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Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

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Paul Blart and the Decline of White

Working-Class Masculinities
Barbara Plotz

Film Studies Department , King's College London , London , United

Published online: 22 May 2013.

To cite this article: Barbara Plotz (2013) Paul Blart and the Decline of White Working-Class
Masculinities, Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, 2:2, 173-182, DOI:
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21604851.2013.780510


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Fat Studies, 2:173182, 2013

Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 2160-4851 print/2160-486X online
DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2013.780510

Paul Blart and the Decline of White

Working-Class Masculinities

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Film Studies Department, Kings College London, London, United Kingdom

The author examines the representation of fatness in the

comedy Paul Blart and how anxieties about the decline of
White working-class masculinities are played out on the fat male
body. The film relies on the stereotype of the fat male as demasculinized and bases a large part of its comedy on this. Yet, due to
a need to mollify anxieties of contemporary masculinities, the fat
protagonist is allowed to transform his undervalued job into an
honorable task and regain his masculinity, with the genre conventions of comedy providing room for irony and ambiguity regarding
the representation of White male fatness.
KEYWORDS comedy, fat studies,
masculinity, working-class masculinity



The focus of this essay is the representation of White male fatness in the
Hollywood comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Steve Carr, 2009) and how this
representation relates to anxieties that have arisen in recent decades in regard
to the employment and social status of White working-class males. Paul Blart
came out in 2009 and despite being bashedor ignoredby the critics, it
became a surprise hit, opening at Number 1 on the American box-office
charts and ranking at Number 19 on the yearly domestic box-office charts.
The film was quite a success, particularly considering its modest budget of
$25 million. It was also the first feature film with comedian Kevin James as
a leading man; James previous significant roles had been on television
notably as the lead in the popular King of Queens (19982007)or in films
as a costar to bigger names, such as Will Smith in Hitch (Andy Tennant,
2005) or Adam Sandler in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (Dennis
Address correspondence to Barbara Plotz, Film Studies Department, Kings College
London, Strand Campus, London, WC2R 2LS, United Kingdom. E-mail: barbara.plotz@kcl.


B. Plotz

Dugan, 2007). In Paul Blart James plays the title character, who works as
a security guard in a suburban shopping mall. The character struggles with
his personal and professional life until one day the mall gets invaded by
a group of robbers, which provides him an opportunity to prove himself
as a hero. Additionally, Paul Blart is fat, and his construction as fat is an
intrinsic element of his characterization, the comedic nature of the film, and
its engagement with certain issues of masculinity.

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Male fatness can encompass diverse and sometimes seemingly contradictory
representations and meanings. There exist many more representations of
fat male characters than of their female counterparts, indicating that male
fatness is still less stigmatized in contemporary society than female fatness.
Examples of this include a range of U.S. television comedy characters played
by Kevin James himself, Jim Belushi, or Drew Carey, and also the film roles
Hollywood actors like Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, John Goodman, or Philip
Seymour Hoffman get to play. Another contemporary example is the highly
successful HBO show Game of Thrones (2011) that features a number of
major and minor fat male characters, but not a single fat female.
In Fat Boys Sander Gilman traces the history of the representation of
the fat male in Western culture. Gilman offers examples of demasculinized
characters, drawn from the works of Aristophanes, Cervantes and Dickens,
who are located in spheres in which fat and masculinity are often seen
as incompatible.1 This is also a recurrent element in filmic representations. Literature on Roscoe Fatty Arbuckleone of the best-known early
cinematic performers of male fatnessillustrates the relationship between
masculinity and male fatness. Stoloff highlights the way Arbuckles body was
perceived and constructed as a body out of control due to his weight, which
in turn implied a nonmasculine body. Masculinity is, among other things, an
expression of bodily control, while [ . . . ] the fat body is presumed to be out
of control.2 Ulaby draws attention to Arbuckles fat male body as spectacle
and suggests that as an object of the gaze Arbuckle aligned himself with
femininity, which traditionally espouses that the constructed body is to be
looked at.3 The feminization of male fatness can also be observed in more
recent films, as is argued by Jerry Mosher in his analysis of childrens films
and fiction, where fat boys are often represented as maternal or otherwise
feminized. They are one of the types of nonnormative masculinity shown
to be physically less capable, often more chatty, and assigned the role of
submissive caretaker, overall contrasting and validating the masculinity of
the slim boys.4
Mosher also contributes highly relevant observations in his analysis of
fat male characters on U.S. television shows in the second half of the 20th

