McCarthy 2

As I sat in the cinema awaiting the latest Hollywood romp, two women who have been on my mind lately appeared in the previews;  Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson. McCarthy is currently starring in the Hangover Part III and The Heat. Wilson was recently seen in Pain and Gain, and will soon be launching a new sitcom Super Fun Night for the ABC. Both these women have seen their star rise in recent years and are now well known for the comedic prowess (think; Wilson hosting the 2013 MTV Awards and her much applauded role in Pitch Perfect, or McCarthy in Mike and Molly and both actresses in Bridesmaids). I have often thought about these two comedians with a good deal of frustration and concern for the ‘lot’ of the fat actress. It is neither a new or insightful reflection; women who do not conform to Hollywood ideals of beauty have limited starring potential and are often cast as the deluded or goofy sidekick. Rebel wilson 1

In particular, it has seemed to me that both Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson have made a name for themselves playing irrational, socially challenged, and sometimes *lower*class characters than  typical headline stars.  For instance, Wilson wrote and starred in an Australian show called Bogan Pride– bogan being a quintessentially *Aussie* word for the lower class. Watching these women become popular has only reminded me that despite their growing stature, they will most likely remain locked out of the roles played by Anne Hathaway or Jennifer Lawrence. Many of us have probably thought, ‘why can’t women like this play the main love interest or the hero?’

However, on further reflection, it should be said that there is in fact something quite subversive about the fat actress. In the manner in which Hollywood has codified and normalised *woman*, the fat actress stands beyond the boundaries; boundaries clearly defined by the alleged superior aesthetic seen in the thin woman with anglicised features. As she who is therefore *not quite woman*, the fat actress may offer a counter performance. This is not to suggest that there is nothing problematic with space outside the boundaries – and that the typecasting of the fat is necessarily unoppressive – but it does raise questions about what woman is and why we (I) want all women to behave according to the Hollywood norm. In the same way that Foucault argues that the instantiation of norms is a consequence of the modern forms of power required to cope adequately with proliferating and fractured populations, the movie screen woman is a result of the Hollywood machine attempting to deal with proliferating and fractured notions of womanness, especially in relation to the supposed ethnic diversity of actresses in the global market.  That is, in an era in which the idea of woman could be complexified by a multiplicity of contested images, Hollywood has battened down the hatches to exercise power over the true form of woman.  More than ever, woman is tightly controlled and locked within the parameters of Hollywood norm productions (or, ‘sure you can be a Black actress, just as long as you are thin, get a nose job and straighten your hair’. Something Oprah has recently explored here ).

McCarthy 1Because the Fat actress is not quite a women, her roles allow her to subvert the nature of women, and in particular, to be embodied in a way the Hollywood women would never allow.  The fat actress can initiate sex in unexpected ways (which McCarthy and Wilson’s role nearly always point to) and fulfil sexual desires without being confined to the rigours of ‘acceptable reasons a woman might end up having gratifying sex’ rules that Hollywood narratives entail. The fat actress can inhabit the realms of ordinary bodily functions and reactions without the obvious shame potential such indecency would inflict upon Hollywood women (so, when McCarthy’s character in Bridesmaids has food poisoning and shits herself in the sink, she, and probably only she, can cry out ‘it’s coming out of me like lava’). And the fat actress can pass over the kind of disciplinary practices that shape the Hollywood woman’s body in its most literal sense. For instance, in Pitch Perfect, Rebel Wilson’s character (‘Fat Amy’) can ignore the demands for exercise and casually suggest she was lying down and doing horizontal running instead. Indeed, the fat actress seems to invert all the assumptions made about Hollywood women; the gal who is entirely normalised through the appearance of body. What we find in the Hollywood woman, is a woman hardly embodied at all. It is only in the fat actress that such embodiment is possible, and therefore only in the fact actress that a genuine ‘embodied woman’ emerges. The Hollywood woman is entirely caught up in the ‘double bind’[1] of subject production; or as John Caputo describes it, the modern exercise of power on Foucault’s account ‘produces individuals precisely in order to block of individuality’. [2]

rebel wilson 2The fat Actress certainly remains problematic, and in a most obvious way. She neither exercises an original subversion nor does she invent new tropes or gestures in her response to the ‘real’ women of Hollywood. But if Butler, for example, is right, then the performance of the fat actress is still important for its political and ideological subversion. What then, does it mean for me to desire the fat actress be normalised; to see Melissa McCarthy or Rebel Wilson playing the Jennifer Anniston role?  Surely this is part my own identification with the production of Hollywood woman; a reflection of the inner tension I have with the production of gender norms. Perhaps even more so, it reflects my own rejection of embodiment, or at the least, my own confusion about what to *do* with this woman’s body.

