Monthly Archives: April 2020

Chris Farley is Fat and Funny

By Rhys Speight

The performer’s greatest tool is their body, and while everyone has one they can be very different. However, this doesn’t translate to what we see in popular media where slim and toned bodies predominate. Deviations from this are so much of an irregularity that the term ‘plus-size actors’ was coined to refer to those whose weight falls above the ridiculous Hollywood standards. As someone who is plus size, being various weights and shapes throughout my life, I can relate to the struggles of being a plus size performer, or a fat actor as I like to call it. One of the genres I have always gravitated towards is comedy as fat actors have always seemed to flourish in this genre, despite it leading to some negative stereotypes and poor mental health for the actors.

The American television variety show Saturday Night Live (abbreviated as SNL) has a history of casting a diverse range of comedians, thus making it inevitable that a range of plus size actors would join their ranks. SNL have proudly given a platform to fat comedians, such as the beloved John Belushi and Chris Farley, both of whom died at age 33 of drug overdoses. The escapades of Farley in particular are still fondly remembered to this day, with one of his most well-known, and in recent years infamous, sketches being the Chippendales Audition from Season 16 in 1990, with guest star Patrick Swayze. Swayze was massive sex symbol of the time, known for his athleticism and dancing, so the logical comedic conclusion would be pairing him with the obese Farley. Chippendale dancers represent a peak of masculinity, their toned bodies and heavily choreographed dance routines being a far cry from Farley’s usual schlubby spontaneous antics. In the sketch, Farley is presented opposite Swayze at an audition panel for the position of a dancer. The joke is very simple: Farley is fat. As he strips his hairy, chubby body is put on full display for the camera, juxtaposed with the toned torso of Swayze. Farley is competing with the biggest sex symbol in America and yet, he has our undivided attention. It is a bizarre effect, intentional or not, as here Farley seems to have all the power in the situation. Despite one of the most aesthetically pleasing men in Hollywood being stood next to him, all eyes are on Farley’s obese body and soon we begin to root for him. Similar to Oliver Hardy, seeing such a large man move with such athleticism and energy instils a sense of euphoria, we are seeing the last thing we expect to happen unfold before our eyes, the whoops and cheers of the audience make it clear who is their preferred dancer.

However, the narrative of the sketch itself is different. In a rather awkward concluding scene, the judges choose Swayze’s character before body shaming Farley’s, bluntly describing his body as “fat and flabby”. The sketch has since gone on to have an infamous reputation, with some pointing to it as part of the reason Farley developed such deep insecurities. The Network Entertainment documentary I am Chris Farley (2015) delves into Farley’s struggle with mental health and drugs, interviewing his friend and fellow comedian Chris Rock, who cited the Chippendale sketch as one of the reasons Farley felt these insecurities, criticising it because:

The joke of it is, basically, ‘We can’t hire you because you’re fat.’ There’s no comic twist to it. It’s just [bleep]ing mean. Chris wanted so much to be liked. As funny as that sketch was…it’s one of the things that killed him. (Rock 2015).

Rock’s criticism is blunt, but also very much in the right. The sketch’s premise is to make fun of Farley’s weight, it is a direct mockery of his body. Watching the sketch now, Farley’s performance gives him the kind of power he has, and the effect it has on the audience that makes them root for him. As a performer he was deeply loved and his style has certainly inspired parts of my own.

Sadly however , this affection was not enough to get through to Farley at the time, and he turned to alcohol, drugs and binge eating in his personal life. The Washington Post’s Justin Moyer discusses these issues in his bluntly named article, ‘How we killed Chris Farley with laughter’ (2015), writing in response to Farley’s view that he felt trapped by both type casting and trying to keep his outrageous comic persona separate from his personal life, “Every character he played seemed ready to burst, and the comic was not inclined — or perhaps too scared — to play against type.” (Moyer 2015).

Moyer goes on to argue that Chris was trapped by a case of “Life imitates art”, the characters that Farley would portray only seemed to get larger and louder, bleeding through into Farley’s real-world personality. In performance, Farley discovered a safe space where he could unload his stress and found not only a place accommodate his large body and increasingly unhealthy lifestyle. Farley eventually escaped the mental trap of SNL and looked to have a promising upcoming career, talking with playwright David Mamet about playing Fatty Arbuckle, a fat comedian accused of rape. A very striking and dramatic role could’ve made Farley’s career. Despite his explosively comedic persona, Farley was a deeply broken and problematic person. Indeed, as an admirer of his, it is upsetting to learn that Farley was convicted of exposing himself to a girl in school, leading to his expulsion. He would ultimately follow in the footsteps of his hero John Belushi and died of a drug overdose at the young age of 33, alone in his apartment.

