Melissa McCarthy and our habit of confusing a woman's worth with her weight
What can’t the great Melissa McCarthy do? The 43-year-old actress—whose style of go-for-broke physical comedy is at once wild and grounded, brash and vulnerable—opens movies. She gets awards love. She stars in her own material: the road-trip comedy Tammy (in theaters July 2), which she co-wrote with her husband, first-time director Ben Falcone. She can do everything…except escape stupid.
The message boards on McCarthy’s IMDb page are flooded with it. “How much does she weigh???” is the subject of one quality discussion, alongside such threads as “Token fat girl, just a BIG part of the ‘It’s ok to be fat’ movement.” One moviegoer worries, “She (or her roles) has become a walking fat joke, oh, how funny, look, they are dirty, crass, eats lots of junk, fall down and can’t get up again.” It’d be one thing if the bile came solely from Internet trolls. But everybody from New York Observer critic Rex Reed, who called her “tractor-sized” and a “female hippo” in a review last year, to the well-intentioned finger-pointers who blasted Elle for putting McCarthy on its cover in a figure-concealing coat—they all seem fixated on the woman’s weight.
When I think of McCarthy’s Oscar-nominated role in Bridesmaids, say, or the drunken dive-bar scene in The Heat, or her blistering outtakes from This Is 40, I see a woman in complete control of her body. The girl has chops. She brings such genuine care to a role—from her wigs and wardrobe to the way her character takes up space in the world—and treats her creation with respect and affection.
Recently Allison Tolman, who gave a lovely, salt-of-the-earth performance on FX’s Fargo, slammed a bozo tweeter who wrote of her character, “I detest Molly. Just let it go, plumper.” She bit back: “A–Christ on a cracker, stop defining women by size” and “B–I’m AVERAGE—women on TV are TINY.” And then, most sensibly: “I’d just prefer my weight wasn’t a topic of conversation at all. Like, y’know, male actors.”
Jonah Hill. Seth Rogen. Kenan Thompson. Jack Black. Anthony Anderson. Alec Baldwin. Kevin James. John C. Reilly. Adam Sandler. John Goodman. Heavy dudes who aren’t defined by their weight. In a recent episode of Louie, Sarah Baker delivered a withering rant on the unfair tedium of being a fat girl: “It sucks. It really sucks. And I’m going to go ahead and say it. It’s your fault. … On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys. Why do you hate us so much?” Points to Louis C.K. for going there, even if it sounded less like a peek inside a woman’s brain than an apology from a man uncomfortable with his privilege of being a paunchy guy who gets a pass.
Baker will next be seen in Tammy, playing a fast food cashier against a pretend gun-wielding McCarthy. The two are a dynamite pair, as shown in the great bit playing now in the trailer. I like to think that both women have made as much peace with their bodies as the rest of us have with our own. But just imagine the grace McCarthy must summon when faced with journalist after journalist steering every conversation to her size. So this is it for me, the last time I write about her appearance. (Which is a shame, because I find her gorgeous.) But just as I decided years ago that I’d never again ask an actress how it feels to turn 40 or balance career and kids unless I was asking her male counterparts the same questions, I don’t want to waste any more ink on a subject so irrelevant to McCarthy’s success. Stupid is as stupid does, but that doesn’t mean we have to go on paying it any mind.
This column originally appeared in the July 4 issue of Entertainment Weekly.