, and although they are exclusively voiced by her brother, who himself is portrayed as not to be taken seriously, they are still meant to elicit laughter. Whitney Peoples argues that this is one indication of the figure of Madea being ‘more caricature [of black femininity] than homage’, contrary to what Tyler Perry often claims her to be.39 In Norbit the fat female character, Rasputia, is also played by a man, namely Eddie Murphy, who in addition plays the title character and one further minor character. While his performance of these three roles was a big part of the marketing of the film, on a textual level it is less obvious than in the case of Madea, since elaborate make-up and CGI make Murphy not only unrecognizable but also look like a woman. The dominance that Rasputia is shown to exert over Norbit, her husband, is physical, financial and mental. Next to her fatness this dominance is one of the main sources of humour in the film and often a combination of these two aspects is employed to elicit laughter. Already the film poster trades on this dynamic, showing Norbit lying on his back with an anxious expression on his face while Rasputia is crouching on top of him, wearing a pink negligee, that not only exposes a lot of flesh and therefore highlights her fatness, but also, combined with her predatory and gleeful facial expression, indicates her sexual aggressiveness. The scene that introduces Rasputia as a character similarly plays on her dominance: nine-year-old Norbit is being beaten up at the playground by two other boys and Rasputia intervenes by dragging the two boys off him, butting their heads together and throwing them aside in an act of comically exaggerated, superhero-like physical prowess. The comedy 38 39

Ibid., 176. Whitney Peoples, ‘(Re)Mediating Black Womanhood: Tyler Perry, Black Feminist Cultural Criticism, and the Politics of Appropriation’, in Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions, eds. LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, Tamura A. Lomax, and Carol B. Duncan (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 151.

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here lies in the gender reversal of the strong girl saving the weak boy by overpowering two other boys. She then proceeds to decide that Norbit will be her boyfriend from now on and drags him off by his hand. The cinematography highlights her dominance and her size by showing her standing in a number of low-angle shots, while Norbit is sitting on the ground, shown in either straight-on or high-angle shots (see Figures 5–6).

Figures 5–6  Young Rasputia and young Norbit in Norbit (D: Brian Robbins, P: John Davis & Eddie Murphy, 2007).

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Throughout the film Rasputia dominates not only her husband, but other – mostly male – characters are also shown to bow to her will out of fear of repercussions. Moreover, as Niall Richardson points out, the size of her body and the way she moves imply a dominance not just simply over people: ‘Rarely represented as slow moving or out of breath, Rasputia charges everywhere with a bulllike rage, dominating every environment in which she sets foot.’40 Richardson suggests that this dominance – over people, but also over turnstiles that get in her way or cars that are too small for her – can be read as empowering and enabling, despite the fact that the film mocks her for these acts and presents them as inappropriate for her gender. Richardson does have a point here: next to her dominance her self-confidence, in particular regarding her fat body, can also be read as admirable, even though this confidence is often presented by the film in order to mock her for not being aware of the aesthetic shortcomings of her body. However, the film does to a certain extent follow the earlier mentioned comedy trope of ‘marital combat’ and consequently ends with a defeat of the dominating woman and a re-assertion of male power: Norbit finally decides to stand up to Rasputia, which leads to her and her brothers being chased out of town, leaving Norbit free to marry Kate, his slim, light-skinned and demure childhood love. Two further examples of the trope of the fat wife dominating her slim husband can be found in the romantic comedy Life as We Know It (Greg Berlanti, 2010) and in Monster House. The main storyline of Life as We Know It revolves around Holly and Messer, two (slim) singles, who have to move in together to raise the baby daughter of their respective best friends, a happily married couple who have been killed in a car crash. In this film the fat, dominating woman and her husband are only minor characters, appearing as one of three couples 40

Richardson, 95.

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also living in the same white, suburban, middle-class neighbourhood as the protagonists. In several scenes DeeDee (Melissa McCarthy) is shown to order around her husband Scott who is obliging but displaying clear resentment towards her, with the whole relationship being presented as comedic, partly due to the reversal of traditional gender dynamics. What is also relevant for their depiction is their function within the film in regard to the main couple. Leger Grindon notes how in the romantic comedy genre often ‘a secondary couple whose example serves as a guide or counterpart’ is present, and that ‘multiple couples can (…) broaden the spectrum for comparison’.41 The protagonists’ dead best friends function as their ‘guide’, whereas DeeDee and Scott as well as two other couples seem to be projections of anxieties surrounding marriage but also life in suburbia, anxieties the film attempts to dispel in the resolution of its main storyline. Next to DeeDee and Scott, there are also Will and Beth, whose comedic function seems to be based on his talking about how he used to be a jock, whereas he is fat now, and her not being attracted to him anymore. Gary and Scott are a couple with children, whose main punch line seems to be that they are a gay couple with children. In addition, the film employs as a running gag how one partner from all three couples is attracted to Messer, lusting after him when he goes jogging or waving at him awkwardly at parties. Next to these relationshiprelated aspects of characterization, all three couples are portrayed as the stereotypically nosy and gossiping suburban neighbours, visiting the protagonists unannounced or speculating behind their backs about their personal live. Overall, the slim, heterosexual couples embody the idealized fantasies of love and marriage, whereas those couples outside of normativity, because of either fatness or sexuality,

41

Leger Grindon, The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 13.

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are employed to express anxieties surrounding relationships but also discontent with middle-class suburbia. In Monster House the spirit of the dead fat woman has taken possession of the house her husband lives in, thereby forcing him to spend the next forty-five years in that house in order to protect the people of the neighbourhood from her/the house’s aggressive tendencies. When the house attacks a group of children, partly out of jealousy about her husband befriending them and considering leaving her, he decides to take the children’s side and helps them destroy the house. Although the film makes an effort to show the husband’s love for his (dead) wife, the destruction of her/the house is still presented as his liberation, allowing him to live his life free of her. Rather than dominance over a husband or male partner, it is dominance over other women that is held by Matron ‘Mama’ Morton (Queen Latifah) in the musical Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002). Matron is a black prison guard in an all-female prison and her character resonates with the stereotype of the Mammy, obvious through her name, her fatness, her relationship with the – mostly white – inmates and also through the lyrics of the song introducing her character: ‘Ask any of the chickies in my pen, they will tell you I’m the biggest mother … hen.’ The pause here between ‘mother’ and ‘hen’ already suggests that ‘her’ inmates might not have only positive things to say about her: the nurturing aspect of the Mammy is undermined in the case of Mama Morton by the fact that she is highly corrupt, only taking care of those providing her with sufficient financial incentive. Aisha S. Durham posits that this allows for a progressive reading, since it constitutes a ‘use [of] the racist construction to [Mama’s] advantage’, yet she also notes how Mama’s power is restricted to the prison and is therefore quite limited.42

42

Aisha S. Durham, Homegirl Going Home: Hip Hop Feminism and the Representational Politics of Location (Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest, 2007), 96.

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In the action film Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008) the fat woman is only a minor character but plays a relevant role during a decisive scene. The film starts out with a protagonist, Wesley, who is originally presented as a de-masculinized loser with a nagging girlfriend and an office job he hates. The film subsequently – and unsurprisingly – shows the trajectory of how this ‘average Joe’ turns his life around and (re-)gains his masculinity, namely by becoming a master assassin. The pivotal turning point in the film comes during a confrontation with his fat boss Janice. Janice is shown to be unnecessarily rude, while berating him about his poor performance, and thereby causing him to almost have an anxiety attack. In an earlier, similar scene her dominance over him but also her fatness are highlighted by a number of low-angle close-up shots from his point of view, in which Janice’s face not only takes up most of the frame but due to slow motion and some additional CGI becomes a – literally rippling – sea of flesh. The reaction shots of Wesley’s sweaty and anxious face as well as her slowed-down and therefore distorted voice contribute to her appearing monstrous and threatening (see Figures 7–8). The second scene though consists of him turning their dynamic around before his anxiety can take over and giving her what is presented as a ‘good dressing down’ in front of his co-workers. His speech contains some humiliating remarks alluding to her fatness and, although not particularly witty, leaves Janice speechless, which contributes to presenting him as the clear winner of this altercation. Moreover, when he storms out of the office after having spoken his mind, he hits his best friend, who has been sleeping with Wesley’s girlfriend, in the face with his computer keyboard and then decides to go with a character played by Angelina Jolie to be trained as an assassin. Thus, the scene with Janice gains additional importance, since his revolt against and humiliation of the dominating fat woman is the first step on his trajectory to becoming not just an assassin but also a normatively

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Figures 7–8  Janice and Wesley in Wanted (D: Timur Bekmambetov, P: Jim Lemley, Jason Netter & Iain Smith, 2008).

masculine man. The fat woman here becomes the epitomization of his de-masculinization, having to be eliminated in order for him to start his new, fulfilling life. Overall, the films in this section display little progressive potential for the trope of the dominating fat woman. Many of her representations are perpetuation of stereotypes, predominantly of African American women, and any emancipatory power the figure might yield is often undercut, either by her obviously being played by a man, or by her power being restricted from the beginning, or by her narrative defeat, which is presented as a triumph for the male character.

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Sexually Aggressive In Western societies attitudes towards female desire and sexual agency have changed markedly over the last half-century. Whereas sexual innocence and restraint used to be considered essential parts of normative femininity, the decades following the sexual revolution and the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s have seen a development towards a – seemingly – more liberal attitude towards female sexuality. In contemporary media and popular culture women often seem to be encouraged to be sexually active and assertive, whether through sex tips in lifestyle magazines or through female pop stars whose star persona is strongly based on self-determined sexual agency. However, these apparently progressive discourses and representations entail severe limitations on several levels. Firstly, this focus on women as sexual subjects does not equal an end to the sexual objectification of women, but, rather on the contrary, goes hand in hand with an increased presence of images of objectified female bodies, albeit many presented with an ‘emancipatory twist’, as noted by Rosalind Gill: ‘Women are not straightforwardly objectified but are portrayed as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their liberated interests to do so.’43 Secondly, the double standard regarding female and male sexual behaviour still exists, maybe most noticeably voiced in discussions about rape in which the notion that some women ‘are asking for it’ still keeps popping up, implying a clear and biased distinction between, on the one hand, sexually innocent and passive women and, on the other hand, sexually experienced and active women. Thirdly, those discourses encouraging female sexual assertiveness address only a certain type of women, namely those 43

Rosalind Gill, ‘Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of Sensibility’, European Journal of Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (2007): 151.

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who are heterosexual, young, conventionally attractive and slim. Within mainstream culture women who fall outside of these narrow parameters are hardly ever granted sexual desires and/or agency, but rather are being mocked or, as Rosalind Gill puts it, ‘vilified’ for being sexually active.44 The fat woman occupies a particular position within these attributions and categorizations: on the one hand, she is clearly designated as non-attractive, as too far outside of normative ideals of beauty and ‘sexiness’ to be eligible as a subject or object of sexual desire, her body ‘marked by a dearth of sexual signification’, overall connoting asexuality.45 On the other hand, the fat female body carries strong sexual connotations, marking the fat woman and her desires as hypersexual. This might be partly based on the fact that sexualized female body parts such as breasts, hips and bottoms are larger and more noticeable in fat women, marking them clearly as sexual and female.46 In addition, hunger, in particular female hunger, has often been associated with sexual hunger and desire, as described by Susan Bordo in Unbearable Weight. Bordo not only analyses the pervasiveness of sexual metaphors in American food advertising at the end of the twentieth century, but also points to similar metaphors already being present in Victorian times, made particularly obvious in etiquette guides for women, warning them off (culinary) overindulgence.47 Similarly, Catherine Manton discusses how in America in the 1950s the strong influence of psychoanalytic theory and its equation of hunger with repressed sexual desires led to women being discouraged to indulge in either, in order not to seem indecent.48 Furthermore, 44 45

46 47 48

Ibid., 152. Braziel, 231; see also Samantha Murray, ‘Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Woman’, Social Semiotics 14, no. 3 (2004): 237–240. See Hartley, 68. See Bordo, 110–116. Catherine Manton, Fed Up: Women and Food in America (Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey, 1999), 90–91.

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Bordo highlights the figure of the ‘man-eater’, which not just simply relies on the use of eating as a metaphor for sex, but goes as far as depicting sex as eating.49 Considering these associations between female hunger and female desire, as well as how strongly fatness is constructed as a result of giving in to hunger, it is not surprising that (female) fatness carries connotations of hypersexuality. Her fatness marks the fat woman as a strongly desiring subject, in terms of both hunger and sexuality, while at the same time it makes her ineligible for being a normative desiring (sexual) subject. As Samantha Murray notes: ‘She [the fat woman] needs to transform her body, and her flesh, to become normatively beautiful. She must achieve this through restraining her supposedly excessive desires.’50 The fat woman can become desirable and thereby a proper sexual subject only by restraining her own desires, denying her own subjectivity. Murray here talks about hunger as desire, but this strong aversion against this type of female desire and the need to curb it in order to be allowed to express sexual desire raise the question whether in contemporary society female desire on any level – hunger, sexual or otherwise – isn’t still considered inappropriate, and further, whether the recent, apparent approval of the sexual desire of the normatively attractive woman isn’t only acceptable insofar as it provides patriarchal society with willing sexual objects. Bordo, in her study of representations of food and gender, comes to a conclusion along similar lines regarding the limitations imposed on female desire, thereby also, as the earlier mentioned Bartky, relying on Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power: ‘Such restrictions on appetite, moreover, are not merely about food intake. Rather, the social control of female hunger operates as a practical “discipline” (to use Foucault’s term) that trains female bodies in the knowledge of their limits and possibilities. Denying oneself 49 50

Bordo, 117. Murray, ‘Locating Aesthetics,’ 241–242.

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food becomes the central micro-practice in the education of feminine self-restraint and containment of impulse.’51 Three films, all of them comedies, employ similar structures in their depiction of the fat woman as sexually aggressive. First, they all depict the fat woman and her sexuality as a sort of threat, a source of fear, often with an undercurrent of disgust. The relevant scene in Dodgeball shows a flashback by one of the male protagonists of the film, Justin, who remembers participating in the try-outs for his high school cheerleading team. He is paired with a fat girl whose introduction already implies some sort of threat, albeit conveyed via a comedic device. The camera first shows the selection committee announcing the name of the girl, ‘Martha Johnstone’, upon which the camera immediately does a fast whip pan, moving from the selection committee to the girl. The camera movement is accompanied by a sort of drum roll, going quickly down at the end and implying what we are being shown here has negative implications. The impression established by this device is further confirmed when we see a reaction shot of Justin, who looks horrified and lets out an open-mouthed, half choked-off noise, when he realizes whom he has been paired with. When they start getting into position for the cheerleading figure they have to perform, the girl looks back at him over her shoulder and tells him in a low seductive voice ‘I’m not wearing any panties’ with a suggestive wink. He again looks horrified and when they finally do the figure, he is not able to hold her up, which leads to her crashing down onto him and his face ending up under her crotch. When he gets out from underneath her, he is physically unharmed but has a shocked expression on his face, upon which the camera cuts back from the flashback to the present of the film, where we see him looking traumatized upon just having had to relive this experience. 51

Bordo, 130.

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In Good Luck Chuck (Mark Helfrich, 2007), again, before we even see the fat woman, we already get a sense of a sort of threat being associated with her, in this case conveyed via dialogue that builds up suspense. The scene starts with what seems to be the middle of a conversation between the protagonist Charlie and his best friend Stu. Stu: I can’t believe you are really considering doing this. Charlie: If you believe it and everyone else believes it what else can I do. Stu: Anything but this! C: I’ve got to be sure; I’ve got to put the curse to the test. At this point in the film the audience already knows what constitutes Charlie’s big problem, and thereby also the plot of the film: he suspects he is under a curse that causes every woman he sleeps with to find the love of her life in the next guy she meets after him. So when he meets a woman he thinks is ‘the one’ for him, he is reluctant to sleep with her, fearing it might only lead to his losing her. But what the audience does not know is what the two are discussing here specifically, what exactly it is Charlie wants to do that Stu considers to be such a dreadful idea. After the line ‘I’ve got to put the curse to the test’ the film cuts away from the two and shows in high-angle view an extreme long shot of a pool, surrounded by swimmers and located underneath the balcony Charlie and Stu are standing on. Off camera we can hear Charlie asking ‘Where is she?’ and then we see Stu in the foreground of the frame pointing at the crowd below them. Before we actually get a closer look at the woman they are talking about, we see a reaction shot of a horrified looking Charlie, the film thereby prolonging the sense of suspense for a moment longer. We then finally see the – fat – woman in question in a long shot, lying next to the pool, and the cut to her is accompanied by a sound effect that is reminiscent of horror films: a noise like growling thunder with an underlying orchestral score that continues for the rest of the scene while Stu elaborates on all the

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horrible traits of this woman and why – under normal circumstances – nobody would ever marry her. The music becomes more prominent with a cut to the next scene in which Charlie has already made his way down to the pool and is now approaching the woman. While he is very hesitantly walking towards her the orchestral music remains in the foreground of the audio level, almost completely drowning out the diegetic noises of the people at the pool. The music here retains its threatening tone but is less reminiscent of a horror film but rather of scenes in action or war films, in which the protagonist is about to confront his or her opponents. In accordance with the sound, the composition of the frame also contributes to this impression of fear or threat. We see Charlie approaching in an almost static deep-focus shot, the woman’s legs and torso in the foreground of the frame, with Charlie far in the background, looking tiny for most of the duration of his walk towards her and the foreground (see Figure 12, p. 164). After a short conversation with the woman, in which he convinces her to go on a date with him, we then see them on that date in the next scene. Charlie is drinking heavily, the implication being that he is obviously dreading what he is about to do. When he suggests they ‘get physical’, he is barely able to get the words out, choking before actually saying them. When she emphatically agrees to this and then continues to lick the lobster she is eating in a highly suggestive manner, Charlie seems to be barely able to contain himself, retching and looking as if he were about to actually puke. After a very short shot of them in bed together the film cuts to a shot of Charlie in the shower, holding a box of disinfectant in his hand and cleaning himself maniacally with a large brush while we can hear music almost identical to the shower theme from Psycho. Here again it is music that makes an association with other films and genres, thereby evoking a sense of threat. In the comedy Norbit, the fact that the title character is living in constant fear of his fat wife Rasputia is presented as one of the film’s main running gags. This fear also extends to her sexuality, as is

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made obvious during their wedding: when the priest tells him that he ‘may now kiss the bride’ Norbit stays half a metre away from her and puckers his lips, apparently not wanting to get closer. In reaction to this Rasputia grabs him, pulls him closer, tells him to open his mouth, and then kisses him, moving towards him very quickly, almost giving off the impression that she is attacking him with her mouth. The actual kiss is not shown, instead the film cuts to a number of reaction shots of the rows of guests, who are all shrinking back in a mixture of horror and disgust, thereby conveying a greater sense of horror than seeing the actual kiss would. One reaction in particular stands out, showing two male characters, one of whom is watching the kiss through his hands, reminiscent of someone watching a horror movie. In the scene depicting their wedding night Norbit is again presented as rather fearful while Rasputia is acting sexually aggressive. We first see Norbit standing in front of their bed, holding up his hands in a placating manner, and trying to persuade Rasputia to take it slow. The next shot is a long shot of Rasputia, leaning seductively in the doorway to the bathroom, only lit from behind and thus looking like an ominous silhouette. Next, we see a medium-close-up of Norbit still with his hands up and screaming in fear in reaction to what we see in the following shot, namely Rasputia basically charging at him and then throwing him onto the bed with her full bodyweight. This same shot structure gets repeated three more times, each time with different costumes (since they are apparently role-playing), and in none of them Rasputia utters a single word. Combined with the fact that we don’t fully get to see her face either, this makes her seem even more like an ominous presence than an actual character. What also becomes apparent in these scenes is that all three films employ gender reversal to generate comedy: not only are the women sexually aggressive, but the sexual reluctance or disinterest of the male characters is also presented as comedic. Similarly, the fact that it is men who are afraid of women is also in all three films a source

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of comedy. One specific fear present in all of these scenarios is the fear of being overborne by the fat woman: in Dodgeball and Norbit the male protagonists are crushed to the ground by the women’s bodyweight, and in Good Luck Chuck the one shot we see of Charlie and the fat woman sleeping together is an over-the-shoulder-shot of him underneath her in bed, her back a large expanse taking up most of the frame and almost completely covering him, except for his eyes and the top of his head. Another representational structure employed by all three films is the depiction of the fat woman as not only sexually aggressive but also as overly sexually confident or at least oblivious to her lack of conventional attractiveness. Katariina Kyrölä points out how this ‘figure of the “deluded” fat woman can (…) be found repeatedly in television sitcoms and film comedies’.52 In Dodgeball the girl is blatantly flirting with Justin and presenting the fact that she is not wearing any panties as enticing despite his less-than-enthusiastic reaction to her. In Good Luck Chuck the fat woman never questions Charlie’s motives for being so keen on sex with her, despite the fact that he is actually retching at the prospect of having to sleep with her. Rasputia in Norbit repeatedly shows her confidence in her own sexual attractiveness. Her affair with her tap-dance instructor is initiated by her asking him in a flirty manner for ‘private lessons’, to which he only agrees because of potential economic gains. Rasputia is self-assured enough to be oblivious to his financial motivation for the affair, which to the audience is presented as very obvious. In one scene, Rasputia demonstrates that she is not just sure of her sexual attractiveness but very explicitly of her attractiveness as a fat woman: she quite condescendingly explains to Kate, Norbit’s actual love interest in the film, who is very slim and attractive in a conventional manner, that men prefer big women like her, and that Kate is too skinny to be 52

Kyrölä, 100.

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found attractive by men. Here, in this scene, becomes explicit what is also present in the other described scenes and films: the fat woman’s sexual confidence is mocked, presented as unfounded and delusional, and thereby employed as a source of comedy. However, considering how in contemporary media fat woman are constantly presented as outside of normative physicality and attractiveness, the display of confidence by these characters might hold some emancipatory potential despite the authorial intent behind these scenes, as Kyrölä notes: ‘Rasputia’s refusal to hide her body, her lack of image complexes and humbleness apparently justify more direct and open hostile fat jokes, although it also opens more radical possibilities for shamelessness. (…) Seeing shamelessness in bodies that are most commonly connected to threat or shame may become exponentially relieving and joyful just because it is outrageously daring and risky.’53 Kyrölä’s analysis relates this experience not only to fat women, who might enjoy these ‘risky’ representations, but also to wider audiences, who have become saturated with the constant association of corporeality with shame. One final aspect all three analysed films have in common is the juxtaposition of the fat woman with a slim woman who is presented as sexually viable. In Good Luck Chuck, next to the love interest Cam, there are many women the protagonist sleeps with, all of them in terms of body size and looks within the narrow parameters of normative femininity and therefore quite far removed from the fat woman. In Dodgeball this role is taken up by Amber, Justin’s love interest, who, apart from being slim and conventionally attractive, also distinguishes herself from Martha, the fat girl in question, by being sexually passive, thereby adhering to traditional gender roles. What is also noticeable about her character is the one figure we see her and Justin doing together as part of a cheerleading competition: the figure is similar 53

Ibid., 112–113.

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to the one Justin attempted to do with Martha, starting out with the man lifting up the woman high above his head, but with the difference that with Amber as partner Justin is actually able to perform this figure, a figure that in itself is also based on traditional gender roles, demanding a physically strong male and a small, in terms of physical strength most likely inferior, female counterpart. The slim woman is not simply more conventionally attractive, but that what makes her attractive also enables her to fulfil normative roles of femininity where the fat woman fails to do so. Norbit contrasts its main female characters most openly, almost pitching them against each other on several occasions. This is most obvious when the two first meet and Kate addresses Rasputia with ‘Mrs. Rice’, Norbit’s surname, to which Rasputia reacts quite surly: ‘Mrs. Rice? My name ain’t no damn Mrs. Rice!’ Again, the fat woman is not only contrasted with the slim woman in terms of attractiveness but in terms of adherence to traditional gender roles: Kate automatically assumes that a woman would take her husband’s name, whereas Rasputia is offended by this suggestion, a fact the film presents as part of her being the evil, domineering wife. One further difference between the two women is that although both of them are African Americans Kate is much more light-skinned, possesses only slightly wavy hair, a slim nose and slim lips. Niall Richardson situates her character within a ‘tradition of “blanched” blackness represented as attractive’ and names Halle Berry or Vanessa Williams as further examples.54 In addition to these features Kate also seems to be coded as ‘more white’ in terms of her clothing style: she wears almost exclusively light colours, such as white, light grey or pastel, whereas Rasputia prefers colourful clothing with sometimes flashy patterns and often equally flashy jewellery, overall fashion choices coded as African American. In this film the type of 54

Richardson, 97.

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femininity presented as sexually viable is not only slim and adhering to traditional gender roles, she is also coded as ‘less black’ than the fat woman. Next to these three films, instances of presenting the fat woman as sexually aggressive can also be found in other films, although not necessarily within the same structures as analysed above. The comedy Bridesmaids to a certain degree relies on similar tropes but in the end slightly subverts them. Megan displays the stereotypical sexual aggressiveness of the fat woman already in the scene in which she is introduced as a character. While chatting to the protagonist Annie at a party, she loudly voices her interest in a stranger standing nearby (‘I’m gonna climb that like a tree’) to which Annie reacts with a slightly baffled look, meant to convey to the audience the inappropriateness of Megan’s statement. Later on in the film, Megan aggressively pursues a guy sitting next to her during a flight in a scene that for comedic effect heavily relies on the trope of the inappropriately sexually confident woman, the inappropriateness being confirmed by his rejection. However, at the end of the film during the wedding we see that the same guy is not just Megan’s date but that they are actually together. Their relationship is presented as a surprise, not just because until then there was no indication that the two had even met again, but also because thereby the earlier employed trope has, at last to a certain degree, been subverted. In Grown Ups we see how in one scene the elderly mother-in-law of one of the protagonists attempts to grope and kiss one of his friends on the mouth, who is doing his best to stay away from her touches. Although this interaction also fits in with the trope of the sexually aggressive woman, it seems more obviously based on ageism, mocking the grandmother for having some sort of interest in a younger man. Precious is not a comedy and does not employ the same tropes as the previously discussed films but still depicts the sexuality of the fat woman as inappropriate or in this case rather as perverse by featuring a – fat – mother who sexually abuses her daughter.

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This section has shown that the approving depictions of female sexual assertiveness observable in contemporary popular culture do not seem to extend to the fat woman. Her sexuality is portrayed as a source of fear and/or disgust and her sexual confidence is mocked and presented as uncalled for. Similarly, a reversal of gender roles is presented  as a source of comedy, while the slim women who are presented as sexually viable remain within traditional gender boundaries. However, despite the obvious authorial intent behind these characterizations, some portrayals of sexual confidence might hold some potential for a more empowering, progressive reading, in which characters are seen as positive role models for being able to resist the internalization of narrow societal restrictions of normative femininity.

A new representation of fat female sexuality … ? Since 2011 a number of films have been released that seem to break with these disparaging depictions of fat female sexuality. What these films have in common is, first, they very deliberately present fat women as sexually desirable; second, they are all comedies; and third, they feature either Melissa McCarthy or Rebel Wilson, the two major fat, female stars of contemporary Hollywood. Richard Dyer established star studies within academia and with it the approach that stars and their images have to be analysed in the context of power, society and identity.55 Drawing on Dyer, Mary C. Beltran points out ‘that social and racial hierarchies are both reflected in and reinforced by a nation’s system of stardom.’56 Considering this, the fact that in recent years 55

56

See Richard Dyer, Stars (London: BFI Publishing, 1998); Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (London: Routledge, 2004). Mary C. Beltran, ‘The Hollywood Latina Body as Site of Social Struggle: Media Constructions of Stardom and Jennifer Lopez’s “Cross-over Butt”’, in Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader, eds. Sean Redmond and Su Holmes (Los Angeles: Sage, 2007), 276.

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Hollywood has produced two white, fat female stars and also regularly casts them in roles diverting from established representational patterns indicates changes in American society’s attitude towards female fatness. However, what is noticeable about these representations is the willingness they display when it comes to perpetuating other stereotypes of female fatness, outside of a lack of sexual desirability. They show their fat female characters as typical ‘fat eaters’ (Pitch Perfect  2, Tammy, The Boss) and/or as ‘physically aggressive’ (Pitch Perfect, The Boss, The Heat, How to Be Single, Tammy), and, most commonly, employ ‘fat slapstick’ as a source of comedy (Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2, The Heat, The Boss, Spy, How to Be Single, Tammy).57 This focus on a subversion of only one particular stereotype can be seen in the context of certain public, media and popular culture discourses of recent years. These discourses, often summarized under the term ‘body positivity’, have widely acknowledged and criticized the centrality of a certain – slim – body type for constructs of female beauty and sexual desirability, instead promoting a celebration of bodies outside of this narrow ideal. While these discussions, and celebrations, are often quite ambivalent, in particular when it comes to body sizes that go beyond a certain size, their ubiquity makes this deliberate counter-representation of the fat woman as sexually desirable an obvious choice for an, if not empowering, then at least respectful role for a female, fat star. In addition, and related to the centrality of this issue, is the previously mentioned fact that sexual desirability is an essential aspect of normative femininity. While it is possible to show fat women engaging in fat slapstick, or overeating, and even as physically aggressive, presenting them as sexually nonviable constitutes a much bigger impediment to them being considered part of the dominant order. Furthermore, heteronormativity has often been an essential part of the Hollywood feature narrative. Thus, 57

For more details see Chapters 4, 2 and 3 respectively.

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for fat women to be fully part of this narrative, they also need to be integrated within its heteronormative structures. Having said that, what is also noticeable about these representations is how, despite showing fat women as sexually desirable, they still retain not only those fat stereotypes outside of issues of sexuality, but also some of those related to female fat sexuality. Fat Amy (Wilson) in Pitch Perfect and Pitch Perfect 2 has a love interest, Bumper, with whom she enters first a noncommittal affair and then a romantic relationship. However, the scene in which they get together, which features Amy paddling across a lake while singing a love song at Bumper, is played for laughs, unlike, for instance, the scene in which the slim Beca (Anna Kendrick) gets together with her love interest. In addition, at the end of the scene when Amy and Bumper start making out on the front lawn of Bumper’s house, his housemates first applaud, but when the two start rolling around on the ground, the housemates panic in a comically exaggerated way and hastily flee. Here again, a slight sense of fat, female sexuality being disgusting is conveyed, as is in the opening scene of Pitch Perfect 2, in which Amy causes a national scandal by accidentally flashing her vulva to President Obama. (For more on the latter scene see also Chapter 4.) Disappointingly enough, the final part of the franchise, Pitch Perfect 3, delivers the most conventional and regressive depiction of fat female sexuality. At the beginning of the film the audience gets to hear in an expositional dialogue how Amy and Bumper didn’t work out and that he still isn’t over her, the film thereby seemingly deliberately emphasizing Amy’s desirability. However, later on in several scenes, Amy is shown to hit on two conventionally attractive, male soldiers who are accompanying the Bellas on their tour of US Army bases. The two men react with disinterest and repulsion to Amy’s overtures and, even though this could be partly explained by the crassness of her lines, it is difficult in these scenes not to recognize the widespread trope of the sexually aggressive and deluded, confident fat woman.

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The Boss presents Michelle (Melissa McCarthy) as sexually desirable through her relationship with Renault, a professional rival and ex-lover, who still carries a torch for her. However, again, this representation is quite ambivalent. Their whole relationship is presented in a comical, non-realist mode, e.g. when we see a flashback of them doing cocaine together in the 1990s and kissing exaggeratedly while 1990s dance pop is blaring in the background, or when in the film’s finale Renault first attempts to throw her off a roof, only for the two of them to end up kissing while lying on a heap of garbage bags, this time with an 1980s power ballad playing. In addition, Renault is played by Peter Dinklage, who is a dwarf. Dinklage is a very popular and critically acclaimed actor; however, the film sometimes seems to invite or at least allow a reading of him and McCarthy as two comical, grotesque bodies, such as in the finale when her friend reminds Michelle that she shouldn’t make out with him since he just tried to kill her, and Michelle then gestures at Renault’s body and mouths, ‘I know, (…) but this is really good stuff.’ You can read the comedy as resulting from the unusual circumstances of that kiss, but you can also read it as being based on a non-normative body being presented as highly desirable, similar to an earlier scene, when Michelle stumbles down a set of stairs and Renault exclaims ‘Did she hurt her wonderful body?’. What Amy and Michelle also share, and what is particularly pronounced in Robin (Wilson) from How to Be Single, is a certain oversexedness. While in these characters this trait is not presented as inappropriate, it still resonates with a common stereotype of fat female sexuality. Robin’s promiscuity is highlighted again and again, and while the film makes it clear that she never lacks any men wanting to take her up on that, her hypersexuality is a large part of her role as the funny sidekick, which raises the question whether her fatness doesn’t also, to a certain degree, contribute to this being comical. When she first shows Alice, the film’s protagonist and her work colleague,

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around the office and advices her in which copy room not to hook up, this can be read as being funny purely due to being an example of her promiscuity. The promiscuity of the very slim character of Samantha in Sex and the City, for instance, was also often employed as a source of comedy. However, in the case of Robin, this type of behaviour can also be read as being funny because the notion of a fat woman being sexually desirable is comic, or because it resonates with the notion of fat women being hypersexual. What this hypersexuality in the case of Robin also entails, and what also fits with fat stereotypes, is a certain vulgarity: she pulls down the zip of her top for a corner shop sales clerk in order to pay for her shopping, at the office Christmas party she asks people to get presents out of her cleavage and she continuously uses profane language. Tammy ends with the eponymous protagonist (McCarthy) getting together with a younger, normatively attractive guy, Bobby (Mark Duplass), who has pursued her over the last third of the film. However, this is only the film’s ending; earlier on Tammy is presented in a manner that fully fits the trope of the sexually aggressive and ‘deluded’ fat woman. First, we see her boasting about her effect on men, only to then immediately get rejected when she actually approaches two guys in a bar. In a similar manner, when she first meets Bobby, she wrongly assumes his going to the toilet to be a ‘hint’ and follows him to ambush him with a kiss, which he wards off resolutely. While Bobby changes his mind about her over the course of the film, this doesn’t undo this previous perpetuation of fat stereotypes. The Heat, again with McCarthy, is maybe slightly less obvious in its ambivalence: the predominant impression we get of Shannon’s love life is that she is regularly pursued by guys she slept with and who now want a serious relationship with her. However, outside of this, there are still remnants of certain stereotypes: we see this in the verbal display of her high confidence in her ‘natural’ sexual desirability, which is voiced after giving her colleague, played by Sandra Bullock, a ‘sexy’

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makeover. Shannon’s confidence that in order to be sexy she doesn’t need the sort of makeover Bullock’s character – slim and normatively attractive – needs can hardly be read in any other way than as an example of the ‘deluded’ fat woman who is presented to elicit laughter. McCarthy’s character in Spy (Susan) seems to be the only one of those discussed in this section that doesn’t, to some degree, further perpetuate stereotypes of fat female sexuality. While at first she is shown to have an unrequited crush on her colleague Bradley (Jude Law), this is not presented in a mocking manner, and by the end of the film Bradley and two other normatively attractive men (played by Peter Serafinowicz and Jason Statham respectively) have shown interest in Susan. The one scene, however, that still allows for a double-reading is the scene in which Susan ends up in bed with Jason Statham’s character which is presented as the final scene and thereby final gag of the film. Even though the obvious source of the gag’s comedy is the antagonistic relationship the two characters have had throughout the film, the presentation as final gag safely contains the progressive potential of the scene and also allows for less progressive readings that locate the source of the scene’s comedy in McCarthy’s fatness. When assessing how much these films actually diverge from established representations of female fatness, it also has to be considered what kind of fat woman is allowed to take centre stage in them. Both McCarthy and Wilson are white, play straight characters and can be described as what Roxane Gay calls ‘Lane Bryant’ fat.58 With that term Gay highlights differences among fat people and that those who are too big to shop at the American plus-size chain of the same name face different experiences and marginalizations than those of a smaller size, such as McCarthy and Wilson. So while the emergence of two fat female stars and their casting in roles that 58

Roxane Gay, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (London: Corsair, 2016), 125.

