Tag Archives: body image

American Narcississt

By Andreas

More than any of the countless grisly murders, this is the moment in American Psycho (2000) that really creeps me out. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is having wild sex with two prostitutes in assorted positions, all while a camera runs and Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” plays in the background. But the sex and the women aren’t the focal points of this scene: no, it’s the self-absorbed Patrick, who ogles himself over and over again in the mirror, flexing and pointing and winking.

Earlier in the film, Patrick details his morning routine, making it clear that’s obsessed with his physical appearance. He has no internal life, he has no meaningful relationships; all he has is his brutal, muscular, exactingly maintained body, which he uses to inspire terror (maybe?) in others. So it makes sense that during an expensive, long-lasting threesome, he doesn’t pay any attention to the women other than to order them around. The only part of sex that really pleasures him is admiring the attractive, powerful body that’s having the sex.

Here, Patrick’s “perfect” body isn’t an object to lust after, because the entire concept of sexual desire has been perverted and rendered wholly icky. It’s really not surprising that David Cronenberg initially had his eyes on adapting Ellis’s novel, because it’s prime body horror material. Bale is undoubtedly sexy, but he’s also physically freakish and monstrous. He’s like Charles Atlas by way of The Fly, gone down the path where self-improvement becomes self-obsession. The sterile white apartment around him just makes it worse: this is an orgy with all the sensuality sucked out of it. Only Patrick’s pathological narcissism is left.

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Celebrity, Identity, and Perfect Blue

Before we lost Satoshi Kon, and before he had made a dreamscape spy movie, a yuletide comedy/drama about homeless people, a postmodern masterpiece of TV anime, and a meta-cinematic fantasia about Japanese film history… before all that, he made a tight little psychological thriller called Perfect Blue (1997). The film’s style has been compared to those of Hitchcock, Argento, and de Palma, and while it shares their interests in obsession, subjectivity, and nail-biting suspense, deep down it’s pure Kon. His is a world where self-definition is all-important, and where our identities can be shaped by the images that surround us.

This is the crisis that threatens to destroy Mimarin, a Japanese pop star who tries her hand at serious acting with a small role on a TV crime drama. Her fans aren’t happy with this change in career, and they’re encouraged by a website called “Mima’s Room” that purports to record her every thought and move; together, this fan backlash and invasive website shatter Mima’s confidence and rip away any veil of privacy that she may have had. But while her privacy disappears, she’s still secluded, made emotionally and verbally inert by all the traumas she’s undergoing. Then the murders start…

Perfect Blue is one of the tragically few animated horror movies. Thankfully, it’s also an extraordinarily good one. Even though it’s Kon’s first feature film, it shows a director fully in control of his medium and his ideas. Every scene is bursting with subtext, whether it’s about the relationship between fans and celebrities or the media’s impact on female body image. Kon also demonstrates a talent, crucial to later films like Millennium Actress and Paprika, for mixing Mima’s subjective experience and loosening grasp on real life with the film’s literal reality. This nonstop ambiguity comes fully into play during the film’s big final revelation – one which took me by surprise, and upended my assumptions about all the preceding events. (I won’t give it away in writing, but if you’re really curious, an out-of-context visual spoiler is here.)

This is also a very creepy, very violent movie, combining Repulsion-style internal horror with extremely graphic slasher-style killings. But the killings are never gratuitous or contextless, as they feed into or build off of Mima’s own traumas. Her bloodthirsty stalker, like the rest of his obsessive ilk, feels that Mima owes him something for all his loyalty. When she insists on continuing her career the way she wants, he decides she’s a fake and has to die. It’s particularly telling that this decision follows Mima’s participation in a brutal televised rape scene – one that, according to her online doppelgänger, she didn’t want to make in the first place. Due to her association with a sexual act, she has been tainted and now she’s no longer the same Mima. The girlish illusion in a pink dress has been shattered.

This is one of the movie’s most eloquent, well-developed points: the male fans want ownership of their pop star’s sexuality. They have a picture of her in their minds and it must be maintained. (This is relevant across a wide spectrum of celebrities; think about all the singers and actresses whose personal lives have been distorted for publicity’s sake to mesh with their onscreen appearances.) And all the slut-shaming that Mima receives for doing the rape scene worsens her fears. As the movie goes on, the slender and fleet-footed vision of who she used to be, complete with pink ribbon and tutu, comes to dominate her life. In a great scene, the fake (or real?) Mima skips freely down a hallway, unburdened by gravity; meanwhile, the real (or fake?) Mima gasps for breath and struggles to keep up.

