Body Obsession in Life, Film, Media

Most of my posts are assignments so I go into full-on Nerd with Words mode, but this topic has been on my mind on-and-off for a while, and I finally feel like the moment is right to share. See, I was reading an excerpt from Feminist Analysis by Donna M. Nudd and Kristina L. Whalen, which outlines the feminist approach to rhetorical criticism and shows an example of the approach used in an analysis of the romantic comedy Shallow Hal (2001). Unfortunately, I can’t find a link to the entire excerpt, since it’s a scholarly article, but some pages are available on GoogleBooks if you want to familiarize yourself with the basics, since I’m not going to go into it here.

I generally agreed with the assertions being made about the film. The message was supposed to be “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover; inner beauty trumps outer beauty; love someone for what’s in their heart, not how much they weigh.” However, comedic elements and storytelling choices contradict the supposedly altruistic intent of the directors, the Farrelly brothers.

The Premise:

A son takes his dying father’s words to heart: Tail’s what it’s all about. Go for the hottest chick in the room.

Years later, this boy is all grown up—a chubby, average-looking, shallow, immature, jerk who targets the “hotties” and ridicules anyone who’s not a size zero with “perfect” features. (I enclose these words in quotation marks because how do you classify someone as “hot” or “perfect,” I mean, really? It’s all a matter of perception, perspective, definitions that society programs everyone to buy into. But more on that later.) This man, played by the most wild, ridiculous, and entertaining man I can think of, Jack Black, gets hypnotized into seeing only people’s inner beauty. Naturally, he now courts, dates, hits on, what have you, women who have beautiful personalities/hearts/souls. In his point of view, they now look physically “beautiful,” as per Hollywood’s standards: thin, symmetrical faces, well-dressed, hair done, nails done, everything did. But to everyone else, especially his best friend and sidekick, these women are…let me put this delicately, not up to Hollywood’s standards.

Long story short: hijinks ensue, jokes are made at fat people’s expense, the hypnosis is reversed, and Jack shuns his love interest, Rosemary, horrified by her 300 lbs of natural woman, before realizing that she’s his true love, regardless of her size. Whew, what a sentence.

Now, Nudd and Whalen state their issues: the plot implies “Love all people, ignore their size,” yet we very rarely see Rosemary as she is; we almost always see her through Jack’s eyes as the inner beauty, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Furthermore, the gags are primarily of the lowbrow “LOL fat people eat a lot and break chairs” variety, which is kind of offensive. Scratch that, it’s just plain cruel and unoriginal. Don’t get me wrong; I love being politically incorrect for the sake of inappropriate humor—it’s guaranteed to get a laugh because we’re all at least a little bit judgmental and insensitive. But don’t try to bill your movie as the sensitive, feel-good film of the year, perfect for the imperfect viewer, when all you’re really doing is making fun of the “imperfect” character.

What bothered me about the critique of Shallow Hal is mentioned later in the excerpt: the rhetor (fancy term for the writer/speaker/person who joins in on the critique) points out problems but doesn’t offer a solution. And I think most people’s idea of a solution would be to make films with overweight leading ladies; films that portray those with “imperfect” physical attributes as love interests and sexual candidates, with absolutely no comment about their weight. At least, that’s what the critics of Shallow Hal briefly imply in the excerpt.

That’s one solution, but not the one I’d choose and here’s why:

Movies, for the most part, do the best when they appeal to the broadest audience possible. The broadest movie-going audience in America is made up of heterosexual Caucasians. Although I have no statistics to back that statement up, I’m assuming that I’m correct based on the fact that most blockbuster romances feature Hollywood-perfect Caucasian characters. Obviously someone high up on the creative team made that choice for a reason.

Now we have our common characters; what’s the story going to be about? Well, audiences want to escape from their lives into a magical world where everyone’s hair is always perfect and their skin and make-up are flawless and they end up with a Prince (or Princess) Charming and a Happily Ever After, despite all the bad luck, shenanigans, and obstacles that happen in the preceding eighty minutes of the film.

Romantic comedies show us the version of the lives we wish we had, therefore they mostly star skinny, beautiful people because we all want to be skinny and beautiful. Unless we’re athletes, or men, in which case we want to be the strong, sexy type of beautiful or handsome. (I got tired of quoting all the subjective terms, sorry guys.)

Regardless, Hollywood movies show idealistic versions of ourselves: the warrior hero, the nerd who finally finds love, the screw-up who finally gets his act together, whatever the archetype may be. Films show us who we want to be and who we should be; of course I’m speaking of the most basic story structure and theme in Hollywood blockbusters.

Now, I’m all for loving your body, embracing who you are, not letting anyone change you or make you feel bad about yourself (I got your back, Eleanor Roosevelt!), but  there’s that tiny, inescapable, scientific fact that being overweight is unhealthy. Forget about weight issues in relation to society’s perception of beauty! The debate over whether or not someone can be beautiful if they’re fat should take a total backseat to the discussion of physical health in heated disputes on Facebook/Imgur/Twitter/news sites. Because pretty, beautiful, striking, strong, proud women and men do exist. Of course in this debate it’s usually women defending themselves and their appearance, because women are less likely to find love if they aren’t Hollywood perfect, right? And that means they need to fight harder and yell louder to gain approval. That’s what our patriarchal society insinuates, or so say advocates of feminism.

Aah! Getting back on topic. Films glamorize events, even at their most truthful, because it’s the easiest way to get butts in the seat. A story has to be interesting in order to get moviegoers’ attention and achieve financial success. And yes, my friends do call me Captain Obvious. We, by which I mean filmmakers, shouldn’t glamorize obese actresses and actors any more than they should glamorize unhealthily skinny ones. Yeah, Angelina Jolie is beautiful, but in Mr. & Mrs. Smith I kept wondering how she could possibly manage all those fight scenes and stunts. Her arms are so skinny! And then I start wondering how she gets that skinny. Does she just work out all the time? Are there eating disorders involved? Do exercise and dieting monopolize the majority of her time and cause her undue stress?

The target BMI range is 18.5-24.99kg/m2, anything below is unhealthy, and anything above is equally unhealthy. So my solution is, if we’re going to glamorize a body type, why not get some actresses on screen who are legitimate brick houses? And am referring to the wonderful Commodores hit that makes sweet, funky, song-love to strong, fit women (at least that’s the definition that I’m choosing to use).

I agree with the critique that inspired this post when they say that “Hollywood is an industry that clearly discriminates against plus-sized actresses,” I just don’t believe that doing a full 180 and discriminating against skinny people or making obesity acceptable and idealized in films is a good solution, or an effective one. We should encourage healthy, strong body types in our films; we should cast actors who are healthily muscled and fit. That’s part of the reason I like Scarlett Johansson; she’s never been super skinny. Granted, she has the face of a goddess, but I still appreciate her solidly average, healthy body (whether she’s trying to achieve this look or not). Jennifer Lawrence is another one who’s not afraid to have a healthy body and a healthy attitude about her appearance; the Internet gets flooded with JLaw-love every time she makes a public appearance at a Hollywood event, so audience members are clearly not put off by the fact that she doesn’t look like Twiggy.

Instead of furiously jumping to the opposite extreme body type in order to counteract and argue against the ridiculously idealistic concept of the “perfect” woman that Hollywood favors, why not aim for the healthy middle ground and redefine “beauty” and “sex appeal” and “perfection” to mean healthy and strong? That way you create a positive, healthy stereotype that can work to rehabilitate women with body image issues by instilling a new ideal in society.

And now let’s count how many times I used “perfect” and “healthy” in this post!!

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