A Critical Intersectional Response to the Film "Precious"
“Fat silences. Fat makes you alone and lonely even when you are nine or ten. The truth of it shames you; you do not tell when people hurt you. You are ashamed to admit that you are fat -- ashamed to be fat -- so you do not tell unless you find someone who cares and understands.” (Mask, 100).
The racialized fat body is held under strong fire from popular culture and societal expectations, with “the film depict[ing] popular culture as the primary acculturating agent, imparting sexual economies of race, gender, and class to influence Precious’ worldview. It functions as a source of information, ideas, and aspirations regarding socialization, discourses of adornment, and avenues for achieving economic mobility through celebrity.” (Mask, 99). It is commonly judged to a severe degree, enabling negative stereotypes such as gluttony, negligence, idiocy, and incompetence. One may say that those four words can accurately depict Precious, but those characteristics are mostly due to her life circumstances, not because of her fat body or her dark skin. The beginning of the movie in a way feeds the black female stereotype, but the conclusion is quite contradictory. Precious ends up putting her abusive and harmful past behind her and working towards bettering herself, proving the point that the black female stereotype is not true for all black women. Although Precious’ efforts to escape her toxic environments and relationships do not go unseen, the social construction of whiteness, thinness, and socioeconomic status has a direct impact on Precious and her life in the ghetto. Her world is black, fat, and poor, yet her mental fixation is white, thin, and rich because of how segregated and poor communities emotionally perceive blackness, poverty, and racial stereotypes.
An eminently prominent theme that occurs throughout the movie is Precious’ high level of infatuation with wanting to live a “white lifestyle”, such as living in the suburbs instead of her apartment, having light skin, and being thin. This becomes apparent very early on with her crush on her math teacher Mr. Wicher: “Precious’ fantasy reveals the contradiction between her awareness of white supremacy and her longing for recognition from the authoritative white male subject as a love object.” (Mask, 98), as well as “in her daydreams, she imagines conforming to the hegemonic discourse of beauty she has absorbed from mainstream white society.” (Mask, 99). There are multiple times throughout the film that Precious has very critical and spiteful feelings and comments towards white people. She has the realization that her white counterparts commonly live a better life, causing a bitter-sweet relationship with whiteness. The envy and anger are present, but so is the feeling of longing and desire, as “for marginalized teens in the 1980s, personal contentment and success were synonymous with white, upper-middle-class heterosexual couplings.” (Mask, 99). These thoughts and feelings combined with her poverty-stricken lifestyle, lack of stable social supports, abusive circumstances, and her fatness coincide to create an unfavourable status. Her lack of self-love for who she is causes her plummeted self-esteem to reach an ultimate low, believing that she is not good at anything and having suicidal ideologies. “…we could read Precious’ learned self-devaluation as the convergence of abuse, internalized racism (or more specifically, colourism), and weight discrimination.” (Mask, 99). It can become easily apparent as “how a fat black woman presents herself to the world can be indicative of her socioeconomic status, self-esteem and self-actualization.” (Patterson-Faye, 928 - 929). Precious’ lack of easy access to resources, healthy food, community programs, and an overall sense of well-being has helped to catalyze multiple negative black stereotypes. Yet due to her abusive household, it is nearly impossible for her to escape her chronically corrupt behaviours, such as stealing a ten-piece fried chicken bucket as her fridge was empty and her abusive mother does not care to give her money to feed herself. Precious’ continuous obsession with wanting to be rich and famous, having a light-skinned boyfriend, and singing in a choir takes over her ability to prioritize other highly important aspects of her life, such as learning how to successfully read and write and learning other important life skills, relating to “feelings of dependency and inadequacy that some Africans in diaspora experience when living in predominantly white social environments.” (Mask, 110). Precious has, in a way, created a lack of dignity for herself by romanticizing whiteness and thinness, and “as a result of the inferiority complex engendered in the mind of the black subject (in this case Precious), she will try to appropriate and imitate the cultural codes of the colonizer.” (Mask, 110).
