Tom Ford's new film, Nocturnal Animals, features an opening scene that some are calling body-shaming. But who is to blame for the shaming — the film itself, or the viewer? Nocturnal Animals tells the story of Susan (Amy Adams), a gallery curator whose upper-crust Los Angeles lifestyle is interrupted by the arrival of a violent, tragic manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Nocturnal Animals is haunting, devastating, and — unsurprisingly, given Ford's fashion design background —visually stunning. Yet the movie also made me uncomfortable from the jump — and guilty for feeling that way. The reason? The opening scene of Nocturnal Animals features several plus-size, mostly naked women, moving in slow motion. These women are later revealed to be part of an art installation that Susan has put together — but, for the first few minutes of the film, these naked bodies are displayed without a smidge of context. I was horrified by the scene — surely, these bodies are meant to be gawked at and mocked. My most overwhelming emotion, however, was sheer discomfort. It's hard for me to admit that I felt uncomfortable during this scene, because it's a reminder that I, someone who considers herself a body-positive person, have an intrinsic bias. I compared my reaction to this scene with how I felt watching Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" music video, in which models parade around the R & B artist sans clothes. I didn't feel uncomfortable watching that video — mostly just annoyed that a song with questionable ideas about consent would also feature nude models. I never accused Thicke's video of mocking these women — if anything, their nudity was being grossly ogled through the male gaze. Yet...both scenes feature naked women. All are naked for seemingly no reason. It's merely how these bodies look that changed the message for me.
Plus-size women are either rendered irrelevant or the butt of the joke. My mind immediately went to the latter.
Society teaches us that the naked bodies of plus-size women are shameful, and it's a lesson we learn whether we want to believe it or not. Film and television have been great teachers in that way. Hollywood not only by mocks women outwardly for being plus-size (see: Shallow Hal, Norbit, or even "Fat Amy" from Pitch Perfect), it also erases plus-size women from narratives completely. With very few exceptions (Kate from This Is Us, or Queenie from American Horror Story, to name recent examples), these women often don't get important story lines or the opportunity to show emotional complexity on screen. They are either rendered irrelevant or the butt of the joke. My mind immediately went to the latter. Was I right? Did Ford truly want these women on screen to make us laugh, to lighten the mood of an otherwise devastating story? Yes and no. Ford told Vulture that he originally intended for the women to represent America — gluttonous, tired, and sad — however, something changed for him when he actually met these women. In reality, they didn't represent any of the negative traits that Ford had imposed on them due to their bodies. "I found [the women] so beautiful, so joyful, and so happy to be there." Ford explained. "They were so uninhibited, and I realized that actually, they were a microcosm of what the whole film was saying. They had let go of what our culture had said they’re supposed to be, and because of that, they were so totally free." I'm embarrassed that my first reaction to the opening scene was discomfort. No one's body alone should make someone else uncomfortable. However, unpacking the scene is a reminder that Hollywood rarely allows for complexities in its depictions of plus-size women: Ford may have seen the beauty in the gallery women, but it's worth noting that he still prefers casting thin, just as the rest of the industry does. Until that changes, I fear plus-size bodies will receive the same reaction as the one I initially had to them in Nocturnal Animals.