Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
It’s no joke that body perceptions in this country are skewed beyond measure, with devastating consequences. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Anorexia nervosa has a higher mortality rate than any other cause of death for females between the ages of 15 and 24. A lot of what these young women perceive as perfection, they view on TV or in the movies, or in magazines where models are air-brushed to within an inch of their lives.
Some of us grew up in the ’90s, where the incredibly shrinking Ally McBeal made her size 2 co-stars feel obese, and Kate Moss skinny heroin chic was the rage. Unfortunately, a few decades later, things haven’t improved that much, despite a growing movement toward body positivity. Case in point: Glamour recently released a new issue focused on “plus-size” (by their definition, size 12 and up) women. On its first cover, the magazine touted Adele, Melissa McCarthy, model Ashley Graham, and Amy Schumer.
Schumer immediately protested: not because there’s anything wrong with being plus-sized, but because there is something wrong with a perception of her as plus-sized, as Marah Eakin pointed out this week. Schumer wrote in an Instagram post with the magazine cover, “I think there’s nothing wrong with being plus size. Beautiful healthy women. Plus size is considered size 16 in America. I go between a size 6 and an 8… Young girls seeing my body type thinking that is plus size. What are your thoughts? Mine are not cool glamour not glamourous.”
So it got us thinking here at The A.V. Club: How can we fix this? Is there a way that popular culture can offer a path to body positivity?
As a size 12, I love seeing “normal-size” women who run their own TV shows, like Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project and Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Both of these women are undeniably gorgeous, yet their shows—again, that they head—include frequent references (Mindy more than Crazy) to their body size. Are they (hopefully) pointing out how ludicrous these comments are? Or just getting there before someone else does? As glad as I am to see such wonderful women helming TV series, it still saddens me that the fact that neither of them is a size 0 has to be addressed at all.
Meanwhile, Glamour cover-girl mention Melissa McCarthy is a comic genius, who produces many of her own movies, as she’s propelled into slapstick comedy or “hilarious” dowdy outfits in Bridesmaids or Spy. Her co-star Rose Byrne would never be saddled with a cat sweatshirt, even undercover.
So would it be too much to ask, really, to have a romantic lead who is curvy and hot and eats, and is unapologetic about it? Even when the curvy character does end up being the romantic lead, like Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually, other characters still make snide remarks about her. When the lead in Drop Dead Diva got a new boyfriend, she openly wondered if he was a fat fetishist, instead of just someone who, you know, liked her for her. When it’s noted that certain female characters eat a lot—Lorelai Gilmore on Gilmore Girls, Liz Lemon on 30 Rock, Grace Adler on Will & Grace—they also apparently have hamster-wheel metabolisms so that this never shows.
On You’re The Worst, Kether Donohue’s adorable Lindsay is introduced as the “fat sister.” But at least when she wires her mouth shut to lose weight, she immediately gets called out by the band Gretchen manages, because they can’t imagine why she would want to change that beautiful body. It’s a necessary (and overdue) step in the right direction: Just one gorgeous lead who’s not a stick insect, eats like a real person, and if she does have to deal with snide remarks, shuts them down straightway. Actually, The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri probably comes the closest to that ideal. Although she frequently gets questioned if she’s pregnant or a plus-size model, she’s quick to take down detractors who dare to suggest she’s anything less than a nine. She’ll rip that bear claw right out of your hand, all the while looking amazing in a series of fashionable outfits, without a cat sweatshirt in sight. She even has an admirer who tells her to stop sucking in her stomach all the time: “You’re a woman, and that’s good. Look like a woman.” It shouldn’t be revolutionary, but at this point, The Mindy Project kind of is.
God, this is a whole can of worms. I literally spend dozens of hours thinking about this very thing every week, and, honestly, it’s always in the back of my mind. I admire and adore people like McCarthy, Adele, and SNL’s Aidy Bryant, but I also abhor the fact that we have to even talk about their sizes at all. As I wrote in an FOC earlier this week, the biggest problem in my eyes is that “plus-size” is, essentially, an othering term. If the average woman in America wears a size 14, then the average woman is, by definition, plus-sized. And yet that’s not represented on television or in movies with any sort of parity. (And, yes, before you say it, I get that this happens to guys, too, but not like this. Period.) The fact that I can tick off non-pregnant celebrity women with slightly rounded stomachs without resorting to using my toes is troublesome, and the fact that we don’t do much about it besides say, “that’s not fair” is probably equally shitty.
Hollywood isn’t going to do anything about this until we make them. Take the fashion industry as an example: Finding it hard to find clothes in their sizes, plus-sized women (again, the average-sized American woman) have taken to purchasing clothes online through retailers they find cater to them. And brands that do cater to them, like Old Navy, Eloquii, Lane Bryant, and brands made by celebrities like Jessica Simpson and the aforementioned Melissa McCarthy have started raking in big, big bucks. There’s gold in them there plus-sized hills, especially if all your clothing isn’t made of shitty acrylic.
