What if F-words (fat and feminist) were stripped of their negativity? A review of Bolt

My daughter and I went to see Bolt last night. Probably my favorite thing about the film was the representation of Penny’s mother. She was fat. But, her fatness was not focused on, it was not used to characterize her, it was not used as code for “she is dumb.” Rather, it was represented as normal, as average, as not having anything to do with what type of woman or parent she was. She was a nice character who played a very small role in the film, yet this representation of fatness as something NORMAL, as just another body type, is HUGE as it so rarely happens.

Usually fat is used to indicate a character is dumb, funny, evil, lazy, gluttonous, and/or diseased. Often the fatness of the character becomes the primary focus – they are seen as fat first, and as human second, it at all. Fat is used as a sight gag in many movies – so much so that fat bodies themselves create an expectation of humor. If you are fat and not funny, you are breaking expectations.

Many films have done “fat-face” (akin to black-face and yellow-face). Fat face is like the ‘lookist’ equivalent of the racist tradition of black/yellow-face. Yet, when actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Edie Murphy, and Tyler Perry don fat suits for laughs, it is seen as funny – rather than discriminatory.

Thus, Bolt broke relatively un-trod ground in its depiction of fat as normal. Imagine if the majority of films and television shows gave us this “fat is normal” message; imagine how this could change the body hatred that has become widespread in the US. Imagine too how it would hurt the sales of the multi-billion dollar diet/fitness/surgical industry that seeks to make us all – fat, thin, short, tall, hairy, bald – find fault with our bodies.

This “love yourself as your are” message fit in with the grander narrative of the film – Bolt learns to like himself despite the fact he is not the super-dog he though he was. We would do well as a culture to learn this same lesson.

My second favorite thing about the film was the representation of Penny. She is brave, heroic, independent, and caring, or, as one review refers to her, she is “fully equipped with the habitual spunk of a Disney New Feminist.” Her lightening speed scooter riding skills are Bond-worthy and, for once, we have a chase scene where the female is neither sexualized nor incompetent.

While in the TV show she and Bolt star in, he is her repeated savior, in real-life, the two are equally heroic – Penny for her refusal to give up when Bolt is lost as well as for standing up to her evil studio boss, and Bolt for his refusal to give up the hope of returning home to Penny. While the end of the film involves Bolt saving Penny from a burning building (in typical male must save female narrative style), it is ultimately Penny’s mother who saves them both by realizing that the Hollywood life is not a good place for dogs or girls.

Thus, while the film does not shout it’s pro-feminist, pro-fat message loud and proud, it certainly goes a lot further than the likes of Wall-e or Kung Fu Panda in putting strong females front and center, and, in the case of Penny’s mother, stripping the fat body of its negativity. For these reasons, as well as for the wise female feline Mittens and the sly debunking of masculinized fan-culture in the character of Rhino the hamster, the film is worth a watch. And, as someone who has never managed to stay awake through a Bond movie (so repetitive, so yawningly macho, so tediously sexist), I would recommend it over Quantum of Solace any day


10 thoughts on “What if F-words (fat and feminist) were stripped of their negativity? A review of Bolt”

  1. I saw Bolt, and I totally agree. I noticed and loved how Penny’s mother was just allowed to be fat without it being ANY part of the story or her character whatsoever.

    I don’t know if you ever catch the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, but the main character on that show just entered into a relationship with an adorable fat girl who has so far only been portrayed as smart, confident, and attractive, with no mention of her size. Isn’t it amazing how much these non-problematic portrayals stand out to us since they are so rare?

  2. Tracey,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I have never seen the sitcom you mention, but I am glad to hear that there is another positive representation of fat female circulating the airwaves. There are far too few of them!
    And, yes, sad indeed that these portrayals are the exception rather than the norm…

  3. Ah, fat-ism; this is one of the few almost universally sanctioned discrimination targets still around. Sexism is condemned (at least given lip service) by many (but not enough); racism is even more less socially acceptable (on the face of it, anyway); anti-gay prejudice has vocal critics (but too few); and fat people?

    Fat people are still out in the cold, as it were. Yes, I know, we feminists are supposed to be sensitive to such issues. I’m all fine and good with that, but damn! My weight has crept up to 132 (I’m 5’8″). I’m freaking out over having to wear a size 6! I’ll not buy any new clothes, either. I get back down to my size 4s or I go naked! I will NOT stay a size 6! I’m tooooooo fat!

    Ok, I’m not supposed to admit this, but weight is a huge issue with me (no pun intended). Me get fat again? No way! The point is, it’s not just me. Listen to a couple of feminists talk. Chances are really good concern over weight is present.

