A breakdown of the furore around the actress’ comments about plus-size women in romantic comedies.
I hate starting articles with qualifications, but in this instance it’s kind of necessary: As a plus-size woman, I’ve always wanted to be on Rebel Wilson’s team.
I hate saying as a ‘plus-size woman’ because it implies that only plus-size women can have skin in this particular game. That’s not even remotely true and yet as a plus-size woman – here we go again, I promise it’s the last time – the success of other women who look even a tiny little bit like me are necessarily more important, more noteworthy and somehow more intrinsically linked to me.
It’s the idea of being able to see yourself in representation. Even though I’m not blonde, I didn’t go to law school and I’m not a comedic genius with the timing of Lucille Ball, I see Rebel Wilson and me as kindred spirits. Sort of.
It’s why I was so excited when I saw the trailer for her new romantic comedy Isn’t It Romantic last week. The tale of an architect trying to make it in the big city, the movie seemed to skewer every rom com trope and poke fun at the genre we all know and love, while centring the story around a plus-size woman who wants to do and have and be all the things that other women do and have and be: great jobs, beautiful apartments, wonderful friends and good relationships.
This is also why I was so disappointed to see that Rebel Wilson had called herself the first plus-size star of a romantic comedy. This phrase, uttered so carelessly on the Ellen Degeneres show last week, seemed to erase what little plus-size women have had in the way of representation onscreen thus far.
Because Rebel isn’t the first plus-size woman to spearhead a romantic movie. What about Last Holiday, that joyous, big-hearted Queen Latifah film in which she is diagnosed with a terminal illness and jets off to Paris to live out her Funny Face-inspired dreams, only to be caught in a love triangle between LL Cool J (ding dong!) and, um, Gerard Depardieu (it was the noughties, remember)?
What about Mo’nique’s Phat Girlz? What about Ricki Lake in Babycakes? What about the movie Hairspray? What about Melissa McCarthy, out here doing the most for plus-sized women onscreen since the days of Gilmore Girls? What about Rebel’s fellow Australians Toni Collette, plus-sized and fabulous in Muriel’s Wedding, or Deborah Mailman in The Sapphires, so charming that Chris O’Dowd risks life and limb to be with her? Or Minnie Driver, whose turn as the beloved Benny in Circle of Friends – the actress’ debut film – was so important to me as a pre-teen I watched it over and over again until I wore out the VHS?
Rebel Wilson was wrong to erase the work of these actresses who broke ground in body diversity representation before her, and Twitter users were quick to point this out to her. But instead of apologising straight away, the actress doubled down, hitting back at her critics on the grounds of semantics and then – the double down on the double down, the worst act of all – blocking the women, mostly black, who criticised her.
“Yeah I of course know of these movies but it was questionable as to whether: 1. Technically those actresses were plus size when filming those movies or 2. Technically those films are billed as a studio rom-com with a sole lead. So there’s a slight grey area,” Rebel tweeted to one critic. The hashtag #RebelWilsonblockedme began circling social media yesterday as a result.
Then Mo’nique, one of the plus-size women hailed as leading the charge for body diversity in Hollywood, addressed Rebel directly on Twitter. “Hey my sweet sister,” she wrote. “Let’s please not allow this business to erase our talent with giving grey areas and technicalities. Take a moment and know the history. DON’T BE A PART OF ERASING IT. I wish you the best.”
Today, Rebel Wilson finally apologised directly. “In a couple of well-intentioned moments, hoping to lift my fellow plus sized women up, I neglected to show the proper respect to those who climbed this mountain before me like Mo’nique, Queen Latifah, Melissa McCarthy, Ricki Lake and likely many others,” Rebel wrote on Twitter.
“With the help of some very compassionate and well-thought out responses from others on social media, I now realise what I said was not only wrong but also incredibly hurtful. To be part of a problem I was hoping I was helping makes it that much more embarrassing & hard to acknowledge. I blocked people on Twitter because I was hurting from the criticism, but those are the people I actually need to hear from more, not less. Again, I am deeply sorry.”
As far as apologies go, it’s actually quite a good one. Rebel is right to acknowledge that blocking her critics on Twitter was wrong, and that it sprung from a place of fear and hurt. She is doing the right thing by listening to those who are trying to educate her. It is undoubtedly hard for Rebel to admit to this because she is such a vocal advocate for the plus-size community.
But the problem with this apology is that it’s come days too late. Rebel should have apologised five days ago when criticism of her comments first started rumbling. She shouldn’t have dismissed this criticism on the basis of technicalities and she definitely shouldn’t have started blocking the people who tried to school her on the subject of body diversity on film.
By taking so long to apologise, Rebel underscores the invisibility of the bodies of women of colour. By attempting to defend herself instead of educating herself, Rebel digs herself deeper into her hole. By splitting hairs on film classifications or the studio system or what is and isn’t a rom com or, more upsettingly, who is and isn’t plus-size, Rebel is doing very real damage to whatever empowering message her film might have.
It’s a miscalculation on Rebel’s part to think that the only way we could get excited about Isn’t It Romantic would be because it is the first. She, more than anyone else, should know that as a plus-size woman – OK, I promise that really is the last time – any movie starring someone whose body vaguely approximates my own is cause for celebration.
It’s why I’m counting down the days until Dumplin’, the Netflix movie about a plus-size beauty queen played by Australian Danielle Macdonald, airs on the streaming platform in December. (Her mum in the movie is played by, deep breaths, Jennifer freakin’ Aniston). It’s why I’ll watch any movie, good, bad or ugly, that Melissa McCarthy is in. It’s why I put myself through the pseudo-sadism of watching Netflix’s terrible series Insatiable for this very website. It’s why I can’t wait for Shrill, the adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir of the same name starring Aidy Bryant. In fact, Aidy Bryant is my pied piper, and I’ll follow her wherever she goes.
For plus-size women, something doesn’t have to be the first to be worthy of our time. It just has to exist.
Rebel should have known this, and she should have apologised for her thoughtless comments as soon as she made them. Because now she runs the risk of so many plus-size women – and there are so many of us – deciding that, actually, they don’t want to see themselves in Rebel Wilson anymore.