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Bechdel Test Canon: Real Women Have Curves

We close week five of our series of movies that pass the Bechdel Test with the first star-making vehicle for a lead actress. Honduran American novice America Ferrera charmed audiences with her feature debut in director Patricia Cardosa's 2002 indie sleeper Real Women Have Curves, which was distributed by HBO Films.

Real Women poster

In hindsight, Ferrera was fairly lucky to capture public imagination so quickly, given her relative onscreen inexperience. Detractors may point out that Ferrera was also typecast as a result of her performance as Ana Garcia, a Mexican American teenager who attends a Beverly Hills private school on scholarship and gets accepted to Columbia University to the anxiety of her working-class family. Her "real girl" characters in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series and the American version of Ugly Betty are variations on a theme. Those critics may also note that Ferrera visibly lost weight since Real Women, which undercuts its mission for women and girls to embrace the bodies that they have as beautiful.

(Note: For an essential guide to understanding fat politics in contemporary popular culture, please pore over Tasha Fierce's Size Matters blog series for Bitch that went live earlier this year)

Nonetheless, I'm happy Ferrera has a place in the spotlight. She seems to be a smart, likable young woman who finds respectable work, sidesteps the gutter press to maintain her private life, and concerns herself with reasonable causes like backing Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign. She also demonstrates what made her a worthy "casting gamble" by bringing a light touch to Real Women's loaded dialogue. While noble in intent, the female members of the Garcia family and the employees of Ana's sister's dress factory in Real Women fixate on their weight, make dresses for department stores they can't fit into or afford, and debate the gender dynamics of their domestic duties with little nuance.

Ana and Carmen

Appropriately, the last time I saw this movie was while I was an undergrad. I was 19 and, even though I insisted on trumpeting the 19th Amendment at my 5th grade open house, was still coming into my own as a feminist. Like many young women, I was also trying to accept my body. I was a chubby kid who slimmed down considerably during high school, which I accomplished primarily by subsisting on vending machine fare. A year later, I'd participate in a college production of The Vagina Monologues, which shares Real Women's call to female empowerment and an insistence on hammering its message. It also suggests the theatrical origins of George LaVoo and Josephina Lopez's script, which was previously Lopez's play. Thus, the movie's keystone scene where Ana prompts the factory workers to boast about cellulite in their underwear to the ire of her traditional, fat-shaming mother Carmen (veteran character actress Lupe Ontiveros) felt like a call to arms.

Upon revisiting, though, I'm less charmed. Real Women is remarkably dated. It plays as a relic of American indie cinema's dalliances with politically-correct story lines in the 1990s, despite still being relevant in an era where the actresses in the 90210 reboot are considerably skinnier than the young women in the original ensemble. Again, I think the intentions of it are good. However, like many play adaptations, it suffers from dialogue that articulates too clearly what the actors are supposed to be thinking.

But I hope this doesn't eclipse the director, screenwriters, and actors' efforts (credit should extend to Ingrid Oliu's underplayed performance as Estela, Ana's older sister who dreams of opening a dress shop with pieces she can wear). Unfortunately, few movies get made with a core of prominent Latina talent, even after Real Women proved successful. While more titles consider a teenage girl's feelings about sex, her body, and her future goals as a college student and young woman, few of them address those concern from the unique perspective of a fat, working-class Latina honor student. Though I fault Real Women's clumsy execution, its message will continue to resonate until scenes where women clutch their thick midsections in celebration are no longer exceptional.

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Comments

10 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Great!

I agree that Real Women Have Curves is quite the charming movie, despite its problems. I studied it in two undergraduate classes, along with the play, and was -- still am -- intrigued by the differences. It's excellent to see a strong character like Ana in a film who grows to be fairly confident in herself and understands that she has no obligation to be skinny, even if her attitude toward her weight is ambivalent. I'd call it a feminist movie...but then again, the fact that Ana is mainly helped to grow by her (male) teacher and (male) romantic partner is kind of hard to ignore. The removal of the immigration-related storyline seems unfortunate, too. Regardless, I agree that it's encouraging that a film so focused on women of color got this much attention.

Ah, I was wondering about the

Ah, I was wondering about the play. I haven't seen it and didn't see portions available anywhere. What did you think? Is the movie a faithful adaptation or where there additions and subtractions?

Also, I totally agree with you about the role of male authority figures challenging what I also believe in a feminist movie. However, I'm heartened that her teacher (George Lopez) uses his resources to help a student who has tremendous potential. I think that's something we need to do see too, as boys and men need to understand how to be feminist allies. While I do wish her academic mentor was a woman, I don't hate that it's Mr. Guzman. And I also think it's great that Ana's father gets on board with his daughter going to school, even if he can't fully relate or process the specificity of what college will offer her. It makes me sad that her mother can't bring herself to say goodbye, but I take comfort in knowing that she'll undoubtedly come around and support her later (as indicated by a deleted scene wherein mother and daughter reunite a year later at Estela's fashion show).

. . . That said, I haven't processed what I think about her love interest, who I didn't talk about. They flirt, have sex, and the movie kind of drops him off from view after that because he's about to go to college and they won't be in proximity to one another. Thoughts?