This is the issue that Perfect Blue dramatizes so ably in horror form: for her adoring public, the real Mima is a fake. She’s not demure, graceful, or pretty enough; she has her own opinions and desires. She has a weight and realness to her that prevent her from bouncing down a rainy street like her eternally smiling double. But this double, this duplicated image, is the only version of her that can satisfy the fans, and this fact obliterates her self-esteem, as well as her sanity. The process of being a celebrity, of forging the illusions that define music and TV, blur her very notions of who she is. If you’ve seen any of his other movies, you know: Satoshi Kon was the perfect director to take on those problems in Perfect Blue.

I’ll close with a fun illustration of Kon’s debt to American slasher movies. By chance, I happened to recognize a shot that had been quoted from the obscure, gory film The Toolbox Murders (1978). Directed by Dennis Donnelly, it stars Cameron Mitchell as a handyman who perpetrates of the titular murders. It’s a pretty ugly, misogynistic piece of work, with a suitably batshit ending, but at least Kon found it inspiration. Feast your eyes:

Coincidence?

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Huge

I’m not afraid…I just think everything you stand for is crap. –Will from Huge

Inspired by this post on Happy Bodies, I just watched the first episode of the ABC Family’s new show, Huge. And I can’t even express all the emotions I experienced. Before the opening was even over I was bursting with happiness; this show starts with a fat strip-tease. Yes. Nikki Blonsky, in defiance of the camp doctor, strips off her clothes to reveal her bathing suit beneath. This show is, in fact, huge. It’s hard to even explain what it’s like seeing a cast that is 99% fat people. All throughout the episode, I kept thinking to myself Look at all these people who look like me. And I just wanted to cry. I wanted to bawl until there were no tears left. I did cry a few times. Because I relate so much to the main character, Will. I know how it feels to be the only one who is  “down with my fat” in a group full of people who aren’t as big as me but are full of so much more insecurity and self-loathing. Will is a sarcastic wise-ass who would rather sell candy and dish out insults than share her feelings. I really hope that this doesn’t eventually lead to some I-really-wanted-to-change-all-along-and-was-being-all-hard-just-to-keep-that-from-showing scenario because that will totes kill some of the character for me. But for now, her character rocks and I have never felt so close to a TV character before in my life. She looks like me. She talks like me. She acts like me. She thinks like me.

She isn’t buying any of the shit they’re trying to feed her. The show does a very good job of pointing out how that kind of ‘fat camp’ lifestyle doesn’t really work: in the very beginning, Becca says that she lost weight the previous year but gained most of it back. When things get ‘too serious’ in the form of bulimia, the camp opts to send one of the girls home instead of trying to help her get healthy, which is what the camp is supposed to be about (perhaps that would be a little much to expect from a camp but I feel that a camp about weight management should have counselors prepared to deal with things like eating disorders; I don’t know if this is a reflection of real-life weight-loss camps since I’ve never been to one). Amber, the resident not-fat-but-doesn’t-see-how-GORGE-her-body-is girl, is obsessed with losing weight as opposed to being healthy (as Will bluntly points out during a circle of sharing therapy session).

And Amber. Let’s talk about Amber for a second. Portrayed by the very gorgeous Hayley Hasselhoff, Amber is the thinnest girl at Camp Victory; she is tall, blond, pretty, and pretty much average sized, with ample curves. Everyone knows a girl like this. A girl who has one of the most beautiful bodies you’ve ever seen in your life; a girl who is nowhere close to fat; a girl who cannot see her body for the beautiful thing it is. The kind of girl who is so frustrating to be around because she obsesses over a tiny roll of flesh while your stomach hangs round and full. Amber plasters the wall above her bed with ‘thinspiration’, photos of tight, toned bodies from magazines. Amber embodies every beautiful average sized girl you’ve ever known who tortures herself with aspirations of bodies that are unatainable. The show captured this perfectly for me and I felt such pain for Amber because I see so many of my friends in her; I know this girl well and I know what she is going through.

Another amazing thing that is portrayed in this show: fat people expressing desire. And people expressing desire for a fat person! OMG!? You do not see this on TV. I am a fat person in love with a thin person. Relationships like mine are not rare. But I cannot remember the last time a television show entertaining the idea that someone within the ideal image might desire someone outside of it. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen something showing the idea of fat people possibly desiring other fat people. The show touches on both of these thing, these very real scenarios that HAPPEN ALL THE TIME IN LIFE. And it’s absolutely beautiful.

