thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Many Roles of the Divine Melissa McCarthy

In gender on October 5, 2011 at 8:42 am

Sarah Todd

There are three things I have to say about Melissa McCarthy right off the bat. First, she is hilarious. Second, she is beautiful. Third, I am very glad that she is riding a huge wave of success, from critical raves for her Bridesmaids turn to an Emmy award for Mike and Molly (which by general consensus was really for her work in Bridesmaids, but fine, since it’s unlikely the stuffy old Oscars will toss a nod in Bridesmaids’ direction) to her recent gig as the host of Saturday Night Live. The more often McCarthy shows up on screens large and small, the more the world gets to bask in her charismatic, goofy presence—and that’s an excellent thing.

However, I also think it is important to take a close look at the types of roles that have thus far been available to McCarthy as a plus-size female comedian. Some people, with good reason, have raised concerns that these roles—in particular, her part in Bridesmaids as a tough, sexually aggressive, not-very-ladylike member of the wedding party—rely on fat jokes and stereotypes about overweight women. (On a sidenote, I use the word “fat” in this article either in the reclaimed sense or in order to convey cultural tropes and prejudices regarding overweight people; by no means is it meant as an insult.)

In order to take a close look at these concerns, let’s check out McCarthy in three screen appearances: as Sookie in Gilmore Girls, Megan in Bridesmaids, and in multiple sketches on last week’s SNL. (I haven’t seen Mike and Molly and I have a (perhaps unjust) bias against laugh-track sitcoms, but I’d love to hear from readers about how her role on that show fits into this analysis).

In retrospect, I wonder if Melissa McCarthy was a little bored in her seven seasons as Sookie on Gilmore Girls. As Sookie, she got to be cute and high-energy and quirky and neurotic. But the part didn’t really call for much of a wild side or for physical humor, and it’s now clear that these are two of McCarthy’s strengths. However, one great thing about the way the show depicted Sookie was that her weight was never an issue. I can’t recall a single episode that mentions anything about her body type, or that plays on any stereotypes related to overweight people. Sookie was supposed to be funny and pretty, a great chef, a loyal friend, and a devoted wife and mother, and she was indeed all of those things. Her weight never entered into the discussion of her abilities or happiness. Nor did the show suggest that her weight was a problem to be overcome or a personal failing.

I suppose you could make the argument that Gilmore Girls would have done an even better job of depicting a character who happens to be plus-size if it had occasionally shown Sookie dealing with the prejudice that is so common—and, unfortunately, so widely accepted—against overweight people. However, Gilmore Girls, for all its fine qualities, isn’t exactly known for its realism. (Don’t even get me started on Lorelai’s spending habits versus income.) And I actually liked that Gilmore Girls embraced a somewhat utopic vision of Sookie’s life (wherein she never encountered discrimination for her weight). As per Richard Dyer, the show depicted Sookie’s life not as it necessarily would be in the real world for a plus-sized woman, but her life as it could be, if anti-fat prejudice were not so ingrained in American society and culture. Furthermore, by refusing to make an issue of Sookie’s weight, the show successfully skirted the trap of making her into a token character (“the fat best friend”). Instead, she was just Sookie.

Meanwhile, along with the rest of the world, I loved McCarthy as Megan in Bridesmaids. Not only was she gutsy and boisterously hilarious at every turn, she transformed what could easily have been a cardboard character into a three-dimensional one. In a heart-to-heart chat with Kristen Wiig’s Annie, for example, McCarthy easily slips between encouragement, inspiration, and tough love (“stop hitting yourself!”), all without sacrificing humor or succumbing to corniness. Megan is the kind of woman who, in her enthusiasm for golden retriever puppies, decides to adopt nine of them, and who can spot an air marshal a mile away—in other words, an awesome one.

But much as I adored McCarthy as Megan and enjoyed the film as a whole, I thought that Bridesmaids relied too much on jokes relating to McCarthy’s weight and her supposedly “insatiable” appetite—both in terms of her sexual appetite and her appetite for food. She runs for the door of a Brazilian restaurant while her more slender companions saunter or hesitate, just as she declares her intent to climb a wedding guest like a tree or blocks another potential conquest from passing with her leg. The scene in the closing credits of the film is particularly guilty of this charge. Megan and her boyfriend make a sex tape that prominently features a sandwich, and the joke seems to be about bodily excess in the realms of sex and food, as concentrated specifically in McCarthy’s body.

