Monday, July 11, 2011

On Megan in Bridesmaids

I don't know what to say. I saw the movie twice. I took notes. I tried to keep an open mind. I didn't read any articles (because I'm weird like that sometimes, but also) because I wanted to have an unshaped reaction to it all. But ungh. Megan still kind of broke my heart.

I hate calling out Melissa McCarthy, who is great, gets a lot of screen time and in some ways steals the show. I love her--I think she's a great actress and comedienne. And I liked that Megan turns out to be the "together" character. And I liked the movie all right (Maya Rudolph is just wonderful).

But what the fuck. Is this the only way we can let a fat person into a mainstream movie, by making them as out of it, as weirdly-dressed and outsider as possible--arriving in the form of some weird stereotype? Does it make us that nervous to have a fat actress as just a another character?

Megan is definitely the Zach Galifianakis of this movie--the giant clueless toddler with no sense of social norms. McCarthy being a very pretty woman, effort is needed (and expended) to make her to look weird. Her makeup is handled differently than the other female characters--she's made up (or not at all) in harsh ways. Her clothing is unflattering and full of ZG-like touches--arm braces, etc.--as well as being strangely mannish (paired with pearls) and tailored in awkward ways. She gallops around, flops over couch backs, is sexually rapacious in unwanted ways as only fat people are in movies.

Okay, she's weird. Her character has a right to be weird. McCarthy's good at it! But it feels, watching it, as if the makers of Bridesmaids were so nervous at the thought of McCarthy on the same footing as the other actresses who, while all having personality quirks, were allowed to look semi-normal in Hollywood ways, that they make her a freak. The only scene in which McCarthy's makeup and wardrobe is treated as the others is the final scene when she is in bridesmaid wear and it suddenly becomes clear on what a different footing she has been treated through the movie because she looks gorgeous.

The absolute worst part of the movie is the little coda during the end credits of a videotaped homemade sex scene between Megan and her boyfriend. It's a lame sight gag involving a sandwich that makes it clear that people think fat people fuck food, not people. It was just miserable to watch (twice).

I feel like my original guess about the movie was right: McCarthy is miscast. She would have been a great lead and Kristen Wiig would have been a good Megan. I like Wiig a lot, but didn't feel like she had the emotional range needed for the character, ultimately. McCarthy would have been great.

The best thing to come out of Bridesmaids with regards to McCarthy is that she is getting more high-profile work: the Knocked Up spinoff, and another Paul Feig movie with she and John Hamm as "unconventional lovers," about which I don't even know what to think. From where I sit it would make sense to just cast them as lovers, but you know--we'll see.

The Media Machine and the Bodies It Feeds On

There needs to be a new word for the editorial point of view demonstrated in the constant rotation of articles in the UK's Daily Mail devoted to the excoriation of the female form. Dysmorphomaniacal. Celebricorpusrabidity. Hyperbodyhyperactiviscrutiny. I used to take screengrabs in open-mouthed shock to document articles such as this:

or this:
or this:
...until I realized that the Daily Mail looks like that every day. Truly, every day of the year. It's a microscope! Photos catch female celebrities from multiple angles while chiding them for their clothing choices (too slutty, too demure, too fancy, too rumpled), their footwear (they went after Nigella Lawson for her bunions recently), their hair, their panty lines, for sweating while exercising--anything. Women intrusively photographed with telephoto lenses "flaunt" their (either) Perfect Bikini or Somehow Wrong--fat, old, thin, wrinkly--Body in their bathing suits. Every (transitory, misleading, temporary, sustained) facial expression or bit of body language captured in any still photograph is valid evidence of and captioned as part of whatever narrative about their love life the Mail is pushing--jilted, spinster, happy, cheated on, cheating. You can not win.

In a perverse way I almost (almost) admire the Daily Mail for its insanity. It's so thoroughly superficial, in the literal sense. It's only about how things look: an insatiable Gargantua of body scrutiny. It's not admirable, of course--it's awful--and I feel terrible for anybody caught in the papp's sights in the UK, for good or for ill. It all sucks, although in a kind of equal-opportunity way. Everybody/everything gets put out there.

Also, weirdly, humanity shines through sometimes--at least to my eyes. Bodies are just bodies, and you show enough of them, even with all the commentary, they just seem like...bodies. And in the meantime the Mail looks stupid, like a bully jumping up and down harassing somebody on a bus while no one pays attention. They make themselves look ridiculous.

I found a few recent articles chastising otherwise looks-sanctioned female celebrities for evidence of their age especially mean, even given the Mail's usual MO--although it proves this point. Both of the articles criticized the women's hands and arms. One was about Kirstie Alley:

and one was about Meg Ryan:

Their arms are a dead giveaway! The bracelet only brings more attention to Alley's 60-year-old hand! The summery dress only shows Ryan's bulgy veins! They're not getting away with their grand plan to...

