Thursday, June 4, 2015

A few thoughts on Spy and being a fat lady

[Image text: Melissa McCarthy as a spy with a gun, but dressed as an older woman in a pink track suit and cat shirt]
I had a chance to see Melissa McCarthy's new flick, Spy, Wednesday night at a free advanced screening. (This will stay relatively spoiler free.)

It's not the best or funniest movie I've ever seen, but it definitely did crack me up. (I'm a sucker for McCarthy.) And in my usual fashion, I started to think about the messages in it. I got a little flummoxed. On one hand, McCarthy's character, Susan Cooper, is the butt of a lot of fat jokes and shaming...but on the other, it's kinda because everyone has underestimated her. She pulls through to prove herself an incredibly competent spy in the field--who takes things into her own hands (literally) and is successful in her mission, partly because she's able to leverage the stereotypes believed about her.

So that was kind of cool, but still something didn't sit right with me. Then I read Meredith Borders' piece at Birth. Movies. Death. and it all made sense. Borders posits that Spy is actually commentary on McCarthy's career. She writes:

Throughout the span of McCarthy's career, she's often played three types of characters: sweet, clumsy, adorable (Gilmore Girls, Mike and Molly, Samantha Who), dowdy and bumbling (Bridesmaids, Tammy) or raunchy yet surprisingly competent (The Heat). She plays each convincingly and with a certain amount of compelling charm, even when her character is meant to be profoundly uncharming. What she's rarely allowed to be - or has chosen not to glamorous and composed, which just so happens to be the persona McCarthy projects with ease on the red carpet and in interviews.
In Spy, McCarthy gets to embody all of these qualities, and something more besides. She begins the film as mild-mannered Susan Cooper, the sweet, pretty...ground support for super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She's Johnny-on-the-spot as spy support, but lives an otherwise unexceptional life as a pushover to her beloved boss's many demands. Once Fine and most of the CIA's top agents are compromised, Cooper is sent to Europe on a "track and report" mission, as her desk status has kept her, for all practical purposes, invisible to the crime world at large. She's excited to adopt a new spy identity - and then crushed to discover that the identity is a dowdy, single mother of four...After she proves herself competent in the field and is allowed to move to the next stage of the investigation, her new identity is no better: Penny Morgan owns ten cats and is vacationing in Italy with her Mary Kay money. This is what the CIA thinks Cooper can convincingly pull off, and it appears to be what Hollywood thinks of McCarthy, as well...Trusting in her own abilities and going off-book, she gives herself a glam make-over in order to ingratiate herself to arms dealer Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, as funny and ice-cold as ever). When that cover's blown, Susan again sheds her skin with remarkable facility, convincing the suspicious Rayna that she's actually an undercover, foul-mouthed, nails-tough bodyguard named Amber Valentine... She continues to transform, to evolve, to make rapid-fire identity changes based on the needs of the investigation and aided by her own quick wits and seemingly endless resources. By the end of the film, sweet, pretty Susan Cooper has absorbed the confidence and brass of Amber Valentine. She's not one or the other, she's both and more, and McCarthy's so bright we can barely look at her, the most irresistible she's ever been.
[Emphasis mine.]

I really like thinking about this comparison and commentary and while I think Borders is brilliant for realizing this, I think she stops short of fully exploring it. Borders mentions how stereotypes and patriarchy play a role here, but she never delves into the body politics of it all, which to me, seem so obvious. Susan Cooper as a spy getting to show off her sexy, put together, and glamorous side on her own terms (just like McCarthy does herself in real life) is directly remarkable because both Cooper and McCarthy are not seen that way by society as a default.

I mean, let's use McCarthy's costar, Rose Byrne, as an example. If Byrne played a character who reclaims her ability to be sexy and well dressed, it's ho-hum, because, that's like 99.9% of her roles. Who cares?

But not so for McCarthy, at all.

In fact, men being attracted to McCarthy's characters is usually a joke. "Someone attracted to HER?! Whaaa!? Unheard of! Of course their sex life is all weird!" (Think about the final scene in Bridesmaids.) Spy is guilty of playing into this same trope through the aggressively sexual Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) who is constantly hitting on and groping Susan (for our laughs). Of course this bothered me a lot, but if we look at it through the lens of McCarthy navigating the world as a fat woman, it takes on a different spin. (That doesn't justify it, but just hear me out.)

I'm not suggesting that writer/director Paul Feig intentionally took things this way, but if you listen to single fat women navigating the dating world for about .2 seconds, you pretty quickly learn that male "fat admirers"/"chubby chasers"/fat fetishizers can be some of the most aggressive, harassing people to fat women, especially online. As I see shared by numerous fat women almost daily, the line of thought seems to be that fat women should be thankful that ANY dude wants to fuck them and so bad behavior should be tolerated; expectations lowered. (Thanks, misogyny + fatphobia...with a dash of heterosexism for good measure!)

So, in this film McCarthy is dealing with the overly aggressive, gross harasser while she's kicking ass and taking names as an awesome fat lady. It felt simultaneously disgusting and also surprisingly on point. Again, I'm not giving Feig the credit of weaving in the Aldo story line for anything other than cheap laughs, but he still struck a chord with me.

Like I said in the title, this is juts a few thoughts on the film so I'm not offering a really in-depth blow-by-blow critical analysis. Regardless, I will say that overall, Spy, was enjoyable but has a LOT of problems from a feminist perspective that I didn't even get to here. But this idea of McCarthy's character being a comparison against her life and career as a fat actress really made me think.

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