Unruly bodies and body image heroines: corpulent femininity, Melissa McCarthy, and pop-feminism in the age of Trump

by Russell Meeuf

Actress and comedian Melissa McCarthy has been on a roll lately. Since her breakout performance in Bridesmaids in 2010—which earned her a rare Oscar nomination for a female comic—McCarthy has had a string of box office successes that bring a pop-feminist spin to typically male genres, most notably in her other collaborations with Bridesmaids director Paul Fieg. In The Heat (2013) she and Sandra Bullock reimagine the buddy-cop film. In Spy (2015) she deflates the masculinist pretensions of the spy thriller. And in Ghostbusters (2016) she and the rest of the all-female ghostbuster crew poke fun at the online, fan-boy culture that bristled at the idea of a woman ghostbuster. While also starring in the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly (2010-2016), she has leveraged her box office success over the last seven years to write and produce her own films, from Tammy (2014) and The Boss (2016) to the forthcoming Life of the Party (2018), all directed by her husband and collaborator Ben Falcone. Her successes made her the 4th highest paid actress in Hollywood in 2017 (Robehmed), and in the early months of the Trump administration, McCarthy became a darling of left-wing politics for her raucous and cross-gender impersonation of embattled (and now former) White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live.

On the back of this success, the popular press has celebrated McCarthy as a powerful role model and an icon of progressive gender politics who undercuts the cult of thinness in Hollywood. In 2011 Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed that McCarthy is “proof you don’t have to look a certain way to have wonderful things happen to you” (Harmon 20) and in 2012 stated that, “Melissa McCarthy is giving women everywhere the confidence to embrace who they are” (Newman 84). Good Housekeeping wrote in 2012 that, “In an industry obsessed with youthful, toothpick-slim actresses, McCarthy has never let her age or her shape become an issue” (Keeps 134). As a feature in Redbook in 2014 put it,

“She’s sweetly silly, but also a ballsy barrier-breaker. She looks more like your neighbor than a Barbie. Instead of griping about Hollywood, she simply changed it” (Rochin 92).

Thus the cover of a 2014 Rolling Stone declared McCarthy “Fearless, Fierce, and Funny” while picturing her as a tough, empowered crusader. This persona as a tough, progressive role model would only be cemented on social media thanks to her digs at the Trump administration while playing Sean Spicer on SNL.

McCarthy on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 2014, showcasing her place in the culture as an icon of women’s empowerment. Kathleen Karlyn’s foundational 1995 book The Unruly Woman, which uses Roseanne as one case study among many to illustrate the power and pleasures of the unruly woman in popular culture.

McCarthy, then, seems to be the heir apparent to the corpulent and unruly star at the heart of Kathleen Karlyn’s foundational 1995 book The Unruly Woman: the comedian Roseanne Barr (popularly known simply as Roseanne). For Karlyn, Roseanne’s gruff but loving working class persona in her sitcom Roseanne (1988-1997) undercut the patriarchal expectations for women to be thin, quiet, and deferential, all while skewering a pretentious vision of feminism that spoke for affluent white women while ignoring women of the working class. Roseanne’s size, class-standing and willingness to mock patriarchal systems made legible a series of cultural contradictions that resonate still today:

“a fat woman who is sexually ‘normal’; a sloppy housewife who is also a good mother; a loose woman who is tidy, who hates matrimony but loves her husband, and who can mock the ideology of true womanhood yet consider herself a Domestic Goddess” (Karlyn 91).

Like Roseanne, Melissa McCarthy’s comedy transgresses a host of patriarchal norms concerning appropriate feminine behavior, celebrating her exuberant and often-crass mockery of men and male-dominated bureaucracies. She is often paired with bland, middle-class men who represent male institutions (for example, Jason Bateman in Identity Thief, Jude Law in Spy, and often Jason Sudekis when she hosts Saturday Night Live), providing a loud and lewd challenge to the normal rules of femininity and bourgeois decorum. Alternatively, she is also paired with middle-class white women seeking self-fulfillment (Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, Sandra Bullock in The Heat, Kristen Bell in The Boss), inspiring them to make room for themselves in a patriarchal culture by being louder and more self-confident.   

Additionally, like Roseanne, McCarthy’s performances rely on the imagery of low social class to undercut middle-class expectations for women. From sporting bowling shirts and capris in Bridesmaids to her big-haired performance in Identity Thief, McCarthy’s film roles link her outrageous and sometimes violent antics to imagery of tastelessness and “bad” fashion. And as I note elsewhere, in almost all her work as a guest host of Saturday Night Live she is costumed to suggest “bad taste” and a “trashy” sensibility (Meeuf, “Class, Corpulence, and Neoliberal Citizenship”).      

However, as Karlyn documents, Roseanne became a lightning rod for controversy in the late 80s and early 90s. Like most unruly women, she was both popular and despised in the culture, an ambivalent source of humor but also a source of fear and anxiety. Along with the incessant tabloid coverage of her marriage to actor Tom Arnold—which portrayed them as out-control and violent—her performance singing the national anthem at a San Diego Padres game in 1990 became the most visible manifestation of these anxieties about her femininity. In her performance of the song, she sang off-key and ended the song by spitting and grabbing her crotch as she parodied the crass, masculine behavior that we accept as normal in baseball. She was excoriated in the press for mocking not only the national anthem but seemingly the national pastime as well (Karlyn 51-54)   

If Roseanne’s unruly comedy inspired so much anxiety about gender and social class in U.S. pop culture, then why has Melissa McCarthy become America’s sweetheart? Why is McCarthy so seemingly adored for performances of crass femininity and thumbing her nose at patriarchal institutions while Roseanne was so controversial? What has changed in U.S. culture that has made space for an unruly star such as McCarthy? And, importantly, have the meanings of McCarthy’s pop-feminist persona changed in the age of Trump after the electorate seemingly rejected the vision of inclusivity that a star like McCarthy represents?  

As I claim in my recent book Rebellious Bodies: Stardom, Citizenship and the New Body Politics, McCarthy has certainly taken on the mantle of the most prominent unruly comedian in U.S pop culture. However, McCarthy’s success also shows that the intensification of hyper-individualist, neoliberal culture in the United States has allowed McCarthy and others to make some forms of unruliness a marketable commodity for middle-class (mostly white) women looking to project self-confidence as an individual achievement. Her comedy in the Obama years is founded on a neoliberal vision of feminism that celebrates self-confidence and individual achievement without interrogating the systems of power that perpetuate discrimination and inequality.

Roseanne on the cover of The National Enquirer in 1990 following her satiric performance of the national anthem at a San Diego Padres game. Entertainment Weekly dubbed McCarthy the new queen of comedy in 2011.  Why was McCarthy able to capitalize on her unruliness while Roseanne became a lightning rod for controversy?

However, the rise of Trump in the US has led to new avenues of resistance to entrenched male power for satirists such as McCarthy (and others), and her parody of Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live more forcefully challenges patriarchal power than the feel-good, pop-feminism of her previous work. But in a historical moment when many media outlets are cashing in on Trump-hate click bait, has McCarthy simply replaced feel-good, self-confident unruliness with feel-good—but ultimately vacuous—Trump bashing?    

Unruliness and neoliberalism

According to Karlyn, the unruly woman is a long-standing trope that demonstrates the possibilities of laughter and comedy to disrupt patriarchal systems of power, at least symbolically. The unruly woman, among other characteristics

As Karlyn explains, figures such as the Muppet Miss Piggy also functions as an icon of unruliness through her loud antics, open sexual desire, violent outbursts, and, by virtue of being a pig, her associations with dirt and the non-human. Anne Helen Petersen’s recent book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman explores several contemporary examples of unruly women celebrities, from Nicki Minaj to Lena Dunham to Kim Kardashian, demonstrating the continuing fascination with female unruliness in the United States.

The unruly woman, then, has always been deeply ambivalent, providing a symbolic challenge to patriarchal authority while simultaneously embodying misogynist ideas about out-of-control women.