In an attempt to underscore the humor of Megan’s attempts at seduction, the film also seems to label her as “unattractive”—a designation that arises from her perceived lack of traditional femininity. Her voice is loud, her manners are kind but rough. She appears bare-faced, her hair is unstyled, and she favors pants and button-down shirts where the other bridesmaids wear skirts and “girlier” outfits. Her physical movements are assertive and swaggering. In essence, she scans as somewhat butch—which is completely fine and a welcome on-screen representation. The problem arises in the other characters’ reactions to Megan, which cue the audience response. Because of her weight, in conjunction with her mannerisms, she is supposed to be somewhat repellant to the opposite sex and to her more delicately-natured female acquaintances. The movie wants us to love Megan—hence the heart-to-heart talk with Annie that helps humanize her character—but it also wants us to laugh at her excessive appetites and supposed grossness, each of which the film links, directly or indirectly, to her weight.

Similarly, although I thought McCarthy did an amazing, incredible job on SNL—her enthusiastic Hidden Valley taste-tester who could really use $50 to get out of “a couple of jams” lit up my soul—I think it’s fair to question how much the show’s writing played on her body type as a source of humor. I didn’t spot any outright fat jokes, but there were plenty of sketches in the grey area between general slapstick and jokes that employed stereotypes about overweight people (and specifically overweight women) as clumsy, unattractive, and insatiable.

For example, in the Lulu Diamonds sketch, McCarthy plays a Mae-West-esque character whose films require her to walk up the stairs—a task that her clumsiness makes unachievable. The skit is more or less an excuse for McCarthy to a) demonstrate a variety of excellent pratfalls that made me giggle out loud and b) deliver non sequiturs in a wisecracking tone of voice. I thought the sketch was pretty funny, in that silly repeat-the-same-joke-so-it-becomes-increasingly-ridiculous way that I love, and a great means of letting McCarthy showcase her talent for physical comedy. But it’s worth questioning whether Lulu’s problems with stair-climbing are supposed to be tied to her weight, and if we could imagine a more slender actress in the same role, making the same tumbles.

At the same time, I wonder if this question itself isn’t problematic, as great comedians are supposed to use their physicality to humorous effect. They put knobby knees and elbows, rubbery facial expressions, wild unkempt hair, and statures short and tall to use in the service of laughs; that’s what physical comedy is all about. Obviously, McCarthy is an incredible physical comedian, and her body—along with her impeccable timing and perfect delivery—is naturally one of the tools she uses in her trade. But because she has the kind of body type that is woefully under-represented in comedy (particularly among female comedians), it starts to get tough to distinguish between roles that let her use her body for physical humor and roles that try to make the joke about her body.

Another SNL skit that walks this line is the aforementioned Hidden Valley taste-tester sketch, in which McCarthy donned a short curly wig and Spock sweatshirt and acted lovable in a desperate-focus-group-member way. The point of the sketch isn’t so much that her character loves Hidden Valley as that she is very eager to please (and highly interested in 50 smackaroos). However, the image of McCarthy squirting ranch dressing into her mouth, all over her face, and eating it off her sweatshirt with a spoon plays into exactly the kind of stereotypical imagery of plus-size people satirized by Nancy Upton in a recent American Apparel contest. Even if the idea behind the sketch isn’t “look at the fat woman who loves eating salad dressing”—and I don’t think it is—that particular image nonetheless plays into a long history of clichéd ideas about how a person’s body type supposedly corresponds with his or her eating habits, willpower, and appetite.

On the whole, these roles certainly have problematic aspects. However, they also can’t be dismissed as entirely stereotypical or negative—in large part thanks to McCarthy, who brings heart and talent to each of them, preventing any of the parts from falling into strictly clichéd territory. Instead, I think these parts provide an interesting way to begin to measure present-day cultural attitudes toward weight and body image. McCarthy is on a hot streak, and that’s good for comedy and good for body diversity in the entertainment industry. But the roles she is offered seem to rely too much on jokes or assumptions about her body. Here’s hoping that the next time we see her, she’ll be playing a part that’s all the more hilarious for not relying on jokes that are both lazy and untrue.

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