Laughing about Melissa McCarthy – Thoughts of a Conflicted Fan

By Evangelia Kindinger


Ever since I saw her as Sook­ie St. James in Gilmore Girls (2000–2007), I’ve been a fan of the actress Melis­sa McCarthy. She was one of the few fat women on TV whose fat­ness was not a top­ic of con­ver­sa­tion with­in the series’ uni­verse or a motif to nar­rate the character’s sto­ry­line. (If you are sur­prised by my unin­hib­it­ed use of the word “fat,” I sug­gest you google Fat Stud­ies.) She was a chef, a wife, a moth­er, an impor­tant mem­ber of the Stars Hol­low com­mu­ni­ty, and ulti­mate­ly, a best friend to pro­tag­o­nist Lorelei Gilmore. Although the “fat-side­kick” cliché cloud­ed my love for the series, I accept­ed it as the price to pay for such an uncon­ven­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fat fem­i­nin­i­ty on television.

Only with the release of the com­e­dy Brides­maids (2011) did I real­ize McCarthy’s poten­tial and tal­ent as a come­di­an which has since then cat­a­pult­ed her into star­dom. Annu­al­ly released come­dies (Iden­ti­ty Thief, The Heat, Tam­my, Spy, The Boss, Ghost­busters) – ­some bet­ter than oth­ers – have put her on cen­ter stage. McCarthy is an incred­i­bly phys­i­cal come­di­an; she embod­ies her humor. In The Boss (2016), she is, for instance, shown being thrown against the wall by a dam­aged pull-out-bed, falling down the stairs, suf­fer­ing tem­po­rary face paral­y­sis after eat­ing fugu, and falling off a build­ing onto a pile of trash. These moments of severe injury and body vio­la­tion are not fun­ny per se, they rather sur­prise the audi­ence and make them laugh at the unapolo­getic dis­play of McCarthy’s fat, female body. And they turn her into an unre­al­is­tic car­toon char­ac­ter. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in the case of The Boss, these moments do not always make for good com­e­dy (nor does part­ner­ing her up with Peter Din­klage; it is too obvi­ous that we’re sup­posed to laugh at the grotesque imagery that is cre­at­ed when “extreme” body shapes meet and in this case, fight and kiss). In Paul Feig’s high­ly antic­i­pat­ed and con­tro­ver­sial­ly dis­cussed remake of Ghost­busters – although part­nered with three oth­er tal­ent­ed female come­di­ans – it is again McCarthy who offers her body for comedic pur­pos­es, as she is not only pos­sessed by a ghost, but is once again shown defy­ing grav­i­ty, appar­ent­ly the fun­ni­est thing that can hap­pen to a fat per­son. In one of the most mem­o­rable scenes of the movie, she is thrown around by a mal­func­tion­ing pro­ton pack, the ener­gy weapon the Ghost­busters use to weak­en ghosts while her friends watch in fascination.

I admit, I am always con­flict­ed when I watch McCarthy’s movies: How can I laugh about her being staged as an irra­tional, mas­culin­ized, hyper­sex­u­al, non-empa­thet­ic char­ac­ter (Brides­maids, The Heat) or a piti­ful lon­er who is under­es­ti­mat­ed and betrayed by her male part­ners (Tam­my, Spy) – obvi­ous­ly all effects of her fat­ness? How can I laugh at com­e­dy that pri­mar­i­ly shows the fat female body do sup­pos­ed­ly unex­pect­ed things? (She can lift her leg! She can run! She can wear a sexy dress!) I believe in body pos­i­tiv­i­ty, in the need for pos­i­tive images of all body shapes in the media, for the need to reclaim the word “fat” as an adjec­tive, and in the mis­guid­ed ide­ol­o­gy of the “obe­si­ty epi­dem­ic” that is uti­lized to scare us into diet­ing. I know that fat peo­ple have his­tor­i­cal­ly been abused for cheap jokes whose pur­pose is to stig­ma­tize fat­ness as unde­sir­able, mon­strous, and dan­ger­ous to soci­ety. Espe­cial­ly women’s fat­ness is under­stood as a fail­ure to con­trol the female body; there­fore, stigma­ti­za­tion and pub­lic denounce­ment is seen as a method to con­trol women’s bod­ies by sham­ing them into invisibility.

As I write this, I real­ize that this is why I laugh and I cher­ish McCarthy’s com­e­dy – she is any­thing but ashamed or invis­i­ble. If you are hes­i­tant in accept­ing my praise, watch Paul Feig’s Spy (2015). As unap­pre­ci­at­ed but high­ly com­pe­tent CIA-ana­lyst Susan Coop­er, she man­ages to get into the field and uncov­er a black mar­ket ring for nuclear weapons. Her first alias­es are quite reveal­ing of the com­mon imagery of fat women in Amer­i­ca: Coop­er is forced to mask as a Mid­west­ern soc­cer mom or a crazy cat lady. This, so Coop­er is promised, will ren­der her invis­i­ble and enable her to inves­ti­gate in secret. Invis­i­bil­i­ty doesn’t help her though; she final­ly solves the case by becom­ing vis­i­ble, a process that starts with a stun­ning make-over scene, after which she draws atten­tion in a sexy dress and befriends the boss of the oper­a­tion, Ray­na Boy­anov. Cop­per does not dis­play any inse­cu­ri­ty about the dress, her body shape, or her abil­i­ties as an agent.

Please acti­vate javascript to watch the video

This movie con­vinced me that we need McCarthy’s pres­ence on screen. She allows us to laugh, not only with her (the polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect kind of laugh­ter), but actu­al­ly about her. We need to laugh about her in order to appre­ci­ate sub­ver­sive moments like these. She has embraced her tal­ent with­out con­sid­er­ing how this might per­pet­u­ate fat sham­ing; she will not be shamed, instead she uses her body as a tool, just like all actress­es and actors. Look­ing at oth­er rep­re­sen­ta­tions of fat women in com­e­dy of the last decades – next to Nik­ki Blonsky’s out­stand­ing per­for­mance in the remake of Hair­spray (2007) – all I see are fat suits: John Tra­vol­ta in the same Hair­spray remake, Mar­tin Lawrence in the Big Momma’s House movies (2000–2011), and Gwyneth Pal­trow in Shal­low Hal (2001). It seems as if fat is too pre­car­i­ous to show unless it is an illu­sion and pre­sent­ed in the “safe” space of a drag per­for­mance: “Don’t wor­ry, these peo­ple are not real­ly fat!” Watch­ing McCarthy’s movies is any­thing but safe. Instead, we are forced to deal with the real­i­ty of fat­ness. It exists and always will just as oth­er body shapes exist and always will. Fat women can be fun­ny, but don’t have to. They can be like­able, but don’t have to be because, well, they are human beings.


 17,887 Total Views,  2 Views Today

Evan­gelia Kindinger is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor for Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Ruhr-Uni­ver­sität Bochum. Her aca­d­e­m­ic inter­ests include: pop­u­lar cul­ture (espe­cial­ly film and tele­vi­sion), 19th cen­tu­ry women’s writ­ing, Fat Stud­ies, Gen­der Stud­ies, and the study of the Amer­i­can South. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her sec­ond book, a study of the sig­nif­i­cance of the red­neck stereo­type in Amer­i­can culture.