“This is for all the fat girls”

14 December 2011

Here’s what got me started on this post: the fact that Jonah Hill gets a lot of work as an actor. Don’t get me wrong: I have no particular problem with Hill, and I’m encouraged by the fact that directors are starting to cast him in interesting parts (Cyrus, Moneyball) that don’t demand 1) a fat guy, or 2) broad comedy. He can use those huge eyes and unusual, cupid-bow lips to enigmatic, sphinx-like effect. But his ubiquity at the box office just points out to me that the fat girls are not getting the same “luck.”

Let’s be clear here: Jonah Hill is fundamentally a comedian who’s getting very lucky with good parts because audiences seem to like seeing fat men on screen on a regular basis. In contrast, audiences hate seeing fat actresses, so directors keep them limited to comedy. It has been a very long time since 1998 when Camryn Manheim won an Emmy for her work in the TV series The Practice and held the statuette aloft in the air, proclaiming, “This is for all the fat girls!” Ah, 1998, you were so, so long ago. In the years since, Manheim has lost a lot of weight.

Fat actresses are permitted a very small share of parts. Back in 2005 Showtime offered us a series called Fat Actress, a satirical fictionalized version of the life of Kirstie Alley (left), but it was cancelled after 7 episodes. Like Alley, our current non-svelte actresses are comediennes. With all of Queen Latifah’s many talents — and she was so terrific in Chicago (2002) — no one can say she’s getting interesting roles. Likewise Melissa McCarthy, who had a sweetly goofy role in Gilmore Girls (2000-07) and displayed great broad comic genius in Bridesmaids (2011); currently her sitcom Mike and Molly (2010-present) is struggling with the network, critics, etc., despite the fact that McCarthy won the 2011 Best Actress Emmy for her work. In a now-infamous blog essay entitled “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room? (Even on TV?)” on the Marie Claire website, writer Maura Kelly held that she’d be “grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything.” Lovely. Her essay was so objectionable that the magazine received 28,000 complaint emails and the writer penned one of those fake apologies, saying, “I sorely regret that it upset people so much.” Wow, thanks, Kelly! Problem solved!

The only fat actress I can think of who’s gotten interesting roles is Gabourey Sidibe, whose astonishing turn as Precious (2009) won her piles of Best Actress awards and nominations. But let’s be frank: since appearing in that film her roles have paled in comparison. She has a supporting part in Laura Linney’s serio-comic series, The Big C (2011-present), and has a small part in the Ben Stiller project, Tower Heist (2011). What’s most interesting to me is that she resists being typecast as a comedienne — meaning that although she might struggle to find roles, she’s left the door open to doing more compelling work than “sassy fat Black woman.”

I don’t mind it that so many fat actresses appear in comedies. I just think that Jonah Hill’s example is a good one: being funny isn’t the only thing these women can do. The fact is that big bodies can do very interesting things in a scene, allowing an actor to make unexpected choices about a role. Their very mass appearing in film, alongside the great majority of actors who look like little slips of human beings, can convey such a range of emotion and motivation that a smart director can make great use of.

Of course, alongside my posts calling for more real noses, unusual mouths, and real female athletes’ bodies, this one is hopelessly idealistic. But who knows? Maybe in another year or two another fat actress will be holding her statuette in the air, and I’ll be crying with joy at the sight.

11 Responses to ““This is for all the fat girls””

  1. servetus Says:

    “Fat” as a category for an actress seems to have been monopolized by the actresses who demonstratively gain and then lose weight for roles (one thinks of Renee Zellweger and Minnie Driver).

    • Didion Says:

      Wow, great insight. I hadn’t thought of that. This is almost as bad as that idea that Penelope Cruz or Anne Hathaway has a big nose.

      I also should have mentioned the role that tabloid culture plays in this perverse view of what constitutes “fat.” Thanks to some visiting houseguests with a fascination for such things, I recently read all about Kelly Preston’s desperate attempts to lose weight four months after having a baby. “Her marriage to John Travolta was on the rocks! She was considering liposuction!” the story screams. Then it revealed, paragraphs down the page, that their teenaged son had died recently — that it wasn’t Kelly’s weight that caused such stress but profound grief. And let’s not forget she just had a baby.

      “Fat.” It’s an ugly word in our culture. And we don’t even know how to use it. (When Zellweger gained weight for her Bridget Jones parts — which I still maintain is a misreading of the character in the book — what did she amount to, something like a 130-lb woman? Which is still far below the national average.)

      • servetus Says:

        I had repressed this out of horror, but I also remember vaguely some actress dressing in a fat suit for a role. And then making wildly insensitive remarks about it at the time. Gwyneth Paltrow, maybe?

        (Poor Kelly. The tabloids are also consistently insisting that Travolta is gay. She really must live a rough life; I am not kidding.)

        Yeah, honestly, when Zellweger and Driver were being “fat” I honestly didn’t notice.

      • Didion Says:

        Ugh, I’d repressed that too. It was that terrible Jack Black film, in which he — a portly man — is an utter pig about women and somehow gets zapped by a good fairy into seeing women for who they truly are rather than their actual physical appearance. Yeah, that was hilarious.

      • servetus Says:

        Right! That must be why the only other Jack Black film I’ve seen is Nacho Libre (which is actually fairly moving, but i had to be coerced into it by a colleague on a very boring night in my favorite isolated library town). I think because of that movie, he got put on my subconscious list as a hater.

      • Didion Says:

        As long as we’re dishing out hate where it’s due, let’s also blame the writer-director-producers The Farrelly Brothers, who’re well known for creating hi-larious films about people who fall outside a Hollywood version of “normal.”

  2. Gigot Says:

    One little recent thing about Jonah Hill everybody here seems to forget: he has not been fat for a long while, and will be slimmer as time goes by. So hopefully, that will get others (men & women) to lose weight as well.

    • Didion Says:

      I don’t mind that he or anyone else is fat — just the opposite. I think it’s great that people who aren’t George Clooney gorgeous/slim are getting good parts. It helps all of us come to grips with our culture’s crazy schizophrenia when it comes to weight and food (we are a fat culture that hates fat people). I just want more of those good parts to go to women who aren’t Gwyneth Paltrow skinny.

    • servetus Says:

      Who cares?

      • Didion Says:

        Succinct! and right on target!

        I am so over these very public weight-loss melodramas — Oprah, Ricki Lake, you name it. Barf.

  3. […] who break out of the ridiculously strict Hollywood standards when it comes to noses, mouths, body size, and other body parts so frequently adjusted by plastic surgeons. Now, don’t get me wrong: […]

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