Jessica Haight-Angelo; Grand Canyon University
Fat Studies: Pedagogically and Creatively Fat
Midwest Pop Culture Conference 2010; Minneapolis, MN
1 October 2010
―They‘re Always Gonna Need a Fat Best Friend‖:
The Subjugation of Fat Actors & Actresses in Romantic Comedies
On his second full-length comedy album, "Werewolves and Lollipops," comedian Patton
Oswalt describes his experience at the premiere of the movie, "The Dark Knight," wherein the
portly funny-man recalls feeling out of place amongst all of the beautiful, skinny actors and
actresses who are simultaneously miserable-looking because, Oswalt claims, none of them are
eating, even though food is abundant. Oswalt then describes a chance meeting with Brian
Dennehy, who remarks, "Character actors: Who gives a fuck if we're fat?" Adding his own two
cents, Oswalt offers that, "They're always gonna need a fat best friend; that's never gonna go out
Oswalt's words ring true: Hollywood's romantic leading men (and ladies) are nominally
skinny and White. If a fat character does exist in the genre, they are almost always regulated to
the 'best friend' role, their own romantic aspirations rarely taken seriously or affixed with any
emotional depth. Arguably, the 'fat friend' is merely an archetype that plays into Hollywood's
semi-successful formula for light-hearted romantic cinema; that is, it isn't meant to be taken
seriously. At the same time, such archetypes are indicative of Hollywood's ever-increasing fat
phobia. Thus, this paper will explore the role that fat plays in the modern, American romantic
comedy, as it pertains to the limits of infatuation versus commitment; also, the sidekick roles that
race, gender, and sexuality play in keeping fat movie actors and actresses regulated to the
The Skinny: The Romantic Comedy Formula
The romantic comedy has a history nearly as lengthy as that of the motion picture
industry itself, both gaining momentum in the early 1920s. As Branwen66, a contributor on
Associated Content notes, the alternative title for Charlie Chaplin's 1931 movie, "City Lights,"
aka "City Lights: A Comedy Romance in Pantomine" offers up "the earliest technological
acknowledgment" of the rom-com genre. From there, several comedies released in 1934 featured
"strong and sensuous romantic conflict," wherein the love story "cease[d] to be ancillary to the
comedy and bec[ame] itself the central plot that is enhanced by comedy." During the 1930s and
1940s, the romantic comedy "hit ... its stride," with "Archetypical characters and functions that
we enjoy over and over again" becoming solidified (Branwen66). The modern romantic comedy
era began in the early ‗80s. Since then, dozens of rom-coms have been released into theatres and,
later, onto VHS and DVD for private consumption, enjoying considerable financial success in all
venues. As the user Megavitamin from Hub Pages explains, Romantic comedies neither earn as
much nor do they cost as much to make as "summer blockbusters ... but with the right
combination of bright-toothed movie stars and the right marketing strategy - like opening on
Valentine's weekend - some of these movies have banked serious green." According to Slate.com
contributor, Lisa Levy, "2001's top-grossing romantic comedies were 'The Wedding Planner,'
'Someone Like You,' 'Serendipity,' 'Bridget Jones' Diary,' and 'What Women Want' (released in
late 2000)." The U.S. gross for "The Wedding Planner" was $80,245,725, a figure that has been
far surpassed in more recent years by its romantic comedy successors. For example, "My Big Fat
Greek Wedding" took home $241,438,208, its initial budget only $5,000,000 (The Numbers). In
addition, as Levy notes, "Some of the most beloved directors in American cinema made their
reputations on [romantic comedies]: Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, Woody Allen, Cameron
Crowe," in early romantic comedies such as "The Lady Eve" (1941), "Annie Hall" (1977), and
"Tootsie" (1982). It is clear that the romantic comedy is a well-affixed blotch in the realm of pop
culture, in spite of its potential flaws.
The term ―romantic comedy,‖ or ―rom-com,‖ is a hybrid of two separate movie genres,
the romance and the comedy. The aforementioned Branwen66 explains: "In the simplest terms, a
romantic comedy is a comedy that explores a love story ... The most memorable examples of the
genre thrive on creative combinations of these three elements: romantic, comedic, exploratory ...
Take the romance out or fail to infuse the story with laughter, and you end up with a different
genre altogether." While comedy enjoys a wide range of classifications, from slapstick to dark or
black humor, the romantic movie, and its romantic comedy counterpart both follow a fairly
dogmatic formula. The Cracked.com Web site takes a stab at the former, focusing on the
particularly formulaic romance movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels: "Start with two pretty
white people ('A Walk to Remember'; 'The Notebook; Dear John')"; "Include an obstacle that
makes love between them seem impossible (social status, her parents, 9/11)"; "They fall in love
anyway"; "Throw in a completely-out-of-left-field, exploitative, awful disaster that only serves to
jerk tears and turn an otherwise forgettable romance into a tragedy (leukemia, Alzheimer's
cancer)"; "Go to the only poster designer you knew"; "Count your money" (Newz is Newz n.p.).
