Body politics: Why fat shaming Melissa McCarthy helps no one
When Rex Reed called Melissa McCarthy a “hippo” last week, I thought he might break the internet. In a review of her new film, Identity Thief, the notoriously cantankerous movie critic decided to put aside an actual write-up of her film to call McCarthy “tractor-sized,” “cacophonous,” a “screaming, humungous creep” and “a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success.” Only the latter shows any real critique in it, rather than just outright bullying and name-calling, but the “short career” portion shows that Reed knows little about McCarthy’s background. While Reed has clearly been a fatuous douche since the beginning of prehistoric time, McCarthy paid her dues, working her way up through The Groundlings and character acting in everything from Gilmore Girls to Samantha Who and The Back-Up Plan. The girl's been busy.
The admirable thing about McCarthy as a performer is that she’ll take almost any opportunity thrown at her and find a way to make her role in it special, even if it's the Stock Friend role in a Jennifer Lopez movie. Although his review is more a Donald Trump rant than a critique, Reed attempts to point out what a truly terrible film Identity Thief is. (You might have to be drunk to make it through.) However, if the movie around her is godawful, someone forgot to tell McCarthy, who commits to that piece of crap as if her career depends on it. Like Chris Farley and John Belushi before her, Melissa McCarthy will do anything for a laugh, and when the movie doesn’t give her anything to do, McCarthy literally throws her body at the screen to try and save the day. She would take a bullet for that movie, and she nearly does.
Like Adam Sandler’s Click, the last third of the film completely derails it, as the movie devolves into schmaltz, but it also accidentally proves what a great actress McCarthy is. While giving a game physical performance, McCarthy makes Diana into a full human being in a tearful confession about her journey through the foster care system. With a lesser actress, it might have felt like a Get Out of Jail Free card for the character’s bad behavior, but with McCarthy, it was the most powerful scene in the film. McCarthy's performancee suggests the much better film that might have been if director Seth Gordon and screenwriter Craig Mazin weren’t so busy making her into a clown. I mean, the woman has wild-and-crazy-fat-people sex with Eric Stonestreet, who literally plays a clown on Modern Family. That’s a good indication of the movie’s priorities when it comes to Diana.
We can call Rex Reed out for being a fat-shaming toolbag, and one critic jokingly asked if it was still offensive to call Red “an old queen.” (Yes, it is, but in this instance, I'll allow it.) However, Reed is a professional troll, and anyone familiar with his reviews expects this kind of behavior from him. This is the same critic who dismisses anything he doesn’t like as “childish,” which tends to include any filmmaker who doesn’t make middle-brow, pandering Oscar bait. Reed famously refers to filmmakers like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch and Wes Anderson (?) as the “New Anarchists” and likens their creative output to MTV2, the last comparative refuge for critics who are forcibly out of touch. When he reviewed The Cabin in the Woods, Reed said he was glad that he didn’t write for that audience. Then who does he write for? I’m guessing the circle-jerk happening inside his head.
If you needed further proof Reed can’t be taken seriously, check out his notoriously racist review of Oldboy, the pulp masterpiece by Korean director Chanwook Park, where he dismisses an entire country’s cinema based on not liking their food. Clearly no one gives a crap what Rex Reed thinks these days, and certainly not Melissa McCarthy. Bridesmaids director Paul Feig spoke for all of America when he cordially invited Reed to go f*ck himself. It's been a long time coming.
The problem is that Reed’s hateful comments are indicative of a larger culture of fat-shaming, which is, sadly, one of the reasons that Identity Thief is making a killing at the box office. The reason that Identity Thief broke records last weekend isn’t just that America loves Melissa McCarthy; it’s that America loves laughing at fat people, from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to McCarthy’s CBS sitcom, Mike and Molly. Although Bridesmaids refused to let Megan’s weight be the butt of the joke (and a great scene shows how she fought criticism of her appearance and taught herself how to be strong), Rex Reed shows us why it will be hard for McCarthy to get roles in Hollywood. Unlike Seth Rogen, whose career was ruined by losing the weight, the dominant discourse insists that fat girls are worthy of our ridicule, as a woman has to be “f*ckable” to be liked. It’s not enough to give an Oscar-worthy performance. You also have to look like Natalie Portman when you do it.
