Why I Dig Melissa McCarthy

by Shaker Lysis

[Content Note: Fat bias; misogyny.]

Since appearing in Bridesmaids, for which she received an Oscar nomination, Melissa McCarthy has become one of Hollywood's most bankable stars. She has done so in the face of rampant misogyny and fat shaming. This week, she will release Spy, her third collaboration with director Paul Feig. As Melissa McEwan noted earlier this year, "part of the premise of the film is a fat woman's cultural invisibility becoming her biggest asset."

McCarthy doesn't have the luxury of cultural invisibility anymore, and her very existence as a happy and successful fat woman has made her a target. As she promotes Spy, she is speaking up more about the challenges she faces, and confronting the misogyny and fat shaming head on.

The backlash against McCarthy became most prominent upon the release of Tammy, her first leading role that was marketed solely on her appeal. The film was a big financial success, making more than four times its limited budget, and it did it all on McCarthy's name. As McEwan noted, "It's like suddenly time to criticize her when she's saying LOOK RIGHT AT ME. That's no coincidence."

She was chastised for allowing herself to look physically unappealing, despite that being consistent with the character she was playing. When she was back playing a supporting role in Bill Murray's St. Vincent, (a critically acclaimed film where Murray's character was not costumed and styled to conform to beauty standards, yet nobody criticized that because it was what the character required), one of those critics of Tammy had the audacity to go up to her and praise her work in the new film. This was her response:
"Are you the one who wrote I was only a good actor when I looked more attractive and that my husband should never be allowed to direct me because he allowed me to look so homely?" she asked him.

He admitted he was. "Would you say that to any guy?" she continued. "When John C. Reilly—or any actor—is playing a character that is depressed and dejected, would you say, 'Well, you look terrible!'?" She asked the critic if he had a daughter. He did. "Watch what you say to her," she told him. "Do you tell her she's only worthwhile or valid when she's pretty?"
McCarthy went on to lambaste the sexism that plagues her industry:
"It's an intense sickness," she says. "For someone who has two daughters, I'm wildly aware of how deep that rabbit hole goes. But I just don't want to start listening to that stuff. I'm trying to take away the double standard of 'You're an unattractive bitch because your character was not skipping along in high heels.'"
One thing that I find very powerful about McCarthy publicly speaking out is that she's refusing to pretend the criticism doesn't hurt. The personal backlash against Tammy has led to her not reading negative press anymore:
"I've stopped because I finally said, 'This is not making me better. This hurts my heart,'" she says.
Her unique position as a visible fat woman put enormous pressure on her to be invulnerable to criticism so her confidence can be praised (and used as a weapon against other fat women who would do so much better if they just had confidence). She won't do that. I think that's important, and I think it's connected to her insistence that she be a fully realized human being in real life as much as she is onscreen.

See, there's something different about how McCarthy works. With every film she's in, the knot in my stomach that waits for her to be an object of ridicule because of her appearance is smaller. Because those moments don't come. Not that her appearance is never ridiculed on screen, but we're never meant to laugh at her. The audience's scorn is always directed at those who do the ridiculing.

McCarthy and Feig both commented on why that is in the same article linked above, though it was only included in the print edition:
McCarthy said she fell hard for Spy's Susan Cooper - "I really kind of miss her now" - which she has a habit of doing when she locks into a character's messy complexity. "Family, friends - we're all the sum of our weird quirks," she says. "I don't want to watch the perfect person. But some strange person who is riddled with tics? Those are the people - and I mean this lovingly - that I will follow around the Big Lots store, that I could watch all day."

Inevitably McCarthy becomes protective of her creations. "I've been lucky enough to play women that I truly love even if their actions aren't always so great," she says. "I don't know if I could play a character I didn't like."

Feig says this is exactly why he and McCarthy are well suited for each other. "I have an inherent hatred of comedy where the performer clearly has a disdain for the character they're playing," he says. "That's what a lot of comedy in past years has felt like to me: somebody who's funny going, 'I'm playing this really stupid character. I know he's stupid and you think he's stupid, so let's have fun laughing at him.' Melissa and I don't like that. We want people to care about them - you laugh with them and laugh at their expense occasionally, but you still want them to succeed."
Feig's pro-female stance makes him an outlier as a male director, and McCarthy believes that widespread change can only occur when systemic gender discrimination in Hollywood is addressed. As she told MTV:
"I would love to be directed by more women," McCarthy said. "I think there's so many points of view, that you want to make sure your stories are being told from men and women… you get all of the different backgrounds. You don't want every story being told from the same point of view. So just for better storytelling, I'm like, 'yes, please, bring some more ladies on.'"
McCarthy's not the only bankable female star making that push. Meryl Streep has been working with female directors more than any other star, yet it went completely without notice that it was a female director—Phyllida Lloyd—that, with two separate films, earned Streep her biggest box office hit hit and then her first Oscar in 29 years.

But McCarthy's success in genres traditionally dominated by men give her an opportunity to be heard that is unparalleled in Hollywood history. Here's hoping filmmakers listen.

Shakesville is run as a safe space. First-time commenters: Please read Shakesville's Commenting Policy and Feminism 101 Section before commenting. We also do lots of in-thread moderation, so we ask that everyone read the entirety of any thread before commenting, to ensure compliance with any in-thread moderation. Thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus