Is Melissa McCarthy a Big Sellout?
She promised a more radical kind of body acceptance—not limited to Raphaelite Lena Dunham or old Hollywood Christina Hendricks. What went wrong?
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I was a size 18 at the time, at times needing a 20 to cover the amplitude of my hips, ass, and the soft petals of backfat that bloomed from my sides. Kill Bill, vol. 1 had come out only a few weeks before Halloween 2003. I’d already seen it more times than could be counted on one hand. I’d sneak off to the theater between my college classes and my part-time jobs. So, when one group of pals decided that we’d all go to some campus Spooktacular as the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, I immediately called dibs on the Bride. Then, of course, a comment from the peanut gallery, an acquaintance of my good friend’s roommate: “Do you really think you can pull off a yellow tracksuit?”
Her question, snide enough to contain its own answer, was the record scratch that brutally stilled the images I’d had of moving through the party with Uma Thurman’s leonine strut, pointing my plastic sword at fellow revelers and dramatically intoning, “Those of you lucky enough to have your lives, take them with you. However, leave the limbs you’ve lost. They belong to me now.” I saw myself as she saw me: as round and garish as a plastic lemon. Never mind that this girl had often defined her day’s eating—and, by extension, herself—as “good” and “bad,” that she approached life the way she took her salad dressing, always on the side and never really touched. In that moment, she’d said something irrevocably, elementally true about me.
And so, on Halloween night, the night when everyone has carte blanche to reveal their secret selves in grease paint and Lycra, I eschewed the me I wanted to be and went as a zombie, loud and lurching in ripped, filthy clothes. Time has thickened my hide, and in time, I’ve become more at ease inside my stretch-marked, cellulite-pocked, size-24 skin. And yet, years later, I still think of those two images of my fat body—the chic, wisecracking assassin and the grunting, lumbering monster—whenever I settle down in the dark to watch Melissa McCarthy, “America’s Plus-Size Sweetheart,” take pratfall after pratfall, belch and curse, hit on every dude in a room with a toxic obliviousness that would make even the greenest pick-up artist cringe and, in the same breath, threaten to shove a man’s balls “right back up his scrotum.”
I’d wanted to embrace McCarthy before I ever attended a screening of Bridesmaids (my first exposure to her work); I’d needed to see a body like mine belong to anyone other than the sad-sack best friend or the mother of the bride, to see my own arm flab and heavy belly alongside the wasp-waists and toned shoulders of the leading ladies. When samurai badasses must possess the leggy grandeur of Uma Thurman and love interests can only be played by Natalie Portman; when “ugly ducklings” are just Anne Hathaway in a frizzy wig and an oversized sweater and when my thinner friends (rightly) rail against seeing women with their body types flattened into sex objects and tied to so many railroad tracks, all I hoped for was visibility.
And then I watched McCarthy’s character, Megan—clad in orthopedic sandals and a boxy, shape-obscuring pant-and-Guy Fieri bowling-shirt combo—look at a random man at a party and loudly announce that she was “going to climb that like a tree.” The audience erupted in laughter but I pursed my mouth. This still wasn’t as painful as the moment later in the film when the titular characters are on a flight to Vegas and Megan flirts with her cringing male seatmate by slapping her stomach and offering him access to her undercarriage. This gag shares an unspoken punchline with that misogynist old chestnut about rolling a fat woman in flour and seeking out the wet spot: that fat women’s bodies are inherently disgusting, especially when displaying sexual desire, and courting desire in turn. Visibility alone was no longer enough. I’m left longing for stories about fat women that don’t tumble off the wrong side of that thin tightrope between laughing with and laughing at.
Bridesmaids, and the woman-centric bawdy comedies it was supposed to inspire, became a cinematic cause célèbre, and McCarthy was championed as the architect of the masterful vulgarity that would supposedly build a new wing on the boys’ club. And she was supposedly the avatar of a more radical kind of body acceptance, one that wasn’t limited to girls with Lena Dunham’s Raphaelite build, Christina Hendricks’ immaculately overripe Old Hollywood curves, or J. Lo’s booty, but included women who shopped in the higher end of Lane Bryant’s size spectrum. Women like me.
In interviews, McCarthy speaks candidly about the “strange epidemic of body image and body dysmorphia” and how she serves as a buffer against it for her two young daughters; she dismisses a particularly vicious critic who turned his review of Identity Thief into a schoolyard diatribe about her “tractor-size” body by describing him as “swimming in hate” and flouting a home life rich in love and a professional success larger than a full fleet of tractor trailers. She bristles when that success is qualified with epithets like “plus-size sweetheart:” “It’s like I’m managing to achieve all this success in spite of my affliction … would you ever do that to a male comedian considered overweight?”
