“Austenland” and the Perpetuation of Bust Shaming

source: us news

Source: Us News. From left: Jools Newman, Jane Seymour, Jennifer Coolidge, and Keri Russell

For years I have been struggling with the image of the busty barmaid. This character takes many different forms, from the lusted-after wench to the terrifyingly overbearing mother-in-law. No matter the context, this character is belittled and even found repulsive by the story’s protagonists. They are crass and wonton, and the woman to run away from at all costs. And the most important fact of all: they are extremely busty. This is a universal characteristic of the barmaid character that makes her even more repulsive to the audience.

And I have finally put a name to this unfair characterization: bust shaming. Terms like “fat shaming” have become quite popular in social media, particularly on Tumblr. The idea is that people use someone’s weight as an excuse to discriminate against them or even humiliate them. Many people have fought against such discrimination, resulting in many body positive campaigns. I’ve soon come to realize that this phenomenon occurs in relation to a woman’s bust size, but in a more subtle way. Women are judged and restricted simply because of the size of their chest. It becomes their label, and it can be difficult to be seen as something other than “the busty woman.” It appears on film and television shows, and it affects casting decisions. Imagine an extremely busty Juliet – does she still seem pure and innocent? Such imagery is even found in children’s films such as “The Black Cauldron” when a small creature gets trapped in the bosom of one of the witches. In fact, her bust size becomes the manifestation of her overwhelmingly boisterous personality.

Source: Huffington Post. An example of "fat shaming" that has been fought against.

Source: Huffington Post. An example of “fat shaming” that has been fought against.

As a busty woman myself, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’ll either be cast as prostitute or the matron. Jennifer Coolidge, however, has learned to work within the arena of busty comedians. She is audacious and fearless, known mostly for her roles as Stifler’s mom from “American Pie” or the stepmother in “A Cinderella Story.” But many will remember her as Paulette, the best friend in “Legally Blonde” who was taught the Bend and Snap. In all of these films, and countless others, Coolidge has managed to make a stereotypically domineering and abrasive, not to mention busty, woman genuinely funny. Her characters aren’t ones you laugh at; they are the ones who make the jokes. In the case of Paulette, she might appear to be a bumbling fool who is sexually awkward, but she has many different layers. In fact, she goes through a character arc and becomes stronger. She even gets the guy! Her bustiness is not exploited – it is simply a part of her.

When Jennifer Coolidge first appeared as Miss Elizabeth Charming in Jerusha Hess’s film adaptation of Shannon Hale’s “Austenland,” I was excited. Little did I know, I was about to be very disappointed. Now, to be clear, although I love Shannon Hale as an author (I read “The Princess Academy” many years ago), I have not read “Austenland.” Unfortunately, I would not recommend the book based on this movie, and I am extremely disappointed in Hale’s debut as a co-scriptwriter.

Source: Toon Crap. Bust shaming in the "The Black Cauldron."

Source: Toon Crap. Bust shaming in the “The Black Cauldron.”

I could go on endlessly about my issues with the film, starting with the bad acting and ending with the lack of consistency in the protagonist’s character (played by Keri Russell). But what bothered me most was Coolidge’s portrayal of Miss Charming, the bumbling sex-hungry customer at the Jane Austen-themed getaway. In fact, her body shape is one of the main jokes Miss Charming offers. Instead of being funny herself, Coolidge provides physical comedy with her “extreme” size. As seen in the picture above, the other characters can’t even get Miss Charming into a corset, and her other costumes are seen as hilariously daring, even shameful. All of the men in the film seem to find her repulsive, and not just because of her horrible attempt at a British accent. But worst of all, Miss Charming seems utterly unaware of how everyone else sees her. Even when she comments, “I’m going to look great in those wench costumes,” she seems completely oblivious as to why that remark is so funny.

For a while, I couldn’t rationalize how I could detest Coolidge’s portrayal of Miss Charming and yet admire her other performances. Coolidge’s bust size has certainly never been a secret, and has often been part of a joke. I started wondering: has Jennifer Coolidge been participating bust shaming? As I look back over her past characters, I’ve come to the conclusion that Miss Charming is very different from the others. All of the past ones have power, especially Paulette in “Legally Blonde.” In “A Cinderella Story,” Coolidge is the main one who jokes about her bust size, and that is mainly in reference to the idea that she actually had enhancement surgery. In “Austenland” the movie, there is no mention of Miss Charming getting her breasts done. By making fun of her bust size, the characters aren’t making fun of an extravagant choice Miss Charming made – they are making fun of the body shape she was born with.

Despite this most recent performance, Jennifer Coolidge will remain close to my heart. As a comedian, she has revolutionized the stereotypical busty barmaid. Unfortunately, she has also become the example of how bust shaming is an issue in our society.

2 thoughts on ““Austenland” and the Perpetuation of Bust Shaming

  1. To be fair, AUSTENLAND isn’t a very good book period. It’s specifically designed for any uncritical reader who ever fell in love with Mr. Darcy, like TWILIGHT for chick-lit fans. Spoilers ahead.

    Jane, the main character spends the entire novel putting herself up by mentally putting down the other women who’re staying at the resort – one because she’s crass and aging and overly obvious with her romantic fantasies, and the other because she’s a great actress and therefore sneaky and duplicitous. Jane especially resents the pretty one because she is Jane’s competition for the Darcy figure at the resort, who, by the way, is an actor paid to pretend to love them both. This storyline is interspersed with little vignettes detailing all the scummy “boyfriends” the main character has had, and what a failure Jane’s life has been because she can’t find anyone decent to marry her. It’s a novel where a female character’s ultimate emotional struggle is to win the love of a man who doesn’t really exist, because she needs some kind of perfect love in order to be validated as a person. Then there’s a chapter of faux self-empowerment (“I got everyone to love me and I feel great so now I can be eternally fulfilled and won’t need no man ever again! Yeah!”) and then she gets to go home with a Mr. Darcy – a British actor whose only flaw is a fear of flying.

    So there are some deeper problems in the story, I think, that underlie this clear example of body shaming. Shannon Hale’s definition of the ideal female self is skewed and exclusive (can’t be old, can’t be overtly sexual; must be pretty but can’t try too hard; must endure the dating scene in order to reach the ideal state of marriage), and I think that skewed and exclusive definition of acceptable femininity is what’s reflected in her poorly- and stereotypically-realized Miss Charming. Bust-shaming is a cheap way to create a female character; it’s like providing a placeholder for a real person. It’s a real and universal problem in the entertainment industry at large, but Shannon Hale deserves the criticism in this case, for creating a role that Coolidge was then forced to inhabit.

  2. THANK YOU. I just watched the movie and while I enjoyed it overall, I detested the way that Miss Charming was treated throughout the film. She was–by current standards–a normal sized woman who I thought looked lovely and voluptuous in her dresses; yet the Austenland actors (supposedly there to make all the ladies feel romanced, confident and special) treated her like a toad–glaring at her and avoiding her like the plague. And of course, since she was ‘busty’ she had to try harder, throwing herself at every male that crossed her path and talking as loudly as possible while the skinny heroine looked on with a prim, polite, all-knowing smile. I kept expecting them to show a scene from her home, which no doubt would be filled with cats and candy-lined cupboards, as per stereotype. As much as I adore Jennifer Coolidge, I cringed when one of the Austen hosts looked at her and couldn’t call her beautiful, opting for classy instead–a trait the screenwriters should have gone for when writing the scene.

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