by Briana Hernandez
Full disclosure: I did not go into watching this movie unbiased. Granted, I wanted to see Nocturnal Animals even before I heard some vague buzz about its possible fat-shaming. I carefully saved posts on Facebook, including a scathing open letter to director Tom Ford, without reading them — because I would be damned if someone would spoil me on why Jake Gyllenhaal would be screaming into the night on his knees or what happened to transform Amy Adams into an obviously cold, smokey-eyed, vampy-lipped, high-society woman. Ultra-bleak relationship movies are kind of my jam, and something I tend to be protective of in moments of criticism.
Moreover, I was ready to defend the film, to see the points from the critics but ultimately decide they might be too sensitive. This is just my default. And if you want to call it a coping mechanism to downplay these acute observations of being marginalized, you wouldn’t be wrong. That’s exactly what it is. I own that. Sometimes it is just easier on your soul to believe that people don’t actively devalue you for something as trivial as how you look. Hiding your head in the sand has its perks, after all. You’ll suffocate, but at least you won’t be able to hear people calling you “gross.” Which is exactly what happened when I sat down with my popcorn.
Literally the first thing I saw in the opening credits are breasts that were no doubt attached to a large woman. Three fat babes, varying in age and shape, danced naked in slow-motion to a swelling orchestral arrangement. The tone and motivation of the scene, to me, was secondary. Processing that was overshadowed by a brief moment of exhilaration to see a nude body that looked just like mine on a 50-foot-wide screen.
It was a moment that even the audible groans and uncomfortable shifting coming from the seats around me couldn’t immediately kill. Perhaps I was the slightest bit sympathetic to my fellow moviegoers, even though they were clearly disgusted by my body doubles on the screen. I found I was uncomfortable, too. That’s just what happens when you see things not normally seen. You can only be so woke about bodies when you live in a bubble that only shows you a narrow margin of them. Part of me was glad to see people uncomfortable. Isn’t that a metric of success in activism — fat activism, in this case?
But the excitement of that moment ended when the motivations seemed to reveal themselves. The background came into focus. The nuances took shape. And I found it was just another exploitative event in the saga of fat women and media. Another opportunity at pure representation, with no commentary strings attached, wasted.
The nude dancers were part of an art exhibit, of course. It was the first hint that their bodies were used as symbols, but for what? What fresh hell would this be — because it couldn’t be good. At a dinner party following the gallery event, one of the characters makes a remark about how the exhibit is a testament to our culture. Adams’ character agrees that we live in a culture that is “all junk.”
It was hard to pay attention to the rest of the movie because my mind was counting the hundreds of ways one could symbolize junk culture, excess and materialism — not one of them including the usage of bodies, fat or otherwise. I thought about how fucked up it would be to use disabled bodies to symbolize something broken, like our criminal justice system for example. And as much as I wanted to take the movie on face value, I was compelled to know if Ford had any explanation for his choices.
Here’s what you might have already heard from him:
“Politics being what they are right now, I want to make a statement about America. And I remembered that great poster that I had hanging in my room when I was a kid, when I thought I was straight, of Farrah Fawcett in that red bathing suit. America was always tan, beautiful teeth, tits and ass. So, guess what? I want to talk about America today: Gluttonous, overfed, aging, sad, tired.”
But this part is also important:
“I actually felt guilty that that had been my original intention. I found [the models] so beautiful, so joyful, and so happy to be there. They were so uninhibited, and I realized that actually, they were a microcosm of what the whole film was saying. They had let go of what our culture had said they’re supposed to be, and because of that, they were so totally free. This is what’s restricting Susan (Amy Adams). She’s being who she thinks she needs to be: I need to live this way, I need to look like that.”
Don’t get me wrong, I love teachable moments like this. I want to believe the last statement is genuine, and it may be safe to do so, since Ford won’t lose a dime by fat-shaming anyone. He’s a high-fashion designer our money isn’t good for, after all. What would have been super cool is if he’d inserted just a hint of that sentiment into the actual film. One dissonant note from the chorus that sings “fat is bad.” One acknowledgment that fatness as a symbol of excess is so utterly tired.
And what of this culture dictating what women are supposed to be — and Ford’s role in that as a designer? He’s torn. He’s so torn, guys. I’d put money on him not being torn enough to make his designs size inclusive, even though those fat gals were OK in his book. When you’re torn between operating within a profitable system of elitism (high fashion) and taking the labor-intensive, risky steps to break out and redefine that system, you’re not really torn. Let’s just be honest. Ford doesn’t have disdain for fat women. He just doesn’t care about us. At least not enough to burn the calories it would take to be here for us.
Briana Hernandez is a plus-size fashion and body positive lifestyle blogger at Mamafierce.com. She lives with her husband and 3-year-old son in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.com.