McCarthy’s loud, sexual, and violent performances in film such as Bridesmaids, The Heat, Identity Thief, and others make her perhaps the most popular and prominent example of unruly womanhood in the 2010s, but as I write in Rebellious Bodies, some of the best examples of her unruly persona come in her sketches on Saturday Night Live. For example, in a season 37 sketch, McCarthy plays Arlene, a woman with a bad perm, huge glasses, and low social class who makes aggressive sexual overtures to her nice but indifferent coworker, Tim, played by Jason Sudekis. As I write elsewhere:

“As the sketch progresses, Arlene’s overt sexuality overwhelms Tim’s protestations as her antics become increasingly graphic and over-the-top. Rubbing his tie over her breasts, mock pole dancing on the string of a helium balloon, and licking and fellating the nose of a horse-shaped balloon, Arlene and her unbridled sexual desire (her “lady boner,” as she calls it) cannot be contained by the rules of proper office decorum or middle-class romantic values. Tim protests that he is married and has children, but Arlene only pretends to toss his wedding ring aside while continuing to rub his chest.” (Meeuf, Rebellious Bodies 51)

The unruly comedy here is not simply outrageous—it carefully upturns a host of assumptions about gender, sexuality, and bourgeois norms:

“These sexual excesses make a mockery of respectable, middle-class culture, using Tim as a nice, white, male, middle-class foil to Arlene’s exuberant and uncontained sexuality. In a classic example of Bakhtin’s carnival-grotesque, Arlene turns the rules of the dominant culture on their head: a bland site of corporate labor becomes a colorful place of dancing, rubbing, and sexual innuendo; appropriate feminine norms of passivity are tossed aside in favor of aggression; the nuclear family is dismissed as a hindrance to passionate sex; mock bestiality serves as a symbol for human sex acts; an overweight woman—normally a symbol of ugliness or asexuality—promotes herself as an object of sexual desire; and female sexual desire is made visible and masculine (her “lady boner”) instead of being denied as impure. Her wild, open sexuality demonstrates the ability of corpulent femininity to overwhelm and elude the structures of male control.” (Meeuf, Rebellious Bodies 51; for more discussion of feminine corpulence and sexuality, see Braziel)

Lena Dunham's success and willingness to appear nude (despite her slight deviation from the narrow boundaries of acceptable female bodies in pop culture) has made her “the Internet’s favorite punching bag” (Petersen 211). And yet advertising campaigns such as the Dove True Beauty campaign capitalized on body-positivity rhetoric, suggesting that self-confidence is another means of demonstrating citizenship in a neoliberal world.

However, one of the important ways that McCarthy’s unruliness deviates from Roseanne’s is the larger context of neoliberal culture surrounding McCarthy. Since Roseanne’s popularity in the late 80s and early 90s, U.S. culture has seen an intensification of neoliberal economic policies and a hyper-individualist neoliberal culture.  This larger context impacted the ways that popular media imagines inclusion and diversity and helped create a new category of celebrity that McCarthy has occupied.    

As an economic doctrine, neoliberalism promotes privatization, seeking free-market alternatives to pubic services as part of a general transfer of social responsibility from the state to individuals. Within the context of these economic imperatives, the culture of neoliberalism in the United States has seen an increase in hyper-individualist rhetoric, a culture that increasingly privileges self-transformation, self-discipline, and self-help as central to one’s identity and a prerequisite to cultural belonging. It is an individuals’ responsibility to transform themselves in response to a changing world and structures of inequality (through consumption), as witnessed in the rise of transformation based reality TV and other “lifestyle media.”  Both Brenda Weber and Jayne Raisborough have explored this neoliberal culture of self-discipline and constant transformation, pointing to the role of reality television in shaping expectations for individual identity in a neoliberal age.

Neoliberal culture, then, has yielded two seemingly contradictory trends when it comes to corpulent femininity. On the one hand, neoliberal culture has spurred a moral panic about the so-called obesity epidemic, which stigmatizes weight as not only unhealthy but as a sign of moral degradation. From this perspective, self-transformation through diet plans and exercise are key pathways to self-actualization and cultural belonging (for more on the obesity epidemic as a moral panic, see Boero).