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Paul Blart and White Working-Class Masculinities


century. He contends that since the 1950s the fat White male body on
television has come to symbolize the loss of power of White patriarchy
in generalthe so-called crisis of masculinitybut has been particularly
popular in the representation of White male working-class characters, who
struggle to keep up with corporate America. In his discussion of the highly
popular sitcom Cheers (198293), Mosher observes how the character of the
fat accountant Norm relates to a change within male working-class occupations taking place since the eighties, namely a shift from skilled labor to
service industry jobs, which lack the physical masculinity of the earlier jobs.5
This shift is part of the global transition from Fordismthe era of
industrialismto postindustrial post-Fordism and its domination by the information technology and service sectors. In terms of employment this has led
to the development of what has been described in the social sciences as the
feminization of labor. This process entails both a rising number of women
in employment and working-class males predominantly taking up jobs in
the service industry, jobs that offer not only less social prestige but also less
financial security than traditional male industry jobs.6
Addressing this process, Donna Haraway argues that work is being
redefined as both literally female and feminized, whether performed by men
or women. To be feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to
be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as reserve labor force, seen less as
workers than as servers.7 Next to this loss of prestige, income, and security,
these new jobs also offer less physical masculinity, as Weis, Proweller, and
Centrie point out: Most of the truly masculine jobs, those that demand hard
physical labor, are gone, replaced by jobs [. . .] that do not offer the hard
real confrontation with physicality, that was embedded in jobs of former
years, jobs that encouraged the production of a certain type of masculinity.8
I argue that in Paul Blart anxieties about the decline of White workingclass masculinitiesin particular about the feminization of (male) labor
are played out on the fat White male body. I further argue that the film not
only addresses these anxieties but also attempts to mollify them, allowing a
certain transformation of the protagonist, and thereby ideological ambiguity,
in terms of the representation of White male fatness.9


Much of the comedy of Paul Blart is based on presenting Paul as demasculinized. The first scene of the film takes place at a police academy and
after a couple of establishing shots we see a tracking shot of a row of candidates, while a teacher gives them instructions offscreen. The candidates are
all male, broad shouldered, tall, and generally quite masculine in appearance. When the tracking shot eventually stops as it reaches Paul he stands
out, not only because he is fat but also due to his small stature, which makes

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B. Plotz

for a visual interruption in the previous line of men, who are all of a similar
tall height. The next shot begins with an extreme slow motion close-up of
Pauls chest while he is running, emphasizing the fact that he has man
breasts, which are moving up and down. Whereas the first shot singles Paul
out as not being masculine enough, the second shot goes further and clearly
feminizes him. Longhurst posits that man breasts not only feminize men
because breasts are symbols of feminine sexuality, but also due to breasts
being coded as fluid rather than solid and with fluidity being associated with
feminine corporality.10
The positioning of Paul as nonmasculine continues throughout the film,
partially in rather small narrative or visual details: he does not own a car,
which would easily be read as unproblematically masculine, but instead
drives a Segway scooter, inside as well as outside of his workplace; he usually doesnt drink and in one scene in which he inadvertently consumes
alcohol, he immediately gets embarrassingly drunk, which shows that he
does not possess the manly ability to hold his drink; and he admits that he
cannot grow a beard.
The most significant indicator of this demasculinization is Pauls job as a
security guard at the shopping mall, a profession emblematic of the decline
of White working-class masculinity in the age of post-Fordism. The lack of
masculine prestige and authority are made obvious by the close relationship
of his job to a profession that is still provided with those undiluted markers
of masculinity, namely the job of police officer. Throughout the film, the
comedy plays precisely on this gap, in particular on Pauls attempts to bridge
it and attain some of that authority.
At the beginning of the film, when his mother and daughter do not
accept his claims of being too busy to date because of the responsibilities
of his job, Paul exasperatedly calls them civilians, thereby pretentiously
implying that what he does is akin to being in the military or the police.
When he first talks to Amy, his love interest, she calls him a security guard,
to which he responds that he is actually security officer, again emphasizing
the seriousness he attributes to his job. In the same scene he also checks
in with his colleague with the words Officer Blart, reporting from sector
3D, to which the colleague responds with a baffled What the hell are you
bothering me for?, thereby exposing Pauls attempt to pose as a militarylike figure in order to impress Amy. Later on he confesses to having made
up an oath for himself to protect the mall, again attempting to simulate the
proceedings of the properly masculine security professions.
Two of the most discomforting scenes for Paul arise when he attempts to
act on the authority granted to him as a security guard, only to be confronted
with the reality that his job does not provide him with any actual authority.
In the first scene he confronts an old man driving through the mall on a
scooter and wants to issue him a citation for reckless driving, all the while
heavily emulating the behavior of a police man, which in itself comes across

