As much as I love Melissa McCarthy, I’d not have seen Spy if it weren’t for the recommendation of a friend. In the lead up to the film’s release, I was bombarded with an atrocious trailer that made it look like some sort of gross, fatphobic disaster, and not being familiar with the work of Paul Feig, this was really all I had to go on as far as building expectations goes.
That said, between its star-studded cast and intriguing premise, I wanted Spy to be good. So, all I needed to convince me to give it a go was a friend with great taste to tell me it was worthwhile.
I was not disappointed. In fact, Spy was a better film that I could ever have hoped or dreamed, and now sits alongside Mad Max: Fury Road and Magic Mike XXL as one of my favourite films of the year.
The premise of Spy is simple, but compelling: Susan Cooper (McCarthy) is a CIA desk agent who, despite being top of the class in her spy academy training 10 years prior, has never seen field action. That all changes when a sequence of events prompts her to throw her name in the ring for a new assignment, much to the shock of those around her, and of course, hilarity and ass-kicking ensues.
What I wasn’t expecting was just how funny it would be, and especially, how warm-hearted and body positive the humour would be. There is this distressing, two-steps-forward-one-step-back trend with fat characters (fat women, especially) in media; we’re starting to see fat people move off the sidelines and into the spotlight, but all too often, this is accompanied by more and more fat jokes. A fat person can absolutely be a lead, and even the hero, but we better not let them – or the audience – forget that they’re gross fatty-fats deserving of ridicule, this backhanded progressivism seems to say.
Spy has almost none of that. If anything, much of its humour comes from a subversion of those expectations, and of the tropes of fat women being clumsy, lonely, or unattractive. There’s a running gag where the super-rich, super-bitchy Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) consistently criticizes Cooper’s every outfit choice, even when she looks absolutely stunning and every other character in the film seems to think so. Rayna, with her impossibly bitchy elitism, is the punchline here, not Cooper.
Another ongoing joke involves Cooper fending off advances from a weird, overly-handsy agent colleague. This could very easily get into creepy territory (and to be honest, it did make me quite uncomfortable a few times), but what’s important here is Cooper’s constant rejection of him. Yes, she is a lonely middle-aged woman, but this is because of unrequited love for one particular individual, not because she’s some fatty who can’t get any. On top of that, it’s her rejections of agent PUA that – intentionally – make this gag funny. He’s the punchline here, not Cooper.
But for the most part, Spy subverts the pervasive fat-hate narrative simply by having a hero who is fat, but isn’t defined or hindered by that. She just goes about her business, kicking ass (and doing it in the most awesome, “holy shit that was so fucking cool!” way), swearing like a sailor, and generally being a certified badass, with her size and shape having nothing to do with that.
Yet another wonderful running gag has Jason Statham playing a parody of a typical Statham character – a secret agent who thinks way too much of himself, and is so offended at the notion of Cooper, of all people, being sent into the field that he quits the CIA. But then, he keeps trying to help, as a rogue agent, but is so bad at his job that all he does is get in the way – while Cooper picks up the pieces and succeeds despite Statham’s “help” and insistence that she can’t handle it.
There are a few missteps, admittedly. For much of the film, Cooper makes James Bond look like a bumbling fool, but she does have her own moments of goofy clumsiness (which the marketing execs preyed on to make that god-awful trailer). In the context of the film, these are part of her character arc – learning to have confidence in herself and her abilities – but the societal association between “fat” and “clumsy” is one that’s hard to disentangle.
There’s another running joke where Cooper is consistently given “pathetic” fake identities by her CIA superiors, like a cat lady. While it seems like the aim is to make Cooper’s boss the butt of the joke for inability to see Cooper as anything other than a single 40-year-old fat woman, I found these jokes missing their mark more often than not.
Even with these flaws, Spy is one of the most wonderfully body- and fat-positive films I’ve seen in a long while, and much of that has to do with how little Cooper’s body factors in, beyond a few points of subtle subversion of fat tropes. It’s hilarious, it’s action-packed to the point that I was literally leaping out of my seat in excitement (much to the dismay of the sleeping travellers either side of me). and it’s a very welcome kind of film that not only casts someone who is fat in a lead role, but makes her a person first, a badass spy second, and a “fat person” somewhere far, far down that list, like 86th or something.