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break with the trope of the sexually undesirable woman does indicate progress in terms of fat female representation, this section has also shown that, so far, this progress is limited, in terms of the details of representation, but also regarding which groups of fat women it is extended to.

The ‘Independent Woman’ The figure of the ‘independent woman’, usually understood to be economically as well as emotionally self-reliant and therefore without the need for a male presence in her life, first appeared in American cinema in the 1920s and 1930s. Modernity, urbanization and the achievements of the first wave of feminism had led to drastic changes for women regarding their participation in the workforce and their entrance into marriage, resulting in growing numbers of working, mostly urban, single women.59 One of the most popular genres to depict this ‘independent woman’ were screwball comedies, in general considered to be predecessors of today’s romantic comedies, which still, or maybe rather again, constitute the main platform for this type of female character in Hollywood cinema.60 The original screwball comedies have often been analysed as not necessarily feminist or at least not solely feminist in their gender politics, in particular considering how they often end in the marriage of the independent woman and thereby her re-incorporation into the traditional patriarchal structures of society.61 Similarly, contemporary romantic comedy has been criticized for undoing the more progressive 59

60 61

See Veronica Pravadelli, ‘Cinema and the Modern Woman’, in American Film History: Selected Readings, Origins to 1960, eds. Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 249–251. On screwball comedy and the independent or ‘new woman’ see ibid., 260–262. For an overview of the critical opinions on the gender politics of screwball comedy see Grindon, 79–81.

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gender politics of the film romances of the 1960s and 1970s and, related to this, for being proponents of postfeminist thinking, in the sense that the freedoms and rights gained by feminism are taken for granted while feminism itself is rejected.62 In her seminal essay on postfeminism and popular culture, Angela McRobbie describes this paradoxical dynamic by pointing to the figure of the independent woman – albeit without using that exact term – who has been released from traditional communities and restraints and in accordance with the neoliberal zeitgeist is now considered ‘free to compete in education and in work as privileged subject(s) of the new meritocracy’.63 One of McRobbie’s prime examples of a postfeminist text is Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001), a romantic comedy, indicating the importance of this genre for the figure of the independent woman.64 Accordingly, four out of the six films analysed in this section on the independent woman are romantic comedies – The Back-Up Plan (Alan Poul, 2010), Valentine’s Day (Garry Marshall, 2010), Just Wright (Sanaa Hamri, 2010), Bridesmaids – and a fifth one, Identity Thief, might not fall clearly into this category but is still strongly indebted to it. (Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006) is the only film that is clearly not a romantic comedy.) The fat woman in these films plays various roles: she might be a feminist and therefore presented by the text as ‘too independent’, she might be quite ‘conventionally independent’, but still be the one not ending up in a romantic relationship, or she might be the independent woman of romantic comedy, but have her independence overly highlighted by juxtaposition with a contrasting

62

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For a critical assessment of romantic comedy since the 1980s see Tamar Jeffers McDonald, Romantic Comedy: Boy Meets Girl Meets Genre (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), in particular 85–91. Angela McRobbie, ‘Post-Feminism and Popular Culture’, Feminist Media Studies 4, no. 3 (2004): 258. On romantic comedy and postfeminism see also e.g. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, ‘Postfeminism and the Archive for the Future’, Camera Obscura 21, no. 2 (2006): 170–176.

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stereotype of femininity that is highly reliant on men. Overall, the fat woman seems to signify more independence, a connotation that can presumably be traced back to her assumed lack of sexual viability and hence her positioning outside of heterosexual romance, resulting in an (involuntary) independence from men. As with the other sections of this chapter, the fat woman being not just outside of heteronormative romance but outside of traditional gender roles in general also has to be taken into account, since it contributes to her association with greater freedom and thereby independence. What is also noticeable about the films featuring this specific character trope is the fact that out of the six characters five are played by only two actresses, both of whom are stars: Melissa McCarthy features in The Back-Up Plan, Bridesmaids and Identity Thief; Queen Latifah in Valentine’s Day and Just Wright. Similar to the previous section, this already indicates a different, maybe sometimes less straightforward and less harsh, type of stereotyping, that allows fat female stars to play these parts without – too obviously – being reduced to their fatness. The Back-up Plan is a quite conventional postfeminist romantic comedy, starring Jennifer Lopez as the protagonist Zoe, a successful pet store owner living in Manhattan, who is perpetually single but nevertheless wants to have a child. The film begins with Zoe being artificially inseminated at a fertility clinic, only immediately afterwards to have a meet-cute with Stan who turns out to be ‘the One’. This development is complicated by the fact that the insemination has been successful, and Zoe finds out she is pregnant, yet all ensuing complications have been solved by the end of the film, which shows the two as happy parents who are engaged to get married. What becomes obvious already from this summary is how the film at first suggests non-traditional ways of child-raising and family constellation only to quickly replace them with the conventional nuclear family. Jennifer Maher notes in her article on The Back-up Plan and a few other contemporary films with similar plots: ‘Hollywood romantic

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comedies of the (wonders) of reproductive technology paradoxically function, as does much contemporary discourse, to reinstate the “natural” romance of the patriarchal family.’65 Carol, the fat woman in this film, is played by Melissa McCarthy, and is the leader of a single mothers’ group Zoe joins. As the group leader Carol is the member who has the most dialogue and for the audience functions as the personification of the group. The group overall falls broadly into the genre-typical category of more or less eccentric supporting characters, whose antics serve as an additional source of humour in the romantic comedy. What is notable about this group is that their antics – or what are presented as such – are mostly based on their association with second-wave feminism and their positioning as proponents and representatives of the non-patriarchal family. In Carol’s introductory scene she opens a meeting of the group – ‘Single Mothers and Proud’ – by explaining that as their name suggests they are all ‘single, mothers, and proud’. When Zoe voices some embarrassment about being described as just having been inseminated, Carol responds with, ‘Well, we do what we have to do, when we don’t have a penis partner’. (This terminology makes Zoe do a double take and slightly frown at Carol, thereby conveying the film’s position on it.) When Zoe further introduces herself and her situation, she mentions that she has not found ‘the One’ yet, to which the whole group reacts with sceptical murmurs and Carol replies slightly sarcastically: ‘Whoa, the elusive One. Good luck!’ In her second meeting with the group Zoe is trying to talk about Stan and their relationship problems to which the group reacts quite negatively. All these comments and reactions mark Carol and her group as not just single mothers, but as in opposition to traditional concepts of romance and family.

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Jennifer Maher, ‘Something Else besides a Father: Reproductive Technology in Recent Hollywood Film’, Feminist Media Studies 14, no. 5 (2014): 855.

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In addition, what is notable about the second scene is Carol’s slightly baffled and also hesitant response to Zoe’s direct question concerning what she should do about her problems with Stan: ‘Oh … I don’t know. This is … wildly outside my … field of expertise.’ This particular wording and also Melissa McCarthy’s performance do not so much convey a hostility towards heteronormative romance as just a removal or a separation from it, a characterization resonating with the notion of the fat woman not being sexually viable and therefore (involuntarily) situated outside of traditional romance. It is also fitting that not only Carol but also many of the other members of the group fall outside of white normative femininity in terms of their ethnicity and/or appearance, the latter meant to be highlighted by the sceptical side eye Zoe gives the rest of the group already at the beginning of the first meeting, before she has even spoken to them. There are quite a few women of colour in the group, a lot of short-haired women, who are presumably meant to be coded as lesbian, and a few who are tattooed and/or display a hippie retro look. These types of femininity don’t exist in the white, middle-class circles Zoe moves in during the rest of the film, but only here, in this othered group of women who live outside of patriarchal structures.66 Carol’s third scene is set in a baby supply store where by chance she and one other member of the group run into Zoe, her grandmother and her grandmother’s fiancé, who are shopping for a baby bottle. Carol and her friend approach the group and start the conversation by telling Zoe that they don’t advocate using a bottle because ‘Breast is best’. While her friend is the one voicing that statement Carol nods and pats both her breasts while adding ‘Better’, which makes Zoe laugh and her grandmother eye Carol and her friend slightly sceptically.

66

Jennifer Lopez herself is Hispanic, but in this role, as in several other of her films, there is no acknowledgement of her ethnicity, neither through her character’s name, family members nor on any other level.

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Although the encounter is friendly, and the humour is not too harsh, there is a sense of the film satirizing the two women’s celebration and endorsement of everything female. This sense of satire becomes stronger in the group’s fourth scene which shows one of them giving birth at home. Zoe watches on in horror as the birth proceeds in a paddling pool while the rest of the group is humming New Age–like melodies in the background and Carol is playing a bongo drum while providing comments about the amazingness and naturalness of it all. The humour here is partially based on Zoe’s horrified and frantic reaction to the birth – at the end she faints and face-plants into the pool – but moreover it is based on what Maher describes as a ‘secondwave feminist parody’.67 Maher points this out in the context of a seemingly contradictory – and very postfeminist – dynamic present in The Back-up Plan and other reproduction comedies: although the freedom the female protagonists have over their reproductive choices is a right gained by the feminist movement, the films are at pains to distance their heroines from feminism and present it as out-dated and laughable.68 In The Back-up Plan the fat woman is the leader of this ‘laughable’ group and, although fatness is not as obviously and clearly the target of the film’s humour as in other works analysed in this study, it fits in with stereotypes about ‘fat feminists’ and supports the distancing of the group from the slim, fashionable and, according to contemporary standards, very attractive protagonist. The meaning of Carol and her group within the text is not just relevant in terms of the protagonist’s original plan to have a child outside the nuclear family and the film’s attitude towards feminism but also in terms of Zoe’s need for independence, which is presented as the main cause of the genre-typical emotional crisis that has to be resolved to achieve a happy ending. After Zoe breaks up with 67 68

Maher, 856. Ibid.

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Stan because she doubts his commitment to staying with her and her soon-to-be-born twins, her grandmother tells her: ‘Honey, you don’t always have to be so strong. I know you learned it from me, but it’s no good, what does it get you?’ The film pathologizes Zoe’s need for independence as deep-rooted trust issues and thereby fits in perfectly with the characteristics of the contemporary postfeminist romance as analysed by Michele Schreiber. Schreiber notes how in these films contemporary women’s social and economic freedoms and opportunities are often presented as the source of certain problems the female protagonists have. These problems are always central to the plot of the films and need to be overcome to achieve a happy ending.69 In The Back-up Plan the slim protagonist is the typical ‘independent woman’ of romantic comedy, who in the end has to give up some of her independence to be integrated into traditional patriarchal structures. On the other hand, Carol, the fat woman, fulfils a different role in this engagement with female independence: she is the woman who actually stays independent but whose independence is slightly mocked and othered and thereby rejected as a viable alternative. Valentine’s Day is an ensemble romantic comedy with a network narrative, clearly influenced by predecessors such as Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) and He’s Just Not That into You (Ken Kwapis, 2009), but attempting to outdo them by featuring an even bigger main cast of twenty-one A- and B-list actresses and actors. However, not all twenty-one characters are given the same amount of screen time or are even necessarily part of one of the romance story lines: next to Julia Roberts, whose story line revolves around visiting her son but who is still allowed to – at least seemingly – flirt with Bradley Cooper, Kathy Bates, George Lopez and Queen Latifah are the ones left out

69

Michele Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema: Women, Romance and Contemporary Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 43.

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of the romance part of this romantic comedy. Kathy Bates’s role is very minor and consists of only two short dialogue scenes in which she plays the boss of one of the actual main characters. The MexicanAmerican actor George Lopez is relegated to the role of ‘Magical Latino’, whose sole purpose is giving advice to two of the white characters.70 Queen Latifah has a slightly bigger part to play and her character Paula at first also seems to fit one of the standard character tropes of the romantic comedy, the successful career woman. There are two further characters in the film who fit this trope and who are presented as either granting her career too much importance and therefore rejecting her boyfriend’s proposal and ending up alone (Jessica Alba), or as professionally successful but still needing a relationship to feel fulfilled (Jessica Biel). However, in the case of Paula it becomes clear that the film does not actually assign her the kind of role typical for heroines of the romantic comedy but rather employs her as a side character or occasional comic relief within the story lines of other – white – characters. Her overall characterization and also what is presented as presumably funny about her character fits with stereotypes of the tough, domineering black woman and partly also with the previously analysed trope of the dominating fat woman: when her new receptionist hangs up the phone on her own mother Paula quips, ‘Cold. We might just get along’. In another scene she catches the receptionist flirting with the office mail delivery guy during work and reacts to that by asking in a sharp tone, ‘How fast does that cart go?’, making the guy grab his mail cart and flee. In her final scene she accidentally receives a phone call meant for her receptionist, who moonlights as a phone sex operator. After her initial confusion she goes along with the call and also the dominatrix role 70

In reference to the African American stereotype of the ‘Magical Negro’ the All The Tropes wiki uses the term ‘Magical Latino’ to describe Lopez’ character in the film: N.A., ‘Valentine’s Day’, All The Tropes Wiki, accessed 13 February 2016, http://allthetropes. wikia.com/wiki/Valentine’s_Day.

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the caller seems to expect: ‘Let me tell you something, Vladimir. You don’t know what rough is until you’ve dealt with a true Africa queen.’ Unlike Carol in The Back-up Plan, Paula doesn’t get mocked for her man-less-ness, nor is she depicted as an old-fashioned second-wave feminist. Her job as a successful sports agent, her nice clothes and her nice office make her fit right in with the upper-middle-class milieu so typical for the contemporary romantic comedy and also present in Valentine’s Day. The fact that she is an actually independent woman whose independence is presented neither as misled, as in the case of Jessica Alba’s character, nor as a temporary pitiful state that has to be undone ASAP – Jessica Biel’s character – could almost be read as a positive representation of a contemporary woman. However, considering she is a character in a conventional romantic comedy, a genre that has the heterosexual coupling as its ultimate goal, her independence rather equals a marginalization based not only on her body size but also her race, those two characteristics distinguishing her from the female characters who are actually part of the various romantic story lines of the film. African Americans and other people of colour in general rarely feature in mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies, often not even as supporting characters let alone as part of the main couple.71 As already mentioned, parts of Paula’s characterization correspond with racial stereotypes and her independence can also be seen as a further aspect of the stereotype of the ‘Strong Black Woman’. In her analysis of two – low-budget – romantic comedies with African American casts Karen Bowdre comes to the conclusion that certain racial stereotypes are strongly at odds with the conventions of the contemporary romantic comedy, yet aren’t cast off even in those productions predominantly targeted at black audiences, resulting 71

For an overview of the issue see Betty Kaklamanidou, Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism: The New Millennium Hollywood Rom Com (London: Routledge, 2013), 137–139.

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in films that in terms of plot and tone differ quite severely from mainstream white romantic comedies.72 One of the relevant stereotypes Bowdre highlights is that of black women being ‘ “strong” to the point of isolation’, a characterization not compatible with the genre’s depiction of romance as essential for a fulfilled life.73 In her analysis of Queen Latifah’s star persona Linda Mizejewski points out how in Latifah’s case it is not only her race but also her body size that keeps the actress from taking up the role of the heroine of the romantic comedy: ‘The unruly woman of romantic comedy can be black only if she plays against the race/class stereotype  – that is, if she looks like Gabrielle Union or Sanaa Lathan, whose bodies and demeanors reinforce rather than threaten middle-class concepts of the feminine.’74 Mizejewski emphasizes this argument by drawing attention to Rowe’s The Unruly Woman and how Rowe’s examples taken from the romantic comedy genre are all slim and feminine looking, while those examples whose body size is part of their nonnormativity and unruliness (e.g. Roseanne, Miss Piggy) exist only outside of this genre.75 Nevertheless, the third film in this section, Just Wright, is actually a romantic comedy with Queen Latifah as leading lady, seemingly fitting the traditional genre mould: she plays a professionally accomplished and independent single woman in her thirties who meets Mr Right and after a series of complications gets her happy ending with him. I will argue, however, that body size and race inform narrative and characterization, resulting in a film that on various levels differs from the standard formula.

72

73 74 75

Karen Bowdre, ‘Romantic Comedy and the Raced Body’, in Falling in Love Again: Romantic Comedy in Contemporary Cinema, eds. Stacey Abbott and Deborah Jermyn (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 105–116. Ibid., 116. Mizejewski. Ibid.

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At the beginning of the film it is made clear that the protagonist, Leslie, is suffering from a lacklustre love life, in itself not a remarkable but a rather common premise for a romantic comedy. What is remarkable though is what is presented as the reason for this, namely that men see her as the kind of woman they just want to be friends with, instead of the potential girlfriend. This problem of hers is also reflected in the central romance plot of the film: her Mr Right, Scott, is at first not romantically interested in her but in her best friend Morgan, who is slim and also light-skinned. Love triangles in romantic comedies are not rare, yet often they show the female protagonist inbetween two men, focusing on her journey of realizing which one is the right one for her, e.g. Moonstruck (John Patrick Shanley, 1987), Bridget Jones’s Diary or Leap Year (Anand Tucker, 2010). In films in which the female protagonist has to vie with another woman for a man, there is often a second male character present who is showing interest in the female protagonist, thereby ensuring that she is still seen as sexually desirable, e.g. Something Borrowed (Luke Greenfield, 2011) or 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008). In Just Wright there is no other man fancying Leslie, yet the role her fatness might play in all this is never openly addressed by the film. Neither she herself nor anyone else ever names her body size as a possible reason for men’s lack of romantic interest, and she does ‘get the guy’ in the end, without having to lose any weight or undergoing any kind of makeover. Nevertheless, considering how rare this kind of problem and consequently this kind of plot constellation is in the contemporary (slim) romantic comedy, it seems likely that Leslie’s fatness plays a role in it. What the film and in particular her slightly overbearing mother and her best friend directly address is Leslie’s masculinity. She is good with cars and is an avid sports fan, in particular basketball, something employed to contrast her with Morgan, who is only interested in the prestige and wealth premier league basketball entails, but not the sport

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itself. In addition, Leslie’s clothing sometimes carries connotations of masculinity, specifically in two scenes in which she is attending a basketball game. She is wearing a basketball fan T-shirt and jeans in those scenes, an outfit maybe not connoted as very masculine per se, but here these connotations are based on her mother’s comments as well as the contrast with Morgan and the very feminine wives and girlfriends of the other basketball players. What is also noticeable about Leslie is her lack of an already mentioned common trait among the heroines of romantic comedy – unruliness. Leslie comes across as very sensible and nice, regarding her romantic life but also other aspects of her life. She is occasionally slightly domineering, specifically when she is forcing Scott to work on his comeback after Morgan has left him. However, this is the sort of dominance only displayed to benefit those she is ordering around, thereby associating her with the Mammy stereotype, for which this sort of ‘altruistic dominance’ is a defining characteristic.76 Furthermore, there are no mishaps, or any kind of chaos caused by her, and there is also hardly any kind of friction or conflict between her and her love interest, who is characterized in a similar manner. This overwhelming and untypical ‘niceness’ was remarked upon by several film critics and not necessarily perceived as positive: Stephen Holden from The New York Times notes Leslie’s ‘intrepidly nice character’; The Movie Scene writes: ‘Latifah may spend a lot of the movie smiling to the point it must have ached’; Scott Tobias from the site The A.V. Club describes the main romantic couple as ‘boxed in by their one-dimensional decency’.77 Here again Leslie’s fatness as well 76

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See K. Sue Jewell, From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond: Cultural Images and the Shaping of U.S. Social Policy (London: Routledge, 1993), 42. Stephen Holden, ‘Ms. Wright Meets Mr. Right, but Will They Be a Pair?’, The New York Times, 13 May 2010, accessed 6 June 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/14/ movies/14just.html; N.A., ‘Miss Wright Meets Her McKnight’, The Movie Scene, accessed 6 June 2015, http://www.themoviescene.co.uk/reviews/just-wright/just-wright.html; Scott Tobias, ‘Just Wright’, The A.V. Club, 13 May 2010, accessed 6 June 2015, http://www.avclub. com/review/just-wright–41131.

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as her race might have played a role in this. Possibly, being fat and black and also carrying connotations of masculinity is already testing the boundaries of what is considered to be acceptable in a romantic heroine too much. Similarly, a fear of sliding into racial stereotypes by making her unruly might have been involved. Linda Mizejewski points out how unruliness interplays differently with constructs of white and black femininity: ‘For the traditionally attractive white woman in white culture, unruliness can be a liberating quality of female individualism. For the black woman in white culture – someone who is already under suspicion as part of an “unruly subculture” – the opposite occurs: her subjectivity diminishes as she slides into racial stereotype.’78 In terms of her independence Leslie is starkly contrasted with her best friend Morgan, who is positioned not only as the attractive one, but also as the one living according to outdated gender roles. She openly admits to the fact that she sees finding a rich husband as her job and consequently leaves Scott, when the end of his career seems to be near, since that would also mean the end of all of her ambitions. As with every other heroine of the romantic comedy genre Leslie’s independence to a certain degree comes to an end with the happy ending of the film and her marriage to Scott, yet the self-reliance she demonstrates throughout the film still clearly distances her from the type of female dependence represented by Morgan. Overall, Just Wright constitutes a relatively empowering example of fat representation. It is a romantic comedy in which the fat woman is permitted to act as the romantic lead instead of having her independence othered, as in The Back-Up Plan, or fulfilling the stereotype of the independent ‘Strong Black Woman’ to the extent that she is excluded from any romantic relationships, as in Valentine’s Day. However, there is an association with the Mammy stereotype and the 78

Mizejewski.

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film’s romance plot differs from that of other romantic comedies in a way that indicates that its protagonist might be less sexually desirable than others in the genre, but, nevertheless, the film makes it clear that the male romantic lead finds Leslie sexually attractive and, in the end, he chooses her over Morgan. In Bridesmaids, in general considered to be a romantic comedy albeit a less conventional one, the fat woman is back to not being the protagonist, but one of the supporting characters. Megan is not only a decisive part of the comedic shenanigans of the film, she is also, similar to The Back-up Plan, presented as ‘more independent’ than the protagonist Annie. Both Megan and Annie are bridesmaids of Annie’s best friend and over the course of the film become sort-of friends. The characterization of Megan as more self-reliant comes to the forefront in a scene in which Megan gives Annie a pull-yourselftogether speech. Annie’s life has already been going downhill before the film sets in and most of the conflicts as well as the comedy of the film are based on her continuing failure in terms of her career as well as her personal relationships. The scene takes place after Annie has hit a new low, not only having lost her job as a sales assistant and having had to move in with her mother again, but also having had a severe row with her best friend. In the speech Megan gives Annie, she describes how she was severely bullied in high school because of her size yet didn’t let that drag her down. Instead she worked really hard and has consequently made a very successful career for herself. Here her fatness is presented clearly as the root of her independence: because she was fat, she didn’t have any kind of interpersonal relationships to rely on, which made her focus on her own achievements instead. What is also noticeable about her speech is the kind of job she does. Although we don’t find out what exactly her job entails, the details she provides imply military or some sort of intelligence work, a line of work that bears strong connotations of masculinity, in particular when contrasted

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with Annie’s original line of work as a cupcake baker, a type of food and a profession strongly associated with femininity.79 There are some elements of Megan’s speech that are meant to be comedic such as when she starts with, ‘You are ready now to hear a little story, a story about a girl, a girl named Megan (…) I’m referring to myself when I say Megan’, thereby stating the obvious. Overall, though, her speech is presented as to be taken seriously as evident by the fact that it actually constitutes a turning point for Annie, who takes Megan’s advice and attempts to get her life on track again. Here, once again, the slightly ambiguous politics of Bridesmaids are showing: on the one hand there is a certain amount of stereotyping at play in this depiction of the fat woman as masculine and involuntarily independent; on the other hand her independence is not mocked, as in The Back-up Plan, but rather presented as inspirational. Identity Thief at first glance does not seem to be related to the romantic comedy, yet contains certain elements that fit the genre. The film focuses on Sandy (Jason Bateman), an accountant and family father, who suffers from identity theft at the hands of the professional con woman Diana. Due to various, plot-enabling, reasons the police are not particularly helpful with his case and therefore Sandy himself has to seek out Diana in Florida and bring her back with him to Denver, in order to clear his name and save his job. Since, again for various reasons, they are not able to take a plane, they embark on a road trip that takes up most of the film and effectively turns it into a road movie comedy. The character constellation described and the dynamic it entails are clearly reminiscent of the romantic comedy: having a male and

79

Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker analyse the figure of the female cupcake baker as a way to combine traditional femininity with female business activity – see Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker, ‘Gender and Recessionary Culture’, in Gendering the Recession: Media and Culture in an Age of Austerity, eds. Diane Negra and Yvonne Tasker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 7, 27.

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a female protagonist whose relationship starts out as antagonistic and whose conflicts and banter provide much of the comedy is a trademark of the genre. In the same vein, their relationship inexorably loses its edge and becomes friendlier, at which point the film even features a make-over of Diana and a post-make-over scene showing Diana making her entrance at a restaurant and Sandy staring at her approvingly, all shot in slow motion. This type of scene that presents the woman as a desirable object of the male gaze is a staple of cinematic romance and also features in Just Wright. However, whereas in Just Wright this scene is followed up by a romantic night out and the couple sleeping together, Identity Thief never takes the relationship of the two protagonists in a romantic direction. Sandy is very devoted to his wife and when Diana actually comes onto him, during the still-antagonistic phase of their relationship, it is presented rather as a source of comedy than anything else. In the original script Diana’s character was written as a man, which might explain the lack of romance between the two protagonists. However, it is doubtful whether Melissa McCarthy’s fatness didn’t also play a role in the lack of romance or rather if a conventionally attractive, non-fat actress would ever have been considered to play this role written for a man without making certain adjustments to the script. Diana herself also only partially fits the character trope of the ‘independent woman’. Her fashion and style sense – loud colours, tacky patterns, lots of make-up – as well as her profession as a smalltime crook mark her as non–middle class and distance her from the usual type of romantic comedy protagonist. Particularly notable is also the way her consumerism is presented. While conventional romantic comedies often show their female protagonists to be avid consumers and allow for the audience to co-indulge in their materialist pleasures, Diana’s consumerism is portrayed as extreme and pathological as well as at least partly at the root of her criminal activities. To a certain degree this might be related to the fact that Identity Thief came out

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in the aftermath of the recession, yet as Tasker and Negra point out, ‘chick flicks’ of the era still relish ‘hyper-consumerist spectacle’.80 More importantly, though, this characterization resonates with previously mentioned notions of fat citizens as the greedy and irresponsible members of consumer society, unable to restrain their desires in the face of omnipresent temptation. Diana’s actual independence, as in her lack of ties to other people, is still highlighted in the contrast of her character with that of Sandy. The fact that she was originally written as a male character becomes most obvious here in this juxtaposition of the responsible family man with the freewheeling gal (guy) living outside of societal conventions. This contrast and conflict is addressed directly in several of their conversations, most openly in one scene towards the end of the film when Sandy admits that he envies certain aspects of Diana’s carefree life to which she replies with a tearful monologue about her loneliness. The question of which way to live is more desirable is answered as one would expect from a mainstream Hollywood production, not only in this dialogue, but also by the ending of the film which shows Diana ‘doing the right thing’, namely choosing to come clean about her criminal offences and going to prison so that Sandy’s name is cleared and his job as well as his middle-class family life are secured. Relevant in terms of the fat woman’s independence is first, that even in comparison to a male character she is presented as the ‘more independent one’, and second, that as opposed to traditional romantic comedy heroines, her emotional independence doesn’t come to an end through romance but through her friendship with Sandy. The musical drama Dreamgirls charts the rise and fall of the Detroit girl group The Dreamettes/The Dreams and their record label Rainbow Records, basing its events on the real-life story of The Supremes and the legendary Motown label. The fat woman is Effie (Jennifer 80

Negra and Tasker, ‘Neoliberal Frames’, 351.

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Hudson), the original lead singer of the group, who gets demoted to back-up before being fired from the group altogether. Her being kicked out marks the beginning of an involuntary independence for Effie and is partly related to and caused by her fatness. When earlier on their producer Curtis announces that instead of Effie the slim Deena (Beyoncé) will be singing lead, he thereby triggers the beginning of the end of Effie’s career. In his justification for his decision he does not directly refer to Effie’s size but talks about how although she might be the better singer they will need to appeal to audiences via TV, making it clear that her looks, and thereby her size, are deciding factors. Race is not explicitly mentioned in this conversation; yet considering how throughout the film Curtis constantly aims to make his black artists more appealing to white audiences, through altering either their music or their image, there is an undercurrent present of Effie being less suited for a white audience. This becomes particularly clear when her brother, who is also the group’s songwriter, supports Curtis in his decision and attempts to explain to Effie that her ‘voice is too special, we need a lighter voice to cross over to the pop charts’. He doesn’t mention her size either, but the overall implication of this scene is that Effie is ‘too black’ for a white audience, in terms of her size as well as her voice. Following her demotion Effie has a hard time accepting her new position, leading in the end to her being kicked out of the group by Curtis. In this scene, Curtis does mention her fatness as one of the many flaws she has been exhibiting lately (‘you’ve been late, you’ve been mean, and getting fatter all the time’), yet Effie denies that point specifically, saying she has never been so thin and calling him a liar. How much of a role exactly her fatness plays in this final development remains therefore unclear, but it is clear that it did play a role in her not being the lead singer and thereby the beginning of her professional demise. The involuntary independence Effie experiences through this dismissal from the band is not only relevant to her career, but it also constitutes a further example of the fat woman being involuntary

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independent on an emotional level: Curtis is her boyfriend and by firing her he also ends their relationship. Curtis’s betrayal seems particularly poignant, considering that at the beginning of the film Effie is sceptical when Curtis offers to be their manager but lets him persuade her with a speech about how they need him to ‘protect’ them: she consciously gives up her independence and in the end she has to pay for it. The issue of women’s independence resurfaces again later in the film when Curtis is depicted as highly controlling and emotionally abusive towards Deena. When Deena finds out that Curtis has tried to actively thwart Effie’s new career, Deena finally decides to leave him, voicing her feelings in a song about her need to regain her independence. She also names Effie as a role model when Curtis attempts to sway her: ‘I’ll start over. Effie did it, and so can I.’ As in Bridesmaids, the fat independent woman is presented here as a role model for another, slim, female character. Deena and Effie reconcile in the end, with the film showing them reunited on stage, performing together. The film hereby celebrates notions of women’s independence and female solidarity; however, this comes at the price of certain stereotypes of black men as abusive and criminal that inform the characterization of Curtis and thereby provide the necessary backdrop for this celebration of sisterhood.81 Furthermore, the film also displays a certain ambivalence regarding Effie’s share of blame for her fate and, related to this, her need for independence. While on the one hand she seems to be the victim of Curtis and the demands of a music industry catering to white mainstream tastes, on the other hand there are also indications of her being responsible. When she later on auditions for a job as a singer at a nightclub, the song she performs lies the blame clearly at her own

81

On the character of Curtis and black male stereotypes see Timothy Laurie, ‘Come Get These Memories: Gender, History and Racial Uplift in Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls’, Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 18, no. 5 (2012): 542.

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feet: ‘I need a hand; all of my life, I’ve been a fool who said I could do it all alone; how many good friends have I already lost?’ These last lines also completely contradict what we saw happening earlier with Curtis since she clearly did not tell him that she ‘could do it all alone’ but rather did trust him with managing the group’s affairs. In another scene she is shown talking to a welfare worker and defending her decision not to look for work by saying that the only thing she can do is sing and no one lets her do that anymore anyway. Her refusal to actively try to get a job, just as her earlier disciplinary problems as a member of the group, mark her as a ‘diva’, as pointed out by Kimberly Springer a common stereotype in contemporary popular culture for ‘unreasonable, unpredictable, and likely unhinged’ women of colour.82 At the same time she also fulfils the stereotype of the ‘welfare queen’ who deliberately relies on the state for help, a characterization reinforced by her fatness and its connotations of constituting a liability for society as a whole.83 This tension between presenting her, on the one hand, as the (fat) victim of white society and, on the other hand, as a diva/welfare queen who herself is to blame for her problems seems to be a reflection of the film’s general tension between addressing issues of race while at the same time avoiding engaging with them on any larger, structural level, instead presenting them in a very individualized manner.84 Overall, the fat woman in this film becomes a victim of involuntary independence, due to her race and fatness, thereby also functioning as a sort of cautionary tale about (black) women giving up their independence willingly to (black) men. However, the film at times also presents her as too independent and proud, thereby reinforcing certain stereotypes of black femininity. 82

83 84

Kimberly Springer, ‘Divas, Evil Black Bitches, and Bitter Black Women: African American Women in Postfeminist and Post-Civil-Rights Popular Culture’, in Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, eds. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 257. See Chapter 1 for more on these discourses. See Laurie, 544–546, 551.

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As this section has shown, the association of the fat woman with more independence can play out in various ways. There are differences as to whether the fat women are mocked for their independence (The Back-Up Plan) or presented as – at times dubious – role models for others (Bridesmaids, Dreamgirls), or maybe neither of these things, but just simply excluded from the main storylines of the film due to their independence (Valentine’s Day). Several films indicate an involuntary independence, either due to a status as outsider in general (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief  ) or more specifically due to a lack or loss of romantic attention from men (The Back-Up Plan, Dreamgirls), while one film presents the fat woman as losing her independence in the end but still being more self-reliant than other female characters (Just Wright). Racial stereotypes also inform these representations, with the ‘Strong Black Woman’ or the ‘Diva’ aligning themselves with the fat, independent woman. ***

Non-normative femininity is a common marker of female fatness and, as this chapter has shown, is intrinsically tied up with issues of race. Across a large number of films, the lack of femininity ingrained in pre-existing stereotypes of African American women, such as the Sapphire or the Mammy, is built upon and aligned with stereotypes of female fatness. Whereas for the most part fat white female characters are not immediately recognizable within pre-existing racial stereotypes of non-femininity, as is the way with white representation, a few representations are based on ‘white trash’ stereotypes, in which whiteness is inflected by class. In addition, there are only few representations that on any level fulfil the potential for transgression held by figures of female non-normativity. Even those instances that invite or allow a transgressive reading limit or undermine these readings to some extent. What is also noticeable is the variety and

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range of representations of the fat woman as non-normative. While many portrayals are very straightforwardly demonizing or mocking, others present the fat woman as non-normative in a more coveted way, as analysed in the last section of the chapter. These portrayals are less openly offensive and more sympathetic towards their fat female characters; however, both racial and fatness stereotypes still prevail in these films as well. A relevant development has been the release of a range of films since 2011, which seem to deliberately break with previous representations of fat women. These films feature fat (white) women in leading or supporting roles and instead of mocking their sexuality present them as sexually desirable. Nevertheless, also in these cases other representational tropes of female fatness are still present.