In being fat and funny, Farley took both aspects too far, and killed himself with them. It would be reassuring to believe that we have learned from Farley’s tragic life, but we haven’t. Fat is still stigmatised as slobbish and clumsy, and fat performers still have to rely on comedic work to get anywhere in the industry, despite how poorly handled the comedy often is. This is a clear case for better written work surrounding fat, though perhaps that is too much to ask of popular media.

References
Moyer, J. (2015) How we killed Chris Farley with laughter [Internet]

Rock, C. (2015) I am Chris Farley [Documentary] Directed by Brent Hodge and Derik Murray. Vancouver, Canada. Network Entertainment.

Rhys Speight is a BA Drama and Theatre student at York St John University.

This post is a extract from his third year dissertation titled: ‘Fat is… an Issue? An Analysis of the Role of Plus Size Actors and Actresses in the World of Performance

Women’s Anger and its Reclamation through Art

By Kathryn Morris McHarry

The past few years, we have seen an increase in the exposure of inequalities faced by women; movements such as #MeToo have highlighted the oppression women have faced for years and, because of this, society is beginning to be held accountable. Women are rightly angry and more than ever feeling empowered to talk about the injustices they experience. Despite this, it is apparent that a disturbing narrative surrounding female anger persists. Women who express their anger are labelled ‘hysterical’, ‘nasty’ or ‘mad’, devaluing even the most justifiable of feelings.

Soraya Chemlay explains the danger of the demonization of female anger in her book Rage Becomes Her saying that anger:

Makes it clear that we take ourselves seriously. This is true in our homes and in our public lives. By effectively severing anger from ‘good womanhood’, we chose to sever girls and women from the emotion that best protects us against danger and injustice. (Chemlay, 2018, xxi)

In this book Chemlay also explores how socialisation in formative years sets out clear and worrying gender stereotypes concerning anger that only continue to grow, limiting women’s and girls’ emotional expression and behaviour. This idea is supported by a questionnaire study in 2000 in which men and women were asked questions used to assess anger expression and personality traits such as assertiveness, self-esteem, sense of effectiveness, and expectations for success. Deborah Cox said that the study found that:

In the focus group interviews, several women told us they felt that their anger was disabling. They felt ashamed of feeling angry and tried to control it, hide it, and apologize for it. (University of California, 2000)

This supports the idea that women are socialised to see their anger as shameful. This is problematic because anger is an important and powerful emotion which can help individuals in many ways, allowing expression of feelings in an obvious and clear way that makes the world more likely to take notice. This was discussed by Lewis, Fischer and Manstead who explain that ‘The social function of anger is to impose change upon another person’ (2010, 457). However, this is not the only positive function of anger, particularly psychologically. As well as allowing a person to sufficiently air their discontent, anger allows us to recognise injustices and motivates us to right these wrongs and do something, promoting proactivity.

This ability of anger to provide a route for realising wrongdoing and demand change also gives the emotion and its release specific political power; throughout history displays of anger have been used by the oppressed to force a conversation. When anger is recognised for its positive power rather than as a merely negative emotion, it is easier to recognise the detrimental effect that may result when half of the population is made to believe that it is unbecoming. It is important to note that this oppression of female anger serves as a tool for the patriarchy in its systematic oppression of the female voice and thus in its oppression of women. By painting anger and rage as unreasonable in females and simultaneously claiming women who fight against the patriarchy to be ‘angry feminists’, any woman who would consider herself a feminist is portrayed as a bad woman, even when her anger is justifiable.

Like every other sector of our society, the art and theatre worlds have undoubtably perpetuated troubling stereotypes of femininity and specifically women’s anger. This being said, more and more we are seeing examples of practitioners, often women, using their art to challenge patriarchy in its depiction of their emotions.

