The dance scene really begins two minutes into this video (after a really odd bit of abled-characters-pretending-to-be-disabled-for-comic-effect which falls completely flat). [Note – the original video died, I replaced it with a different video that doesn’t include that bit –Amp] In the scene, Steve Carrel, playing Maxwell Smart, asks a fat woman to dance. The audience presumably expects a routine making fun of how clumsy a fat woman dancing is; the twist is that she dances wonderfully.
(In “Get Smart,” there are also a few brief fat suit gags — flashbacks to Steve Carrel’s character before he lost weight. Those uninspired gags, where were another instance of The Absent Fatso, aren’t the subject of this post.)
Especially being, obviously, a big girl and a character actress, these kinds of roles don’t come up often, especially in such a huge film.
To have it be fun and positive and not degrading was like a dream come true.
I was thrilled by the scene the first time I watched it. But, on rewatching, I began to wonder.
Much as I liked seeing Hollister, she’s not a dancer. (She moves through the choreography, but she doesn’t shine in it.) There are fat women dancers who have spent years working at dancing (I’ve seen fat dancing troupes a few times), who would have been physically much more impressive in the role.1 Combined with the reliance on special effects to provide the big lift at the end of the dance, the scene seems to me to be saying “look, fat people can dance,” but at the same time saying “only in a movie, which is why this is funny, this could never happen in real life.”
There are also a couple of fat gags in the scene — the big sight gag of Max lifting the fat woman over his head, and the two men rushing in from the side to push her up from the dip. I’m not sure what I think of this, either. The anti-fat humor that bothers me most, is anti-fat humor that says “fat people are disgusting” or “fat people are slobs” or “fat people are gluttons” — humor that seems to me to be based on unfair stereotypes.
I’m more comfortable with fat gags which say “fat people are heavy” or “fat people are physically wider,” because these premises are true. We should be able to laugh at genuine differences — if the gags aren’t meanspirited.
In the end, I’m starving for positive images of fat people — and even more, for positive images of fat people’s bodies. I loved this scene, despite its flaws, because it is so physical. I love that they put Hollister in a sleeveless dress. And I loved that, in a current, crass comedy, there was a fat character gag that wasn’t based on degrading the character or finding her gross. But in a saner, fat-positive culture, I don’t think the scene would seem so great.
- Of course, could those women have handled the acting parts as well as Hollister did? Almost certainly not. [↩]