In The Hustle, a remake of the comedy classic Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that hit theatres last week, we see Rebel Wilson's usual large-and-loud shtick: She loves to overeat (ordering a club sandwich, fries, three slices of cake and a diet coke); when she tries to cry enticingly she looks "constipated"; she can't jump over a pommel horse without falling face first, legs in the air, the list goes on. Her character is referred to as a "bull in a china shop" and a "big-titted Russell Crowe." It's made all the more over-the-top offset against co-star Anne Hathaway, who plays the beautiful, elegant con-woman Josephine, who Wilson's Penny hopes to learn from when the two meet on a train in Europe.
It's a well-worn dynamic that sees Wilson offering a repeat performance of Pitch Perfect's Fat Amy and her other bit roles in comedy tentpoles of the last decade. The majority of Wilson's punchlines rely on her character's physicality, crassness, and stupidity. Her body is played for cheap laughs, as if to suggest a fat woman is naturally vulgar in appearance and behaviour.
We’ve seen the large-and-loud character before, made iconic in the ’80s and ’90s by Chris Farley, John Candy, John Belushi, and Jackie Gleason. Theirs was an image that became a kind of cartoon: the sweaty, flushed face; the pratfalls; the floppy hair; the big, cheesy grin. Decades later, male versions of this character can really only be found at stand-up gigs and among sitcom dads (think Kevin James and Jeff Garlin). Where it’s been given new life is on the big screen, by two of Hollywood’s leading female comedians: Wilson and Melissa McCarthy, who have risen to fame by performing variations on this role. While it’s built them a brand and found them major box-office success, it’s also continued to bolster the idea that simply being fat is funny — whether you’re an actor or not.
Wilson and McCarthy are talented not only when it comes to comedy, but business. They know how audiences like to see them, critics be damned. It is, after all, much more difficult for women to find consistent, significant work in Hollywood, especially for those who don't fit pitifully small sample sizes and/or those in comedy. Up until very recently, women were still largely sidelined as the straight man to their male co-star. By sticking with their large-and-loud routine, Wilson and McCarthy have carved out paths for themselves in an industry that’s notoriously hard to stand out in.
Wilson has spoken in the past about how standing out means using her body. In an interview with The Telegraph in 2016, Wilson recalled noticing a co-star receive more laughs: “I was like, ‘Oh. That girl’s getting a lot of laughs, a lot easier than me. What is it?’ Because I don’t think there’s much difference in talent. And I remember distinctly thinking, ‘I think it’s because she’s fatter.’ And then, I don’t know if it was mega-conscious, but I thought, ‘How can I get more laughs? Maybe if I was a bit fatter…’ And then suddenly I was fatter, and doing comedy." She added, "I saw my size as being an advantage, whereas so many women see it as a disadvantage."
After losing significant weight several years ago, Seth Rogen said, "You probably all notice that I’m around 10 pounds less funny." In other words, the way a comedian looks often dictates how he or she can earn a laugh. Historically, fat comedians are crass and clumsy. It’s a pattern that’s helped condition audiences to feel more comfortable laughing at an overweight actor in a comedy than to cry or root for one in a drama. And it's why it’s rare to see a larger actor cast as a desirable, romantic lead. Continuing to use plus-size as a punch-line, where even being sexual is played as a joke, contributes to that status quo.
It’s the projects McCarthy has produced and co-written alongside her director husband Ben Falcone — Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party — that feature those interchangeable performances from the actor. Although they were all critically panned, they still earned her more than the average comedy star. Similarly, Wilson produced The Hustle, and improvised much of her character's most offensive bits, and to roaring laughter at the screening I attended.
Maybe McCarthy and Wilson just find this shtick fun — it certainly plays for easy chuckles. And, hey, if these women are in on the gag, then it must be okay to find it funny — they’re owning their curves! They’re making money from bodies society so often rejects! What’s wrong with that?
Sure, self-deprecation is fine and often hilarious, but when it's based on a body type that women in real life don't want to and perhaps don't have the ability to poke fun at, it feels mean and hollow. Sometimes when I’m watching McCarthy and Wilson, I get the feeling that they’re making fun of themselves so others can’t. Regardless of who is making the joke, this kind of weight-based comedy is fat-shaming, harmful to the actor’s audience, taints her own body of work, and endorses Hollywood’s view of what a dramatic actor does not look like.
And why punch down when both McCarthy and Wilson have done so well with more complex roles that don’t rely on using their bodies for laughs or require them to lose weight. McCarthy received Oscar nominations for her roles in Bridesmaids (a rarity for comedy performances) and the recent Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in which she went dramatic. See also: Spy, Ghostbusters, The Heat. None of these parts required her to be defined by her body. Instead, they allowed her to just be.
As for Wilson, her role in the recent Isn't It Romantic, which felt reminiscent of rom-coms of yore, had the actor play the lovable lead, funny without once falling prey to her usual stereotypes.
It's difficult to separate comedy and social commentary. But these women have already built a name for themselves and have a distinct charm and beauty that exists whatever the character. For them to veer away from the large-and-loud act would make a powerful statement. If the intention is to grow as an actor and to, hopefully, have your audience grow with you, then it's time for them to retire the fat comedian and just be a comedian who happens to be fat.