The Web site Uproxx expresses a similar sentiment in its article, "How to Write a
Hollywood Rom-Com in Ten Easy Steps." Having two pretty people on the movie poster and a
recognizable title are both important, Uproxx says. Branwen66 also chimes in with good humor:
The male lead in a rom-com must be "smolderingly sexy," "endearingly vulnerable," "self-
deprecatingly funny," and "an SOB but redeemable." In the same vein, the female lead must also
be sexy and vulnerable, as well as "gutsy and feisty," the perfect counterpart to the funny and
exasperating man with whom she is destined (or doomed) to fall in love in an hour-and-a-half. In
the same vein, there should be few surprises as to the plot of the movie:
Here's what happens in every rom-com: two people meet. Then they screw.
Unfortunately, you're going to have to fill another 90 minutes. Therefore, your
leads have to start hating each other. Maybe he calculates risk for an insurance
company, and she's a free spirit who loves Ethiopian food. Maybe she's an uptight
career woman and he's a Matthew McConaughey. She's a feminist, he's a
chauvinist. Point is, opposites attract and you find love where you least expect it -
Hallmark clichés are your guiding principles. (Uproxx n.p.)
As with a pure romance, in a romantic comedy, the two leads must fall in love, fall out of
love, and then get back together again, often due to the guy doing "something crazy to prove his
love," a la John Cusack in ‗Say Anything,‘ "standing outside his special lady's window playing
'In Your Eyes' on his boombox" (Uproxx). Along the way, however, they must be guided to
realize the errors of their respective ways; that is where the "kooky friends" come in. Since the
audience might otherwise be overtly annoyed by the archetypical male and female leads in a
rom-com due to their shallow dullness, the typical rom-com includes supporting characters
"whose extreme examples of male and female stereotypes ... will give your leads the illusion of
depth. Often, this will be a talented but underutilized comedian or character actor slumming in
your crappy rom-com because they need the paycheck," Uproxx offers blithely.
More considerately, Branwenn66 describes the Best Friend (also known as "mates, allies,
pals") as "a dependable supportive force. It is the sounding board for the protagonists' concerns,
the sympathetic ear for when they need to vent, the friendly hand that passes the Kleenex." Also,
like the antagonist, another supplemental character, Best Friends "are not characters per se, but
character functions that concretize the deeper problems that need to be faced for love to triumph
... Best Friends are always there. Literally. In a genre that needs to continuously slalom its way
around static expository situations, Best Friends elicit background information, explore
motivations, and move the story forward" (Branwen66). Similarly, Branwen66 notes, "Best
Friends usually have next to no character arcs. When they do, their transformation exists
primarily to highlight some important aspect of the protagonists' characterization, predicament,
or breakthrough, as well as underscore the thematic infrastructure of the story." Once the hero
has "matured enough to take charge of his life," the Best Friend "provides little more than
comedic interval" once again (Branwen66).
Often, this slim chance for screen-time in a depthless romantic comedy is where the 'fat
best friend' is shoehorned. Teddy Wayne‘s monologue, ―Your Best Friend in a Romantic
Comedy is Always There For You,‖ pinpoints several aspects of the dependable best friend
archetype, including the difference between the kooky friend and the romantic lead in terms of
body-type: ―"C'mon, Louise, whenever you have guy problems, you always watch classic movies
and pig out on Ben & Jerry's, even though your willowy frame suggests that you subsist on
celery and laxatives. It's one of your charming quirks that distinguish you from the other
successful, attractive women in their 30s I'm friends with who inexplicably can't hold on to a
man. That, and your career-woman-but-glamorous hairstyle that should take an hour to prepare
but looks perfect straight out of bed." In addition, the best friend's "nonthreatening 'ethnic' blend"
gives her the opportunity to utter "all these trailer-worthy one-liners," implying the importance of
the best friend to the rom-com's success, even in spite of his/her lack of significance to the
romantic leads whom s/he nonetheless loyally patronizes and flatters. Even the slim potential for
the best friend to find love is correlated strongly with her prettier, thinner pal, according to
Wayne: "Hey, what if the [male romantic lead's "vaguely Italian‖] best friend and I began a
relationship that thematically informed your and Jake's?" the best friend asks. "Like, what if we
got together and then broke up, it might make you rethink your long-term commitment to Jake.
Or, if we got married, it might make you rethink your lack of a long-term commitment to Jake.
Either way, our relationship will make you contemplate yourself and Jake" (Wayne n.p.).
Comically, Wayne manages to pinpoint several oppressive clichés of the best friend
archetype, including weight, race, and gender. In each case, the further from the White, straight,
conclusively ‗all-American‘ norm – which is always represented by the romantic lead - in a rom-
com that the best friend is shown to be, the more pigeonholed and despondent the character is.