This show is a big deal. I see myself in this show. The world is looking at me when they watch this show. There have been many, many times in my life where I’ve wanted to scream out “This is what my body looks like and I am not ashamed!” And I feel the character Will is helping me yell it. The kids on this show feel real. They feel like real young people who feel lost and confused and ashamed inside their bodies. They don’t know how to reconcile the way their bodies look with a world that doesn’t want them to look the way they are. Will stands against that. She is not ashamed.

“They want us to be ashamed of our bodies. Well, I refuse to.”

Preach on, sister. Preach the fuck on. I have a lot of hope for this show. I’m going to continue watching it and I hope it lives up to the very real potential it has. And now, as a show of solidarity, here I am in my new, adorable swimsuit side-by-side with Will:

P.S. I just found out that Happy Bodies is having an Open Forum about Huge! Go join the conversation!

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Body-fascism in Avatar and homophobia everywhere

So: my first week of spring term has come to an end, and I’m finally ready to blog again.  I’ve watched a lot of movies lately, started some classes, read some comics & nonfiction, listened to the new Evelyn Evelyn album, and of course read a bazillion things on the Internet. Lately both Ashley and I have been browsing the very awesome website Sociological Images, which has stirred all kinds of new ideas about how bodies are presented in the media.

Speaking of which! This morning I was reading the latest issue of Sight & Sound and received a pleasant surprise. In the Letters section on the last page was a missive from Dariush Alavi complaining about Avatar; he pointed out how S&S‘s review of Cameron’s mega-opus was, like everyone else, “cheering the money” despite the film’s “execrable politics.” (Politics which Ashley and I have attacked ourselves at great length; see here.) Alavi’s letter really struck home with one particular portion, which highlights some very problematic parts of the film I noticed, but hadn’t been fully able to vocalize.

Avatar must be one of the most racist, body-fascist and unimaginative high-profile American movies I’ve seen in a long time… With their cornrows and ‘generic African’ accents, [the Na’vi] represent all the worst aspects of the notion of the ‘noble savage’, and are evidence of the movie’s patronising attitude to its characters and audience. The uniformity of the Na’vi appearance – from the perfect teeth to the ridiculous waists – is almost as horrific as their facial features, which seem to be an extrapolation of the ‘nipped and tucked’ look favoured in California.

I think this letter makes some fantastic points. Superficially, Avatar is a simplistic man vs. nature epic, contrasting the technology and violence of the humans with the Na’vis’ spiritual connection to their environment. But the Na’vi (aka symbolic Native Americans/Africans) aren’t given subjectivities of their own, and Cameron colonizes them – and all indigenous peoples by extension – just as much as his evil humans do. They’re not characters so much as aesthetic objects, and they remain entirely passive (albeit still so visually pleasing) until brought into action under Jake Sully’s leadership.

And this passivity and objectification is intensified by Cameron’s total disinterest in individualizing the Na’vi. They live communally, I guess, so they don’t need to bother with any but the most cursory personalities – the chief, the priestess, the princess, and rival, and… the rest. Most of the Na’vis’ roles in the film pretty much amount to being eye candy – their director’s motion-captured harem. As Alavi points out, this isn’t just creative laziness: it’s also a desire to put good and evil in the most audaciously obvious of physical terms. Colonel Quaritch is scarred, therefore he’s evil; the Na’vi are enviably tall and thin, a race of Mary Sues, therefore they must be good. The most apt descriptor for them as a race isn’t even “peaceful” or “meditative” so much as “beautiful.”

As was discussed at length, Avatar‘s story basically mirrored that of District 9, but made everything so much easier. In District 9, Blomkamp asks his protagonist and audience to empathize with a race of spat-upon, crustacean refugees referred to only with the pejorative “prawns.” But who’d think twice about becoming a Na’vi? Every subversive piece of Cameron’s story was itself undercut through extreme use of cliché, and the glamorous, better-than-human appearance of the Na’vi fits in this pattern. I think “body-fascist” is the perfect word for a movie that makes its oppressed minority into a species of supermodels, out of the fear that if any Na’vi were possible fat, or ugly, or not quite so sparkly as Edward Cullen, then the audience might fail to identify with them. By which I mean, fuck James Cameron.

Anyway! That’s enough for now about Avatar, the movie so bland it earned a zillion dollars. Why don’t we move on to something more interesting, like flatworm reproduction? Or alternately, also worth discussing: another letter from Sight & Sound, in which Andrew Brettell writes, “Why do film directors feel the need to add these qualifications to works about gay characters?” He refers to a statement from A Single Man‘s director Tom Ford, wherein he said, “It’s not a gay story, he just happens to be gay.” This ties in beautifully to a book I’ve been reading for months, Vito Russo’s classic study of LGBT images in film, The Celluloid Closet. [Caveat for what follows: I have not yet seen A Single Man.]