One example of the deconstruction of the tropes of female anger is Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Overall (1997). This large-scale projection installation, filmed on a standard video camera, showed a woman dressed in a pale blue dress and red high heeled shoes happily walking down a street. Accompanied by a dreamy, almost etherial soundtrack and with a large grin on her face she smashes the windows of cars using a metal flower while female police officer salutes her as the walks by. The action seems to provide a cathartic release from the stuffy feminine image we are often shown by the male gaze. The use of the flower as a weapon of destruction is also important to consider. Much like the woman, the flower is considered delicate and feminine but is used in an action of violence. This idea is noted by Serina Ferrao who says ‘The flower represents the delicate nature of the female; Rist describes the flower as “clitoric’” (Ferrao, 2014)

In the video, Rist seems to capture the hidden and confined rage of the exhausted housewife. This image of a woman smashing up a car has become ingrained into modern culture, often linked to the idea of being wronged by men. For example, in 2016 the music video for Beyonce’s Hold Up (2016) was released. This video is startlingly similar to Rist’s, as Knowles-Carter sashays down the street in a long yellow dress and smashes the windows of cars, smiling all the while and in the accompanying song the artist sings about an unfaithful partner. Ariella Grittlen comments ‘The video offers the same exhilaration as Rist’s, the notion that anger itself might free us from everything from cheating spouses to systemic racism and sexism’ (2018). As Grittlen infers, these depictions seem to provide an insight into the female view of anger and rage – that it’s display and acceptance could provide a welcome release and a purge of emotion for the female audience to whom female anger is usually shown to in a negative way.

It is however arguable that this depiction of feminine rage, especially in Beyonce’s case, instead of empowering women, perpetuates the image of the ‘crazy ex/girlfriend’. This has become a worryingly common sexist trope, depicted in TV, film, music, theatre and has been persistently transferred to the general public. As is the same with many sexist myths, the concept of a ‘psycho’ or ‘crazy’ ex applies almost exclusively to women and similar behaviour by men is portrayed as ‘romantic’ rather than unhinged. This is perhaps most clear in modern rom-com films. A recent study by Julia Lippman involved participants watching a range of romantic comedies which depicted arguably abusive and stalker like behaviour from males and then completing a questionnaire on stalking. Lippman found that:
Results indicate that media portrayals of gendered aggression can have prosocial effects, and that the romanticized pursuit behaviours commonly featured in the media as a part of normative courtship can lead to an increase in stalking-supportive beliefs. (Lippman, 2018)

Despite these unfortunate readings, it is my hope that perhaps, if women see their anger reflected in performance and media, they may begin to recognise the positive uses it can have. As Chemlay and Chakrabati note, ‘we have an emotional culture that thinks of [female] anger as destructive and as negative when in fact it’s the way we perceive and manage anger that yields these bad effects.” (2018) Through seeing anger performed by female artists and activists we can begin to acknowledge its positive effects and challenge the patriarchy’s portrayal of the ‘hysterical’, ‘nasty’ or ‘mad’ angry woman and instead recognise why they are right to be angry.

References

Chemaly, S. (2018). Rage Becomes Her. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd.
University of California, San Francisco. (2000, January 31). Comparison of Anger Expression in Men And Women Reveals Surprising Differences. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 7, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2000/01/000131075609.htm
Lewis, M., Fischer, A. and Manstead, A. (2010). Handbook of emotions. New York: The Guilford Press, p.457.
Rist, P. (1997). Ever Is Overall.
Ferrao, S. (2014). Pipilotti Rist Ever is over all 1997. [online] Sabrina Ferrao blog. Available at: https://sabrinaferraoblog.wordpress.com/2014/12/09/pipilotti-rist-ever-is-over-1997/ [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019].
Knowles-Carter, B. (2016). Beyoncé – Hold Up (Video).

Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeonBmeFR8o [Accessed 7 Nov. 2019].
Gittlen, A. (2018). The 7 Most Vengeful Depictions of Female Rage in Art History. [online] Artsy. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-history-female-rage-art [Accessed 7 Nov. 2019].
Caldwell, J., Swan, S. and Woodbrown, D. (2019). PsycNET. [online] Psycnet.apa.org. Available at: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2011-26363-001 [Accessed 2 Dec. 2019].
Lippman, J. (2019). I Did It Because I Never Stopped Loving You: The Effects of Media Portrayals of Persistent Pursuit on Beliefs About Stalking – Julia R. Lippman, 2018.
Chemaly, S. and Chakrabati, M. (2018). ‘Rage Becomes Her’: The Current Conversation Around Women’s Anger. [online] Wbur.org. Available at: https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2018/09/12/rage-becomes-her-soraya-chemaly [Accessed 9 Dec. 2019].

Karthyn Morris McHarry is a BA Drama and Theatre student at York St John University.

This post is a extract from her third year dissertation titled: ‘The myth of anger as an unfeminine trait in contemporary performance practice.’