Roundly Deserved

My worst issue with the Oscars was that the music was consistently off for the singers. If you’re going to have 4 drop-dead powerhouse women singing, then maybe you could spend some of your huge budget on coordinating your orchestra with your singers. And I do not understand why the fashion press is drooling over Kerry Washingon’sill-fitting dress and loathing Jennifer Garner’s elegantly whimsical plum column. But the real issues with the Oscars was McFarland. Who managed to be both debonair and obnoxious–no mean trick, that. He’s sort of pretty, he sings well, and he wears a tux very nicely. He’s articulate and obviously educated (Kent and RISD). But, though I like The Family Guy, he does have an adolescent fondness for mean humor and he clearly hasn’t learned when it’s okay to cross boundaries. The Lincoln assassination joke, for instance, and his response when it rightly tanked, “Still too soon?”  No. We’ve pretty much integrated a Lincoln assassination joke into the common parlance–“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”  It’s stupid and tasteless. Some things are just not great material. Assassinations. Genocide. Rape. 911. Political correctness isn’t the issue, humanity is. Humor is a hugely complicated thing, and there are “good” jokes about all those subjects, but they’re pretty much all by victims–the commercial milk cans in which the people of the Warsaw ghetto buried their written records of life in the ghetto are full of jokes–brutal, mordant, uncomfortable, very funny jokes. They’re amazing testaments to the ferocity of intellect and heart of those people.

So one facet of What Was The Matter With McFarland’s Jokes has to do with authority. Victims and survivors can make whatever jokes they want, pretty much. Pretty, privileged young people, not so much authority there. It can, of course, be earned by brilliance, to some extent.  But the bad jokes Sunday night were distinctly unbrilliant. In the case of Lincoln Assassination, the problem is that it’s just not ever going to be funny. Ever. And there’s no healing, no strength to be gained from laughing about it. There’s no reason to laugh about it.

Comics stomp that line to pieces all the time, and varied people find varied things funny, for varied reasons–not all of them healthy, attractive, or worthwhile. But the Oscars, for good or ill, are a mainstream production with a huge mainstream audience, and we really don’t need Annointed Important People, which is what the Oscar host is, making boob jokes (yeah, I laughed–the number would have been funny in another context in which its meta-humor could have been the point.), talking about little girls as potential George Clooney bait, and making bitchy references to Adele’s weight, or introducing every single woman on the stage by way of her looks. It was a series of gross misjudgements of context and propriety, both of which continue to be important, no matter how much reality TV tries to convince us otherwise.  Learning when to push boundaries and be edgy is as important as learning to push boundaries. McFarland blew it. I hope some remnant of his WASP upbringing is driving him to write a lot of apology notes this week. He owes a lot of them.  And needs to grow the hell up.

Meanwhile, we need to talk about what the fat women were wearing. Melissa McCarthy NEEDS a new stylist. She’s not tall enough for the Adele-hair, and that dress made her look like a grocery bag. Adele looked like herself, which is to say that she was gorgeous. Queen Latifah also looked precisely like herself–the dress was boring, but regal–dignity and presence personified. And then there was Octavia Spencer, who has the wits to not mess with a great thing–her relationship with Tadashi Shoji. If anything, this year’s dress was even more impressive than last because it broke a bunch of supposed fat-girl-rules. It had a big skirt and fluffy parts–it was princessy and ultra-feminine, and yet it worked because the fit and proportions were precise and precisely gauged. Lovely work.

Why, in heaven’s name, does any of this matter?  The standard answer would be about these women as exemplars–role models. I think that’s important, particularly when we’re talking about minorities and role models. I don’t think it much matters to thin-to-normal size humans that Anne Hathaway’s dress didn’t fit well.  This is partially because there were plenty of dresses that did fit well, but even more because the fact that her dress didn’t fit well would never be blamed on her body being un-fittable, or unwieldy or inherently ugly. So her dress failure wouldn’t be blamed on any part of her nature or being. Latifah and Adele both dressed in ways that make it very hard to say much of anything one way or another–they effectively eliminate their bodies from discussions of their appearance on some critical levels, and that affirms their feminity in many others. Spencer pushes boundaries and proves that it’s possible for women of size to dress with panache and glamor, bless her elegant heart. All three of them approach the Great Show of the red carpet with a lot of confidence and dignity.

