Contexualizing the invisible: How people are talking about Precious

By | November 5, 2009

Tomorrow, the long-awaited and much-buzzed-about (not to mention awkwardly-titled) Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire opens in theaters, and unsurprisingly, the reviews are overwhelmingly effusive thus far. As much as I’d love it if Hollywood felt compelled to send me a screener of every movie with a fat protagonist (c’mon Hollywood, it’s not like it happens often), they don’t, so I’ve yet to see it myself.

What I have been watching, in the absence of the film, is the way it’s being discussed around the web, and most specifically the way its star, first-timer Gabourey Sidibe, is being treated. Latoya Peterson has done a chunk of this work already, posting some of the “WTF moments” she’s found most egregious to, and evidently her call-out was cutting enough to inspire a public response from one of the reviewers she takes on, David Edelstein of New York Magazine.

From the trailer alone it’s apparent that Precious is a movie that will likely result in 99% of the white people (and probably some people of color too) who see it spending two hours shifting uncomfortably in their seats over their unexamined (or even thoroughly-examined) attitudes about the intersections of race and class. But looking through these challenges, it’s Precious’ size that’s not being too-overtly discussed; it’s likely that folks talking about this movie are already bending under the heavy load of Precious’ relentlessly sad story–abused by both parents, pregnant by her own father, illiterate, seemingly locked away from any manageable path out of her terrible circumstances–that they’re unwilling to further compound the issues by also calling her fat, at least not more than once.

People are more willing to mention, however obliquely, the way Gabourey Sidibe’s body is seemingly in contrast with her oft-cited bubbly and cheerful personality. Whether these folks really believe that most fat people are necessarily unpleasant and miserable, or whether they’re confusing the actress with her character, remains to be seen. But even the film’s director has gotten in on it:

Lee Daniels says: “She is a special girl and, I think, unaware of it. She is either in denial about her physicality or she’s from another planet. She is evolved. She is so secure about who she is.” (Source)

An astonishing amount of the language around Sidibe’s self-confidence and comfort in her own body is wrapped up in these mystified expressions. Doesn’t she know she looks like that? Should someone tell her? While I’m sure Daniels meant the above as a compliment, look at the options we get: 1. Denial that she looks so completely antithetical to cultural beauty ideals. 2. Alien from a planet where “her physicality” is “normal” and acceptable. 3. Evolution beyond an awareness of her body. Note there is no choice for “thoughtful acceptance” or “refusal to allow mainstream beauty standards to dictate one’s self worth”. If we as a culture assume that being self-confident and at ease with oneself is in direct opposition with being fat, isn’t that a problem?

From the David Edelstein review, a passage that I’m sure has been pulled out and blogged about a hundred times already:

I’m not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she’s not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one. It’s only in a couple of heavy-handed fantasy sequences (she emerges from a theater in a bright-red gown to popping flashbulbs) that her eyes are windows to the soul. (Source)

Edelstein says that though the film’s message is that Precious is not an “object”, Daniels’ choices in how he’s filmed her make her appear as one. I would argue that it’s not the film that does this, but a culture in which we have no context for a truly fat, dark-skinned young Black woman to be a protagonist or a hero. Indeed, our culture would remove big pieces of Precious’ identifiable humanity for each of the two physical characteristics that make her different from most everyone else we see in leading roles: her fatness, and her Blackness. If it’s difficult to recognize Precious’ humanity, it isn’t because of the lighting or the angle at which the camera is seeing her; it’s because we’re not accustomed to seeing women who look like Precious portrayed as fully human. We’re used to seeing these women painted as ravenous animals, or the punch lines of jokes. Edelstein’s inclusion of a line from Shallow Hal in his rebuttal to Peterson is particularly telling of the extemely limited frame of reference we have for very fat women in film–and no, Bridget Jones does not count.

Gabourey Sidibe says of the character:

“I recognized Precious and Mary in friends and family that I’ve ignored in the streets. That’s what drew me to the role; just the reality of a girl like this. We walk by her all the time,” 26-year-old Sidibe told the Defender. (Source)

We walk by her all the time, and we ignore her. Symbolically, on the purely aesthetic basis of images we see in mainstream visual media, it’s true that Precious embodies an otherworldly, untouchable, alienness, though arguably it is Hollywood that is the “another planet” that Daniels invokes, while the rest of us living out here in real fucking life see her often, even if we do cautiously look the other way when she passes by, as if her outsider status were contagious. And ignoring her is the ultimate removal of agency and power. Ignoring her is worse than silencing her, worse than telling her she doesn’t matter or that she’s worthless; ignoring her asserts that she doesn’t exist.

As troubling and occasionally enraging as the conversations around Precious’ (and by extension Sidibe’s) body may be, at least we’re having them, and having even the most distressing exchanges is an improvement over the silent and passive denial that people who look like Precious are real and worth seeing, and worth knowing, and worth recognizing as precious no matter their context.

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