I love Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect. She doesn’t have an issue with her size; she owns it. She’s savvy. She’s honest about her desire and comfortable with her body. Yes, there are still fat jokes, but Amy’s fearlessness transcends any bullying that she may encounter.
Pitch Perfect 2, which opens Friday, starts off with Amy flashing an entire audience at an a capella performance for President Obama—really? The fat girl does the aerial number in the unitard?—and, though it’s a funny movie and she’s a funny character, over and over again the movie lets Amy down. For instance: I know that she calls herself Fat Amy so that, as she says in the first film, “twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” But why, exactly, in Pitch Perfect 2 do all her supposed best friends still call her Fat Amy? Why not just Amy?
The scene that disappointed me the most, however, was one that had nothing to do with her size. Her supposed hook-up, Bumper, leads her into a gazebo decked out in twinkly lights and tells her that he loves her—and she has no reaction. Sure, she rattles off something about being a rambler and not wanting to be tied down, but it’s a slim justification. In that moment, Fat Amy is just an automaton, and not a real person with emotions and feelings. She’s all tell and no show. In the first film, Amy definitely has a stronger point of view—she’s a wonderful weirdo who mermaid-dances and dryly shuts down her detractors. Pitch Perfect 2, a ginormous movie with hopes of beating Mad Maxat the box office, gives Rebel Wilson second billing. That’s great—but I hoped for more oomph out of Amy’s character. We fat actresses need to cheer for each other. In Hollywood, too often fat actresses are treated as fat first and as an actress way down the line.
I’m fat and I know it because I have eyes and I’m not an idiot. I do have an extraordinary capacity for denial, which is probably what keeps me fat. Shame and denial are like the horrid girls from eighth grade that you hang out with even though you hate their guts. Shame tells you how much you suck, and denial tells you that churro ice cream sandwiches will make you feel better. I’ve been profoundly fat for the last 15 years, but I’ve been every imaginable size from slim (in my teens and 20s) to super-fat (my 30s and 40s). I am fully responsible for my obesity—a terrible word, by the way, because it’s patronizingly clinical, and only used by doctors or non-fat people intent on making fat people feel terrible about themselves. I know that my weight drives the people who love me absolutely nuts, and I wrestle with guilt because of that. Self-acceptance has always been a huge struggle for me, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more comfortable with who I am, and I am much more than this big lumpy body of mine, and I am tired of apologizing for being fat.
I am also a professional actress and most of my work is focused in comedy. I primarily audition for co-star and guest-star roles and the pay can be good, though I’m far from Rebel Wilson territory financially. I was already in my late 30s when I moved to L.A., which is a bit out of range for the “fat best friend” roles. I am just right for the “busybody in a cardigan” ones. I’m lucky to have an agent who takes great care of me and is sensitive to how I feel about the fat-as-a-dumb-punch-line roles. Most of the parts that I’ve booked that have nothing to do with my size and appearance. I’ve played plus-size characters that felt like fully realized, relatable human beings. Those shoots were fun and rewarding and I laughed along with everybody and kept my soul intact. And I’ve booked fat parts that demeaned and humiliated me and I’d cry in my car on the drive home at the end of the day.
I once booked a role on a show where I was told I’d be playing the body of a celebrity for a series of still photographs; the famous person’s head would be added in post-production. A mystery! Exciting! But when a fat actor isn’t shown the script in advance, or the powers that be neglect to fill her in on the full context of her role, unpleasant surprises often follow. Sometimes she arrives on set only to discover she’s playing a punch line completely based on her appearance and not because she, the comedic actress, would be great at selling the joke.
The celebrity in question, I learned on the day of shooting, was pre-TrimSpa Anna Nicole Smith, whose reality show was having its moment. When I stopped in wardrobe to see what I’d be wearing, my stomach started churning. I was handed a hanger with a red open-midriff spandex tube dress a good three sizes too small for me and Lucite platform stripper shoes. The wardrobe assistant took a cue from my face and dug up a bathrobe for me to wear between photos. I squeezed into this hideous dress and looked in the mirror. I looked like I ate Anna Nicole Smith.
The first two photos went by quickly. One shot of me clutching a pickle jar, one of me sitting on the lap of an elderly man. The last one was more complicated. There were lots of whispers among the writers and producers regarding the logistics, but I clearly heard the word “commissary” and began to panic. A writer approached me to explain what the photo would entail. “We’re going to need you to lie down on the floor underneath the yogurt machine while we pump yogurt onto your chin and chest.”
Opportunities are few and far between early in your acting career, and you don’t want to let people down by being a squeaky wheel. Getting paid to do what you love feels great, of course; sometimes that can take the sting out of compromising your dignity. And it’s difficult to pick up and leave when the crew is there to work and they’re counting on you. This was a lonely moment, but I did it. I sprawled out on the floor and lay there in a busy cafeteria while frozen yogurt was pumped onto my upper body. The only other woman on the shoot was that wardrobe assistant who now, as I lay on the floor, avoided eye contact with me. I had no agent yet. I was terrified of pissing people off. I felt used and manipulated. Had I been informed of the full architecture of this bit in advance, I wouldn’t have taken it. Later, I met a friend for a drink and he sympathized that this was my Coco in Fame moment. After that day, I tried to be more discerning in the parts I took.
It would be great to see more leading and supporting roles for plus-size women that don’t primarily focus on their weight. Take, for example, Melissa McCarthy’s Maggie in St. Vincent. She was just a normal human lady with big human problems that weren’t wrapped up in her body. (Another example: Kathy Bates, my queen, in just about anything.) In Pitch Perfect 2, Amy has a few scenes that show the glimmer of a real human person. At one point, simply attempting to cross a road, she’s stymied by a vehicle that has stopped to let her pass, but then lightly accelerates just as she’s about to walk. Amy loses her cool and becomes vulnerable. Her frustration in that moment feels genuine and relatable. For Pitch Perfect 3, Instead of showing her junk, hopefully Amy will try showing her belly a little bit more.
I want Hollywood to write and cast more Roseannes, more Annie Wilkes, more Sookie St. James, and more Suzanne Sugarbakers; women whose strong points of view supersede their size. As an actor, I’m a communicator, and I want to represent the kinds of real people we all know, love, and hate. I want to see complicated, flawed characters that are more than their big bodies. I’d relish the opportunity to play women like these. And even if I never get the chance, I’ll be cheering for the women who do.