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Paul Blart and White Working-Class Masculinities


as pretentious and ridiculous. What is humiliating for Paul is the complete

lack of respect shown by the man on the scooter, who decides to ignore
Paul and just continues driving, even dragging Paul along for a bit when he
physically tries to stop the scooter.
The second awkward scene takes place in a lingerie store where Paul
gets called to settle a dispute between two female customers. At first the two
do not pay him much attention, and then when he intervenes by asking to
see their identification one of themwho is fattells him clearly that she
will not show him her ID. When Paul tries to gain the upper hand by telling
her that she should be careful since he has the authority to make a citizens
arrest, she is completely unimpressed and points out that everyone has that
authority, to which a female sales assistant, who has kept to the background
until then, agrees emphatically. Once again, Pauls attempt to display his
authority as a security guard is crushed and he is ridiculed in part by the fact
that his job does not carry any actual authority. His humiliation continues
in the rest of the scene when, in an attempt to gain her sympathy, he
inadvertentlyinsults the fat woman and she responds by beating him up.
What comes to the forefront here is how fatness interferes with normative gender identities, rendering men weak and feminine, and women
aggressive and masculine. This upheaval of traditional gender roles is not
just humiliating for Paul in this scene, but has implications for White males
suffering under the so-called crisis of masculinity in general: they are no
longer considered superior to those who were previously in less powerful
positions, namely women and people of color.11
This notion of White masculinity being under siege, of not being in
control anymore, is also evident in the depiction of Pauls personal life, once
again connected with the image of the fat woman and in this case also the
woman of color. When we first see his family, we find out that the mother
of his daughter was a Hispanic immigrant who only married Paul in order to
gain citizenship, and she consequently left him and their daughter. This information is conveyed in an exchange between Paul and his daughter, while
they are together with his mother filling out his profile for an online dating
platform. When his daughter asks him what he is looking for in a woman,
Paul replies with Well your mother certainly had something special, which
is when the camera cuts to a photograph of him and his ex-wife, sitting on a
donkey in the desert, her wearing a sombrero, as some chords of Mexicansounding music play in the background. What is remarkable about the image
is that his ex-wife is not only fat, but she is bigger than Paul himself, a fact
that is mocked through the dialogue phrase had something special, but not
actually mocked by Paul himself, who seems to have genuinely cared for his
ex-wife. The film here ridicules Pauls affection for a woman who is far outside of the boundaries of heteronormative female desirability: She is not only
fat but actually bigger than him, which, similar to the aforementioned scene
in the lingerie store, upends the patriarchal dichotomy of female inferiority

