Friday, 23 June 2017

Rejecting The Roles Of The Fat Friend And Comedy Side Kick

We've known for a long time that images of females on screen overwhelmingly promote thin white bodies.
Fat women in film or television are still a rarity, and when they are included,  its a case of always the bridesmaid never the bride (quite literally, when was the last time you saw an overweight  woman as the romantic lead in anything other than My Mad Fat Diary?)
Walt Disney once said "Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood" if we think King Disney has a point, how then do movies and TV shape how fat women view themselves? particularly when we consider what we are watching as we transition from teens to womanhood
The limited fat archetypes presented in the moving image, have I believe, affected how many plus size women feel they must behave to take their place in society. 
If it seems like a stretch consider this. Growing up we copy what we see, both in our real environment and in the universes offered to us via screens. Films and TV are the campfire tales of our generation. Thoughts around how women should behave and interact are deeply ingrained in our psyches via the medium of entertainment.
Even if we are able to distance ourselves from the presented ideals, some of those stereotypes have a tendency to stick. As plus size women try to find their place in a society which is overwhelmingly negative toward them, inhabiting personality traits that are universally accepted can seem like the only way forward.
I don't for one second suggest that fat women make this decision consciously, but as we strive to fit in, wearing some of the approved persona's from the world of film and TV can be as easy as slipping into a pair of slippers.
The adoption (however unwittingly) of some of the characteristics and behaviours presented on screen (scripts usually written by white men it should be noted) can I believe really effect how fat women thrive and take their space as individuals. Its another example of our body shape dictating how we experience the world and how the world experiences us. Here are some of the fat character tropes I feel we are offered on repeat.

The Waterproof Shoulder
To compensate for their perceived lack of physical currency, fat women in film are often represented as being pragmatic, down to earth, carers. Tending to the needs of others (usually thinner, blonder, women) A willingness to take a backseat or be a support act is taken as a given. Fatness we are told, precludes us from being the object of love or the main protagonist. Instead we wait patiently with tubs of ice-cream and a homely hug, just grateful to share in some of the thin, white radiance. Newsflash, your size does not mean you have to always play second fiddle to someone else drama. You are queen of your own kingdom. Be a good friend, yes, but expect some of it back to. To steal from Alanis Morrisette "you are not the doctor"

The Reformed Fatty
Probably best exemplified, by the "Fat Monica" character in Friends. Being a former fatty is usually written into dramas as a dirty secret, a lapse in judgement that has been rectified. To have been fat is presented as far worse than having been a bad friend, a cheat or a murderer. The message is clear-do not slide back, fatness will not win you Chandler Bing. Thinness did that. This message is of course devastating to anyone who struggles to stay within societal norms of an "ideal" weight. To live your life as a "Before' picture, to have even gone from Thin Monica to Fat Monica rather than the reverse is a story we never get to see. We need to stop equating thinness with success and fatness as a temporary problem waiting to be solved.

The Yoyo Dieter With Low Self Esteem

Possibly one of the most disturbing ways Hollywood deals with fatness is when they write a character who looks perfectly normal, but who is constantly referred to as overweight or fat. Bridget Jones Diary is a classic example of this (another is the character of Benny played by Minnie Driver in Circle of friends, who spoke often of how her weight gain for the part really damaged her early career, she looks to be around a size 12 in that production)
From comedy shots of Bridget's big bottom sliding down a fireman's pole, to her need to wear "big knickers" to hold in her tummy, Bridget's character is written as flaky, undisciplined and quintessentially "the girl next door"
The fact that she is viewed as overweight and that she discusses the numbers on the bathroom scales endlessly is humorous, until you realise its really a comedy about disordered eating and how to maintain relationships with slightly disinterested men.
When the "rakish" Daniel dumps Bridget for a slim American, her response is to start an exercise regime (resulting in her hilariously falling off an exercise bike because you know, fat girls in gyms)  Bridget's endless understanding as she chases after the emotionally unavailable Mark Darcy plays perfectly into the idea that "fat women work harder at relationships" there is a subtext of gratitude and of putting up with shit.

The Loud Funny One

I sometimes wonder if studio execs once sat around a table and having figured out that fat women were keen to see representations of themselves on the screen decided this "Fat women will be permitted but (and this is important) only if they are loud and funny" For me this is one of the most toxic stereotypes that is applied to plus size females on screen. That to earn our seat at the table (which we will probably break, to the mirth of our slimmer co-stars) we will all have to become "Fat Amy" Madcap, without vanity, telling the fat joke before anyone else can. 
I think many, many plus size women have at some point played the "fat Amy" card. cracking pre-emptive jokes about their size, being "jolly" as if a dress label over a 14 means you are a natural comic. Sure lots of fat women are naturally very funny and witty, but often these skills have been honed as a reaction to endless taunts and cruelty. The other side of the coin is that as fat women are simply humans like everyone else (yes really) many don't feel jolly, or want to wise crack. they may be sensitive, keen to merge into the background, careful with words. Characters like Fat Amy may seem progressive, after all they show a fat woman in control, giving zero effs about what anyone thinks about her, but in truth everything about her, even the name she introduces herself with, is a reaction to fatphobia. 

The Emotionally Desperate

Fat women having relationships is either totally ignored in the majority of films and TV or presented as being slightly desperate and sexually aggressive. As much as I love the film Muriel's Wedding the premise is simply that a fat unattractive girl is so desperate to land a handsome husband she agrees to a fake wedding. At times she almost gurns at her soon to be fake husband. The film Bridesmaids also illustrates this beautifully. When main character Annie (who despite being written as being a bit of a mess is still slim and blonde ) is seem to be settling for second best in the relationship department her hook up is with Don Draper in a luxury condo, Megan the fat bridesmaid played by Melissa Macarthy propositions a stranger on a plane and despite all but stripping for him is rejected. Her feelings appear to be unhurt and this is a characterisation you see again and again. The idea that plus size women have thicker skins, that rejections hurt less, that they don't require the emotional depth or connections their thinner counterparts take for granted. Why fat women are never really wooed on screen? We deserve all the wooing.

Being Fat Makes Us Work Harder On Our Personalities

How often have you heard a fat woman described as being a "really nice person" it seems that to forgive the crime of not being slim, plus size women must work twice as hard at being "good and kind" Summed up brilliantly in the film Shallow Hal  (Gweneth Paltrow "hilariously" wearing a fat suit) we see Jack Black unable to see anything but the beauty inside people and (just for shits and giggles) he "accidentally" dates a fat chick. Its all OK we are told because she is a really "nice person" The problem with this perspective is that it yet again enforces an idea that to be tolerated by the world, we as fat people, must be extra nice. But what if that isn't our temperament? what if you are a bossy, sassy, free thinker? What if you don't particularly want to have to wear your "good nature" as a sort of wristband to allow you entry into the festival of thinness? I'm all for being good to each other but I'm more for women being allowed the freedom to be whoever they want to be and the tired old idea that only with a "pretty face" and  "nice personality" are we acceptable needs to be retired from the silver screen and from life.

So that's my take on the fat stereotypes in TV and film. I would love to hear yours. More importantly what types of characters do you want to see? What’s missing? For me I want plus size superheros, fat women playing roles that never once reference size and yes, a romcom where the fat leading lady can't decide between two lovers and is counselled by her thin friend ( its Sleepless in Seattle the reboot)


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