Arguably, the fat best friend is the most 'othered' version of the kooky friend, his or her body
type a physical representation of everything that the romantic lead wishes to avoid being. As
Lynne Murray, a novelist who specializes in writing about "self-accepting fat" characters (Lynne
Murray Web site, "About Lynne") explains, "We see very few fat people in film and television
because the implicit assumption is that we are suffering from a willful, self-imposed sickness, as
evidenced by our very appearance. Fat is seen as a visible manifestation of an abnormal state
(and our Puritanical roots tend to suggest to us that we must have gotten to this awful condition
through gluttony, sloth or some other horrendous sin).‖ In other words, fat people are abnormal,
something to be ashamed of, and thus do not deserve equal media representation as their slimmer
counterparts, a "Crippling belief" held by both the media and the masses who indulge in it, fat
and thin (Murray). In the same vein, Murray says, "To be invisible because of race or ethnicity is
not quite the same thing as being invisible because of size." While being ‗exotic-looking,‘ or
female, or Black, or gay can be quirky complications, they will not absolutely keep a character
from finding love in a romantic comedy, or at least a niche in which to cocoon him or herself. In
contrast, the overweight character must accept his/her potential physical oddity as an additional
barrier to happiness, one reaching even beyond gender, race, or sexuality. Jake‘s best friend
won‘t necessarily want to date Louise‘s chunky best friend just because he‘s Italian; as Wayne's
analysis of the fat best friend concludes, "I've got a feeling everything will work out just fine for
you, you effortlessly thin blonde. Well, I'm going back to my apartment now to cry myself to
sleep. Coffee tomorrow?" While race and body type occasionally intersect, fat discrimination
runs (or jogs sluggishly) rampant and unchecked across all demographics. In essence, when it
comes to romantic comedies, being overweight disallows the fat best friend from being
recognized as fully human, more so than any other singular factor.
(Not) The Norm: Gender, Race, Sexuality
In the same vein, when a fat character in a romantic comedy is also ethnic, female (or
anything other than a cisgendered male), and/or gay, the bisection of such ‗othered‘ factors is
worth considering. Perhaps the most obvious additional minority portrayal is that of a fat female
character. The context surrounding a fat male character appears on a much different level than
that surrounding a fat female character. This discrepancy exists beyond the realm of the romantic
comedy, however, intersecting with the general malaise of sexism that seems to have settled over
mainstream American culture. As Michael Cieply points out in 2009 article for the New York
Times, several male Hollywood stars have "packed on the pounds" for various leading man film
roles. While Cieply refers to "Holly's pool of leading men" as "getting larger - and not
necessarily in a good way," however, he also concedes that recently-bulked-up stars such as
Russell Crowe, John Travolta, and Denzel Washington still achieve prestigious film roles. In
contrast, Cieply notes, "Kathleen Turner, 54 and the onetime seductress of 'Body Heat,' last
December put in a rare film performance as Ms. Kornblut, the plus-size dog trainer in 'Marley &
Me.'" Here, Cieply's remark that fat women in Hollywood are not as noticeable "because
actresses who expand do not often get roles to showcase their growth" is notable: A fat woman in
Hollywood is practically invisible. Similarly, when an actress is fat in a movie, it becomes the
entire focus of her role. Consider Renee Zellweger in "Bridget Jones' Diary" and its sequel. In
the original novels, Bridget Jones weighed around 170 pounds; yet her silver-screen counterpart,
in spite of Zellweger being lauded for her bravery in packing on 20 pounds to her slender frame,
was significantly skinnier than this. Still, the entire focus of her character was to be the token fat
girl, something the audience was rarely, if ever, allowed to forget.
In a similar vein, Wendy, a contributor at the Web site Pound offers up the term
"imaginary fat people," and hints at a more widespread issue than simply placing fat people into
stereotypical roles: "Imaginary fat people['s] actions are stereotypical, certainly, but they come
off quite differently than those of an overweight actor who performs fat-person clichés ...
Imaginary fat people can be fat without the distractions of 'character.' Fat is the character and
imaginary fat people breathe themselves into life. They have nobody to blame but themselves."
Wendy uses the movie "America's Sweethearts" as an example of imaginary fat, wherein
traditionally rail-thin actress, Julia Roberts stuffs herself into a fat suit to give off the illusion of a
180-pound woman, Hollywood's version of morbidly obese. As she notes, at first, "she was just
the Julia Roberts character with a fuller face and belly. She acted the same way and she dressed
pretty much the same way. (Though when you're the size she's at in that scene, you don't tuck
your top in. You just don't.)" Later in the movie, however, Roberts' character is shown "stuffing
her face": "She was on a movie set and lingering by the craft services table with her cheeks full
of food, with one hand feeding herself and another hand reaching for more food." At this point,
Wendy confirms, Julia Roberts' performance became all about the fat suit. Her character had
become an "imaginary fat person." Similarly, whereas the audience where Wendy saw the film
laughed tentatively, even nervously during early scenes with Roberts' character in them, "during
the food scenes, the audience burst out laughing abruptly but wholeheartedly, relieved, as if they
understood something at last. Or as if someone who had made them uncomfortable had left the
room"; that is, because someone had: The fat person whom the movie made a show of
humanizing before giving in to not only stereotypes, but well-preserved societal condemnation of
At the same time, in a show of self-hatred, Wendy admits to laughing when a now-skinny
Julia Roberts character "ordered three plates of food at once and ate from them voraciously,"
while simultaneously recognizing that "I would never do that - eat like the way she was eating,
alone, in public. Everyone I know who is fat has a problem with eating in front of strangers. You
worry what people will think about you, what they'll imagine." Such a statement implies that
Roberts' usually slender physique allows her the ability to eat heartily without the judgment her
180-pound counterpart would have received, simply due to her size. Wendy finishes her diatribe
with a saddened summation of this kind of thinking: "[I]maginary fat seems to be the only kind
of fat the popular media can deal with at all ... The only fat we're allowed to consider is the fat on
someone like Charlize Theron. The only acceptable fat is practically invisible" (Wendy).
