Brittany Runs a Marathon: addiction narratives and Fat-Antagonism
I wanted to give this movie a chance to be better than the trailer makes it seem but it was worse. Spoilers ahead as I break down Brittany Runs A Marathon and draw comparisons to Run Fatboy Run.
We are introduced to Brittany as a fun-loving gal who is the life of the party- aka loves drugs and drinking, loves food so much she pretends to be ordering for a friend as well (okay honestly been there), and generally seems to be having a pretty good time with a close group of friends… At first, she seems fun and happy enough if not somewhat dysfunctional. I was ready for this movie to be about a young woman who gets her life together while training for a marathon along the lines of Run Fatboy Run. I was ready to look the other way on some of the stumbles around women’s bodies that I’ve come to expect from film and television and overall I’m feeling optimistic that this movie will push back on some of the more harmful tropes. But no, the movie quickly pulls the rug out from under that expectation planted by the marketing.
Hold on to your butts, because she’s not fun-loving; she’s in crisis.
Brittany is playing the role of the drunk funny friend to her thin hot roommate who drinks and parties as much as Brittany but seems to have a more successful career and who does not struggle with her weight despite her partying. At a party, Brittany is approached by a hot guy who seems to be flirting with her. Why not? She looks good and she seems confident and fun. But when he asks her to go to the bathroom with him he offers her a stack of napkins to ‘put under her knees’ and her face falls. Turns out the hottie just wants a blow job from the fat girl. What else did we expect? She walks away from him in disgust (go girl!) but just a few moments later she is seen comparing her body to her thin hot friends and sadly turns back to napkin knee pad dude. She walks away from her friends to follow him into the bathroom. This beautiful girl who is clearly the coolest girl at this party is about to go suck this losers dick in the bathroom because she’s lonely and insecure. It’s a brutally sad scene that hurt to watch.
This scene on its own could be read as a heartbreaking rock bottom of a woman who thinks she just doesn’t deserve better. She accepts being treated this way because she believes the harmful messages she receives about fat women, not deserving respect. While it’s true that it tells us everything we need to know about the bleak inner life of this character, it also, in the wider context of the movie, says something more about the world at large.
There is a recurring theme of people not holding the subway doors for Brittany. She’s seen many times running to catch her train shouting ‘hold it hold it!’ and no one holds the doors. The movie tells you this is because no one likes fat people. But… No one holds the doors for anyone? Maybe sometimes, I guess if you have a big stroller or someone accidentally makes eye contact with you, but not usually. When you hold the doors it delays trains, so unless you are literally halfway through the door, no one SHOULD hold it for you.
I’ve been in NYC since I was 19; I was young and thin and extremely hot and now I am still hot but over 200 lbs and I can tell you, the number of times people have held subway doors for me has remained consistent across the full range of weights that I have been. People are not holding subway doors because that is not a reasonable thing to expect people to do regularly. Get your shit together and leave early enough that you don’t have to run for the train.
But Brittany is shown to always be late to work too (If only someone would hold the door for her!!!). She doesn’t even listen when her coworker tries to tell her that her chronic lateness creates a lot of work for the people who have to cover for her. She does not have her shit together. She does not respect her coworkers time any more than she respects herself.
Later on, returning home in the early morning after another late night she and her friends roll their eyes at their neighbor preparing to go for a run. The neighbor, whom they call ‘money bags Martha,’ asks them to pick up after themselves if they disrobe in the hallway again. Brittany clearly doesn’t respect other peoples space either.
Brittany goes to the doctor, unshowered, certainly reeking of last nights party where she was drinking and smoking and using drugs. She’s feeling fatigued but says she gets plenty of sleep as she quickly covers the two club stamps on her hand from the night before. She outright asks for Adderall and doesn’t sell her innocence when the doctor points out that some people abuse Adderall. She feigns surprise but isn’t even trying to sell it.
The doctor tells her she should try losing about 55 lbs, that likely her fatigue is due to sleep apnea due to her weight. When she counters that she thought all bodies were beautiful (again, not trying to sell the idea that even she believes this, still just trying to get the drugs she came for) he agrees and says some people are ‘heavy but healthy’ and asks if she makes healthy choices. — The fact that he says this at all is the least realistic part of this scene if we’re being honest. Doctors notoriously want to tell fat people to lose weight rather than digging into what might be really wrong, but he quickly drops this line of inquiry and we’re back to focusing on weight loss. Nevermind if the fatigue she came in about is even real, he sends her off with only a goal of losing 55 lbs and no further advice about how much she drinks or smokes, what she eats, how much activity she gets, no guidance on seeing a nutritionist or mental health professional.