The same thing goes for Hollywood. If we all go see The Boss this weekend, for example, then McCarthy will continue to get to make movies. And if The Boss isn’t just a “fat girl falls down” movie—and given that it’s a project McCarthy helmed, let’s hope it’s not—then the box office will reinforce that, hey, audiences can tolerate a movie about a bigger than Hollywood average woman doing something that’s not just dying single and alone. It’s dollar voting, pure and simple, and I think it’s a pretty easy (and important) first step.
We can see Marah’s point in action with Bridesmaids, the female ensemble hit that demonstrated to a shocked Hollywood how thirsty women are for female-driven stories and provided Melissa McCarthy her breakout role. Its box office far exceeded expectations, and men made up 33 percent of the audience. That number was also higher than expected, and goes to show that men have their part to play in issues that disproportionately affect women, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because they also suffer when women are held back (not to mention that if they missed out on Bridesmaids because of its inherently “girly” façade they missed out on a great film).
Bridesmaids worked because women were involved at all levels, mainly that it was written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, who also co-produced. Amy Schumer created and writes her own show, as does Mindy Kaling—it’s not a coincidence that pop culture created and helmed by women are the most female-empowering stuff on air. I’d add Girls to that list, because it’s affected me personally more than any other piece of pop culture in terms of my own self-image.
It’s not hard to deconstruct why creator, star, writer, and producer Lena Dunham makes me hate my body less: There’s a special kind of empowerment that comes from the way she not only exists in the show—just being there—but how she actively flaunts her body. She’s topless, pantsless, or just totally naked regularly, and seeing her totally normal body treated so, well, normally has a normalizing effect on me. That translates to empowerment, and maybe if every show contained within it that part of Girls—if every show had a main female character with a body with normal sags treated in a routine way—we’d all feel better about our larger-than-size-0 bodies.
The point is that Dunham’s able to do that (remember how much outcry there was about it a few years ago?) because it’s her show and she can do whatever she wants. There is a place in pop culture for fixing the problem it helped to create. In order to get the crucial representation of women in front of the camera, there must be women behind the camera. There must be women in the positions of power, making choices about how they’re written and represented onscreen. So let’s support trailblazing women in pop culture, and let’s also remember that pop culture isn’t some nebulous force with a sexist agenda—it’s a bunch of people, some actively sexist, some benevolently sexist, some passively sexist, but most uninterested in changing the sexist status quo that classifies women based on their body shape and size. We need women with agency at all levels of power. This goes beyond representation. So let’s wrestle their power from them, take it for ourselves, and accurately represent the diverse world we live in. In other words, burn it down. Burn it all down.
Emily L. Stephens
As soon as I saw Amy Schumer’s pushback to Glamour’s tacit categorizing of her body—and despite their explanation, when your publication announces a list of “women who inspire us” for a special plus-sized edition, categorizing their bodies is part of the message, intended or otherwise—I thought, “There’s no way for Schumer to win here.”
By pointing out that her (statistically below-average) clothing size doesn’t fit in the category of plus-sized, Schumer opens herself to the criticism that she objects to being miscategorized; by staying silent, she’d let a magazine that already perpetuates an artificially narrow standard of beauty further constrict the notion of what constitutes the average. Either she points out the implication and risks looking like she doesn’t like being lumped in with plus-sized women (women like McCarthy and Adele and me) or she doesn’t and Glamour gets away with implicitly telling its readers that a size 8 is plus-sized, if she’s a particular kind of size 8. Either way, the attention is on her body, not her work. It’s infuriating.
I second Caitlin’s celebration of Girls, and specifically of Lena Dunham’s easiness in her own skin, which contrasts so sharply with Hannah’s uneasiness in her mind. Girls spurs an incredible range of feelings in viewers, and sometimes it infuriates me, but as often, it fills me with naked gratitude to see Hannah rolling around half-dressed, or yanking off her underwear, or plodding down a path in a ridiculous swimsuit that isn’t carefully selected to flatter her.
It’s one of Girls’ most powerful unspoken messages: that Hannah’s perfectly normal body doesn’t disqualify her from pleasure, from sexual allure, from intense connection with herself and others—that in fact, her great comfort in her body is one of most appealing traits. It’s one of the first things that kept me watching the show, and it’s one of the first things I mention when talking about it.
Emily, I also hate that we’re focusing on bodies and not bodies of work. I hate to say it, but as a devotee of celeb gossip mags, a lot of what I see is fed by other women. Heidi Klum has a baby and five weeks later she’s walking the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. Another startlet says she doesn’t have to work out to stay as painfully thin as she is. Look at how much weight this celeb lost just by eating five small meals a day (but still indulging)! We’re not only bombarded with images of what is the normal size, but narratives of them as well. If Blake Lively can look like that, why shouldn’t I be able to look like that? It should not be brave for a celebrity to say, “I have a killer body and I work really hard to get it because I can afford to work out all day and only eat quinoa and wheat grass.” Fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo often say they refuse to judge normal women’s fashion because they don’t have the same massive teams that celebrities have. I think about body weight in the same way. I’m a size 10, and I’m admittedly not okay with that, but I also don’t have a personal trainer or someone planning my meals for me.
