‘Shallow Hal’: The Unexpected Virtue of Mockery

[caption id="attachment_20750" align="aligncenter" width="465"]"Only a man this shallow could fall in love this deep." “Only a man this shallow could fall in love this deep.”[/caption]


Written by Brigit McCone as part of our theme week on Fatphobia and Fat Positivity.

We are bad at multitasking empathy. When moved by Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning struggle with his stammer in The King’s Speech, you don’t want to recall cackling at Michael Palin in A Fish Called Wanda. As you congratulate yourself for noticing the rather obvious sexiness of Emmy-winning Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones, you’d prefer to forget laughing at Verne Troyer in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. It’s more comfortable having your heart warmed by the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, if you ignore that your ribs were tickled by Me, Myself and Irene. It’s easier to feel good about sympathizing with Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning trans heroine in Dallas Buyers Club, if you blank the comedy stripping of Sean Young’s trans villain in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The result is that neither gross-out comedy nor award-winning pathos seriously challenges its audience’s comfort; the comedy, because we’re never asked to sympathize, and the Oscar-bait, because we’re never tempted to mock. In 2001’s Shallow Hal, the Farrelly Brothers took Oscar-winning Gwyneth Paltrow, dressed her in a comical fat suit and demanded sympathy. The result was downright uncomfortable, and I loved it.

Shallow Hal comes with no genre cues or award endorsements to aid in compartmentalizing our empathy. Its challenge to fatphobia is covered in fat jokes and gross-out humor, tailored to trigger our prejudices. We can laugh, if prepared to question why. We can sympathize, if braced against an awkwardly half-choked, giggling snort. Humor strikes faster than self-censorship. The film has the boundless bad taste to remind viewers of their shallowness while daring to make them feel bad about it. The result can be a jarring viewing experience, provoking Rolling Stones‘ critic Peter Travers to declare “something condescending, not to mention hypocritical, about asking an audience to laugh uproariously at the spectacle of a fat person being sneered at and dissed as “rhino” or “hippo” or “holy cow,” and then to justify those laughs by saying it’s society’s fault.” Yet, is it truly hypocritical to remind an audience that they’re hypocritical?

The moment we see Jack Black’s Hal and Jason Alexander’s Mauricio hitting on “hotties,” the audience’s instinctive reaction is that they are too short and overweight to be justified in their shallowness. Hal is hypnotized into seeing inner beauty, and the hotties in fat suits and ugly cosmetics are utterly transformed into hotties without fat suits and ugly cosmetics. This premise allows Shallow Hal to become a forensic deconstruction of the fat joke. Do crushed chairs and giant meals remain funny, if acted by slim Gwyneth Paltrow? Or is it only the fat body that’s funny?

Many critics have pointed out that Shallow Hal uses tired, conventional fat jokes, without acknowledging how deliberately it targets thin bodies with those jokes. Left to imagine the fat body of Rosemary (Gwyneth Paltrow) only from bystander reactions and glimpsed body parts, we build a mental image of something hyperbolically monstrous. When Rosemary’s fat self is finally revealed, it is not to be mocked, but to relieve Hal and expose society’s dysmorphia. Of course, the Farrellys can’t control the audience’s response, only confront it. As Katherine Murray says of Chasing Amy and Dollhouse: “the power and relevance of both of these stories comes from the fact that objectifying women is a popular pastime in real life, and not everyone sees the problem with that – the discomfort and uncertainty of these stories comes from the fact that objectifying women is a popular pastime in real life, and not everyone sees the problem with that.”

