Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
In the recently released comedy I Feel Pretty, Amy Schumer plays Renee Bennett, an average blonde woman who lives largely ignored by the world around her. She has good friends (Adie Bryant and Busy Philipps) but she is unsatisfied with the life she leads. Renee works in online marketing for makeup industry giant Lily LeClaire, but her basement office in Chinatown is far from the glamorous headquarters on NYC’s 5th Avenue. After a head injury, Renee sees something different in the mirror than her normal view of blah hair and cellulite: she now sees herself as “model-hot,” with a slim, toned body and a beautiful face. The only thing that has changed for Renee, however, is how she sees herself. Everyone else sees the “old” Renee, but her new self-perception catapults Renee’s confidence levels and begins to change her life. And not only her life—Renee’s ability to be comfortable in her body brings freedom to the people around her, from Ethan (Rory Scovel), the guy she picks up at the cleaners, to Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams), the CEO of Lily LeClaire.
In watching The Greatest Showman, my confusion about my feelings toward I Feel Pretty were deciphered and set clear in my mind.The responses to the trailer piqued my interest in the film. I am a size-dignity activist, which basically means that I advocate for people to be treated with dignity no matter their size or shape. This extends to all sorts of dignity issues related to bodies, but as a fat Christian woman, addressing issues of faith and fatness is in my wheelhouse. Part of my message is that because each of us is created in the image of God, we can say with confidence that all bodies are good bodies. With this perspective I try to help people re-frame the way they think about their bodies and the bodies of those around them. A Hollywood movie challenging the status quo of body perfection? I had to see it.
I went in with incredulity, but I confess that I left the theater feeling pretty good about I Feel Pretty. The film made me laugh, made me cringe, made me cry. There were many things I appreciated about it—things, even, that I felt it had to teach me. I had gone to see it with a critical eye, looking to write a critique of the film’s presentation of bodies and cultural standards. I left a fan of the film, and that made me uneasy.
In her review of the movie, New York Times critic Amanda Hess says that “feminists don’t want to pose as a killjoy bent on confiscating mani-pedis.” I had attended the film with my husband and another good guy friend, and the conversations it prompted were valuable and character-building for me. Could I simultaneously have two experiences of the film, one of enjoyment and the other of hard criticism, or would I just be a buzzkill after an entertaining movie that had some redeeming qualities?
At the suggestion of a friend, I recently rented The Greatest Showman, in which Hugh Jackman portrays the father of show business P. T. Barnum. I had mixed feelings about the film, particularly of the way it downplays (rewrites?) the plight of the sideshow freaks that Barnum exploits to make his fortune. It felt similar to, if not exactly the same as, the struggle over my competing feelings about I Feel Pretty. As a good millennial, I took my question to Facebook for feedback from my friends.
My friends who appreciated the film spoke of its music, the performances of Jackman as Barnum and Zac Efron as Carlyle, the forbidden love story between the white Carlyle and black Anne (Zendaya), and the ways in which the movie had brought their family joy like they hadn’t experienced in a long while. My friends who did not appreciate the film spoke of the whitewashing of P. T. Barnum’s historical legacy—his exploitation of the vulnerable, his racism, his fraud, and his abhorrent treatment of animals.
“It’s just a story,” some friends said. “Don’t think of it as a historical account that is factually wrong; think about it as a fun story and enjoy it.”
But I feel burdened to ask myself if, as a follower of Jesus, I can just enjoy a movie that papers over the tragedy of so many people dehumanized in the wake of a man who would not let his dream go at any human cost. I don’t know that I can. The Jesus I follow befriended the outcasts, healed the ones too sick for anyone else to even touch, and dignified women in a way that contradicted his society’s rigid gender roles. He saw those whom others labeled as freaks and extended kindness and friendship to them.
“Why do you care so much about what they think?”
In The Greatest Showman, the handsome playboy Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) asks this question to his love interest Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) when she rebuffs his advances. It’s clear that she is attracted to him, but she pushes him away for good reason—he’s white and she’s black, and it’s the late 19th century, when that kind of relationship put people in mortal danger.
Anne does not answer the question, but I will answer it for her: Because it’s too dangerous not to.
As Christians, we have the beautiful responsibility to see the people that our society has overlooked.In watching The Greatest Showman, my confusion about my feelings toward I Feel Pretty were deciphered and set clear in my mind. The latter film seems to pose a similar question to its viewers that Phillip Carlyle asks Anne: “Why do you care so much about what they think?” According to the moral of the I Feel Pretty story, if I cared less about what others thought, all my problems—social, financial, and romantic—would be solved!
I Feel Pretty argues that once we see ourselves rightly, once we have confidence in who we already are, the battle is won. This message, though, is incomplete at best. I can have all the confidence in the world, but as a fat woman, I face rejection and marginalization that no amount of self-assurance will overcome. Even in Renee’s story, we catch glimpses how being outside of the culturally accepted norms for bodies results in inaccessibility (forcing her foot into a too-small shoe, squeezing between the exercise bikes), isolation (her office is in a literal basement), and invisibility (she is ignored at several places of business). These scenarios, exaggerated for humor in the film, nevertheless are a small representation of the daily indignities that fat people. For example, fat people receive lower-quality medical care based on their physical appearance, are less likely to get hired for jobs, and earn less when hired, among other things.