Alyx Vesey

The play

The movie's quite different; for starters, the whole play takes place inside the factory, and if memory serves, no characters appear besides the five working women. The play's no more focused on Ana than the others, and the mother is pretty much just one of the girls rather than the grumpy antagonist of the film. She does have a pregnancy scare, but it's not tied into a fear of losing Ana like it was in the movie. One of the other women is having trouble with immigration, and another is hurting herself by crash-dieting, in part because she wants to become sexual for the first time and is ashamed of her body. That's the closest the play comes to the "boyfriend story" we saw on screen. As for that...I thought it was unnecessary, but I did like how Ana's interactions with her love interest didn't overshadow everything else that was going on. It was, rightly, I think, treated as part of her growth but not the major event of that time in her life.

sigh

It's so disheartnening to see body policing still happening in body-positive writings.

The performer's body is not a vehicle for messaging. To lament her fluctuaction because it is imagined that any size smaller than previous will encourage others to be pleased with themselves at any size requires doublethink - she must then be expected to not be satisfied with her body anymore, because it is no longer transgressed and intrinsically activist enough.

It's the exact same pressure for a different cause.

Not Alyx's point

Jesse,

I believe Alyx's comment about Ferrera's weight loss was meant to be an example of the criticism that has been made of her by others: "Those critics may also note that Ferrera visibly lost weight since Real Women, which undercuts its mission for women and girls to embrace the bodies that they have as beautiful." I don't think Alyx is agreeing with the statement here, just acknowledging that it exists. In fact, she goes on to list the reasons why she likes Ferrera, none of which have to do with her body size.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Yes, that's exactly right

Yes, that's exactly right Kelsey. I was pointing out a criticism that I don't necessarily buy at face value. I haven't read Ferrera discuss her weight loss and don't know if she actually put on weight to play Ana. Also, as I pointed out earlier, I like Ferrera regardless of what her size may be. I also don't want to assume she was forced to slim down.

But I would like to acknowledge that there's certainly pressure for all stars to become thinner. Again, I don't want to produce conjecture here and place Ferrera within it. However, she is part of the mainstream culture industry and has to meet certain expectations, however flawed and in need of eradicating (BTW, these expectations impact her supposedly more lithesome Pants co-stars too). To draw a problematic comparison, it reminds me a bit of Jennifer Hudson's gradual winnowing.

Alyx Vesey

As a formerly skinny/fat

As a formerly skinny/fat person (skinny but ridiculously out of shape), I had avoided this movie, because I feared that it would glorify being larger while detesting being smaller. For me I always had the opposite problem with my size. People just assumed that I didn't eat. My eleven year old sister would be offered food ALL the time, where as eighteen year old, 5'6", 110 pound was generally never offered food. My parents complained whenever we went to buffet restaurants. My sister ate too much and usually ended up sick. I ate salad, entrée, ice cream and that was enough for me. I was berated in college by a nurse that assumed I was anorexic or bulimic. People would tell me I was too skinny and needed to eat something way more times than I care to count.

I gained a lot of weight after my first after college job, then I finally started getting into shape and lost a lot of fat and gained a lot of muscle. There have been many fluctuations over the years because of whatever going on in my life. Right now, I'm trying to lose thirteen pounds because I gained fifty during my pregnancy, lost a lot and now do not fit into any of my clothing, the maternity jeans are too big, and I can't afford to replace my gazillion pairs of jeans, shorts, slacks, skirts and dresses that I still love.

Though I have certainly felt insecure about my size at times (like any normal person), I am much happier with the body I have as an adult than the one I had as a teenager. I can run five miles and plan on doing a half marathon in the spring. I lift weights (none of that light weight stuff either), swim and want to start playing tennis again. I will cop to being somewhat overly concerned with my size more for reasons of health (both grannies died of strokes, fifty something mom has had stroke, diabetes and hypertension among other ailments) and wanting to improve my running time. But I no longer look in the mirror the way I did as a fifteen year old wishing I had this size boobs, that height, this hip/waist ratio or whatever.

Great movie

I haven't re-watched this movie since I too was in college when the movie came out. One thing said above in the commentary/review is that the movie is dated. I can't disagree since I haven't re-watched the movie, but I am scrambling to try to think of another movie that fits the issues brought up in this movie: mexican-american family dynamics, working class issues, realistic mother/daughter relations, and weight issues.

There are other really good movies about these topics, but possibly not all together, and not like this one. It's too bad this movie seems dated since there haven't been too movies to try to update the conversation.

Yes! That's my great woe

Yes! That's my great woe about this movie too. Despite its problems Real Women is still essential because it's so atypical.

And even if it weren't a bit dated as a relic of American indie political correctness, it actually is dated! This movie came out almost a decade ago. Can we get some more movies with this purpose in mind? And can some of them be movies where the characters are totally in ownership of being fat or don't even acknowledge it, because it isn't an issue? Like they're fat and they love it and fuck you if you have a problem? Or they're fat and no one cares or mentions it because they're also an astronomer or a congresswoman or a stunt driver and their fatness doesn't define them as people? That would be amazing. If there are titles that carry this spirit, please recommend them. Literally, the only fat character I can think of whose weight isn't commented upon that I've come across recently is Donna on Parks and Recreation. To my mind, no one's ever made mention of it in the show and certainly hasn't used her weight as comic bloodsport.

Alyx Vesey

And even Donna was made fun

And even Donna was made fun of for her fat sexuality when those foreign dignitaries came to visit Pawnee. One of the men said "I'll take that one," and it was supposed to be funny, like Donna can't at all be sexy because she's fat.

It feels to me like no fat characters escape jokes at their body's expense.