Back at home Brittany assess her body and doesn’t like what she sees. The camera lingers over Brittany’s cellulite really emphasizing the jiggle and the dimples. She steps on the scale and her toenail polished is chipped. Sigh. The size and quality of Brittany’s thighs will be an ongoing theme for the cinematographers here. As the movie goes on we will have many many shots of her thighs as they shrink down and of her toes on the scale as the number gets lower and lower and her toenail polish gets nicer and nicer denoting her progress.
Let’s get real on a couple things here:
1. Cellulite affects thighs of all sizes, it’s not that big a deal. As a heavy runner, I can say that my thighs have not gotten smaller with more running, perhaps firmer, but certainly thicker. Her thighs are fine before she starts running, they’re not gross or a big red flag for her health, they’re just thighs. If your thighs look like that, you’re probably super hot and cool.
2. I get that the chipped polish the first time she steps on the scale is meant to indicate a lack of self care, and so when her polish looks nicer we can read that to mean she is taking better care of herself… They do the same thing with her hair, showing her hair at the start in a half up half down style with the up part absurdly, unflattering high on top of her head and the down part looking dry and frizzy, then as she runs more, her hair starts looking better, she wears it down or in a low pony and it lools like she started using a good conditioner and a flat iron daily.
The truth is any runner knows your toes do NOT look better as you train for a marathon… and neither does your hair. Your toenails take a pounding with all that running and you will need to wash your hair a lot more frequently because of all the workouts which tends to dry it out.
Money Bags Martha is messing around in Photoshop and she hears intense sobbing from the apartment below. She goes to check on Brittany, who is having a loud, sobbing, wasted, breakdown over her weight and the state of her life. We learn that Martha knows about the nickname and that in fact her name is Catherine and she is a sober addict who used small goals to put her heroin days behind her.
Running has a very special place in the world of addiction treatment and this nod to recovery only highlights the missed opportunity that this story is. Buried under a heaping pile of fat antagonistic bullshit is a tale of the power of running to create a path to recovery from addiction.
Brittany is super rude to Catherine when she invites her to join her running group. She’s got walls built up and a real thing about being pitied. Still, she goes to the running group. She does not approach her kind neighbor Catherine, but she’s decided to give this running thing a shot since she’s too broke for the gym. Somewhere along the 2-mile course Brittany comes across a struggling man named Seth giving himself a pep talk to keep going so his son can respect him. The two it off bonding over their troubles and when they finish the miles they quickly become joined at the hip with Catherine who fills them in about her messy divorce.
Over time Brittany says no to drinking with her friends, chooses salad over cheese fries, and keeps running with Catherine and Seth. She’s losing weight and starting to feel proud of herself. Her roommate doesn’t get it. She misses her party buddy. There is a scene where rude roommate tells her boyfriend that Brittany runs ‘marathons’ but when Brittany corrects her that it’s just a 5k they react by deriding her seriousness about running.
Many people who don’t run call any race a marathon. It’s a thing. Usually when you correct them that it’s a 5k and that is 3.1 miles, not 26.2 they do not laugh at you for running such a short distance. In general, they say ‘Oh wow I couldn’t run to the end of the block. Three miles! That’s still so far!’ or something of the like. I have had snobby comments made to me by OTHER RUNNERS, but never by people who do not run. The purpose of this scene is to establish her roommate as unsupportive. I can give some allowance for an unrealistic scene like this for character shorthand but what it’s setting up is a shockingly cruel exchange between the roommate and Brittany later on. Brittany has lost 35 lbs and has spent so little time with her roommate that she didn’t even know that she and the boyfriend had broken up. ‘I posted about it’ she says, and we are supposed to take this as further evidence that she’s vapid and shallow, but really, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment of this relationship. This roommate is meant to represent all the haters who don’t want you to succeed in weight loss (or sobriety!) so they make her absurdly mean very suddenly. She says ‘Don’t throw away your fat clothes. I’ve seen girls like you do this before. You’ll gain the weight back and even if you don’t you’ll always be a fat girl’. Wow. That was quite a turn of events. Everyone has gotten heated and said things they didn’t mean (or meant but regret saying)
Naturally, Brittany cannot go on living in that apartment. We’ve established that she’s broke and doing a whole app-based gig economy house sitting thing. She’s been on the day shift looking after the home of a rich family. The night shift guy is a cute, lovable-loser type who has moved into the rich people’s home. Brittany did not approve at first but after the fight with the roommate, she’s declared herself his new roommate. Romantic subplot blah blah blah. Hijinks ensue.
