Blister Features: @fatinfilm
Here at Blister, we are always excited to platform people and their work that is making waves in the screen industries. So, meet Grace Barber-Plentie, behind the Instagram account @fatinfilm. We chat to her about her account and why it is so important to be talking about the representation of fatness on screen. Make sure to give her a follow, and if you are London-based, check out her event at the Barbican, linked at the bottom of the article!
What was the push that made you start your page @fatinfilm?
I'd always wanted to start a film Instagram page with a specific angle - I really like channels like Nail Nitrate, Food On Film and Makeup in Cinema that do this already - and I'd toyed for a while with doing this about POC who are supporting characters/non-speaking parts in mainstream cinema. But I've been spending a lot of time this year thinking about fatness in cinema due to a screening I've been working on, and a lot of that has seen me making lists of my favourite fat films/characters, and I realised that I was desperate for a place to share those with the world!
Your following on Instagram has grown so much in such a short period of time, why do you think your message has resonated with so many people?
Yeah I honestly can't really believe the reactions to the page, especially as it's just something I'm doing in my spare time for fun! I'm really lucky to already follow/be followed by some of my absolute fave fat babes on social media like Gina Tonic and Chloe Sheppard (the founders of The Fat Zine) and Bethany Rutter, all of whom have amazing social media followings, and they've all been SO supportive of the page! But aside from that, I think there really is a shift in body positivity and acceptance of late. It's not just something for us fat folk to talk about and do the hard work anymore, so it's been really cool to see non-fat allies support the page and put the work in.
You post every single day, with such a variety of fat people and characters throughout film history. What is your process for finding the images?
When I started the page, I was posting three times a day because I was just so gassed off actually having followers, but then I realised that was totally unfeasible and I've now gone down to posting once or twice a day - even on my birthday! As I mentioned before, I started the page because I had a bit of a list of films and actors I wanted to feature, so I started off posting my favourites! I've also now probably read every single article on the best fat actors and films about fat people, so I've discovered a lot of cool films through just doing research online. And a lot of the time I'll have a big lightbulb moment and be like 'Holy shit! That beloved film character is fat!' Also people have offered so many cool submissions to the page, from films and cultures that I'm less familiar with, which has been great.
You feature a more or less equal number of fat men and fat women on your page. Fatness seems to be more striking with regards to female presenting bodies in film, with fat men usually causing less of a stir. Why do you think this is?
I definitely agree with this - when you think of fat actresses, often they're starring in work that's centered around their fatness and bodies (whether that work is good or bad) such as Hairspray, Brittany Runs a Marathon, Dumplin' etc. Fat men are generally just allowed to... be.
One thing I do think is really interesting is that because, as you say, fat female bodies are so closely analysed, fat women are often hypersexualised whereas fat male actors suffer from the complete opposite of this - they're rarely playing the 'hot' guy, or considered sexually desirable in the way actors like Brad Pitt (is that a really 2000s person to pick lol) are. A big part of the page is countering this - Brian Tyree Henry is one of the most handsome men working in Hollywood right now. John Goodman has been a babe since the 90s! Let's make fat men the sex symbols they deserve to be!
You have particularly mentioned your dislike for characters in fat suits: for any readers that may not fully understand the implications this holds, could you elaborate a little on why this is such a big problem in terms of representation?
Gina Tonic wrote such a good piece on fat suits just the other week, here - https://www.vice.com/en/article/wx8evq/we-review-film-and-tvs-most-famous-fat-suits! And I agree with her points so much. To me, a non-fat person wearing a fat suit offers up the same problems as casting a cis person to play a non-cis person, or to whitewash a non-white character - it's laziness on the behalf of anyone involved in the casting of a film, pure and simple. You can't say that there aren't better suited people out there who don't have to wear a fat suit to play roles - this page proves it! I think fat suits were used more for comic value in the 90s and 2000s, but they're still prevalent in cinema today, usually used in biopics when an actor 'undergoes a transformation' to become a historical figure rather than just casting an actual fat person as a fat role.