The stereotype that black women are supposed to be full-bodied and voluptuous remains prominent, as “fat black women are critically aware of mainstream ideals of blackness, fatness and womanhood, and how the cultural scripts belonging to these social constructs continue to relegate them to the outskirts of society.” (Patterson-Faye, 934). The incestuous rape that Precious was a victim of from her father provided an unsettling, mind-boggling, and revolting concept of her fatness being so sexually appealing that even her own biological father could not resist. This is perhaps due to two notions that Patterson-Faye discusses, where “physically bigger sexual organs, more sexual gestures and larger bodies must mean larger sexual desires. She is the aggressor or the initiator because she has a perceived sexual hunger that needs satisfying.” (932), and that “although fat black women have been rendered invisible and somewhat powerless by dominant scripts, there have always been scripts that highlight this group’s visibility, proving that they are indeed worthy of (sexual) attention and powerful enough for self-definition).” (940). Because black women live in a predominantly white society, their bodies become even more eroticized and sexually exploited; “was it her fatness or her sartorial representation (or both) that rendered her non-threatening to the white male and female…” (Patterson-Faye, 933 - 934)? This is seen multiple times throughout the movie, usually as microaggressions, an example being the three men who catcall and assault Precious because of her “big ass”, simply from her walking down the street while minding her own business. Regardless of what Precious was wearing, how she was moving her body as she walked, she continued to be eyeballed as “fat black women are scrutinized both inside and outside of their clothing” (Patterson-Faye, 936). It is confusing as to how fat black women can be so over-sexualized, yet at the same time be so condemned. It is as if fat black women are only worthy of being recognized if it is due to them being used as a sexual object or for somebody else’s pleasure or use.
“The hungriest people in America today, statistically speaking, are not sickly skinny but excessively overweight.” (Mask, 111). With Precious’ mother Mary being a welfare queen, of course their finances are neither stable nor very sufficient. This lack of proper funding is a significant factor when looking into the cause for Precious’ fat body. “Her obesity, for example, is a by-product of her parent’s unhealthy food choices and abusive force-feeding.” (Mask, 99). This detrimental relationship between socioeconomic status and fatness significantly contributes to Precious’ “feelings about her skin colour, racial background, body image, and hair texture [which] suggest self-negation.” (Mask, 110). This then contributes to the dependency that society has on fat black women existing for their own advantages, to enable the negative stereotypes surrounding fat black women to exploit them in order to serve to whiteness’ advantage. Take into consideration Precious’ lack of financial resources’ relation to access to healthcare. She gave birth to her firstborn on the floor of her apartment while her mother was beating her, as well as her telling Ms. Weiss that she has never seen a doctor before. “The ‘obesity epidemic’ that links fatness to chronic disease is laced with moral, personal, responsibility narratives that imply that ‘overweight and obese’ people are responsible for their ‘inevitable’ health afflictions. This placement of blame ignores the impact of sociocultural realities on overweight and obese peoples, causing even more pronounced stratifications between mainstream society and fat black women, especially in terms of healthcare, access to healthy foods and environmental racism.” (Patterson-Faye, 934).
Although Precious’ efforts to escape her toxic environments and relationships do not go unseen, the social construction of whiteness, thinness, and socioeconomic status has a direct impact on Precious and her life in the ghetto. Her world is black, fat, and poor, yet her mental fixation is white, thin, and rich because of how segregated and poor communities emotionally perceive blackness, poverty, and racial stereotypes. Precious’ perseverance to stay in her alternative school program, leave her abusive home, and her determination to be a good mother to her two children is a strongly admirable component of her life. Her actions helped to contradict the negative stereotypes surrounding fat black women, proving that her body size, racial identity, and socioeconomic status can be used to her advantage and that the elite do not get to determine how fat black women live their lives.
Mask, Mia. “The Precarious Politics of Precious: A Close Reading of a Cinematic Text.” Black Camera, vol. 4, no. 1, 2012, pp. 96–116. Accessed 4 Aug. 2020.
Patterson-Faye, Courtney J. “‘I like the Way You Move’: Theorizing Fat, Black and Sexy.” Sexualities, vol. 19, no. 8, 2016, pp. 926–944. Accessed 4 Aug. 2020.
© 2020 Lisa Hallam