Throughout the movie we see Brittany Skyping with her sister’s husband. Her brother in law is like a father to her, after their parents died he put his dreams of college on hold to make sure Brittany could still have a childhood. This is still a little odd because she doesn’t seem to talk much to her sister at all, but if you cast ——- I get wanting to use him in as many scenes as possible.
This story focused so much on the scale and the size of her thighs but could have been re-framed as stories of overcoming addiction and trauma. I haven’t read Brittany’s book that the movie is based on, and it’s possible that she doesn’t view her story in this light. Many people don’t want to see themselves through the lens of addiction and the film industry has a long tradition of showing addicted behavior as no big deal, cool or bad-ass, just generally for comedic relief. I can only work with the content of the movie as it was presented but it seems like this movie was composed by two factions. One side that understands disordered eating, and addiction, and one side that wanted to use formulaic rom-com elements that haven’t been relevant since the mid 2000’s. The result was this tonally confused Frankenstein’s monster with powerful elements stitched together with cheap damaging nonsense.
Her weight may be a symptom, but the weight itself is not the problem. His telling her to lose weight as the solution to her woes in the face of clear evidence that she is struggling with alcohol and drug abuse is fat-antagonistic and an irresponsible way to give medical advice. Fat people are frequently told by their doctors to lose weight when they seek medical advice regardless of why they’re there and what other issues they may have.
When the doctor does acknowledge that all bodies are beautiful and many people are heavy but healthy it’s meant to be an indication that he gets it. He’s not buying her act and he’s not going to play ball and just give her drugs. That’s good, but when he asks Brittany if she makes healthy choices and she cannot honestly answer that she does he reverts back to focusing on her weight. The problem is that his ask, that she lose 55 lbs, seems to be excused by these other more enlightened statements. The movie asks you to consider his advice to lose weight as kind and reasonable despite his failure to directly address her actual issues.
Her blood pressure is high, but you know what raises blood pressure? Alcoholism, smoking, anxiety. He guesses that her cholesterol is high rather than running tests. He even suggests she may have a fatty liver without much evidence. Brittany was a resistant patient and a doctor can only work with the information a person is willing to provide but the solution to that problem should be to run tests, ask more questions, not to just default to weight.
What Brittany should have been told is to drink less alcohol, stop smoking and doing drugs, exercise, get into therapy. Doing those things will often lead to weight loss but not always. Many people gain or maintain weight while increasing their athleticism and in particular, while training for a marathon. While a lower BMI may be correlated with better health, that correlation is not the cause. The doc is right that many people are ‘heavy but healthy’ so if he knows that, then why does he ask her to lose weight rather than ask her to get healthy?
What about Run Fatboy Run?
I’ll start by saying that Run Fatboy Run, despite its problematic title, does not actually contain any fat people, or more importantly, any thin people in a fat suit. The protagonist, when called “Fatboy” several times by people who are mocking him retorts that he isn’t fat, he’s ‘unfit’. Accurate. While the use of the word ‘fat’ as a pejorative is always harmful, that’s it for fat-shaming in this movie. He smokes and drinks and lives an unhealthy lifestyle’ he’s broke and on the cusp of being evicted from his home. He doesn’t respect himself and neither does anyone else. He decides to run a marathon to prove to his former fiance (whom he left pregnant at the alter) that he isn’t the same loser that hurt her. It’s not a weight loss journey, it’s a love story. Simon Pegg learns to love himself while trying to prove his love to his lady. Overall I find this movie charming despite a needlessly villainous antagonist played by Hank Azeria and the problematic title. (It also has a great soundtrack!) So why am I telling you about Run Fatboy Run to conclude a review of Brittany Runs a Marathon? Both marketed as comedy, both about a person who is living an unhealthy lifestyle who decides to run a marathon and in the process gains self-respect and romantic love, but one is a story about a lovable loser who gets his shit together and the other is a story about a pathetic woman who has dimples on her thighs and fixes her life through the power of smaller thighs.
I’m not the PC police and I can laugh at something if it’s funny even while acknowledging that something isn’t perfect. Brittany Runs a Marathon isn’t funny though; it’s just sad and when it tries to be funny it just comes off as mean.