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B. Plotz

and male superiority. Furthermore, next to the visual depiction of what was
special about her, namely her being fat, we also get a verbal reply from
the daughter who sarcastically deadpans: Yeah, illegal immigrant status.
This comment and the use of the contested phrase illegal immigrant highlight how the film aligns itself with contemporary racist anti-immigration
discourses. More specifically, the backstory of the White working-class male
who has been taken advantage of by the Latina woman resonates with discussions about how the (White) working-class in particular suffer from the
negative effects of immigration. The ex-wifes fatness, ethnicity and nationality are all linked here, in the figure of the nonsubmissive woman who tricks
and thereby dominates the poor White male.
The group of robbers and hostage takers whom Paul manages to defeat
in the end of the film, thereby redeeming his masculinity, mainly consist
of White males, yet overall the group is multiethnic and coded as urban,
and thereby opposed to the White space of the suburban shopping mall.12
First, the methods of transport they use within the mall, such as skateboards and mini-BMX bikes, are clearly associated with urban youth cultures.
Similarly, Parkour, the free running technique performed very prominently
and skillfully by two of the members of color in the group, is an urban
phenomenon and has its origins in the multicultural banlieues of Paris.13
The White members of the group are mostly heavily tattooed, bald, or longhaired, completing the impression of sub- and multicultural urban youth
attacking the mall. What increases the threat of this vision is their seeming
superiority over the White working-class male personified by Paul: they are
presented as smart, technologically savvy, slim, and very much in control of
their bodies, as displayed by their way of moving through the mall.


As the film Paul Blart: Mall Cop does not merely engage with anxieties
about the current state of White working-class masculinity but also attempts
to soothe them, we see a shift in the depiction of the protagonist during the
second half of the film. Through a series of action sequences Paul succeeds
in defeating the robbers and hostage takers, taking them out one by one.
The element of mockery remains, yet the balance between competence and
incompetence shifts on the part of Paul over the course of the film, as evidenced in a comparison between his first and last physical confrontations
with the baddies.
The first confrontation occurs when Paul tries to run and hide from two
of the robbers. He crawls into a ventilation shaft attached to the ceiling in
one of the stores, but gets discovered when his stomach starts making loud
noises, and the robbers then attack the ventilation shaft with a hockey stick.
The shaftwith Paul in iteventually breaks away from the ceiling, thereby

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Paul Blart and White Working-Class Masculinities


knocking one attacker unconscious while the other one decides to run. While
Paul managed to take one of the robbers out, the scene contributes relatively
little towards him regaining his masculinity. First, he does not actively seek
out the confrontation but actually tries to avoid it. Secondly, his body is
presented as out of his control: his stomach not keeping quiet when he
wills it tothereby playing upon the gross-out-comedy tradition of the fat
body being associated with the lower body regionsand his entire body
inadvertently acting as a weapon when the ventilation shaft breaks down.
Overall, Pauls body, and particularly the fact that it is big enough to collapse
the ventilation shaft, continues to be used mainly as a source of comedy.
By the end of the film the depiction of Pauland his bodyhas
changed. In the showdown, he manages to catch up with Veckthe leader
of the robberswho is still holding Pauls daughter and Amy hostage. Paul
engages in hand-to-hand-combat with Veck, from which Paul emerges victorious, managing to knock his opponent to the floor and cuff him. During this
confrontation Pauls body is still used for laughs when his shirt rucks up and
the other characters stare at the large tattoo on his back, which he apparently
got during the drunken episode mentioned at the outset. Yet here it is not
his body as fat and/or out of control that is mocked. More importantly, his
taking out his opponent is actually due to the capabilities of his bodyand
Pauls control over itnot the result of an unplanned accident. Furthermore,
this intervention saves his daughter and his love interest, thereby letting Paul
fulfill the traditional role of the masculine protector.
What lingers, and can be seen throughout all of the confrontations in the
second half of the film, is a certain ambiguity and irony in the presentation
of Pauls transformation from hapless security guard to action hero, which is
most obvious in the happy-ending scene after the showdown.
In the final scenes Paul confesses his love to Amy, who reciprocates
his feelings and kisses him, and thereby the film sticks to the traditional
formula of guy gets the girl in the end. It is worth mentioning here that
a fat male character is being paired with a slim and conventionally pretty
woman, which is in sharp contrast to fat female characters in mainstream
films who are rarely granted such a fate, but who are often single or paired
with fat and/or not conventionally attractive males.14 In contrast, the pairing
of the fat guy and the slim woman is quite common in U.S. cinema and
television, with popular examples including the television shows King of
Queens, According to Jim (20012009), or Still Standing (20022006). Male
fatness is thereby positioned as within the limits of heteronormative sexual
desirability, while the woman has to stay slim to achieve this, enforcing a
double standard regarding attractiveness and body image.
Additionally, Paul is approached by the police officer in charge, who
offers him a job as a state trooper, which is the job that he was not masculine enough for at the beginning of the film. Despite his earlier ambitions
Paul declines the offer and replies with the words: Thank you, sir. But I

