Nobody Loves a Fat Woman on Film

Lynne Murray says:

Finding fat men in film was so much fun that I thought I’d blog about fat women in film. Not so much fun. After all I’ve seen about fat women being excluded, I should not have been surprised to find that there are so few. The golden age of film from the 1920s to the 1950s coincided with and contributed to the crystallization of the idea that a woman’s body type should fall within a very narrow range–and getting narrower.

ethel_watersHere’s a picture of Ethel Waters, one of the few exceptions I talk about in this essay.

These fat-hostile restrictions applied to men as well. The fat men in film I celebrated in my last guest blog here were not leading men. Even the genius, Orson Welles, moved from leads into the character actor realm when he gained weight. But fat women barely showed on the radar at all. From the first recorded (anonymous!) fat leading actress in 1912’s Nobody Loves a Fat Woman until the present Age of Anorexic Actresses with Implants.

In his appreciative essay on fat men in the golden age of cinema, which I discussed here, Dana Gioia imagines a banquet attended by 25 luminaries of the classic silver screen.

The hefty heroines heavenly banquet would not be nearly so well attended. Only Hattie McDaniel could meet the weight requirement to sit at the Big Guys table at the celestial Brown Derby with W.C. Fields and Charles Laughton.

There are no female equivalents in that period to the irrepressible fat comics like Oliver Hardy or the Three Stooges and no visual language in film where fat in a woman suggests expansive wealth or a huge capacity for evil. We have to wait for decades before women could demonstrate physical power in a film as Shirley Stoler did in The Honeymoon Killers or Seven Beauties and Kathy Bates did in Misery in 1990.

I had to stretch the definition of fat to find even six more fat character actresses to attend an afterlife banquet. (Mae West would have made it seven, but she was so elaborately corseted and over-the-top sexually aggressive that I doubt anyone thought of her as “fat” in her heyday and she would have rejected an invitation to a fat women’s celebratory banquet in the afterlife.) With the exception of McDaniel, most of these women would be considered simply “large or voluptuous” by any standards other than Hollywood’s–but then the movies have moved into our brains and blinded us to what is normal.

For me it is a pleasure to look at a picture of Hattie McDaniel, because she is first of all exuberantly comfortable in her own fat body. She is the first African-American (and the second fat woman, after Marie Dressler–see below!) to win an Academy award. She won in 1939 for Best Supporting Actress playing Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy, a slave, in the Civil War epic Gone with the Wind. The number of roles she play has never been accurately counted, and may be as many as 100. She received criticism for playing maids, in fact a film about her life, Beyond Tara details that her actual contract with producer David O. Selznick, restricted her to “mammy” roles.

McDaniel worked against this stereotyping, but from within the system, investing her versions of such characters with “humanity,” or sometimes even a bit of “subversive” attitude (shrewd line readings, suggesting some measure of righteous anger directed at her white “employers”). By the time Selznick cast her in GWTW, Goldberg reports, McDaniel had “enough clout to insist on certain script changes,” excising the word “nigger” from the script, along with Mammy’s own references to “De Lawd.”

Most of the time, however, McDaniel had to put up with indignities in order to work. And work she did. Born in 1895 in Wichita, Kansas, McDaniel was earning money early in her life, as part of a family performance troupe, made up of her brothers and sisters and managed by her ex-slave father, who, Goldberg tells us, “didn’t want his daughter to be a domestic.” Later, responding to criticism of her choices, McDaniel would echo this sentiment, famously saying, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week, than be a maid for $7.”

The African-American connection to fat women on film echoes the situation in vaudeville in the early 1900s. In an insightful 2006 essay Nobody Loves a Fat Woman: Portrayals of Female Obesity in Early American Cinema, Joseph Kerr talks about how the transition from stage to screen did not include fat performers.

Kerr suggests that, “Visibility is permitted on stage, but a permanent visibility on celluloid is more problematic.” He discusses how even before films, fears about fat women’s sexuality intersected with stereotypes about race.

[Sophie Tucker] began performing on stage at age sixteen, around the turn of the 20th century…. She was persuaded to perform in blackface by vaudeville managers in New York who apparently felt that, because she was a large woman, the audience would warm to her more easily if she took on the ‘Mammy’ role so familiar with the minstrelsy tradition.” … [T]hey were leery about showing a fat white female performer. In fact, Tucker performed in blackface for a number of years at the beginning of her career to disbelieving audiences. … “Tucker enjoyed pulling off a glove at the end of a performance ‘to show I was a white girl’ to a presumably shocked audience.

Tucker only appears briefly as herself, singing in front of a band in a few films, but, although it’s a little off-topic for fat women in film, but I can’t resist including the campaign song for Tucker’s 1952 run for the White House, “Sophie Tucker for President”

The photomontage that accompanies the YouTube clip references Hillary Clinton, although I’ve never heard any Clinton campaign promise that offered women voters nightly visits from Clark Gable “with a big long Kosher salami and a bottle of Manischewitz Wine.”

