Plus-size actresses finally get leading roles in movies and TV

Aidy Bryant, above, plays Annie in the new Hulu series ‘Shrill’, which is adapted from the best-selling autobiography of Lindy West. (Getty Images/AFP)
Updated 17 March 2019
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Plus-size actresses finally get leading roles in movies and TV

  • ‘Shrill’ is the latest example of studios willing to depart from the tried and tested formula of slender leading ladies
  • The progress is more marked for women than it is for men, who struggle to find leading roles outside of comedic performance

NEW YORK: Long relegated to providing comic relief or playing supporting parts, plus-size actresses are finally getting their due with juicy front-and-center roles in a sign of shifting attitudes toward diverse body types.
New Hulu series “Shrill,” which debuted Friday and is adapted from the best-selling autobiography of Lindy West, is the latest example of studios willing to depart from the tried and tested formula of slender leading ladies who have dominated the small screen since its creation.
To be sure, curvy actresses like the Oscar-winning Octavia Spencer and Mo’Nique, or hip-hop icon Queen Latifah, blazed an early trail starting more than decade back with a string of starring film and television roles.
In more recent years, Chrissy Metz has gotten attention for “This Is Us,” Danielle Macdonald starred in the Netflix movie “Dumplin’,” while in cinema, Rebel Wilson (“Pitch Perfect”) and Melissa McCarthy (“Spy,” “Ghostbusters”) have made themselves regular fixtures.
“I think the American public, and probably the public in general, is not used to seeing fat women on TV,” Aidy Bryant, the star of “Shrill” who has been a regular on late night comedy show “Saturday Night Live” recently told Elle magazine.
“I do think we are starting to see somewhat of a shift,” said Rebecca Puhl, a professor at the University of Connecticut where she is deputy director Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
Heavier actresses are also taking on new types of roles.
“In the past, people with obesity were often cast in more of that comedic role than a serious one,” said James Zervios, of the Obesity Action Coalition, which fights against weight bias.
“As of very recently, we have begun to see people with obesity, such as Chrissy Metz, cast in more dramatic roles.”
But, he adds, the progress is more marked for women than it is for men, who struggle to find leading roles outside of comedic performance.
According to Puhl, research conducted by her institution has found decades worth of evidence documenting weight stigma in the entertainment industry, where characters with a larger body size “are often ridiculed, depicted engaging in stereotypical behavior like eating or binge eating.”
“They’re also less likely to be shown having positive social interaction,” she adds.
That bias is even more pronounced in children’s television, with large characters portrayed as “as being aggressive or antisocial or unfriendly.”
The phenomenon both mirrors and reinforces real word discrimination, adds Puhl, with studies showing that stigmatizing images in the media increase bias.
Today, Melissa McCarthy is one of the few plus-size actresses whose weight and physical appearance is barely remarked upon during a film.
For others, like Metz and Macdonald, their characters’ obesity may be commented on or are part of the wider story without dominating it.
In “Shrill,” Annie, played by Aidy Bryant, is constantly reminded of her obesity through a series of micro-aggressions in the opening scene.
But the show grows in its complexity, as Annie finds herself becoming increasingly comfortable in her skin despite the inability of others to look beyond her weight.
“In a lot of ways, this is a really traditional television show,” Bryant said in her Elle interview, adding: “It’s a girl with her job and her boss and her boyfriends and her friends.
“But the person at the center is the thing that makes it different. That point of view is what is important.”
Though recent developments suggest a step in the right direction, “I don’t think we’re all the way there yet,” said Puhl. “Diversity of body sizes needs to be just a standard part of what we see in the media.”
“We know that two thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese so it makes sense to see these people on screen.”


INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

Updated 23 May 2019
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INTERVIEW: Lebanese director Nadine Labaki continues to ride wave of Capernaum Cannes success

  • Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so
  • “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks

