Searching for Myself on Film
I was twelve years old when The Little Mermaid debuted. I loved it with the heat of a thousand Disney Castle fireworks, and I drove my family crazy with nonstop belted renditions of “Part of Your World.” I was, perhaps, a bit old for all of this, but the love story and longing for adventure that permeated the film spoke to pre-adolescent me. I even convinced my mom to let me dye my hair red with henna.
I also sensed something disquieting about the movie, a problem that would follow my cinematic journey for decades: despite my newly penny-colored locks, I in no way resembled Ariel. In fact, the character in the film who best represented me physically was Ursula. The Sea Witch. With her ample bosoms and double chin, she was more than a classic Disney villain—she was fat woman-as-heel, a trope that would stalk me as I became more of a movie buff.
Watching the film a few years ago with my young son reopened this rusted can of shitty feelings. Now middle aged, I resemble Ursula in form if not persona. As she undulates through her underwater underworld, so do I move through life bigger than I’m supposed to be, a punchline or an inconvenience, non-sexual and never the heroine. Any sense of Ursula’s sexuality is played for comic relief; after all who would ever love an obese sea witch? She swims in stark contrast to lithe, sloe-eyed Ariel, who even without a speaking voice captures the love of a prince.
Lindy West has written eloquently and with great humor about the cinematic and pop culture role models available to fat girls, so I won’t reinvent her wheel except to say this: as a teen, I remember dreamy conversations with friends about who would play us in the movie of our life. Willowy brunette Jessica picked Winona Ryder. Amber chose Jada Pinkett. I demurred when the only actress I could think of who shared my physique was Roseanne Barr.
Last Friday night, John and I got the kids to bed and then eagerly cued up Wine Country, the new Netflix film about fortysomething women friends on holiday in Napa Valley. I’m not here to deliver a movie review, though I’ll say that I’d hoped for more jokes and less emoting, but perhaps that’s because the news of the world sucks and I’m always searching for laughs. But something about the film rang beautiful and true to me: the presence of women—actors—who look like me.
I didn’t notice it at first. I mean, of course I did, because it’s noteworthy when any kind of Hollywood production includes a woman above a size eight. But it took a while for me to realize that watching the film had transported me to a peaceful, relaxed state that went beyond the planned inertia of an evening in front of the TV. I actually found it comforting and familiar to watch women like me hanging out with their friends.I’m generally the largest woman in whatever group I’m with, a fact that never goes unnoticed by my inner monologue. But these actors were part of the group; they weren’t included to be the fat friend or the witty sidekick. They were members of the clique. Accepted. They were married or dating, they ate heartily without apologizing, they flirted and hiked and drank wine alongside their straight-sized peers without a single mention of their visible differences.
I turned to John and said, “Jesus, it feels good to watch a movie featuring women who look like me.” Of course, it’s noteworthy that I didn’t recognize the actresses I related to. They haven’t had careers like Tina Fey or Amy Poehler. (Paula Pell has been a writer for Saturday Night Live for years, but I can’t remember a single bit she starred in. Emily Spivey’s IMDB page doesn’t even feature a headshot. We have a long way to go.)
But I appreciate the effort. I have no doubt that the women behind Wine Country pushed for believable actors, just as they pushed to make a feature film about women of an age and life stage that the film industry tends to ignore. Most likely, the Fey-Poehler juggernaut enabled freedom in casting, but there are plenty of times when powerful producers don’t choose to hire normal-looking actors. There’s a pervasive assumption that we want our film stars to be aspirational; in fact, Wine Country showed me that I am deeply grateful for characters who are, instead, relatable.