[1] A phrase used in Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rainbow, Michael Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

[2] John Caputo, “Madness, Hermeneutics and the Night of Truth,” in Michael Foucault and Theology: The Politics of Religious Experience, ed. James Bernauer and Jeremy Carrette (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 128.

3 thoughts

  1. Janice, thanks so much for this post. It reflects an ambivalence that I’m very conscious of in myself as well, particularly as a fat woman who immediately feels self-conscious and defensive / anxious about my own body when someone like McCarthy or WIlson is on screen—which can very easily lead to an unthinking policing of the comedic choices they make (“You were doing so well, Melissa McCarthy, with the smart, together woman who pulls Kristen Wiig out of her funk—and then you had to go ruin it for all of us with the sandwich sex scene! Dear everyone in this theater: I have never, ever included cold cuts in my sex life! PLEASE KNOW THAT.”)

    I think the central question for me is whether the fat actress really ever enters the category of “woman” to begin with, as defined by Hollywood parameters, or whether her existence serves to police to boundaries of that category: make sure you don’t lose discipline over your bodily functions and desires in whatever form, or you too will end up like THIS! Are Wilson and McCarthy are being allowed to subvert that category from within, or being kept outside that category entirely and therefore used to prop it up? I often feel that both of those go on at different points in the same movie (or TV series—Ashley Fink’s character on Glee served the same role… though I enjoyed both Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect, and think that Glee is awful in a way that deserves moral condemnation…)

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Bridget. I guess this is exactly the ambivalence I am trying to play with. For sure, there is no potential for entry into *woman* as she is normalised in Hollywood. I think in this sense, the fat actress does serve as a prop for the real women of Hollywood – and yet is it not precisely this that allows her body to act as a site of resistance, to subvert the codified women of production? A subversion which ultimately shows the Hollywood women is no subject at all. I mean, perhaps I am being too optimistic about the potential of the fat actress to subvert. Brandy recently shared this quote from Butler

    “To deconstruct the concept of matter or that of bodies is not to negate or refuse either term. To deconstruct these terms means, rather, to continue to use them, to repeat them, to repeat them subversively, and to displace them from the contexts in which they have been deployed as instruments of oppressive power” (Contingent Foundations,51).

    I am hopeful that the fat actress can in fact do some of this work; displace *woman* from the oppressive context of Hollywood.

  3. I’ll be curious to see what you two (Janice and Bridget) think about _The Heat_ with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. I just watched that last night, and I see some things happening that may or may not be relevant. For one, they make McCarthy’s character sexual in a way that doesn’t seem to *explicitly* reference her size (as opposed to what happened at the end of Bridesmaids, with the erotic eating of the huge sandwich during sex). Basically, you sort of learn throughout the movie that she has slept with a few men and viewed these liaisons as very casual, but they wanted more from her and are depicted as pining after her while she goes on her merry way. On the one hand, she seems really confident and sexually empowered, which may seem like a good thing, but I’m also wondering if part of the joke was that her sexual empowerment is supposed to be funny because it’s so unexpected…because she’s fat. There’s probably some of that going on, but the jury is still out for me on whether that’s it or whether there is something genuinely new and refreshing beginning to happen with that kind of portrayal of a sexually empowered plus sized woman in a major Hollywood movie. Second, her character also seems to be a foil for Bullock’s character, who is also decidedly NOT the ideal Hollywood woman: she’s very, very cerebral and competitive and humorless. But then these two characters sort of balance each other out and don’t become more conventional but just learn to work together (buddy cops!) and be smart and awesome together. Third, there are a lot of clearly mean-spirited references from various characters to McCarthy’s character’s supposed mental instability (which is definitely tied to her size and appearance), but that line of thinking is shown to be false, mean, and misogynistic by the end of the movie. I can’t tell if this is liberative or not, especially since McCarthy still has to perform a lot of compromising tropes throughout the movie, so I’m going to end my rambling now. If you see it, let me know.

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