DUBAI: The success that Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third film, “Capernaum,” continues to find across the world is astounding — even to her. Just one year ago, “Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival — a jury chaired by Cate Blanchett — after a 15-minute standing ovation. The film went on to be nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, with Labaki becoming the first woman from the Arab world to receive that honor. Now, perhaps most surprisingly, “Capernaum” has become an unexpected blockbuster in China, reportedly grossing $44 million in just over two weeks.
“It’s crazy! I can’t believe it! I really can’t. Why there? It’s all very new, so I still don’t know what it means exactly, but we’re soon going to find out,” Labaki tells Arab News in Cannes.
With its success in China, along with the US, Middle East and across Europe, “Capernaum” has reportedly become the highest grossing Arabic-language film in history.
“There’s been rumors going on for the past two to three days, and it’s like, ‘What?’ I still can’t believe it. It’s living proof that an Arab film with no actors can actually be a box office hit — can actually return money, make money for investors. You know how much we’re struggling in the Arab world to make films, find money, find funding, find investment. Especially for a Lebanese film,” Labaki says.
Labaki was in China just one month ago to show the film at the Beijing International Film Festival, and although the film got a rousing response in the room, she didn’t feel the reaction was any stronger than anywhere else the film has shown.
“Maybe it’s because there’s more than a billion people in China, but even the distributor is saying it’s working like any big blockbuster movie,” says Labaki.
The Chinese release of the film has one major difference from other cuts. The original version of the film tells the story of a young boy named Zain El Hajj (played by Zain Al-Rafeea) struggling to survive on the streets of Lebanon with the help of a young Ethiopian immigrant named Rahil and her undocumented infant son Yonas, dreaming of escaping as a refugee to Sweden. The story is not far from Al-Rafeea’s real-life situation at the time — he is a Syrian refugee. Since the film’s release, though, Al-Rafeea and his family have been relocated to Norway, something the Chinese release includes at the end of the film as a short visual report.
“The film ends on his smile, and in a way there’s (now) a continuation of real life in that story. This is really happening, it’s not made up,” says Labaki. “That’s why we’re making a documentary around the film. Maybe it’s a way of comforting people, knowing that he’s alright, he’s good, he’s in a better place. Deep down, people know this kid is going through this in his real life, they know he’s not just an actor in this film.
“I think it’s comforting to know Zain is in a different place now. He’s travelled. He was dreaming of going to Sweden the whole time, and now he’s really in Norway. He has a new life, a new beginning, a new house. He’s going to school, all his family is with him,” she continues. “It’s a complete shift of destiny. Maybe the fact the distributor added this report after the film made people understand that this is a real story and a real struggle, and not just another film.”
Though this is a huge moment for Arab film in general, Labaki doesn’t believe that the success of “Capernaum” necessarily signals a greater appetite for Arab cinema worldwide.
“I don’t think it’s about (where the film comes from). It’s about good films. It has nothing to do with the identity of the film or the country it’s coming from, really. It doesn’t mean if this film worked in China that another Arab film will work in China,” she says. “Maybe there’s going to be more hope for Lebanese cinema in the sense that investors will be less afraid to invest in Lebanese films, but it’s about the script, the filmmaker, the craft, the know-how. This is what gives confidence to somebody.”
Speaking to Arab News at the renowned Hotel Barrière Le Majestic Cannes on one of the busiest days of the film festival, Labaki is currently serving as the president of the Un Certain Regard jury, the first Arab to do so. Labaki began her relationship with Cannes in 2004, writing and developing her first feature, “Caramel,” at the Cinéfoundation Residency before showcasing the film at the Director’s Fortnight in 2007. Both of Labaki’s subsequent films — “Where do We Go Now?” in 2011 and “Capernaum” in 2018 — debuted at the festival, each in increasingly competitive categories.
“I feel like I’m their baby, in a way. With a baby you start watching their first steps, see them grow, protect them, push them… They’ve accompanied me in this journey, and recognized and encouraged me. It’s great — I really love this festival. I think it’s the best festival in the world. I like the integrity they have towards cinema. You feel that watching a film in Cannes, you know that you’re not going to watch just anything — there’s something in there for you to learn from, to be surprised by, to be in awe of. There’s always something about films that are shown in Cannes,” says Labaki.
In approaching her role as head of the jury, Labaki is focusing on connecting with the films, and taking on the perspective of myriad filmmakers from across the world.
“I don’t watch films as a filmmaker. Never,” she says. “I watch the film as a human being… I don’t like the word jury. I don’t like to judge because I’ve been there — I’m there all the time. I’ve been in those very difficult situations, very fragile situations, where you’re making a film, where you’re doubting, where you don’t know, where you don’t have enough distance with what you’re doing, and you don’t have the right answers and you’re not taking the right decisions.”
Just as her own films have become increasingly focused on the problems facing Lebanese society, Labaki believes that contemporary film cannot help but be political, and must accept its role as a commentary on the world we live in — something that she feels she’s seen in the films in her category.
“Cinema is not just about making another film; it’s about saying something about the state of the world right now. Until now, every film we’ve seen is (doing that). That doesn’t mean that cinema that is just art for art’s sake is not good — there are so many different schools — but I feel we’re becoming so much more responsible for this act,” she says. “You become an activist without even knowing you’re becoming an activist, and saying something about the state of the world. It’s important.”