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The Funny Fat Body: Slapstick and Gross-Out Considering the status of fatness as a marginalized identity and its construction as non-normative embodiment, it is not surprising that comedy is the genre in contemporary Hollywood cinema that features fat characters most frequently. As Geoff King points out, film comedy has always had a propensity for showcasing othered social groups, often to ridicule and mock them.1 He also observes that the comedy mode has a particular purpose in this type of representation: ‘Comedy can function as a safety net, permitting the use of material that might otherwise be controversial or impossible to include in mainstream film.’2 Comedy as a genre thereby becomes the equivalent of the line ‘But it’s just a joke’, meant to play down the actual offensiveness of its content. A certain engagement with ‘the norm’ or rather with what is outside of it has also always been part of the genre. Both King and Steve Neale/ Frank Krutnik identify a departure from the norm, from accepted and expected behaviour, routines, roles or rules, as an essential element of all comedy.3 Neale and Krutnik highlight how this also connects to the representation of othered social groups insofar as the stereotypes of these groups often consist of images of non-normative being and behaviour, which can be easily utilized for comedy.4 1 2 3

4

King, 143. Ibid., 149. Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik, Popular Film and Television Comedy (London: Routledge, 1990), 3; King, 5. Ibid., 91–93.

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Fat characters are not just a popular staple of film comedy in general; they are particularly popular as participants of slapstick and gross-out, the sub-genres of physical comedy. The concept of the grotesque is often employed to analyse physical comedy and also applies to popular conceptions of the fat body. Mikhail Bakhtin provides an often-cited account of this concept in Rabelais and His World, a study of the novels by Renaissance author Francois Rabelais and their depiction of the culture of carnival.5 Bakhtin identifies the grotesque body as an open body, a body ‘not individualized’, ‘not separated from the world by clearly defined boundaries; it is blended with the world, with animals, with objects’.6 Furthermore, it is associated with what Bakhtin calls ‘the lower stratum of the body’, by which he means organs of digestion and reproduction, and thereby also death and birth.7 This body of medieval carnival is opposed to the body of the ‘classical mode’ which is based on the ancient classics, was re-established during the Renaissance and still influences our modern body image. The classical body is closed-off, individualized, separated from the rest of the world.8 It is not associated with actual physicality but as Mary Russo points out ‘it is identified with the “high” or official culture of the Renaissance and later, with the rationalism, individualism, and normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie’.9 The body in gross-out comedy is more evidently than the body of slapstick a grotesque body since its orifices and body fluids as well as organs of digestion and reproduction are constantly showcased and utilized. Yet in a less obvious sense slapstick also features elements of the grotesque body. Alex Clayton stresses that he does not see the slapstick body as fully fitting Bakhtin’s concept but does concede that 5 6 7 8 9

Bakhtin. Ibid., 19, 27. Ibid., 21. Ibid., 28–29. Russo, 8.

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they share a certain openness with the world, a lack of separation from it. He calls ‘the idea of overlap’ a recurring theme in the genre, mostly the overlap of the body with other bodies but also with objects such as clothes or machinery.10 The fat body in modern society is constructed as a grotesque body. It is a body associated with eating and digestion, with weight gain, sometimes weight loss, therefore with physical change, and also with death and disease;11 it is a consuming body, incorporating what it consumes into itself and thereby open to and connected with the world.12 Another aspect that makes fat bodies particularly well suited for physical comedy is the issue of bodily control or rather lack thereof. Fatness is discursively constructed as a symptom of a lack of bodily control, of an inability to control the urge to eat and an inability to discipline the body into its socially accepted, normative shape.13 In gross-out comedy the issue of control is, again, more obviously at stake since the genre is based on characters letting go of, or more often inadvertently losing, what is considered appropriate control of their body, with films commonly showcasing the physical results of this lack of control, namely an array of bodily fluids and excretions. While slapstick might be less drastic about it, Clayton points out that a lot of its comedy is also based on the issue of bodily control, on bodies not behaving the way they are supposed to.14 He relates this to Peter Berger’s work who sees the tension between ‘being a body’ and ‘having a body’ as a fundamental issue of human existence.15 This tension is

10

11

12 13 14 15

Alex Clayton, The Body in Hollywood Slapstick (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007), 199. See also Andrew Stott, Comedy (New York: Routledge, 2005), 93. On the female fat body as grotesque see Stukator, 202–203; on examples of the male fat body as grotesque see Mosher, ‘Setting Free the Bears’, 177–180. Huff, ‘A “Horror of Corpulence”’, 45. On the issue see e.g. Bordo, 189–198. Clayton, 15, 205. Ibid., 205–206; Peter L. Berger, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2014), 193.

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an expression of the mind-body dualism in Western thinking, which can be seen as one of the main driving forces behind fatphobia – and can also be seen expressed in the grotesque. The distancing from and negation of the physicality of the body leads to a projection of bodyhatred, and the more unpleasant aspects of embodiment in general, onto the fat body, but also onto other types of othered bodies, such as female, non-white or queer bodies. All in all, fatness is constructed as hyper-physicality in contemporary media and society, making it particularly well suited for physical comedy.

Fat slapstick Looking at the characteristics of ‘fat slapstick’, it is not only noticeable that the physicality of the fat body is emphasized by its frequent representation within slapstick comedy but also that the slapstick involving fat characters is of a specific type, presenting them as clumsy/physically unfit and/or highlighting the weight, size and volume of the fat body.

Clumsy and/or physically unfit This type of slapstick is based on characterization, a characterization rooted in the notion of the fat body being a non-disciplined body, a body out of control. The discursive construction of fat people as having no power over their own bodies is expressed here in portrayals of them as clumsy and/or unfit. In the children’s animation film Monster House Chowder, the fat sidekick of the thin protagonist, DJ, is constantly portrayed as clumsy and bumbling and mostly so for comic effect. As mentioned in Chapter 2, already in the scene in which his character is introduced, he is – for no obvious reason – running into the car of DJ’s parents and

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then tumbling to the ground. This depiction continues throughout the film, with several other scenes featuring Chowder’s physical clumsiness as a source of comedy, whereas the slim DJ is never involved in any slapstick. In Due Date the thin protagonist Peter (Robert Downey Jr.) is actually involved in more slapstick scenes than his fat sidekick Ethan (Zach Galifianakis), but Peter mostly gets slapstick ‘done to him’, while Ethan more often causes slapstick by being clumsy, as when he stumbles and drops the coffee can with his father’s ashes in it, or when he accidentally shoots Peter, then panics and runs into the open door of a car. Similarly, in The Hangover, also with Zach Galifianakis, there are several scenes of slapstick involving all three protagonists, such as when they are all attacked by a tiger while driving a car or by a small, naked guy who surprisingly jumps out of the trunk of their car, leaps onto the head of one of them and then beats all three of them up with a crowbar. Alan, Galifianakis’s character, is also part of this group slapstick but there is one further scene of ‘clumsy slapstick’ only featuring him, in which he wakes up with a hangover, stumbles through their hotel suite without wearing any pants and falls down twice because of his clumsiness. In the second fall, he trips over the prone form of one of the other protagonists, to then fall straightforward on his face, landing with a thud. Next to showing Alan’s clumsiness causing slapstick, and causing slapstick to happen to others, this scene also relates to the next section of this chapter, in which I’ll discuss the highlighting of the weight of fat characters, both through choreography and sound, as here through the thud. Alan’s characterization as clumsy continues in the subsequent parts of the Hangover franchise, The Hangover Part II (Todd Phillips, 2011) and The Hangover Part III, and other fat clumsy characters can also be found in My Spy (George Gallo, 2008), with Meg Ryan in a fat suit; in Zookeeper (Frank Coraci, 2011), Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Paul Blart:

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Mall Cop 2, all three with Kevin James; and in the animation film Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, 2008), featuring a clumsy panda in the title role. Related to this type of characterization, yet slightly different, is the portrayal of fat characters as physically unfit, which is also a common trope – and cause – of ‘fat slapstick’. In Pitch Perfect the protagonists, a college a-cappella group, are doing rounds jogging around an empty auditorium as part of their singing practice. Only Amy, played by Rebel Wilson, is not jogging but instead lying on her back in between the empty rows of seats. When one of her fellow group members asks her what she is doing, she replies, ‘I’m doing horizontal running’ while awkwardly throwing her legs up in the air. On the one hand the joke is based on the visual gag of her lying horizontally and thereby standing out, because everyone else is running and therefore vertical. On the other hand, her refusal to participate in the group workout fits in with an earlier scene in which cardio as part of their training is mentioned and Amy is quick to comment with ‘No! Don’t put me down for cardio’, both scenes perpetuating the stereotype of fat people being lazy and therefore lacking physical fitness. Pitch Perfect 3 revises this characterization of Amy to a certain degree through an action sequence in which she singlehandedly knocks out several goons to save her band colleagues, who have been kidnapped. The sequence connects to the trope of the fat woman as physically aggressive, has comical undertones and ends with Amy breathing heavily and exclaiming, ‘This is way too much cardio’ – a callback to the first film. Nevertheless, the fight scenes don’t contain any fat slapstick and are, mostly, shot in a style that takes her and her fighting skills seriously, presenting her as neither clumsy nor unfit. (Although, of course, her agility and ability can also be read as incongruous with audience expectations of a fat woman, and therefore not so much as revising the original trope but rather as providing comedy by exhibiting an almost fantastical dimension evoked through turning the fat woman into a fit fighter.)

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In one scene of the ensemble comedy Grown Ups we see the protagonists on a clearing in a forest, running in slow motion in different directions, out of fear of being hit by an arrow that has just been shot in the air. The first one to fall over while running is Eric, played by Kevin James, who seems to go down for no discernible reason. However, we do see him touching the back of his thigh while running, which indicates that he has a cramp, implying that due to his lack of physical fitness he is incapable of running for more than a couple of meters without his leg cramping up. While two of his friends also fall over – one of them trips over a tree stump, the other runs into a low-hanging tree branch – it is only Eric whose body itself is to blame, giving out almost immediately. In addition, if Eric wasn’t fat and fatness wasn’t so strongly associated with a lack of physical fitness, what is happening might actually not even be legible for the audience, since there is no dialogue confirming what the problem is and with a slim person Eric’s age the audience would presumably wonder why his leg gives out after a few metres of running. In a similar scene Melissa McCarthy’s character in Identity Thief is trying to flee from the thin Sandy (Justin Bateman) by running away from him on a flat stretch of highway emergency lane. The comedy in this scene results firstly from the way she is running slightly awkwardly, and secondly, from the fact that she is immediately out of breath after running for five seconds and then asks Leslie whether he is ‘a Kenyan’ because he manages to catch up with her without any problems. The joke is reinforced by her attempting to get away again after a short break, only to immediately get a cramp after another five seconds of running. In the spy spoof Get Smart we see a flashback, in which the nowslim protagonist Max (Steve Carell) used to be fat and we can see his past, failed attempts at passing the field agent exam for the intelligence agency he is working for. Immediately before the flashback is shown, Max finds out that this year – after losing weight – he did actually

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pass the exam and the flashback is introduced with Max saying, ‘I am not surprised, given the fact that in previous years my fitness has been an issue’. We then see a short montage sequence of Steve Carell in a fat suit clumsily and unsuccessfully trying to run hurdles, climb up a rope and swing along a rope. Max’s clumsiness, his failure to complete these exercises and also that we see a slim actor in a fat suit are the main sources of comedy here, next to the irony provided by the soundtrack, which consists of Christina Aguilera’s ‘Ain’t No Other Man’, a hymn to the perfect guy. In addition, in the last shot of the montage, when Max is trying to swing along a rope, the rope is shown to be pulled down to the ground through his body weight and Max ends up dragging along the ground instead of swinging through the air. This relates to the type of comedy analysed in the next section, in which the weight of the fat body functions as a source of comedy. The whole sequence is making it clear that as a fat person Max was just not physically fit enough to be a field agent and is basing its comedy on this. Overall, the type of slapstick discussed in this section relies heavily on the representation of fat characters as not in control of their bodies and also reproduces a clear and common stereotype of fat people as unhealthy, physically unfit and physically incapable.

Weight, volume, size The second type of slapstick analysed emphasizes the weight, volume, size of the fat body. It is based on the fatness of the fat body – the fatness itself is turned into a comic spectacle. This type and the previously discussed type are not mutually exclusive since some of the slapstick emphasizing fatness is caused by the clumsiness of the fat character in question. Three different techniques are employed to highlight the weight, volume and size of the body: choreography, sound design and framing.

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The choreography for the fat characters consists of a lot of falling, crashing, sometimes also crushing of other characters; overall a type of movement is shown that emphasizes the weight of the body. An example of this can be seen in Identity Thief in the scene in which Diana is first introduced. The scene is set at a bar where Diana has been getting rapidly drunk. She decides that she wants to swing from the chandelier, which she attempts to do by jumping from the table she is standing on and grabbing for the chandelier. Unfortunately, she does not manage to get a hold of the chandelier – which also fits in with the aforementioned characterization of fat  characters as clumsy  – but instead drops to the ground from mid-air like a dead weight and hits the floor with a loud thud. The gag here is partly based on interruption and thereby failure to finish an attempted action, a very common structure of gags.16 It is also based on the contrast between Diana’s body moving upwards to grab the chandelier, almost fighting to escape gravity, and her abrupt drop to the ground, a contrast highlighted by the loud thud her body makes. Both the drop itself and the noise emphasize the weight of Diana’s body. Similarly, in Kangaroo Jack Louis, the protagonist’s fat best friend and sidekick has two scenes in which he dive-bombs into water, first into a small lake, then into a small pool. In both scenes he sloshes a lot of water around and showers the other characters present with it for comic effect, further highlighting the weight and volume of his body. A very similar scene occurs in Shallow Hal (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 2001), when Rosemary jumps into a swimming pool and the fountains of water she thereby creates are exaggerated in such a manner that they not only completely drench people standing next to the pool and extinguish a barbeque, but also catapult a small boy high up into a tree. Additional attention is drawn to Rosemary’s 16

Neale and Krutnik, 58.

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size due to Hal, her boyfriend and the protagonist, having been put under a spell and therefore seeing her as a slim woman.17 The gap between her actual size, as highlighted here by this exaggerated slapstick, and his perception of her, expressed by his bewilderment at the huge splash she makes, but also the audience’s perception – we see Rosemary through Hal’s eyes for most of the film – adds an extra level of comedy. A similar dynamic is at play in two other scenes, both taking place in restaurants, in which Rosemary suffers pratfalls by furniture crashing underneath her weight. Again, on the one hand attention is drawn to her weight just by the fact that it is her weight causing the pratfall, but on the other hand also by Hal’s reaction, highlighting that he doesn’t know that she is fat, as well as by the incongruity for the audience between the slim Gwyneth Paltrow we see and the havoc her body causes. In other films the choreography of ‘fat slapstick’ might be less obviously exaggerated, but, nevertheless, the physical comedy is still based on the fat body’s weight and size: in How to Be Single (Christian Ditter, 2016) Robin (Rebel Wilson) deliberately throws herself with the full force of her body onto the bonnet of a cab and does so twice. In a similar scene in Spy (Paul Feig, 2015) Susan (Melissa McCarthy) tries to jump across the bonnet of a car but instead ends up throwing herself onto it and sliding across it like a heavy weight; in Tammy (Ben Falcone, 2014) the eponymous protagonist (again McCarthy) attempts a similar movement but in a different setting: she wants to jump over the counter of a fast-food joint, but can’t quite make it, so instead actually throws her full body weight against the edge of the counter twice until she manages to get on top of it and inelegantly roll herself across it. (The last two scenes are also prime examples of the presentation of the fat body as clumsy and physically unfit.) 17

Shallow Hal has a quite intricate and absurd plot, which is closely related to the film’s combination of fat-positive and fatphobic elements, and which I will analyse in more detail in Chapter 6.

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In Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 one slapstick scene very strongly highlights the protagonist’s weight but at the same time comes with an emancipatory twist, fitting the previously discussed ideological ambiguity of the Paul Blart films. The scene is part of a group fight and shows Paul being attacked by a female assailant who is clinging to his back and dragging him to the ground; he fights her off by rolling onto his back and thereby also rolling onto her, moving from side to side, until she lets go off him and he can run off. On the one hand this is presented as slapstick instead of as a serious fighting scene, as is highlighted by the overly dramatic musical score, as well as the combination of the movements of his arms and the framing, which has the effect of making him look like a beetle on its back. On the other hand, while the comedy is largely based on emphasizing his weight, his fatness here also becomes an effective weapon, letting him defeat his attacker, the scene thereby adding an extra layer of meaning to this example of ‘fat slapstick’. The fantasy teen romance Every Day (Michael Sucsy, 2018) shows that fat slapstick can also be found outside the genre of comedy. The film tells the story of high school student Rhiannon who gets to know the mysterious A, an entity who every day wakes up – and lives – in the body of a different teenager. While the film mostly carries the tone of a serious drama, it also contains a few instances of comic relief, one of which is provided by fat slapstick. In the relevant scene A wakes up in the body of Michael and, for plot-related reasons, must flee from Michael’s parents. However, Michael is fat and when A attempts to lower himself (in Michael’s body) from the roof of the family home, they end up crashing down to the ground, noisily and messily, taking part of the rain drain with them. After this, A calls Rhiannon while running away from the house and during the conversation complains about the physical state of their current ‘host’ by exaggeratedly exclaiming, ‘Oh my god, this kid is not exercising.’ Here, again, the typical crash of fat

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slapstick is combined with a depiction of a fat character, or rather in this case specifically a fat body, as physically unfit. This predominance of an emphasis of weight and size within the slapstick choreography for fat characters becomes even more obvious in a comparison of ‘slim slapstick’ and ‘fat slapstick’. As already mentioned, in Due Date the slim protagonist Peter gets slapstick ‘done to him’, as when a small boy hits him in the face with a toy, pulls at his tie or starts poking at his face – incidents that are neither his fault nor particularly emphasize his body. In contrast, the slapstick involving Ethan falls into the two discussed categories: it is either caused by him being clumsy – see previous section – or works with and emphasizes the weight of his body. The first instance of this is the scene in which Peter gets beaten up by a man in a wheelchair, the humour mostly deriving from the fact that someone physically disabled can overpower him. For most of the scene Ethan is a perplexed bystander who does not know how to react to what is happening. It is only in his last move that the assailant also attacks Ethan by knocking his legs out from under him, which makes Ethan drop to the ground and with a thump onto Peter, who is already lying on the floor. In the second scene Ethan is sitting in the cargo area of a pick-up truck, with Peter and his friend Darryl in the front. Peter prods Darryl to drive over a speed hump at high speed in order to make the ride extra uncomfortable for Ethan. When they pass the hump, Ethan is thrown up in the air and lands hard back down on the bed of the truck, to the obvious delight of Peter and Darryl, who repeat the action at the next chance. Ethan’s body is again shown moving up out of its own volition and coming down with a thud. Once more, the comedy results from the fat body being presented as a heavy weight and also as not being under the control of its ‘owner’, although here it is not related to his clumsiness or a lack of fitness. A similar distinction between ‘slim slapstick’ and ‘fat slapstick’ can be made for Bridesmaids regarding the slapstick scenes featuring

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Annie, the slim protagonist played by Kristen Wiig, and those featuring Megan (McCarthy). The ones with Annie include her having awkward sex, getting caught while trying to climb a suddenly opening gate or performing dance movements on a road line to prove to a police officer that she is not drunk. Megan’s slapstick scenes, on the other hand, are all based on the weight of her body or rather her body being presented as a heavy weight. The first one takes place in a high-end bridal store, which is coloured throughout in a very light rose and overall exudes an air of ‘feminine decorum’. Megan already looks out of place due to her attire of black, unisex trousers, equally black unisex sandals and her fat body. The slapstick evolves when Megan hoists herself over the backrest of an expensive-looking, rose-coloured sofa and flops onto the cushions face down with the full length of her body. The comedy here is based on her body being presented as a heavy weight, her movement clumsy and also in stark contrast to the setting of the bridal store, which implies bourgeois, feminine decorum and thereby a controlled physicality. The second scene is set on a plane and starts with Annie getting drunk and causing a ruckus by running around screaming, which leads to several of her friends, the flight attendants and an air marshal chasing her in order to quiet her down. The whole scene is presented as comic and ends with Megan tackling Annie to the ground. The shot depicting this is a medium-long shot of Annie running along the aisle of the plane towards the cockpit. She is framed by the door to the service area when suddenly Megan appears from behind the wall to the right side of the door, and thereby from off-screen space, attacking Annie in a full body tackle which leads to them both falling and thereby disappearing from the sight of the camera behind the wall to the left side of the door. Here it is again Megan’s body as a big heavy weight, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, pushing Annie’s body from its original track and out of the frame, that is the source of the slapstick.

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In the third scene Megan visits Annie at home to confront her about her recent general lethargy. Megan attempts to provoke Annie by pushing her onto the couch, grabbing her, biting into her hip and finally by straddling her, holding her down and slapping her, all while shouting, ‘I am your life, I am your life’. The comedy is based on the stereotype of the fat woman being aggressive – an aspect also present in the previously described scene – and again utilizes Megan’s weight. Although she does more than just fall or flop here, part of the slapstick again results from her being a heavy weight on top of Annie’s body. The difference between ‘fat slapstick’ and ‘slim slapstick’ becomes most obvious when these scenes are compared with a scene in which the slim Annie falls over. The scene is set at a bridal shower and shows Annie acting out her anger at the exaggerated, exuberant event and the general neglect she has felt from her best friend, the bride-to-be. Apart from shouting she is also voicing her feelings by attacking a huge, heart-shaped cookie, approximately the size of her upper body, while the other guests are watching her from a distance. After punching and kicking the cookie, Annie lifts it up from its rack, stumbles backwards and loses her footing quite quickly, which leads to her falling on her back, being covered by the now-broken oversized cookie. Here, we do not see the moment she actually falls down. The last shot before she falls is of her stumbling backwards, then the film cuts to the other guests and we see their reaction – mostly shocked gaping – when Annie falls to the ground before the film cuts back to a shot of Annie being almost completely buried under the cookie. We can hear her fall off-screen during the shot of her audience but what is most dominant is Annie saying ‘Ow’, the noise of the cookie hitting her and the honking of a swan that gets disturbed by Annie, not actually the sound of her body hitting the ground. This scene is about Annie ‘losing it’ and paying no regard to expected social decorum. Therefore, her ending up in an undignified heap on the ground is relevant but there is no attention given to

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Annie’s body actually hitting the floor – and thereby highlighting its weight as with Megan’s body – neither on the visual nor on the aural level. This lack of a certain noise in this instance of ‘slim slapstick’ is in stark contrast to the aural level of the previously described scenes of ‘fat slapstick’, which points to a certain sound design as the second technique used to highlight weight, size, and volume of the fat body. The two scenes featuring Megan either slumping onto the couch or hitting the floor include a loud, thudding noise to emphasize the moment her body makes impact with the surface below. The same applies to the two scenes in Due Date in which Ethan falls over, in the first one landing on the slim Peter, in the second on the floor of the back of the pick-up truck. In The Hangover in one scene all three protagonists are forced by police officers to let a group of school children try out the use of tasers on them. One after the other gets tasered and slumps to the ground, and the bodies of the two slim protagonists do make a sound when hitting the floor, albeit a different one than the fat body of Alan. When Stu hits the ground, the sound is muffled and more like a series of noises than one clear noise; in Phil’s case there are two sounds, one when he falls to his knees, another one when the rest of his body goes down; in Alan’s case there is one distinct thud, full and low, adding aurally to the visual presentation of his body as voluminous. In the previously mentioned scene in Grown Ups several characters hit the ground, allowing for another comparison of ‘fat falls’ and ‘slim falls’. As already described, the scene shows in slow motion the protagonists running in different directions. We see three of them falling over, one after the other. The first one is the fat Eric, who falls first onto his knees, and then the rest of his body slumps forward like a felled tree, both movements accompanied by deep, hollow thuds, emphasizing the weight of his body. The slim Marcus goes down after stumbling over the stump of a tree trunk and falls face first into a

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pile of cow manure. The noise we hear when he hits the ground is mostly the wet sound of his face dipping into the manure, not of his body hitting the ground. The equally slim Rick falls when he runs into a tree branch with his upper body, his feet get lifted into the air and he falls flat on his back. We hear a noise when his back hits the ground, but it is not very deep or hollow and seems less exaggerated than the noise of Eric’s fall, since Rick does actually drop from being lifted up into the air down to the ground. In addition to the fat body being presented as physically unfit, we see how once again sound is employed to emphasize its volume and weight. What can also be observed in this scene is another frequently employed technique to highlight not predominantly weight, but volume and size of the fat body, namely a specific use of framing. Eric’s fall is shown in two low-angle, medium shots with the camera positioned between side and frontal view, which overall exaggerates the dimensions of his body (see Figures 9–10), whereas the two other characters are filmed neither from such a close distance nor from the front. A similar shot can be found in a scene from Paul Blart: Mall Cop. In this scene Kevin James’s character is not only filmed in a low-angle,

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Figures 9–10  Eric in Grown Ups (D: Dennis Dugan, P: Jack Giarraputo & Adam Sandler, 2010).

medium shot while jumping, but he is also depicted as clumsy, since he attempts to jump from one driving vehicle onto another, but misses and instead crashes to the ground, accompanied by the usual thud. In Diary of a Wimpy Kid Rowley goes flying through the air in a similar shot. In this case, however, it is clearly not the fat character’s fault but nevertheless, Rowley’s fall is shown in size-emphasizing manner, namely in a frontal, slow-motion, low-angle, medium shot, and ends – again – with a loud thud and a lot of snow being thrown up in the air by his crash to the ground. A similar use of framing can also be observed in Kangaroo Jack and Zookeeper. In the aforementioned scene in The Hangover framing also adds another layer to choreography and the previously described sound design. When all three protagonists get tasered and all of them slump to the ground as a consequence, Alan’s two friends basically fold in on themselves and actually hit the ground off-screen, whereas Alan’s slump is depicted differently. He slumps sideways, looking and moving like a human sack of beans, and lands on a table, his whole body stretched out and all in full view of the camera. His body remains in the frame, lying on the table motionless, for two more shots during which one of the police officers

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keeps talking about how because Alan is a ‘big boy’ he needed to be tasered twice. Due to the fact that Alan’s body does not ‘fold’ like his friends do, that his body makes a deep, thudding sound and that we also actually see him thumping onto the table, the weight, volume but also the inflexible ‘thingness’ of his body are emphasized in this scene. Different but similar is one scene with Melissa McCarthy in The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013), in which she has to climb through the window of her car into the car parked next to her in order to get out. Part of the comedy is based on her fat body having to squeeze through the windows and on the inelegance of her movements; however, there is one sideways tracking shot of her body bridging the gap between the two cars that deliberately showcases her fat torso hung right between the two windows. While, again, this highlights her size, it also contributes to a certain ‘thingness’, with her body stretched out – ‘bridging’ like a bridge – and those parts that would mark it as human, feet and head, being hidden inside the two cars. Henri Bergson notes that the presentation of the human body as a thing is very often the basis of physical comedy: ‘We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing.’18 Clayton points out the wider context of Bergson’s observations on comedy and how Bergson sees a dualism between body and soul as the source of much comedy, causing reminders of the physicality of our bodies to be perceived as comedic.19 Thingness constitutes one of these reminders, and, considering the contemporary construction of fatness as a sort of hyper-physicality, it becomes clear why fat bodies seem to be particularly well suited for this type of representation. One type of slapstick that encompasses thingness, out-ofcontrolness/clumsiness and emphasis of the weight is the (almost-)

18

19

Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (London: Macmillan and Co., 1913), 58. Clayton, 15.

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bouncing of the body, which can be seen in Grown Ups, Zookeeper and the animation film Kung Fu Panda.20 In Zookeeper Kevin James plays Griffin, the title character, who throughout the film almost constantly falls, stumbles or crashes into objects and/or people. In the aforementioned scene that contains a low-angle shot of him falling, his movements are choreographed and shot in a way that his body seems to be (almost-)bouncing. The scene shows how he attempts to jump across a gap between two stonewalls at the zoo where he works at. He jumps in an arc that ends with him fully crashing into the second wall after which he then – again in a slight arc – falls down to the ground between the two walls. The loud noises made by both of his impacts and the camera following his movement from the wall down to the ground in a tilt contribute to the impression of his body (almost-)bouncing. In Grown Ups this depiction of the fat body as a bouncing object is taken one step further. In the scene in question Kevin James’s character intends on dropping into a lake while swinging from a rope that is attached to a tree next to the lake shore. However, at the decisive moment he is reluctant to let go of the rope, which leads to him swinging back towards the tree and crashing into its trunk. After hitting the tree, he does not just fall to the ground but lands on a slope from where he continues his fall, thereby crashing through a small tree, to finally land on the ground. Every impact of his body is accentuated with a very loud thud and in addition his body is shown not just to fall but constantly tumble through the air, which overall makes him look like a human rubber ball. This relates directly to Henri Bergson, who names the jumping of clowns, in particular their ‘rebound’, as one example that led him to his theory of the ‘thingness’ of the comic body: ‘Gradually, one lost sight of the fact that they were

20

I am using the prefix ‘(almost-)’ here since the constraints of realism, at least in liveaction-films, prevent a choreography that could be described as – simply – bouncing.

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men of flesh and blood like ourselves; one began to think of bundles of all sorts, falling and knocking against each other.’21 One further example of the suitability of fat bodies for this type of slapstick can be found in the animation action comedy Kung Fu Panda. The film stars an anthropomorphized fat panda in the title role and is thereby freed not only from the restraints of physics and realism under which live-action-films have to perform but also from possible inhibitions regarding the humiliation of actual actors/actresses and/or human characters. Consequently, the previously described characteristics of ‘fat slapstick’ are taken to new heights and the film features an abundance of scenes in which Po, the panda, stumbles, falls, plummets or crashes. The finale stands out in that although Po is not as clumsy anymore as he is depicted earlier on, the film still relies for comic effect on the presentation of his body as a heavy weight. In said scene Po fights the villain Tai Lung, a huge snow leopard, and almost every time Tai Lung manages to get in a blow against Po, the panda does not just simply go to the ground, but bounces several times before coming to a standstill. In one shot the bouncing of his heavy weight is even presented as a fighting technique in that Po bounces off the snow leopard, the camera showing in slow motion his body taking up the whole frame and burying his adversary underneath his bottom. The pattern of Po being a skilled fighter but still engaging in fat slapstick continues in the two sequels Kung Fu Panda 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3, with the latter even featuring a whole village of fat pandas joining in with the bouncing, crashing and rolling. In some films with fat female characters this highlighting of the body’s weight becomes connected with the characters’ – lack of – sexual desirability and/or their inability to fulfil traditional gender roles. In Dodgeball we see a fat cheerleader who while doing a figure crushes her performance partner underneath her because she is too 21

Bergson, 59.

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heavy for him to hold her up. The joke here is not just based on her being fat but on the fact that she is too heavy for him, too heavy to fulfil the female part of the figure, too heavy to be a cheerleader, the epitome of normative femininity. Furthermore, the sexualized position in which the two end up on the floor is also part of the comic effect. She lands with her crotch on his face – after proclaiming earlier on that she was not wearing any underwear – and the noise we hear when she hits the ground – and her partner – is a squelchy thud, which connects her weight and her sexuality. Her sexuality is presented as aggressive  – in the way she talks about her lack of underwear – and repellent: the bystanders who watch her performance partner trying to get out from under her crotch have amused and disgusted expressions on their faces and the whole incident is presented as a traumatizing experience for her partner. Both Norbit and Good Luck Chuck feature scenes in which fat African American women tackle slim, men – white and African American – in attempts to seduce them. In Norbit we see the black title character and his fat wife Rasputia in their bedroom on their wedding night. Norbit is standing when Rasputia basically charges at him and slams him down onto the bed with the full weight of her body, thereby breaking the bed. Her movement is accompanied by his screaming, first out of fear, and, when he is buried underneath her, out of pain, as a close-up of his face confirms. This scene, with the same choreography and shot structure, gets repeated three more times, with two scenes also repeating the collapse of the bed.22 In Good Luck Chuck the protagonist Charlie, a thirtysomething white dentist, is prepositioned by his middle-aged fat receptionist Reba, who wants to sleep with him because she assumes it will bring her good luck. After not being able to persuade him, she forcefully pushes him flat

22

For more on Norbit and specifically the aspect of sexual aggressiveness in this scene see Chapter 3.

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onto his dining table, then jumps onto him, upon which the table collapses under them and crashes to the floor. Charlie is still verbally trying to fight her off at this point, but then finally gives in, although it is made clear that it is rather out of pity than anything else. In both films the highlighting of the women’s weight is utilized as a source of physical comedy, and in both films their weight also gets connected to their sexual aggressiveness, their lack of sexual desirability and also the reversal of gender roles constituted by the fact that due to their weight they are able to physically overpower their male partners. Get Smart also contains a scene that employs female fatness as a basis of physical comedy but is slightly more ambiguous about it. It is set at a formal ball and shows the slim protagonist Maxwell dancing with a fat woman and getting into a dance-off with another couple. On the one hand, her weight does get highlighted for comic effect and does get related to her being outside of normative femininity in several instances: when their adversaries make a dance figure in which the man drags the woman along the ground, they respond with a figure in which the fat woman drags along Maxwell, implying that she would be too heavy to fulfil the part traditionally reserved for the woman. Another figure consists of Maxwell holding her up in the air, in a move reminiscent of Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987), while everyone is gaping at them and at the fact that they are even able to perform this figure although she is fat. When they finish, Maxwell goes to his knees and holds the woman’s outstretched body above the ground in front of him, in a fairly classical dancing pose, which is presented as something extraordinary due to the fact that it is a fat woman performing the pose and consequently rewarded with a lot of applause from their audience. All these scenes are played for laughs, emphasizing her weight and how it removes her from normative femininity. On the other hand, although her body is othered here, it is not presented as repellent or disgusting but actually as surprisingly capable and controlled. In addition, the sympathies of the audience

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are meant to be aligned with the fat woman, which becomes most clear after the dance when she passes a group of women who were sniggering at her earlier and are now the only ones not applauding, and she just smilingly flips them the bird. A similar and similarly ambiguous scene also occurs in Shallow Hal, as part of the happy ending, after Rosemary and Hal have resolved their relationship issues, and he attempts to lift her up in his arms. Since Hal knows by now that Rosemary is fat, he sees her as such (Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit) and the audience with him. We therefore get to watch Hal unsuccessfully attempting to lift up the fat Rosemary by putting one arm around her hip and the other underneath her knee, and, after this fails, attempting to lift her by putting both arms underneath her butt. For maximum comedic effect this is shown in a medium shot, that not only lets us see Hal’s facial grimaces indicating the physical exertion this causes, but also highlights Rosemary’s fat butt and midsection (see Figure 11). After a cut we get to see how they have resolved the problem, namely

Figure 11  Hal attempting to lift Rosemary in Shallow Hal (D: Bobby & Peter Farrelly, P: Bobby & Peter Farrelly, Bradley Thomas & Charles B. Wessler, 2001).