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B. Plotz

think Im gonna stick with what I do best. Its protecting the people of the
West Orange Pavilion Mall. With this line the film drives home an important
aspect of Pauls transformation and the films happy ending: Paul does not
only regain his masculinity but he does so by demonstrating the importance
of his profession, and he gets to take pride in his low-prestige, underpaid
service-industry job. Anxieties about the feminization of male labor are mollified here by presenting Pauls job as in fact a highly honorable task, endowed
with the masculine prestige it seemed to be lacking at the beginning of
the film.
In contrast, during these final scenes we see that when Paul walks up
to Amy he is shown in exaggerated slow-motion, with a cheesy over-thetop eighties power ballad playing and the sunrise in the background, further
contributing to a sense of parody. Additionally, the card displayed to camera,
which contains Pauls confession of love, reads: Amy, you are like a great
meal. You make me feel stuffed . . . with feelings! In order to mock Paul the
film alludes to a very popular stereotype of fatness, namely that of the fat
overeater. The film employs irony here in order to allow multiple meanings
and readings: yes, Paul regains his masculinity, but the film invites us just as
much to partake in his triumph as to further mock him. It is worth pointing
out here Linda Hutcheons argument of how irony can be utilized as a tool
to reach maximum commercial success: multiple meanings allow different
kinds of audiences to enjoy a text, since everyone can read it the way they
prefer.15 Paul Blart is a product of commercial cinema and by employing
irony it can reach those who laugh at the mocking, fat-phobic representation
as well as those who gain enjoyment from seeing the fat everyman succeed.
That it is only the White male whose anxiety is of concern is made clear
by how fat female and male characters of color, as well as fat female White
characters, are deployed by the film. Pauls ex-wife is an absent character,
only presented to mock her fatness as well as to mock Paul for having been
tricked by her. The other adult fat female character, the customer in the lingerie store, is purely stereotyped as the aggressive, masculine fat woman,
who also refuses to acknowledge that she is fatanother stereotype in the
representation of female fatness. Pauls daughter Maya is also fat and racialized as Latina, and although she does not get stereotyped, her character
mostly functions as part of the save the girl storyline that allows Paul to
fulfill the traditional role of masculine protector. In addition, it is she who
calls her own Latina mother an illegal immigrant, thereby distancing herself
from her own ethnic background. Leon, the one fat Black male character, is a
positive figure, but his fatness becomes an obstacle to Pauls heroic endeavors in one scene, where Paul attempts to free the hostages by pulling them
up into the air conditioning shaft and the plan fails, apparently due to Leon
being too heavy to get up into the shaft. Paul, on the other hand, might
be fat and accordingly stereotyped throughout the film, but he is still White

