At the end of the Cannes Film Festival last week, jury member Jessica Chastain spoke out against a trend she found “deeply disturbing”: The representation of women in film. It was a brazen move for an actress at the height of her success to make herself so vulnerable and speak so candidly in front of Hollywood’s crème de la crème.
“I do hope that when we include more female storytellers we will have more of the kinds of women that I recognize in my day to day life,” she said. “Ones that are proactive, have their own agencies, don’t just react to the men around them, they have their own point of view.” I would add one more quality to Chastain’s list: Big girls.
Luckily, this summer will treat us to a variety of female-driven comedies, many of them with big, bad, and beautiful stars at the helm. Geremy Jasper’s “Patti Cake$” is a crowd-pleasing musical about an unlikely hip-hop hopeful named Patti Cake$, played by newcomer Danielle Macdonald. Big and brash, but with a vulnerable sweetness that made her one of Sundance’s most buzzed about performances, Macdonald leads this gritty, uplifting star is born saga.
To top it all off, Amy Schumer cohort and cabaret powerhouse Bridget Everett makes her dramatic acting debut as Patti’s embittered, alcoholic mother, Barb.
Coming later this month, “Saturday Night Live” darling Aidy Bryant makes her biggest film appearance yet in “The Big Sick,” starring stand-up comedian and “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani, and written by Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. While she only has a few scenes, Bryant gets to plays sidekick to Nanjiani without any shades of “funny fat friend” cliches. She’s just her sweet, funny self. (Which, admittedly, isn’t the greatest acting stretch). But, after a string of roles on some of the best TV comedies (“Broad City,” “Girls,” and “Horace and Pete”), it’s a solid breakout movie role in what is shaping up to be the hit romantic comedy of the summer.
On the studio side, Jillian Bell stars in “Rough Night,” a wild bachelorette party movie in the mold of “The Hangover,” alongside Scarlett Johansson, Demi Moore, Zoë Kravitz, Kate McKinnon, and Ilana Glazer. A comedy writer and actress who came up through the fabled Groundlings in Los Angeles, Bell has written for “Saturday Night Live,” and starred in cult comedies “Workaholics” and “Eastbound and Down.”
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Though Bell probably looks more like your average woman than any of her “Rough Night” co-stars, it’s still rare to see women who look like her onscreen. The same goes for Everett, Bryant, and Macdonald. While it’s wonderful to have allies like Chastain throwing her considerable star power behind women filmmakers and female-driven stories, the opinion of one beautiful movie star isn’t the whole picture — in fact, it’s rail thin. To get more complex women onscreen — autonomous women who are not simply valued for their relationship to men — we need a talent pool of women from all walks of life.
Why is it so rare to see any variation on the impossible beauty standard espoused by Hollywood? Sure, everyone likes to look at a pretty face — and male movie stars are just as pressured to stay buff as women are to stay thin. But for every Melissa McCarthy there are 100 Jonah Hills, Patton Oswalts, and Seth Rogens. To say nothing of the kinds of character roles that made careers for guys like Steve Buscemi and John C. Reilly that are virtually nonexistent for women. (A quick Google search for “character actress” turns up Margo Martindale and Mary Wickes, who’s been dead for 20 years.)
As long as women are only allowed to play sex objects or love interests, there will be fewer parts for less conventionally attractive women. Which is not to say these women aren’t worthy of being objectified — just not by Hollywood’s unattainably high beauty and body standards. By simply putting bigger women onscreen, you are creating more roles that are not merely sexually objectifying. You are saying women are more than just ornamentation, more valuable for their acting and comedy chops than for how “doable” a certain swath of mainstream men find them (at least as reflected through Hollywood’s own gaze).
There’s a bit of a catch-22 here. It’s difficult to even discuss without sounding crass or superficial, but if Hollywood is any indication — we are.
Movies and television have a profound impact on even our innermost desires, whether we like it or not. It can be nearly impossible to erase an entire lifetime of cultural programming that tells who and what is attractive. Everett, Bryant, Bell, and McCarthy are all beautiful women, and putting more of them in movies will also go a long way towards telling that to the world. Maybe the first step is to make a movie that does objectify a big girl. Who here would not watch a movie about Octavia Spencer as a cougar? (“American Pie” came close with Jennifer Coolidge as Stiffler’s Mom.)
So, filmmakers, screenwriters, studios, please: Put big girls onscreen. Not only will you be creating a more authentic world for your film, you allow yourself to paint with all the colors in the crayon box, to borrow a phrase from RuPaul. He’s also the one who said, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” These ladies love themselves, and so do we. Now, bring back my big girls.