It’s not just the super skinny celebs either. Writer Caissie St. Onge wrote a great piece about why she won’t follow Oprah to Weight Watchers. St. Onge had fallen for this myth before—that all it takes is a little self control—and she just can’t deal with it anymore. It’s okay not to be skinny, she says, but it’s also okay that Oprah wants to be.
All hope is not lost, though. I saw The Boss earlier this week and while I didn’t love it, there were was one aspect that I really respected: Melissa McCarthy’s sexuality is never played as joke. Sure, she has a relationship with Peter Dinklage, and their size difference is the surface-level gag. But there are so many other instances in the movie where she mentions being a sexual being and it’s not because she’s a heavier woman. It’s because she’s beautiful and confident and she knows that. On the other hand, I hate that I sat through The Boss and thought, “Man, Melissa McCarthy looks great!”
And here I was thinking I was the only person with a profoundly personal relationship to Girls. Isn’t it funny how many female experiences go unspoken because it feels like we’re not supposed to talk about them? It sounds Pollyannaish to say that Lena Dunham helped me feel better about myself, but that’s the God’s honest truth. She’s a frequent reference point on days when I’m doubting my self-worth because of my body—I will literally say “think of Lena” to calm myself down. And while this may be getting into a whole other host of issues about women’s confidence being tied to male approval, I specifically respond to the fact that Hannah’s body is so casually accepted in romantic contexts. She’s the rare slightly larger female character who isn’t worried that her weight will make her repulsive to men. In fact, the show asserts that it’s totally normal that guys who look like Adam Driver and Patrick Wilson and Jake Lacy would be into Hannah. And—thanks to our era of social media—I know that’s a truth in Dunham’s own life as well. Her well-documented relationship with Jack Antonoff is reassuring to me on a very concrete level, which feels both silly and very telling.
Yes, men are subjected to insane beauty standards in Hollywood too, but the fact of the matter is male viewers can easily find a whole bunch of examples of men paired with female co-stars who are objectively more attractive (Kevin James and Leah Remini on King Of Queens, Ed O’Neill with both Katey Sagal on Married… With Children and Sofia Vergara on Modern Family, Seth Rogen and basically all of his romantic interests, Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in any number of things). Meanwhile female actors who don’t fit stereotypical beauty standards are generally paired with men on their “level” (think Roseanne Barr and John Goodman on Roseanne or Melissa McCarthy and Jackson Douglas on Gilmore Girls). I don’t know if Dunham is exactly subverting that trope (much like Schumer, Dunham is more “average sized” than “plus size”), but she’s at least offering a different take on the usual male/female visual dynamic. (Other stuff that does this well with even more diverse female body types: Rebel Wilson and Adam DeVine in Pitch Perfect 2, Chandra Wilson and Jason George on Grey’s Anatomy, Amber Riley and Chord Overstreet briefly on Glee.)
After so many years watching female romantic leads all share one thin body type, it subconsciously became my “norm” when I imagined what desirable women were supposed to look like. Dunham helped snap me out of that line of thinking. Ultimately, this all boils down to the fact that representation matters. I enjoy Girls because it’s a funny, self-aware comedy. But unlike other comedies that merely make me laugh, Girls has also changed the way I think about myself. And that isn’t even something I realized I was missing until I finally had it.
In all of this, I have mostly thought about the wonderful SNL sketch from a few years ago called Dyke & Fats. Cast members Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant play Chicago cops Les “Dyke” Dykawitz and Chubbina “Fatz” Fatzarelli in a spoof of 1970s police dramas. It’s corny, it’s cute, and it’s really, really funny. The two cops are capable and competent, perhaps beyond belief, while also leaning heavily into stereotypes about lesbians and overweight people. (McKinnon, for example, shows a wallet full of photos of English bulldogs while Bryant’s has sausage links.) At the end of the sketch, however, the police chief, played by Louis CK, congratulates them on a job well done, he addresses them as “Dyke and Fats.” The two lose it: “Those are our words! You don’t get to say it!”
It is not so much about it being wrong to be plus-sized but more so that women are often categorized against their will. I agree with Caroline that we are, in general, moving in the right direction and (slowly) building toward increased representation of different body types and backgrounds on television and film. What is so empowering, or, if I can use Glamour’s word, inspiring about women like Schumer and McCarthy and Dunham and Kaling is that they’ve taken ownership over the way we view them. They’re not inspiring because they’re plus-sized or despite being plus-sized. They’re inspiring because they’re forcing us to see them as something beyond that. They’re writers and producers and directors and actors, and they’re making roles for themselves that regularly defy cultural expectations. A willingness to talk about one’s own body becomes an allowance for everyone to talk about it. Let these women set the course for their own narratives and be “inspiring” on their own terms—and they’ll break through even more barriers.