THIS WEEK IN FAT STIGMA: Melissa McCarthy Is A "Female Hippo" And Chris Christie Is An Obesity "Time Bomb" And I'm Pretty Annoyed By It All

GOD, fat people, stop trying to DO THINGS! Don't you know you're FAT?
Publish date:
February 13, 2013
fat, body policing, chris christie, melissa mccarthy

As you may have already heard, in a recent review, respected antediluvian film critic Rex Reed finds Melissa McCarthy irritating. He also doesn’t much care for her most recent film. And this is fine; I doubt I will myself much care for “Identity Thief,” which looks like a bog standard wacky comedy road movie that may not be heralded as a masterpiece of filmmaking in 50 years but will, at least, securely place asses in movie theater seats because lots of people like to laugh at dumb shit, and will pay for the opportunity. And more power to them.

“Identity Thief” is the exact type of film that many critics live to eviscerate, so to some extent Reed’s impassioned loathing is to be expected. What made this instance different, however, is that in the course of his review, Reed made several derisive comments specifically referring to McCarthy’s weight. To many, the attacks came across as unacceptably personal.

While most folks would rightly defend Reed’s right to hate on whatever movie he chooses, these particular potshots were oddly cruel. In order, he refers to McCarthy as “tractor-sized,” “humongous,” and a “female hippo,” eventually concluding that McCarthy is “a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success.”

I can’t cop to being a big fan of Melissa McCarthy’s work myself. What I’ve watched of her sitcom, “Mike & Molly,” I didn’t much care for, and I’ve never even seen “Bridesmaids.” I do, however, dig McCarthy for her frequent willingness to be candid about being a fat actress in an industry obsessed with slenderness, and because she seems like a cool person in interviews. So I find myself feeling defensive on her behalf, and apparently so do a lot of Hollywood people who have since offered their support.

Reed, for his part, has since responded to the controversy by somewhat bizarrely blaming the backlash on a pro-fat conspiracy meticulously orchestrated by Universal, the studio responsible for “Identity Thief.” So, OK then.

Reed’s complaints focus on his perception of how she leverages her size for laughs, whereas he does not find obesity funny. Because I’m a giant optimist, upon a first reading, I thought Reed might be suggesting it is McCarthy’s reliance on her fatness and obnoxiousness for comedy that is a problem, although subsequent comments have made clear that Reed would simply rather there not be fat people in movies at all, citing that he’s had “too many friends who’ve died” from fatness.

So where are the non-obnoxious (or non-tragic, or non-pathetic, or non-punchline) roles for fat women? They don’t exist, and a big part of the reason why is because of attitudes like Reed’s, who claims to be mean for McCarthy’s (and everyone’s) own good because fatness will invariably make all fat people die. Of fat. And THAT’S NOT FUNNY.

For a long time, the only fat people we’ve really wanted to see in media were the ones who could make us laugh -- the buffoons, the fools who fall down or break a chair or sink a boat or otherwise turn their bodies into objects of ridicule and mockery. While there have been worthy exceptions for sure, we haven’t shown much interest in seeing fat folks represented in media as individuals who are both funny AND real actual people with lives and relationships beyond their ability to give us a chuckle.

So while McCarthy’s most recent role hasn’t exactly done much to change that, it’s hardly as though we can blame her -- the woman is working with the roles she has access to, which are fairly limited, and is managing to be successful and even beloved as a result. Many of McCarthy’s ardent defenders have suggested that Reed never would have made the same comments about a male comedian and this is probably a fair point, as fat funny guys are practically an American institution.

Of course, this is not to suggest that dudes don’t bear the fat-hating burden as well. Also as of last week, New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s weight has been a topic of public discussion, and it started when Dr. Connie Mariano, a former White House physician -- who, notably, does not and has never treated Chris Christie for any disease, nor has she access to his medical records -- went on CNN to talk about how Christie is, in her medical opinion, too fat to be president. Indeed, what she said was, “I’m worried about this man dying in office.”

Mariano, who served nine years as a doctor in the White House medical unit said Christie's obesity would certainly become an issue should he run for the presidency in 2016. She warned a future President Christie could suffer from potentially deadly complications from diabetes, sleep apnea, and heart disease.

"It's almost a like a time bomb waiting to happen unless he addresses those issues before running for office," Mariano said.

Man, I need to get me one of them psychic doctors.

ANYWAY, Christie -- and let me say that there are many excellent reasons to have problems with Christie on a political level, such that bringing up his weight isn’t even necessary if we want to be critical of him -- offered a predictably subtle New Jersey response, by saying Mariano should “shut up” about his weight and called her a “hack” (he was asked to respond to Mariano’s comments during a press conference about ongoing recovery efforts from last fall’s megastorm Sandy, which, um, timing).

In the past week, Christie has also characterized himself as “remarkably healthy” and in a self-effacing donut-eating appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, spoke candidly about the constant scrutiny:

[Christie] told Letterman that if a joke is funny -- even if it's about himself -- that he'll laugh. But, he added only "about 40 percent" of the host's jokes (362,000 by Christie's count) have seemed funny. He brought out some notecards and read a few of the ones Letterman had lobbed at him over the years, and then the two men got to talking about Christie's weight.

The governor said both his cholesterol and blood sugar were fine ("startlingly good"), but said he thinks about going on a diet "every day." "But I just turned 50, and so the doctor ... (said) things are going to fall off of me if I don't get it together, but up to this point it's been pretty good."

After Christie’s “shut up” comment, Mariano shot back, saying in an interview with Bloomberg, “You don’t have to be a doctor to see that he is obese,” which is true, but it seems like it’d be a tad more ethical to not make pronouncements about an individual’s health whom you have never met, and whose medical records you’ve never seen.

And this is a DOCTOR saying this -- how is it surprising that regular people also feel entitled to make presumptuous comments about every fat person they see?

Health is always the watchword when unkind comments or grand assumptions like this get made about fat people -- as though it is OK to say these things, because health. Calling fat people names? OK, because health. Publicly doubting the ability of a fat person to do a certain job without spontaneously dying? OK, because health. Somehow we think it’s all cool if we’re claiming to be rude or mean for the person’s own good.

But fat stigma doesn’t make anyone “healthier.” Basically, what fat stigma has accomplished is to convince otherwise rational people that being fat means you can’t be anything else at the same time. Fat stigma tells us that you can’t be a movie star and you can’t be president if you’re fat, but that you also can’t be happy, healthy or successful, nor can you experience fulfilling relationships while you are also fat -- that the fat has to go first, before the rest can follow.

Comments like those made about Melissa McCarthy and Chris Christie only reinforce this fat stigma, and it’s just not okay. McCarthy and Christie, each in their own strange way, pose a danger to our comfortable assumptions about what fat people are allowed to do and be, and so they get criticized for daring to challenge our sense of cultural propriety.

But not everyone is content to put their lives on hold while they chase after a body size that they may not ever be able to achieve. And while some folks may be willing to make the choice to hold back on going after their dreams until after they fit into a certain pair of jeans, this ought to be a choice freely made, and not something forced upon everyone as the normal course of things.

Melissa McCarthy and Chris Christie -- and lots of other people whose names we don’t know -- are choosing to live their lives now, which is a choice as valid as any other. I say we let them carry on with it.