Tropes are terrible but some are positively insulting. We look at the recent resurgence of the ‘Fat Best Friend’ trope and why it needs to go.
I know I am really late to the party, but I have only just watched Lady Bird. Now, as happy as I am for Greta Gerwig, a female director, to be getting recognition at the Academy Awards for her film, I am really surprised at how many tropes showed up in the film – the most egregious being the existence of the fat best friend.
Where did the trope come from?
One of the more recent criticisms against Lady Bird is that it is far too similar to the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves. Unfortunately, unlike that film, which features a fat and proud protagonist, played by American Ferrera, Lady Bird chooses to side-line the only fat character in the film to best friend status, putting the spotlight instead on the conventionally attractive and thin Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan.
Why is this a problem, you may ask. The success of films such as Get Out and Wonder Woman last year may have given people the impression that Hollywood is making progress towards more inclusive cinema, but they are wrong. Films are still overwhelmingly led, written and directed by straight, white, cis men, and the stories we see on the big screen inevitably reflect that.
The way such films try and show progress when the protagonists are generally white and/ or men, is to include a friend from a minority community. The minority best friend could be a person of colour, a gay best friend, or, as in the case of Lady Bird, someone who is fat.
This particular trope often works to fool audiences into thinking that the writer/directors are inclusive in their casting and writing. They may have given us yet another thin white male/female protagonist, but at least the next best thing, the friend, is different. We have seen it countless times – Pitch Perfect, Bachelorette, 50/50, The Full Monty, Lord of the Rings – there are too many to mention.
Let me tell you, this trope is awful.
Where did Lady Bird go wrong?
Now, I do not want to pick on Lady Bird, one of the best reviewed films ever, but I cannot help it – this is 2018 and we need to talk about this trope.
The titular character is a straight white woman (played superbly by Ronan), which some may see as a deviation from the norm of the straight white man. But unfortunately the story centres around her so exclusively that her fat best friend, Jules (Beanie Feldstein), is left with nothing but crumbs as characterisation.
When we meet Jules, we know she’s a happy, supportive person. She’s incredibly smart and has a crush on her teacher, but thankfully does not act on it, thereby circumventing a trope far too many films fall into. Then we find out she is a talented actor – she has been cast as the romantic lead in a school play, opposite a fellow school student both she and Lady Bird have been eyeing.
But before Jules can make a move, or share a chaste theatrical kiss with the boy on stage, the script has Lady Bird swoop in and nab the love interest, reiterating to the audience that fat people don’t get or deserve love. We mostly see Jules with regards to Lady Bird’s story. The moment Lady Bird loses interest in her, Jules veritably disappears.
How exciting would it have been for audiences to see a fat woman in the lead role of a coming-of-age film instead of yet another thin woman? And how much is the film doing for body-positivity by side-lining the only body-positive character in favour of a character who looks no different from every other woman we see on film?
As touching as Lady Bird is, and as deserving it and its creator Gerwig are of recognition and applause, there is a stale and familiar feel to its storytelling, which simply does not fit with today’s need for broadening our story subject-matter and the landscape of characters who live in it.
2017 Failed its Fat Characters
Lady Bird is hardly the only 2017 film to fail its fat character. Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman also suffered from the same trope. Peter Parker’s best friend, Ned, is also fat, and a person of colour. He has a lot of personality but absolutely no story. He exists primarily to serve Peter’s story. Wonder Woman’s love interest Steve Trevor’s secretary/ friend, Etta Candy, is another fat person with tons of personality but no story. From all the excellent things we loved about these two superhero films, the best friends/ side-kicks were very high on that list. So, why weren’t they given their due?
When films such as these centre their stories around conventionally-written characters but surround them with characters from so-called minority communities, they often give the impression of being more diverse than they actually are. Whereas this tactic worked well in the 90s, and even the early noughties, by 2018, society in general is much more ‘woke’ about representation. Viewers are beginning to ask questions of what they are shown on screen instead of placidly absorbing media. Thus, makers of films need to step up and work harder to make their casts and stories not just inclusive, but representative.
I am not saying this is an easy task, especially as so many of the people who get a chance at making films in Hollywood fit the narrow ideals of that community. We can only see more body-positive characters, and better representation overall, if the people behind the scenes are able to see fat people as people and not as a box to tick when assembling their casts.
Where do we go from here?
Unlike with race and sexual orientation, prejudice against large people is still seen as a normal reaction. Fat-shaming is often encouraged, in the hopes of coaxing otherwise ‘lazy’ fat people to lose weight. This is an attitude that is pervasive throughout many societies, not just Hollywood, so chipping away at it will require a concerted effort.
But you know what would help? Seeing positive fat characters on screen! Let audiences watch fat people, especially fat women, lead films, and not films that are explicitly about their ‘struggles’ with being fat and such. Just regular films, genre films, dramas, anything and everything, but instead of a supermodel-esque white woman, put a fat woman in the lead. Give us fat superheroes. Give us starship captains who just happen to be fat women.
We know Hollywood is more accepting of ‘unfit’ looking men – they’re everywhere in cinema, even taking on lead roles in genre films. Why haven’t they extended that acceptance to women?
When you look at media as a whole, films are actually lagging behind in this area of representation. Comic books are succeeding in including fat characters. Faith is a wonderful fat female superhero whose size is barely mentioned. The Jem and the Holograms comics have singers and musicians and designers who incidentally happen to be fat protagonists. Television is doing great things, as well. Look at Orange is the New Black. It is possible!
It takes one person, just one, to accept that a lack of fat-representation is a problem to begin with and to do something about it. Stop excluding fat characters or relegating them to best friends or backdrops. Till this is achieved, we will be watching and we will be calling Hollywood out.