- By Sophie van Brugen
- The entertainment reporter
Why are fat characters so often the center of the joke or the center of pity? A new documentary raises questions about the lack of complex portrayals of plus-size people on screen.
Actress Siobhan McSweeney is best known as the imposing headmistress of Derry Girls, Sister Michael, a nun almost as large in stature as she is in character, and an imposing figure in both respects.
Two years ago, the actress starred in a very different role in the ITV Holding drama. But the press was only interested in one thing.
“All they wanted to ask me was the love scene and how brave I was doing it because of my body shapes,” she says.
Now McSweeney is lending her voice to a new documentary that aims to give fat people a fairer and more balanced portrayal in the media, as well as in society at large.
Filmed over six years, Your Fat Friend follows author and podcaster Aubrey Gordon from her first brutally honest online post, written under the pseudonym that doubles as the documentary’s title.
Describing her “fat experience,” she recalled being booted off the plane, being denied doctor’s appointments and talks, and endless attempts to diet. Gordon was a size 26 – equivalent to a 30 in the UK.
The documentary explores what happened after her post went viral. Viewers see him evolve and speak publicly about an issue that affects millions of people around the world.
During her journey into the public eye, Gordon amassed a large following and became a New York Times bestselling author and host of the Maintenance Phase podcast. It takes an unflinching look at societal perceptions of fat people and the fat on our bodies.
At a preview screening of Your Fat Friend in Scotland covered by the BBC, it’s bitterly cold and wet and yet there’s a huge queue of people snaking around the pavement waiting to get into the Glasgow Film Theatre. Their teeth chatter from cold and excitement.
“It’s a sensitive subject and one that had to be handled with absolute care,” documentarian Jeanie Finlay tells BBC News. “I’m looking for stories that are untold, people who aren’t in the spotlight with considered perspectives. I wanted people to see a realistic experience of what it means to live with a larger body.
“If you look at the way LGBTQ+ stories have been told over the years, they’ve become much more nuanced on screen because people have a better understanding and have challenged the prejudices that these stories have been told with in the past. Why can’t we? Don’t we? the same with body size?”
“Fat people can be heroes, not just jerks,” says Finlay.
This point was echoed by the audience at the show’s Q&A, as many mentioned the lack of on-screen representation by major actors in film and television. The ones that do exist fall into the same tropes; the fat friend to the skinny, attractive main character or the depressed lonely fat person who is either bullied, pitied or despised.
McSweeney is a longtime admirer of Gordon’s work, so when she was asked to host one of the Q&A sessions, she jumped at the chance.
“Aubrey is kind of a talisman, the atmosphere was electric. It shows how important it is to explore the subject more deeply,” says McSweeney.
Recounting her memories of those reporters asking about her love scene, she adds: “It’s completely wrong – they weren’t trying to be insulting, but I think it’s something deep-rooted that means we can’t let’s deal with this issue”.
The actress is now well-respected and established in her career, but when she started out, she was constantly told to lose weight.
Casting director Shaheen Baig, whose credits include Lady Macbeth, Peaky Blinders and Black Mirror, says: “I hope we get to a point with a character and script where it doesn’t specify body size. I still think people have a lens limited. when it comes to what the characters might look like – there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
“As a casting director, things are improving, but it’s very slow and nowhere near where it needs to be. People say it’s an open playing field, but it’s not.”
She adds: “Directors, producers, commissioners and studios need to think about characters in less conventional ways and also commission a wider variety of scripts.”
Critics have cited the film as an insightful look at fatness that is often overlooked and rarely acknowledged by Hollywood.
However, Christian Zilko of IndieWire said that while the film “succeeds in offering a nuanced portrait of a writer and the views that made her beloved, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film actively infantilizes the very demographic it seeks to elevate.” .
“Gordon’s points about mental health and unrealistic media expectations would be much stronger if they weren’t offset by her criticism of healthy habits and resistance to solving a problem that is literally killing people,” he wrote. . “Even if it rightly identified a problem in the way American society treats fat people, the film’s fatal flaw is its insistence on replacing one extreme with another.”
Finlay’s previous documentary credits include Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, Sound it Out and the BIFA-winning Seahorse.
Historically, shorthand characterization in literature and film has been for bad, funny, or stupid characters to be fat or ugly.
“It’s so lazy and reinforces stereotypes,” says Finlay. The examples are endless: Miss Trunchbull, Shallow Hal, Thor in Avengers End Game, Mrs Scrubbit in Wonka.
“I wonder what the world would look like if the word fat wasn’t associated with such negative characteristics, but we have the power to change that with our writing and film choices.”
Oscar-nominated actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph is often quoted as saying that her big break in Hollywood took longer because of her looks.
“People on screen traditionally don’t look like me,” Randolph said recently. “I’ve had to struggle to play fully realized characters with complexity.”
The fact that she is the frontrunner for her category at the Oscars suggests there is progress. But while there are some changes, many feel it is too slow.
What started as a passion project for Finlay has turned into a global talking point. Audiences say they have been moved by the film, and it has rekindled a desire to be authentic and true to the human body – and to see it properly embodied on the big and small screen.
Your Fat Friend hits theaters on February 9.