Even in the fat best friend role in romantic comedies, men are much more likely to be
cast. As a disgusted reviewer notes of the film, "Date Movie," a parody of the traditional rom-
com featuring a rail-thin Alyson Hannigan in a fat suit, wherein she is 'worked on' like a car to be
made into a more socially acceptable, and thin, 'hot babe' who can choose suitors a la "The
Bachelorette," the role of the fat woman in film is much more disparaging and hateful than that
of the fat male. "Fat men are funny," the reviewer says. "Fat women are to be pitied. For
example, in 'Hitch,' Kevin James' character - an everyman, i.e.: slightly overweight - eventually
wins the heart of a socialite (supermodel Amber Valletta)." That the reviewer can consider an
overweight male to be an everyman in the first place is notable; the same cannot be said for the
overweight female, whose extra pounds are always an issue. A fat woman in a movie is never
happy or well-adjusted. Inevitably, she either overcompensates for her body type with an equally
over-the-top personality, or simply sinks into the background, asexual and useless. There is an
additional meanness to the disparaging remarks made unto such a character, an acridity that
seems to slide more easily off of the fat male characters' pudgy backs. They may, in fact, be
bothered by such ribbing, but the roles written for them do not encourage them to showcase such
emotions; thus, the audience feels less guilty laughing at overweight men than it does fat women.
Fat men are a safe target.
In part, this disparity between genders seems to exist because, as the adage goes, comedy
is a man's game. In recent years, the romantic comedy has been fine-tuned with the addition of
more slapstick and raunchy material; traditional comedic elements designed to draw in more
male viewers. Director Judd Apatow‘s hearty comedies, including ―The 40-Year-Old Virgin,‖
―Knocked Up,‖ ―Superbad,‖ etc. are a case-in-point. Such films have been lauded by both male
and female viewers, and the appeal of such fare to men has redefined the rom-com as a ―dick
flick,‖ a ―bromance,‖ or a ―brom-com.‖ Fores offers similar praise to "Failure to Launch" for
being "A mixture of romantic comedy and overblown slapstick," thus making it "a lady-tailored
movie written, produced, and directed by men," and subsequently made so that guys dragged
along to the theatre by female dates can get some cheap laughs in. "[T]he flick doesn't entirely
dwell in the realms of sentimentality," Fores offers, apparently relieved that the "chick flick"
genre is being reclaimed by dudes by way of referring to the trend as "the grandest sense of
social equality." While arguably, romantic comedies are an exception to an industry that has
always been geared towards males (thus, most movies are ―dick flicks,‖ with female viewers just
happening to occasionally, and invisibly, enjoy them, as well), in a practical sense, the bromance
simply continues to ensure a discrepancy between fat male and female characters in movies.
Though overweight male actors like Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen, staples of Judd Apatow‘s films
should absolutely be lauded for everything they bring to their respective roles, they are
nonetheless cast alongside thin female actresses, few who are on par with Hill or Rogen in terms
of sense of humor, and none who are ‗allowed‘ to also be fat.
In the same vein, that Hill and Rogen often play second-string to the thinner, more
conventionally attractive Paul Rudd in Apatow‘s films showcases the limits of the pudgy body
type. This is even discussed in-film during Apatow‘s ―Funny People,‖ starring a cranky, middle-
aged Adam Sandler as a washed-up comedian. In addition, a notably slimmed-down Seth Rogen
plays Sandler‘s assistant, who rooms with other side characters who are responsible for most of
the movie‘s one-liners, including the still-corpulent Jonah Hill. In the film, Hill‘s character
makes a referential barb at Rogan‘s slimmed physique: "'There's nothing funny about a
physically fit man ... No one wants to see Lance Armstrong do comedy." Though a zinger, the
comment offers considerable insight into the role of the fat and skinny man in the comedy world;
there is, after all, a reason that Paul Rudd plays the anal-retentive leading man almost every time
he is cast in something. In the same vein, in an interview with Rolling Stone, wherein Hill reports
that he's "making [losing weight] a priority in my life," he adds that "Seth did it. I was really
proud of him." In addition, he hotly contests his "Funny People" character's barb, though his
criticism seems borne equally of embarrassment at the attention focused on his weight, and of a
sense that his character may have been right about the stereotypical nature of comedic role-
casting: "'If you're really skinny or if you're really big, it doesn't make you funnier or less funnier
- it's ridiculous, man, it's totally ridiculous ... Why does that joke in a movie have anything to do
with me personally? It's not me, it's a guy in a movie" (53). Why, indeed.