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by Rosemary carrying Hal bridal style and thereby taking the role usually reserved for the male partner. While on the one hand the comedy here is based on highlighting her fatness and how it prevents her from fulfilling the traditional female role, on the other hand all this takes place in front of a sympathetic, cheering audience of friends and family who keep on clapping while Rosemary carries Hal to a car. Similarly to the happy ending of Paul Blart, as discussed in Chapter 2, this scene also employs irony to allow multiple readings: the audience can side with the cheerful party guests and enjoy the happy ending, but simultaneously the film invites us to participate in the fatphobic mockery of the fat woman who has to carry her partner because she is too heavy to be carried by him. The comedy Rough Night (Lucia Anello, 2017), about a drug- and alcohol-fuelled bachelorette weekend in Florida, also displays some ambivalence regarding the connection between female fat slapstick and sexual desirability. On the one hand, the scene in question seems fairly in line with previous stereotypical examples: a group of female friends order a male stripper to their vacation home and after the bride-to-be Jess (Scarlett Johansson) has rather begrudgingly enjoyed the stripper’s attention, her fat friend Alice (Jillian Bell) enthusiastically jumps onto the man’s lap. Her shouting ‘Okay, my turn’ and accelerating while she is approaching him, jumping onto him with widely spread legs and his exclamation of ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ make the scene more comical by fully trading on tropes of the fat woman as overly and inappropriately sexual. The combination of her weight and her enthusiasm then makes the stripper topple over backwards on his chair, thereby further highlighting that she is too fat for him, too fat to take on the conventional position of the woman sitting in the man’s lap. That he fatally hits his head during the fall even goes beyond that, turning the moment of fat slapstick into the, fatal, trigger of the film’s main plot in which the five friends attempt to cover up the man’s death, leading to all kinds of comical mishaps. However,

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despite this scene and the characterization of Alice throughout the film as having strong sexual desires, she is never depicted as sexually reprehensible. There are no jokes about her lack of desirability and towards the end of the film we see her on a well-going date with a slim, normatively attractive guy. Whereas this ambivalence might be related to Alice being a small-fat, it can also be read in light of the fact that the film is relatively recent (2017) and relates to a new tendency, discussed in the previous chapter, of showing fat women as sexually desirable while still perpetuating certain stereotypes of female fatness. The focus on non-normative femininity evident in these films has predecessors within the genre of slapstick. Comedy – and in particular slapstick – has traditionally been a male domain, which is often explained by the incompatibility of the characteristics of normative femininity – such as passivity, decorum, emotional purity – with the aggressive and physical nature of slapstick.23 Kristen Anderson Wagner highlights how in the classical era of film slapstick many actresses who engaged in slapstick were outside of traditional femininity in particular in terms of their attractiveness and often based their comedy on their appearance.24 In a related observation, Henry Jenkins argues that not only were female slapstick comediennes often less conventionally attractive but that their comic performance was often ‘represented (…) as a failure to achieve traditional standards of beauty and grace’.25 Comediennes engaging in slapstick can be seen as examples of what Kathleen Rowe identifies as the topos of the ‘unruly woman’:

23

24 25

See Kristen Anderson Wagner, ‘Pie Queens and Virtuous Vamps: The Funny Women of the Silent Screen’, in A Companion to Film Comedy, eds. Andrew Horton and Joanna E. Rapf (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013), 40–41; Alan Dale, Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 100; Clayton, 146. Wagner, 42. Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 258–59.

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‘an ambivalent figure of female outrageousness and transgression with roots in the narrative forms of comedy and the social practices of carnival’.26 Despite its transgressive potential the unruly woman is commonly depicted in a misogynist way, thereby displaying patriarchal fears regarding women outside of the boundaries of normative femininity.27 In summary, what this section has shown is that it is not just that the physicality of fat characters is emphasized by them being part of physical comedy; it is that their fatness is insisted on and forms the basis of the comic effect. Fatness itself is turned into a comic spectacle and thereby a comic and demeaning image of fatness is constantly being reinforced. Elsewhere, as I will now consider, this image is similarly perpetuated, namely by presenting fat embodiment in the context of gross-out comedy.

Fat gross-out William Paul in Laughing Screaming locates the beginning of the contemporary gross-out genre in the late 1970s, early 1980s and specifically names Animal House (John Landis, 1978) and Porky’s (Bob Clark, 1982) as early examples.28 Gross-out comedy might be a relatively young phenomenon but Paul situates it within a theatrical tradition that he traces back to Aristophanes, burlesques and parodies of early Italian popular comedy, travelling stage troupes and medieval festivities like Feast of Fools.29 The one tradition though he identifies as most closely related to the aesthetics of gross-out are ‘carnival’ and

26 27 28

29

Rowe, The Unruly Woman, 10. See Chapter 3 for more on the unruly woman. William Paul, Laughing, Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 43. Ibid., 23.

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‘the grotesque’, as described by Bakhtin.30 Bakhtin himself focused very much on the liberating potential of the grotesque, but other assessments of its politics are more hesitant. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White argue for a more differentiated analysis of the specific contexts and formations of the grotesque and describe how carnival is often only called upon for the sake of the enjoyment of those in power, without actually altering the underlying power structures.31 Relating to this issue of transgressiveness is an observation by Paul, who sees a contradiction and ambivalence at the heart of gross-out: ‘We are drawn to gross-out at the same time that we are repulsed by it, or, rather, precisely because we are repulsed by it.’32 This contradictory relationship between audiences and gross-out is also that which holds the potential for subversion, as is pointed out by Geoff King: The fact that pleasure is taken in the representation of transgression opens up the possibility of a more ambiguous cultural meaning. (…) To ridicule the transgressive might be to reinforce the dominant cultural norm, a widespread feature of much comedy. But the laughter provoked by the gross-out moment, when it succeeds in its comic aim, does not always take this form. It is often complicit in the act of transgression.33

As I already argued in the introduction of this chapter, the fat body holds a special relationship to the grotesque, and the following section will analyse how fatness is appropriated in contemporary gross-out and whether those transgressions surrounding the fat body hold any subversive potential or whether they rather function to reinforce preexisting social and cultural norms.

30 31

32 33

See Bakhtin, specifically 4–58. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 200–202. Paul, 68. King, 68.

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In the films analysed the male fat gross-out body features predominantly as part of narratives about homosocial bonding and liberation from the constraints of everyday life, with the outrageous acts of the gross-out body being part of this liberation. In The Hangover the three protagonists are members of a stag night party in Las Vegas that gets out of control and thereby leads to a range of – sometimes semi-criminal – incidents which are within the film framed as humorous shenanigans. (The two sequels The Hangover Part II and The Hangover Part III follow along similar lines, only set in different locations.) In Due Date the protagonist Peter is, due to the fault of the fat Ethan, kept from taking his plane home, forcing the two of them to embark on a road trip from Atlanta to California, during which they encounter a range of further obstacles, presented in a comical tone similar to The Hangover. Grown Ups features a group of middleaged men going home to the small town they grew up in, in order to spend a weekend there and engage in not necessarily semi-criminal but in overall rather childish activities. (In the sequel Grown Ups 2 they all live back in their home town now, but the one day of their everyday life that the film depicts is still shown to be full of childish shenanigans framed within the constraints of their heteronormative lives as husbands and fathers.) Gross-out comedy as a playground for the transgressions of – white, middle-class – male characters is not specific to films with fat characters but has always been a staple of the gross-out genre. Lesley Speed analyses the gross-out teen comedies of the 1980s and 1990s and points out how they frequently depict the hedonism of white middle-class men that is facilitated by social privilege. (However, she also argues that tendencies within the genre during this period reflect a waning of privilege.34) Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe

34

Lesley Speed, ‘Loose Cannons: White Masculinity and the Vulgar Teen Comedy Film’, The Journal of Popular Culture 43, no. 4 (2010): 830–831.

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put it in a nutshell in their study of teen films: ‘these young men are entitled to misbehave (…) by virtue of who they are: white, male, and middle-upper class Americans.’35 What is noticeable though is that the fat male characters stand out in each of the three films as the ones carrying out not only the largest number of gross-out acts but also the more outrageous ones. In The Hangover it is Alan who misses the toilet while urinating, throws a used condom at one of his friends, urinates into a pool, pukes over the hood of a car and has no reservations eating a slice of old pizza he finds in between the cushions of a sofa. In Due Date Ethan feeds his dog with the same fork he himself is using, masturbates openly next to his travel companion Peter and is also shown throwing up, in this case not on a car, but on Peter. In Grown Ups Kevin James’s character urinates openly into a lake while standing on a boat, eats chicken legs although they have come in contact with the ashes from an urn and urinates while swimming in a pool for small children. In all three films the non-fat male protagonists engage in very few or even no gross-out acts at all. In The Hangover we see Stu puking at one point, although less spectacularly than Alan, since he throws up next to a breakfast table on a terrace and not over the hood of a car. In the scene where Alan throws a used condom at Stu he does throw it back and consequently also – like Alan – starts laughing about it, enjoying this moment of infantile gross-out. In Grown-Ups after we see Kevin James’s character urinating in the pool, a few shots later all five protagonists are shown urinating in the children’s pool; the scene is quite brief and without dialogue, but their body language as well as the upbeat, non-diegetic song accompanying it convey a sense of enjoyment. In those last two described scenes, although slim characters engage in gross-out acts and are also shown to enjoy them, 35

Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe, ‘Privileged and Getting Away with It: The Cultural Studies of White, Middle-Class Youth’, Studies in the Literary Imagination 32, no. 1 (1998): 110.

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the fat characters are still the ones initiating these acts. In Due Date finally the only gross-out is the one committed by Zach Galifianakis’s fat character. This positioning of the fat male character as the most outrageous, the ‘most gross-out’ one within an ensemble gross-out comedy, is not a recent phenomenon. William Paul analyses the character played by James Belushi in Animal House, the 1978 classic of the genre, and describes him as ‘intended as a reigning spirit of misrule for the film’, emphasized by his character appearing as Dyonisos at a party. Paul points out how Belushi’s character constantly looks like he is lacking in personal hygiene, eats like a pig and assesses him overall as the ‘most animal-like character’ of the film.36 One reason behind this positioning of the fat character is the previously discussed construction of fatness as hyper-physicality in contemporary society. Fat bodies are presented as being more physical than slim bodies, in particular as exhibiting more of the unpleasant aspects of human physicality, such as disease, a lack of fitness and even death. The fears and taboos surrounding our material existence are projected onto the category of fatness, allowing for normatively sized bodies to distance themselves from their own physicality. Another connotation of male fatness in particular, making it more suitable for gross-out comedy, is its association with infantility. The fascination with bodily functions and fluids displayed in gross-out is closely associated with an early stage in childhood, in which control over the body has not been established yet and is not socially expected either. The infantilized, fat male body becomes the ideal bearer of this infantilism, allowing an enjoyment of the now-taboo aspects of the human body. In some of the films analysed the fat male body also has a particular role to play in the depiction of homosocial bonding and 36

Paul, 124.

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male friendship. These are very common elements of the gross-out genre as a whole and often bring with them homophobic anxiety, an anxiety that in contemporary Western society in general seems to frequently surround the issue of close emotional relationships between men. Lesley Harbidge notes how in the contemporary ‘bromance’ comedy, which has male friendship at its centre, anxieties about homosexuality are pervasive and often played out on the male body, indicative of which is a certain ‘fascination with and repulsion towards the male form’.37 In her analysis of The Hangover she observes how in this film these anxieties are played out for the most part on Alan’s body. Although she does not delve into the issue of fatness, Harbidge points out how his character is othered and emasculated: ‘Phillips [the director] both deflects and further shores up issues of male bodily awkwardness by playing them out on a distinctly child-like protagonist.’38 Here, gross-out becomes a symptom of homophobic anxiety, with the fat male body due to its connotations of hyper-physicality, infantilism and otherness being at the centre of the performance of these anxieties. Karen Boyle and Susan Berridge also discuss the male body in male friendship movies and note how in some films the intra-diegetic male gaze on, or assessment of, another male body finds it lacking, thereby de-naturalizing masculinity and presenting the male body as a project that can be failed. One example they mention is a scene in Due Date in which Ethan is exposing his big, fat, hairy belly in front of Robert Downey Jr.’s character who is very obviously repulsed by the sight.39 37

38 39

Lesley Harbidge, ‘Redefining Screwball and Reappropriating Liminal Spaces: The Contemporary Bromance and Todd Phillips’ The Hangover DVD’, Comedy Studies 3, no. 1 (2012): 7. Ibid. Karen Boyle and Susan Berridge, ‘I Love You, Man: Gendered Narratives of Friendship in Contemporary Hollywood Comedies’, Feminist Media Studies 14, no. 3 (2012): 363. The hairiness of Ethan’s belly is not necessarily related to his fatness, although it can also be read as part of his hyper-physicality and as contrary to some contemporary trends in male grooming.

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Apart from Boyle’s and Berridge’s conclusion, this specific scene can also be read in the context of homophobic anxiety surrounding the developing friendship between Zack Galifianaki’s and Robert Downey Jr.’s characters. The repulsion on the part of Peter does not only underline how Ethan’s body is lacking when held up to contemporary standards of male attractiveness, it also emphasizes that it does definitely not trigger any kind of sexual attraction in Peter, thereby keeping any thoughts of a non-platonic element in the relationship of the two men at bay. Two similar scenes can be found in The Hangover. In the first one Peter, the groom, and Alan have their suits fitted for the wedding. When the tailor leaves, Alan starts to undress, which reveals him wearing a jockstrap under his trousers. He continues the conversation with Peter all while dressed only in the jock strap and a T-shirt. Peter looks baffled and slightly disgusted at the sight of Alan’s jock strap and tries not to look at Alan directly. When Alan comes closer and hugs Peter, Peter tries to angle his body away from Alan as much as possible and reluctantly claps him on the back, apparently cautious of coming near Alan’s still bare behind. In the second scene Alan is walking around the hotel suite shared with the other two protagonists only in his T-shirt, but without any underwear. When Phil first sees him, he averts his eyes and asks Alan to put on some trousers. A minute later he repeats his request and adds, ‘I find it a little weird I have to ask twice’. All three described scenes allow the audience to see the partly exposed fat male body – without any narrative necessity  – and all three make an effort to disavow any kind of potential erotic element in this presentation of the male body. The negation of the male body as an erotic object of the gaze has been widely discussed within Film Studies. Steve Neale, based on an article by Paul Willemen, argues that in mainstream cinema the eroticization of either the inner or extra-diegetic look at the male is constantly repressed in order to deny any homosexual desires

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this eroticization might imply.40 In bromance comedies this need for repression is even stronger than in other genres because of the aforementioned, already pre-existing pervasive homophobic anxiety resulting from male friendships being the main focus of the genre. I argue, that the fact that we see a fat body in all three scenes only further strengthens this denial of any possible homosexual desire. As Boyle and Berridge point out, the intra-diegetic male gaze in these types of scenes finds the male object of the gaze lacking and thereby reinforces the notion that there is a normative masculine ideal these bodies don’t live up to. But the reason why in the three described scenes the audience so easily understands and accepts this negative assessment of the male body by another male character – which is thereby also an assessment clearly void of any sexual desire – is because we see a fat body, and thereby a body we know is not considered to be attractive by any kind of hegemonic, mainstream standard. Thus, the non-normativity of the fat male body is utilized here in order to mollify the homophobic anxiety inherent to the genre of bromance. In these scenes the fat male body takes on a role similar to that of the fat female body in gross-out, as discussed below. It is presented as a repulsive object of the male gaze, negating the possibility of sexual attraction on the part of the holder of the gaze. The female fat gross-out body features predominantly in films with male protagonists who are shown to be disgusted by the fat female body, the fat female body thereby being constructed as an abject body. In both Dodgeball and Good Luck Chuck the disgust expressed is not just directed at the fat, female body in general but more specifically at the sexuality of that body. Both films show sexually confident fat 40

Steve Neale, ‘Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema’, in Feminism and Film, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 257; Paul Willemen, ‘Anthony Mann: Looking at the Male’, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, no. 15/16/17 (1981): 16.

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women, present them as already repulsive due to their weight and then use gross-out to further emphasize their ineligibility as sexual partners. In Dodgeball in the scene in question – as already previously discussed in the section on fat slapstick – one of the male protagonists gets allocated a fat girl as partner during the try-outs for a high school cheerleading team. Already in her introduction to the audience the girl is mocked by the film on several levels: her team number is announced to be ‘double zero’, thereby alluding to the fact that her clothing size is definitely not a ‘00’; after her name is announced, the camera moves in a whip pan until it stops on her, a common technique in comedies to humorously introduce an element that is presented as threatening; the other – slim – girls participating in the try-out are wearing T-shirts while she is the only one wearing a tank top, the film highlighting how she is confident enough to show off the most skin and thereby implicitly also mocking her for daring to do so. What is also a decisive element in her introduction is the reaction of the other characters to her: all of them look at her with facial expressions of disgust, repulsion or derisiveness – and this even before the actual gross-out act takes place. When Justin and she finally do their figure together, and she crushes him underneath her, landing with her crotch on his face, we hear a squelchy noise, and again the bystanders and Justin himself react with repulsion to the incident and her body. But here it is not just any kind of bodily fluids, but her vaginal fluids – and in further consequence her sexuality – that are alluded to and presented as the source of disgust. In Good Luck Chuck the disgust at the fat woman’s sexuality is even more overt, since it is part of the slightly absurd plot of the film. Charlie, the protagonist, suspects he is under a curse, which causes every woman he sleeps with to find the love of her life in the next guy she meets after him. To test his suspicion, he decides to sleep with a woman who is so repulsive that without the interference of his curse

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she would never be able to get a relationship. Unsurprisingly enough, he chooses a fat woman for this test, and the reactions and comments not only by Charlie but also by his best friend Stu to his having sex with her are marked by horror and disgust. The gross-out elements are added to the characterization of the fat woman in what seems like an attempt to deflect from the fact that it is her fatness that is presented as disgusting, and to convey that in fact her other traits are what make her so repellent. Stu uses the following words to describe her to Charlie, noticeably leaving out her body size: ‘She’s angry, rude, smells bad; in addition to back acne she has front acne and side acne. (…) She keeps her teeth in [a] glass. (…) She’s your best bet. (…) That chick ain’t never getting married.’ The film, on the one hand, attempts to avoid a too overt fatphobia by showing her farting, popping a pimple, scratching her belly button and smearing her face with food, thereby seemingly presenting these abject habits of hers – and not her fatness – as the main reason why Charlie finds her so repellent. On the other hand, it is obvious that her fatness is not coincidental: Stu points her out by saying, ‘She is beached over there’, through his choice of words effectively calling her a whale, and, in addition, her body size is also highlighted by the cinematography. In several frames her body is shot in a way to emphasize its large size and expansiveness (see Figures 12–13). Those shots also highlight how her skin tone is reddish-pasty, thereby not conforming to contemporary ideals of tanned skin, and some of them also emphasize how she dwarfs the protagonist, lending her size a threatening quality. The bikini she is wearing has bright colours and patterns and also frills, coming across as rather flashy, compared to the swimwear of the other people in that scene. This fits in with notions of fatness taking up too much space – in this case by drawing too much attention because of being visually ‘garishly loud’ – and also of fatness being associated with vulgarity, not just in terms of bodily functions, but in a broader sense of good and bad taste. The fact that in addition she is portrayed

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Figures 12–13  Good Luck Chuck (D: Mark Helfrich, P: Tracey Edmonds, Mike Karz, Barry Karz & Brian Volk-Weiss, 2007).

as an overeater also makes it clear that her fatness is in no way coincidental, even if it might not be addressed by the dialogue directly. In Big Momma’s House and Grown Ups the fat female body is less of a sexual body but still a body shown to elicit disgust in the male protagonists. Both films employ the racist stereotype of the ‘Mammy’, featuring older, African American women who are not

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only fat but also exhibit the nagging personality associated with this stereotype.41 In Big Momma’s House the woman in question is the title character Hattie, whom the protagonist Malcolm, a police officer, has been monitoring secretly in order to get hold of her niece. When he attempts to install some surveillance devices in her house, she comes home earlier than expected and thereby forces him to hide from her in the bathroom, behind the shower curtain. The reason why she had to go home is her ‘upset stomach’, leading to Malcolm having to listen to and smell her defecating on the toilet next to the bathtub. The sound in this scene is very graphic – the DVD subtitles describe the noises with ‘explosive diarrhoea’ – and are accompanied by Hattie herself grunting and moaning, her vocalness adding to her heightened physicality here. Malcolm’s reactions to her physicality are very clear-cut: he is gagging, wrinkling his nose and turning his whole body away from the toilet, his extreme reaction meant to cause as much laughter as Hattie’s graphic defecation itself. The scene continues with her undressing to take a bath. What is noticeable is how Malcolm’s reaction to her naked body is almost identical to his reaction to her defecating. He peeks around the shower curtain and upon seeing her naked backside pulls a face and silently retches. The camera work here is highly voyeuristic and objectifying, presenting two point of view (POV) shots of Hattie’s naked bottom, which highlight the positioning of the fat female body as a repulsive object of the male gaze but at the same time also indulge in the fat body as a visual spectacle. When Malcolm finally manages to leave unnoticed and get back to his police partner, again, just as in Dodgeball and Good Luck Chuck, the notion of female fatness as threatening is 41

K. Sue Jewell points out that although the Mammy is characterized as essentially submissive towards her white owners or employers, she is also often shown to be aggressive towards other African Americans, in particular African American men. A certain assertiveness of her character also seems to be tolerated when she is giving advice to white characters, as long as it can be considered part of her caring and nurturing nature. – Jewell 38, 42.

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evoked, when he exclaims, ‘I have seen a lot of scary shit in my days, but damn, that was a lot of ass’. In Grown Ups the fat woman is the mother-in-law of one of the five protagonists who constantly nags and attempts to emasculate her black son-in-law, thereby fulfilling the ‘Mammy’ cliché. As in the scene in Big Momma’s House, here it is also the digestion of the fat woman that is the source of gross-out comedy. In two scenes she is shown farting, in both cases in front of an audience. While their reactions are not depicted in as much detail as Malcolm’s, they are still negative: staring, laughing and mocking in the first case, and pulling a disgusted face in the second case. The fact that in both films African American characters are associated with processes of defecation fits in with Joel Kovel’s analysis of blackness being associated with dirt in white Western culture and thereby also with what he considers to be the essential type of dirt, faeces.42 Kovel identifies this as a projection of a ‘basic dirt fantasy’ stemming from the anal phase of early childhood, which does not fit in with notions of whiteness being the epitome of physical control. Or as Richard Dyer puts it: ‘To be white is to be well potty-trained.’43 Since 2011 a new wave of films has been released that breaks with this structure of fat female gross-out. All of them feature Melissa McCarthy and/or Rebel Wilson either as protagonists or at least in major supporting roles and the most obvious aspect of fat representation in these films might be the positioning of the fat woman as sexually desirable, an issue I address in Chapter 3. To a certain degree related to this is the way in which these fat female characters are involved in gross-out comedy, namely without necessarily being presented as the object of the disgusted male gaze.

42

43

Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psychohistory (London: Free Association Books, 1988), 86–87. Dyer, White, 76.

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In Bridesmaids the role of the fat female character and the role of gross-out are rather similar to the previously described structures in comedies with male protagonists. The film also features a group of friends and also bases part of its comedy on their misadventures, in this case – as in The Hangover – taking place in the pre-math of a wedding. Their biggest misadventure happens in a very high-end bridal store during the dress fitting for the bride and the bridesmaids. After having had lunch at a restaurant almost all of them are slowly beginning to display symptoms of food poisoning. The one displaying the earliest symptoms and, in the end, also the most outrageous ones is Megan. She is already burping, choking and farting when none of the slim characters are showing any signs of discomfort yet. When, finally, they are all suffering from the manifestations of food poisoning Megan ends up having to defecate in a sink in front of the others. The others merely sweat or vomit and even the bride being forced to defecate while wearing her white dress is presented as less of a spectacle than Megan’s crap in the sink. Here, as in The Hangover, Due Date and Grown Ups, the fat character is given extra physicality in the context of gross-out as a transgression of the constraints of everyday life. One difference though between the transgressions in the malecentric comedies and those in Bridesmaids is how they are evaluated by the characters themselves and thereby also how they are narratively framed. In the male comedies they are either openly enjoyed (Grown Ups), or in hindsight presented as a worthwhile experience (The Hangover), or at least lead to a bonding experience and a new friendship between the male characters (Due Date). In Bridesmaids the transgressions taking place – including the gross-out scene in the bridal store – are never presented as joyful for the characters or as bringing them closer together, but, on the contrary, are the final reason why the friendship between the protagonist and her best friend almost breaks. So even though it can be enjoyable for the

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audience and might invite transgressive readings, the female grossout in Bridesmaids is still narratively constrained, presenting female misconduct as a problem, rather than as a productive experience. Furthermore, Megan is not the only fat female in the film and in the case of the more minor character of Brynn, the flatmate of the protagonist and played by Rebel Wilson, Bridesmaids is much closer to the previously discussed, more common way of presenting the fat female as a disgusting object of the gaze, although in this case of the female gaze. In the scene in question Brynn shows her new tattoo to Annie, explaining that she had it done by some stranger who was offering tattoos for free. The tattoo runs from her bellybutton over her flank to the centre of her back, so in order to show it off, Brynn has to lift her T-shirt, thereby exposing her fat, wobbly belly, a sight rarely seen in American mainstream culture. Annie reacts horrified and disgusted, clasping her hands in front of her face and averting her eyes. On an overt level this reaction is clearly caused by the infected state of Brynn’s tattoo and not by the fact that she is fat. Nevertheless, the sight of the female fat belly becomes linked with disgust and repulsion in this scene, even if in a less openly offensive way than in those films featuring the fat woman as an object of the male gaze. What this scene also demonstrates is that there is a connection between race and gross-out within the film. The infected tattoo shows what Brynn describes as a ‘Mexican tequila worm’ – an anthropomorphized worm with a tequila bottle, Mexican dress and a sombrero – and the incident in the bridal store happens because they get food poisoning from having lunch at a Brazilian restaurant. These associations with ethnicities of colour fit in with whiteness being an underlying structure of the film as a whole: an upcoming ‘white wedding’ is the main event of the film, starting its plot and connecting all its characters. The American white wedding has been analysed as being racialized as white, based on white Anglo-Saxon tradition and even nowadays still mostly promoted to and affordable

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to white middle and upper classes.44 What is at the base of many of the conflicts and thereby also the comedy in Bridesmaids is the tension between the structures and expectations, that the ‘white wedding’ entails, in particular those surrounding normative white femininity, and the inability of the protagonist Annie and also the other female characters to comply to those, most clearly displayed in the gross-out scene at the bridal store. The character most strongly associated with normative white femininity is Helen, who is wealthy, slim, presented as firmly at home in the white world of the ‘white wedding’ and as overall highly physically controlled. Accordingly, she is also the only one who doesn’t protract food poisoning – she refuses to eat meat at the Brazilian restaurant – and consequently the only one whose body does not get out of control at the bridal store. The characters the furthest removed from the ideal are Brynn and Megan, whose fatness in itself is already a clear transgression of normative white gender identity. Their being central in the gross-out scenes not only fits in with their fatness, but also removes them further from the ideal white body, which is always a controlled body. Gwendolyn Audrey Forster coined the term the ‘bad-white body’ in writing not about gross-out films, but a range of American low budget science-fiction and horror films from the 1960s to 1970s which display some similarities to the gross-out genre. They were – and are – considered to be of very low cultural value and they also rely on unstable bodies: ‘white bodies out of control, invisible bodies, bodies missing hands, brains without skulls, monstrous eyeballs, bodies contaminated by nuclear fallout, bodies at war with their own corporeal existence.’45 Forster argues that this lack of control others the white characters, making them ‘white 44

45

See Chrys Ingraham, White Weddings: Romancing Heterosexuality in Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 2008), 56; Elizabeth Freeman, The Wedding Complex: Forms of Belonging in Modern American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 22–24. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Performing Whiteness: Postmodern Re/Constructions in the Cinema (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), 67.

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others to whiteness itself ’.46 Bridesmaids seems ambivalent about the issue of whiteness. On the one hand the hyper-white Helen is the character that comes closest to being an antagonist and the only time she is presented as likable is when she is crying and her body is actually out of control and leaking body fluids. On the other hand, the female characters on the other side of the spectrum of whiteness are not necessarily depicted in a much more favourable light. Megan might be presented as likable, but she is still being mocked and stereotyped; Brynn fares even worse and seems like the ultimate ‘badwhite body’ with her infectious tattoo, her tight clothes, her laziness, her scrounging off Annie and her implied history of prostitution. What is situated as acceptable and desirable is the whiteness of the protagonist Annie who is not wealthy but still middle-class enough to not behave like a ‘scrounger’, not constantly picture-perfect like Helen but still normatively slim and conventionally attractive, not an overly controlled body but not an openly defecating, infectious body either. Hyper-whiteness might take the occasional bashing in this film but Annie’s ‘conventional’ whiteness is still constituted as normative. What is also noticeable about this representational dynamic are its parallels with a dynamic I addressed in Chapter 2, regarding anxieties surrounding white masculinity. In both cases a continuum is drawn up between two polar extremes of either gendered racial identity, as in Bridesmaids, or, as in the previously discussed films, which are more focused on masculinity than whiteness, racialized gender identity. In both cases fatness is employed to signify the clearly non-normative end of the continuum, while the subject position that is presented as acceptable is situated in the middle of the continuum.47 The Pitch Perfect films focus on an all-female college a-cappella group and came out in the wake of ‘the “Bridesmaids” effect’, in which 46 47

Ibid., 68. See Chapter 2 for a discussion of the three films expressing anxieties about white male gender identity.

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Hollywood studios realized that female ensemble comedies could be commercially and critically successful.48 In these films the gross-out elements might be less overt than in Bridesmaids, but they are present and also relate to issues of whiteness. In the first film, Pitch Perfect, Aubrey, the slim leader of the group, tends to throw up whenever she is nervous, which is most prominently displayed in one of the group’s concert appearances in which she pukes all over the stage. In Pitch Perfect 2 Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) defecates noisily outside a tent, in which her band colleagues are trying to sleep, while explicitly commenting on her digestive processes and exclaiming that, due to a lack of toilet paper, she has to use the tent’s fabric. In a similar scene in Pitch Perfect 3, this time set in a hotel room, Amy lets her band colleagues know that she needs to use the bathroom, by loudly exclaiming, ‘Time to drop a smash.’ When comparing these acts of gross-out, it becomes clear that the comedy in both Aubrey’s and Amy’s case partly results from the interplay between the gross-out acts and the characters’ whiteness. Aubrey is blond, slim, overly-disciplined and overly disciplinary, and at the performance in question she and her band colleagues are all wearing a very traditionally feminine skirt and blazer combination while singing Sign by the Swedish 1990s pop band Ace of Base. Everything about her and the performance, including the choice of a Nordic song, signifies controlled, normative white femininity, so when she throws up, the comedy at least partly results from the stark contrast between this eruption of inappropriate physicality and the rest of her character. Fat Amy’s whiteness, on the other hand, is quite different: she exhibits an excessive physicality, as evident in her dancing style, her general habit of touching her own breasts or belly, her physical interactions with other characters and

48

See Gabrielle Moss, ‘The Bridesmaids Effect: How Did Bridesmaids Change Hollywood?’ bitchmedia, 6 June 2013, accessed 8 May 2018, https://www.bitchmedia.org/post/thebridesmaids-effect-what-impact-does-bridesmaids-have-on-women-in-hollywood.

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her fatness. Although she is not as obviously a ‘bad-white body’ as Wilson’s character in Bridesmaids, she is nevertheless far removed from Aubrey’s type of white femininity, and her acts of defecating or announcing her defecation don’t contrast but rather fit within this physical non-normativity. Wilson’s character in How to Be Single, Robin, commits one act of obvious gross-out, which we only hear about afterwards when she tells Alice, the protagonist, ‘I think I pissed in your sister’s litter box’ (the litter box turns out to be a Zen garden). Here gross-out comedy has a similar function as in the male gross-out discussed and in Bridesmaids, namely as a transgression of the constraints of everyday life: throughout the film Robin serves as Alice’s guide to the wild life of being single in New York and this incident is part of one of their excessive, drunk nights out. It is only one, small, incident; however, it is worth noting that, in contrast to Bridesmaids, it doesn’t entail any kind of negative repercussions to their friendship. The spectre of the fat female body as a sexually abject body still looms in two of these seemingly slightly more progressive films, both featuring an instance of ‘vulva flashing’: in The Boss Michelle (Melissa McCarthy) spray tans her body with widespread legs, unperturbed by her host Rachel walking into the bathroom and exclaiming, aghast ‘Close your robe (…) I can see your vagina!’ Pitch Perfect 2 features a performance by the Barden Bellas that ends with Fat Amy accidentally flashing her vulva to the audience, which reacts with horror. Due to the fact that President Obama and the First Lady are members of the audience, the incident gets blown up into a national scandal, depicted by the film in an exaggerated, semi-ironic manner. There are clear differences between these two scenes and the earlier discussed cases of sexualized, female fat gross-out: here there is no focus on male characters being repelled by the female fat body, and through the explicit emphasis on the genital area these two films convey less of a sense of horror caused by the fatness of the body. Nevertheless, it is

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still the fat woman whose sexuality causes disgust and whose body is presented as excessive, vulgar and grotesque in its association with ‘the lower stratum of the body’.49 ***

As this chapter has shown, in contemporary physical comedy fatness is marked as a hyper-physicality and as a physicality out of control. In slapstick cinema two, often overlapping, tendencies have been highlighted: first, common stereotypes of fat people as physically unfit and clumsy are exploited as a source of comedy. Second, choreography, sound design and framing are employed in order to emphasize the weight, size and volume of the body, and thereby utilize these aspects as a source of comedy, turning the fat body into a comic spectacle. Fat slapstick is also partly gendered, with a subcategory focusing on fat women whose lack of sexual desirability and inability to fulfil heteronormative gender roles gets related to their weight and presented as comedic. Fat gross-out comedy, however, is even more gendered, with two almost completely separate types of representation evident. Male fat characters play the part of the ‘most gross-out’, the most hyper-physical one, in ensemble comedies about homosocial bonding, and their bodies are also employed to mollify homophobic anxieties inherent to the genre. Female characters play smaller roles than their male counterparts and their depiction in the context of gross-out mostly functions to present their physicality as repellent, often on a sexual level. Nevertheless, in recent years several films have been released that break with this pattern and present their fat female characters in roles to a certain degree more similar to those of the male characters analysed.

49

Bakhtin, 21.

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Next to gender, racialized structures of representation are also noticeable within the gross-out genre. Whereas the male fat characters are all white, relating to gross-out traditionally functioning as a playground for white, middle-class males, the female characters are both black and white, with the black women fulfilling the ‘Mammy’ stereotype. Some of the films featuring white female fatness are concerned with issues of whiteness, presenting their white fat female characters as the furthest removed from normative, white femininity, partly due to their ‘gross-out bodies’.

