Fragile, Ethereal, Lean – The Many Synonyms for “Thin” in Hollywood

If you really love a movie, and I mean really love it, there are few things more rewarding than reading the original screenplay. It’s a very cosy, nerdy little thing to do and worth it to see how your favourite characters are described by the people who created them. Like this one, about Margot Channing from All About Eve: “An attractive, strong face. She is childish, adult, reasonable, unreasonable – usually one when she should be the other, but always positive.”

Has there ever been a more perfect part written for Bette Davis? Has anyone ever described such a complicated person using such an economy of words? Vulture has put together the 50 best female-character introductions and, even if you don’t want to write movies, it’s a great writing lesson, because it teaches you how to create nuanced portraits of people while using very few words.

Unfortunately, many of those words are a synonym for “thin”.

“The girl walks briskly up the block in her low cut evening dress. We get a look at her now for the first time. For all her chic thinness she has an almost breakfast-cereal air of health.” That’s how we first meet Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s and, you have to admit, it’s a pretty perfect description of Audrey Hepburn, who was eventually cast. Even then, you could perhaps argue that Holly Golightly’s slight frame was part of her character – that her tiny body and huge eyes lent itself to the “teenage runaway turned 60s It Girl” look. Let’s move on.

In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander is introduced as “small, pale, anorexic-looking waif in her early 20s”. In a nine-word description of a main character, a third of the descriptors are used to communicate her thinness. She’s not just small, not just a waif, but she is also anorexic-looking! The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is not a movie about a woman who has to fit into crawl spaces, so I’m not totally sure why we need this many words for skinny, but that’s what she gets.

‘Ethereal’ is to be thin while also being an elf, or perhaps a dead wife who appears in dreams

There are other words for skinny. Words that, if you’ve grown up female, you know as indicators for a BMI that registers as “dangerously low”. Bonnie, from Bonnie And Clyde, is “fragile”. This means thin, but in a thoughtful, deep way. Mary, from There’s Something About Mary, is “athletic”, which means thin in a happy, outdoors kind of way. Katniss Everdeen is “lean”, which means thin in a poor way. Maya from Zero Dark Thirty – you know, that movie about the CIA operative who tracked Bin Laden? – is “somewhat frail”-looking. “Frail” means “thin, but you work too hard”, except in the case of period dramas, where “frail” means “thin, but you have a wasting disease”.

When fat characters appear, like Mary from Precious (a role that Mo’nique won Best Supporting Actress for), they are described as grotesque, as living outside society. “INCREDIBLY LARGE, OILY SKIN, UNKEMPT HAIR, AND WEARING A GRIMY HOUSE DRESS sits on the couch with her back turned to Precious. This mass of woman looks as if she is one with the furniture – if not the entire apartment.” Of course, Mary is a pretty antagonistic character, but it’s disturbing just how often her “mass” is referred to and used to literally dehumanise her. This woman isn’t just as big as the objects around her – she practically IS an object.

Of course, there’s nothing new about sexist character notes in the entertainment industry. The Twitter account @femscriptintros has amassed almost 60,000 followers by sharing gems like “JANE (30s) Beautiful, but pissed” and “we’re close on a woman’s perfect ass in a thong (this ass belongs to Jane, 19)”. More recently, BBC3 produced the viral sketch Leading Lady Parts, featuring actresses like Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey and Gemma Chan battling with Catherine Tate, trying to make sense of feedback like, “We’re just asking you to be thin and curvy, sexy and innocent!”

But the number of synonyms for “very, very thin” is something that comes up again and again, and not just in movie scripts. Novels are bursting with them: “gamine” is to be thin and French. “Slinky” is to be thin and untrustworthy. “Ethereal” is to be thin while also being an elf, or perhaps a dead wife who appears in dreams. A fat character could literally descend from heaven and still not be referred to as ethereal, and that’s just the rules. We hide code words for “thin” all over our culture, inferring to women and girls that, like gold or diamonds, the way for you to increase your value is to create scarcity.


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