Of course, on many levels, McCarthy is allowed to wear any bloody thing she wants. She does not owe the fat women of the world anything.  But clothes are texts just as surely as newspapers are. This gets into the awful morass of the discussion of women’s clothing as potential provocation. The fact is that clothing does speak–no culture on the planet ignores the clothing and ornamentation of the human body. Not ever going to happen, that.  Where politics and morality enter that discussion–matters of rape and burkas–the answer has a great deal more to do with the ways men are raised and trained. But we’re not discussing those extremes here, we’re talking about whether Melissa McCarthy has any responsibilities to herself and others where her Oscar outfits are concerned, and I would love to argue that she does. I really would. But if Anne Hathaway is allowed to make mistakes I guess McCarthy is, too.

Crud. I think I might have just argued myself out of being able to say that she has an ethical obligation to hire a better stylist. I may have to content myself with wishing she would. Darn. I had such a lovely head of steam built up for it.

round fash.2

2 thoughts on “Roundly Deserved

  1. cathcarter says:

    Nope–no ethical obligation. In fact, no obligation at all. When anyone dresses really beautifully and fittingly, it’s less of an obligation and more of a random gift–to themselves and to those of us looking.

    This is one, you know, that gives me some cause to cogitate. Like you, I’m just delighted to see people who aren’t always considered conventionally beautiful rocking the fashion to appropriate beauty after all. For aesthetic reasons (beautiful is pleasing). And for political reasons (in your face, beauty industry!), and, on the other end of the political spectrum, because beauty and fashion can be power, especially for women, and I don’t feel like we have so much power base going on that we can afford to turn our backs on obvious sources of credibility. And for a reason which I find hard to define, but which amounts to taking joy in seeing people looking “like themselves”–confident, comfortable, their appearance “fitting” in every sense of the word–not necessarily the way “everybody else” dresses, but the way that, for instance, someone wore a sari to the Oscars and looked totally herself. That’s a comforting and delightful thing, for some reason. And I wish more people did it. I have to confess that when I look at some of my colleagues, I kind of wish they did it. If we have to dress SOME way, which we do; and we have to spend SOME money and thought on clothes, which we do; then why not in ways that make us more ourselves, or more our best selves, rather than less?

    But. But, but, BUT the politics of that wish are extremely fraught, maybe to the point of actually being on the evil side. While I love to see well-dressed men, I, like nearly everyone else, judge women’s looks and clothes more stringently than men’s…which means that my desire for beauty and fittingness is gendered and makes women into objects, a clear case of NOT COOL. Women who ignore the way they look in the way that people so readily accept men doing–sometimes THAT’s their power base, their refusal to play a profoundly rigged game, and I admire that even while a) judge it and b) know it’ll never be me. It is, or can be, a kind of fuck-your-approval feminism that I’ve never been able to pull off. And as if that weren’t enough, there’s the privilege thing: the huge privilege that it is to have access to clothes that are comfortable, that fit, that are becoming and make us look “like ourselves”–which is, of course, a privilege that a lot of people of size just don’t have, especially when you remember how strongly fat and poverty are correlated. That’s one of the (many) things wrong with those sites showing awful candid shots of badly dressed people at Wal-Mart: even leaving aside the cruelty and classism and judgment, those sites unforgivably ignore the fact that people who are both fat and poor often don’t have a lot of options beyond those baggy sweatpants.

