Hollywood has a weight problem

Each week, Symposium’s blog highlights comments about the week’s featured article. This week’s piece is “The Rebirth of Viewing Pleasure.”

Prof. Jill Dolan, guest blogger

I’ve been a Melissa McCarthy fan since her scene-stealing turn as the straight-talking sister of the groom in Bridesmaids two years ago. But her two major release films this year demonstrate Hollywood’s discomfort with a woman whose body size scales up from the tall, thin, white women who remain the industry’s physical standard.

The Heat and Identity Thief equate her weight with a kind of crass white-trashy-ness, and mostly evince their producers’ uneasiness with her body size. The characters these films create for McCarthy move outside the bounds of conventional white femininity in ways that their narratives judge harshly. In The Heat, McCarthy, co-starring with Sandra Bullock, plays a cop boasting shady crime-stopping methods, and in Identity Thief, she is the criminal, an unruly, loudly dressed woman who steals the identity of a button-downed Jason Bateman.

In both cases, the films’ comedy comes from the distastefulness with which the conventionally-sized and conventionally-attractive leads face their co-star’s adversarial character. And although the leading characters in both cases grudgingly learn to respect and even like one another by the film’s end, these reconciliations are always at McCarthy’s expense.

McCarthy tries hard, in both films, not to be the butt of the jokes. Her comic timing is impeccable and smart; apparently, in The Heat, she and Bullock improvised much of the script. (McCarthy did time with the Groundlings, a well-regarded improv troupe in LA, earlier in her career.) She’s known for her on-set professionalism, and in interviews, she demurs when asked about being a “role model” for fat (or even normal-sized) women.

But numerous feature stories about McCarthy can’t help but see her as exceptional, as a heavy-set woman garnering starring comic roles. In a recent People Magazine interview, McCarthy says she hopes that she’s cast for her talent, not for her size.

Would that Hollywood could produce scripts worthy of her skill and potential.

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