On Tammy And Hollywood’s Focus On Body Image, Food, And Humor

I saw Tammy 33 weeks pregnant with my first child, unable to bend down to pick up the box of Junior Mints I had dropped on the theater floor. That same morning, a little boy accidentally stumbled into the women’s locker room at the pool, pointed at my naked body while I was rubbing stretch mark cream into my belly, and screamed. As a 30-something fortunate enough to have maintained an average weight my whole life, I’ve struggled to adjust to this heavier frame. I move with less self-assurance carrying an additional 35 pounds. I was eager to indulge in a woman-centric comedy featuring a lead actress who has been increasingly vocal about her talent being independent of her weight, who is comfortable in her skin.

But Tammy – one of the few movies this year to pass the Bechdel test with flying colors – left me feeling disappointed by its wavering portrayal of female body image.  Melissa McCarthy, who wrote the script along with husband Ben Falcone, delivers us a world of contradiction: characters kindly side-step fat jokes, while Tammy herself is a food-addict caricature with impulse control issues and a willingness to initiate self-deprecating sizeist humor.

I’m not sure why Tammy has to be such a food focused film. The heart of the story is intergenerational female bonding. Tammy is a luckless woman on an absurdist voyage of self-discovery. What if, instead of working at a burger chain, Tammy had been a Fed-Ex employee? What if she had succeeded in jumping over the counter on her first try, instead of failing over and over in a classic fatty slapstick move? There is a fine line between body intrepidity and self-exploitation for the sake of a laugh. McCarthy herself, responding to New York Observer critic Rex Reed’s calling her “tractor-sized” and a “female hippo” last February, offered the following reaction in a recent New York Times interview: “Really? Why would someone O.K. that?” going on to lament the “strange epidemic of body image and body dysmorphia” that is of particular concern to her as a mother raising two daughters. What if Tammy hadn’t demanded a bag full of pies mid-robbery and eaten them all in one night?

One of the generous allowances of Tammy is that McCarthy and Falcone normalize the notion of an average-size man being attracted to a heavy-set woman. This romantic subplot in the film – arguably unnecessary – runs counter to the “fat girl” harangue that Sarah Baker (who also appears in Tammy) delivers this season on Louie. In that speech, Baker’s character Vanessa sets Louie up as a straw man for all men who simultaneously steer clear of big women while expecting them to silence their struggle to be thin, asking “Why do you hate us so much?”  But there is no male hate for fat girls in Tammy.   Bobby, Tammy’s love interest, falls for her after only minimal interaction. He never makes an issue out of her weight, even when McCarthy goes so far as to self-identify as a snack food during their almost-first kiss: “I’m like a Cheeto,” she says. “You can’t have just one.” At the end of the film, when Bobby pursues Tammy to Niagara Falls and they do kiss, two yellow-ponchoed figures enveloped in the mist, the moment is undercut by Tammy thinking she has spotted her bag of renegade Cheetos in the water.  Bobby laughs, not at all ill-at-ease, or the least bit concerned that she would turn to food in an intimate moment.  That laugh rings disingenuous and feels below McCarthy’s smarts.  It also seems to suggest that we as an audience shouldn’t care about Tammy’s lack of positive change in the realm of personal addiction, while we should feel good about the sobriety of Pearl, Tammy’s vivacious, diabetic, formerly day-drinking grandmother (played by Susan Sarandon).

In admitting my own discomfort with a 35 pound weight gain, I’m not suggesting that being pregnant is the same as struggling with obesity. But it is the first time I’ve felt truly resentful of and preoccupied with food, having to give up bread and most processed sugar to stave off gestational diabetes. And it’s the first time I’ve experienced strangers approaching me with something to say about my body. Pregnancy is permission for the public to have a platform, often a cruel one, in much the same way I imagine being overweight is. “You shouldn’t drink caffeine.” “Are you sure there aren’t two in there?” I didn’t solicit these comments. I was just running errands. But sometimes, I find myself complicit in a larger cultural pregnancy narrative. I give in to cravings not because I’m having them, but because I’m expected to have them. I’m supposed to whip up brownies in a mug in the microwave in under 5 minutes. Everyone thinks this is hilarious, both as a status update and as an act.

I worry that even with agency over a script and with the best intentions, McCarthy has written herself deeper into our American assumption of what it means to be heavy.  Tammy doesn’t insist on subverting the Hollywood standard of thin. In fact, by removing the typical cheap slant commentary – I’m thinking of Love Actually, where Aurelia’s heavier sister is referred to as “Miss Dunkin’ Donut 2003 by her own father – we’re left with the sadder, more troubling realization that a female lead can promote obesity gags all by herself. No one else in the film reacts to Tammy’s excessive devaluing of her body, which makes that devaluation more apparent. Pearl is the only character besides Tammy to harshly draw attention to her size. She does so as part of a public speech in a drunken stupor, calling her “Cheeseburger.”  I wish this conversation, this acknowledgement of Tammy’s food dependency, could have happened sober or with more gravitas. The film would still have been funny. Alcoholism is given both a light and dark treatment.

Even though I’m sensitive to this issue, I catch myself participating daily in female body shaming that masquerades as praise, or confidence, or jest. Just yesterday, I was singing along to Jason Derulo and Snoop Dogg’s summer hit “Wiggle”: “Hot damn it/Your booty like two planets/Go head, and go ham sammich.” On the surface, this is a playful, welcome celebration of curves. In reality, it’s just more male objectification of the female body – and not even the body as a whole, but a specific part. How much more reductive can we get? I feel like McCarthy missed a valuable opportunity to offer a corrective. Having women talk sincerely about their bodies, both in art and in life, is a start to undoing damage.
“I’m fat,” Venessa asserts on Louie. “It sucks to be a fat girl. Can people just let me say it?” Tammy would be better off if she could say it. Not all plus-size women suffer from low-esteem. Not all heavy-set actresses should be cast in roles that emphasize weight. I would love to see more slapstick comedies with large female leads who don’t devolve into walking weight issues. I’ve been a fan of McCarthy since her Gilmore Girls days, and Sookie is a prime example of a character whose size was never referenced by writers or integral to her development, in spite of her working as a chef frequently surrounded by overflowing tiers of pastry. But Tammy’s flirtatiousness and lack of inhibitions – a deliberate nod to body confidence – don’t offset the fact that her character wrestles with weight-related self-esteem, or at the very least, an obsession with food. Her car is littered with burger wrappers. In the heat of storming out of a diner, she still pauses to take her breakfast biscuit with her. And in one of the most depressing moments of the film, after Pearl boots her out of their motel room so that she can have a one-night stand, we see Tammy curled up horizontal outside the door, clutching the half-consumed package of powered donuts she had earlier fought so hard to retrieve from a vending machine.

Three teenage boys in my theater laughed uncontrollably at this scene, yelling “fatty!” into the dark. What happens when even our champions of female body acceptance are dismissed? What happens when excessive consumption is rendered comical, at the expense of empathy? Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Amazon / Tammy

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