Paltrow’s sympathetic performance blends spiky defensiveness and vulnerability. Seeing such low self-esteem in a slim, blonde “hottie,” Hal perceives it as “cuckoo.” Of course, it should be equally cuckoo for a fat woman to suffer pointlessly lower quality of life because of irrational stigma. Separating the body and the stigma raises interesting questions. Would it still be a dream to date Paltrow’s slender blonde, if onlookers reacted with the same judging, mocking and disbelieving scrutiny applied to obese girlfriends? Where Louie‘s “So Did The Fat Lady” wallows in the pathos of a fat lady that men won’t hold hands with in public, Shallow Hal questions whether men would feel comfortable publicly holding hands with Gwyneth Paltrow, if she were associated with lower status rather than higher. Or are they, actually, more shallow than Shallow Hal?

[caption id="attachment_20751" align="aligncenter" width="315"]Hair-raising trials Hair-raising trials[/caption]


Hal progresses through each hurdle of deconstructed shallowness, from defying public judgment to accepting Rosemary’s body in its real form, with “love grows where my Rosemary goes, and nobody knows but me” becoming his anthem of social defiance. Shallow assumptions that short, overweight Hal is ridiculous for chasing girls “out of his league” are equally challenged. Hal can attract conventional “hotties” once his desire is proved more than superficial; it’s just that then he doesn’t want them. Shallow Hal joins gross-out classic There’s Something About Mary, and the non-Farrelly Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, as a romcom that dares to demand of men: “what is it about you that makes you deserve the girl?” It puts its hero through a trial of worth, without the usual, unquestioned entitlement to date whatever hottie the script provides (*cough* Forgetting Sarah Marshall). In There’s Something About Mary, a range of men try to seduce Cameron Diaz’s “hottie” using farcical exaggerations of classic wooing tactics: Matt Dillon’s sleazy Healy eavesdrops to discover and embody all her fantasies, Lee Evans’ emotionally blackmailing Tucker fakes a disability and an English accent to out-vulnerable the most vulnerable Hugh Grant fop, Chris Elliott’s stalking Dom manifests a passion so intense and persistent that it brings him out in hives, and hunky Brett Favre combines athleticism, wealth and fame. But it is only Ben Stiller’s continually humiliated Ted who, while making every technical error imaginable, loves Mary enough to place her happiness above his own desires, meaning he alone passes the film’s trial.

Conversely, the clients of Deuce Bigalow are farcical exaggerations of female anxieties: the narcoleptic fails society’s demand for women to be attentive; Amy Poehler’s Tourette’s violates expectations of ladylike behavior; the giantess is manly and intimidating; Fluisa is obese and unfit. Only by honoring the humanity and femininity of each of these extreme archetypes, and passing the final test of fully accepting his “hottie” girlfriend’s prosthetic limb, can Deuce prove himself worthy to be accepted and loved in his turn, as a flawed being. The shockingly honest self-scrutiny in gross-out comedy is one of the genre’s central pleasures. Farrelly Brothers movies are elevated above mean-spirited imitators (*cough* Norbit) by their dedication to conjuring and confronting anxieties on a path to purification. Though I didn’t include the Farrellys’ crude and absurdist Me, Myself And Irene in my survey of cinematic portraits of psychosis, and though it was slammed by mental health organizations, I must admit the film recognizes the psychosis of Jim Carrey’s Charlie Baileygates as his own responsibility, while allowing him to be a romantic and sexual being, which is as rare as it is refreshing. Since my psychotic break was flamboyant, I appreciate the Farrelly Brothers’ defiance of the respectability politics that plague mental health activism, just as Shallow Hal acknowledges and even exaggerates Rosemary’s overeating, while still challenging her dehumanization.