5

The Fat Eater: Food and Eating Eating and fatness seem to be inextricable issues, with mainstream discourses of fatness usually proclaiming it to be a consequence of – the wrong kind of – eating. Similarly, many of those discourses focused on eating and food, whether it is veganism or the value of the homecooked meal, children’s eating habits or the ubiquity of processed foods, regularly evoke fatness as a possible result of and therefore warning against the wrong kind of eating. The association between the two issues has strong negative connotations, and consequently many of the representations discussed in this chapter don’t depict eating in a positive or neutral manner but rather express anxieties about (contemporary) eating practices. While eating is an essential, life-sustaining activity that is often associated with pleasure, as these representations indicate, it is also a potential cause of a number of anxieties. One way in which eating has been theorized as a source of anxiety is in its threat to the notion of the body and the self being autonomous and individuated, being clearly separated from the rest of the world. Deane W. Curtin draws parallels between eating and childbirth, a process that similarly challenges the autonomy of the body and the self. For him ‘the classification of something as food means it is understood as something made to become part of who we are’. Consequently, food and eating ‘leads to a suspicion that the absolute border between self and other which seems so obvious in the western tradition is nothing more than an arbitrary philosophical

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construction’.1 Similarly, Claude Fischler, in reliance on Paul Rozin and April Fallon, highlights incorporation as the basis of eating: ‘the action in which we send a food across the frontier between the world and the self, between “outside” and “inside” our body.’2 This incorporation leads to part of this outside becoming part of our inside, and not only in a biological sense, which is why food is often imagined to have an impact on our subjectivity, as can be seen in the notion of characteristics of food being passed on to the eater.3 Apart from these issues surrounding autonomy and subjectivity, there are other aspects of food and eating that have the potential to cause anxiety. Claude Fischler identifies what he calls ‘the omnivore’s paradox’ as a cause of anxiety and ambivalence. This paradox is based on the fact that as omnivores humans, on the one hand, experience a lot of freedom in their food intake since they are not tied to one specific type of food and can explore and enjoy a large variety. On the other hand, this also means that humans physiologically need a certain level of variety, often forcing them to engage with unknown, potentially harmful foods. ‘The omnivore’s paradox lies in the tension (…) between the two poles of neophobia (…) and neophilia.’4 Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil take this line of thought even further and propose that besides the omnivore’s paradox there are several other opposing characteristics of food producing paradoxes and thereby causing anxiety and ambivalence: food can cause great pleasure but also great displeasure; food is necessary to maintain energy and health but it can also cause illness or disease; without food the body 1

2

3 4

Deane W. Curtin, ‘Food/Body/Person’, in Cooking, Eating, Thinking: Transformative Philosophies of Food, eds. Deane W. Curtin and Lisa M. Heldke (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 9. Claude Fischler, ‘Food, Self and Identity’, Social Science Information 27, no. 2 (1988): 279; Paul Rozin and April Fallon, ‘The Acquisition of Likes and Dislikes for Foods’, in Criteria of Food Acceptance: How Man Chooses What He Eats, eds. J. Solms and R.L. Hall (Zürich: Forster Verlag, 1981), 35–48. See Fischler, ‘Food, Self and Identity’, 279–280. Ibid., 277–278.

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cannot continue to exist but at the same time the food we consume is itself always a dead organism.5 What is also at stake when it comes to food and eating is the issue of control, specifically control over one’s own body and its functions. Western societies enforce eating habits and manners that are characterized by restraint and shame regarding bodily functions. In The Civilizing Process Norbert Elias traces the historical development of this anxiety surrounding bodily functions during the postmedieval period in Europe and relates it to the end of feudalism and the emergence of new social classes, who distinguished themselves through their manners.6 Eating and table manners were one area of behaviour that underwent significant changes during this period, and with them also cooking and the types of foods consumed developed in such a way as to display delicacy and restraint.7 Another issue, that plays on our anxieties regarding food and has done so to an increasing extent in the last few decades, is health. Deborah Lupton traces the historical development of the discourse on nutrition in Western societies and points out that an awareness of the link between food and health has existed for centuries; however, nutritional science did not develop in England and the United States until the eighteenth century.8 In the nineteenth century issues such as the insufficient nourishment of the working classes and, related to that, concern about the health of soldiers propelled further public interest in the nutritional value of food.9 For the twentieth century Lupton identifies three phases of nutritional science in Britain, which she also considers to have taken place in other Western countries. 5

6

7 8 9

Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil, Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society (London: Routledge, 1997), 152. Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations, Rev. ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), specifically 45–171, 421–435. See ibid., 72–109. Deborah Lupton, Food, the Body and the Self (London: Sage, 1996), 69. Ibid., 70.

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The first phase was informed by attempts to prevent diseases caused by nutritional deficiencies; the second phase, after the Second World War, was characterized by attempts to increase food production; the third phase, which Lupton situates as beginning in the 1970s, is primarily interested in the link between nutrition and chronic diseases.10 Lupton points out how by now this discourse surrounding food and health has intensified in such a way that foods are often depicted either as pathogens or as medicines, the link between them and human health presented as causal and straightforward.11 Lupton’s book was published in 1996, but the dynamics observed by her are still present in contemporary discourses, having rather intensified than subsided since then. Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil provide a quite apt observation in their analysis of how the perception of the interrelation between diet and health has changed over time – and at the same time hasn’t. They first describe ‘traditional’ approaches to the issue of food and health, which are – or were – pre-scientific and, when it comes to the ascribed effects of certain foods on human health, often involve a belief in what modern societies would call ‘magic’.12 At first glance, contemporary approaches could hardly be described as pre-scientific, yet they do display similarities: Certainly, a good measure of the appeal of the health food approach is related to a characteristic it shares with traditional modes of belief: its promise to provide individuals with a sense that they can influence their own health for the better by means of choices and practices which they feel they personally can control and comprehend.13

10 11 12 13

Ibid., 71. Ibid., 77. Beardsworth and Keil, 126. Ibid., 149.

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What can be related to Beardsworth’s and Keil’s analysis is the ideology of neoliberalism and how its paradigm of responsibilization constructs individuals as always being wholly responsible for – and thereby in control of – their own circumstances. The belief that everyone just needs to eat the ‘right’ kinds of food to stay healthy and that those who don’t follow these guidelines only have themselves to blame fits in with neoliberal ideologies and is part of a general moralization of health issues. Thus, the link between diet and health is at the forefront of current food discourses and particularly so when it comes to the issue of fatness. Fatness – or rather ‘obesity’ – is constantly constructed, firstly, as being a great health risk and secondly, as being the result of an intake of too many – unhealthy – high-calorie foods combined with too little exercise. Just as the former assumption is not without its contentions, equally this ‘energy balance model’ as an explanation for the causes of fatness is not completely indisputable.14 Nevertheless, public and media discourses constantly reiterate the mantra of the ‘obesity epidemic’ being caused by a diet containing too many sugars, fats and starches and therefore too many calories. What this discourse about food(s) and fatness also displays, just as the anti-fatness-discourse as a whole, is a distinctively classist bias. The types of foods discredited are often associated with working-class lifestyles, while those celebrated are in accordance with bourgeois, middle-class tastes.15 This dynamic is itself part of a larger trend of the last decades in which food and eating have gained increased importance, not just in terms of their effect on health, but also as a marker of class. Stephanie Mariko Finn puts forward the argument

14

15

For a critique of the energy-balance model see Julie Guthman, Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 91–115. See Schorb, 118; see also Charlotte Biltekoff, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food & Health (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 99–107.

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that this was caused by an actual stagnation of incomes for the middle classes and a further need to distinguish oneself: ‘For many Americans who consider themselves “middle class” and culturally part of the mainstream, food became an arena of class aspiration.’16 This chapter analyses the figure of the fat eater and its predominant tropes, investigating their connection with certain contemporary food anxieties and also issues of class, gender and race, in order to highlight how the meanings of this figure go beyond a simple reflection of commonplace associations of fatness with eating.

Eating out of place In this section the focus lies on the trope of ‘eating out of place’, by which I describe food being eaten not as part of a meal at a table, at home or in a restaurant, or maybe during a picnic in a park or during a lunch break on a bench, but food being eaten while engaging in other activities, such as walking or watching TV, or also food being eaten in spaces or places not meant for the consumption of food, such as police interrogation rooms or cupboards. This type of eating is frequently mentioned in contemporary discussions of eating – and cooking – and deemed to be one example of unhealthy dieting habits that have gained predominance in Western societies over the last decades. Michael Pollan, one of the best-known contemporary American food writers, mentions eating out of place in two of his Food Rules for a good and healthy diet: in Rule 55 (‘Eat Meals’) he bemoans the fact that next to the actual three meals of the day Americans have added a ‘fourth daily eating occasion that lasts all day long: the constant sipping and snacking we do while watching TV,

16

Stephanie Mariko Finn, ‘Aspirational Eating: Class Anxiety and the Rise of Food in Popular Culture’ (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2011), 14.

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driving, working, and so on’.17 He clearly advises his readers instead to have traditional meals and in the same spirit recommends in Rule 58: ‘Do all your eating at a table.’18 These discourses often assert a causal relation between eating out of place and fatness: Pollan names as one of the main downsides of this type of eating the danger of unknowingly overeating, a danger which in contemporary discourse, if not explicitly then implicitly, is always presented as the main cause of fatness. This connection between eating out of place and overeating seems to have become common sense and consequently comes up again and again in media reports and commentary on the topic of fatness. Yet, there seems to be more at stake in some of the aversion towards eating while walking, driving or watching TV, than ‘just’ the fear of overeating and fatness. In Bad Food Britain: How a Nation Ruined Its Appetite, a book about all that – in the eyes of its author – is wrong with British eating habits, the food writer and journalist Joanna Blythman also has ‘eating out of place’ on her list of habits worthy of criticism: There is an abundance of ‘street food’ in Britain, but not of the gastronomic, life-enhancing sort. Kids gulp down cans of pop and sweets on the way to and from school. City suits bolt out from offices to grab a hasty sarnie and crisps, devouring them as they dash back to close that least deal. Lethargic shoppers amble around shopping malls with a giant cookie in one hand and a can of diet cola in the other. (…) Carriages on the London Underground rumble along, pungent with the odours of partially eaten, then abandoned, fast food and smelly sandwich debris.19

Although this excerpt is part of the chapter ‘Britain Makes You Fat’, Blythman’s disdain and even disgust here seems to be very much 17 18 19

Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (London: Penguin, 2010), 121. Ibid., 127. Joanna Blythman, Bad Food Britain (London: Fourth Estate, 2006), 234.

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directed straight at the habits she describes before even relating them to ‘obesity’. A few pages later it becomes even more explicit what irks her so much: In Britain, eating is an occupation that has been uncoupled from the civilizing protocols to which countries with sound food cultures still adhere. On the continent it is widely viewed as impolite to telephone people between 7.00 pm and 08.00 pm, because it is generally assumed that they will be eating and should be left to do so in peace. But eating in Britain no longer requires a table, time out from other activities, or a certain timeframe in which it can be accomplished.20

The middle-class disdain for a lack of manners is already there between the lines in the first quote, but in the second quote it becomes not just explicit but also connected with the notion of civilization or rather the perceived lack thereof. Blythman is not alone in her assessment of ‘eating out of place’ as a return to less civilized times, as can be seen in Michael Pollan’s book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation: Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would have likely fed himself on the go and alone, like all the other animals. (Or, come to think of it, like the industrial eaters we’ve more recently become, grazing at gas stations and eating by ourselves whenever and wherever.) But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising selfrestraint all served to civilize us.21

20 21

Ibid., 240. Michael Pollan, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (London: Allen Lane, 2013), 7.

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So eating out of place has connotations not just simply of having bad manners, but of being uncivilized, a notion that relates to the aforementioned work of Norbert Elias and his description of how control over the body, and thereby certain eating habits and manners, gained relevance in post-medieval Europe.22 The above comments show how in contemporary Western society adherence to these manners is still essential and also closely connected to issues of class, just as Elias points out in his historical observations. What is often intertwined with notions of what is civilized and proper is disgust towards that which falls outside of these notions, as can be seen in some of the scenes analysed in this section. Why eating or food out of place in particular might elicit this reaction can be explained considering Mary Douglas’s anthropological study Purity and Danger, in which she highlights how societies all over the world define dirt as that which is disorder, that which is out of place.23 ***

In Grown-Ups Eric tells his friends how he fantasizes about candy bars (instead of girls, as they do). He explains that because his wife won’t let him eat sweets anymore – for health reasons – he keeps the candy bars in a secret stash. The stash is hidden beneath his dirty clothes, which has the additional advantage that ‘the smell of my sweat socks masks the chocolate smell’. This little conversation invokes the image of food being out of place, in this case in the vicinity of dirty socks, and thereby presents food as something disgusting. While the slobbishness expressed here has masculine connotations, the whole exchange also infantilizes and de-masculinizes Eric on two levels. First, by admitting that he fantasizes about candy bars – a type of

22 23

Elias, specifically 72–109. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966; repr., London: Routledge, 2002), 2, 197.

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food associated with children – instead of women, and second by the fact that he does not dare to openly oppose his wife, only covertly. Furthermore, it complies with the stereotype of the fat eater free of self-discipline or self-control, who cannot stop eating, even then when he has to do it secretly, under rather disgusting circumstances. Eating out of place has similar inflections on the category of masculinity in Transformers. The fat Glen and his – slim – friend Katy are both hackers who have been arrested by the FBI and are shown sitting in an interrogation room, waiting to be questioned. The scene starts with a close-up of a plate full of donuts being shoved onto the table and into the frame. Their colourfulness and texture seems oddly out of place in the sterile and coldly lit interrogation room, of which we get to see more in the next frame, showing Glen and Katy in a medium shot. Glen is already shoving the donuts into his mouth, having grabbed one immediately, while Katy is sitting next to him, face and body language rather expressionless. What is also noticeable is that Glen himself looks out of place here: while Katy is wearing a beige jacket over a dark hoodie, almost blending into her surroundings, Glen is wearing a shiny, pink basketball shirt, making him stand out visually just like the donuts. Glen finishes the whole plate of donuts in one go and the fact that he not only eats a lot but does it in a situation and in surroundings not considered appropriate for eating or conducive to developing an appetite – out of place – makes him fit even more with the stereotype of the fat, greedy overeater. But what his behaviour also indicates becomes more explicit in the continuation of the scene, when two FBI agents enter the room to interrogate Glen and Katy. Glen panics – while Katy stays quiet – and starts babbling about his innocence. This behaviour implies a lack of control over his emotions and actions, just as him wolfing down the donuts did, and it also infantilizes and de-masculinizes him, in particular in comparison to the relatively calm Katy. What it also shows – and this relates again to him eating the donuts and also to

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the colour and fabric of his T-shirt – is his not fitting in with the controlled and masculinized space of the FBI, resulting in an inability to act and behave as called for in this setting. In Good Luck Chuck two consecutive scenes featuring a fat female character both have food and/or eating in them. In the first scene Eleanor, the fat woman, is shown lying next to a swimming pool, with a garbage bag of donut holes next to her. The garbage bag is not just in the scene, but is explicitly mentioned when the best friend of the protagonist Charlie points Eleanor out to him and says, ‘She is beached over there by the giant garbage bag full of donut holes’.24 In addition, when Charlie approaches her, he is shown in a deep space low-angle shot walking towards her from the background, while her body and next to it the bag of donut holes are highlighted by being positioned in the foreground of the frame (see Figure 12,  p.  164). Here again, the image of food being out of place brings with it connotations of disgust: the garbage bag evokes associations with waste, inedible material, but even if it were a non-garbage plastic bag, the presentation of the donut holes in such a manner wouldn’t have an appetizing effect. Furthermore, we see two donut holes next to her, not on a plate or a napkin, but lying on her towel, seemingly forgotten. Again, they are out of place, and again they evoke slight disgust because of it. What is also similar to Grown Ups is the implied characterization of the fat woman as greedy: even in a setting not necessarily suitable for eating she has to have large amounts of food with her. What is new here, though, is how class becomes related to food, and to food ‘out of place’, in this scene. The woman’s improper way of handling food – putting too large quantities of it in a garbage bag and taking it with her to a swimming pool – sets her apart from the other, very middle-class-seeming visitors of the pool, just as her tasteless, garish bikini does. 24

On ‘beached’ see Chapter 3, p. 163.

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In My Spy, we see Martha, played by Meg Ryan in a fat suit, eating a donut, while sitting on the floor in a waiting lounge at an airport. The scene takes place after Martha has dropped off her son who is to leave for a long-term assignment as an FBI agent. Due to the fact that she is shown to openly express her dismay about his leaving, her sitting – and eating – on the floor make her look beaten down by life and imply a lack of control over her life. In addition, this being and eating out of place, combined with her fatness and the tracksuit bottoms she is wearing, also has certain class connotations which become explicit – and exaggerated – when a stranger drops a coin in her cup of coffee, apparently taking her for a beggar. These meanings even become verbalized in the next scene of the film, taking place after a threeyear jump to the future, when Martha has lost weight and elaborates to her now-returned son how this moment became life-changing for her. ‘He [the stranger] saved my life. I looked like a  bag lady. So I said, “Marty, you’ve got to be making some changes.”’ Martha made good on her promise to herself and didn’t just lose weight, but also made ‘a lot of money in the stock market’ and thereby changed her class status. Class is also at play in the character introduction scene of the eponymous protagonist in Tammy. She is shown eating crisps at the wheel of her car, while singing along to a song on the radio. Her fastfood joint uniform, her hairstyle and the fact that she is driving an old and raggedy car all further contribute to the class connotations her eating habits carry. However, in terms of introducing her character, there is more at play here. A shot of her backseat, which is filled, among other things, with crumpled up food bags, as well as the fact that she hits a deer due to inattentiveness and then drives into town with a cracked car window and fumes coming from the car’s engine, gives the impression of someone who is ‘a bit of a mess’, literally and figuratively. Her eating a crumbly, potentially messy, food such as crisps is also part of this characterization. Consequently, the film’s

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plot and character arc first show Tammy hitting rock bottom, only to have her sort out her messy life by the film’s end, which, yes, also entails having lost some weight. The comedy Dodgeball shows an almost reverse development of this arc for the film’s antagonist, White Goodman, only much more exaggerated, in terms of food being out of place, but also in terms of weight change. In the last scene of the film White is shown sitting on his couch in front of the TV, surrounded by food, almost all of it out of place. Before we see him, the camera shows a medium shot of his TV set, which is surrounded by food items that look almost as if they have been randomly strewn about (see Figure 14). The film then cuts to a reverse shot of White on the couch, showing him in a medium-lowangle shot, with a kitchen block in the background. Here again food is strewn about throughout the mise-en-scène, including crumbs and other food remains visible on White Goodman’s naked belly and chest (see Figure 15). Eating in front of the TV in itself already has certain class connotations, transgressing those aforementioned middle-class sensibilities that see eating outside of meals and outside of the dinner table as ‘un-civilized’. Here, though, food being out of place is taken to extremes and, thereby, once again invokes disgust: food

Figure 14  White Goodman’s TV set in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (D: Rawson Marshall Thurber, P: Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller, 2004).

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Figure 15  White Goodman in front of his TV in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (D: Rawson Marshall Thurber, P: Stuart Cornfeld & Ben Stiller, 2004).

laid out on furniture without any dishes, food packages left open and thereby implying food gone stale or bad, different kinds of food randomly being mixed up, and, most importantly, food in contact with human skin – all these images potentially cause disgust. What this scene and the food being strewn throughout the apartment also imply is a distinct lack of control, going beyond Tammy’s messiness. White Goodman has sunk so low that he is incapable of keeping a tidy apartment, even so low that he cannot be bothered to remove food remains from his own body. This fits in with the plot, in which Goodman previously lost the gym owned by him and all his money to Peter LeFleur, the protagonist of the film. In this last scene we see him hitting rock bottom, lacking any control over his life, and – as one decisive indication of this – having also regained all the previously lost weight, thereby having transformed from a slim and muscular Ben Stiller into Ben Stiller in an excessive fat suit. Precious is very different from Dodgeball in terms of genre, style and content, yet the images of fat people eating display certain similarities. The protagonist Precious and her mother are shown to regularly eat in front of the TV, their flat not even containing a dinner table. Considering how in food discourses the family meal at the dinner table is often presented as an essential part of a functioning

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family life, this lack of a dinner table can be read as indicative of the destitute relationships in this family.25 Shots of Precious and her mother in their flat also sometimes show food or food remains somewhere in the frame, e.g. a seemingly forgotten plate with food on it on a coffee table behind the couch, or an open bag of crisps in the background. Precious is a drama and not a slapstick-grossout-comedy as Dodgeball, therefore does not employ as much overt exaggeration in its mise-en-scène, yet the implications remain the same: the fat people living in these places lack control over their lives and are in terms of class far removed from those who adhere to the ‘civilized protocols’ of eating. Another scene in Precious, set outside of the flat, also features the trope of ‘eating out of place’. In this scene Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken from a restaurant, because her mother neither prepared breakfast nor gave her any money for food, and eats it while walking to school. Here the ‘eating out of place’ also relates to the lack of family values, since it is the result of her mother not taking care of her properly, thereby forcing Precious to eat while walking instead of at a family dinner table. Furthermore, even though it is understandable – and not particularly greedy – that Precious wants to have breakfast, the image of her already eating while still running from the restaurant fits in with the stereotype of the fat overeater, who will eat even in a risky situation. In several further films the trope of eating out of place is employed to imply this stereotype of the fat overeater. In Kangaroo Jack Louis carries around with him a handful of candy in the pocket of his jacket. Here again, not just the fact that he has candy with him, but also that he has it not for instance in his bag, but in the pocket of his jacket, where people only keep the most necessary items, relates the character to the 25

For an overview of the discursive connection between family meal and family life see Penny Curtis, Allison James, and Katie Ellis, ‘Children’s Snacking, Children’s Food: Food Moralities and Family Life’, in Children’s Food Practices in Families and Institution, eds. Samantha Punch, Ian McIntosh and Ruth Emond (London: Routledge, 2011), 66–68.

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stereotype of the fat overeater. In the crime comedy Tower Heist the room maid Odessa is participating in the eponymous heist and, even if we do not get to actually see her eat, we are shown literal traces of her having eaten: during the heist, while Odessa is holding a weapon to a man’s head, the camera very deliberately zooms in on Odessa’s face to show her licking some chocolate cake remains from the corner of her mouth. It is implied that she has eaten during the heist, because, similar to Precious, she is too greedy not to eat even in a potentially risky situation. Another example is Amy in Pitch Perfect  3. Not during a heist, but in the middle of a lengthy action comedy sequence in which she liberates her friends who are being held hostage by gangsters, Amy gets out a sandwich that she apparently had stowed away in her bra and bites into it. Both Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2007) and Wanted present food stored out of place – in one case under a pillow, in the other in a desk at work – as an indication of overeating and more specifically emotional overeating. In Bridesmaids eating out of place becomes associated not just with overeating but also with fat sexuality: we see Megan eating an oversized cold-cuts sandwich from her partner’s naked upper body, a scene preceded by her holding up the sandwich and asking whether there ‘is a hungry bear anywhere?’ to which her partner replies, ‘I’m a hungry bear’. The scene is obviously meant to be comedic, basing its humour on the notion of fat people being so keen on food that they even make it part of their lovemaking. But next to this stereotype of overeating, there is also an element of disgust present, based on food coming into contact with skin, when neither the food nor the body in question is fitting the sexy eating cliché of for instance 9½ Weeks (Adrian Lyne, 1986), the probably best-known example of sexualized on-screen eating, featuring normatively attractive Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke. In summary, this section has shown that the trope of eating out of place is employed to generate a number of meanings attached to

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fat characters and bodies. It can be an aspect of de-masculinization, can evoke disgust, imply low class status and/or a lack of control, can indicate overeating or contribute to presenting fat people as sexually repellent.

Types of food Out of the seventeen films analysed in this section, fifteen show fat characters eating sweets, indicating the strong associative connection between this type of food and fatness. Sweets and sugar have always had a special status within Western cuisine, though the nature of that status has changed significantly over the course of history. Upon its introduction to medieval Europe sugar first functioned primarily as a medicine, then as a spice, still being used with a strong awareness of its medical properties.26 Even after it turned from a spice into a more general cooking ingredient, sugar was still a luxury, until the eighteenth century in larger quantities only affordable to the wealthy. During the nineteenth century sugar consumption increased rapidly, in both the United States and many European countries, sugar thereby becoming not just a food of the masses but often particularly popular among the poor.27 Fischler points out how these changes in availability and usage also led to a change in societal attitudes towards sugar. He speculates that the ‘downgrading’ of sugar from a luxury to an everyday ingredient for all social classes paved the way for what he identifies as modernday ‘saccharophobia’.28 Fischler’s article was published in 1987, but

26

27

28

See Claude Fischler, ‘Attitudes Towards Sugar and Sweetness in Historical and Social Perspective’, in Sweetness, ed. John Dobbing (London: Springer Verlag, 1987), 84–86. See Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (London: Penguin Books, 1986), 133–150, 188. Fischler, ‘Attitudes towards Sugar’, 87.

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his assessment of societal attitudes towards sugar as phobic still applies today. Paul Rozin posits that this negative attitude towards sugar is partly based on connotations of sugar as ‘sinful’, for which he suggests several possible reasons: firstly, it is strongly associated with certain substances such as chocolate, coffee and tea, which all have pharmacological effects, and were seen as sinful even before sugar was seen in such a light. Secondly, he considers ascetic – or, more specific to the United States, Puritan – values and an accompanying aversion towards pleasure as having played a role, and thirdly, he mentions the link between sugar and ‘obesity’ and its perception as a moral shortcoming.29 Sweets are also a highly gendered food, evoking strong associations with femininity. Sidney Mintz and Deborah Lupton both observe how commonplace this association is in Western culture, evident in how often it is just assumed that women naturally have a stronger preference for sweet foods than men.30 Advertising is one area in which these gender connotations are built upon and reinforced: analyses of American candy and chocolate advertisements since the end of the nineteenth century show how they mostly have women as their target audience, and how those ads targeted at men often forcefully attempt to divest their products of unwanted associations with femininity.31 Lupton posits an interplay with specific gender constructs as one reason for this type of gendering: while in Western culture women on the one hand are constructed as possessing less strong urges than men,

29

30 31

Paul Rozin, ‘Sweetness, Sensuality, Sin, Safety and Socialization: Some Speculations’, in Sweetness, ed. John Dobbing (London: Springer Verlag, 1987), 100. See Mintz, 150, and Lupton, 104. See Kathleen Banks Nutter, ‘From Romance to PMS: Images of Women and Chocolate in Twentieth-Century America’, in Edible Ideologies: Representing Food and Meaning, eds. Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 199–221, and Jane Dusselier, ‘Bonbons, Lemon Drops, and Oh Henry! Bars: Candy, Consumer Culture, and the Construction of Gender, 1895–1920’, in Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, ed. Sherrie A. Inness (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 13–49.

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on the other hand they are also seen as weak and unable to control their physical urges, as opposed to men whose strong rationality always lets them stay in control. Since sweets are considered not to be ‘real food’ but unnecessary and ‘sinful’ extra-indulgences, women are presented as more prone to giving in to these temptations, a dynamic that is also often highly visible in advertisements.32 Another reason Lupton mentions is the notion of sweets as ‘foods of childhood’, which also associates them closer with women, who are constructed as more infantilized than men.33 Mintz locates another possible cause for the association of women and children with sweets in the historical development of food distribution within families. He analyses the increase of meat and sugar consumption in the nineteenth-century British working class and highlights how it was common practice for the male adults to receive the more nourishing, protein-rich meats while women and children had to rely on the cheaper sugar to gain enough calories. Mintz points out how not just in Britain but in many other countries as well a greater availability of sugar helped to feed the working poor and that evidence also suggests similar patterns regarding intrafamilial food distribution outside of Britain.34 Consequently, in several films sweets are employed to draw attention to the gender identity of a character, more specifically to further de-masculinize and infantilize fat male characters. In Kangaroo Jack when the protagonist Charlie complains about being hungry, his fat sidekick Louis offers him a handful of colourful candy, which he apparently keeps in the pocket of his jacket at all times. Charlie gives Louis and the sweets an incredulous look, asking him, ‘Are you like four years old?’ This fits in with the overall characterization of Louis as the less masculine, more childlike one, in contrast to which Charlie’s masculinity is highlighted throughout the film. 32 33 34

See Lupton, 109–110. Ibid., 109. Mintz, 145–149.

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In the cases of Eric in Grown Ups and Glen in Transformers the type of food they eat adds an additional layer to their de-masculinization. Eric doesn’t just talk about any type of food, when his friends talk about fantasizing about girls, but about candy, a preference that infantilizes him as does the rest of the conversation. Similarly, Glen doesn’t wolf down burgers or crisps in the FBI interrogation room, but a whole plate of donuts – a whole plate of sweets – which makes him look even more like an overgrown, greedy child. Although the whole of Paul Blart is based on an interplay of demasculinization and re-masculinization of the fat title character, food plays a relatively small role in these gender constructions. There is only one scene in which the gender connotations of food are utilized: in this scene Paul keels over due to his hyperglycaemia while trying to intimidate the antagonists of the film by giving them an actionhero-style speech via walkie-talkie. His (almost-)fainting is already in contrast to his verbal attempt at bravado, a contrast further increased when he finds a lollipop on the floor, desperately picks it up and then regains new strength from it. A lollipop is a highly infantilized and feminized type of sweets; thus Paul gaining strength from it, having to rely on it to be able to continue fighting the ‘baddies’, only contributes to the presentation of his character as weak and laughable. The previously discussed infantilization of Zach Galifianakis’s character in The Hangover franchise is also manifested in some of his dietary choices: in The Hangover Part II we see the lunch he has just had, which also entails what looks like a large glass of chocolate milk. The impression of childishness is further confirmed by the fact that this scene takes places in his room, which is in his parents’ house, where he still lives at the age of forty-two, and, which due to action figures and posters, looks more like a boy’s room. This dietary habit and its connotations are reprised in The Hangover Part III, when Alan comes home and the first words out of his mouth are: ‘Mother, an Oreo smoothie, now.’

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In Just Friends the relationship between sweets and male gender identity is slightly more complex. In the scene in question the formerly fat Chris is having lunch with his female friend Jamie in a diner they used to go to when they were still in high school and Chris was still fat. The waitress remembers Chris from back then and serves him what he always used to have back then, namely a very exuberant pancake. Present-day, slimmed-down Chris reacts almost hysterically to the sight of the pancake and complains that his stomach wouldn’t be able to cope, since he hasn’t had sweets in ten years, to which Jamie replies: ‘Relax, little girl, you can have my sandwich and I’ll have your pancakes.’ So although on the one hand pancakes are associated with the fat Chris of the past – who in flashbacks is presented as demasculinized – the strict rejection of the pancakes is depicted as not very masculine behaviour either. Sweets – and fatness – might be associated with femininity but so is dieting, making neither an acceptable part of normative masculinity. Next to gender, class connotations are also evoked through food, sometimes through sweets, sometimes through other foods. Four films use donuts to make a comment or implications about the class status of fat characters: My Spy, Good Luck Chuck, Norbit and Dodgeball. In both My Spy and Good Luck Chuck fat female characters are shown to be eating ‘out of place’ and, as previously discussed, that in itself already entails certain class connotations. Donuts are the food eaten in both films and thereby further emphasize these connotations of lower class. In Dodgeball we see the formerly fat White Goodman taunting himself by almost eating a donut and then giving himself electric shocks to achieve a conditioning against consuming donuts or presumably unhealthy food in general. Although this scene satirizes Goodman’s obsessive dieting and his fear of food and fat, it is again the donut that is a stand-in for Goodman’s old self, who was not only fat but also didn’t yet have the wealth the slim Goodman acquired. This old self comes back at the end of the film, after Goodman puts

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on weight again, and is shown to be not just fat but also poor again. The class status of Rasputia, the ‘evil’ fat wife of the title character in Norbit, is conveyed throughout the film on several levels: her fatness, her garish outfits, her loud and often inappropriate behaviour and the presentation of her brothers as small-time thugs. What also fits in with her class status is her choice of foods: grilled chicken, pizza, spareribs and, again, the ubiquitous donuts. What these films and scenes show is that donuts seem to have a special – negative – status: they are employed in the context of overall very one-dimensional and particularly offensive portrayals of fatness. There are several possible reasons for this: donuts have always been considered a working-class food; they contain high levels of both sugar and fat, the two nutrients most demonized in contemporary health discourses; and they are also a prime example of the industrialization of the food sector. Steve Penfold speaks of a ‘McDonutization’, following George Ritzer’s term ‘McDonaldization’, to describe the tightly calculated processes of the mass production and distribution of donuts in North America.35 This strong aversion to donuts in particular can thus also be seen as a consequence of what Kathleen LeBesco and Peter Naccarato describe in their work on ‘Culinary Capital’ as the new ideal of American, middle-class eating: ‘Food quality is now determined less by abundant quantity and global provenance and more by sourcing (the more local, the better), artisanality (the smaller the run, the better), taste (with organic methods favoured), sustainability, healthiness, and the mindfulness with which it is eaten.’36 Processed foods, in particular those that, such as the donut, are considered to be unhealthy, have become an absolute no-go for middle-class culinary tastes. 35

36

Steve Penfold, ‘“Eddie Shack was no Tim Horton”: Donuts and the Folklore of Mass Culture in Canada’, in Food Nation: Selling Taste in Consumer Societies, eds. Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton (New York: Routledge, 2002), 61–62; for the term McDonaldization see George Ritzer, The McDonaldization of Society (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1993). Peter Naccarato and Kathleen LeBesco, Culinary Capital (London: Berg, 2012), 8.