Paul Blart and White Working-Class Masculinities


and male, and therefore allowed to defeat his opponents and regain his

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In Paul Blart: Mall Cop the fat White male body is utilized to engage with
anxieties about the current state of White working-class masculinities. This
engagement at first takes the form of fat-phobic mockery, relying on the
construction of the fat male body as demasculinized, and presenting it as the
embodiment of the perceived inadequacies and loss of privilege of contemporary manhood. Nevertheless, in the end the fat White male is allowed to
regain his dignity and masculinity, thereby re-assuring male members of the
working class of their continued position of privilege. What is noticeable,
however, is that on the one hand irony is employed in the depiction of this
transformation, which enables both fat-phobic and fat-positive readings, and
that, on the other hand, it is only the representation of White male fatness
that is allowed this ambiguity. Overall, this essay confirms the need for a differentiated analysis of the representations of fatness. Not only is it essential
to consider the function of fatness as a symbol for wider political and social
issues, but it is also necessary to interrogate the level of ambiguity in its
function in terms of fatphobia/fat acceptance as well as the highly gendered
and racialized nature of these representations.

1. Sander Gilman, Fat Boys: A Slim Book (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 63.
2. Sam Stoloff, Normalizing Stars: Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle and Hollywood Consolidation, in:
American Silent Film: Discovering Marginalized Voices, eds. Gregg Bachman and Thomas J. Slater
(Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002), 162.
3. Neda Ulaby, Roscoe Arbuckle and the Scandal of Fatness, in Bodies Out Of Bounds: Fatness
and Transgression, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University
of California Press, 2001), 160162.
4. Jerry Mosher, Survival of the Fattest: Contending with the Fat Boy in Childrens Ensemble
Films, in Where the Boys Are: Cinemas of Masculinity and Youth, eds. Murray Pomerance and Frances
Gateward (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2005), 7071.
5. Jerry Mosher, Setting Free the Bears, in Bodies Out Of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression,
eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen LeBesco (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press,
2001), 179.
6. On this phenomenon see: e.g., Cristina Morini, The Feminization of Labour in Cognitive
Capitalism, Feminist Review 87, (2007): 40-59.
7. Donna Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late
Twentieth Century, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge,
1991), 166.
8. Lois Weis, Amira Proweller and Craig Centrie, Excavating a Moment in History: Privilege and
Loss inside White Working-Class Masculinity, in Off White: Readings on Power, Privilege, and Resistance,
eds. Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Linda Powell Pruitt, April Burns (London and New York: Routledge,
2004), 129.

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B. Plotz

9. Next to Mosher I also have to mention McPhails work, which stimulated my argument. She
highlights the feminization of male labor as one of the contributing factors to anxieties regarding fat
White, middle-class men in early Cold War Canada. Deborah McPhail, What to do with the Tubby
Hubby? Obesity, the Crisis of Masculinity, and the Nuclear Family in Early Cold War Canada, Antipode
41, no. 5 (2009): 10211050.
10. Robyn Longhurst, Man-breasts: Spaces of sexual difference, fluidity and abjection, in Spaces
of Masculinities, eds. Bettina van Hoven and Kathrin Hrschelmann (London and New York: Routledge,
2005), 173.
11. For a critical analysis of the so-called crisis of masculinity see Tim Edwards, Cultures of
Masculinity (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), 724.
12. On the construction of the suburbs as White and the inner cities as Black see Martha R.
Mahoney, Segregation, Whiteness, and Transformation, University of Pennsylvania Law Review 143,
no. 5 (1995): 16591684. On this construct in film and fiction see Robert Beuka, SuburbiaNation: Reading
Suburban Landscape in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film (New York and Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), in particular 187196.
13. On the multicultural origins of Parkour and also the difference between the American suburbs and Parisian banlieues see Bill Marshall, Running across the Rooves of Empire: Parkour and the
Postcolonial City, Modern & Contemporary France 18, no. 2 (2010): 165167.
14. See for instance the roles of Melissa McCarthy, who similar to Kevin James is a contemporary
fat star, mainly works in comedy and got her break on television, but hasso far at leastusually either
been cast as single, as in The Back-Up Plan (Alan Poul, 2010), or been paired with fat/not conventionally
attractive partners, as in Life As We Know It (Greg Berlanti, 2010) and Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011).
15. Linda Hutcheon, Ironys Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (London and New York:
Routledge, 1995), 35.

Barbara Plotz is currently working on her PhD in film studies at Kings
College London.

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