In the early 1900s, while Sophie Tucker was singing suggestive songs on stage, American Mutoscope & Biograph and Thanhouser were releasing a few films, all comedies, featuring fat women, and in some cases fat men in drag portrayed fat women. Where there are cast lists, the men’s names are listed in the credits, the women’s are not. Nobody Loves a Fat Woman, the only Thanhouser film to feature a fat female in a leading role played by a female actress, was released in 1912 and the actress who played the role was not identified by name. The parallel with anonymous porn actors seems clear to me.

In Bodies Out of Bounds, Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco suggest that “[T] obese woman is an unruly woman, a paragon of outrageousness and transgression.”

The road to respect for fat actresses was rough. One who finally made it at the end of a long theatrical career was Marie Dressler, who won an academy award as Best Actress in 1931 for her performance with Wallace Beery in Min and Bill.

Her biographer writes:

[S]he soared to late life stardom with a string of hits …. But she was then past 60, large and ungainly, and had the self-described face of a “mud fence.” How did she become the darling of the movie world? Her earthy warmth, well-practiced humor, and fantastic charisma were sweet medicine for audiences devastated by the Depression. …

Even before her triumphs of the 1930s, Dressler was a social activist and feminist who fought for women’s suffrage, co-founded Broadway’s first actors’ union, and toured the country selling bonds during World War I.

Marjorie Main is another actress from that era, who may not really qualify as “fat” anywhere but in Hollywood dress size. I remember her with fondness because I grew up watching the Ma and Pa Kettle comedies on TV.

Then we come to the unforgettable Margaret Dumont, a statuesque woman usually seen in black evening dress with a long rope of pearls, being accosted by Marx Brothers, particularly Groucho. As a Marx brothers fan, I’ve heard interviews where Groucho maintained that Dumont never understood the jokes. But some material suggests that Dumont faced a tougher dilemma.

As the frequently humiliated victim of the Marx brothers anarchy, in public as well as on screen, my guess is that Dumont was trying to hang on to her job by not fighting back. Even a battle-scarred stand-up comic of the present day would hesitate before entering into a full-scale, public practical joke war with the Marx Brothers. It also seems like the brothers were most adept at dishing it out, and perhaps might not have been so amused if one of their targets shot back. Dumont had no power or leverage and could easily be replaced as a foil. I’m guessing she put up with a certain amount of humiliation, even when it drove her tears, in order to keep the best acting job she ever had, and indeed the main reason we even remember her name today.

Fifth on my list, and impressive in her accomplishments, is African American Oscar nominee, Ethel Waters. A biographical website explains that Waters began as a singer and became a stereotype-shattering actress,

Appearing in nine films between 1929 and 1959 … Waters transformed the image of the older black woman from that of the servile “Mammy” to the self-sufficient Earth Mother.

Sixth and last, specializing in ditsy old lady roles such as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), is Britain’s Margaret Rutherford, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The V.I.P.s in 1963 but is most known as Miss Marple in the MGM movie series from 1961-1965.

Although this is hardly a golden age of fat women in film and television, I have to conclude with some irony that television and some films have made fat women actresses much more visible. Women’s role in writing and producing these shows is a major factor. Roseanne’s excellent television series was a great breakthrough and in 1990, Dolly Parton and Sandy Gallin’s Sandollar Productions gave us a season’s worth of size-positive situation comedy featuring Wendy Jo Sperber, Susan Peretz and Lesley Boone as three sisters in Babes, Parton even guest starred as herself in episode #14 entitled “Hello, Dolly”.

The basic standards now for actresses are more draconian than ever, as a 2008 dialog with a casting director and an actress demonstrates:

“Without a glance at my head-shot or resume, and not even a decent introduction, this stranger looks at me, all 5 feet and 2 inches, 125 pounds of me and says, “You need to lose twenty or gain thirty because where you are right now, I can’t do anything with you.”
The young actress was a little shaken by the information as well as a bit confused. Not wanting to be rude, she asked; “Can you elaborate on that?”

To which she replied,

“Your face says ingenue but it wouldn’t quite work, and I can’t put you as fat best friend because you’re not *exactly* fat.” (— Katy, Broadway)

Blogger Dr. Robyn at kissmyassets asks, “Have we gone mad?’

My answer is that we’ve been mad for quite some time. We’re simply upholding and deepening a longstanding tradition.

And yet, the list of fat actresses in the past two decade or so has become long enough that I am sure I will leave some out when I list in no particular order: Esther Rolle, Nell Carter, Dawn French, Marianne Sägebrecht, Darlene Cates, Patrika Darbo, Camryn Manheim, America Ferrara, Queen Latifah, Mo’Nique, Jennifer Hudson, Nikki Blonsky, I know there are more. I have hope, but that just could be my own madness kicking in.

14 thoughts on “Nobody Loves a Fat Woman on Film

  1. If we’re talking about tv not just film, and UK not just US … may I offer Carolline Quentin and Catherine Tate. Not deathfat by any means but surely not anorexics with implants, either.

  2. Just another woman tax, right? As though pursuing a career in film weren’t difficult enough, women have the extra challenge of changing their bodies. You’re right: it’s madness.

  3. “[The] obese woman is an unruly woman, a paragon of outrageousness and transgression.”

