It was during an especially crowded metro ride a few months ago that I had stumbled upon the trailer of the Jillian Bell-starrer and Sundance sweetheart Brittany Runs a Marathon. Stumbled upon would be the correct description as I generally tend to avoid shows and or movies that are about fat people. Now, this might sound weird because I’m all for fat representation, but it being so poor so often has led to me being super sceptical about anything that offers me the narrative of body positivity, especially when it’s wrapped up in shiny Hollywood packaging.
At first sight, the trailer seemed good, funny even. I remember laughing loud enough to invite a few glares from fellow passengers (as you do when you dare to be happy on public transport). I also remember thinking, “Hey this isn’t as bad as Insatiable or I Feel Pretty” and making a mental note of watching the movie whenever it hit the big screen. Well, I don’t know about the theatres, but Brittany Runs a Marathon made an appearance into my Amazon Prime recommendations last weekend. And I, feeling a bit too empowered since I had been listening to Lizzo, decided to give it a go. The verdict? Uhmm, let’s talk about that in more detail.
Brittany Runs a Marathon has all that it takes to make it a perfect movie. It has a very talented cast comprising of stellar performers like Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, and Bell herself, is a feel-good comedy with just the perfect amount of drama, and becomes the perfect embodiment of the inspirational, feel-good weight-loss transformation story that everyone on the internet love. And that is where the problem lies.
The movie opens with a shot of Brittany, played by Bell, snoring loudly as she snoozes in her messy bed in her messy room. Because, of course, it does. Us fat people are, if not introduced as a joke or having a truly miserable time or being a klutz or a gluttonous sod, are introduced as the messy, can’t-get-their-life-together, lazy unorganised sloths who deserve all the hate that they get. Brittany is your typical alcoholic, broke millennial next door. Add fat to that mixture and she becomes the standard loser archetype. She parties hard, drinks harder, and just can’t seem to get her act together at work, and in life, generally. She lands at a doctor hoping to fool him into giving her an Adderall prescription, who tells her that what she really needs is to lose weight. That her BMI falls into the obese category. That her blood pressure is dangerously high. And that she might also have a fatty liver. This is not unusual for a fat person, in real life or in a movie. What follows though is what perplexes me, and also sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
While Brittany Runs a Marathon is a sincere attempt to tackle diet culture, body image issues, body positivity, and fatphobia- it ends up being the run-off the mill fat to fit inspiration story that is often used as a weapon against fat people.
Brittany is shocked that she has been ‘diagnosed as fat’ and actually asks what ‘BMI’ means. Now, if you’re a fat person you can just tell how exceptional this is. How is it even possible that in her nearly 30-year-old life Brittany hasn’t been told that she is fat, if not by people around her, then at least by a doctor? And how has she managed to not know anything about the Body Mass Index (BMI) as a fat person? The movie has hardly begun by the time I come across this scene, but it has already proved how out of touch it is. If I assume that Brittany has recently gained all this weight, then I wonder how was she left unscathed from the raging fatphobia we fat people experience every day. And if I assume that she’s always been like this, then I wonder how was she left unscathed from the raging fatphobia we fat people experience all their lives.
Moving on—after this monumental incident at the doctor’s, Brittany starts experiencing the vicious symptoms of self-judgement that she again, has surprisingly managed to avoid up until now—being disgusted by her reflection, her pictures, her state of being etc. After a particularly bad night out, Brittany decides to get her life in order and starts exercising. Due to her local gym’s fees being unaffordable, she takes up running. While it’s tough at first, she soon joins her neighbour Catherine’s (Michaela Watkins) running group, where she also meets Seth (Micah Stock), both of whom become really good friends with Brittany as the movie progresses. Brittany starts training like a ‘serious runner’ and it is she who suggests running in the New York City Marathon to her running friends. She drops several pounds and becomes visibly thinner as she starts swapping alcohol for sleep and choosing salads over pizzas. The more pounds Brittany drops the better her life becomes. She even starts dating and eventually hooks up with a coworker called Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar), whom she meets at a pet-sitting gig she undertakes in order to earn some extra money.
For fat people, movies like Brittany Runs a Marathon and their misconstrued attempt to tackle fatphobia while being reluctant to head-on address how deeply entrenched it is in our society and how it affects the lives of fat people is a poor substitute in the name of representation.
But soon begins Brittany’s obsession with keeping the weight off of her. She gains one pound and starts to exercise obsessively, so much so that she gives herself a stress fracture. She goes to her sister’s while she recovers and during a very unnecessary scene where she’s at her part brother-in-law and part father-figure Demetrius’ (Lil Rey Howrey) birthday party, she, and quite rudely at that, asks a fat woman, Jasmine, and her partner (who is not fat) some really intrusive questions, the “I’m just getting at what everyone thinks when they see you guys together” variety. Jasmine walks away and Brittany is later confronted by Demetrius. “Running a marathon was never about your weight. It was about you taking responsibility for yourself,” he tells Brittany and well, she finally realises where she went wrong. She sends Jasmine some flowers and an apology note, which leads to the part where Jasmine makes a long, inspirational speech about being happy with what she is. The ending is quite predictable, Brittany gives up the self-sabotaging, finishes the marathon, gets the advertising job she always wanted and ends up living with Jern. A nice, good happy ending.
Also read: Bollywood Needs More Fat Heroines Now!
But there’s so much that’s left unpacked. While Brittany and Demetrius might agree with Brittany running the marathon not being about her losing weight, the movie certainly doesn’t. It isn’t up until Brittany starts losing weight that she gets surrounded by better friends, starts feeling better about how she looks, and getting noticed by men. While Brittany Runs a Marathon is a sincere attempt to tackle diet culture, body image issues, body positivity, and fatphobia—it ends up being the run-off the mill fat to fit inspiration story that is often used as a weapon against fat people. Prominent anonymous essayist, Your Fat Friend, hits the nail on its head in her review of the movie when she writes, “Brittany Runs A Marathon doesn’t offer us what it seems to promise: a heartfelt story of a fat person who didn’t have to become thin in order to earn wholeness, love, humanity, or respect. Instead, it subsumes a toothless version of body positivity and wellness culture, replacing the gauche overtness of thinness with the dog-whistle subtlety of health.“
For fat people, movies like Brittany Runs a Marathon and their misconstrued attempt to tackle fatphobia while being reluctant to head-on address how deeply entrenched it is in our society and how it affects the lives of fat people is a poor substitute in the name of representation. What these movies get wrong is what the majority of people too, get wrong about fatphobia. And while Bell’s performance is commendable and the movie does deserve some praise for starting a conversation- don’t you think we can do so so much better?
Featured Image Source: YouTube