Though Hill protests, since "Funny People," Seth Rogen has gone on to be cast in the
upcoming "Green Hornet" movie, wherein he is even more noticeably physically fit. While his
friend, Jonah Hill might praise this move - now, Rogen can play the straight, thin man a la Paul
Rudd - a sampling of comments in response to some early shots of Rogen in costume on the A.V.
Club Web site epitomizes the notion that the fixation on his weight will never go away, no matter
how thin he gets. In addition, many fans are bitter at the comedy world's alleged loss of talent:
"Put the weight back on, you fuck," one user spits. "No one wants to resemble Steve Guttenberg
anymore." In this, it is clear that comedic roles in movies are most appropriately and thus,
commonly played by fat men who do not seem to mind being reminded that they are fat, as long
as people think they are also funny. In the realm of overweight thespians, then, the fat male holds
considerable sway over his chubby female counterpart.
In addition to gender disparities, race also plays a role in keeping the fat best friend
relegated to the sidelines in romantic comedy movies. The aforementioned Murray likens seeing
a fat actor on television [and by extension, in a movie] to hearing a Black actress in a
documentary discuss how, "in the 1950s and 60s when a black person appeared on television
someone in the family would say, 'Come look!' and they would gather round to observe this
rarity - actual recognition of their existence on network television." Imagine the double-rarity of
a (positive) portrayal of a character who is both overweight and a racial minority.
As one might already expect, the fat, Black male is more casually regarded than the fat,
Black female, whose overweight body must inevitably be a shtick enhanced by her flamboyant
personality. Eddie Murphy's portrayal of Rasputia, the overweight character he plays in the
movie "Norbit" is a stockpile of every negative stereotype of fat, Black women. As Tracy Rose
writes, "Rasputia is a dominating, manly, opinionated, loud, obnoxious, annoying, shrill and
poorly-dressed obese woman. In the story, Rasputia saves Norbit [also played by Eddie Murphy]
from playground bullies and makes him her boyfriend. Years later she is still dominating him.
They are married, but when she is caught cheating on him, she tells him it never happened and
threatens him. She is a controlling hypocrite."
It is also a Fat Black Woman trope in Hollywood movies that said FBW tends to appear
very self-confident and seemingly unaware of the quantifiable levels of shame that other fat
people, usually fat, non-Black people feel. Rasputia also hits this mark in "Norbit." At one point
in the film, Rose writes, "She wears loud patterns, tight clothes, 'sexy' outfits, and - worst of all -
a two-piece swimsuit. When going through the gate to a water park, she is questioned whether
she is even wearing bottoms. She has to hoist up her stomach for [the employee] to see that her
own body has completely covered them. She proceeds to break the front entrance due to her size,
rip on [another] woman for being too skinny and fly through a wooden gate after ignoring the
weight limit on the waterslide and zooming down [it] at lightning speed." Rasputia is fat for the
sheer purpose of enticing audiences to laugh at her fatness. Her apparent self-confidence gives
viewers an easy out of feeling guilty for being amused by her antics. Thus, not only does
"Norbit" "elicit ... laughter at the expense of obese people" (Rose), it also contains an
uncomfortable racial component, one that Murphy himself seems to ignore. Tellingly, at the end
of the movie, Murphy's title character hooks up with the token "skinny, pretty girl" (Rose). His
character may learn to stand up for himself, but it is at the cost of subjugating Fat Black Women
by - literally - dismissing them as worthless.
In the same vein, shock-jock radio personality, Howard Stern, recently came under fire
for his disparaging remarks about Gabourey Sidibe, the overweight, young Black woman playing
the title character in "Precious," for which she received an Academy Award nomination. Stern's
comments speak boldly for themselves: "There's the most enormous, fat black chick I've ever
seen. She is enormous. Everyone's pretending she's a part of show business and she's never going
to be in another movie. She should have gotten the best actress award because she's never goin to
have another shot. What movie is she gonna be in?" In spite of Sidibe already having achieved
post-"Precious" work on Showtime in the new series, "The C Word," as well as in an
independent film called "Yelling to the Sky," Stern's remarks have a ring of truth to them.
Sidibe's size and race make her something of a commodity. While she has not been cast in any
romantic comedies, wherein the only role available for her would potentially be that of an
asexual, Black best friend, her size hardly makes her mainstream. Though cruel, Stern's
sentiment is that of much of America.
Naturally, race and weight do not only bisect in the realms of Black and White. Still, like
a fat woman in general, other minority characters being overweight are rom-com anomalies –
trying to think of specific ones on the spot is near-impossible. At best, other minority characters
tend to be cast in similarly archetypical roles alongside other better-known Hollywood tropes.
