The Black (Female) Body in Hollywood

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The Black (Female) Body in Hollywood

The discussion of how women’s bodies are perceived in Hollywood is one that is age-old. But with the introduction of Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe in the starring role of Precious, I think there is an opportunity to have a more honest dialogue and to see if Hollywood is ready to embrace a real big girl.

In 2006, Jennifer Hudson was the sassy,  big It Girl. She had an extraordinary award show run that ended with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Every time she showed up on the red carpet, the words “curvy” and “voluptuous” weren’t too far behind. In reality the big girls in the rest of the country couldn’t help laughing. On her biggest day Jennifer Hudson was a size 16, but more likely usually a 14. What was the big deal? She didn’t look any different than the girl that lived next door.

Gabourey Sidibe

Well, this award season is being dominated by one Gabourey Sidibe and there is no doubt, tipping the scale at 300 pounds, that she is an authentic big girl. But what is interesting is how the discussion about Gabby’s body has been framed in the context of her alter ego Precious. It’s as if they don’t share the same body. In the litany of reviews the word “obese” is flung around liberally as they describe her character, Clareece Precious Jones, but in interviews with Gabby the writers consistently remarks how “different” she is from the character she portrays in the blistering movie. The difference is her bubbly personality, her Valley Girl voice, the sense that she has somehow escaped the cruelty of adolescence. But most critics don’t take the honest next step and say what is the same: her weight. Interview after interview, she is filling out every square inch of her sized-for-her designer dress. She is taking up every square inch of the chair that is provided for her during the press junket. But no one dares speaks it. Is it because there is legitimate concern that Gabby truly is obese? That they see nothing attractive about her (which I think is absolutely not true)? Or that there is no language in the Hollywood lexicon to describe her? To say she is “curvy” or “voluptuous” (in Hollywood-speak) would be dishonest. So it is simply ignored.

And that is a shame. In many ways Gabby is breaking new ground for actresses larger than a size 22. She is the perfect example: American filmgoers are ready to pay their money to see a woman that has not been created by the Hollywood starlet machine and may not necessarily be relegated to the character parts reserved for the not-so-beautiful or skinny people. The blogosphere has been on fire regarding this very topic. Bloggers have not been shy about talking about Gabby’s weight, but the discussions have taken disturbing turns. What starts out as a critique of Precious quickly devolves into screeds on Gabby’s weight and how it somehow diminishes her credible performance. The argument is that because she started out “fat” she is not really acting. Really?

With that kind of illogical and unfair criticism I can’t help but wonder what is next for her. Will she go the way of Hattie McDaniel or will Hollywood loosen its belt and make room for a remarkable new talent that couldn’t find a size 24 dress on Rodeo Drive to save her life?

Comments [26]

Elizabeth Koke's picture

book club

I love The Black Body! It is our Brooklyn Museum Book Club pick for February!  Meri Danquah and Greg Tate are going to come speak about it.

<3 Elizabeth

Meffle's picture

Don't blame Hollywood

If a  type doesn't sell tickets, but a Angelina Jolie (now, not Tomb Raider Angelina) does, well that's our fault.

We love the movies for their false standards of beauty.  I, for once, certainly wouldn't pay big buck to see a clone of me prancing around the big screen in a g-string (yukkers).  So the Hollywood skinny exists because that's what we, the public, go for.

I think Brittney Murphy looked an absolute fright when she passed. I believe we'll find her death was due at least in part to her weight (or lack of same).  Weight yoyoing killed Luther Vandross.  Now with a voice like that, why would we care one wit what he weighed?

There's a thin line...still...

Joanne Robertson's picture



MacLass_19's picture

I adore her !!

Gabourey's an amazing actress, and I hope that she's recognized for her pure and genuine talent... 

Tex's picture

The black female body....

Hollywood....New York.....Los Angeles....Seattle....Chicago....St Louis.....any city is okay with me!

Sorry to say, but I don't think there will be a place in Hollywood for a leading fluffy lady. 

Twitter Time @kdhales

MacLass_19's picture

I hope you're wrong.

'Untraditional' beauty is refreshing...

skate's picture

We all hope she's wrong..

We all hope she's wrong..

