Barbara Plotz, Fat on Film: Gender, Race and Body Size in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (London: Bloomsbury, 2021), 282 pp.
Nowadays, every time we turn on the news, there is a crisis. Whether it is the changing climate, the recent oil crisis, another war, or the global hunger crisis—it is hard not to notice that we live, in fact, in a world in crisis. While poverty and starvation have existed since time immemorial, the world seems to be fighting a new problem that has been growing over the last few decades: global obesity. Consequently, countries such as the United States have been trying to raise awareness about the supposed health consequences of obesity. In 2015, the World Obesity Federation officially established the World Obesity Day, which takes place on March Fourth each year and aims at “stimulating and supporting practical actions that will help people achieve and maintain a healthy weight and reverse the global obesity” (World Obesity Federation).
The medicalization of body size and other related developments like the emergence of neo-liberalism—which has turned health into an economic good achievable through self-controlled, responsible, and well-informed consumer choices—have increased phenomena such as fat shaming and fat phobia. As a critical response to this widespread pathologization of fatness, one could witness the emergence of the American Fat Acceptance Movement and “fat studies” as an academic discipline (Plotz 3)—which, for the purpose of destigmatization, uses “fatness” instead of terms such as overweight or obesity due to their negative association with disease and unhealthiness (5). One of the most recent and innovative interventions from the field of fat studies is Barbara Plotz’s Fat on Film: Gender, Race and Body Size in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. The author critically analyzes the cinematic representation of fatness and related common tropes in mainstream Hollywood films since the 2000s, covering a wide range of genres, including children’s movies, comedy, and drama. By arguing that male fatness is deemed more acceptable than female fatness (9) and that the cross-genre construction of fat African American characters, for instance, as asexual, maternal, or childlike and clumsy, frequently reproduces stereotypes such as the Mammy (2), Plotz successfully draws attention to the centrality of gender and race in discourses of fatness.
After a brief but well-rounded overview of the current relevant theoretical approaches in fat studies (ch. 1), the first section (ch. 2 and 3) focuses specifically on the correlation of gender and fatness. Based on a close reading of films from different genres such as Monster House and The Hangover, Plotz assesses how the fat male body is frequently infantilized and demasculinized by presenting it as clumsy, cowardly, and careless (29) in order to emphasize the normative masculinity of slim characters. This affirmation of normative masculinity becomes particularly obvious in films featuring a fat African American character (e. g., The Blind Side) through their stereotypical representation as asexual and childish (43): “The slim white man fulfils the norms of masculinity by gaining financial success and ‘getting the girl,’ whereas the fat black man is presented as de-sexualized comic relief” (38). Moreover, the author convincingly points out that anxieties about the perceived decline of White working-class masculinity are displaced onto the fat, male body in films like Paul Blart: Mall Cop (55): “The fat man is positioned as the other extreme, just as hyper masculinity, with the middle ground presented as desirable in terms of masculinity” (48). The feminization and demasculinization of the fat male body both serve to hide ongoing White male privilege in American society and create a more easily obtainable ideal of masculinity overall (45). Like the fat male body, the fat female body is also constructed as outside of normative femininity in films such as Bridesmaids and Dodgeball. For Plotz, this body represents “the epitome of non-normative femininity” (68), which is illustrated by its association with other non-normative feminine qualities such as the open display of physical violence and sexuality (77). Plotz again stresses the centrality of race and gender in discourses about fatness by arguing that films with a fat female African American character such as Norbit frequently evoke problematic stereotypes like the Mammy or Sapphire (127).
Section Two (ch. 4) is devoted to the genre of comedy. Based on the analysis of films like Hangover and Pitch Perfect, Plotz demonstrates two types of fat slapstick comedy: The first type relies on the stereotype of the fat body as “a body out of control” (132), by presenting it as clumsy and physically unfit. The second type of slapstick functions through an exaggerated emphasis of the volume, size, and weight of the fat body with certain sound effects, choreography, and framing (136). For example, fat characters are frequently shown falling down, which is underlined by a close shot of their bodies and by the use of loud sounds (137). Including the phenomenon of “fat gross-out” in her research, Plotz argues that it is usually fat male characters who are meant to signify the most excessive gross-out behavior such as puking and urinating in public (157). The fat body therefore becomes the locus on which anxieties of the slim character’s own bodily existence are played out (159). Plotz also notes a difference between the depiction of fat female and fat male gross-out: Whereas male performances of gross-out are actually depicted as enjoyable or as a bonding experience between male characters (167), female characters either become a “repulsive object of the male gaze” (165) or their behavior is responsible for the end of their friendship with other female characters (167).
The third section (ch. 5) is a study of the correlation between food, eating, and the construction of the fat body. Fat male characters such as Zach in The Hangover Part II are, for example, frequently depicted consuming sweets (194). Candy, however, is associated with femininity and childhood. Food is thus used as a form of demasculinization and infantilization in film (193). In the last section (ch. 6), the author analyzes the positioning of fat characters as outsiders. By looking closely at films such as The Blindside and Notorious, she argues that fatness, even though it is outside of normative beauty ideals and is, therefore, a marginalizing factor, fat shaming and fat phobia are not addressed sufficiently by the film industry (229). Apart from comedies like Hairspray, which center on the issue of fatness as a motive for exclusion, other genres concentrate more frequently on other aspects such as race, class, and gender (229).
Fat on Film is an illuminating and important read, which successfully illustrates how the film industry, notwithstanding the slowly emerging body positivity in American society, has so far failed to adapt to these changes by continuously presenting fat characters as objects of disgust, ridicule, or a source of comedy. With her close reading of more than fifty contemporary American films, the author beautifully demonstrates the value of film analysis for fat studies and the relevance of race and gender for the analysis of fatness. Since fat studies often focuses on constructions of female bodies, it is particularly noteworthy and refreshing that Plotz looks at both the male and female body. Although female fatness is still more stigmatized than male fatness in film, the fat male body also deserves attention in the way it is often marked as infantile and feminized. Moreover, Plotz manages to highlight the harmful and stereotypical construction of fatness in seemingly innocent and funny genres such as comedy and, therefore, forces her readers to critically reflect on their own perception of the fat body. Overall, this is a well-structured and well-written book based on convincing and strong—if sometimes slightly repetitive—arguments, which will hopefully provide an incentive for further incorporation of film analysis into the field of fat studies.
Annika Kraftzyk (FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg)
“World Obesity Day.” World Obesity Federation n. d. Web. 22 February 2023. https://www.worldobesity.org/what-we-do.