...wait, what are these women getting away with? Nothing. Yes, they are aging female celebrities who engage in the dance of beauty ideals. WE ALL KNOW HOW IT WORKS. We all know what they--and we--are supposed to look like, what the requirements are and when people don't fit them. Being thinner (as Alley is for the moment) means she is OK, as is Ryan, but they both sadly, stupidly, forgot to magically de-age their hands. Boo-ya! Failure. The Mail grinds these women through the body ideals machine and finds them wanting, cleverly exposes the tests they don't pass, but the only 'weaknesses' it exposes is the machine itself. Because Christ almighty, old hands age. Bodies age.

It's shitty journalism and pointless crap and it does harm, but I can't help feeling that articles like this mostly point out the flaws in the media's body-scrutiny machine. Rather the way that this article in People does:

The article is about a dancer on "Dancing With the Stars," Cheryl Burke, who gained (she estimates) five to ten pounds a couple years ago while on break from the show (some estimates by other helpful people put it closer to 20); she also said at the time she went from a size 2 to a size 4. When photos of her in a bikini surfaced at this time she started getting a lot of flak. There was a story at that time where she defended her weight, and then this story in January detailing the the heartbreak of the original story...

Ungh, I can't keep up. Whatever. She gained weight, spouted the party line about "loving her curves" in public while panicking and dieting in private, then talked about it all later again. The point is that this is all this story is about: ten pounds. That's it. The media machine is fucked--because it exists, but also--if a ten pound-change triggers this kind of journalistic need (and note: there were two cycles of stories about this). You can see the spectre of money in it all--Burke gains attention for her autobiography and for the show--which creates its own impetus, but still. This is all we're talking about. Ten pounds. And 60-year-old hands. That's it. That's all. The trigger is filed down insanely low.

Unfortunately stories like this and the Daily Mail insanity are more convincing proof of a flawed system than the scrutiny tendered to people who "deserve" it--Alley, for instance, when she gained 90 pounds. Then somehow it's okay. Merited, even if we won't admit it. But lets take the proof where we can find it: if the detectors start blaring when there's very little to detect, maybe the machine is broken.

no "fat lady sings" puns in this post (from me)

Opera is a fascinating place to look at issues of size because sometimes fat people just have to exist there. That is not true everywhere, despite what fatphobes might think about this world in which fatness creeps ever upon us. It is easy to watch TV or pick up a magazine and find it curated free of fat people. But singing opera is a rarefied skill and sometimes size goes along with it, for reasons that are not well understood, including in their necessity.

As opera continues its fiscal quest to be relevant to modern opera-unfamiliar audiences and leverage its plots to fill seats (rather than turn people off), there is a lot of conflict about Looks. Creating a digestible, artistic, Thing. Deborah Voigt's dumping by Covent Garden and subsequent weight loss surgery, and Daniella Dessi's fight with Zefferelli after he berated her for her size, are obvious examples.

Opera's conflict over fat people on stage is different than the battle that goes on in other media, though, because to some degree, sometimes, fat singers have clout. Not the final word, and not enough clout, probably, but you cannot sweep--for instance--Stephanie Blythe under the carpet. The contralto of a lifetime cannot quite be dumped wholesale because you are uncomfortable with the fact that she is fat.

And still there are people who would do that. This piece about Lyndon Terracini, the artistic director of Opera Australia, is the most elaborately unchallenged defense of looks-related prejudice in opera I think I've read:
The fat lady has sung. And if Lyndon Terracini continues to get his way, she won't get an encore until she at least shifts some weight.

Lest the man charged with overseeing the future of opera in Australia be accused of sexism [whew], he is quick to point out that his shape-up-or-ship-out message applies to all performers, regardless of gender.

''If you're seeing a couple making out and one of them is obese, who wants to watch that?'' he says with a theatrical grimace. ''It's obscene. You just think, 'Jeez, for Chrissakes, don't let the children see that'.'' [emph. mine]

. . . If casting ''triple threats'' who can sing, act and look good helps spark an interest among people who think opera is only for the old and rich, then he makes no apologies for upping the unemployment rate of overweight singers.

''You go to a movie and you see people who look exactly right for that role,'' he says. ''They're consummate actors and they're completely involved in what they are doing, so their performance is totally believable.

''That's what I'd like in opera: for people to be fabulous singers, look wonderful and be completely and totally absorbed in their character. If you can't get off the seat, if you've got to sit on a rock all night, who believes that?''
His circular argument, boiled down, is basically: fat people are gross and we should not have them on stage to interfere with our suspension of disbelief that the world does not have them in it. So we won't. It's horrible, but refreshingly open, in a way, in the workings of its prejudice.

I can't help thinking that artistic decisions like this will bite people like Terracini on the ass. People who love opera adore good singers, and functioning prejudice like this can alienate even standard issue opera fans who would prefer thinner singers to look at. It's just not that simple. The reason? Opera happens in 3-D. You don't just look at it: you take a bath in it, listen to it, feel your body vibrate from it. Good singing is good singing. Nobody appreciates that taken away from them.

[Link via Brian of Red No. 3]

some ladies

Illustrations by Arthur Watts from Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. "Cousin Maud" hung on my bulletin board for years...I especially love her.