Tex's picture

I hope I'm wrong....

I hope I'm wrong....

Twitter Time @kdhales

skate's picture

There's no way in hell

There's no way in hell Hollywood will "loosen its belt."  To do that, Hollywood would have to question every one of the bullshit values it is based on, and then destroy them one by one.  People would have to refuse to consume this bullshit.  It ain't happening.

The purpose of Hollywood is to distract people's attention away from the actual world and what goes on in it.  Anything that deviates from that function cannot be permitted, and is quickly dispatched or neutralized.

Robin Rigby's picture

The purpose of Hollywood is

The purpose of Hollywood is to entertain.  Movie watching is a form of escapism often, but it can also be a powerful tool for education.  Mostly though, what Hollywood is is a business.  They make movies that they think people will want to see.  We can vote by using our wallets.  As an example from this weekend's movie selections- we can see a big budget blockbuster like "Avatar" or we can see a film about one of the most important figures of the last 50 years- "Invictus" or we can laugh at "It's Complicated" or we can see "Precious" ...  Or any of a dozen of other choices.  

What exactly are these bullshit values?  Because what they make is only a reflection of what we want or who we are.  

skate's picture

see my comment below

see my comment below

Michelle Sewell's picture

Chicken or the Egg

I think the business of movie making creates this weird relationship with the movie-going public. They (powers-that-be) create these movies that they think we want. We go to these movies, turning some of these films into blockbusters, so then they make more of the same movie. Now we are in a vicious cycle and the movie menu is the same every year. But a couple "sleeper" films make their way on to a few screens and become surprise hits, but for some weird reason they don't make more of those kinds of films. I think if more eclectic films got distribution we would have a broader choice AND money could be made in a more consistent way - instead of a handful of films per year.

I believe movie watching is about escapism, but I have also experienced film as a way to expand my understanding. I thnk that is a fine expectaton of an art form that has such an influence on so many people.


skate's picture

I also have experienced movie

I also have experienced movie watching as a way of expanding understanding.  One was recent.  We were watching John Waters' "Female Trouble."  We're 2/3 of the way through the movie, and a straight guy that was watching with us goes, "That's not a woman.  That's a GUY!!!"  Hahahaha!... Takes him an hour to figure out Divine's a man.

There are a few stories that have been around for all of human history.  It's possible our brains are hardwired to repeat or receive these stories.  An example is, "person goes through a struggle, changes."  There are variations on it:  "person goes on a journey, returns wiser."

These stories affect us on some profound, possibly subconcious level, and some people who realize this use the stories for specific purposes, like behavioral control or power acquisition.  "Person goes through a struggle, comes out better or the other side" can be modified to "go through this struggle, and you will be rewarded," which becomes "do this thing I want you to do, and I will reward you."

So I don't think it's that they make movies they think we want, and we go see them, which means more of the same.  I think it's that these things exist, almost like ambient stories, and we interact with them in particular ways.  With Hollywood, the interaction works like: we dump certain versions of the stories into a trough, you feed at the trough.

This brings me to the question about Hollywood's values.  The central one they must promote is that people can't entertain themselves.  There are related ideas (that entertainment must come to us via some external source, that we need to be "entertained" at all, that entertainment is closely associated with giving other people your money), but the basic thing is that people who can entertain themselves are less likely to spend money.  So that has to be changed.  We can't have self-sufficient people running around, not feeding at the trough.

People who have only the flimsiest shell of an inner life are easily bored.  This is essential, because such people constantly seek consumption opportunities to combat the low-level satisfaction they feel.  Hollywood must promote the value that material abundance is the highest a human life can aim for.

These stories can be flattened down into forms that provide strong bursts of sensory input that fuel our economy.  It's exactly like walking into a fast-food place.  Everything on the menu is either extremely sweet or extremely salty.  You might as well walk up to the counter and say, "I'll have 2 extremely sweets and 3 extremely salties."  Movies - same story.  I'll have 2 tickets for "submit to power, or else."  And the next week it's, I'll have 2 tickets for "fear everything."

skate's picture

Good lord, I don't even know

Good lord, I don't even know where to begin describing Hollywood's values.  But since I threw it out there and you commented, I'll get a response together.  It might take me a millenia or two, but I'll try, lol..