    And of course it is! We’re inundated constantly with the message that, for women especially, our value is inversely correlated to our weight. Whether we consciously accept this or not, we have grown up immersed in this attitude and it’s almost as if it were emblazoned on our neurons like it was written on stone with letters two inches deep.

    Great post, great topic. Now, I’m going to go get lunch. Or not. If I cut down for just a few days, I could maybe fit into my favorite pantsuit by Tahari.

  4. I’ve seen some improvement in feminist circles in the last few years, but unimprovement (deprovement?) in environmental circles. “Fat” is now a code word for all things environmentally destructive, capitalist, unhealthy, self-destructive, and self-limiting. If you have ample sanity points, check out PETA’s blog, and see how eating animals is framed as the defining issue of health and weight (and the correlation of those two things). I bet 3 out of 5 posts accuses meat-eating of causing obesity, despite active (and increasing) claims from fat vegans and vegetarians that changing one’s diet rarely makes one a radically different body size.

  5. It is an issue we (feminists) need to face up to and make our own mea culpes.

    Prof, are you familiar with the concept of possible selves? This was first published in a paper in, maybe 1986? by Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius (American Psychologist). Building on the notion that our self concept (described as a collection of self-schemata) includes a variety of schemata that represent who we are, who we have been and who we can be, it suggests these possible selves have motivational elements to them.

    If we’re fat, we likely have incorporated societal disapproval. If we’re thin, we likely fear becoming fat. While a man is not likely to become a woman, a person of Euro descent is not likely to become a person of color, a person who is thin may well become a person who is large (I hate the word fat so I’m copping out with “large”).

    This may have some impact on why anti-large prejudice is so ubiquitous and will be so hard to make headway with.

  6. Rachel,
    “it’s almost as if it were emblazoned on our neurons like it was written on stone with letters two inches deep” — excellent!

    I agree with you that many (most?) feminists still do not love their bodies regardless of what size they are… I have heard many a woman’s studies professor talk of dieting or bemoan their weight. I do think this diet talk is anti-feminist though and that we need to fight the fat-ism — in our own minds and in the wider culture!

    And, I am not familiar with “possible selves.” It seems an interesting link could be made with disability — like fatness, anyone may become disabled (and is likely too if they live long enough) — hence Garland-Thompson’s use of “temporarily abled.”

    I personally think we need to reclaim the word fat. It has become a negative word, an insulting word do to our own societal fat-ism. I hate overweight – over whose weight? Your own body’s or the sicko societal norm? I also hate obese — way to medicalized and over-used. Large? Nope — large is too generic… I like fat! Fat is a beautiful word and I know just as many beautiful fat bodies as beautiful thin ones!

    “‘Fat’ is now a code word for all things environmentally destructive, capitalist, unhealthy, self-destructive, and self-limiting.” Too true — and, like the word ‘black,’ ‘fat’ is almost always used in a negative way — fat-cats, fat-heads, cut the fat — etc… This word needs reclamation!
    And thanks so much for your points that most bodies stay within the same weight range whether or not one is vegan, vegetarian, etc. Our bodies have a set point as that is different and diverse — but yo-yo dieting and other body hating schemes make this set point go higher. Such an ugly, capitalist friendly, body hating cycle…

  7. i agree with you. the word fat needs to stripped of all its negativity. it’s exhausting to continuously shield yourself from society’s dictatorship on its idealized physical beauty.

  8. Thanks for your comment.
    It sure is “exhausting to continuously shield yourself from society’s dictatorship on its idealized physical beauty.” As Naomi Wolf, Alice Walker, Susan Bordo and so many others argued, think of all the stuff we could get done is we didn’t waste so much time exhausting ourselves with body policing!

  9. There is a disturbing propensity toward representing thinness as a universal ideal. There are a few counterexamples though, and I’m commenting to bring up one: the female scientist in Minority Report that Tom Cruise seeks out for help while on the run. She doesn’t have a big part, but it’s important and the fact that the studio cast a middle aged woman (who actually looks like she’s middle aged) in the part of a highly competent and influential scientist is positive.

  10. Yes, I agree that it’s positive the scientist is portrayed as a woman. Yet I found myself thinking middle-aged and not thin (“dumpy?”)is consistent with the stereotype of a scientist who is a woman. After all, women can either be smart or beautiful, but not both (as stereotyped). Then, I found myself wondering if I’d be happier if she were youngish and beautiful (beautiful consistent with artificially and arbitrarily defined by society). Nope, then it seem like sex appeal is more important than accomplishments.

    So, damned if they(we?) do, damned if they (we?) don’t. And that left me frustrated with how screwed up the whole thing is. Oh, for the day when women can be just women!

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