She calls out the fashion elite for failing to court her and clothe her the way they would any other Emmy-award-winning and Oscar-nominated actress. And, in a recent People magazine cover spread to promote her latest film Tammy, she calls out the fashion industry as a whole for failing to court and clothe the legions of women who look just like her: “ Just because I’m a different size doesn’t mean I … turned off a desire for anything current or modern, or a desire to look good and feel good … I was like ‘Where is a cool T-shirt? Where is a great sweater that’s not built like a tent?” That same spread is refreshingly void of any diet or exercise talk, any attempts to position herself as “a good fatty” (a term coined by Dances With Fat blogger Ragen Chastain to describe “a fat person who is viewed … as taking ‘appropriate steps’ to lose weight, or, at the very least, ‘struggling’ with their weight, thereby earning a modicum of very contingent respect from someone who would otherwise be a fat hater). Indeed, she decapitates the “good fatty” narrative with the roundhouse kick and katana strike of a rhetorical question and four blunt words: “My weight? It is what it is.”
But in McCarthy’s film roles, especially in Tammy, hardly take such a revolutionarily blasé approach to her weight. McCarthy’s size is always implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the brunt of the joke. Tammy follows its heroine’s cross-country road trip with her alcoholic grandmother, Pearl, who is portrayed by Susan Sarandon as a sex kitten gone to seed. In one early scene, Tammy and Pearl get blitzed in a cow pasture; Tammy rides the hood of Pearl’s powder blue Cadillac, her broad body splayed against the windshield, as Pearl spins donuts into the grass and the cows loudly moo. “Sorry, cows! You taste so good!” Tammy bellows. As soon as Tammy is bucked from the hood, the camera pans to a single cow snorting and chewing. The correlation, and the (supposed) joke nested inside it, is clear: Fat women are just dumb animals.
The film, which was co-written by McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone (who also directed it), imprisons its titular character in a petting zoo with bars of fast food wrappers, dirty T-shirts and busted Crocs, and badly bleached hair. From her cage, she “entertains” with displays of bovine obliviousness—Tammy doesn’t know who Mark Twain is, or how to pronounce his name (“Mark Twon? He was a good guy”); she’s enthralled by a garish wood carving of a giant bald eagle carrying an American flag in its talons; and she fumes “Thanks Obamacare!” while setting the Cadillac, which she’s used to rob a fast-food joint for some quick cash, on fire (proving that McCarthy’s humor is arguably as classist as it is sizeist)—and an unquenchable zest for food.
When we first see Tammy, she’s cramming chips in her mouth driving to her job slinging burgers. She’s so lost in her corn syrup reverie that she actually hits a deer. But this is just a papercut compared to the knife wound of the robbery scene: Tammy falls flat on her ass when she tries to straddle the counter, rebounding to demand the cast—and a bag full of hot pies. Pearl forces her to give back her ill-gotten gains; however, in a voice cowed in faux-sheepishness, Tammy confesses that she can’t really return the pies. Watching this, I felt mocked, condescended to, and, worse, I felt implicated.
Tammy, just like Officer Mullins in McCarthy’s buddy cop comedy The Heat, or Megan from Bridesmaids, is rough-hewn and unfeminine, stuffed into the same tent-drab T-shirts McCarthy loathes for herself. However, this, in and of itself, isn’t inherently problematic: We need more female characters who aren’t cosseted by the silken binds of prettiness and likeability. However, McCarthy’s movie characters aren’t just awkward and gonzo, they’re shown as less than, unworthy of the tenderness, love, and yes, good ol’ fashioned fucking, that many people, of all shapes and sizes, really want.
One of the staples of any McCarthy comedy is the scene (or scenes) wherein our heroine throws herself at the men around her with a revved-engine machismo—because fat women are, of course, never desired or pursued; we must toss our flour-damp bodies into a crowd and see what sticks. Tammy is no exception, even though it’s the lone McCarthy film to date in which she’s given (something of) a love interest. Tammy and Pearl hold court at a honky tonk bar, and Tammy decides to give Pearl a lesson in man hunting, since guys cling to her “like flies on shit.” The first men she approaches rebuke her with their stone-faced disdain; the movie seems to share in their side-eye, punishing a woman who looks like McCarthy for daring to think that there’s anything she could ever teach a woman who looks like Sarandon about sparking lust.