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In other films, with less offensive representations of fatness and more nuanced engagements with issues of class, fat characters are also shown to eat types of foods that are considered to be unhealthy and have certain class connotations, but not donuts. Paul Blart spends a great deal of time mocking its fat working-class protagonist, but even more importantly it is also invested in his – and thereby white workingclass masculinity as a whole – regaining his dignity, and this nuance also plays out via Paul’s food choices. In one scene the protagonist eats a homemade sweet pie with peanut butter, a sweet and fattening dish, to which the dialogue also specifically draws attention by having Paul justify his love for extra peanut butter by saying ‘Ah peanut butter … It just fills the cracks of the heart’. Nevertheless, this dish is not the type of processed food donuts are a typical example of: the pie is homemade by his mother, thereby fitting in with a more traditional and positive image of working-class identity, in which food is not cheaply bought at the store but instead made at home (by the woman). Peanut butter is also a food with a more ambivalent reputation than donuts: although on the one hand it is considered unhealthy for being fattening, it also benefits from the positive reputation that nuts have in food discourses, for being high in protein and vitamins. In Just Friends the aforementioned pancakes were the favourite dish of the fat Chris of the past, which also relates to the issue of class within the film. Chris left his hometown behind to become an arrogant, wealthy music producer in the big city, a development depicted negatively, with his new personality shown to be unpleasant and his life to be empty and meaningless. The pancakes are part of his old life and, although they are also part of his old fat life, they are equally associated with a certain ideal of – modest, down-to-earth, non-upper-class – small-town American traditionalism embraced by the film and therefore carry positive connotations. A more conscious engagement with class can also be seen in the romantic comedy Just Wright, starring Queen Latifah. She plays the

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protagonist Leslie, who very deliberately announces that she does not adhere to current dieting crazes, that she is not the ‘salad eating type of woman’. At the same time though she is not the ‘processed food eating type’ either: we see her eating tiramisu during dinner at a nice restaurant and later on ordering a sandwich from a Caribbean food truck. In one scene she is having chocolate chip cookies with marshmallows, which, unless they are self-baked, are a type of processed food, but she is having only a few of them on a plate and calling them her ‘special cheer up remedy’, indicating a very conscious and also rare self-indulgence. Leslie’s food preferences fit in with her characterization as the down-to-earth type, who is content with being a physiotherapist and living in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood in New Jersey and is thereby contrasted with the other main female character in the film, her best friend Morgan. Morgan is a clichéd money-grabbing ‘gold-digger’ and pursues Scott, an NBA player and also Leslie’s love interest, only because of the wealth and social status she hopes to gain from the relationship. She is also slim and proclaims early on in the film that a woman should never eat in front of a man she is sexually interested in. In this case the eating habits of the fat character are still highlighted but since they are part of the slightly fatpositivist approach of having a fat female character as the protagonist in a romantic comedy, they are not portrayed in a negative light and furthermore correspond with how issues of social status and aspiration are dealt with by the film. The food shown in Precious also has connotations of class, but what is more notable is the connection made between food and race. The food being eaten by Precious and her mother is exactly the type of food that in current discourses is presented as the standard cuisine of fat people, namely food that is high in fat, cholesterol, salt and calories. Furthermore, all the dishes shown – pig’s feet, collard greens, fried chicken, baked beans – are Soul Food, foods that until the 1960s were stigmatized because they were primarily associated

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with the slave diet but in the course of the civil rights and Black Power movement were ‘rehabilitated’ and celebrated as being part of the roots of the African American people.37 What is also noticeable is how negatively connoted these foods are throughout the whole film. In one scene Precious is having a kind of nervous meltdown in front of her new teacher because she is embarrassed by her bad reading skills. The meltdown is visualized by a montage of shots set in her family’s flat: her father raping her, the TV with a programme on crime prevention on, the running tap at their kitchen sink and a shot of food, namely pigs’ feet simmering in a pot on the stove, being part of  this unsettling collection of memories. When Precious has a bucket of fried chicken for breakfast, she gets sick and vomits the fried chicken into a paper basket at her school. Another scene shows Precious being forced to eat pigs’ feet by her mother who refuses to eat them because Precious has forgotten to cook them with collard greens. Precious clearly states that she does not want to eat them, but her mother does not leave her a choice, so she eats them and dives into one of the fantasy sequences that occur throughout the film and indicate when she is in great distress.38 In contrast to the food that is traditionally African American and presented with such negative connotations, in one scene a different type of food is explicitly praised. John (Lenny Kravitz), a male nurse in the ward where Precious delivers her baby and a positive character throughout the film, is seen eating fruit salad for his lunch break. When Precious asks him about it, he tells her that he got it in a little shop where he likes to get his organic fruits and then gives Precious a little lecture on how unhealthy eating at McDonald’s, the epitome

37

38

See Doris Witt, Black Hunger: Soul Food and America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 79–101. For more on Soul Food in Precious see also Cheryl Thompson, ‘Neoliberalism, Soul Food, and the Weight of Black Women’, Feminist Media Studies 15, no. 5 (2015): 803–804; for an analysis of the fantasy sequences see Chapter 6.

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of ‘bad’ processed and fast food, is. Although the racial connotations of organic food are not as clear-cut and widely known as those of Soul Food, it is a type of food associated with whiteness. This has been highlighted, among others, by Rachel Slocum who has analysed the spaces of alternative and organic food movements as ‘white food spaces’, or by Julie Guthman, who argues that certain values of these movements ‘seem predicated on whitened cultural values’.39 This approval of ‘white’ food combined with a dismissal of fast food, a type of food carrying strong connotations of lower class status, fits in with the colourism and classism the film displays throughout by presenting light-skinned people of colour with respectable middleclass jobs, such as John, as positive, while demonizing Precious’ darkskinned mother, who lives on welfare. Overall, fat characters are predominantly shown to eat those types of foods often associated with fatness in contemporary obesity discourses: sweet and/or processed and/or fattening. However, the specifics of who eats what vary and show how these foods and their meanings are part of different types of representations of fatness in relation to gender, class and race. This, once again, demonstrates how intertwined with fatness these categories are and consequently their relevance for a Fat Studies analysis. Next, I consider not the ‘where’ or ‘what’ of fat eating but the ‘how’, by analysing the sub-trope of overeating.

Overeating Considering how in contemporary obesity discourses overeating and fatness are conflated, the former constantly being presented as 39

Rachel Slocum, ‘Whiteness, Space and Alternative Food Practice’, Geoforum 38, no.  3 (2007): 520–533; Julie Guthman, ‘Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practice’, Cultural Geographies 15, no. 4 (2008): 434–436.

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the main cause of the latter, it is not surprising that this is reflected in the representation of fatness, with films showing fat characters not just eating, but overeating. What goes hand in hand with these assumptions about fatness is the notion of a lack of will, of selfdiscipline, of self-control being the root cause of overeating habits, and thus of the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’, making fat people indulge without the appropriate restraint. Fatness thereby becomes a moral issue or rather an indication of a lack of morals. Many Fat Studies scholars situate this morality surrounding overeating within the context of modern consumer society and how its many offerings constantly test the self-control of the consumer. Fears about excessive consumption in general are displaced onto issues of food and ‘obesity’, turning fat people into convenient scapegoats for wider societal anxieties.40 Paul Campos points out how the dieting industry ensures that this suspicious attitude towards the consumption of food does not result in any actual decline in consumption by constantly putting out new, overpriced, supposedly healthy low-calorie, low-sugar, low-fat foods and other dieting products.41 Some discourses posit the fat body as a result of not simply a lack of will or self-control but rather see overeating as a symptom of psychological eating disorders such as binge eating or compulsive eating. Charlotte Cooper notes how this attitude might be considered to be friendlier towards fat people, because it implies a psychological compulsion to eat and thereby implies a lack of blame for the causes of the individual’s fatness.42 However, this attitude also adds an

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41 42

For a more in-depth analysis and historical contextualisation of this dynamic in the United States, see in particular Stearns, 56–68; on morality and consumerism see also Chapter 1, pp. 15–17. Campos, 74. Cooper, Fat and Proud, 85.

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additional layer to the pathologization of fatness: not only is the fat body presumed to be unhealthy, but in addition it also becomes a symptom of an ill mind.43 What is noticeable is how in a large number of films analysed overeating is strongly associated with the wider issue of lack of control. While there are films that show overeating without overtly contextualizing it in such a manner – Kangaroo Jack, Tower Heist, Shallow Hal, Norbit, Good Luck Chuck – in the majority of cases the fat characters not only seemingly lack control over their food intake, but rather this is shown to be part of a general lack of control in a specific situation, or even over their lives as a whole. In Dodgeball the formerly fat White Goodman loses his fitness studio, and thereby his wealth, and immediately afterwards grabs a hot dog from a passing stranger to greedily stuff his mouth with it. The next time we see him, it is implied that his loss of control has gone even further, as indicated by the shabby studio he is living in now, the copious amounts of food present in that studio, and the fact that he is fat again. In Transformers where and what Glen is eating is relevant, but also that he eats a whole plate, of donuts, in one go. He is lacking control over the situation he is in and furthermore, when two FBI agents enter the room, he immediately starts to panic and to babble, thereby displaying a further lack of control, namely over his own actions. Po, the title character in the animation film Kung Fu Panda, is caught by his trainer while on an eating rampage in the kitchen, after finding himself incapable of acquiring Kung Fu fighting skills. When his trainer gives him an enquiring look upon discovering the state of the kitchen, Po replies with ‘What? I eat when I’m upset, okay?!’ This line of dialogue makes explicit what is also implied in the other films: it is not just that these

43

Next to Cooper see also Kathleen LeBesco and Jana Evans Braziel, ‘Editor’s Introduction’, in Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 3–4.

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characters are suffering from a lack of control over their lives; it is that they are reacting to the resulting emotional turmoil by overeating, a habit usually described as emotional overeating. Emotional overeating is defined as ‘the reliance on food as a major way of regulating affect which is frequently present with both BED [binge eating disorder] and compulsive eating’.44 This sort of reliance on food is also made very explicit in Paul Blart when the title character asks his mother for pie, during a discussion of his recent failure to pass the state trooper exam. He spoons copious amounts of extra peanut butter on his pie, while murmuring lines like ‘It really helps heal’, ‘It just fills the cracks of the heart’ and ‘Go away, pain’. In a similar vein, in Paul Blart 2 we see Paul after an embarrassing experience, lying on his back, eating from an already almost empty bowl of M&M’s and whining to his daughter. In Just Friends the fat high school senior Chris gets upset when his brother catches him singing a love ballad – after composing a love letter to his unrequited crush – and calls him a ‘homo’, to which Chris reacts with exaggeratedly stuffing his mouth with a sandwich and gulping down a can of coke. The association of this type of eating behaviour with fatness becomes even more explicit in Get Smart. The formerly fat protagonist Max is having a nightmare after having been falsely accused of a crime and having been locked up in a holding cell. In this nightmare he is not only fat again, but the prison guards are pushing a cake through the slit in his door which his fat self immediately grabs with his bare hands and starts stuffing into his mouth. That’s when Max startles awake, screaming, ‘I’m fat’. Slim Max is in an emotionally stressful, out-of-his-control situation and imagines how his old fat self would have dealt with it, namely by overeating. This type of eating not only associates these

44

Judith Matz and Ellen Frankel, Beyond the Shadow of a Diet: The Comprehensive Guide to Treating Binge Eating, Compulsive Eating, and Emotional Overeating (New York: Routledge, 2014), 6.

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male characters with the previously mentioned eating disorders binge eating and compulsive eating, but also de-masculinizes them, thereby contributing to their overall characterization as less than masculine, which is also observable in other aspects of the films, as discussed in Chapter 2. While a ‘hearty appetite’ and other types of physical urges are in general considered to be appropriate for men, the lack of control observable in these scenes is not. Being in control is one of the pillars of normative masculinity; therefore, the lack of physical and emotional control over their own urges and also over other aspects of their lives de-masculinizes these male characters. Furthermore, overeating also seems to have different connotations from other, more masculine types of losing control, such as sexual and physical violence, in which normative masculinity is still upheld by dominance or control over someone else. This kind of dominance is absent in the case of overeating, and emotional overeating in particular is a habit very much associated with female eaters. In Unbearable Weight Susan Bordo attempts to untangle the complicated societal and representational structures surrounding issues of eating and gender. She points out how in our patriarchal society men are often allowed and encouraged to be subjects of desires, in contrast to women whose desires are often feared and contained. In terms of food and eating, this dynamic translates into the fact that men are allowed to have a ‘hearty appetite’ and that men being fed by women is an essential part of traditional family structures. For women, on the other hand, eating is an almost shameful desire, resulting in all too often emotionally charged relationships to food – leading to eating disorders – and troublesome representations of women eating. Bordo sees this reflected in the ads and commercials she analyses, in which women are often shown eating alone and gaining enormous emotional gratification from food. ‘Men can eat and be loved […] For women, by contrast (who are almost never shown being fed by others), eating – in the form of private, self-feeding – is represented

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as a substitute for human love.’45 Unrepentant, indulgent eating might be associated with masculinity, but the shameful, often private, emotional overeating is associated with femininity. Consequently, there are also a number of films in which female fat characters react with emotional overeating to experiencing a lack of control over their lives. In Precious the protagonist eats a whole bucket of fried chicken on her way to school, after having been sexually abused by her mother. In My Spy it is actually the highlighting of the emotional aspect that implies that the act of eating is a case of overeating: eating one donut does not indicate overeating, but when we see Martha sit on the floor of an airport eating a donut immediately after we have seen her saying – tearfully – goodbye to her son, the emotional aspect is made very obvious. Similarly, in Hairspray and Wanted it is again a combination of the characters’ fatness and the circumstances that functions as the primary indicator of an instance of emotional overeating, while the actual act of eating is not being shown at all. In Hairspray Stacy’s date is waiting for her in her room and finds a half-eaten chocolate bar under the pillow of her bed. Considering an earlier scene in which we saw Stacy lying on the bed, sulking after an argument with her mother in true adolescent style, and considering the secrecy implied in the location of the chocolate bar as well as the type of food – sweet, comforting – the emotional overeating is very much alluded to. In a different scene her mother Edna also engages in emotional overeating, when her daughter is trying to persuade her to leave the house, which she hasn’t done in many years. Edna is upset by this conversation and, after proclaiming she would do it after her next diet, starts unwrapping a bonbon. (Next to presenting her as emotional overeater, the film here for comedic purposes also plays on the irony of her grabbing for sweets after announcing her dieting plans.) In Wanted the protagonist is giving 45

Bordo, 125.

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his fat boss a dressing down in front of his colleagues, in the course of which he also brings up her eating habits and relates them to emotional issues she might have: ‘I understand … Junior High must have been kinda tough. But it doesn’t give you the right to treat your workers like horseshit, Janice. I know we laugh at you, Janice. We all know you keep a stash of jelly donuts in the top drawer of your desk.’ This part of the dialogue, including the secrecy of the act of eating, and also Janice’s slightly ashamed look at the mention of the donuts point in the direction of emotional overeating. All four of these films perpetuate the stereotype of the fat overeater and in particular that of the fat, female emotional overeater, but in none of them does the overeating reflect on the gender identity of the female characters. In contrast, in three other films fat female characters are shown to overeat neither secretly nor for the purpose of emotional gratification. In Good Luck Chuck Eleanor is first shown lounging at a pool, next to her a whole garbage bag of donuts, implying overeating, even if in this scene she doesn’t actually eat. In the next scene she is eating lobster, having a huge pile of it in front of her and greedily stuffing her face, thereby smearing food all over her face. Her hunger becomes connected to her sexual desires, when she gleefully tells the protagonist Charlie, ‘I’m gonna fuck you till you die’ and underlines this statement by simulating fellatio on a lobster, to which Charlie reacts by gagging due to disgust. Her literal hunger and her sexual hunger get connected in this scene and the disgusted reaction of the protagonist seems to be directed at both. In Norbit Rasputia’s constant (over)eating is a running (fat) gag throughout the film. While there is no instance where Rasputia’s sexual appetite is straight up connected to her eating habits, she is characterized as sexually aggressive and promiscuous in several scenes. Both Eleanor and Rasputia eat because they enjoy it, they are not doing it shamefully and no indication is given that they are engaging in emotional overeating. Their type of eating is the type considered inappropriate for women, indicating

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unrestrained desire, which is reflected in their equally unrestrained sexual desires. It is also noticeable that both characters are depicted as completely unsympathetic, whereas most of the other female characters discussed, with the exception of Janice in Wanted, might get mocked or stereotyped but are still meant to elicit sympathy from the audience. Shallow Hal stands out here insofar as that although Rosemary is shown to be eating openly, constantly and in large amounts throughout the film there is no obvious connection being made to her sexual desires. However, this might then again also be not so surprising, considering that she is meant to be a sympathetic character, and exhibiting too many desires might have overstretched what is acceptable for a fat, female character. In summary, what can be seen in this section is how common notions of fatness as a symptom of a lack of control and/or pathological eating behaviour are perpetuated in representations of the fat overeater. What is also noticeable, once again, is how the structures of fatness interact with structures of gender, by depicting emotional overeating as part of the de-masculinization of fat male characters, whereas shameless, non-emotional overeating by women becomes associated with female sexual aggressiveness. ***

One finding has been that certain aspects of the depiction of the figure of the fat eater can be read as reflections of a number of contemporary, wider social anxieties of Western culture. ‘Eating out of place’ relates to fears about ‘uncivilized eating’ and thereby a decline in manners; some of the ‘types of food’ shown indicate a discomfort with both the wide availability of ‘sinful’ sugar, and cheap processed foods; ‘overeating’ can be related to anxieties about excessive consumption in regard to not only food, but also consumer society in general. In terms of the representation and marking of fatness, certain stereotypes are perpetuated through this trope. Next to the

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commonplace association of fatness with eating, notions of fatness as an embodiment of a lack of control are strongly evoked, by showing fat characters as overeaters but also by showing eating – or food – out of place. What is also noticeable is how commonly class connotations of certain foods or eating practices are called upon to present fat characters as members of a certain, low, social class. Gender is also engaged with regularly, most notably to further contribute to the demasculinization of fat male characters. This is achieved predominantly by showing these characters either eating foods associated with femininity, such as sweets, or engaging in eating habits associated with femininity, such as emotional overeating. Race plays a minor role, with only two films presenting food in a manner that pertains to issues of race.

6

The Fat Outsider In his seminal book Outsiders the sociologist Howard S. Becker defines the notion of the outsider in relation to social rules and the behaviour of individuals. Outsiders are those whose behaviours are considered to have broken relevant social rules and who are therefore considered ‘deviant’. Becker emphasizes the dynamic aspect of this type of labelling and how who is considered to be an outsider is always a result of a social process and therefore subject to discussion and also social change.1 Considering how fatness violates contemporary bodily norms and how it is equated in public discourse with certain behaviours that have become to be considered more and more deviant over the last decades, such as overeating and physical inertness, fat people in contemporary society very much fit this conception. However, characters who are members of social groups that are marginalized in real life are not necessarily always positioned as outsiders within the diegetic world of a film. Similarly, outsider figures in cinema, particularly in Hollywood cinema, have not always necessarily been members of marginalized social groups, but rather are often shown to be outsiders due to their eccentric or non-conformist behaviour. (One classic example of this can be found in the tradition of the outsider hero in the Western, who has mostly been a straight, white man.) Consequently, several films from my corpus might depict fat characters as being non-normative in some way, mostly in terms  of gender identity, yet don’t show them being ostracized for 1

Howard S. Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance (New York: The Free Press, 1973), 1–9.

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this, e.g.  Kangaroo Jack or Paul Blart. Other films even present fat characters as respected and/or powerful insiders within their specific social milieu or structure, e.g. Big Momma’s House, Chicago or Norbit. Neither a characterization as outsider nor one as insider does per se indicate either a progressive or a reactionary representation. For instance, those aforementioned characters presented as insiders often fit the stereotype of the dominating, black, fat woman; but at the same time the representation of fat characters as outsiders doesn’t necessarily entail a critical engagement with the marginalization of fatness either. Regarding this ambiguity, Marianne Novy notes in her analysis of Shakespeare’s work that outsider figures ‘can exemplify ideologies of exclusion or protest against the treatment of outsiders’.2 Elizabeth Priester Steding points out how, next to the maybe more obvious aspect of evoking pity and sympathy, outsider figures can also exhibit a certain sense of power, based on their ability to live outside of the structures and norms of society.3 This also relates to one further relevant aspect of the outsider character, namely their capacity to highlight those social structures outside of which they have been positioned. ‘The figure of the outsider provides unique opportunities (…) to assess and critique social institutions, as outsiders are so clearly defined against the backdrop of social entities and structures.’4 This chapter addresses those fat characters deliberately positioned by the text as outsider figures and analyses whether this positioning 2 3

4

Marianne Novy, Shakespeare & Outsiders (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 1. Elizabeth Priester Steding, ‘The Role of the Outsider in Katja Lange-Müller’s “Die Letzten” and “Böse Schafe”’, Rocky Mountain Review 45, no. 2 (2010): 170. Ibid. See also Randall A. Clack, ‘Outlaw Territory: Early American Literature and the (Counter) Cultural Hero’, in The Image of the Outsider in Literature, Media and Society, eds. Will Wright and Steven Kaplan (Pueblo, CO: The Society for the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Imagery, University of Southern Colorado, 2002), 147–151. I need to add here that there seems to exist very little literature theorizing the figure of the outsider in cinema in more general terms and not just in the context of specific case studies. I therefore had to venture into the field of literary studies, although there case studies also dominate.

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reinforces their marginalization or rather criticizes that process and the social structures it is based on. A further focus lies on other categories such as race, class and gender and how they intersect with the positioning of fat characters as outsiders.

Race, class and gender Many of the fat outsiders of American cinema are shown to be outsiders not just in terms of their fatness but also due to configurations of race, class and/or gender. Michael in The Blind Side is positioned as an outsider on several levels. The fact that he is the only black person in an otherwise almost exclusively white environment is most openly addressed by the film, e.g. when his foster mother Leigh Anne remarks ‘that school could use a little colour; Michael’s like a fly in the milk in that place’. In some instances, it is difficult to distinguish how much, if not specifically his fatness, then his overall large size contributes to white characters seeing him as Other. The film itself highlights Michael’s outstanding physique already in the first shot of him, in which we see him walking down the street – silently – in slow-motion while a voice-over by Leigh Anne describes in detail the ‘rare’ bodily characteristics of an ‘ideal tackle’ in football: ‘[he] is big, he is wide in the butt and massive in the thighs, he has long arms, giant hands and feet as quick as a hiccup.’ Michael’s body fits those characteristics and, while this ascribes a positive meaning to his physicality and also certain parts of it that are both big and fat, this shot at the same time also presents him and his body as a (silent) object to be marvelled at, specifically an object of the white gaze. Shortly after this introduction, we see a somewhat similar scene, showing how his future – white – football coach meets or rather sees Michael for the first time. In this scene a friend of Michael’s is in the coach’s office and points out Michael and another boy who are playing

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basketball in front of the office. The coach is stunned when he sees Michael, POV shots of Michael’s body – specifically characteristics mentioned in the earlier description of the ‘ideal tackle’ – making it clear what exactly it is that amazes him. Here again, Michael’s body is presented as the extraordinary object of the white gaze.5 Consequently, when Michael gets accepted into the school, upon the urging of the coach, and enters his new classroom for the first time, the reasons why all the other students are giving him odd looks are not clearly distinguishable. Race is the most obvious explanation, since he is the only student of colour in the room. Class is a further reason, made clear by a shot of one student staring down at his threadbare shoes. However, after the previously described scenes have established Michael’s body as an extraordinary object of the gaze, it seems implied that it is also one further reason for his fellow students to see him as an outsider and gape at him. That it is a combination of both his size and his race that makes him an outsider is also established in another scene showing Leigh Anne’s friends making fun of Michael’s inclusion in the family Christmas card. One of them says to Leigh Anne under laughter: ‘You just looked teeny-tiny next to him. Right? Like Jessica Lange and King Kong.’ Another one follows this up with a less racist but more straightforward fatphobic remark: ‘Hey, does Michael get the family discount at Taco Bell? Because if he does, Sean’s gonna lose a few stores.’ (Sean is Leigh Anne’s husband and the owner of a large number of Taco Bell restaurants.) The film clearly doesn’t approve of these comments, as indicated by Leigh Anne’s forced smile in reaction to these jokes, followed by an open confrontation with her friends when their comments turn more openly racist. However, the photograph that causes this conversation itself does its best to Other 5

For more on the employment of the white gaze throughout the film see also Charise Pimentel and Sarah Leah Santillanes, ‘The White Cinematic Lens: Decoding the Racial Messages in The Blind Side’, The Urban Review 47, no. 1 (2015): 133–134.

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Michael and emphasize his large size (see Figure 2), as I have already analysed in Chapter 2. Here the film presents itself as inclusive and anti-racist on the level of dialogue and narrative, but nevertheless participates in Michael’s marginalization visually. While most of the above might be seemingly referring to Michael being merely big, this very readily slips into clear-cut fatphobia. The instance in the film where this is most openly expressed is also again entwined with racism. During a match of his football team one of the opposing players constantly taunts Michael by calling him ‘fat ass’, ‘fat boy’, ‘biggie’, etc. That the same character is also racist becomes clear early on when instead of just calling Michael fat he exclaims, ‘Hey, you guys, look at this big buck we got right here!’ and even more so when later on he calls Michael ‘You fat, black piece of crap’ and kicks him in the head. While racism is situated as the more relevant context here, fatphobia is presented as one further aspect of general bigotry and cruelty. Tellingly enough, the film positions Michael as an outsider on one further level, namely within his own community. Already in the first, aforementioned, shot of him walking down the street in his predominantly black neighbourhood this meaning is established by the focus of the shot, which shows the people he is passing by out of focus while only Michael is in focus. In addition, the shot is manipulated in a way that he is the only one walking in slow motion while the other figures in the background are moving at regular speed. Albeit this shot might just convey his general isolation and sense of loneliness at the beginning of the story, his not fitting in with other members of the African American community is highlighted later on in his interactions with a group of young men from his neighbourhood. As I have already pointed out in the chapter on de-masculinization, the members of this group are depicted as the stereotypical, sexually aggressive, black thugs who make lewd remarks about Leigh Anne and her daughter. Fatness is not on any level explicitly addressed in

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Michael’s interactions with them, yet it is part of what makes him an outsider among them, namely his infantilization and thereby his characterization as the other side of this stereotype of black masculinity, namely the ‘good’, de-sexualized black man. In Notorious (George Tilman Jr., 2009), a biopic of the African American rapper Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious B.I.G., the protagonist is predominantly posited as an outsider within society as a whole and not within a specific environment. This positioning is underlying the film’s rags-to-riches narrative typical of the biopic genre and, although his outsiderdom is more explicitly based on class, it can hardly be separated from the issue of race, with his marginalization being most clearly expressed in references to his origins in a predominantly black, low-income neighbourhood of Brooklyn. In comparison, his fatness seems to be a minor issue, yet the first two times it is referred to are in connection with doubts about his potential to be a star. First, we see Wallace as an elevenyear-old in the schoolyard paging through a hip-hop magazine together with a friend. A (black) girl passes them by and mocks him by exclaiming, ‘Chris-shy-ass can be in no magazine, he is so fat, black and ugly’. Race or more specifically colourism becomes intertwined with his fatness here, as is also the case in the second scene addressing his size. This time Wallace is already a young adult and his friend Mark is attempting to convince his future record producer Puffy, who hasn’t met Wallace yet, to take him on as a client. Puffy: He got sex appeal like LL? Mark: Yeah, a little bigger than that. P: What, like Heavy D? M: He a little darker than that. P: Yo, he look like Wesley Snipes? M: He ain’t Wesley

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This conversation highlights both the colourism and the fatphobia present in the entertainment industry by jumping from someone whose looks seem to fulfil both of the seemingly necessary criteria of being slim and light-skinned (LL Cool J), to two stars who at least fulfil half of those by either being fat, but light-skinned (Heavy D), or dark-skinned, but slim (Wesley Snipes). Despite both of these scenes being intended to further highlight Wallace’s underdog status and the fact that he became a star despite being fat and dark-skinned, these issues are hardly addressed again by the film. Colourism is not mentioned at all after that and his fatness comes up twice again, but in a very fleeting manner. The first time, we see Wallace at his first big show at a college, performing in front of a rather sceptical audience. One of the shots of the crowd shows a man standing up and mimicking Wallace’s size by spreading out his arms at his sides, but this man is only one figure next to many others in a long shot only two seconds long, with no further similar abuse following. In the second scene that touches on his fatness we see one of his male fans approaching him while he is giving autographs, telling him: ‘Man, you’re making all the biggin sexy again, brother.’ Here the connection with sexual viability is introduced, yet in a way that immediately disperses any doubts about how he might be affected by it. The film in general goes to great lengths to depict Wallace as sexually desirable and promiscuous; whether this depiction might be fuelled by the need to re-affirm his sexual viability as a fat man or whether it is just an expression of a more general masculinism is not clear. What is clear is the difference between this kind of representation and the other fat black male characters within my corpus. A film like The Blind Side does not even touch upon the issue of sexual viability and how it might be impacted by the male character’s fatness but rather almost completely de-sexualizes him, while Notorious, a film that not only features the fat black male as the protagonist, but also has

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an all-black cast and was directed, written and produced by African Americans, goes in the complete opposite direction.6 What The Blind Side and Notorious have in common, though, is how they present a combination of race and class as the dominant structure of marginalization for their characters, with fatness being presented as an additional, more minor issue that is shown to be intertwined with race in particular. In what they again differ is the degree to which the films themselves perpetuate this othering. While neither film is interested in an in-depth engagement with this dynamic, The Blind Side goes even further by participating in turning its character into the othered, fat, black object of the white gaze, despite the film’s nominal message of anti-racism and inclusion. In Dreamgirls, similarly to Notorious, the intersection of fatness and race and its effect on the fat character’s aspiration to be an entertainment star are explored. However, while in Notorious Wallace’s fatness and race/dark skin are brought up as aspects of his outsider status, but are rather quickly dispensed with, in Dreamgirls they have a much bigger impact, de facto turning the fat, female character into an outsider. As I have already analysed in Chapter 3, the singer Effie is demoted from lead singer of her group to back-up singer, because their manager Curtis considers her ‘too black’ for a white audience, an assessment based on both her fatness and her voice. This demotion marks the beginning of the end of her career and in her final demise, her expulsion from the group, fatness again is named by Curtis as one of his reasons for sacking her. Sexual viability is also presented as a related issue, but again is treated differently than in Notorious. Here the fact that Effie would be less attractive for a (white) TV audience than their new lead singer is explicitly addressed by Curtis and in the end, he swaps her for the slim Dinah, not only as the lead singer of 6

Among the film’s producers were Wallace’s managers Wayne Barrow and Mark Pitts, as well as his mother, Voletta Wallace; Wallace’s music producer Sean Combs (‘Puff Daddy’) functioned as executive producer.

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the group, but also as his girlfriend. While in Notorious any doubts about fatness having an effect on the character’s sexual viability are quickly and extensively laid to rest, in Dreamgirls they are fully confirmed. Nevertheless, despite these severe consequences for the plot, fatness and how it relates to constructs of race and gender is not further engaged with in this film either. Apart from a quip by Effie later on in the film at Curtis’s expense (‘You’re looking a little bit heavy, baby. You could lose some weight.’) in which the film sides with Effie and thereby condemns Curtis’s earlier behaviour, fatness is never mentioned again. This also fits with the film’s ambivalence regarding Effie’s share of the blame for these developments, on the one hand presenting her as the (fat) victim of white society, on the other hand as a diva who herself is to blame, and further with the film’s similar reluctance to engage with issues of race on a larger, structural level. Precious is another example of how fatness is not presented as an isolated contributor to the outsider status of a character but rather as intertwined with race, class and gender. While there are several instances in the film where the title character experiences explicit fatphobia, the more prevalent structures seem to be class and race. Similar to Notorious, the setting of a low-income, African American neighbourhood, in this case Harlem in the 1980s, already implies a certain kind of disadvantage for its protagonist. Furthermore, also within the microcosm of her neighbourhood Precious is an outsider, for which the film presents as main reason her extremely deprived and dysfunctional family background in which she experiences sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Consequently, when she attends a new school and with the help of her teacher distances herself from her family, she manages to make friends, advance in her school career and integrate herself more fully into society. Fatness, however, is not irrelevant in these dynamics. Considering the contemporary, prevalent notion of fatness as pathological, it would be difficult for an audience not to read Precious’s body in the context of her dysfunctional

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upbringing, a reading clearly encouraged by the film when it shows her mother forcing her to eat and, in another scene, Precious complaining how this is a regular occurrence. While the film might not engage in overt fat shaming here, it still presents the fat body as a symptom, thereby reinforcing dominant constructs of fatness. Scott Stoneman argues in his critique of the film that nowadays ‘fatness is more than ever a marker for racial and class division’ and consequently Precious can’t be seen outside of these discourses that medicalize and thereby marginalize the lifestyles of African Americans in the name of fighting the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’.7 Fatness and race are also aligned in the musical comedy Hairspray, yet this film is less interested in intersectionality but rather in showing these two categories as separate yet similar in terms of the marginalization they entail. Once again, as in Notorious and Dreamgirls, the world of entertainment and the question of who is entitled to be a part of it are addressed. The protagonist Tracy is a white, fat, teenage girl, living in Baltimore in the early 1960s, who dreams of participating in The Corny Collins Show, a popular local live TV dance show, and becoming a star. Tracy herself is quite confident about her body and her capabilities, but in addition to her fat mother’s internalized fatphobia, she also has to battle external fatphobia, embodied predominantly by the slim and normatively good-looking Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Amber. Velma is the manager of the station broadcasting The Corny Collins Show and next to her disdain for fat people she is also explicitly racist, thereby performing a similar function as the opposing football player in The Blind Side by representing fatphobia and racism as part of the same bigotry. This combined bigotry is depicted on several occasions. When Tracy first auditions for the TV show Velma berates her openly for 7

See Scott Stoneman, ‘Ending Fat Stigma: Precious, Visual Culture, and Anti-Obesity in the “Fat Moment”’, Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 34, no. 3–4 (2012): 198–199.

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both her weight and her pro-integrationist views. After Tracy makes it onto the show after all, the head of the TV station reacts similar to her politics by voicing that he wants ‘that chubby communist girl off the show’. Further instances of combined bigotry include Amber complaining that her boyfriend Link danced ‘with that great white whale and those Negroes’, and the finale of the film in which Velma attempts to keep both Tracy and her black friends from participating in the ‘Miss Hairspray’ contest. Furthermore, the film also depicts Tracy not just as anti-racist but as aware of this shared context of marginalization, showing her making the connection between her own outsiderdom and other social groups’ comparable experiences. In one scene she is attempting to persuade her mother to be more confident by telling her ‘Ma, it’s changing out there, you’ll like it. People who are different, their time is coming’. In a later scene she complains to her father about Velma’s intrigues by pointing out the underlying disdain for marginalized social groups: ‘and then to cancel “negro day” like that … just to make sure that no one who is different, who is black or Chinese or needs to lose a few pounds.’ This growing sense of solidarity in Tracy also leads to the film occasionally exhibiting aspects of the ‘white saviour’ trope, a type of narrative that on the surface appears to be antiracist but by focusing on the white character and their achievements for the sake of characters of colour actually denies the agency and subjectivity of people of colour. This becomes the most obvious in a scene that shows Tracy suggesting they should stage a march in protest of the cancellation of ‘negro day’ to which her black friends react enthusiastically and as if the notion of a political march had never occurred to them before. The only time the film acknowledges that Tracy’s love for ‘Negro day’ and all things black might have a problematic and self-serving side to it, is when she gets invited to a dance party by Seaweed, a black schoolmate. In reaction to this her white best friend Penny exclaims, ‘Oh my god, getting invited

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to places by coloured people’ to which Tracy joyously adds, ‘We are so hip!’ At the party Seaweed introduces them to his mother, when Tracy enthusiastically blurts out, ‘This is just so afro-tastic!’, a remark followed up by a reaction shot of his mother frowning at her. In these two scenes the film highlights that Tracy’s attitude towards African Americans has a fetishizing side to it and that she engages in cultural appropriation for her own benefit. The issue of fatness and sexual viability also looms large over the whole film, with Tracy having a crush on the teenage heartthrob and star of The Corny Collins Show, Link (played by real-life heartthrob Zac Efron), while at the same time Tracy’s mother Edna is worried whether her husband’s feelings for her might have changed. The film acknowledges existing doubts about the sexual attractiveness of fat women, yet explicitly puts them to rest through these two romantic subplots, which display certain similarities. Both feature the slim man at one point explicitly declaring his love for the fat woman regardless of or maybe partly due to her size, albeit both with a slightly parodistic undertone that is present in the film as a whole: Link voices his feeling in a song containing the line ‘I’m in love with you, no matter what you weigh’ and Tracy’s father tells her in regard to her mother ‘This heart only beats for size sixteen’. Nevertheless, despite this undertone, in both cases the men are shown to prefer the fat woman over a normative looking slim woman, in Link’s case his girlfriend Amber, in the case of Tracy’s dad Velma, who is trying to seduce him in order to harm Tracy. In the finale of the film this issue of sexual viability and fatness becomes linked to the issue of race. After Tracy, her friends and family have successfully stormed the dance stage of the Miss Hairspray pageant and engaged in non-segregated dancing we see an interracial kiss on the stage between Penny and Seaweed and sometime later, in the final shot of the film, we see Tracy and Link kissing for the first time. Those two kisses deliberately signify

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the victory of the film’s explicit liberalism by celebrating a blackand-white couple as well as a slim-and-fat couple. This scene also highlights a kind of anachronism entailed in this juxtaposition of issues of racism and fatphobia. Whereas race relations in the United States have significantly improved since the 1960s and therefore an interracial kiss on TV nowadays would cause much less uproar than fifty years ago, the same can’t be said for a kiss between a fat woman and a slim man. As Kate Stables puts it: ‘In our notionally liberal but increasingly fat-phobic culture, the only true frisson in 2007’s Hairspray comes from the shocking sight of leanly handsome teen heartthrob Link (…) enthusiastically smooching with tubby Tracy in their triumphant dance-party finale. In a world where “fat is the new black,” that really is a fairy-tale ending.’8 This is not to argue that we live in a so-called ‘post-racial’ world, but rather to point out that when Tracy tells her mom ‘Welcome to the Sixties’ and ensures her the future would be more welcoming for those who are different, the implicitly called-upon social progress made since then differs widely when comparing race and fatness. Overall, Hairspray differs from the previous films in this section firstly in that it puts the issue of fatness as a cause for marginalization front and centre and secondly in its very deliberate and explicit linking of the issue of fatness with issues of race, yet not in the sense of intersectionality but as separate categories. Race is also at play in the horror films The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but here it is whiteness and its intersection with class. Both films are remakes of classics of the Urbanoia/ Backwoods/Hillbilly horror genre in which (sub)urban protagonists travel through the countryside and get attacked by rural locals. Next to readings of the genre as reflecting fears of (urban) liberals regarding (rural) conservatives, it has also often been analysed as consciously 8

Kate Stables, ‘Hairspray’, Sight & Sound 17, no. 9 (September 2007): 58.

