While that is not the focus of McCarthy’s movies – it is the cultural dialogue that they see. It is the conversation that is frequently happening from the outside. It’s not the conversation started by the plotlines, the trailers created, or the director’s choices.
It’s the conversation started by reporters who want to discuss actresses’ looks on the red carpet. It’s started by reporters claiming that a female character is not interesting if she is not classically cisgendered beautiful. It’s started by relationship questions trumping career choice questions in promotional interviews. It’s started by the audiences: the journalists and viewers. It’s started on the outside, and while it is commonplace there- it is also boring.
Flipping this script and making comedy of this boring idea was one of the things that made Spy so brilliant. Spy acknowledged the constant dialogue surrounding the white tiger rarity of varied body types on the big screen. Spy parodied the fact that when a woman who isn’t a size zero has a speaking role, she is usually wearing a sweatshirt and petting her cat. Whether it’s the best friend, the fun neighbor, or the quirky saleslady, the same versions of bigger women are on the screen again and again. They are pigeonholed into a truly monotonous existence.
In Spy, Melissa McCarthy’s character, ingénue spy Susan Cooper desired cool alibi’s for her first field mission. She merited these cool alibi’s. In an opening scene, we saw her keep her calmly aim a drone while having bats fly at her face. In another scene, she takes down all of the combat practice dummies in one fluid motion during her spy training. Susan Cooper is so cool that even while mourning the death of her partner, her response is not one of high-strung emotions- but of her next objective.
However, instead of an alibi befitting such a stoic actor, she was saddled again and again with alibi’s that mirror the stereotypical bigger onscreen woman. Her first alibi was a Mary Kay lady in bright pink capri sweatpants. Her second alibi was a cat lady who wears frumpy sweatshirts. The costume director had a theme to stick to when dressing these spy alibi’s, and it didn’t mirror James Bond.
That was the point. The image of how a larger woman is supposed to look was literally given to McCarthy’s character, Susan Cooper. She received the directive of how she was supposed to be portrayed on screen from others in a manila envelope. She had no agency to choose her own look and her own characterization even in situations where that was exactly what her character needed to do.
Portrayals of bigger women on screen are just that: portrayals. They are frequently not self-chosen or elected. That’s why we keep seeing the same sweatpants, and the same characterizations over and over again. In Spy, McCarthy wants to know why everyone believes she has cats. She never talks about cats. Why does everyone think that she has them? It’s the portrayal. The overweight “Cat-lady” is what we’re used to seeing.
However, “Cat-lady” is not the main character of Spy. Super spy Susan Cooper dresses sassily and follows the most dangerous element. She has a clever quip for every situation and methodically maneuvers her way out of the risky ones. She steals cars, saves the lives of allies and enemies alike, and orchestrates jailbreaks like any classic superspy. She is confident in her abilities, and she should be. She knows that she merits interesting outfits, and she uses the federal government’s cash to buy them. Susan Cooper comes to own her own portrayal as a person and it is fun to watch.
Spy is an intelligent comedy that creates roaring laughter out of the monotony of an image of women that we’ve seen a million times. It should be taken in its own context – spy movies.