This scene called to mind that moment in Parks and Recreation when the Pawnee Parks Department’s own plus-size sex goddess, Donna Meagle, offered her services as a sensei in all-things-flirting to resident waif Ann Perkins. Donna models confidence and class as she shows Ann how to talk with (and chat up) the opposite sex; there is no desperate, Id-fueled flailing—only an imperial elegance that anyone, of any size, should aspire to. She deflects the advances of Colts linebacker Robert Mathis by teasing that she “prefers skilled positions.” Even McCarthy’s television characters, like the Gilmore Girls’ Sookie St. James or Molly Flynn of Mike & Molly, are allowed to be funny and savvy, smart and charming, and—most importantly to any fat woman who has longed so desperately, and with more tears than she could ever count, to see someone who looks like her finally get a happy ending—allowed to love, and be loved.
McCarthy, of all people, should know this: Much of her public persona revolves around her romantic and creative partnership with Falcone. “I feel like I got hit with a lucky stick,” she tells People. Vulture even complied a slideshow called, simply, “20 Photos of Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone Being Impossibly Cute.” Vulture writer Jesse David Fox alludes to Tammy’s box-office failure in his introduction, musing that this “doesn’t make looking at cute pictures of the couple any less cute. If anything, maybe the movie needed a little bit more of this sort of thing.” As an actress, writer, and producer, McCarthy is in a position to put a lot more of this sort of thing on-screen. Yet the romance in Tammy is barely articulated; it consists of some mutual moony eyes between Tammy and Bobby, the straight-laced son of, Earl, the charismatic rambler who takes a fancy to Pearl; and one kiss under Niagara Falls, a kiss consummated in an extreme wide shot that reduces the characters to ant-size silhouettes (and only after Bobby brings Tammy a snack-size bag of Cheetos. Seriously.). Pearl’s backseat tusslings with Earl are bawdily glorious; she gets to have loud, raunchy, rockin’ the Caddy fun. Tammy gets a tossed off line in the end credits sequence about how much she enjoys “the man that I lay with.”
When there is a void of positive, or at least lifelike, representation, almost any depiction of fat women that isn’t coated in venom is considered landmark in its sensitivity. Take “And So Did the Fat Lady” the much-discussed episode of Louie in which the hero is called out on his own size biases and hypocrisies by Vanessa, the plucky young waitress who pursues him romantically. Vanessa is the anti-Tammy; she’s driven and sweet, brassy without being tacky. After Louie tries to compliment her by hesitantly insisting that she’s “not fat,” she tells him, “on behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all of the guys. Why do you hate us so much? What is it about the basics of human happiness—you know, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us—that’s just not in the cards for us? … How is that fair? And why am I supposed to just accept it?”
Though these questions offer a roaring rampage of righteous indignation (an indignation I still feel all-too-often when my thinner pals pair up or I stare at my empty inbox for a dating site), Vanessa ends on a half-measure: “ You know what the sad thing is? I don’t even need a boyfriend or a husband. All I want is to hold hands with a nice guy …” And, as if anticipating the celebratory recaps and comment sections set ablaze with praise for how enlightened he must be to consider the plight of the poor fat woman, Louie takes Vanessa’s hand. That’s it. It’s done. There’s nothing more, nothing greater, no love story to explore. In the very next episode of Louie, our hero is back to pining for a svelte woman who doesn’t even share a language with him. If Louie was truly the daring darling of provocative television that its avid defenders claim it to be, Louis C.K. might’ve pursued a multi-episode arc between his on-screen counterpart and Vanessa (and I say this as someone who generally likes Louie, and really wanted to like this episode in particular). As it stands, that handholding is the artistic equivalent of bedding the fat chick, just once, so you can check off an item on your sexual bucket list.
I want more than someone to hold my hand. I want it all: to have that gotta-have-it-and-have-it-now sex in the backseats of cars, and to have a boyfriend or a husband; to have a sense of poise and purpose; to be a gunslinger, a femme fatale. I want to wear a yellow tracksuit and swing a plastic sword on Halloween (or any other time I damn well feel like it). Melissa McCarthy is, of course, allowed to create the characters she wants to portray, to traffic in stereotypes to her heart’s content. I just wish that she’d bring some of her off-screen vivacity and awareness to the women she embodies onscreen. We need it—not to dissuade the haters (since there is one thing that haters will inevitably, unalterably do)—but to give every woman who has ever decided that she has a life to live, and that, to live it on her own terms, she must decide that “My weight? It is what it is” the hope that she doesn’t have to settle for handholding and tent dresses, or cruel jokes about hamburger habits and a supposed lack of grace; to give every woman the truth that she has dignity, and she is not alone.
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