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engaging with issues of class, with the protagonists in general being coded as middle-class while their attackers are mostly presented as disadvantaged rural poor.9 In The Hills Have Eyes remake this sociopolitical subtext is still present as can be seen in the backstory of the monstrous locals living in the New Mexican desert: they are shown to be descendants of miners who in the 1950s for the purpose of nuclear bomb testing were evacuated from their village and thereby left homeless by the US government. The miners and their families, however, didn’t actually leave but hid in the mines during the tests and their descendants have consequently turned into deformed mass murderers who are still living in the remains of the village. The fat woman is one of these descendants, shown in only one scene in which she first is sitting in front of a TV brushing the hair of a doll and then attacks one of the male protagonists with a baseball bat and knocks him unconscious. This character is not an outsider as an individual but rather due to her status as a member of a group that as a whole has been swept aside by the government and then forgotten by society. Despite this very deliberate criticism of American (Cold War) politics and accompanying treatment of its own citizens, the film overall very much reinforces the marginalization of this group by portraying all of them – except for one small girl – as remorseless monsters.10 Furthermore, the group seems to be an exaggerated version of ‘white trash’ stereotypes, which are often characterized by their primitivity. As Annalee Newitz writes: ‘When middle-class whites encounter lower-class whites, we find that often their class differences are represented as the difference between civilized folks and primitive ones; lower-class whites get racialized and demeaned, because they

9

10

See Carol J. Clover, Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 126–134. For a more detailed analysis of the film’s political subtext see Laura Mee, ‘Re-Animated: The Contemporary American Horror Film Remake, 2003–2013’ (PhD thesis, De Montfort University, 2014), 181–184.

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fit into the primitive/civilized binary as primitives.’11 In The Hills Have Eyes this primitivity is exaggerated, not just by the attackers’ brutal acts but also by their living completely outside of society and being presented as almost a part of the desert, making them more animallike than human. The fatness of the fat woman is never directly addressed, neither as an aspect of her being an outsider nor on any other level. It is, however, very much highlighted by the fact that she is the only member of the group who does not display any visible deformation. Except for one older man, who is listed in the credits as ‘Papa Jupiter’ and who is old enough to presumably have already been born when the nuclear tests took place, all the others display some form of disfigurement, an extremely bloated head, an exaggerated hunchback or deformed facial features. In the case of the fat woman the fact that she is fat and bald is apparently enough to visually make her part of this group, the film thereby equating fatness with severe disfigurement. In addition, her fatness, baldness and also her act of physical aggression mark her as masculinized, thereby also fulfilling the tradition within the urbanoia genre of depicting the countryside and its inhabitants, often including female characters, as masculinized.12 Another function of her fatness is to code her further as ‘white trash’, as does the fact that before she knocks her victim unconscious we see her sitting in front of a television set during the daytime, an activity in itself also consistent with contemporary stereotypes of fatness. In its basic plot and in its positioning of the fat woman The Texas Chainsaw Massacre displays similarities to The Hills Have Eyes: she is one member of a group of rural locals attacking a group of (sub-)urban tourists, and she has a rather small role, appearing in only one scene. 11

12

Annalee Newitz, ‘White Savagery and Humiliation, or a New Racial Consciousness in the Media’, in White Trash: Race and Class in America, eds. Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz (New York: Routledge, 1997), 134. See Clover, 125.

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What is different here is that the subtext of the attackers previously having been made outsiders by society is much less clear or actually quite muddled. In the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre they were a family of professional butchers who were left without prospects after the local slaughterhouse was shut down, in what has been analysed as a backstory criticizing capitalist progress and how it casts off those for which it has no further use.13 There are indications that in the remake this backstory seems to have been envisioned at some point, but in the end was not implemented by the filmmakers. The screenwriter Scott Kosar refers to the family as ‘disenfranchised slaughterhouse workers’ and in the prequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning we see the slaughterhouse being shut down, but in this film, there is no evidence of this having happened, in particular since in one scene we see the slaughterhouse still open and running.14 Even though the fat woman and the group she belongs to are maybe not as obviously presented as having been cast off and forgotten by society, the film nevertheless positions them as outsiders by highlighting their non-normativity in terms of behaviour and appearance. Laura Mee analyses this positioning and presents another quote by screenwriter Scott Kosar that already indicates how their outsiderdom is not just being shown but also being reinforced by the film: ‘the kind of characters that are so marginalised from society (…) so foreign to anyone that lives in a big city that the moment you see them, your skin starts to crawl.’15 In the case of the fat woman, ‘Tea Lady’ according to the credits, this effect is mostly achieved through her fatness and the fact that she is living in an old, shabby trailer, 13

14

15

Most prominent and influential has been Robin Wood’s analysis: Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 91–93. See also Clover, 96. For a more detailed analysis of this lack of socio-economic critique in the remake see David Roche, Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s: Why Don’t They Do It Like They Used To? (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014), 28–30. Mee, 97.

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another clear marker of ‘white trash’. When the final girl Erin comes across the trailer while fleeing from the murderous Leatherface, she at first assumes to have found shelter, only then to realize that the two women in the trailer are actually accomplices of the attackers she is fleeing from and have given her drugged tea to drink. While poisoning is a much more feminine coded way of violence than the attack with the baseball bat by the fat woman in The Hills Have Eyes, there is still a sense of both women in the trailer being non-normatively feminine, at least in terms of their appearance. Next to the Tea Lady’s fatness, which is highlighted through showing her mostly in low-angle shots, the other woman is presented as non-normative as well, by being very thin, sporting a messy, unfashionable short-haircut, wearing no make-up and overall looking slightly androgynous. Their appearance is starkly contrasted with the final girl, played by Jessica Biel, who is slim but still normatively ‘curvy’, as is highlighted by her costume throughout the film, a tight white tank top, that she wears tied into a knot under her breasts. Overall, both The Hills Have Eyes and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to some extent present the fat woman as a member of a group of outsiders, but both films, despite the socioeconomic critique present at least in Hills, rather reinforce this status by presenting them as murderous and also by reproducing class and gender stereotypes of fatness. The last five films analysed for this section are all comedies that feature white fat characters; none of them make any deliberate connections with class or race, but all on some level address the issue of sexual viability. In The Hangover the main reason for Alan being an outsider within the group of protagonists is his lack of normative masculinity, as I’ve already analysed in Chapter 2. Sexual viability is a very minor issue here, but it does get addressed in one line of dialogue when Alan talks about his need for independence as a reason for being single, to which one of the others replies, ‘Oh, that’s why you’re single? Cool’, his delivery and facial expression clearly indicating that

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he doesn’t believe Alan’s status as single is voluntary. Interestingly enough, the role Alan’s fatness might play in this perceived lack of sexual viability is not addressed in this scene, leaving it up to the audience to decide how much of a role it plays. Just Friends gives a bit more room to the issue of male fatness and sexual viability by building the (formerly) fat protagonist’s backstory around an incident of sexual and romantic rejection. However, when the now-slim Chris ‘gets the girl’ as an adult – the same girl who rejected him in high school – the film bends over backwards trying to show that she didn’t reject him for his fatness, thereby also avoiding any explicit discussion of how his fatness might have affected his sexual desirability. The final three films from this sub-category feature female fat characters and all three deal with the issue much more explicitly, which is indicative of the importance sexual desirability has for constructs of femininity. The fat woman in Get Smart is only present in one scene, in which she is sitting alone by herself at a ball until the protagonist asks her to dance. While the dance itself is quite ambiguous, at the same time celebrating the fat woman’s dancing skills but also using her fatness as a source of physical comedy, the scene overall highlights how the fat woman’s perceived lack of desirability makes her an outsider and simultaneously actively criticizes this dynamic. However, the film only goes so far in this, since there is no indication that Maxwell wants to do more than dance with the fat woman but rather ends up with his normatively slim work colleague, played by Anne Hathaway. Pitch Perfect is less straightforward in its depiction of the fat woman as an outsider due to lack of sexual desirability. The film focuses on an all-female college, a cappella group, The Bellas, which has one fat member, Fat Amy. In the first relevant scene the issue is addressed only implicitly: the group has their first public appearance since their reformation, at a fraternity party, and they are not received very well. One of the fraternity members interrupts them, complaining:

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‘I wanted the hot Bellas, not this barn yard explosion.’ This is followed up by a shot of several members of the group, including Amy. Since this shot seems to be intended to illustrate his comment, the clearest case of why he no longer seems to perceive the group within the parameters of conventional, female attractiveness is Amy. The next scene touching upon the issue of her sexual desirability is more straightforward but also more explicit in its rejection of this dynamic. The scene takes place at a college party where Amy tries to chat with Bumper, a member of a fellow a cappella group. He is at first outright rude and offensive to her, before showing his interest in her: ‘So, I have a feeling that we should kiss.’ Amy, however, rejects him with a slightly sardonically delivered, ‘Well, I sometimes have a feeling I can do crystal meth but then I think “Hmm, better not” ’. This deliberate presentation of her as sexually viable is also present in one further scene that is part of a montage sequence showing the different members of The Bellas during break time. Amy’s scene shows her in a swimming pool, laughing and presumably flirting with two conventionally good-looking guys in a normalized manner, thereby confirming that she is in fact sexually desirable. What is also notable about this character, outside of the issue of sexual desirability, is her name – Fat Amy. When she introduces herself as such, this is met with a surprised enquiry (‘Um … You call yourself Fat Amy?’) to which she replies, ‘Yeah, so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.’ What is remarkable about this is not just that a fat character is shown to reflect on her own marginalization, but that Amy in her use of the term ‘fat’, at least implicitly, relies on the same strategies of resignification and re-appropriation as the Fat Acceptance movement. The comedy Shallow Hal is one of the few films in my corpus that puts the issue of fatness front and centre. That Rosemary is an outsider, because she is not considered desirable according to society’s standards, is constantly, directly addressed in the film and is also part of its main plot: the protagonist Hal has unknowingly been

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put under a spell that makes him see people’s inner qualities reflected by their appearance, which leads to his romantic pursuit of the fat Rosemary whose inner qualities make her appear – to him – as the slim, conventionally attractive Gwyneth Paltrow. Overall, the film contains highly contradictory messages on fatness and the desirability of fat women. On the one hand, it others Rosemary and perpetuates stereotypes of fatness on several levels: as I have already discussed in Chapters 4 and 5, it employs fat slapstick and the trope of the fat (over-)eater for the sake of comedy; it constantly ‘conflates fatness with ugliness’, as Richardson points out, and overall equates ‘beauty’ with conventional, contemporary standards of attractiveness;16 it builds on the notion that every fat person is just a hull that has its true self – a thin person – hidden inside;17 it visually erases the fat woman by presenting her for most of the film as the slim Paltrow, or if it shows her in her fat form, then mostly in ‘chopped up, fetishized chunks’, instead of fully visible.18 On the other hand, the film is quite fat-positive: it condemns society’s adherence to narrow beauty ideals, shows in detail what difference being fat can make for a woman, and presents as its happy ending that Hal realizes he still loves Rosemary and finds her desirable, even after seeing her in her true, fat, form. Overall, this section has shown that many films that depict fat characters as outsiders focus less on how fatness contributes to this positioning but rather on other structures of marginalization, such as race and class. What has also become clear, is how the intersection between these structures and fatness seems to determine the genre of the film: those films that show ‘only’ fatness and, related to this, occasionally gender as reasons for the outsider status of the fat

16 17

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Richardson, 87. See Emily Fox-Kales, Body Shots: Hollywood and the Culture of Eating Disorders (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), 110–111, and Mendoza, 283. Mendoza, 283; see also Jackie Wykes, ‘‘‘I Saw a Knock-Out’’: Fatness, (In)visibility, and Desire in Shallow Hal’, Somatechnics 2, no. 1 (2012): 60–79.

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character feature white characters and are all comedies (Hairspray, The Hangover, Just Friends, Get Smart, Pitch Perfect, Shallow Hal); those that show white characters marginalized due to class are horror films (The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre); those finally that show African American fat characters as outsiders, all engage with race and, to a certain extent, class and fall into the category of drama (The Blind Side, Notorious, Dreamgirls, Precious). While there might be certain genre traditions at play here favouring a focus on class, e.g. as in the case of Notorious the biopic drama’s focus on social uplift, this also indicates that fatness as a marginalization isn’t considered to warrant serious treatment and also that comedy allows for an ambiguity in terms of representation, showing fatness as a marginalizing structure but still, at least slightly, mocking fat characters.

Modes of the fat outsider One further aspect of the figure of the fat outsider is its representation within different modes that on some level relate to the outsider status and are employed to reinforce and/or protest against the character’s stigmatization.

The fat performer Fat characters that perform in some way, mostly either by singing and/or dancing, draw attention to themselves and are meant to be looked at. The films in this section are analysed in terms of how much of this attention and looking is directed at their bodies and at their bodies as fat bodies. While many films highlight the body and/or its fatness, others such as Dreamgirls attempt to normalize it. In all of the performances by The Dreamettes/The Dreams Effie is dressed in the same manner

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as her two band colleagues. She always wears the same dress model as the others, only in a larger size, without any extra modifications, often also baring her arms, a body part that is often considered to be better covered up in the case of fat women (see Figure 16). Through this, her body becomes normalized, and similarly neither the choreography nor the cinematography singles her body out in most of those scenes. There are only two instances in which she does stand out, namely the group’s first and last performances of the film. In the first instance Effie is still the lead singer and her choreography differs from those of her band mates, drawing more attention specifically to her, among others, by shaking her upper body while standing at the front of the stage. However, there is nothing ostracizing about this, on the contrary, since the audience is shown to be reacting quite enthusiastically to the group and her performance in particular. What has to be mentioned, though, is the fact that here they are performing in front of an African American audience, and Effie’s success with them doesn’t contradict her later marginalization as a fat woman within the context of white mainstream entertainment, but maybe rather highlights it. In their last performance they appear with four members, the group as it was after Effie was kicked out plus Effie herself re-uniting. Here Effie wears a different haircut and a different dress than the other three, but again this dress shows her arms and

Figure 16  Effie in Dreamgirls (D: Bill Condon, P: Laurence Mark, 2006).

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her cleavage and seems more about highlighting her being a special guest than about marking her as physically different from the others. And again, the applause from the audience – this time also with white members – for her normalizes her body, not allowing for any doubts about her suitability as a performer on stage. By positioning and presenting Effie in such a way the film seems to criticize or at least attempt to present a counterpoint to her becoming an outsider and effectively being forced out of show business due to her size. It has to be added, however, that Jennifer Hudson (‘Effie’) is (or rather was at the time of shooting) a ‘small fat’, making it presumably easier for the film to show her as an outsider while at the same time indulging in and glamourizing her performances.19 Christopher Wallace’s body in Notorious is also normalized, yet here this effect is partly based on the general low-key role his body plays in his performances: they don’t contain any actual dance moves and apart from walking around on stage the only movements he makes are the type of hand gestures typically associated with hip hop. Similarly, his clothes are loose-fitting and, although they don’t hide his size, they don’t emphasize it either. The cinematography also contributes to this by featuring a lot of headshots or shots of his upper body, and those showing the rest of his body are mostly long shots and therefore don’t draw attention to his body either. This normalization is also facilitated by gendered structures of dance, performance and presentation of the body. Whereas female performance very often focuses on the body and on the body as spectacle – as can also be seen in Notorious in the scenes featuring the female rapper Lil’ Kim – in male performances the body is not expected to necessarily play a big role, thereby making it easier for the fat – even ‘big fat’ – male body to be normalized. 19

‘Small fat’ is a term used within fat acceptance to describe people who are fat, but are at the smaller end of the fat spectrum, and who consequently experience less discrimination than larger fat people, e.g. when it comes to street harassment, medical discrimination, using public transport, dating etc.

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In Diary of a Wimpy Kid the fat male body is less normalized by the dance performance but rather presented as a spectacle. At a school dance at their junior high the protagonist Greg’s best friend, Rowley, is dancing with his mother an expressive dance while the other attendants are building a circle around them and watching. In Western culture male stage and theatre dance carries connotations of effeminacy, and these connotations fit in here with the film’s general tendency to present Rowley as the less masculine one, as well as with further aspects of this dance in particular.20 Rowley is a pre-pubescent boy who instead of distancing himself from his mother – as might be expected in order to move towards an adult, normative masculinity – is joyfully dancing with her, something Greg himself considers to be highly embarrassing. In addition, the dance itself, next to the slightly awkward robot-like movements, also contains details that are rather de-masculinizing, such as when Rowley slaps his own hip and then his bottom, gestures that are feminized and also draw extra attention to his body. What is interesting though is that the crowd watching Rowley and his mother are not reacting with mockery or disdain, but on the contrary are applauding and cheering them on. While the film still clearly relies on traditional stereotypes of male fatness as ‘less than masculine’, here in this scene it presents Rowley’s indifference towards those hegemonic constructs of masculinity not just as something positive but as something that makes him less of an outsider and actually quite popular. In Just Friends the performance we see also trades on the stereotype of the de-masculinized fat man, yet here it comes without any transgressive surprises. At the beginning of the film the protagonist Chris is a fat high school student who is presented as an outsider among his male peers due to his fatness and his lack of masculinity.

20

On theatre dance and masculinity see Ramsay Burt, The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities (London: Routledge, 2007), specifically 1–56.

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The introduction of his character paves the way for this by showing him at home in his room singing along to the R&B ballad ‘I Swear’, a choice that in itself can already be construed as not very masculine, due to the song being very slow, soft and sentimental.21 In addition, Chris’s accompanying facial expressions and hand gestures are very exaggerated and slightly effeminate, contributing to this impression of de-masculinization, an impression underlined by his little brother coming in, laughing at him and calling him ‘a homo’. This scene is rather short but at the end of the film during the credits, we see ‘singing Chris’ again, continuing his performance in his room, yet here an additional aspect of his performance is more obvious, namely that Chris is played by Ryan Reynolds in a fat suit. The film came out in 2005 when Reynolds wasn’t that well known yet, but by the end of the film, most of which he spends as his regular, slim self, the fact that the audience is watching an actor in a fat suit is starkly obvious and seems the main motivation for the almost three-minute-long shot. In addition, during his singing Reynolds attempts to make the most out of his fat suit: although we only see him in a medium close-up and therefore most of his body is outside the frame, his facial expressions are highly exaggerated and in particular intended to emphasize his huge, fake, double chin. Here there is nothing empowering about this fat performance; instead, it plays up stereotypes of de-masculinization for laughs, and further mocks and others fatness by presenting the fat suit as a sight gag and visual spectacle. Whereas Dairy of a Wimpy Kid and Just Friends only spend one or two scenes showing their fat characters performing, the musical comedy Hairspray features three fat, female characters who can be seen singing and dancing throughout the film, and they are all

21

For more on ‘soft (…) and feminine’ male R&B see Mark Anthony Neal, Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities (New York: New York University Press, 2013), 143, 152–153.

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presented in a slightly different manner, both as performers and as outsiders. A lot of attention is drawn to the protagonist Tracy’s fat body, through both choreography and cinematography. She is dancing in many scenes and her dance style includes shaking her hips and her behind, while occasionally also slapping them, as well as thrusting her breasts. The camera further puts a spotlight on her body by frequently showing these parts of her dancing body in close-up shots. However, there is nothing mocking about this presentation of her. She is shown to be a good dancer, and, in addition, her body is also positioned as desirable through her relationship with Link and more specifically his reaction to her dancing. He first notices her when he is passing by the detention room in their high school and, through a window in the door, spots her dancing inside. In the ensuing scene Link watches her movements through that small window, while Tracy is unaware of his presence, the film thereby presenting her as the typical female object of the (peeping) male gaze. In a later scene the dynamic between them plays out similarly, with Link singing up on the stage, first looking approvingly at Tracy dancing and shaking her body parts and then at one point going down on his knees and singing at her. Overall, Tracy’s dancing body is presented in a way that firstly makes her being an outsider in the world of entertainment seem unfair and unjustified, since she is shown to be not just capable of dancing but actually to excel at it. Secondly, Link’s obvious pleasure at not just looking at her but looking at her dancing and thereby displaying and drawing attention to her fat body, validates her body as a desirable object of the male gaze. Whereas in themselves these gendered structures of the gaze are anything but progressive, applying them to a fat woman and a slim man does send a clear message against the marginalization of female fatness. The presentation of Tracy’s fat mother, Edna, and her dancing body, however, differs from Tracy. First of all, there is the obvious issue at play that Edna is not played by a female, fat actress but by John

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Travolta in a fat suit. In the original Hairspray Edna was also played by a man, but in that case it was Divine, a well-known – and fat – drag queen who also wore drag off-screen, therefore invoking different gender connotations than John Travolta. Suzanne Woodward argues regarding the difference between the two performers: ‘But while Divine may not always convince as a woman, there is no clear sense of maleness underneath either. She created a space outside of the traditional gender binary and loosened its assumed relation to sex.’22 John Travolta might often have performed roles that have been read as engaging with the boundaries of traditional masculinities, but he is nevertheless well known as a male actor, and his casting in the role of Edna contributes to presenting her female fatness as masquerade and spectacle, as does the fat suit.23 Already in Edna’s first scene there is an element of the visual spectacle noticeable in the introduction of her character: we first hear her talking off-screen and then only see her bare calves in slippers walking into the frame, the camera then following her walk and tracking up her body at the same time, to then stop on a shot of her upper body from behind while we can still hear her talking to Tracy. The cinematography here highlights her body while at the same time building up tension by not showing her face. When she finally turns around, we see the resolution of this visual build-up – the face of John Travolta in ‘fat make-up’ and drag, the whole shot seemingly drawing extra attention to the fact who it is playing this fat woman. In addition, Edna’s dance sequences also occasionally have an element  of parody to them, even when seemingly being about empowering her as a fat woman. In one sequence she is singing and

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Suzanne Woodward, ‘Taming Transgression: Gender-bending in Hairspray (John Waters, 1988) and Its Remake’, New Cinemas of Contemporary Film 10, no. 2 and 3 (2012): 122. For an analysis of John Travolta’s star persona and its relation to gender boundaries see Amanda Howell, Popular Film Music and Masculinity in Action: A Different Tune (New York: Routledge, 2015), 143–165.

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dancing while getting ready to seduce her husband. As part of this she at one point takes up a classic pin-up pose, which she does in a quite clumsy manner, with the effect of the shot having a mocking edge to it, showing a fat woman attempting to take up a classic pose of female sexual desirability but failing at it. In another musical number she and her husband are dancing together and voicing their enduring love and affection for one another. While the film makes it clear that her husband is in fact very enamoured of her, this scene still contains slightly mocking elements such as when she is jumping into his arms from the stairs. Like the pin-up pose this is an established pose or move of heterosexual desire, and again the way it is executed by her – only making a tiny jump from the lowest step and landing very inelegantly in front of him – seems to be mocking her for engaging in it. Edna’s appearance in the big dancing finale is again slightly ambiguous. On the one hand she is shown to overcome her internalized fatphobia by dancing in front of a live audience while being broadcast on television, her segment being one part of the very joyous finale that is overall clearly intent on celebrating social diversity. On the other hand her performance contains certain moves that seem like a showcase for Travolta shaking his fat suit around, an impression even more likely to occur due to Edna starting her dance with a hand gesture that seems intentionally reminiscent of Travolta’s hand gesture in his legendary dance scene in Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), with the performance in general looking like a deliberate evocation also of Travolta’s other famous dancing scenes in Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977) or Staying Alive (Sylvester Stallone, 1983). Here the spectacle of the fat suit and thereby of (female) fatness risks overshadowing an overall sympathetic portrayal of Edna as a fat outsider who refuses to any longer participate in her own marginalization. The first thing noticeable about the third fat performer, Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), is the fact that she plays a much smaller role than the two white fat women and is only

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present as part of their storylines. The second obvious difference is the normalized manner in which her two singing and dancing performances are presented. The two scenes contain neither any explicit close-ups nor any mocking elements, and no one ever voices any doubts that Motormouth Maybelle might be unsuitable for performing in front of an audience. The only acknowledgement of fatphobia is contained in the song she sings during her first and longer performance, which is called ‘Big, Blond and Beautiful’ and constitutes a very confident statement of her desirability as a fat woman. While one reason for this might lie in the fact that Maybelle is a smaller fat than Tracy and Edna, another reason might be that she is African American. She performs ‘Big, Blond and Beautiful’ in an African American dance hall, with the other performers functioning as background singers and dancers, the film thereby reinforcing the notion, which is also brought up in Dreamgirls, that a fat woman – and performer – is more acceptable with black audiences than white ones. Similarly to Hairspray, in Pitch Perfect the body of the fat woman is also highlighted in her dance performances, yet the characterization of Amy differs from Tracy and Edna, and this also is expressed through her dancing style. While Edna is in the process of gaining confidence and Tracy might be confident but still not (sexually) aggressive, Amy is much closer to earlier mentioned stereotypes: she displays a certain overt confidence about herself and her body that is familiar from other female fat characters, in whom this trait is mostly present to highlight its inappropriateness and mock the female characters for possessing it. While I’ve shown that Pitch Perfect and its sequels do present Amy as sexually desirable, in some of her dance and performance scenes echoes of these stereotypes are still noticeable. During her audition for The Bellas she shoves up her breasts – for no obvious reason – and slaps her belly, a gesture she repeats in a later performance as well. During a college party we see a shot of her dancing on a table with

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her legs spread wide, shaking her lower body. In these scenes there are no horrified reaction shots or any other clear indicators how the film wants us to read her and her physical confidence. Nevertheless, the film is a comedy and these parts of her performance are meant to induce laughter and they partly do so by invoking a comedic tradition of mocking fat women for their physical confidence. In two further song and dance performances attention is drawn to Amy’s body, yet here it seems that the film attempts if not a subversion then at least a resignification of the tropes of female fatness. The first performance is an official appearance of the newly formed Bellas at an a-cappella competition and at first they are shown not to be doing too well. This changes, however, when Amy starts singing lead and stomps to the front of the stage in a broad-legged, masculine manner that seems at odds with the conservative, traditionally feminine, skirt and blazer combination they are all wearing. The ensuing performance by her contains several elements of the female grotesque so often associated with female fatness, such as a lack of feminine decorum, overt sexuality and an excess of movement and physicality, but, unlike in many other films, here it is celebrated, as is evident by the audience’s thunderous applause and also the reaction of the main protagonist Beca, who is gleefully grinning at Amy. In their last appearance in the film, at the big finale of the a-cappella championship, Amy’s performance contains similar elements; however, she stands out much less than in the earlier scene, because the overall style of The Bellas has markedly changed and become much closer to Amy’s earlier performance, in terms of both costume and choreography. Instead of the conservative blazer and skirt uniform they are now wearing more individualized and more casual clothing, which also deliberately shows off their different body types, with two other girls next to Amy not fitting normative body ideals. Their choreography is also more loose, individualized and diverse, thereby moving away from the restrained, controlled and demure femininity of their

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earlier style. Although all of it still fully remains within conventional borders of contemporary female, popular culture performance, there is a sense of carnival about it, a celebration of a collective that is not homogenized. This new style secures them the championship, the film thereby further celebrating the lack of feminine decorum first and most clearly displayed by the fat woman. Compared to Hairspray and Pitch Perfect, dance and performance overall only play a small part in Get Smart, yet they are again essential for the role of the fat woman, as indicated by the fact that she remains unnamed and in the credits is simply listed as ‘Max’s Dance Partner’. Max, the protagonist, meets her at a formal ball and asks her to dance, which causes her and some bystanders to react with disbelief and surprise. Here her outsider status is very obviously linked with the issue of dancing: it is the fact that no one wants to dance with her that marks her as an outsider and, since in this case it is traditional couple dance she has been deemed unsuitable for, as sexually undesirable. The film criticizes this marginalization by firstly having the protagonist ask her to dance and secondly by showing their dance as a success: they engage in a dance-off with another couple, which they win and are applauded for by the audience. Precious contains several fantasy sequences conjured up by the protagonist in order to escape from her life in particularly harrowing moments. Two of those sequences show her dancing in one, singing in the other, while two further ones contain elements of a different type of performance, one showing her posing on the red carpet at a film premiere and the other at a photo shooting in a studio. What is notable about the way the film deals with fat (female) performance is that it neither attempts to normalize it, nor to mock it, nor to celebrate it as different, as for instance Pitch Perfect does. Rather there just seems to be a clear focus on how incongruous those images of Precious in those settings are, an incongruity partly based on the obvious huge gap between her impoverished real-life

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circumstances and the glamour displayed in these scenes, but mostly on the fact that the female bodies commonly seen engaging in these types of performances differ from Precious’s body. On the one hand these sequences seem to deliberately highlight how far removed from dominant beauty ideals a fat, black, dark-skinned woman like Precious is and also seem to intend to evoke at least sympathy, if not criticism, for this fact. Mary Celeste Kearny argues: ‘Drawing attention to the virtual impossibility of Precious (and other dispossessed, non-normative girls) embodying the postfeminist position of white glamour, such sequences require viewers to experience the collision of Precious’ desires and her material circumstances.’24 On the other hand, however, this exact incongruity of seeing a body like Precious’s in poses usually reserved for more normative female bodies also risks reinforcing these dynamics by presenting her body as out of place, as suggested by Rachel Alicia Griffin. Griffin mentions fatness only in passing but in her analysis of race in the film she argues that these sequences ‘idolize light/White beauty and the light/Whitening of the U.S. American Dream and subsequently reconstitute racism, sexism and classism in accordance with the dominant gaze’.25 The degree of exaggeration in these scenes as well as Precious’s occasionally slightly amateurish looking movements and gestures support this kind of reading but even more so do the sizeism and the colourism the film displays on other levels. Throughout the film the characters presented as positive and supportive towards Precious are all slim, light-skinned people of colour with respectable middleclass jobs and are thereby in strong contrast to Precious’s fat, abusive, ‘welfare queen’ mother but also Precious herself. As Griffin puts it:

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Mary Celeste Kearney, ‘Sparkle: Luminosity and Post-Girl Power Media’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 29, no. 2 (2015): 267. Rachel Alicia Griffin, ‘Pushing into Precious: Black Women, Media Representation, and the Glare of the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchal Gaze’, Critical Studies in Media Communication 31, no. 3 (2014): 185.

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‘Every main character who outwardly cares for Precious appeals to dominant ideals via their appearance, dialect, and profession.’26 These reiterations of sizeist, colourist and classist hegemonic ideals undermine apparent attempts to criticize the marginalization experienced by the film’s protagonist due to her size, race and class, or at least make them seem more ambivalent. As can be seen, the presentation of the fat performer in the context of outsiderdom can take a number of forms. While some are normalizing, thereby working against the othering of the fat character, others focus on the fat performer as spectacle. The latter type of performance can either function as an endorsement or celebration of its fat outsider character(s) and their bodies, or it can further perpetuate their marginalization.

The fat outsider as inspirational Stories of outsiders in general often deal not only with the obstacles those on the margins have to face but also with the overcoming of those obstacles, thereby presenting the outsider’s capability to survive and succeed as a source of inspiration. However, this notion of inspiration has undergone severe criticism, in particular by scholars and activists working in the field of disability, where this type of discourse and representation is particularly prevalent. The most commonly voiced point of criticism is the fact that these narratives very much focus on individuals and their achievements, thereby often neglecting to engage with the larger social, cultural and political structures of marginalization and instead presenting it as the individual’s task to prevail in adversary circumstances.27 26 27

Ibid., 188. For an overview of the critique of inspiration see Wendy L. Chrisman, ‘A Reflection on Inspiration: A Recuperative Call for Emotion in Disability Studies’, Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 5, no. 2 (2011): 176–180.

