Girls vs. women

8 May 2012

I’ve been thinking back to my first semester of college, when I met a confident, gorgeous, funny 3rd-year woman student in my dorm named Maria. She had long, beautiful, straight hair and a penchant for practical jokes, and she was a standout geology student (which made me, temporarily at least, also a geology major).

The fact that I refer to her as a woman is because of her. “There was this woman in my high school,” she’d begin a story — and for someone like me who’d grown up refusing to call myself a woman, this casual reference was mind-blowing. At the first reference, I actually found myself wondering if this “woman” in her high school was a middle-aged mom who’d gone back to school. Gradually, it occurred to me that embracing the notion that I was a woman rather than a girl could be liberating. “Want to go out with me and a couple of women from the frisbee league?” she’d ask, and I’d feel like I was part of a new and very, very cool club. A club of not-girls.

Is it corny to believe that adopting Maria’s term woman — and abandoning girl — was one of the most meaningful moments of my feminist education?

I got onto this line of thinking because of Lena Dunham’s show Girls, of course, but also because we have an epidemic of girls underway in film and especially TV:

  • Two Broke Girls
  • New Girl
  • Bad Girls Club
  • Girls Gone Wild
  • Gilmore Girls
  • Gossip Girl
  • The Girls Next Door
  • Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

It strikes me that my ongoing use of woman won’t have the same effect on my 18- or 19-yr-old students because I’m not one of their peers. I’m a 40-something professor, not a 20-yr-old with long, straight, glossy hair. But I wonder if I should bring up this topic explicitly.

Corny or not, I still think that teaching that simple linguistic shift could be mind-blowing for young women. Oh, if only Zooey Deschanel (TV’s New Girl) or those glamorous bitchez on Gossip Girl referred to themselves and their friends as women. That would be interesting.

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.