[caption id="attachment_20752" align="aligncenter" width="430"]Rene Kirby as Walt Rene Kirby as Walt[/caption]


Crucially, Shallow Hal does not confine itself to the hypothetical thought experiment of imagining conventionally attractive actors as obese or cosmetically ugly, but introduces genuinely nonconforming bodies, including launching the acting career of Rene Kirby in a prominent supporting role. This tactic confronts viewers with the humanity behind the metaphor. Think of the audiences who empathized with Boris Karloff’s cosmetic monster in Frankenstein, but were appalled by the genuinely nonconforming bodies of Tod Browning’s career-destroying Freaks. Shallow Hal dares to sit Frankenstein and the real “freaks” at the same table, where all are celebrated as “one of us.” Does its casual conflation of fatphobia and ableism disturb some fat acceptance activists? The intense identification with nonconforming bodies that gay director James Whale showed in Frankenstein, or Oscar Wilde showed in “The Birthday of the Infanta,” faded from the camp aesthetic as gay rights advanced. The identification with Frankenstein shown by crossdressing director/star Ed Wood in Glen or Glenda, and transgender creator/star Richard O’Brien in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is fading from today’s trans* rights movement. Is the fat acceptance movement fighting to end body stigma, or merely to separate fat bodies from that stigma? Must every step of progress be accompanied by an act of exclusion?

Fat acceptance?

The 1948 “race film” (that is, a Jim Crow era film with an African American cast, targeting African American audiences), Boarding House Blues, opens with Dusty Fletcher bringing a capering monkey into the boarding house to join his act. The monkey claims Dusty’s bed and forces him to sleep on the floor. It also bears a remarkable resemblance to King Louie, who would be talking jive and aping Louis Armstrong as the beloved “King of the Swingers” in Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book, fully 42 years before 2009’s The Princess and the Frog introduced Disney’s first Black princess (and, despite its jazz-age New Orleans setting, had less of Armstrong’s sound in its Randy Newman score than the ape did in 1967). It is uncomfortable to watch “King Louie” side by side with Dusty Fletcher, as it is uncomfortable to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s fake stigma side by side with Rene Kirby. It becomes even more uncomfortable when “King Louie” removes his head and reveals that he is another African American man, forced into a monkey suit to hustle a living. Good. Let’s be uncomfortable about that.

Erasure is too often the politically correct alternative to discomfort. By cutting blackface and Stepin Fetchit routines from classic films, we retain the sentimentalized self-image of racists, while erasing uncomfortably visible reminders of their racism (and groundbreaking African American stars, as collateral damage). Boarding House Blues also stars Moms Mabley, a middle-aged woman (and the major pioneer of stand-up comedy, whose taboo-busting routines were tamed for film). Today, her role would be played by Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence or Tyler Perry in drag and a rubber fat suit. How would Murphy’s Rasputia hold the screen against Mabley’s real deal? Doesn’t the safety of our laughter at Rasputia depend on Mabley’s substitution? One more star of Boarding House Blues deserves attention: Crip Heard. Crip is a dancer with one arm and one leg. Entering on a crutch, he tosses that crutch aside with a flourish and dances unaided. It is hard to imagine this celebration of Crip’s resilient body appearing in even the blaxploitation film of the 1970s, let alone the modern mainstream. Where could Crip dance today? If you’re honest, you know the answer: in a Farrelly Brothers movie.

There is no question that fatphobia is a vile, irrational and bullying stigma. But the commonly repeated mantra that it is the “last acceptable prejudice” is demonstrably untrue. From physical disability to mental illness to trans* status, there are numerous acceptable prejudices in today’s comedies. As Kathleen LeBesco points out, the Farrelly Brothers have “more than any mainstream moviemakers working today, fought hard against the devices of concealment, cosmetic action, and motivated forgetting, and as a result thrown into question the reassurance that public bodies are flawless bodies.” The runner-up? Jackass, of course. So, are we ready to embrace the anarchic Farrelly vision of squirming confrontation and broad-based solidarity? Or must our body politics become respectability politics?


See also at Bitch Flicks: When It Seems Like The Movie You’re Watching Might Hate You




Brigit McCone admits to having a thing for Jack Black and Rob Schneider. She writes and directs short films, radio dramas and “The Erotic Adventures of Vivica” (as Voluptua von Temptitillatrix). Her hobbies include doodling and terrible dancing in the privacy of her own home.