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A number of films analysed for this chapter present the fat outsider and their story in a way that fits the notion of inspiration, yet what is noticeable is that several of these films don’t show their characters overcoming repercussions based on fatness at all, but instead focus on other categories such as class and/or race. Precious, Notorious and The Blind Side all to some extent feature or address discriminatory, fatphobic practices, yet all three films present issues of class, race and, in the case of Precious, also gender as the hurdles their protagonists need to defeat. This fits in with the tendency of these films, already analysed in the first section of this chapter, to present fatness as a minor issue, in the end presenting not fat characters, but rather poor, black characters as inspirational. A second group of films do actually feature fatphobia as an obstacle their fat characters need to overcome but do so in a roundabout, slightly ambiguous manner. In Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rowley, the protagonist’s best friend, experiences some of the dynamics of outsiderdom familiar from the ‘fat kid in high school’-trope: he has to sit on the floor of the cafeteria during lunch because no-one wants to sit with him, and he gets bullied during PE by the teacher and some of the other boys. He also shares his position as an outsider with other boys who also display a non-normative physicality, such as Fregley, who is described as having ‘hygiene problems’ and who displays the abject physicality of bodily fluids associated with early childhood, and Chirag, an Indian boy, who is introduced as the smallest boy in middle school. Interestingly enough though, the role Rowley’s fatness might play in this is never straightforwardly addressed, while more focus seems to be on his indifference towards the social rules his friend Greg is attempting so hard to follow. The way Rowley is presented as inspirational in the end also relates to this indifference and Rowley’s insistence on following his mother’s advice of being himself and then people would like him. The film proves him and his mother right, and although, on the one hand, thereby clearly attempts

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to encourage its young audience not to succumb to societal pressure and expectations, on the other hand, this also constitutes an example of how inspirational narratives tend to downplay the omnipotence of marginalizing structures. Dreamgirls is the second film in which the fat outsider is shown to prevail but at the same time over what exactly she prevail remains unclear. As I have already analysed in the first section of this chapter, the film shows how the interplay of sizeism, racism and sexism contributes to the end of the career of the singer Effie. However, after her demotion from lead to back-up singer and her consequent expulsion from the group, the film remains silent on these issues and structures that caused her downfall in the first place but instead shows her comeback as a triumph over her own personality and to a certain degree over Curtis, her ex-manager and ex-boyfriend. Her performance of a song with the title ‘I Am Changing’, in which she rejects her own pride and admits to needing the help of other people, epitomizes this focus on the role her own behaviour played in her fate. In an act of similar individualization, Curtis becomes the embodiment of a racist, sexist and fatphobic entertainment industry, and when Effie and Deena, her former band colleague and now wife of Curtis, team up against him, the film rejoices in his defeat but without addressing any of the broader structures behind Curtis’s actions. So, while Dreamgirls at least at some point in the narrative addresses the issue of fatness, the inspirational aspect of the film is based less on a fat character defeating fatphobia but rather on a combined message of female solidarity and battling your own inner demons. A similar elusiveness when it comes to addressing fatness as a category of marginalization can be observed in the musical The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017). The film tells the heavily fictionalized, and thereby also whitewashed, story of P.T. Barnum, a real-life circus and ‘freak show’ proprietor in nineteenth-century America, played here by Hugh Jackman. The story and dialogue put

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a lot of emphasis on a rhetoric of embracing and celebrating societal outsiders and ‘freaks’, yet without going into any details regarding the dynamics of othering or even specific othered social groups. Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) is the ‘bearded lady’ of Barnum’s show who is also fat, yet her fatness is never addressed. While her fat body could be read as coincidental and, consequently, the representation as normalized, neither the fact that Lettie’s beard fits with associations of female fatness as non-normative femininity nor that she is part of a group of characters who are meant to be defined by their visual ‘freakishness’ exactly invite this reading. When Lettie sings the lead for the musical number ‘This Is Me’, an empowerment hymn about the courage to be yourself, there is nothing in the lyrics addressing societal marginalization in general, let alone fatphobia – or gender nonconformity – specifically. While the film celebrates ‘outsiders’ and ‘freaks’ prevailing, and also presents Lettie as a fat performer in a normalized manner, it shies away from actually taking an explicitly fat-positive, anti-fatphobic stance. The animation film Kung Fu Panda at first glance seems to be a more  straightforward case of ‘fat empowerment’. The panda Po is chosen to become the mystical Dragon Warrior and, despite the misgivings of his Kung Fu master and his fellow Kung Fu fighters about his fatness and his lack of Kung Fu skills, he manages to live up to his title and defeat the big, bad villain in the end. During their showdown fight his opponent declares, ‘you can’t defeat me, you’re just a big, fat panda’, to which Po proudly replies, ‘I am not a big, fat panda, I am the big, fat panda’. Despite this strong sense of Po overcoming fatphobic prejudice the film still clearly depicts Po himself overcoming his own issues as decisive for his growth into the role of the Dragon Warrior. In addition, these issues are mostly very much aligned with stereotypes of fatness, such as his lack of discipline, motivation and physical fitness. Furthermore, his master and his fellow fighters never apologize, or in any other way have to atone for the fatphobic insults and jokes they voice in the first half of the film,

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the film thereby overall giving the impression that their prejudice is understandable and that it is the fat character’s responsibility to prove them wrong. Combined with the abundance of physical comedy highlighting Po’s weight and the equal amount of ‘fat eater’ jokes this makes the film a rather ambiguous example of ‘fat inspiration’. Overall, only two films draw on the fat outsider actually overcoming fatphobia as a source of inspiration. In Bridesmaids Megan gives the protagonist Annie a speech with the clear intent to inspire her to get off the couch and stop feeling sorry for herself. Although, once again, fatness is not explicitly named here, Megan’s description of her high school experience doesn’t leave much room for alternative interpretations: she gestures up and down her own body while saying ‘This was not easy, going up and down the halls’ before going into the quite awful details (‘ … they threw firecrackers at my head […] they called me a freak … ’). She then continues by describing her own reaction to these events and how it paved the way to her current professional success (‘Do you think I let that break me […] I pulled myself up, I studied really hard …’) to then bring it back around to how this relates to Annie’s current situation: ‘Because I do not associate with people that blame the world for their problems because you’re your problem, Annie, and you’re also your solution.’ This is a clear example of how inspirational narratives put responsibility on the individual instead of engaging with the larger structures of marginalization: although her story makes it clear that what she went through was not her fault and that yes, in fact ‘the world’ and its fatphobia were the ‘problem’, it is still framed as wholly her responsibility to deal with the consequences. There is no further thought given to the larger context of fatness and this is further exacerbated by the fact that she is not talking to a fellow fat person, but that the film only employs her ‘fat experience’ to provide a narrative catalyst for the slim protagonist, who after Megan’s speech actually tries to get her life back on track again.

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Hairspray, finally, constitutes a more progressive example of how to present the character of the fat outsider as inspirational, as already evident in the character primarily shown to be inspired – Edna – who herself is fat. She starts to divest herself of her internalized fatphobia through the example and help of her daughter Tracy and, to a lesser extent, the singer Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). Tracy is not just inspirational for her mother but also as a character for the audience, in terms of how she battles and defeats the marginalization and prejudice she has to face because of her fatness. However, these battles are won quite easily: as soon as Tracey manages to get a spot on the Corny Collins Show the audience loves her and she becomes the most popular dancer; similarly, her mother’s heavily internalized fatphobia seems to dissolve very quickly and when she performs on stage in the finale of the film, she only earns applause and appraising looks and no negative reactions whatsoever. These developments fit with the uplifting and encouraging tone of the film, however, they don’t adequately depict the structural aspect of marginalization and, again, focus on the individual, and its capability to prevail. This individualization also applies to those characters explicitly shown to be fatphobic, the film thereby following a similar strategy as many Hollywood films depicting racism, which show a few hateful individuals as the source of the problem instead of much wider structures. Regarding this type of dynamic, Pimentel and Santillanes argue: ‘To reduce the complexity of racism down to a few offensive individuals is to deny the deeply ingrained and largely invisible forms of racism that are not embodied in individual performances, but rather in our institutional, economic, and discursive practices at a societal level.’28 Hairspray is remarkable in terms of addressing fatphobia and in presenting a fat protagonist who is deliberately and consciously fighting it, yet in the end this predilection for individualization limits the film’s critical properties. 28

Pimentel and Santillanes, 138.

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I Feel Pretty and body positivity The final example analysed for this chapter is also a fitting film to conclude this book, since it is evidence of how in recent years body positivity, which developed out of the fat acceptance movement, has gained prominence and entered the mainstream of popular culture. Consequently, the film is also indicative of some of the tendencies body positivity has been criticized for. I Feel Pretty (Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, 2018) stars Amy Schumer as Renee, a thirtysomething woman suffering from low self-esteem due to her appearance. From the outset, the film makes it clear that her issues are not just based on her own lack of confidence but that she is in fact a societal outsider: at the gym, where all other woman are super-slim, she gets odd looks just for attending; at a boutique she is immediately told by a shop assistant to look for her size online; at a drugstore a random guy chatting up her acquaintance rudely dismisses her; at her workplace, a high-end cosmetics firm, she constantly receives surprised looks simply for not looking like a model. At the same time, the main plot of the film doesn’t fully support this indictment of society: after hitting her head, Renee sees herself differently in a very literal sense – she thinks her appearance has magically changed and that she is now normatively good-looking. Emboldened by this seemingly new appearance, she becomes highly confident which subsequently allows her to succeed both professionally and privately. While this leaves the film with a contradictory message, it resembles the already discussed tendencies of films to downplay the systemic character of fatphobia. Moreover, it very much fits with the common reluctance of body positivity to fully address structural issues, instead often presenting the instilment of ‘body confidence’ in the individual as its main goal. The choice of heroine is a further expression of certain tendencies of body positivity, with Amy Schumer in many ways embodying

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the – still narrow – body type commonly embraced: she is white, has a normative body shape and is of a size that might be described as a small-fat, but is probably by many people’s standards not even that. The fatblogger ‘Fat Heffalump’ states in her assessment of how fat acceptance has been commodified and sanitised by body positivity: There aren’t a lot of rewards for the average fat woman to put herself on the internet and speak up for fat women’s rights – unless you’re young, white, cisgender, able-bodied, a smaller fat, have an hourglass or pear shape, have a pretty face and have access to a lot of new clothes, makeup and photography, and are willing to smile and play along with the expectations of the brands who will fund you if you’re a nice, good fatty.29

It is not just that the character of Renee fits this description of the type of woman commonly championed by ‘body positivity’ fully. In addition, at the end of I Feel Pretty, she gives a big rousing speech about how women need to regain the confidence they lose when they grow up, a speech that is part of a promotion campaign for the cosmetics firm she works for. The film here very blatantly depicts and also endorses the commodification of body positivity. A further contradiction arises from the contrast between the film’s message(s), regardless of whether it is the individualizing or the more structural one, and the film’s comedy, which is in large parts based on the fact that only Renee sees herself differently (as highly normatively attractive), while the rest of the world, including the audience, still sees her as her regular Amy-Schumer-self. This leads to a number of scenes in which the comedy results from Renee acting and talking as if she were highly normatively attractive, and this clashing with how the people around her and the audience see her. One example 29

Fat Heffalump, ‘Is Radical Fat Activism Dead?’, Fat Heffalump. Living with Attitude, 9  June 2016, accessed 6 May 2019, https://fatheffalump.wordpress.com/2016/06/09/isradical-fat-activism-dead/.

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would be when during a job interview, she talks about how she knows she could work as a model but prefers to be a receptionist, to which her interviewers react with bemused looks. The comedy here is based on the common, fatphobic, trope of the delusional fat woman, the audience meant to be laughing at her for this overestimation of her own attractiveness.30 Overall, this film highlights that although certain ideas of fat acceptance might have reached mainstream cinema, they are only allowed to play out in a very limited manner and context. ***

Many of the films analysed in this chapter display little interest in engaging with fatness as a marginalizing structure, despite showing fat characters as outsiders. Instead there often seems to be a tendency to focus on other structures, such as race or class, and to touch upon discrimination characters have to face because of their fatness only in a shallow manner. This can either mean to not address the issue at all (e.g. The Hills Have Eyes), to only present it implicitly without addressing it directly (e.g. Diary of a Wimpy Kid), or only briefly (e.g. Notorious), or to depict it ambiguously, leaving the exact impact fatphobia has unclear (e.g. Dreamgirls). In addition, a number of films perpetuate marginalizing structures, marking characters as ‘fat’, either completely unapologetically (e.g. Just Friends), or in a more ambivalent manner, presenting themselves as opposed to fatphobia yet still to some extent participating in it (e.g. Get Smart). Furthermore, some of those representations that take fatness more seriously display a tendency for individualization, showing fatphobia not as a structure but as a problem that the fat individual has to solve (e.g. Kung Fu Panda).

30

See Chapter 3, p. 97–98. for more on this trope.

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What is also noticeable is that those few films that display a more in-depth engagement with fatphobia, are all comedies and focus on white, female fatness (Shallow Hal, Hairspray, Pitch Perfect, I Feel Pretty). The choice of genre might indicate that fatness doesn’t warrant a ‘serious treatment’; however, the conventions of comedy also allow for certain ambiguities regarding the representation of fatness, which even these films display, and at the same time also enable subversive strategies, such as the empowering use of performance. The focus on female fatness can be seen as a reflection of the fact that fatphobia is a gendered phenomenon, affecting women to a greater extent than men, while the focus on white women is indicative of the predominant disinterest in non-white subjectivities displayed by contemporary Hollywood cinema in general.

Conclusion What has emerged is how commonplace notions of fatness that are also part of the current obesity epidemic discourse are employed as markers of fatness. The association of fatness with the wrong kind of eating is most obvious, with a number of films showing fat characters overeating and/or eating the wrong kind of food and/or eating in the wrong place. A lack of (self-)control is also a noticeable theme, displayed, again, via ‘The Fat Eater’, who can’t control what or how much they eat, but also via ‘The Funny Fat Body’, which bases large parts of its comedy on presenting the fat body as a body out of control, and, specifically in the case of fat slapstick, very often as a clumsy and physically unfit body. Related to this is also a presentation of the fat body as hyper-physical, as somehow more physical than others and in particular as displaying more of the unpleasant aspects of physicality. Some representations have shown how fatness is employed to engage with wider social anxieties of Western culture. This dynamic becomes most obvious in depictions of fat eating, which can be seen to express anxieties about a range of issues, such as a decline in manners, the predominance of processed foods and excessive consumption and consumerism in general. Similarly, a set of films depicting fat white male characters reflects anxieties relating to the so-called ‘crisis of masculinity’. What this last example illustrates is how fatness is inseparable from issues of gender, race and also class. One of the predominant markers of fatness is a distortion of normative gender roles, which is expressed in many of its representations and can be found across

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different tropes. This gendered nature of fatness becomes most obvious in the de-masculinized man and the fat woman outside of normative femininity, both common figures of fat representation. However, there are differences noticeable between those figures, most obviously regarding the issue of sexual desirability. While male representations might imply a lack of sexual desirability or present it in the form of a minor issue, a number of female representations put this issue front and centre, depicting their characters as undesirable in a highly mocking and marginalizing manner. Fat women are on the whole more likely to be presented as unsympathetic, unlikable characters, whereas almost none of the male characters are depicted as such. These gender differences also play out via other analysed tropes such as ‘The Funny Fat Body’: both fat slapstick and fat grossout feature subcategories in which the fat woman’s lack of sexual desirability and inability to fulfil heteronormative gender roles are employed as a source of comedy. The gendered bias of fat oppression and fatphobia highlighted by feminist Fat Studies scholars fully finds its expression in these representations. Gender is also relevant for the trope of ‘The Fat Eater’; here male fat characters are further de-masculinized by either eating foods associated with femininity or engaging in eating habits associated with femininity, such as emotional overeating. This study has further shown that the (gendered) markers of fatness are commonly entwined with constructs of race. Many fat African American characters are based on pre-existing stereotypes of black non-conformity to gender roles, such as the Sapphire or the Coon, with blackness and fatness becoming aligned as forms of nonnormative embodiment. Whiteness is, as so often, more difficult to grasp, and relates differently to fatness: here fatness is employed as part of characterizations that are positioned outside of normative whiteness, or white male characters that express anxieties about contemporary white masculinity. While fatness seems to confirm

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dominant notions of blackness, in the case of whiteness, fatness can be employed to signify the white Other. Class is also a significant category, with fatness occasionally utilized to signify a working class or lower-class identity. In some representations, class, fatness and race become aligned in the construction of stereotypes such as ‘white trash’, the ‘welfare queen’, or the Mammy. The chapter on ‘The Fat Eater’ has also shown how certain foods and eating habits that are strongly associated with nonmiddle-class behaviour become intrinsically linked to fatness, thereby further reinforcing the classed nature of fatness. Formal elements play a role in the marking of fatness and are particularly noticeable in those films and scenes employing slapstick comedy, with choreography, sound design and framing working together to establish and highlight the weight, volume and size of the fat body. The use of framing to a similar effect can also be observed outside of slapstick and comedy. What this overview so far already indicates is the importance of genre and specifically comedy for representations of fatness: forty-one out of fifty-six films analysed fall into this genre category (including genre-hybrids such as action comedies). Comedy has a long tradition of showcasing othered social groups as well as non-normative behaviour, and, as this study has shown, many of its conventions are employed in a marginalizing manner to represent fatness. At the same time the use of comedy often allows for ambivalence, enabling both progressive and reactionary readings. Overall, the picture that emerges from this study is predominantly one of stereotyping, often combining fatphobic, sexist and/or racist and – occasionally – also classist structures, with sporadic instances of a more ambiguous or even anti-fatphobic approach. The trope with seemingly the most potential for a more progressive type of representation, ‘The Fat Outsider’, also only goes so far: some films present fatness/fatphobia as merely a minor issue, focusing instead

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on race and class, while a number of others are highly ambiguous, seemingly fat-positive on some level, but still marking characters as fat through the employment of fatphobic stereotypes. A few films featuring this trope display a more in-depth engagement with fatphobia, even if they still contain fat stereotypes, and they all deal with white female fatness, and they all put emphasis on presenting the white, fat woman as sexually desirable. One of these films (Pitch Perfect) is also part of a new wave of comedy films that have been released since 2011, star either Melissa McCarthy or Rebel Wilson in leading or supporting roles, and seem to make a deliberate attempt to present (white) female fat characters in roles outside of conventional stereotypes of fatness, which manifests, again, specifically in the deliberate depiction of the fat woman as sexually desirable (even if they also still employ other – fatphobic – representational structures). This definitely constitutes progress, but the focus on a specific social group and a specific aspect of their representation indicates several issues: an increasing awareness that fatphobia is a gendered phenomenon, the importance of sexual desirability for constructs of normative femininity (and of heteronormative structures for mainstream Hollywood cinema), as well as a general disinterest in non-white subjectivities. At the same time two of the few films from my corpus that don’t address fatphobia but present fat characters in a relatively normalized manner and as leads feature black characters: Notorious and Just Wright. This might seem contradictory at first, but both films were relatively small projects with small budgets (Notorious $20 million, Just Wright $12 million), had African American script writers, all African American casts and were aimed predominantly at African American audiences. (Just Wright is also one of the few films from my corpus with a female director.) These were both niche-films, to a certain degree playing on perceived and actually existent different conceptions of fatness in African American communities, and

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therefore not necessarily representative of the majority of Hollywood films. Nevertheless, in 2017 a film was released that would seem to fall into a similar category: Girls Trip (Malcom D. Lee), a female ensemble comedy with an all African American cast, an African American director, mostly African American script writers and Queen Latifah as one of the four leads. The way in which Girls Trip does differ, however, lies in the fact that it became a national and international hit, with a box office far beyond the film’s $20 million budget. Second, and this is also the reason why I didn’t include the film in this book, Queen Latifah’s characters is not in any way marked as fat: neither is her body size ever directly addressed nor are any of the usual tropes of the representation of fatness utilized in her characterization. As already mentioned in the introduction, by deliberately omitting these unmarked representations, quite a few prominent fat characters, mostly white men, are not analysed in this book. These include roles played by Jonah Hill (e.g. Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011), 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2012)), Philip Seymour Hoffman (e.g. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)), Seth Rogen (e.g. Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2011)), or John Goodman (e.g. Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)). This possibility of an unmarked representation indicates, once again, the gendered and racialized nature of fatness, which enables white, male fatness to be represented in a less stigmatized and more normalized manner, and not in niche-films but in the absolute mainstream. That in recent years next to Girls Trip also other films such as Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (Paul Feig, 2016) or Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018), both with Melissa McCarthy, have featured unmarked female fat characters, gives some hope for possible changes in the mainstream representation of (female) fatness. Nevertheless, the fact that characters aren’t marked as fat and could theoretically have been played by slim actors doesn’t mean that there aren’t limitations to the roles fat actors, and actresses,

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can play. An analysis of these seemingly unmarked representations, what characteristics they share and which kind of characters and roles they don’t entail, was outside the scope of this book, but would be an issue worth investigating, not just in the case of the few female roles of this types, but in particular of the many more male roles. What this example of a possible further avenue of research and, as I hope, even more so, my book as a whole show, is the need to establish fatness as a category of analysis within the discipline of Film Studies. Fatphobia has to a certain degree and in various forms existed for a long time in Western culture, yet the continued medicalization, stigmatization and presentation of fatness as a spoiled identity in political, public and media discourses inside but also outside of the United States over the last two decades have given it a new breadth and intensity that has also found its reflection in cinema. Film Studies has since the 1970s continuously delivered in-depth, critical engagements with categories of social identity and their representations, which has led to nowadays the issues of gender, race and sexuality being a set point on the curriculum of every first-year undergrad student. While fatness, or in a wider sense body size, may not gain a similar status any time soon, I do think that for a comprehensive analysis of other social categories – such as gender, race and also class – an analysis of how body size is constructed is essential, and fatness provides a way into that. As far as it is ever possible to speak about one social category without considering the issue of intersectionality, I also believe that fatness in its own right, as a category that informs and constructs the identities and lived realities of many fat but also non-fat people, deserves and demands a more in-depth engagement from a critical and enquiring discipline such as ours.

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Filmography Corpus Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2018) The Back-Up Plan (Alan Poul, 2010) Big Momma’s House (Raja Gosnell, 2000) The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) The Boss (Ben Falcone, 2016) Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011) Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder, 2004) Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Thor Freudenthal, 2010) Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004) Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006) Due Date (Todd Phillips, 2010) Every Day (Michael Sucsy, 2018) Get Smart (Peter Segal, 2008) Good Luck Chuck (Mark Helfrich, 2007) The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey, 2017) Grown Ups (Dennis Dugan, 2010) Grown Ups 2 (Dennis Dugan, 2013) Hairspray (Adam Shankman, 2007) The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009) The Hangover Part II (Todd Phillips, 2011) The Hangover Part III (Todd Phillips, 2014) The Heat (Paul Feig, 2013) The Hills Have Eyes (Alexandre Aja, 2006) How to Be Single (Christian Ditter, 2016) I Feel Pretty (Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, 2018) Identity Thief (Seth Gordon, 2013) Just Friends (Roger Kumble, 2005) Just Wright (Sanaa Hamri, 2010)

Filmography Kangaroo Jack (David McNally, 2003) Kung Fu Panda (Mark Osborne and John Stevenson, 2008) Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh, 2011) Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Alessandro Carloni, 2016) Life as We Know It (Greg Berlanti, 2010) Madea’s Family Reunion (Tyler Perry, 2006) Monster House (Gil Kenan, 2006) My Spy (George Gallo, 2008) Norbit (Brian Robbins, 2007) Notorious (George Tilman Jr., 2009) Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Steve Carr, 2009) Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (Andy Fickman, 2015) Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012) Pitch Perfect 2 (Elizabeth Banks, 2015) Pitch Perfect 3 (Trish Sie, 2017) Precious (Lee Daniels, USA, 2009) Rough Night (Lucia Aniello, 2017) Shallow Hal (Bobby and Peter Farrelly, 2001) Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017) Spy (Paul Feig, 2015) Tammy (Ben Falcone, 2013) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003) Tower Heist (Brett Ratner, 2011) Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007) Valentine’s Day (Garry Marshall, 2010) Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008) Zookeeper (Frank Coraci, 2011)

Films outside the corpus 9½ Weeks (Adrian Lyne, 1986) 21 Jump Street (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2012) 27 Dresses (Anne Fletcher, 2008) Amityville Horror (Andrew Douglas, 2003)

275

276

Filmography

Animal House (John Landis, 1978) Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012) Black Christmas (Glen Morgan, 2006) Bridget Jones’s Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001) Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018) Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992) Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988) Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987) Disclosure (Barry Levinson, 1994) Evil Dead Trap 2 (Izo Hashimoto, 1992) Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993) Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (Paul Feig, 2016) Girls Trip (Malcom D. Lee, 2017) Hairspray (John Waters, 1988) He’s Just Not That into You (Ken Kwapis, 2009) Hitch (Andy Tennant, 2005) Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013) I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (Dennis Dugan, 2007) Knocked Up (Judd Apatow, 2011) Leap Year (Anand Tucker, 2010) Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963) Lord of the Flies (Harry Hook, 1990) Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012) Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011) Moonstruck (John Patrick Shanley, 1987) The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, 1979) Porky’s (Bob Clark, 1982) Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976) Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977)

Filmography

277

Something Borrowed (Luke Greenfield, 2011) Staying Alive (Sylvester Stallone, 1983) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Jonathan Liebesman, 2006) What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (Lasse Hallström, 1993) The Wicker Man (Neil LaBute, 2006)

Index abject body 31, 161, 163, 172, 242 African American stereotypes 9, 42, 43, 65, 79–80, 125, 213–214 ‘Bad Black Mother’ 76, 80–81 ‘Buck’ 36 ‘Coon’ 34–36, 39–40, 252 ‘Diva’ 126–127, 217 ‘Mammy’ 2, 70, 75, 87, 118, 119, 127, 164–165, 174, 253 ‘Sapphire’ 2, 75–76, 127, 252 ‘Strong Black Woman’ 114–116, 119, 127 ‘Uncle Tom’ 35–36 ‘Welfare Queen’ 81, 126, 253 Anderson, Anthony 36, 39 animation film 7, 29, 132, 134, 147, 148, 202, 244 Avengers: Infinity War (2018) 32–33 The Back-up Plan (2010) 108, 109–113, 120, 127 Bakhtin, Mikhail 130, 155 Bartky, Sandra Lee 67–68, 92 Bergson, Henri 146–147 Big Momma’s House (2000) 72, 73, 75, 82, 164–166, 210 The Blind Side (2009) 40–43, 66, 211–214, 215–16, 229, 242 body positivity 247–249 Bordo, Susan 19, 27–28, 91–93, 204–205 The Boss (2016) 102, 104, 172–173 Bridesmaids (2011) 72, 73–74, 100, 108, 109, 120–121, 125, 127, 140–143, 167–170, 172, 190, 245 capitalism 15, 17 Chicago (2002) 87, 210 children’s film 28–29, 42, 132

civilization/civilized 22, 35, 177, 182–183, 187, 189, 207, 222–223 class 5, 8–9, 15–16, 19–20, 53–65, 70, 81, 211–212, 214, 216, 217, 218, 221–225, 240–241, 249, 253, 254 and eating/food 179–180, 185–187, 195–200, 208, 253 colourism 69, 214–215, 240–241 comedy as in ‘the humorous aspect’ 36–37, 46, 53, 55, 57, 60, 74, 75, 79, 83–84, 96–97, 98, 101, 102, 104, 105, 106, 226, 228, 245, 248–249, 251, 252 genre 7, 10, 30, 31, 36, 37, 46, 74, 78, 79, 85, 95, 100, 129, 187, 190, 218, 227, 229, 223, 233, 238, 250, 253, 254, 255 See also ‘comedian comedy’; gross-out comedy; romantic comedy; physical comedy; slapstick comedy ‘comedian comedy’ 33–35, 42 consumerism 15–17, 122–123, 131–132, 201, 207, 251 control 27, 60, 136, 166, 169, 177, 184, 201–205, 251 and eating 184, 188–189, 193, 201–203, 208 and gender 27–28, 192–193, 204 Cooper, Charlotte 3, 68 n.3, 201–202 Dawn of the Dead (2004) 73, 76–77 Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010) 29–31, 42, 50, 66, 145, 232, 242–243, 249 Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) 44–49, 51, 52, 93, 97–99, 148–149, 161–162, 187–189, 195–196, 202

Index Dreamgirls (2006) 108, 123–127, 216–217, 229, 229–231, 237, 243, 249 Due Date (2010) 33–34, 133, 140, 143, 156, 159–160, 167 Dyer, Richard 8, 101, 166 eating/food 10, 175–208, 251, 253 and class 179–180, 186–187, 195–200, 208, 253 donuts 195–97 emotional overeating 202–207 and masculinity 183–185, 193–195, 204–205 organic food 196, 199–200 peanut butter 197 and race 198–200 Soul Food 198–200 sugar 191–193 Elias, Norbert 177, 183 Every Day (2018) 139–140 Farrell, Amy Erdman 15, 21–22, 81 Fat Acceptance 3–5, 227, 247, 249 Fat Studies 3–5, 9, 13–24, 200, 201, 252 and race 4 fat suit 2–3 n.3, 47, 50, 51–52, 82, 233 and black masculinity 82 fatphobia 3, 5, 6, 13, 15–16, 19–20, 22–24, 132, 163, 213, 215, 217, 218, 221, 236–237, 242–246 femininity 1–2, 5, 22, 67–128, 161–174, 254 black femininity 23–24, 69–70, 75–76, 79–83, 99–100, 115–120, 126 and emotional overeating 204–207 and food 204–205 and race 69 white femininity 23–24, 76–77, 168–172, 248, 250, 254 feminism 23, 67, 90, 107–108, 110–112 backlash against 67

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food See eating/food Foucault, Michel 13, 18, 67, 92 Galifianakis, Zack 33, 133 gaze 122, 159, 160–161, 165, 166, 168, 211–212, 216, 234, 240 gender 1–2, 4–5, 8, 9–10, 22–24, 251–252 See also femininity; intersectionality; masculinity Get Smart 44, 49–51, 135–136, 150–151, 203, 226, 229, 239, 249 Gilman, Sander 25–27 Good Luck Chuck (2007) 94–95, 97–98, 149–150, 161–164, 185, 195, 202, 206 The Greatest Showman (2017) 243–244 gross-out comedy 130–131, 154–174 and femininity 161–173 and masculinity 156–161 and race 166, 168–172 the grotesque 30, 130–132, 154–155 Grown Ups (2010) 79, 100, 135, 143–144, 147, 156–158, 164–166, 167, 183–185, 194 Grown Ups 2 (2013) 156 Guthman, Julie 17, 200 Hairspray (2007) 190, 205, 218–221, 229, 233–237, 246, 250 Hall, Stuart 35–36 The Hangover (2009) 6, 34, 133, 143, 145–146, 156–161, 167, 225–226 The Hangover Part II (2011) 133, 156, 194 The Hangover Part III (2014) 34, 133, 156, 194 health 14–18, 20, 21 and food/eating 177–180, 183, 196–197, 201 Health At Every Size (HAES) 14–15

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Index

The Heat (2013) 102, 105–106, 146 heteronormativity 43, 71, 102–103, 109, 111, 156, 173, 252 heterosexuality 26, 67, 86, 91, 109, 115, 236 Hill Collins, Patricia 37, 39, 69, 70, 76, 80 The Hills Have Eyes (2006) 73, 76, 221–225, 229, 249 homophobia 159–161, 173 homosexuality 49, 72, 86, 159–160 horror film 1, 1 n.1, 7, 73, 76–77, 79, 94, 169, 221–225, 229 backwoods / hillbilly horror film 7, 77, 221 How to Be Single (2016) 102, 104–105, 138, 172 hunger 91–92, 206 hyper-physicality 10, 73, 132, 146, 158, 159, 173, 251 Identity Thief (2013) 72, 74, 108, 109, 121–123, 127, 135, 137 I Feel Pretty (2018) 247–249, 250 inspiration/inspirational 121, 241–246 intersectionality 4–5, 8, 218, 221, 256 irony 61–63, 64–65, 152 James, Kevin 53, 134, 135 Just Friends (2005) 44, 51–53, 195, 197, 203, 226, 229, 232–233, 249 Just Wright (2010) 108, 109, 116–120, 122, 127, 197–198, 254 Kangaroo Jack (2003) 36–39, 40, 137, 145, 189–190, 193, 202, 210 King, Geoff 34–35, 129, 155 Kung Fu Panda (2008) 6, 134, 147–148, 202–203, 244–245, 249 Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) 148 Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) 148

Latifah, Queen 87, 109, 113–116, 236, 255 LeBesco, Kathleen 16, 17, 19, 196 Life as We Know It (2010) 85–87 Madea’s Family Reunion (2006) 73, 75, 81–83 markers of fatness 7–9, 65–66, 127, 173, 251–253, 255 unmarked fatness 6, 9, 25, 255–256 masculinity 25–66 black masculinity 34–43, 213–214 ‘crisis of masculinity’ 43, 58 hypermasculinity 44–45, 48–49, 50, 51, 52–53, 66 ‘man breasts’ 47, 55–56 and sweets 183–184, 193–195 white masculinity 43–66, 156–157 McCarthy, Melissa 61 n.50, 72, 86, 101, 104, 105, 106, 109, 110, 111, 138, 146, 166, 254, 255 Monster House (2006) 29–30, 42, 74, 77, 85, 87, 132–133 morality/moralism 16, 23, 26, 179, 192, 201 and eating 201 moral panic 16 Mosher, Jerry 53–54 Murray, Samantha 22, 92 mother blame 20, 80 musical 7, 87, 123, 218, 233 My Spy (2008) 133, 186, 195, 205 Neale, Steve 7, 129, 160–161 Negra, Diane 33, 44 n.31, 123 nerds 32, 49–50 neoliberalism 16–18, 19, 108, 179 responsibilization 16–17, 16 n.14, 19, 179 Norbit (2007) 72–73, 74, 75, 82, 83–85, 95–100, 149, 195, 196, 202, 206, 210

Index normalcy/normalization 13–14 Notorious (2009) 214–216, 229, 231, 242, 249, 254 ‘obesity’ 5, 14, 17–18, 20–21, 81, 179, 182, 192, 200, 201 ‘obesity epidemic’ 3, 6, 15–16, 19, 80, 179, 201, 218, 251 Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009) 39, 40, 53–65, 66, 133, 144–145, 152, 194, 197, 203, 210 Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015) 64–66, 133, 139, 203 Paul, William 154–155, 158 Perry, Tyler 73, 82–83 physical comedy 10, 37, 129–174, 226, 245 See also gross-out comedy; slapstick comedy Pitch Perfect (2012) 6, 72, 102, 103, 134, 171–172, 226–227, 229, 237–239, 250, 254 Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) 102, 103, 171–172 Pitch Perfect 3 (2017) 103, 134, 171–173, 190 Postfeminism 108–113 Precious (2009) 6, 76, 80–81, 100, 188–189, 197, 205, 217–218, 229, 239–241, 242 race and fatness 2, 4–5, 8, 20–24, 252–253, 254 and food 198–200 and gross-out comedy 166, 168–172, 174 See also African American stereotypes; black femininity (under femininity); black masculinity (under masculinity); colourism; intersectionality; white femininity (under femininity);

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white masculinity (under masculinity); whiteness Richardson, Niall 26–27, 49, 85, 228 romantic comedy 51–53, 85–87, 107–123 and race 115–116, 119 Rough Night (2017) 152–153 Rowe, Kathleen 68, 78–79, 116, 153–154 Schumer, Amy 247–249 sexual aggressiveness black male 36, 42, 213 female 10, 72, 83, 90–101, 103, 105, 149, 150, 206, 207 sexual desirability/sexual viability 98–100, 148–153, 215–217, 220–221, 225–229, 252, 254 Shallow Hal (2001) 137, 151–152, 202, 207, 227–229, 250 slapstick comedy 65, 72–73, 102, 130–154, 251, 252, 253 and gender 153–154 and thingness 146–148 slavery 35, 69–70, 79 Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) 31–32 Springer, Kimberly 75, 126 Spy (2015) 102, 106, 138 stardom/star studies 101 fat stars 61 n.50, 101–102, 109, 116 stereotypes/stereotyping 7, 129 of fatness 2, 5, 10, 62, 64, 74, 102, 109, 134, 136, 170, 173, 184, 189–190, 206–207, 223, 225, 228, 244, 253–254 of female fatness 47, 63, 89, 102, 103–106, 112, 121, 127–128, 142, 153, 164–165, 174, 237 of male fatness 31, 32, 48, 232–233 vs. tropes 7 See also African American stereotypes

282 suburbs/suburbia 29, 53, 59, 86–87 superhero films 31–32 Tammy (2013) 102, 105, 138, 186–187 Tasker, Yvonne 33, 44 n.31, 123 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) 221–225, 229 Tower Heist (2011) 74, 75, 190, 202 Transformers (2007) 39–40, 184–185, 194, 202 ‘the unruly woman’ 68–69, 78–79, 116, 119, 153–154 and race 119 Valentine’s Day (2010) 108, 109, 113–116

Index Wanted (2008) 88–89, 190, 205–206 whiteness 20–22, 167–172, 221–225, 240, 250 and food 20, 200 ‘white saviour’ trope 219 ‘white trash’ 2, 76–77, 127, 222–223, 225, 253 and ‘the white wedding’ 169 See also white femininity (under femininity); white masculinity (under masculinity) Wilson, Rebel 101, 103, 104, 106, 138, 166, 168, 254 Zookeeper (2011) 133, 145, 147