The problem is that not all talented women fit into our societal beauty standards like a string bikini, and that makes them targets in an industry predicated on the norm, where even America's dream girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence was "too fat" to play Katniss. Recently, Adele and Kelly Clarkson have been ridiculed for their weight, especially after Adele’s much-derided Grammys dress. What I loved about the dress was seeing the new mother embracing color, ditching her usual drab black for a radiant red floral print that wasn’t afraid to draw attention to her post-pregnancy body. In response to Adele showing off her body, a Fox News segment (that was supposed to be about business?) criticized her and Kelly Clarkson for sending bad messages to their fans about weight, as their love for their bodies tells women it’s okay to be not be a size 20. You can be big and beautiful.
In recent years, Clarkson has embraced her body type, saying that she’s “proud to represent the majority of women.” How dare she be body-positive and empower women! That witch. Why can’t she be more like Honey Boo Boo’s Mom?
And that’s the thing: we can accept "fat" people when we’re allowed to laugh at them—to enact the public ritual of fat ridicule—but people get upset when we have to accept them as human or allow them to do normal things. At a recent press conference on Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey governor Chris Christie got hit with a barrage of questions about his weight. What does that have to do with disaster relief? You tell me. There are a plethora of reasons to dislike Christie and his weight is hardly the most interesting, yet it’s the only one we ever talk about. You never hear anyone asking if Christie’s foreign policy stance or economic platform make him unfit for the presidency or whether his views on social issues prove a health risk. However, it’s fine for a doctor who doesn’t know Christie to tell him he needs to lose weight—because death. As XOJane put it, "I gotta get me one of them psychic doctors."
Interestingly, data has shown that fat shaming Christie doesn’t work, and respondents are more likely to view a male politician more favorably if he is considered overweight. Perhaps this is why Christie ate a doughnut last week on David Letterman—because he knows in the end it’s his game to win. He’s laughing all the way to the pastry.
However, that same data showed we are highly more likely to judge female politicians for being overweight. This hypocrisy is one of the many reasons that Reed’s attacks on McCarthy have created such a furor, whereas no one seems to get that upset about Chris Christie. (Personally, I think fat shaming in any form is pretty awful.) This mindset shows the continual double standards on weight, where guys like Kevin James are allowed to be schlubby without anyone criticizing them for it. As we see in the Fox News piece, this is encouraged by a patriarchal media that wants women to make “good choices” about their bodies and attacks them when they deviate from "moral health." Remember: This isn’t even the first time McCarthy has been fat shamed. A Marie Claire article once compared her weight to alcoholism or a heroine addiction—because having a plus-size body is exactly like the movie Trainspotting. Thanks again for existing, Marie Claire.
Because we can’t make fun of gays or the differently abled anymore, "fat" people seem to be one of the last refuges for our societal prejudices and body shaming—because of this idea that you’re helping them by being a jerk. The dominant thinking is that plus-size folks pose a danger to a) themselves b) their children c) other peoples’ children and d) society, as fat people are magic and have the ability to transpose their body shape like an X-Men superpower. It’s all part of their plan for world dominance, those nefarious fatties.
Both McCarthy and Christie have publicly expressed their desire to lose weight, and Christie even joked that his doctor told him that his “luck is eventually going to run out.” But whether or not they desire to lose weight (which is their choice), our culture of fat shaming does no good for anyone, as studies have shown that it doesn’t work. No one is more likely to lose weight if you’re a dick to them (gasp!), and the only way to get people to make healthy choices for themselves is by empowering them to do what’s right for themselves. Positive reinforcement is the only proven weight loss method.
I'm a runner now and training for my first Chicago marathon, but I grew up a chubby kid who struggled with body image issues. It wasn't the shame I felt at school that motivated me to start running, the kids who threw my backpack in a garbage can and would look away when I tried to sit at their lunch table. I didn't start running because of the self-hatred they made me feel. I started running because my mother told me she would love me no matter what.
No one made my life better by fat shaming me, and science just further proves that our moral self-righteousness on the subject is total bull. In his quazi-defense of himself—the only thing he can talk about—Rex Reed defended his comments by saying (I’m not kidding) that a) he has the right to be a jerk b) some of his friends died from being fat and c) he’s not the villain here. Because science told me to, this means I also have the right to tell him to please chew off whatever nub of respectability he still has left and go slowly bleed his career away in a field somewhere, Van Gogh-style.
I close with a message to Rex Reed. If there's anything good that comes out of this, it's that the vehement public backlash against you and the sexist mindset you represent shows America is slowly becoming more body positive—with teeny tiny baby steps. Things are changing, even if you refuse to. Mr. Reed, I can assure you that Melissa McCarthy is not the problem. You are.
Now please go back to being totally irrelevant.