When Howard Dissed Gabby...
...he wasn't all wrong. This fat chick wants to tell you why.
It would be a beautiful thing if we lived in a world where appearance didn't matter. Where we were all hired, chosen, and esteemed based on merit and character alone. It's certainly something to strive for - but we ain't there yet.
Just a note: I'm going to be using the terms "conventional" and "traditional" beauty repeatedly. This is shorthand for the typically thin, athletic, silky-haired, youthful definition of attractiveness to which most modern western cultures ascribe. It is not at all to suggest that beauty cannot exist outside those limited parameters; I personally think Kevin James, Zac Brown, and Robin Williams are breathtakingly sexy, but I drink a lot, so I'm unreliable that way.
Last week, the less than conventionally attractive Howard Stern made some reprehensible comments about "Precious" star Gabourey Sidibe. Along with those opinions about her "enormous" body that "is the size of a planet" he also made some accurate assessments about the likely health consequences (especially as she gets older) and a very reasonable assertion about her future career--basically, that she wouldn't have one.
I say "reasonable" because you have only to look at 99% of the product coming out of Hollywood and New York (and the rest of the western world) to know that Gabby, as talented and lovely as she is, doesn't fit the typical standards of beauty. That those standards are somewhat warped is a given; but part of what we humans find attractive (proportion, wide-set eyes, athletic, etc.) is scientifically proven to be at least partly biological. Conventionally attractive people will almost always get more breaks based on nothing more than how sweet it is to look at them; studies have repeatedly shown that they are treated better from the classroom to the boardroom. We unconventional-looking people get the message early on that we will not be able to depend on looks to help us achieve our goals, so we develop other skills and assets--like money, humor, or talent. (Which can also exist in a skinny person, but we don't like them much).
In my mind, the biggest slap in the face to Gabby Sidibe wasn't Howard Stern's cry for attention (don't be fooled: he's been feasting royally on the media attention that's been served up since this incident occurred, which is the motivation for everything he says). The most telling indicator of just how tall a mountain Gabby has to climb is in the recent cover of Vanity Fair that featured a coven of Hollywood's hottest new actresses, all of whom were waifish, white, and without an Oscar nomination. Why? VF can claim innocence or time constraints or whatever they want, but I believe that, despite what may be a genuine abhorrence of prejudice, they think they will sell less magazines if Gabby is on the cover. Even if we give the magazine the benefit of the doubt and say it was an unintentional oversight, the fact is that none of those editors even remotely resemble someone like Gabby, so it's likely she never came to mind as a possible cover girl. As I said before, bias against non-traditionally attractive people --especially females-- runs deep, may be partially biological, and therefore might not change significantly in our lifetime.
All of that brings me to the point that Hollywood and Madison Avenue use physical attractiveness to sell everything because we, the public, have told them with our purchases that it WORKS. Movie studios are in the business of selling movies. Evidence from ticket sales shows that blockbuster action flicks, animated kids' movies and high profile romantic comedies with conventionally attractive stars make the most money. So unless someone writes a hot comic book about an overweight, black female superhero, or she wants to do off-camera voice-overs, all that's left for the wonderful Ms. Sidibe is getting the dubious honor of playing Jennifer Aniston's funny best friend--an opportunity that's slowing dwindling away because of Jennifer's bad script choices.
But (and this is an interjection the size of the one I'm sitting on, which is considerable) things are slowly changing. It could come to pass that Gabby proves to Hollywood that the public will regularly buy tickets to see a large black woman do something other than make us laugh, or provide a foil for the latest tabloid blonde. It may also be that Gabby will decide that she wants to make better movies than Megan Fox does, and she'll go indie or dramatic--which she can because, unlike Ms. Fox, she has the skills to do so. There's always the occasional Tyler Perry flick as well, but even that self-sufficient filmmaker knows his leads need to be conventionally attractive--unless they're outrageously funny, and in that case, he'll play them himself. I don't believe Howard Stern is right when he says Gabby will never work again; in fact, the actress already has her next two jobs lined up. But I do believe he voiced an unfortunate reality that her career has a greater than average chance of stalling because of her size. Yes, there's the more forgiving television arena, but even Oprah wanted to be a movie star.
The reality is that Ms. Sidibe needs to consistently make a boatload of cash at the box office if she's going to break down the barriers that would normally prevent her from getting regular work and having a conventionally successful Hollywood career (and the money that goes with it). Should that happen, trust me, Hollywood will bend over backwards creating roles so that she can be in as many movies as possible. Queen Latifah did it for a short while, but have you seen her in any blockbusters lately? The market will dictate her success, and the market is US.
So the question is: Can we,the movie-loving public,evolve enough to ignore the siren song of the traditionally gorgeous and regularly spend our disposable dollar on a larger-than-life female who might actually entertain us with her wit and talent? I think the chances are small, but they're certainly greater than Howard Stern would have you believe.
Michele Coppola is a Portland-based writer and former radio personality whose most recent work has been published in the feminist journals So To Speak and Melusine. Find her blog at www.coppolawords.com