A recent read of Roxane Gay’s heartbreaking and searing new memoir, Hunger, has compelled me to meditate on the deeply troubled historical relationship that Western cultures have had to fatness, a relationship that has resulted in a fat phobia so blatant and yet so insidious that it often goes unnoticed, even in progressive circles. So-called ‘sympathetic’ fat phobics view fatness as a sign of personal failing, an ideology propelled by television shows like The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss and Fit to Fat to Fit. Gay aptly describes how these shows are an expression of the “unholy union of capitalism and the weight-loss industrial complex.” To see these weight-loss programs as part and parcel of late, late capitalism is to continue the recent work of fat studies scholars who remind us that in the nineteenth century, fatness actually conferred privilege. Only in the twentieth century did fatness become tied to lower prosperity, illness, fertility problems and lower sexual attractiveness. Nativist critics and health professionals in the U.S. were looking for ways to separate the “superior stock” from the “inferior”, and fatness (along with race, ability, sexuality, and gender conformity) became a convenient category through which to accomplish this objective.
Part confessional memoir and part indictment of this “weight-loss industrial complex,” Gay, a self-described fat woman and the daughter of Haitian immigrants, tells the truth of her life, describing in vivid detail how she originally became fat after she was gang raped at the age of 12. Some fat studies scholars push against the notion that fat individuals secretly want to be thin, but Gay candidly admits her waxing and waning desire to be “normal.” For some of these scholars, Gay may lean too far toward viewing fat as pathology, but I found her admission to be honest and raw, a sign that it is ok to admit a desire for a “cure." She writes on how, after the rape, she wanted to make her body a fortress that would protect her under any conditions. On her “bad days,” she confesses that she does not always have the courage or strength to be fat or body positive. However, she also launches a powerful critique against a society that encourages her to hate her body at every turn, the lack of acceptance and accommodation for fat people on display in the most grotesque of ways. Rather than dealing with sexual violence as a constant reality for many, many women, society tells fat and obese women who may have suffered similar trauma of the myriad ways to control their unruly bodies. The repulsion toward fat women in particular, across the media landscape, makes clear the parallel between the de facto laws of gender performance and the laws of the body: for women, fatness is often read as a heretical betrayal of gender norms, a relinquishment of the sacred quest for thin.
In this emotional deep dive, she aims her pen like a finely calibrated weapon at the intertwining nature of misogyny and fat hatred in our culture. In this moment, we need her irreverence, but also her honesty about how difficult it is to live as obese, or morbidly obese, in a society that worships the svelte. Normative demands of all kinds are increasing, despite decades-long efforts by feminists, queer, Critical Race and LGBT activists and scholars to destigmatise difference. The fat/thin binary is no less trenchant, born out of decades of a subtly, and not so subtly intensifying fear of fat.
As a film historian, I became interested in how Gay echoes earlier cultural figures who also refused to play by the gendered rules of the body, particularly on screen. While we may be hard pressed to think of a contemporary fat female actor who isn’t struck silly, bumbling her way through the storyline, the film noir genre of the forties and fifties abounds with dangerous, fat transgressors. (Gabourey Sidibe, star of the 2009 film Precious about a sexual assault victim and fat woman of colour, also just out with a recent memoir, This Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, is perhaps a notable exception). Some of these performers remain obscure with only a limited cult following. An example is the actor Hope Emerson – at 6’2” and 230 lbs. a daunting cinematic figure, though not exceptionally fat (at one point in her life, Gay weighed 577 lbs.), but like Gay, quite tall. Emerson performed in distinct contrast to the skinny leads of the time, such as Doris Day, Lauren Bacall, or Katherine Hepburn. If she were alive today we might ask her whether she desired to be thin, whether there were cracks in her cinematic body acceptance. What we know is that there is no shame detectable in her numerous minor roles, in which she transgressed body and gender norms simultaneously.
