This Is Thin Privilege: Why Melissa McCarthy Makes “This Is 40” Worth Watching

Those of you who read my posts often know that I’m kind of a comedy nerd. Even though I often find Apatow movies somewhat sexist, I still watch them to see some of my favorite comedic actors doing their thing. And also, I’ve had a thing for Paul Rudd since Clueless, as my pinterest boards can attest.

I had also heard that Melissa McCarthy (whom I adore) had a small, extremely funny role in it, which made me want to see it all the more.

Even though I had heard not such great things about This Is 40, I went to see it this weekend and liked it much more than I expected. But the real standout for me was, not surprisingly, a scene with Melissa McCarthy. I’m putting a MILD SPOILER ALERT here, but only a tiny part of the movie will be spoiled by this discussion.

melissa mccarthy this is 40 principals office scene paul rudd leslie mann pete debbie

So, as you probably know, the movie focuses on the lives of Debbie (Leslie Mann) and Pete (Paul Rudd). They have two daughters, 13-year-old Sadie (Maude Apatow) and 8-year-old Charlotte (Iris Apatow). At one point in the movie, Debbie and Pete take away Sadie’s electronics, and they read her iChats or facebook feed or both (I think that’s a minor inconsistency in the movie) and see an argument between Sadie and Joseph (Ryan Lee). Later on, Debbie confronts Joseph at school, saying pretty bizarre and awful stuff and actually making the kid cry. Then Joseph’s mom, Catherine (played by Melissa McCarthy), gets into an argument with Pete at school because she’s angry that Debbie yelled at her kid.

Here’s where things get interesting. Debbie, Pete, and Catherine all get a called into the principal’s office to talk about what happened. In this principal’s office scene, Catherine/Melissa McCarthy starts out telling the absolute truth about what Debbie said to her son. Pete and Debbie admit to nothing, acting calmer than they act in the entire movie, and denying everything that Catherine is saying. The principal (Joanne Baron) seems to take Pete and Debbie’s side right away, even chiding Catherine for her use of offensive language when she’s repeating what Pete and Debbie had said to her and her kid.

This whole scenario makes Catherine angrier and angrier, which vaults her into a hilarious ad hominem attack on Pete and Debbie. She says, “Maybe if I looked more like this fake bullshit couple — it looks like they’re in a bank commercial.” Turning to Debbie and Pete, she says, “That’s what you look like. Like you’re a bullshit bank commercial couple.”

You can see the scene below, starting at 3:03. (The scene is preceded by an amazing scene with Charlyne Yi, who I also love, so feel free to watch that too. :)

Melissa McCarthy In “This is 40” Movie from Sive on Vimeo.

Of course, this is a comedy, and this scene is just a tiny scene. It’s meant to be funny. And, as a viewer, I know I’m supposed to side with Pete and Debbie. They are the protagonists, the characters we’ve been watching all along. I’m supposed to enjoy this as evidence that despite their own relationship issues, they’re banding together against a common enemy, and coming out on top. Yay for Pete and Debbie!

Instead, however, I completely sided with Catherine. I felt her anger. I felt the way she was getting labeled as the unhinged, aggressive mom because she was fat and angry and dealing with an attractive “bullshit bank commercial couple” who were able to act calm because they knew going into it that the principal would probably side with them. It’s essentially a perfect scene about how thin privilege works, and it made me think about a recent study about how fat female defendants are viewed as more likely to be guilty than thin, female defendants.

Critics have noted that it’s hard to feel bad for Pete and Debbie. Despite the very real financial struggles that get talked about (his record label is going down the tubes, her store is barely breaking even), it doesn’t stop them from having big catered birthday parties, weekend getaways at expensive looking hotels, etc. Similarly, their relationship problems seem mostly self-imposed — if they would stop trying to cut out cupcakes and the occasional cigarette and give each other a break about it, things would be much improved. (We could also talk about how the “fear of fat” part of fat stigma is probably why Debbie is so fixated on Pete’s “cupcake addiction”, but perhaps that’s fodder for another post.)

So, have you seen this movie? Do you intend to? Can you think of another movie where thin privilege is highlighted in this way? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

Golda is a certified holistic health counselor and founder of Body Love Wellness, a program designed for plus-sized women who are fed up with dieting and want support to stop obsessing about food and weight. To learn more about Golda and her work, click here.

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4 thoughts on “This Is Thin Privilege: Why Melissa McCarthy Makes “This Is 40” Worth Watching”

  1. I don’t want to see the movie – I agree, I’m so sick of seeing picture-perfect, thin yuppies (yeah, I’m old enough to remember yuppies) with great incomes and perfect homes, acting like they have real problems. (Reminds me of 30-Something, which we used to call ‘Whiny-Something’). The ‘thin privilege’ to which you refer is in almost every movie, TV show and magazine. The alternative, of course, is limited to extremely-heavy-but-funny, which sometimes isn’t as dismissive of the character as in the scene you describe (I thought McCarthy was brilliant in Bridesmaids), but still – what about those of us who are in the middle? Somewhere in the size 6-12 range, not big enough to be proudly full-figured, but way too big to fit into Hollywood fashion.

  2. I watched that whole scene and my main thought was “Whaaaaaaaaa?” For me at least, based on this one scene I think that Pete and Debbie are jerks, I don’t know how they end up being sympathetic protagonists at all. But perhaps that’s the point.. Apatow seems to be good at making unlikeable protagonists. I was relieved (again based on this scene… I have no intention of seeing the whole movie) that Melissa McCarthy is perhaps not just a “funny fat lady” in this movie, with constant references to her size and eating (something I haaaaattteed in Bridesmaids) but maybe “This is 40” is a bit more self conscious both the type of characterization larger actresses get and weight-related privilege overall.

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