Trials of Tammy

The Trials of ‘Tammy’: Stop Policing Melissa McCarthy’s Body

The distress of the actress’s fans has very little to do with women’s roles, and everything to do with distaste for working-class women and their bodies.

Frazer Harrison/Getty

When Bridesmaids debuted in 2010, launching the new age of Melissa McCarthy: Box Office Queen, no one really talked about what an unlikely hit it was. Watching a woman struggle with depression and jealousy after losing her job in the recession hardly sounds like the kind of light escapism that brings in the crowds. But like all great comedies, Bridesmaids had the good sense to know that darkness only makes what’s light seem lighter, and it became the defining comedy hit of this decade.

Tammy is what happens when you make Bridesmaids, but forget to include the jokes.

The litany of humiliations that Tammy suffers in the movie would be enough to make for a modern Greek tragedy—she’s fired, dumped, and sent back to her mother’s house all in the first 15 minutes, and the movie plays her troubles for pathos and not for laughs. Tammy’s roadtrip with her randy, boozed-up grandmother should have the makings of a breezy farce, but the balance is all wrong. Tammy is a confused person, and she’s made for an awfully confused movie—one that seems to think it’s funny even when it’s crying.

If the box office has been a little disappointing (a paltry $21 million this weekend), it should be a great comfort to the Tammy team that despite the profound weirdness of the story they’ve assembled, they’ve still managed to make a film that’s just unmemorable enough to avoid disaster. Ben Falcone will go on to direct other films—after all, in substance, there is very little that separates his work here from an Apatow, for example. In the modern age of comedy, a script and a star is all it takes to make a movie—the director is just a middleman between the money and the performances.

For stars, though, the fall of the comedy auteur means that the margin of error between a hit and a farrago is razor thin. The script is the star’s only defense and with the rise of improv comedy, not even a script is a guaranteed safety net. But maybe no star walks a tighter rope than Melissa McCarthy.

Since Bridesmaids, McCarthy has been a fixture at the box office, with at least one new starring vehicle every year. Bridesmaids, The Heat, and The Identity Thief all cleared $100 million, making her one of the few stars able to open films based solely on their brand appeal.

Melissa McCarthy’s brand is simple and it’s complete. When you buy a ticket for a McCarthy movie you know what you’re in for. McCarthy will curse, she’ll drink beer, she’ll have sex, and she’ll like it. You might call her vulgar, but she’d tell you she’s only giving it to you straight. She’s got a big mouth, a big body, and a big heart, and she wants you to be aware of all of them. She’s the blue-collar queen of the box office, and she’s not even a little bit ashamed about it.

When the films are good, no one can touch her. And when the films aren’t good, there is no mercy.

Of all her critics, it’s Rex Reed who has been most consistent and most vocal in his protests to McCarthy’s act. This time around he’s flat out fabricating scenes of “farting, belching, and snoring” in Tammy as an excuse to rip into McCarthy for her lowbrow antics.

Critics, fans, and observers of course have been quick to dismiss Reed. But the commentary that McCarthy gets from her so-called supporters is often just as cruel, but somehow more insidious.

“Oh I wish Hollywood would stop forcing Melissa McCarthy into these disgusting fat caricatures! She’s so pretty! I loved her on Gilmore Girls! No one ever even mentioned her weight!”

At least when Reed calls Melissa McCarthy a tractor-sized hippo, you can roll your eyes and dismiss him, but the cloying friendliness of McCarthy’s allies is an oppression that resists being shaken.

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“We just want to see Melissa doing roles that will make her happy!”

For most of McCarthy’s audience, the television show Gilmore Girls would have been their first introduction to McCarthy’s genial comic gifts. Her role as Sookie St. James was charming, one of the highlights of the show, and it’s true that she looked as lovely on Gilmore Girls as she does on the red carpet.

Sookie was a “good representation” of obese women. She is also entirely unfeasible as a lead character. Her relative lack of drama made her perfect as a sidekick, but a show or a film structured around Sookie St. James would be like making a movie about Robin with no Batman. What’s the point?

The nastiness masquerading as concern is always present around McCarthy, policing her body in ways that her films never even come close to suggesting. If these concerned citizens were really upset about Hollywood’s mistreatment of actresses, they’d only have to look to McCarthy’s left to find Susan Sarandon, amiably stranded as a grandma in Tammy because Hollywood has no clue what to do when faced with a woman who’s just as volcanically sexy now as she was 40 years ago.

No, the distress of McCarthy’s fans has very little to do with women’s roles, and everything to do with distaste for working-class women and their bodies.

One of the great hypocrisies built into our standards of beauty is the idea that all women can be beautiful with the right effort. For women who already fit into this ideal—white, thin, blond, blue-eyed women—beauty can be flouted. Charlize Theron can take off her makeup and head into a coal mine and get an Oscar nomination for her bravery, and we’ll applaud Jennifer Lawrence all day for talking about how much she hates exercise. These women are powerful! They’re standing up to the man! We call them heroes, as if there has ever been a time in their lives that they wouldn’t be considered beautiful.

But women who don’t fit into this narrow ideal have a different relationship to beauty. If beauty is power, then for most women beauty is an obligation directly related to opportunity. Beautiful women are more likely to get jobs, more likely to be promoted, and more likely to find romantic partners. If you aren’t born beautiful, then choosing to opt out of the beauty industrial complex has consequences. You’re letting yourself go. You’re not even trying.

For women who look like Melissa McCarthy or Lena Dunham or Gabourey Sidibe, or any other woman who isn’t a size 4 on a fat day, beauty is the white rabbit you always chase but can never quite reach. If you’re lucky, one of the guys in charge might give you a carrot and a pat on the head for trying. If you’re not, it’s a race that never ends.

Melissa McCarthy has been the woman who chased the rabbit, and she did it better than anyone. She’s been working consistently since 1999, starring on several hit shows and films before her catapult to the top with Bridesmaids. But let’s not act like the time she spent as Christina Applegate’s friend on Samantha Who? is at all comparable to level of power, influence, and creative control she is afforded now.

Melissa McCarthy wrote Tammy, she co-produced it, and she starred. And if you can see past the Rex Reed horror of looking at a woman who isn’t trying to be beautiful, it’s not hard to see why the role might be a desirable one, even if the movie itself is misguided. As Tammy or Megan in Bridesmaids or Mullins in The Heat or even Diana in The Identity Thief, Melissa McCarthy is given the opportunity to play women who see the bullshit that the world has to offer them, and who refuse to comply.

Melissa McCarthy’s characters don’t play by the rules and hope that they’ll make it—they blow up the rules if that’s what it takes to make themselves room. And so does she.

Maybe that’s why Tammy never seems to quite click. McCarthy is so busy showing us the softer side we never forgot she had, that she never gets to do what makes her persona work in the first place. We don’t need to see her play the victim to believe she can win.