    So, Melissa McCarthy: no, I didn’t like the dress. Yes, I’m entitled to a personal opinion about it, or so I choose to believe, especially when someone a) clearly has the wherewithal to choose some aspects of her looks and b) is pretty much choosing to have her clothes judged by going to the Oscars in the first place (and not wearing, say, a generic black tux, an always-good choice.) But is she obliged to look beautiful, or more beautiful, or more like herself than she did, and are we allowed to ask that she do so? That is, can we ask that she consider her appearance first as an object for our gaze? Nope. Maybe she really loved that dress; maybe it was comfortable, and/or she thought it was beautiful, and she decided to let her own aesthetics trump ours…and she’s totally allowed to do that, or should be. Fatness shouldn’t change that, or oblige her to be a role model for other women or a good example of elegant fatness to fat-haters.

    That said…I still don’t like the dress. But the difference between private individuals expressing single opinions, and some snarky fashion columnist judging said dress as if it were a crime against humanity, as if beauty were a moral obligation, and as if this dress said something profound about Melissa McCarthy as person, is a big difference. Or so I hope. 🙂

    • fatmatters says:

      Fashion’s a particularly juicy locus for discussing a wide range of issues. The problem is that sorting them out can be so tricky. And you basically have to start by eliminating any discussion of folks who do not have access to choice, which is, in and of itself, ethically uncomfortable. I have known people to dress marvelously on almost no money, but they have not tended to be fat, except in one case that involved a kind of punk-goth-fuckoff fusion with loose black layers, Doc Martens (the one pricey bit), and funky-colored hair. But that, too required kinds of access that are not common.

      Yep, I loved the saris, and there was a young woman in a flaunt-it dress made of African fabrics who also looked wonderful. I love it when the men do weird things–Samuel L. Jackson is pretty reliable for interesting choices–but the fact is that they all look so good in tuxes that it’s not altogether worth the effort. Which is both lucky as hell for them, and kind of sad.

      McCarthy owes us nothing except the good performances we pay to watch, of course. And getting into the issue of what she owes herself is invasive and patriarchal (or at least the bad version of matriarchal). That being said, I would argue that dressing well–dressing so that you look like an authentic version of yourself and with attention to aesthetics, fittingly, is often a reflection of a pretty healthy understanding of yourself and your body. Even in the case of those Walmart photos, there is very often such a complete miscalculation of the body being dressed that class, access, and economics don’t explain what’s going on. So the photos are actually making fun of someone with fairly serious levels of body dysmorphia, which is tied to all sorts of other dysfunctions. Which makes those photos/sites particularly nasty.

      So what, aside from the questionable aesthetics, is bothersome about McCarthy’s consistently BAD dresses? I suppose, that on a woman-to-woman level, I’m just sorry that she’s not able to express her understanding of herself better. Or maybe the very discomfort with herself that manifests in her awful dresses is part of what makes her such a wicked comic actor? Tough to parse. I’d be content to have her wear funky-ugly, or whimsical, or some other in-your-face sort of choices (a la Helena Bonham Carter), but her dresses are always so grim, so weirdly apologetic, so seriously aging and body-hostile that the whole thing just ends up making me sad for her. And I guess I take that a little personally because I can imagine some of the uncomfort involved.

      On the other hand, there are always dresses on thin women at these things that also indicate a skewed relationship to the body and soul–Brandi Glanville’s comes to mind. It was a potentially lovely dress, on a woman whose body it fit. But it just looked tortured and tacky on her, even though she has “the body” you’d think would have been easy to find a good dress for. Of course I care less–she’s a skinny, privileged, wealthy, apparently (important word there) trivial-minded reality star and I can list about a hundred reasons for which I could call her seriously complicit in the fall of civilization. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t miserable being her, and being so desperate to “live up” to an even more demanding standard of beauty than the normal weirdness of her milieu demands that she’d wear a dress that had to hurt her breasts for hours. There’s a woman to whom feminism in serious doses has much to offer.

      And then there was Amanda Seyfried taking rather bluntly about how uncomfortable the corset her dress required was, thereby raising the question of why she chose a dress that forced her to molest her own body. See paragraph above. Sweetie, get a clue.

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