Rex Reed lit a fire under the blogsphere last week when his negative review of Melissa McCarthy's Identity Thief referred to Ms. McCarthy as "cacophonous, tractor-sized" as well as a "female hippo". On one hand, at this point in time, getting pissed at something Rex Reed said is a lot like being outraged that Anne Coulter said something racist or that Armond White panned Toy Story 3 by comparing it unfavorably to Transformers 2. It's just what they do, and being outraged over it just gives them the attention they crave and thrive on. He also made a statement at the end of the review which stated that Ms. McCarthy is "a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious". That statement gave me pause, because quite frankly, there may be some kernel of truth to it. Okay, Gilmore Girls fans like myself know that McCarthy has been in the industry for around fifteen years, so "short" is inaccurate right there. And calling a woman a hippo makes you an asshole and possibly a misogynist. But the rest of it, the seemingly insulting part about the root of her stardom... he may be indirectly correct.
For better or worse, much of the attention that Melissa McCarthy has received at this point in her career as been at least partially inspired by the fact that she doesn't look conventionally attractive. Most of the attention that she has received in her career has been partially inspired by the fact that a woman who looks like her (body size and what-have-you) has nonetheless found massive success in an industry that considers women over size 2 and over 30 years old to be outside the professional standard. Even if we all agree that Ms. McCarthy is funny and a talented comic actor, the extra oomph of press attention surely comes partially from our desire to pat ourselves on the back for making someone who looks outside the Hollywood norm into a female comedy star. We see male versions of Melissa McCarthy all the time, be it the likes of Kevin James, Chris Farley, or John Goodman. Frankly I think if a critic had referred to James as a 'hippo' no one would have accused him/her of fat-shaming, even though the charge would arguably still apply. So obviously the outrage in question is a matter of a gender-based double standard. But to what extent is the current stardom of Melissa McCarthy, or at least the current marketing of McCarthy, specifically about not necessarily rebutting this issue but playing into it for theoretical comic value?
Anyone who has seen at least Gilmore Girls or the worth-tracking-down Ryan Reynolds film The Nines can theoretically speak to the idea that Melissa McCarthy's entire career is not built upon exploiting cultural mores related to body size. And while Mike and Molly isn't 22 minutes of non-stop fat jokes each week on CBS, it is periodically (often?) marketed as such as the source of its allegedly comic appeal. Nonetheless, the current "Melissa McCarthy: Film Comedy Superstar" is arguably built upon the idea, or at least marketed on the idea that McCarthy is a heavier woman who nonetheless has the self-confidence and sexual libido of a more conventionally attractive person. Why is that explicitly or implicitly funny? We jump over ourselves to praise the talents of anyone outside the conventional norm even as we often ignore that their stardom is at least partially based in their willingness to let audiences laugh at the very things they are supposed to be celebrating. Is is supposed to be funny in the otherwise terrific Bridesmaids when Melissa McCarthy basically forces herself on a random airplane passenger and refuses to take no for an answer? Putting aside the whole 'male rape is funny' double-standard, why exactly should the idea of someone who looks like Melissa McCarthy having sexual feelings and acting on those feelings automatically be considered comical? That's just one scene in a movie that does try to make McCarthy's character about more than her appearance.
But if you look at the marketing of the current slate of McCarthy films (such as The Heat and the just-released Identity Thief), the comedy apparently stems from the very notion that Melissa McCarthy is playing a socially uncivilized character who couples her interior inappropriateness with an exterior that goes against societal norms. The question is simply, would Melissa McCarthy be a comic superstar if she didn't look like Melissa McCarthy? And are we laughing *at* her because she looks like Melissa McCarthy? We pat ourselves on the head at our ability to support anyone outside the conventional norm, but how often do we ask why exactly is that person succeeding? By laughing uproariously at Kim Cattrall's man-eating ways in Sex and the City, were we really implicitly slut-shaming her by virtue of finding it outrageously comic that a woman would pursue and bed numerous casual one-night stands? Why exactly is that in-and-of-itself funny? Bringing Down the House built much of its comedy on the 'shocking' idea that Steve Martin and/or Eugene Levy would find the rather larger-sized (and initially unkempt) Queen Latifah conventionally attractive. Oh sure the film pretends to be about race, but let's not pretend that if Zoe Saldana, Aishia Tyler, Thandie Newton, or Kerry Washington had showed up on Martin's doorstep looking dressed to the nines that Martin would have thought "Oh dear, but she's black!" to audience guffaws.
There is nothing wrong with laughing at such a show or movie if it is funny within the context of its own narrative. But I think it's a little foolish to applaud ourselves for doing so while also attacking those who point this out, even accidentally. We all pretended to be outraged when Bret Easton Ellis tweeted that Kathryn Bigelow owed her success to the fact that she's an attractive woman who makes conventionally male-specific genre films. It's a tough thing to deny that Bigelow's current stardom, however overdue, is *now* due to the fact that she is all of the things Ellison described, especially considering how the Oscar narrative in 2010 was all about making sure that the scary and mean James Cameron didn't take away poor, helpless Bigelow's deserved Oscar. Media narrative matters, as anyone who follows the Oscars can tell you. The narrative is that a win for Melissa McCarthy is a win for women who look like she does. I suppose the question is, is that true and does it matter? Is Melissa McCarthy currently being marketed as 'come watch the fat lady act gross and/or gross out the skinnier people around her"? And if so, is there really anything wrong with that?
McCarthy is a professional actress and her best bet at snagging lead roles rests in the kind of parts that arguably mine humor from her size. It's arguably the same situation that any number of African-American actors ("Should I play that jive-talking sidekick or not work at all?") or Middle Eastern actors ("Should I play that terrorist or not work at all?") among others face in any given day. But I would argue that we don't generally celebrate actors playing into the negative stereotypes of their respective cultures. We tend to applaud them when they break out of those boxes. I don't necessarily think there is anything wrong with the current comic stardom of Melissa McCarthy being rooted in what arguably amounts to subtle fat-shaming. African Americans are perfectly within their rights to enjoy Soul Plane or Obsessed without being lectured as to why they didn't race out to see Rosewood or Pariah. Women are perfectly free to enjoy Disney princess stories and/or Twilight movies free of judgment no matter how much they may depend on gender-centric stereotypes. McCarthy is making a bloody fortune and is showing off genuinely impressive comic skills in the process (her outtake reel in This Is Forty is arguably the funniest moment of that dramedy). But I do think it is also perfectly okay to acknowledge that true progress will come when McCarthy has a shot at lead roles that aren't inherently built around her weight and the comic exploitation of that weight.
Applaud Melissa McCarthy because we have a new 'open it by yourself' comic movie star in an industry desperately searching for new stars. Applaud McCarthy because she is a genuinely funny and spirited comedian. But considering her box office triumph to be some kind of progressive statement is foolhardy, as I'd argue that it is inherently rooted in the very notion that overweight people (especially women) acting with the self-confidence and libido usually prescribed to younger/skinnier women is inherently funny. And, without getting too pious about it, I frankly don't agree.