Rusty's picture

I voted with my wallet for

I voted with my wallet for Avatar and was not disappointed.

"When you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will." ~ Pollyanna

Grace Moon's picture


i'm kinda in love with Gabourey Sidibe, i love it when talent comes out of no where, and she has one of the coolest names.

it didn't seem to be an easy feat for Lee Daniels to get Precious out, and if not for a confluence of events, casting, and backing it may not have seen the light of day.

i actually don't give hollywood that much credit, i think its called Tinseltown for a reason.

tweet tweet @gracemoon

Sarah Pappalardo's picture

the female body

I'm not really sure how this specifically pertains to the black female body. I think what we're seeing is the same old, same old judgments of the female body.

The issue with the amazing "Precious" star is twofold: she may not get more work in Hollywood because of bias against her weight, but she also may not get work in Hollywood because there are only so many parts written for young, bigger women.

I'd actually give the industry a little more credit - if there's another good script out there, damn right it will be produced.

Michelle Sewell's picture

the (black) female body


After reading the anthology The Black Body I was just looking at the subject through the filter of Hollywood. I agree that women's bodies, regardless of race/ethnicity, are constantly being assessed and in the world of Hollywood you can never be too young, too thin, to


Sarah Pappalardo's picture

Right on.

I might pick up that book - sounds interesting!

Carollani's picture

Hollywood can suck it.

Mmm. J-Hud could, yo.

The fact is that in today's Hollywood if a movie doesn't break the box office in its first week it's dead. What producers rely on to get people to the movies is leading ladies that dudes want to fuck and girls want to be. That usually means someone skinny or slightly curvy.

I'm certainly not defending Hollywood, in fact, I think they're doing their best to kill creativity altogether. Thank god for the indie industry. You're only limited by Hollywood if you are trying to be IN Hollywood.

Robin Rigby's picture

I would agree with your final

I would agree with your final sentence except that there are a finite number of movie screens on the planet and with increasing numbers of films (indie and studio) being released each year it's harder and harder to get screen time.  And the truth is that until some new distribution channel starts to get the public's attention most movie watchers aren't aware of something that isn't screened in their multiplex and advertised to death on their TVs.  Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you're Hollywood or not.  

Carollani's picture


There are a growing number of ways that indie filmmakers are getting their films out there. IFC is a great boon to filmmakers, because it picks up indie films that get great reviews but almost zero distribution. Also, there's an art house theater or two in every metropolitan area that screen ONLY underrepresented films. Netflix is also a new amazing tool for filmmakers, because you can get huge distribution to people who seek out independents but otherwise wouldn't be aware of the particular film. Also, film festivals. In fact, the festivals are where previously un-(or under)-funded films can pick up distribution deals if they get a good buzz going.

There are more options than just Hollywood or bust, for sure.

Robin Rigby's picture

I'm aware of these things

I'm aware of these things since I'm an independent filmmaker and you're aware because you're an actress but as I said above- the general public is only aware of most films if those films have screened at their local multiplex or if they have some personal connection to the film or filmmakers.

Carollani's picture

True true.

But as an artist is your intended audience really everybody, or are you just trying to reach the people who get it? I don't know, I waffle. I guess the more money you put into a production, the more people you want/need to see your film for it to pay off in the end.  I don't know.

Robin Rigby's picture

Actually, as a gay filmmaker

Actually, as a gay filmmaker who's stated mission is to increase the quality of gay/lesbian films while also increasing the visibility of gay film my target audience is everyone.  

I was editing a film for another local filmmaker and she said to me "You know, you don't have to make only gay movies."  To which I replied "Yes.  I do."  So, while I was editing her non-gay film and I've edited several others (and made one straight film with a lesbian character of my own) it is my intention to make gay (and especially, lesbian) movies but to make ones that straight folks will also enjoy so that then they'll feel like they know us.  While at the same time giving lesbians quality films instead of the dreck that we are mostly stuck with these days.  

Carollani's picture

Good Luck!

I'm glad to know that there are filmmakers out there trying to make good gay films, because let's face it, most of them are total stinking shit. I wish you all the luck in the world!