What 'How To Be Single' Got Wrong About The Fat Friend
I went to see How to Be Single during a matinee showing on a random Wednesday in leggings and a t-shirt. It didn’t dawn on me how cliche it was to go see a romantic comedy about single millennial girls as a lone millennial girl -- until I got to the ticket counter. For the record, I’m not “single”. My partner lives in another state and taking myself on dates is fun. But this was still out of the norm for me. I’m almost exclusively a horror/thriller kind of girl and I don’t do rom coms. I actually only considered How to Be Single for this solo outing because it was recommended by my partner and our really good friend. Also, I knew there would be popcorn, and I’d seen that Rebel Wilson was playing a major role.
I was curious to see how all this popular culture talk about feminism and body positivity would translate on the big screen in a film marketed to women. From the trailer it was clear that Wilson’s character, Robin, was fun and had a sex life. This gave me a glimmer of hope that How to Be Single could perhaps step away from one-dimensional portrayals of fat women. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Here is what the makers of this film got wrong.
They completely failed to address the fact that Robin was actually a fat woman.
We take our identities and bodies with us literally everywhere because we don’t exist in a vacuum. As it pertains to fat women: our friendships, relationships, careers, and activities are all mediated by fatness and other identities like race, class, sexuality, etc. Yes, exaggerated stereotypes about fat women being excessively depressed and asexual, or excessively hyper-sexual and aggressive completely fail to express our reality. But, a different kind of erasure can also happen when, in the spirit of diverse “visibility”, fat women are present but their fatness is ignored. The latter is what happened in How to Be Single. Robin was a hard-partying fun girl interested in one-night stands. But there wasn’t a single nod to how hard it probably was for her to find cute club clothes, or the way she’s probably experienced fat-shaming or fetishization. These are missed opportunities for some honest humor, and just "okay, here's some visibility" isn't the same as "here's an entirely new narrative."
Robin was made invisible in many ways.
While many of the other female characters navigated complex situations and lives, Robin’s major issue throughout the film was figuring out who she had slept with the night before. There was no depth to her character. As the funny fat friend, it was Robin’s job to introduce a thin, neutral Alice to worldly oddities like excessive drinking and casual sex. Viewers never get to see Robin negotiate her relationship to herself, her sexual partners, or anyone else. In many scenes, Robin introduces the other female characters to a little bit of trouble and then simply disappeared altogether. This relationship dynamic - the one where some other, thinner friend is the star and I’m her backdrop of fun - is one that I’ve definitely experienced before.
Stereotypes about fat people being generally lazy and unproductive are glaringly present.
From the moment viewers meet her, Robin does not take her job seriously. She frequently shows up hungover, unable to name the lawyers she works for, and offers Alice advice on where the best places to have sex in the office are. Even after it’s revealed (SPOILER) that Robin is extremely wealthy and doesn’t have to work as a paralegal at the end of the film, we aren’t given any context as to how she acquired her wealth - and her huge loft is filled with adult toys like a scooter. This specific framing of Robin as a goof-off could be seen as byproduct of her promiscuity (a problematic, sexist association), but it also conveniently fulfills one of the widely circulated narratives about fat people: that they’re generally unmotivated. In a red carpet interview, director Christian Ditter wanted to make it clear that the film was a “celebration” of being single. But it was very clear throughout the film that Robin’s method of being single wasn’t acceptable or respectable enough. While Alice engineers contraptions to unzip her own dresses and fulfills a dream of hiking the grand canyon, Robin simply finds another party and person to do. Alice’s version of “single” is sentimental and meaningful, Robin’s is excessive and silly. It’s a contrast that is highlighted throughout the movie.
As you can imagine, I rolled my eyes so much during How to Be Single that they were sore as I left the theater. Needless to say I’ll be sticking to my scary movies from here on out.