From backstage to centre stage
(Originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, July 20, 2004.)
Although marketing research by Torrid and Old Navy confirms that the body image of full-figured teens is far better today than it was even a decade ago, this message has yet to reach Planet Hollywood. On the rare occasions when film or television projects come along that do include plus-size characters, these characters are still portrayed as suffering from low self-esteem, profound self-consciousness, and a deep dissatisfaction with their size.
Why is this so? Why has the increased self-confidence of the "Torrid generation" not yet impacted the most powerful segment of the mass media? Many explanations present themselves.
Part of the problem is the unavoidable "generational lag" that characterizes most Hollywood writing. Lacking any first-hand exposure to the contemporary "teen scene," screenwriters invariably depict the high-school milieu that they themselves grew up with, rather than the cultural climate of the present day.
Size prejudice also plays a major role, inasmuch as it prevents the majority of writers from even conceiving of plus-size characters who genuinely accept (let alone relish) their feminine curves.
And the decidedly unglamorous reality of Hollywood hack-work--oppressive deadlines and high workloads, coupled with innate human laziness--ensures that many scripts consist largely of recycled scenes, characters, and dialogue from previous film projects. Thus, the self-loathing stereotype perpetuates itself--no matter how little relationship it bears to current reality.
Three current (or soon-to-debut) projects testify to Hollywood's inability--or unwillingness--to present plus-size characters in a new light. A romantic comedy titled Sleepover premiered last week, and while audiences stayed away in droves, we will give it a moment's attention here, because one of the teen characters in the film was portrayed by a full-figured actress. Although some might consider her mere presence a marginal sort of progress, the nature of her part hardly inspires hope. In a pithy review of the film, Roger Ebert sketches this character thus:
Julie decides to have a sleepover, and at the last minute invites poor Yancy (the also wonderfully named Kallie Flynn Childress), who is plump and self-conscious about her weight. Julie's invitation is so condescending it's a form of insult, something that doesn't seem to occur to the grateful Yancy.
Although it is never wise to accept anyone's interpretation of a film without seeing it first-hand, if this description is accurate, it highlights one of the liabilities of plus-size "tokenism." The presence of a token character such as Yancy paints a distorted picture whereby being naturally curvaceous is neither presented as the ideal, nor even as the norm, but rather, as some sort of marginal condition, a circumstance deserving of . . . pity (shudder).
We must seek better depictions than this.
Even if full-figured characters cannot take centre stage in every project, as they do in Real Women Have Curves, they should at least escape the victim trip. For example, in a cookie-cutter teen drama of the sort that Roger Ebert describes in the above review, it would be far more interesting to see a curvaceous actress cast in the role of the archetypal villainess, the "supremely confident young woman" who antagonizes the "mousy" heroine of the picture (to use Ebert's terms). Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and many other Victorian novelists often adopted this formula (i.e., blonde, full-figured vixens in conflict with thin, self-effacing, morally-upstanding heroines), and the stellar examples of those literary greats deserve emulation. At least the "spoiled b--ch" character is a position of power, rather than pity. And besides, those supposedly negative characters are often far more compelling than the self-righteous heroines.
Another potential disappointment comes in the form of a weekly TV teen series titled Life As We Know It, which is set to premiere on ABC this fall, with Kelly Osbourne among the cast. At a recent news conference, Miss Osbourne stated that in playing her character in this show, she hopes to reach out to
some girl in the Midwest who thinks she's f-- and is insecure and maybe not the most beautiful girl in the world.... Then (she) sees the show and says, "Well, she's overweight and maybe not the most beautiful girl in the world, but she's cool and people like her."
How sad. First, in adopting this position, Miss Osbourne is tacitly accepting the premise that today's curve-o-phobic standards are actually valid for determining who is "overweight"--whereas, at a size 10 (or even smaller), Ms. Osbourne is hardly "over" any girl's natural weight.
Second, this statement confirms the media myth that a girl who is supposedly "overweight" is, by definition, "not the most beautiful girl in the world." If anything, the exact opposite is true. Only someone who is "overweight" (by today's warped standards) could possibly be judged "the most beautiful girl in the world," since the most attractive women in history--from Helene Fourment, to Lillian Russell, to Marilyn Monroe--would all be deemed "overweight," by modern sensibilities.
And third, this assertion is nothing more than a rephrasing of that infamous backhanded compliment, "But she has a nice personality." It implies that full-figured girls need to be "cool" and "likeable" in order to compensate for the supposed fault of being curvaceous.
Is this really the best that we can hope for? The answer is: no.
Finally, to end on a (slightly) more positive note, we should consider several statements recently made by the Hilary Duff promotional team. In a widely-republished publicity piece, the young actress criticized the media for the pressure that it puts on young stars to remain thin, citing the tragic case of Mary-Kate Olsen as an example. Miss Duff also affirmed her own determination not to fall into a similar trap. "I don't listen to what other people say. I don't care if someone doesn't think that I'm skinny enough" the young actress told FWD. And in an article published in Ireland Online, Miss Duff assured her fans that she would never succumb to anorexia, stating "I love food too much . . . I do love to eat."
Wonderful sentiments--although it is undoubtedly premature to expect to see Hilary Duff posters emblazoned with size-positive slogans such as these. But at least the young actress has adopted a helpful attitude, rather than following in the footsteps of so many other celebrities and becoming a shill for diet companies and body butchers.
On a related note, one reporter's review of Miss Duff's new movie, A Cinderella Story, included the following observation:
The movie gets points for pointing out that the curvy Duff is as attractive, if not more so, than her diet-obsessed rivals.
It is surely encouraging to see a journalist praising this (or any) film based on its size-positive content, just as it is encouraging to hear Roger Ebert highlighting the condescension towards the plus-size character in Sleepover. This indicates a greater awareness in the media about weight-related prejudice, and the role that popular culture plays in its perpetuation.
But let's be honest--Hilary Duff, "curvy"? This young actress is undoubtedly pretty, but very slim. If anything, she should represent the smaller end of the size range among Hollywood celebrities, not the "curvy" end.
Let us look forward to the day when bolder, more daring, more visionary screenwriters will do away with these old stereotypes, and will instead create exciting and inspiring plus-size characters--girls who epitomize the "Torrid generation"; who are "supremely confident"; who are both genuinely curvy, and more attractive than their "diet-obsessed rivals"; and who legitimately consider themselves "the most beautiful girl in the world."
Kate Dillon, in one of her most sensual images--from Redbook magazine, 1999.
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