    I loved this quote so much I twittered it.

    Wow. There really was a 1912 film called “Nobody Loves a Fat Woman”? I would love to know more about it.

  4. I’ve been planning a blog entry on Marie Dressler for some time now!! Glad to see her mentioned elsewhere….although you pre-empted much of what I was going to say on my blog!!

    I came across her last year while doing some research on Buster Keaton and silent films, and was so surprised to see a fat woman at all, let alone one who held her own onscreen in that era. She was pretty good…..and I’d never heard of her before. Amazing.

    It really is amazing how many more fat men than fat women you see on film, TV, and stage. Even though they often get stuck in the stereotypes too, they are at least SEEN, are allowed to play a far more diverse set of roles, and actually get to play romance and sex without having to play the insecurity card always too.

    I get really frustrated by the limited diversity I see on screen, and size diversity in women is particularly lacking. Ugh.

  5. Another fat, confident tv actress is Kirsten Vangsness, who plays Penelope Garcia on Criminal Minds. She’s my favorite character on the show. She’s a fat, sassy, flirty, geek with a cute boyfriend.

  6. Unruly? Transgressive? No kidding. That’s why John Waters created a movie (Hairspray) where the fat girl gets the hot guy. It’s much more transgressive than having an actor eat dog poop on camera.

  7. Vixen, I love the term “deathfat” it sounds like a book title to me! Thanks for the Caroline Quentin heads up, I found a link to an article about her 11-years-younger husband, she’s quoted as saying: “I’m built like a brick outhouse, aren’t I? So whatever you do, don’t piss me off!” Gotta love it!
    also Catherine Tate
    Plus you reminded me of another English, modern actress of size, Dawn French!

    Ramona, I hope as we see more women screenwriters, directors and producers more sensible body images on film will begin to emerge–perhaps that’s as much a prayer as a hope!

    Patia, from what Joseph Kerr says in his “Nobody Loves a Fat Woman” essay, the film no longer exists (not surprising as out of 1000 the company released, only 180 remain), but several snarky, fat-bashing reviews of that and a couple of other films with fat heroines are available in the film company archives. Kerr got his info by combing through Thanhouser Films: An Encyclopedia and History CD-ROM and I just noticed that the website devoted to preserving information on the Thanhouser film company is where his essay is archived online.

    wellroundedmama, I hope you do that blog on Marie Dressler because I look forward to reading more about her, she sounds like an amazing woman as well as a great actress.

    Piffle, I love the screen name, makes me think of Lord Peter Wimsy and how Harriet Vane told him, she’d consider marrying him just to hear him talk piffle! Thanks for the reminder about Kirsten Vangsness TV’s Criminal Minds, Her character shows such attitude and competence, and yet vulnerability. In this interview, she sounds pretty cool too!

    Linda, I have adored John Waters’ incorrigibly iconoclastic way of thinking. It’s as if he found a holy calling by declaring nothing sacred. I just found this interview with him, from 2007!

    I think there’s a blog in there–“mainstreaming of gay culture” anyone? Speaking of mainstreaming, I think we’re going to have to find many brilliant fat stars shining in the face of prejudice before we can mainstream fat culture–well, I think we’re building a size positive culture. Who was it that said Niagara Falls wasn’t build in a day? Or was that the Three Stooges?

  8. Lynne, I had already seekritly inserted Dawn French into your list of modern actresses at the end when I put up the post, just because I love her.

  9. I’ve been looking for ideas for an upcoming Costuem party where we are to dress as someone from TV, Movie, or musical group from the 50’s- 80’s.
    Being 5’10 and robust I have had a go at locating plus size actresses and have come up with a few to add to your list. Be aware they may not have started out large and in charge but are now.

    Tyne Daley of Judging Amy, Sharon Gless currently staring in Burn Notice, Nancy Parsons known for her roll as the gym teacher in “Porky’s”, Pamala Ferris played Agatha Tudbaugh in” Matilda” with Danny Devito, Julie T Wallace known as Double D in #007 movie “The Living Daylights” with Timothy Dalton and, Dame Joan Plowright widow of Sir Laurence Olivier.
    She played Mrs Martha Wilson opposite Walter Matthau. In my search I’ve noticed there are many more plus size actresses in the UK, espesially caucasian ones and more plus size women of color in the US.

  10. Thanks, Jaft! Belated reply, Melissa, hoping your costume party went well! As an update I just recently rented Secret Society, a strange little British “Full Monty-style” film about a women’s Sumo wrestling club in Yorkshire, it’s notable for its empowering attitude and beautiful photography of supersized women.

  11. I am so thankful for this article, it further proves what I’ve been saying all along about women’s role in Hollywood, except this article far better expresses the idea in words than I ever could. As a fat woman and a filmmaker, I hope to change this funk we’re stuck in. I’m tired of women just being written as the sexy love interest in a comedy every single time. Women can be funny, bright, insightful, crude, ironic, witty, improvisational too, if given the chance, and fat women are rarely given a chance.

  12. I’m sad that it seems that there is a criticism between fat and slim women, why not treat all women equally?

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