It’s not a revelation, nor will it come as any surprise for me to tell you that representations of fat people in cinema are generally pretty awful. You can count the number of plus size female actors on one hand (the count is significantly higher for men). Naturally, the lack of fat actors stems from the lack of roles written for fat people, and the film industry’s obsession with white, cis, skinny people starring in 90% of their output.
But, we already know all of this. If there is a fat character in a mainstream film, their fatness is guaranteed to be an integral part of their character and it usually exists as a platform to bounce fat jokes off of. Characters cannot just be fat or plus-size, it has to be mentioned, talked about or jokes must come from at their expense.
There is an overriding concept in cinema that the worst thing you can possibly be as a woman, is fat*. Take the make-over movie. A whole genre spawned on the pivotal moment where a woman is ‘made over’ to become desirable to her male counterpart. Now Voyager, arguably, started this trend with the making over of it’s protagonist Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis). Charlotte is drab, wears glasses, is unattractive and overweight. She is a spinster, doomed to live under her Mother’s controlling gaze forever. Until, that is, she is examined by a doctor who basically prescribes make-up, weight loss and a cruise to cure her ailments. This will cure her of her ‘illness’ – her only illness seeming to be that she can’t find a husband.
As Charlotte Vale descends the staircase, she has looks like a new person. Gone are the glasses and the drab clothes. Also gone is any ‘excess’ weight. She is slimmer, there is less of her. Her clothes, which before had swamped her, now cling to her smaller frame. There is a strong association between larger, more drab clothing which aims to hide the bodies flaws and fat women on screen. Charlotte is only allowed to wear her more attractive and desirable clothing once she has lost the weight.
Now, Voyager doesn’t only focus on the fat (glasses seem to be a big part of whether you are deemed attractive as a woman or not), but it certainly focuses on fatness as something that needs to be got rid of in order to be worthy of love. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Rosemary in Shallow Hal is so “undesirable” that Hal (Jack Black) has to be hypnotized before seeing her as someone he would want to pursue a relationship with. Shallow Hal, as I am sure we all aware, is problematic on a multitude of levels (not least of the rampant ableism), but it’s important to discuss because it really exemplifies the issue for fat women on screen.
The plot device of Hal being hypnotised into seeing everyone’s inner beauty, means that the film gets away with only showing us images of stereotypically beautiful people (predominantly white, cis, straight, thin, extremely gendered etc). It doesn’t have to engage with the struggles of those people, because we (like Hal) see them as ‘beautiful’. It’s a fantastic excuse not to actually cast any fat people in the film because we only actually see Rosemary as she really looks right at the very end. Even then, it’s Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit – which is pretty comforting to an audience, because we know she isn’t really that size.
Rosemary’s weight is seen as the biggest issue of the film. The worst thing that Rosemary could possibly be is fat. The worst thing, to Hal, that a woman can be is fat (or ugly).
Similarly, there is a moment in Metin Huseyin’s British indie Anita and Me as a group of teenagers are pairing off together at a funfair. Protagonist Meena, a young Sikh girl, is devastated when the last remaining boy chooses one of Anita’s fat friends to pair off with, rather than Meena. Anita and Me is comedy-drama which explores small-town UK attitudes to race and this scene is particularly prevalent. Both Anita’s fat friend and Meena are seen as undesirable due to their size and skin colour. The film asks us to feel sympathy for Meena, because even the plus size friend can get a date over her – so strong is the racism amongst small town Britain. It’s a conflicted message which pits race against fatness and asks us to choose a side.
It seems that the only way to be acceptable on the silver screen as a fat person is to be funny. The ‘fat but funny’ trope has come into it’s own over the past few years. Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson’s (both very talented actors in their own right) careers are both intrinsically entwined with this trope. Wilson’s character, ‘Fat Amy’ in Pitch Perfect, might be confident and sassy but the comedy stems from the fact that she is not supposed to secure in herself in that way. She believes herself to be sexy and worthy of desire, and this is deemed laughable because of her fatness. It’s not overtly funny, it just comes off as absurd that someone her size could be so confident. Similarly to The Heat (and it pains me because I really loved that film), Melissa McCarthy’s Mullins is confident in her own sexuality and is secure in herself. She talks about the men she has slept with and is aware of the effect she has on them. Sandra Bullock’s Ashburn is visibly confused and taken aback by Mullins’ security in her own body – clearly because she is fat.
Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson are comedy actresses, and probably the only two fat women you are likely to see on a cinema screen. Their ability to be funny seems to be attempt to rectify what is ‘wrong’ with them (i.e. their fatness). Their size, though the punchline to many many jokes, is of less consequence because they can make us laugh. The trope of the ‘Fat Comic Relief’ is the only way that fat women can seem to get any sort of meaningful role onscreen. By meaningful, I simply mean a named role with a speaking part.
There are a few exceptions, a handful of characters who are fat but still manage to be complex characters with more going on than just their size. Mariana Chenillo’s Paraiso is narratively based in ideas about fatness and weight-loss, but also manages to retain complexity for it’s lead character Carmen. She is someone is secure in herself, her relationship and her body and only decides to start on a ‘Weight-watchers’ style diet on hearing two women talking about her in a bathroom. The film explores the pressures on a relationship in terms of fatphobia and weight loss, and fortunately the ending straightens out any doubts about its integrity in talking about fatness. Carmen throws herself wholeheartedly into a hobby which she enjoys, rediscovers herself and realises that she is happy with herself – regardless of how anyone else feels. Paraiso also has one of the only sex scenes between two fat characters, which the film opens on. It is a beautiful scene, with no mockery or judgement – just a pure expression of love between Carmen and Alberto.
Perhaps the only place for fat female characters is on television. There is a far greater list of complex, interesting fat female characters on television, and whilst numbers are not everything the list does speak for itself. Paula (Crazy Ex Girlfriend). Sookie St James (Gilmore Girls), Boo, Taystee, Red (Orange is the New Black), Vivienne (No Offence), Donna (Parks & Rec), Rae (My Mad Fat Diary) are just a few fat female characters whose size and shape have either nothing to do with their characterisation, or it is not commented on negatively throughout their time in their respective show. This should not be an achievement, but sadly it seems to be . Cinema has yet to break the mould on casting fat actors and creating fat characters that aren’t seen as lazy slobs who exist to serve as punchlines for the skinny protagonists.
*Yeah, I know this the dominant view in society and it isn’t just in film. Something something, life mirrors art, something something. It’s total horse-shit either way.
Recently, I discovered Tessa Racked’s ‘Consistent Panda Bear Shape’ blog, where she discusses all manner of films and their characterisations of fat people. Not only is it one of the best named blogs I’ve ever read, it has also opened up my eyes to a world of representation and characters that I’ve been missing. Please do check it out.