Case in point, Latoya Peterson, a contributor for the blog Racialicious describes a trailer for the
rom-com, "He's Just Not That Into You," based on a self-help book written by a straight, White,
male comedian. In the short TV spot, Peterson details a montage of all of the main, mostly-
female leads in the film, all thin and White: Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Scarlett
Johansson, Kevin Connolly, and Ginnifer Goodwin. Later, Peterson writes, "two heavyset black
women" are shown "sitting on a bench," wherein one comments to the other, "'Girl, you better
get yourself some ribs and some ice cream because you've been dumped!'" Not only are the
women examples of the worn Fat Black Woman stereotype, but they are also token minority
characters in a movie otherwise populated by thin, White characters. Peterson confirms this by
noting that the film contains PoC (Persons of Color) with such credits as "Tokyo Girl #1 and #2,
African Woman #1, 2, and 3, and Hot Girl." Presumably, "Hot Girl" is thin and exotic-looking,
unlike the Black women on the bench, at(/with) whom the audience is merely meant to laugh.
Arguably, casting someone based on her 'good' physical characteristics poses similar problems to
casting someone for the purpose of de-humanizing them based on their size. At the same time,
the line could have been said by a thin, Black woman while still adhering to the race-based
stereotype of eating ribs and the gender stereotype of consuming ice cream after a break-up. That
the casting director of the film chose to use a fat, Black woman in the role is adding another layer
to act of gorging oneself on food. Similarly, neither of the oversized Black women would ever
have had a chance at being cast as a "Hot Girl." That right is reserved only to a thin person. Was
the hot, Asian girl not skinny, she would have been completely invisible in the movie, i.e.: Not
cast at all. Such blind spots continue to keep not only overweight actors and actresses, but also
ethnic ones relegated to stereotypical bit roles.
In the same vein, the likelihood of seeing an overweight character in a movie that is also
gay is rare. The gay character presents an unsettling parallel to the otherwise heterosexual world
of the rom-com, wherein the entire purpose of the (straight) male and female leads is to come
together romantically. When considered alongside gender, the gay best friend must work to be
funny and sexually non-threatening. When paired with an overweight frame, the character is
almost certainly the polar opposite of the romantic leads. The movie ―Saving Silverman,‖
starring the conventionally cute Jason Alexander showcases Jack Black as a gay, overweight,
Neil Diamond-worshipping best friend, though his homosexuality is consistently a joke or cause
of concern in the film. Still, it is remarkable that such a hybrid character exists at all; not only
that, but at the end of the movie, Black‘s character ends up marrying his high school football
coach, twice his age and rather conventional-looking (i.e.: thin and ‗straight-acting‘). Though
their wedding is something of a gag at the end of the film, that Black‘s character finds happiness
with a fellow gay man at all is an anomaly.
In contrast, the movie ―Mean Girls‖ is progressive in many ways, including casting a
somewhat-overweight young man as Damian, who is colloquially considered ―too gay to
function‖ by his best (female) friend at school, and who routinely hangs out in the girls‘
bathroom and performs a Christina Aguilera song at the school‘s Christmas assembly. Still, at
the end of the film, his best friend goes on to begin dating the president of the Mathletes, a nerdy,
Indian fellow who is nonetheless skinny and something of poon-hound, whereas Damian‘s
sexuality politely fades into the background. The adolescent setting of ―Mean Girls‖ may have
something to do with Damian‘s lack of romantic partners; after all, it is not necessarily typical
for teenagers to be openly-gay in high school. At the same time, the message that Damian‘s
limitations send are notably oppressive.
While overweight characters, in general, are routinely played for laughs, their struggles
and victories rarely given the consideration or emotional depth that their slender counterparts
have by default, when combined with factors such as race, gender, and sexuality, the fat
character becomes even rarer and even more likely to be shoved to the sidelines. S/he – usually
he – is potentially uncomfortable to the viewer and to the mainstream audience as a fully-
functional, flawed human being. Thus, the fat, Black, gay woman and her fellow overweight
counterparts must assure society that they are less than that.
Second Helpings: Exceptions, Parallels & Controversies
Naturally, the best friend role in a rom-com is not the only realm in which fat actors and
actresses thrive, though it is by far the most common. Thus, exceptions, parallels, and related
controversies must also be considered. While Jack Black is no stranger to being the funny
wingman, for example, he occasionally is cast as a leading man, albeit with his weight still
lending cheap laughs to the script. In the movie ―Shallow Hal,‖ Black epitomizes an exception to
fat best friend casting when he plays an overweight man who must overcome the horror of
Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit to recognize that she is, in fact, human. Though the point of the
film is that Black‘s character eventually repents for his fat-phobia, at its core, Gwyneth Paltrow
in a fat suit poses the same problem for the fat-conscious viewer as Julia Roberts‘ fat suit-
donning does in the aforementioned ―America‘s Sweethearts.‖ That is, the focus is still on how
she is different, ‗othered,‘ alien, abnormal, and how Jack Black‘s character must learn to love her
in spite of that. ―I‘m sure that made a lot of women feel great about themselves,‖ Eric Jost,
correspondent for the blog, Amplify says derisively. Specifically, of course, he should refer to fat
women, whose silver-screen portrayal is routinely lackluster, at best.