While Gay writes that she used a kind of cloak of masculinity – masculine clothing and emotional reserve – to hide herself from the world, Emerson is unapologetically butch in her film performances. In fact, Emerson initially became known to queer scholars through Jack Halberstam’s 1998 book Female Masculinity, in which she is included in the “predatory butches” category in the chapter ‘Looking Butch: A Rough Guide to Butches on Film.’ Before Halberstam, the only cultural critic to even consider Emerson’s career at all is Boyd McDonald in his 1982 gay-film lover’s guide and critical manifesto, Cruising the Movies. In the eighties, McDonald appreciated Emerson’s presence, and felt that “to see her is not to see an actor acting but a person being, manipulating the audience by her mere existence rather than by technical effort”. McDonald also saw the contrast between the more misogynistic women’s roles in the eighties, and the roles that the minor character status allowed Emerson to play as a fat and tall woman in the fifties: “in recent years, ‘straight’ men have increasingly made it official that they hate women, and by now even such nasty little creatures as Prince (Nelson) are abusing women on screen (his Purple Rain, to judge from reviews, is a real slapathon). Nobody would slap Hope Nelson around.” While McDonald doesn’t directly refer to Emerson as butch, for me the essence of on-screen “butch,” a now antique moniker, is the manipulation of audiences through one’s very existence rather than through technical expertise.
Emerson’s girth represents a challenge to body shaming aimed specifically at women and queers, a challenge to the mandate that women take up less space than men. In the film Adam’s Rib (1949), in which misogyny itself is “on trial”, Emerson plays a circus performer who lifts a man up in the air with one arm. In House of Strangers (1949), she plays the overbearing Italian mother figure who displays “unnatural affections” for her daughter. Thieves Highway (1949) features Emerson as the relentless and demanding restaurateur who “knows her food,” all too well. Cry of the City (1948) includes Emerson as a jewel thief and a compulsive eater, which are not in this film mutually exclusive categories. Emerson invited the viewer to experience all kinds of aberrant desire, desire that may have been neutralised by the painful demise of her characters, usually through death or mysterious disappearance, but not necessarily forgotten by the viewer. Just as Gay empowers her contemporary readers to override fat discrimination and misogyny to become their best selves, likewise, we can imagine that Emerson inspired her audiences in similar ways. Those viewers could refuse to hear the pathologising messages that these films disseminated about the evils of fatness, queerness, and female masculinity. These viewers might have even secretly cheered at Emerson’s unruliness.
Popular film has never been a politically neutral medium, however much it may masquerade as such. 21st-century filmgoers are for the most part accustomed to the hidden structures in film born out of this postwar anxiety, a fear-based view of the world that sought to neutralise the threat of all forms of difference. As film critic Vito Russo explained in The Celluloid Closet, the characteristic “weirdness” of the postwar film era is best seen through the figure of the alien, a representation of the generalised fear of difference, a dystopic vision of what could happen if difference were allowed to circulate unhindered. As the fifties progressed, women were punished on screen for the male roles they played in society during World War II. Women who didn’t learn to become passive had to be disciplined, which led to what Russo calls the neurotic female, the cold “steely gorgon” character who gestured toward a sexual perversity that could not be fully revealed. Like Emerson, these characters were sadistic and mean, and presented the paradox of the woman who was trying to be masculine, but who also desperately needed a man. Butch, synonymous with “lesbian” in this period, was considered a communicable disease, like tuberculosis or polio, and there was no vaccine.
In analysing Emerson’s films, I crafted the term butch body out of control to help understand the central role that Emerson’s weight and height played in her multi-layered butch resistance. In all her films, her height and weight are major aspects of her characters. In Cry of the City, Emerson, as Rose Givens, masquerades as a “masseuse” to hide her identity as a jewel thief, demonstrating how her character is defined through the body. Givens offers massage to fat, old women with “too many jewels.” Her main objective is to steal the jewels for herself to punish these women for wanting to become thin and to stave off old age. The film is not a cinematic breakthrough by any means, but Hope Emerson’s brief presence makes the film worth watching. She portrays a famished, quintessentially phallic woman, a woman who is assertive and insertive to the point of “overbearing” as she assumes a stereotypically male role, the stock characters in popular culture being the school marm or the sports coach (such as Sue Sylvester on the American television show Glee) . Givens easily forces the supposed tough guy, Martin Rome (Richard Conte), to submit to her whims.
The viewer is not so much introduced to Givens as confronted by her, an effect greatly aided by the nighttime setting and noir lighting. In the scene, Rome waits outside her door for Givens to answer. Revealing only Givens’s silhouette, the camera tracks her slow progress down a long corridor, which gives a sense of Givens’s physical size as her principal quality, and yet, she walks with confidence and pride. In one frame of this scene, the collar of her uniform creates an imposing “V” shape, symbolising her dangerous, engulfing female anatomy.
