Turning the world around
(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, March 26th, 2004, in response to a contributor who commended an actress for turning down the opportunity to play the unattractive, plus-size sister in the film adaptation of In Her Shoes.)
We also know of at least one prominent plus-size model who vied for the part, only to be told by Ms. Weiner's representatives that she was "too pretty" to play the character in question.
Ms. Davis deserves a round of applause for turning down the part. The film in question is In Her Shoes, which fostered a discussion here some time ago (see link below). It still seems regrettable that the story hinges on a contrast between a full-figured sister, who is unattractive, but "makes up for it" by having a great character, with an underweight sister, who is attractive, and therefore can "get by" on her looks. Rather than challenging modern stereotypes about weight and beauty, In Her Shoes appears to be merely reinforcing them.
Further to this topic, we recently obtained a copy of The New England Home Magazine, dated August 27, 1899. If we juxtapose the aesthetic attitudes of that magazine with the premise of the Weiner novel, we clearly see how the world has been turned upside-down over the past century, in terms of its aesthetic beliefs.
Although it is is over a hundred years old, The New England Home Magazine is, in many ways, remarkably similar to current publications such as People, or Us. The lead article, for example, focusses on operetta idol Lillian Russell, who was the J.Lo of her day--a dazzling superstar whose every action was the subject of keep public interest.
In 1899, Lillian Russell had already been divorced thrice (a shocking tally at the time), and had endured considerable criticism for preserving her maiden name rather than adopting the surnames of any of her husbands (arguing that the words "Lillian Russell" constituted a trademark).
But while much of the Russell article is similar to a modern "celebrity profile," the following passage contrasts sharply with the premise of In Her Shoes. When describing the beauty of the famed singer, the author of the article affirms that
Lillian Russell is certainly a radiant creature. Even those who are least likely to be attracted by her personality must admit this, when she looms up in all her physical beauty on the stage before them. She is one woman who does not rail at Mother Age and Father Time; she defies both, and she does it with a laugh on her pretty lips. She refuses to grow old, and as a result she keeps her hold on the public's fickle heart. For more than twenty years she has been a favorite, and she says she'll try to be a favorite for another twenty.
Bear in mind that in 1899, Russell was at the acknowledged peak of both her beauty--and her size. Contemporary estimates put her weight in the neighbourhood of 200 lbs (at 5'6). However, it never even crossed this writer's mind that Lillian Russell's figure could detract from her beauty. Rather, the author asserts, with complete confidence, that even those readers who balk at Russell's controversial behaviour "must" acknowledge her physical appeal.
It has taken a hundred years of brainwashing to turn these aesthetic beliefs upside down, and to produce a society in which people supposedly "must" acknowledge the beauty of a character played by a waif actress such as Cameron Diaz--no matter how questionable her behaviour may be. But a century ago--indeed, in every century prior to the twentieth--it was full-figured goddesses whose beauty made them immune to censure.
Once the modern media's grip on the cultural wheel is loosened, it will naturally turn back to its normal position, and it will once again be the Lillian Russells, rather than the Cameron Diazes, whose beauty is considered . . . undeniable.
Ms. Russell in 1899:
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