In addition, movies are not the only realm wherein fat actors and actresses attempt to get
work. Fat-phobia is rampant across all aspects of American media, a fact enhanced by the
aforementioned Wendy-of-Pound‘s recollection of ―fat Monica‖ jokes on the ‗90s sitcom,
―Friends‖: "For a while it was enough to make verbal references to Monica‘s past life as a fat
person, sort of an inside joke. Skinny Monica would respond with little more than an exasperated
look — oh, you guys! - whenever Ross and Rachel and Chandler made jabs at her phantom fat.
The jokes were on nobody. But at some point it seemed everyone wanted to see the nobody, so
the show‘s writers put Monica in the fat suit, they wrote flashback sequences and alternate-
reality episodes in which she would appear. They made the joke bigger and brought us all inside
of it." That Monica is skinny in her present incarnation gives the audience leeway to laugh at her
sordidly fat past. Once again, like Julia Roberts' "America's Sweethearts" character, she is a safe
target because she is in on the joke, no longer (visibly) scarred by it.
In terms of controversy, the notion of the fat best friend as outdated is considerable. If it
is no longer appropriate to laugh at fat people, it follows that they will either be written more
conscientiously and respectfully into movie and TV roles, or they will be removed from the face
of media altogether. Unfortunately, the latter is an easier solution, one which already seems to be
in occurrence. Murray once again chimes in on this matter: "Although the statistics are that over
51% of Americans are over the insurance companies' suggested weights for their height, if you
were to look at television, motion pictures, and magazines you would conclude that most of us
are either lean or outright skinny with only an occasional slightly heavyset person." Once again,
fat has become an invisible epidemic in the media.
In recent years, perhaps beginning in the early 2000s, the role of the kooky friend has
increasingly been given to a skinny actor or actress; one whose personality is off-putting or over-
the-top enough to be able to sustain his/her role as a wise-cracking supporter of the romantic
leads in the movie. Nonetheless, s/he is as skinny (and often, shorter) than the lead actor/actress.
The "funny best friend" roles in "Failure to Launch" are all played by thin actors and actresses.
Tiny actress Zooey Deschanel plays Sarah Jessica Parker's "eccentric and moody roommate,"
whereas the similarly thin Justin Bartha and Bradley cooper play Matthew McConaguey's
character's pals. Though Fores lauds all three for being a strong supporting cast and generally
keeping the movie afloat, the only role that overweight thespians have been able to attain for
themselves consistently is being undermined by trimmer actors and actresses who can be funny
without the fat.
In the same vein, Roger Moore of the Arizona Daily Star describes the romantic comedy
formula as akin to "a cell-phone app any studio exec could access," and describes the rom-com
"When in Rome" as, in his opinion, a particularly tired example of the genre. "Cute couple?
Check. Romantic location? Check. "'Obstacles' to romance? Check. 'Wacky,' witty friends of
each young lover? Check and check," Moore writes. Of said wacky friends, Moore criticizes
Kate Micucci for being "funny looking" rather than funny, and bemoaning that the former is not
a substitute for the latter. At the same time, he fails to mention that Micucci is a pint-sized
actress filling the role traditionally played by an overweight actor or actress. In addition, he
leaves out a physical description of the tubby Danny DeVito, who nonetheless plays a "sausage
magnate" whose attempts to woo lead actress Kristen Bell's character - who is herself the
Hollywood ideal, thin and White - are even more pathetic, due to his size and age than those of
any of her other would-be suitors, all of whom are played by thinner, male actors: Will Arnett,
Jon Heder, and Dax Shepard. Similarly, Bell's character's "Mr. Right," as Moore puts it, played
by Josh Duhamel, fits all of the rom-com stereotypes provided by Branwen66 of Associated
Content, including his appearance. Though sensitive to the worn stereotypes of the genre, Moore
keeps his remarks about size to a minimum; he does not see size, in essence, because it does not
exist in the universe of the movie.
The decrease of fat actors and actresses being cast in previously-accepted roles is, once
again, not limited to the rom-com. In a featurette called "Casting Buffy," included on the fifth
season DVD set of the TV show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," creator Joss Whedon and company
describe what they were looking for regarding each character in the hit series. Notably, the half-
hour pilot of the show starred Riff Regan as Willow, Buffy's red-headed, bookish best friend,
"but it was eventually left unaired and network executives requested that Regan be replaced.
Willow's character demanded that she be shy and unsure of herself, and the casting department
encountered some difficulty finding actors who could portray this effectively and still be
likeable" (Wikipedia), the featurette offers. What it does not outline is that Riff Regan is
overweight; thus, that Willow is eventually cast as Alyson Hannigan, the aforementioned star of
"Date Movie" wherein she is yet another extremely slender actress wearing a fat suit for laughs is
considerable. Coupled with numerous controversies during its broadcast run regarding the
increasing pressure throughout the seasons for the nominally-female cast to slim down even
more than they already were, "Buffy" proved to have some nasty weight-related skeletons in its
closet, ones which the otherwise progressive-seeming Joss Whedon has never substantiated.
