Critic's NotesFemale Stars Step Off the Scale
By Alessandra Stanley, The New York Times
- Oct. 14, 2012
On her new show, “The Mindy Project,” Mindy Kaling plays a single doctor who is irked but not undone by a male colleague telling her she should lose 15 pounds.
Neither is Hannah, the character Lena Dunham plays on her HBO comedy, “Girls.” When a boyfriend asked her about her tummy flab, Hannah replied: “No, I have not tried a lot to lose weight. Because I decided I was going to have some other concerns in my life.”
On the MTV show “Awkward” it’s the high school bully, Sadie (Molly Tarlov), who is a little overweight, not her victims, and her avoirdupois doesn’t diminish Sadie’s power or confidence.
Self-acceptance has become a new form of defiance on television, especially among younger female comedians. Partly that’s because it’s refreshingly unusual. There’s little comic shock value left in profanity, obscenity or intolerance, but it’s still quite rare and surprising to see a woman not obsess about her waistline.
And gaining weight, it turns out, is the most outrageous stunt Lady Gaga has pulled to date. Instead of wearing raw animal flesh at a public event this summer, she wore her own — the one metamorphosis that even Madonna wouldn’t dare undertake. “I am not going to go on a psycho-spree because of scrutiny,” the singer stated after admitting she gained 25 pounds. “This is who I am. And I am proud at any size.”
Lady Gaga isn’t the first to fill out; if anything she is a follower in the sudden rise of the unapologetically not-thin. A few performers have flouted convention by flaunting a curvy figure, notably Kat Dennings, a star of “2 Broke Girls,” Christina Hendricks of “Mad Men” and Christina Aguilera on “The Voice.” But it’s most evident in female comedians like Ms. Dunham and Ms. Kaling, who have more power to break rules: by writing their own material and creating shows inspired by their lives, they can set their own standards of beauty and defy the dictate of stylists and casting directors in a way that other actresses cannot.
A lot of rules are being broken in romantic comedy. It used to be that plain, stocky fellows like Seth Rogen surprised everyone and got the gorgeous girl. Now Rebel Wilson, an Australian actress and comedy writer, is the plus-size bride who gets a dashing, adoring groom in “Bachelorette.”
And in that sense this license to eat marks a generational shift from comedians in their 40s like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who made their mark by being funny and also more feminine and pretty than comedy pioneers like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers. Ms. Fey has said she lost some 30 pounds to make the move from “Saturday Night Live” writer to performer. Ms. Dunham and her cohorts — a generation raised on Tyra Banks don’t-judge-me rants and after-school programs about anorexia — are rebelling against the ever more exacting standard of beauty in show business.
They don’t go on diets or have liposuction to fit into red-carpet outfits; they let out a seam. (Ms. Dunham actually did one better: in a skit for the Emmy Awards last month, she posed unclothed on top of a toilet seat, eating an entire cake.)
Ms. Tarlov said in Seventeen magazine that Sadie is interesting because she isn’t defined by her figure or hampered by it socially: “When people talk about characters who struggle with their weight or with food they go to either end of the extreme; there are rarely characters who are just a little bit heavy. That’s what I think is really incredible about this show; it’s not like Sadie is in danger or anything.”
Theirs is a celebration of moderate immoderation that clashes with the prevailing tendency to go always to the furthest edge of excess, especially when the subject is weight.
Fat is perhaps the most overexamined problem in America, where there is no right or wrong, just yo-yo extremes. One second women are encouraged to embrace their fuller selves in ads for Pond’s and in talk shows, women’s magazines and reality series like “Curvy Girls,” which follows a group of plus-size models.
And the next, talk show hosts, women’s magazines, Hollywood, health experts, the first lady and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sound the alarm about the obesity epidemic.
Fashion has it both ways: models and actresses are stick-thin on runways and red carpets, but department stores have entire sections dedicated to plus-size designer clothes by the likes of Michael Kors and Calvin Klein.
Accordingly, society makes a show of supporting people who make peace with their extra pounds, but we really celebrate those who declare war on their bodies. Jennifer Livingston, a news anchor in Wisconsin, went on the air to publicly scold a viewer who wrote her an e-mail suggesting that her excess weight made her a poor role model, and she became a cause célèbre. But on its daily news crawl, CNN gives the same breaking-news urgency to an item about the death toll in Syria and a comedian who underwent gastric surgery (“Lisa Lampanelli loses 80 pounds”).
Somewhere in between there are women coming forward to claim the category “none of the above.” But it still requires some explaining. In a collection of essays, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” Ms. Kaling put it this way: “Since I am not model-skinny, but also not superfat and fabulously owning my hugeness, I fall into that nebulous ‘Normal American Woman Size’ that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I’m a Size 8 (this week, anyway). Many stylists hate that size because, I think, to them, I lack the self-discipline to be an aesthetic, or the sassy confidence to be a total fatty hedonist. They’re like ‘Pick a lane.’ ”
And that Manichaean scale is all too evident on the screen. Actresses and reality-show stars are either whippet thin or startlingly large, especially after “The Biggest Loser” turned massive displays of weight into a politically palatable spectacle, shaping what could look like a freak show into a self-help manifesto.
There was always room in comedy for a fat friend, but it’s only recently that overweight women started being cast as romantic heroines or sexual temptresses. Donna on “Parks and Recreation,” who is played by the actress and comedian Retta, has an active love life and a naughty streak. (She reads “50 Shades of Grey” at the office.) Ms. Wilson of “Bachelorette” also has a star turn in the movie “Pitch Perfect” as a plump and uninhibited college a cappella singer who cheerfully calls herself Fat Amy so others won’t have to behind her back.
Society is beginning to be more honest about the price some women pay to stay thin, helped along by celebrities who almost daily confess to eating disorders like bulimia, most recently Nicole Scherzinger, former lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls.
On the recent USA channel mini-series “Political Animals,” the beautiful, perfect and petite fiancée Anne (Brittany Ishibashi) leaves her engagement dinner to slip into the ladies room and put her fingers down her throat to toss up her meal.
“Drop Dead Diva” was a breakthrough hit for Lifetime when it began in 2009, because the lead character, Jane Bingum, played by Brooke Elliott, was plus-size. But fat was still a touchy subject; writers posited a woman who is obese only because of a twist of fate: a slim, bubbleheaded blonde dies and comes back to life switched into the physique of a smart, Rubenesque lawyer.
“Mike & Molly” (CBS), which co-stars Melissa McCarthy, is a comedy about very overweight lovers, but the joke isn’t really about flab, it’s about the odd-couple romance of people who met at Overeaters Anonymous.
These characters reflect a changing American norm: just as many designers chose in the 1990s to deregulate dress sizes (a Size 8 is now a 10, adjusted for body inflation), entertainment producers have had to find room for women in sizes that are familiar to most of America — then double them for comic or dramatic effect.
And that is what’s so seditious about comedians like Ms. Dunham and Ms. Kaling: Their weight is no big deal. They can be a little defensive when people ask about their extra few pounds, but they don’t let it deter or define them. To prepare for a blind date Mindy changes her outfit, not her dress size. Ms. Dunham has Hannah prance around her apartment in her underwear, unself-conscious.
Ms. Dunham’s success has made her a literary it girl, and her proposal for a book about life, love and sex, “Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned,” sold to Random House for over $3.5 million last week.
In one episode of “Girls,” Hannah tells her parents that she thinks she may be a voice of her generation. Turns out she may actually be its body type.http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/14/arts/television/women-on-tv-step-off-the-scale.html?ref=television&_r=0