And yet, on the other hand, media culture has also seen an increase in body positivity rhetoric and the power of individual self-confidence, as evidenced in media campaigns such as the Dove True Beauty campaign or the success of books such as Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Reflecting a general acceptance of some feminist discourses, this media rhetoric extols the virtue of self-confidence as a form of self-discipline, especially as achieved through make-up, fashion, beauty products and personal behavior. (Meeuf, Rebellious Bodies 39, 56).

These two trends, of course, are simply different forms of self-discipline, suggesting two different ways that individuals should change themselves, their appearances, or their attitudes in the face of social inequalities (rather than exploring ways that social policies or the culture at large, not individuals, should transform to help create a more equitable world). 

Celebrities such as Mindy Kaling function as “body image heroines,” offering feel-good narratives about increasing diversity and acceptance of different body types in Hollywood today Proctor and Gamble’s ill-fated 2013 campaign referencing women’s empowerment icon Rosie the Riveter reflects the tendency toward “marketplace feminism”— using the language of equality and empowerment to sell consumer commodities instead of interrogating the causes of gendered injustices.

Within this neoliberal culture of intense body-disciplining, then, we have seen an emerging category of celebrity that I call body image heroines. These are figures like Melissa McCarthy who provide uplifting messages of the power of self-confidence and whose stories, especially in an age of social media, can be used as social justice currency to demonstrate one’s commitment to diversity rhetoric. Other examples include Gabourey Sidibe, Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, Rebel Wilson, Lena Dunham and others. While such figures are easy to celebrate as providing a new and important visions of inclusion in U.S. culture, they also serve the function of neoliberal individualism, suggesting that self-confidence and personal outlook are the solutions to entrenched social inequalities, all while performing the same function as other celebrities: promoting consumer culture. 

Body image heroines, then, tell us that certain forms of unruliness can be packaged and marketed as “feminist” commodities in a neoliberal marketplace. Andi Zeisler’s recent book We Were Feminists Once documents this trend toward “marketplace feminism”—that is, using the language of equality and empowerment to sell consumer commodities instead of interrogating the causes of gendered injustices. Zeisler offers a compelling history of the incorporation of feminist empowerment rhetoric into consumer capitalism in our neoliberal age.

Melissa McCarthy’s unruliness, then, functions in service to her status as a body image heroine, as her outrageous performances of loud, crass femininity become a kind of mock unruliness, a way of demonstrating over-the-top self-confidence rather than truly transgressing gender and class norms. After all, McCarthy can put on the trappings of unruliness in her performances—spurting a bottle of Hidden Valley Ranch into her face while wearing a Mr. Spock sweatshirt in a popular sketch on SNL, defecating in a sink in Bridesmaids, sporting turtlenecks and a thick accent as vlogger Marbles Hargrove. But we are assured by entertainment journalists that she is actually a nice, wholesome, middle-class woman who can offer platitudes about self-confidence and personal success. (And, in fact, as Petersen documents, McCarthy often claims that her most outrageous performances occur while she is in a kind of “fugue state” or trance, distancing her unruliness from her “authentic” self.) She may play an unruly woman on TV, but in reality she is just an average wife and mother who can use the outrageous behavior and “bad” taste of the lower classes to demonstrate just how self-confident she is.

 She told Ladies’ Home Journal in 2012, for example:

“One of my favorite things is playing someone who’s utterly confident—even if they are, just, like wrong. They’re off the beaten track. They’re not polished or perfect, but they’re so solid in their shoes. And I always think, Now that’s someone who’s interesting. They don’t give a s—— what they’re supposed to be, or how they’re supposed to look. I find them mesmerizing. I think there’s greatness in not caring what other people think.” (Newman)

But her prime example of these mesmerizing individuals is “the woman at Walmart who’s happy in her cat sweater,” using the popular connotation of Walmart stores as a locus of low social class commodities and shoppers to suggest this carefree attitude.

So, is unruliness today a performance that nice, middle-class women can put on (and take off when needed) to demonstrate their self-confidence? While Roseanne’s unruliness was tied to her sense of “authentic” self, helping to make her a controversial figure in popular culture, in an age of neoliberal culture, McCarthy demonstrates the possibilities of commodifying unruliness for the safe consumption of middle-class audiences.