Today, I finally saw the Paula Patton led movie, Baggage Claim, and it was.... a predictably mediocre romantic comedy. Girl meets guy, girl wants ring, guy cheats, girl shame spirals and tries to get any one of several ex-boyfriend to propose, girl's plan fails, girl realizes the right guy was (literally) next door the whole time. And, fin.
So, terrible. I did like the man-candy though.
But what stuck out to me in this film was Jill Scott's character Gail, best friend to Patton's Montgomery. Gail, a fellow flight attendant, is like Scott, plus-sized and busty. But she's also blatantly sexual. From the first few scenes of the movie, we establish that Gail is "that girl"; the one who has no shame and chases after her men the way she chases her drinks.
Normally, the idea of yet another hypersexualized black female character would irritate me, but this was different. We have very specific narratives for how we interact with black women in the media. We get the Jezebels, and we get the Mammies. The Jezebels are sleek, sexy and can't keep their legs closed. The Mammies are overweight and asexual; never the twain shall meet. But with Gail, we have a voluptuous woman, who is very sexual, and not even a little bit ashamed of it. It was refreshing for me to see a plus-sized black woman engage with men sexually onscreen, and not be the subject of derision.
The contrast that immediately comes to mind is the way in which sexual plus-sized women are so often played for laughs in comedies. Take Melissa McCarthy's character, Megan Price in Bridesmaids. In that infamous scene with the Air Marshall, Megan comes on strong and makes her sexual interest very well known. We laugh, not because there's anything particularly funny about her being so forthcoming, (if anything, it borders on sexual harassment and really isn't funny) but because "Ha, ha! The fat girl thinks he'd want to have sex with her!" Her fatness nullifies her sexual attractiveness, making the scene funny because of the audience's incredulity at the situation.
It also makes me think of other plus-sized black female characters like Retta's Donna Meagle on Parks & Recreation's. Donna's active sex life is a running gag on the show that is often referenced, but we've never actually seen any of the many men she claims to bed. We see the expensive cars they gift her, and we hear tales of the different ways in which she doesn't tolerate their nonsense, but we have yet to see Donna actually have a romantic storyline. It's fine for the big black woman to have lots of sex, as long as we're only made to laugh at it.
What really made me love Gail's portrayal in Baggage Claim was that fact that all the men she came onto over the course of the film were totally into it. Her sexuality wasn't played for laughs in a cruel way. The scenes are entirely believable, and rather than thinking of Jill Scott's weight, we're thinking that we all have that friend who behaves exactly like her. Here, the situation is funny because of the "this woman has no shame, oh my god, I could never" element. We're not ashamed of her. We're rooting for her.
In the scene that the picture above is taken from, Gail spills peanuts on the passenger's lap in order to have an excuse to dust his pants, and shove her cleavage into his face. As you can tell from the picture, the man is... rather enjoying the display. There's no disgust, there's no incredulity. This man is depicted as being just as sexually interested in Gail as we the audience might expect him to be in Montgomery; read, skinny women. I think that's the a huge deal, no pun intended. Too often, plus-seized women are excised from the pool of sexuality for no other reason than the fact that they aren't thin, when the fact remains that being overweight doesn't mean that your libido evaporates, or that you're no longer desirable.
All in all, I think that this character is great. If I'm honest, Jill Scott is just about the only bright spot in this movie, but that's an issue for another time. I really enjoyed seeing a plus-sized black woman be sexy onscreen without it being seen as problematic in some way. No one slut-shames her, no one condemns her behaviour. Gail is left to her own lusty devices, and it's not an issue. She gets to express and explore her sexuality without being told that her desire to do so is ridiculous because of her weight. That's in stark contrast to another of Jill Scott's characters: Sheila in Why Did I Get Married, whose husband laughs at her for trying to be sexy for him.
Moral of the story? Jill Scott is a gem, I love her and it's refreshing to see the big girls get sexy onscreen. More please!