Russo introduces the chapter “Frightening the Horses” with a series of quotes from filmmakers involved with LGBT-themed movies of the ’60s and ’70s – William Wyler (The Children’s Hour), Rod Steiger (The Sergeant), Gordon Willis (Windows), Rex Harrison (Staircase), and John Schlesinger (Sunday, Bloody Sunday). The gist of all these quotes? The films aren’t about homosexuality; they’re about some other, non-gay theme, usually loneliness. It’s strange that despite the passage of 40 or so years and the flowering of a whole queer independent cinema in America, directors of mainstream movies about homosexuality are still compelled to qualify their work, and even when the directors themselves are gay, like Tom Ford.

I don’t necessarily blame the people making these statements, but I think it does provide insights into our straight society’s attitude toward stories about, gasp, gay people. It’s as if straight moviegoers need to be cajoled into the theaters. “Don’t worry; you won’t be asked to share in Colin Firth’s homoerotic desires. It’s just about loneliness! You can identify with loneliness, can’t you?” So maybe this method of framing movies is double-edged: it certainly looks like cowardice, backing down from the content of your own film, but it can possibly serve as a Trojan horse, a way to lure vaguely homophobic or at least homo-anxious people into a movie they might not otherwise see. They sit down in the theater, they start identifying with Colin Firth, and by the end they might say, “Wow! Oppression based on your sexual orientation does suck!”

So that’s a possible defense of these wishy-washy statements, which admit that the characters are gay, but insist that the movie’s about more universal themes: they’re giving a special point of entrance to ignorant, self-absorbed straight viewers. I think this also reveals a lot about how straight is seen as the incontrovertible default or norm. (Kind of like, oh, how women are women and men are people, or how black is an alternate option.) Even now, homosexuality is identified as, yes, different, strange, abnormal, wrong, sinful, and of course as synonymous with sex-obsessed. So gay men can’t be trusted with Boy Scouts, for example, or if you try to incorporate a gay character into children’s fiction, you’re perverting them and soiling their innocence.

Do you remember the outcry over King & King? Or any number of books for children with totally nonsexual presentations of gay characters? This is the big issue here: even though stories for kids are absolutely full of hetero relationships, whether it’s between princes and princesses, or mothers and fathers, or animals that fall in love, once you switch the genders, then it becomes dirty and sexual. Because male/female relationships are always pure and chaste and kid-friendly, and they reproduce in clean and unobjectionable ways, right? But if you say the word “gay” to a child, you may as well be shouting “ANAL SEX!” in their ear over and over. Except… that’s not true; the image of homosexuals as always craving and having sex is just a malicious stereotype. However, since the people (men) in charge – whether socially, politically, or economically – decide the stereotypes, they decide the children’s books, and they decide what’s normal.

There’s also been an outcry over mentioning homosexuality in middle/high school sex ed courses. Which basically shows how parents want their kids to grow up either not knowing that gays exist – invisibility – or else regarding them as weird, vaguely predatory, but ultimately pitiful creatures who crawl around the fringes of cities (i.e., the dominant image presented pre-1960s, and sometimes post-). There are so many entangled fears here that it’s hard to straighten them out, but I think a huge one is fearing that their sons/daughters just might be gay (“I knew I shouldn’t have listened to so much Elton John when I was pregnant!), and if they learn about homosexuality in an accepting social climate, then dear God, they might just feel comfortable coming out. And then not only will the queers have invaded the TVs and radios with their icky, anal-sex-having selves, but they’ll have invaded poor God-fearing folks’ families, as well. As if homosexuality is a tumor you can eliminate with enough bigoted chemotherapy.

So that’s my brief take on, oh, the fears that put the “phobia” in “homophobia.” It reminds me of a basic tenet from my melodrama class last year, propounded by Linda Williams: “home as a space of innocence.” One of her exemplars of this theme, it’s worth mentioning, is D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which could make a pretty good template for the kinds of new homophobic myths that have been developed over the past few decades. According to these hateful, deluded people, they’re just protecting their homes – be that literally, or  referring to all of America as Reagan’s “shining city” – and spreading homophobic lies is just like preemptively nailing all the doors shut or putting up a fence. Thankfully, through the beauty of tolerance and increasing education, that’s all starting to change.

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