There are several shots of Givens from behind, which allow for a long meditation on her rear end as it sways beneath her “masseuse” uniform. Aware that Rome is intent to frame her for murder, she rolls a newspaper into a phallic wand and begins to caress Rome’s face, smiling down at him, revealing the pleasure she takes in her own power. Givens then gives Rome a massage: “That’s right, Martin. Relax…it’s good, isn’t it? I have a touch. It’s only given to a few. It’s a matter of knowing the currents of the body.” Her special knowledge of the body’s currents, her claim to having “a touch,” suggests how the film creates a direct association between queerness, fat and evil, though resistant viewers could also take courage in her rejection of the quest for thin. The next morning, Givens prepares a large breakfast, including a giant stack of pancakes, which she consumes with abandon. With her mouth full of food, she discusses her plans to hawk the jewels and start a bed and breakfast in the country, because she “loves to cook.” Her overbearing nature and insatiable appetites signal to the audience that they don’t need to be sympathetic toward her when Rome betrays her. Her later capture by the police seem well deserved. Through Emerson’s character, the film depicts butch as a desire for too much of everything, a desire that must be tamed through the narrative arc of the film and the curative closure.
The 1950 film Caged! features Emerson as Evelyn Harper, a sadistic prison warden with a variety of unhealthy appetites, including a desire for the young women in her “care,” an “unnatural” butch desire for masculine power and status. However, Harper revels in both her love of food and sex, and even claims to be happy with her body and her seedy life on the “outside.” The story revolves around 19-year-old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker), who is sent to a woman’s state prison as an accomplice to her husband’s botched armed robbery, in which he is killed. Marie becomes just another helpless victim of a man’s misdeeds, a common scenario for the inmates. The film was intended to be a serious portrayal of the horrific conditions in women’s prisons. In fact, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including best leading actress (Eleanor Parker), best supporting actress (Hope Emerson), and Virginia Kellogg and Bernard C. Schoenfield for best writing, story, and screenplay. Today the film is a queer camp classic.
We first meet Harper in her room in the prison, eating chocolate caramels out of a box and reading a magazine, Midnight Romance, while reclining on the bed against a souvenir pillow from Niagara Falls. She eats the caramels compulsively then picks bits of the caramel out of her teeth with her fingers, suggesting she is not only fat but lower class. The director places the camera at a low angle so that her torso appears larger than life. Another inmate brings Marie into Harper’s room, and Harper croons, “Let’s you and me get acquainted, honey. You may be a number to the others, but not to me.” Harper offers candy, cigarettes, and other unspecified “treats” to Marie while pointing out the presents around the room that inmates have given her for her “care and concern.” Harper assures Marie that if she plays along, and gets Harper money from the outside, she’ll make it much easier on herself. However, when Harper finds out Marie’s people have no money, she forces her to scrub the floors with lye, just one of many sadistic punishments. Whenever Harper walks out of the “pen,” we get another long shot of her rear end. Many of the deep and abiding prejudices of the period again become acutely visible in this film: hatred and fear of gays, women and fat people take physical form through Harper. This time the extremes of Harper’s behavior necessitate her complete removal, in this case through a violent death when another inmate, Kitty, stabs Harper in the heart with a fork, “hopefully” killing off everything that Harper represents: fatness, seedy sexuality, a woman’s unquenchable appetites for power, food, and sex.
Today, rather than perceiving her evil as a kind of warning, contemporary viewers can appreciate the enormous subversive potential of the fat butch villain, a character that has all but disappeared from popular film. We can see her evil as a kind of revolt against the discrimination and oppression that fat butch-styled individuals have faced for over a century, a much-needed revolt that Gay continues with her penetrating memoir. Likewise, Hope Emerson leaves an indelible impression; she is enormous in her own way, for her time. Funny fat women in recent film tend only to trivialise the capitalist biopolitics at play in the condemnation of fatness. Gay, and Emerson before her, suggest an historical lineage that contests a world view that is decidedly anti-fat and anti-female. In the U.S. and across the world, they provide a valuable antidote to the recent swell of unapologetic misogyny that has recently been on display in the highest levels of American politics. Normalisation of such violence against women – aimed at disciplining women’s bodies in myriad ways – should lead us to question the all-too-common assumption that Western cultures have outgrown such hatred. Despite the more subdued and somber tone, Gay continues her bad feminism in this memoir, through which we can hear the low tones of Hope Emerson cackling in the historical distance.
Karen Allison Hammer is a cultural critic and Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S. Her work has appeared in several academic journals, including Feminist Formations and Norma: International Journal for Masculinity Studies. Her interests include film and media studies, alternative, genre-bending literature, and the history of jazz and blues.