To take the message of I Feel Pretty—that I can change my world by merely changing my self-perception—as the solution to the skin-deep crisis that plagues our culture would be like applying a Band-Aid© to a gaping wound. It’s similar to the gash that The Greatest Showman papers over, where the stories of circus freaks and misfits are funneled into a few supporting roles that support the wealthy white man on his pursuit of the American Dream.
“Why do you care so much about what they think?”
On my journey to peace with my body, I have had to practice laying down my preoccupation with what others think about it. It’s one of the first steps, but it’s definitely not the last step. I have written extensively on the need for the Church to stop perpetuating as holy the body standards of our culture (for starters—here, here, and here). But there is more work to be done than just inside my head and heart.
As a fat woman, I care about how fat bodies are perceived because it affects my daily life and the lives of my neighbors, all of us created in God’s image. As a Christian, I speak out against the injustice of anti-fat bias because it is too dangerous to ignore—its consequences are life and death. As a person whose body is subjected to ridicule and isolation in a similar (and much milder but still significant) way to Barnum’s freaks, I can’t just sit back and watch a movie that makes palatable the horrific treatment they endured—because people are still treated this way. (Read what disability policy activist Shannon Hope Dingle has to say about the blindness in Hollywood about disability and abuse.)
So, as Christians of conscience, can we watch and enjoy movies like I Feel Pretty and The Greatest Showman? If anti-fat bias and discrimination are as widespread as I claim, is it possible to avoid all art that contradicts the reality of the imago Dei in its fictional or historical characters? Of course not. Nor should we want to. As someone put it to me once, culture is the hinge that turns the human heart into a door. I’m not sure that metaphor is entirely accurate—the human heart is composed of stories and culture, not just swung open by them. But it can help us see that cultural artefacts like film enable conversations about hard subjects like anti-fat bias and the danger of erasing the suffering of the exploited.
Don’t get me wrong—I Feel Pretty and The Greatest Showman are not without value. But we must put them in their proper place in our conversation instead of celebrating them without thoughtful critique. I can appreciate specific parts of a work of art while still criticizing it as a whole. For example, the lyrics of the song “This Is Me,” sung by the bearded fat woman Lettie in The Greatest Showman, form a powerful anthem to the glory we each possess as humans created in God’s image—something I can get behind as a size-dignity activist. The song’s message resonates within me: I am free to be seen in this fat body that doesn’t conform to our society’s standards for bodies. I make no apologies for taking up “too much” space. I bear my wounds and my weakness, embracing the beautiful story they tell about me. Because we are created in God’s image, we can fully inhabit these bodies with the knowledge that they are good, and we can stop making apologies for them.
I Feel Pretty isn’t without its redemptive moments either. Near the end of the film, Renee is worried what her boyfriend Ethan will think when he sees her as she really is—average. She struggles to believe that she is worthy of love. He counters her question with a bold statement that brought tears to my eyes: “I see you,” he says. “I’ve always seen you.”
As Christians, we have the beautiful responsibility to see the people that our society has overlooked. We can be Christ to these forgotten, ignored, invisible ones. We can put aside our concern about what others think of us and get our hands dirty as we love our neighbors. We fight for them to be treated with dignity. We celebrate together when victories are won. We lament together when injustice persists. We see each other with love and attention as we are conduits of the love and justice of the God Who Sees.
The story of Hagar and Sarai in Genesis 16 is a familiar one, but it is relevant to the plots of both of these films. Hagar is a slave who has been taken far from her home in Egypt to serve as a maid for Sarai, the wife of Abram. Sarai is unable to conceive so she convinces Abram to sleep with Hagar to provide an heir. Hagar is not in control of her own body and is used for her fertility, not unlike the way the people who undergirded Barnum’s shows were used for profit.
Once Hagar gets pregnant, tensions rise between the two women until the pregnant Hagar flees into the desert to escape her mistress’s cruelty. The Angel of the Lord finds Hagar in the wilderness, but he doesn’t merely say, “Go back and be yourself; your confidence level will free you.” No—he promises a blessing to take care of Hagar, with descendants too numerous to count. This is God righting a wrong that had been done to her; in a culture that valued a woman for her ability to produce offspring, she—a slave—would not be forgotten and ignored but would be blessed and cared for by her many descendants. Hagar goes back to Abram’s camp, knowing that she is cared for by the God Who Sees.
All too often, the American Church has not been a place where the marginalized have found a safe place to be seen. But we can change that. If the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and the second commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, what are we as Christians to do when our brothers and sisters are facing inaccessibility, isolation, and invisibility because of their bodies?
We see them. We listen to them. We practice Christian hospitality and extend it to every body—our own and that of our neighbor. Christian hospitality isn’t just about having people over for dinner or making sure that there is coffee on “hospitality Sunday” (although it does include those things). Christian hospitality is about making room for people to be fully themselves, in all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s seeing movies like I Feel Pretty and The Greatest Showman and having good, hard, and critical conversations about the arguments they’re making. It’s being willing to examine the art we consume and demand more from it than mere entertainment, so that it becomes a part of our conversation on loving our neighbors—fat, disabled, and marginalized—like Jesus loves each of us.
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