Similarly, a decade after "Buffy's" heyday, TV shows such as the new version of "90210"
are frequently taken to task in the media for their "skeletalization of women": "There is no
denying that Stroup and Grimes [who play Silver and Annie in the show, respectively] look more
than a little frightening - you have to wonder whether ... the show's producers tried to save
money by casting by the pound," an LA Times article quips about the girls' rail-thin frames. Like
"Buffy," the aforementioned skeletalization of the mostly-female cast of any show "'infects' the
rest of the cast until by, say, Season 3, all of the women are shopping for negative sizes." In
short, weight controversies are nothing new; media hounds are fascinated by how thin already-
slender actors and actresses can possibly get. That sites such as Celeb Height and Weight exist,
wherein one can search an exhaustive database of stars for estimates of their weight – ―Buffy‘s‖
Sarah Michelle Gellar, for example, is apparently sitting skinny between 98 and 108.03 pounds –
proves that this matters to people, possibly too much. In this sense, fat-phobia is so pervasive
that even non-fat persons are not remiss from its effects.
On a more positive note, though fat folks are an increasingly rare bird in the realm of
media, occasional exceptions do make themselves known. The previously-mentioned Jonah Hill,
though apparently working to follow in the now-slender Seth Rogen‘s footsteps and lose some of
his own bulk, continues to work with Judd Apatow in fat funny-man roles. Recently, however,
Apatow cast him as the lead in ―Get Him to the Greek‖ opposite Russell Brand, a sequel to the
film ―Forgetting Sarah Marshall,‖ in which Hill has a bit role as a fat super-fan of Brand‘s
raunchy British pop star. In ―Greek,‖ Hill‘s new character is responsible for getting Brand‘s
character to, naturally, the Greek, a concert hall in Los Angeles, so that he can perform at a sold-
out event to revitalize his stagnant career. Notably, Hill retains the charm that earned him
recurring bit roles in other Apatow flicks, with the addition of his character being in a romantic
relationship. Though the couple has its issues, and though Hill‘s opposite is a thin,
conventionally pretty young lady, the relationship is portrayed as stable, the focus rarely, if ever,
on Hill‘s corpulence. At the movie‘s climax, Brand‘s character tries to initiate a three-way with
Hill‘s character and his girlfriend, owing to tension between them all. Still, Brand‘s barbs at Hill
are never size-oriented. In the end, Hill is just another dude trying to do his job. Though he is
still noticeably fat in a leading role, the visual automatically making him ‗different,‘ the movie
does not focus solely on this.
In the same vein, while adhering to many similarly-worn stereotypes about gay men, ―I
Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry‖ showcases the previously-mentioned Kevin James as a
fat firefighter living in New York City, who must adhere to a sham gay marriage with his fellow
fireman, played by Adam Sandler, in order to keep an insurance policy for his children. Both
James‘ and Sandler‘s characters are stereotypically straight and masculine, owing to a rude
awakening when their co-workers begin to believe their shtick and treat them accordingly. The
movie provides a couple of vague lessons about confronting stereotypes; moreover, James‘
character‘s ability to be a firefighter while simultaneously being overweight is not called into
question. He simply exists. It is a heartening notion, though casting directors still have a long
way to go in order to re-master the romantic comedy with a truly progressive and fresh outlook,
one which showcases that they have considered some of the weightier issues of casting
decisions, and have worked through their own prejudices regarding fat actors and actresses, and
whichever other minority roles they happen to fill, on the silver-screen and everywhere else.
At his September 18, 2010 comedy show at the Pantages Theatre in Minneapolis, MN,
the aforementioned Patton Oswalt describes being contacted about playing a gay best friend in an
upcoming romantic comedy. Having previously riffed himself for his weighty frame during the
same show, Oswalt describes the genre as a whole as ―tired,‖ the dull romantic leads going
through a well-worn song-and-dance all for the sake of ―Trying to Fuck,‖ which he says should
simply be the title of all rom-coms. Furthermore, Oswalt claims that the only way he would even
consider such a stereotypical role is if his fat, gay best friend could offer horrible, nonsensical
advice, thus not furthering the plot or the relationship between the skinny romantic leads at all.
While it does not speak for all of the issues within the romantic comedy genre, Oswalt‘s point is
well-taken: Few characters in a romantic comedy are more than shallow archetypes, with
particular umbrage to be taken at the supporting cast. While all characters deserve better, the fat
actors and actresses who continue to hold onto the ever-slimming margin of best friend roles are
particularly due for more flattering characterization, one overhauling the worn stereotype of the
fat supporting character as an asexual blob living vicariously through his/her skinny friend. In
short, the role of the fat best friend in romantic comedies direly needs to be fleshed out.
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