You feature both fat heroes and fat villains, those who defy negative stereotypes of fatness, and those whose bodies are totally coded in preconceptions. What does representation mean to you, when fatness seems to be such a loaded character trait?
I'm keen to show that fat people can (and should) play every role, and that there are already roles out there that we don't always talk about. For example The Get Down (oh god I miss this chaotic show) had a fat, black female villain, called Fat Annie (yikes) but we don't really include this character in terms of fat representation. There's also another conversation that needs to be had about when fatness is used as shorthand for evil, laziness, villainy etc. We often have to pick and choose when it comes to fat representation - yes this is a fat character, but it's not actually a positive representation of fatness, or yes this character is coded to be fat, but they're only a size 12.
Has running this page made you think differently about fatness in film?
Yes it really has! As I've mentioned already, I've already learnt so much about films and actors I'd never heard of before. I feel like my 'fat film education' so to speak is constantly growing stronger. But one thing that running the page has really helped me think about is my own privilege within fatness. I am a Black queer woman, so there are varying levels of fatphobia or hypersexualisation that I may experience that straight or non-Black people may not experience. But at the same time, I am what I think would be classed as small or mid fat in terms of a spectrum of fatness - I can shop at some high-street shops and online shopping is generally easy and accessible to me. As the owner of a page about fatness, I have to keep this privilege in mind and make sure I'm posting all kinds of fat people on the page, not just people who are of the same size as me.
There's also the opposite to this - what IS the definition of fat on this page? Am I sometimes posting people that its followers don't actually think are fat? Often I'm having to make a call on whether or not I think actors are 'fat' or not because they've not self-identified that way and that's really tricky too. I ran a poll recently because I really wanted to include Wumni Mosaku on the page because I've been obsessed with her for a long time, but especially in His House and Lovecraft Country, but I genuinely couldn't discern if she 'counted' as fat. The different reactions I got to that poll were so interesting and reinforced that there's no one definition of fat.
Can you give us your five favourite fat characters in film? And tell us why?
Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray will always be my number one!!!! Controversially I do prefer the 2007 musical to the original, but that's because I am a sucker for musicals! As previously mentioned I am in love with Brian Tyree Henry and I've just been re-watching Atlanta, so his character Alfred aka Paper Boi is up there for me. Donna Meagle in Parks & Rec for all the moments I've watched her and said 'it me'. Lil Rel's character in Get Out, because a fat black man saves the day!!!! And a shoutout forever and always to my boy Duke in The Story of Tracy Beaker. I've just realised that three of these are TV characters but I stand by my choices!
We’ve seen that you are also hosting an event for the Barbican called ‘Reframing the Fat Body’, can you tell us some more?
So during (the first) lockdown I took part in a programme called Emerging Curators Lab at the Barbican. One of my many side hustles is film programming - I used to run a film club called Reel Good Film Club which focused on diversity in film from 2013 - 2019, but I'm still gaining the skills and experience as a solo programmer and this seemed like a perfect way to learn more and pitch an idea that was very important to me - fatness in film! I started the week long lab with this small kernel of an idea, and over the week of talks and group sessions, I developed Reframing the Fat Body, which is a shorts programme showing the fat body in beautiful short films made by directors of different ethnicities, genders, sexualities and from around the world. It's also going to be followed by a virtual pole dancing session by Roz 'The Diva' Mays, who is the star of one of the shorts and is INCREDIBLE. I'm so excited to see all these films together on the big screen - I think they tell such a rich story about the varied ways you can be fat and inhabit a fat body.
Check out the event here!
Grace Barber-Plentie is a freelance film writer and programmer, having contributed work to sites including Sight & Sound, Little White Lies and Dazed & Confused. She is passionate about films directed by/starring black women, fat bodies on film, and the works of Barbra Streisand. You can follow her on twitter as @gracesimone!