I love movies. I enjoy going to the cinema; the entire production. The frozen coke and popcorn and fabric seats and big screen and surround sound. I love movies. Recently, I went to see Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Putting aside how problematic he is, and the problematic things with the film not related to the topic of this blog, what struck me while I was watching was how Cass Elliot was represented. I had heard she was depicted in the film, and I was nervous. Film is rarely kind to fat people, and I felt protective of the woman who played an important role in my childhood and adolescence.
As a fat child who wanted nothing more than to sing on Broadway, I had very few role models. One I discovered in my late childhood, and came to embrace as a teenager, was Cass Elliot (also known as Mama Cass, but we will get to that fatphobic nonsense in a bit) of The Mamas and the Papas. Cass Elliot was fat, fabulous, and had a voice that could make you cry.
Cass was initially kept out of the band she would make famous, The Mamas and the Papas (then the New Journeymen), because of the antifat attitudes of John Phillips. She brought about the band’s name change and her vocals helped the group rise to fame during the time of Haight Ashbury; the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
After leaving the group, Cass had a successful solo career that included two TV specials and international touring. She guest hosted on The Tonight Show and was a regular on talk and variety shows.
Unfortunately, she was unable to shake the moniker of Mama Cass. Unlike other members of the group, her designation as “Mama” followed her, even after death. Why don’t we call Michelle Phillips, Mama Phillips or John Phillips, Papa Phillips? Why were they able to leave that behind once they moved on to other projects? One reason is fatphobia. Positioning fat women as mothers – maternal – caretakers – is one of the few ways that society can palate fatness. It’s almost laughable to think of “sexy” Michelle or John Phillips as Mama or Papa. But for Cass Elliot, it was unescapable. Even after a TV special named, “Don’t Call Me Mama Anymore”.
“I never created the Big Mama image,” she said. ”The public does it for you. But I’ve always been different. I’ve been fat since I was seven. Being fat sets you apart, but luckily I was bright with it”.
The fatphobic urban legend that follows the memory of Cass’s death to this day is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Cass died of a heart attack, most likely caused by crash dieting and substance abuse. However, many people still believe that she choked on a sandwich. Unfortunately, Cass is not the only fat celebrity to deal with such an indignity after death (see, for example, Elvis).
Only recently I learned that a group from the Fat Underground (a fat activist group in LA in the 70s) stormed the stage at a local festival and accused the medical community of killing Cass; they cried out against the genocide masquerading as the promotion of weight loss. I can imagine how powerful it would have been to be on that stage, or even in the audience, as a fat woman. Sharing their grief, sharing their anger (If you’d like to learn more about this, pls see the great excerpt on Charlotte Cooper’s Obesity Timebob).
Even after her death, Cass continues to influence. In the opening of S2 of ABC’s TV show Lost, viewers found themselves with a new character and the soundtrack of one of Cass Elliot’s greatest solo hits. The same song has been used in Showtime’s TV show, Dexter, among others.
And among other representations in TV and film, she is portrayed by Rachel Redleaf in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. I LOVED how she represented by Tarantino. She is fashionable, she is having fun, she is definitely the largest body at the party.
We don’t get much of her; seconds of her walking into the party, a few seconds later as she dances with friends – but those seconds are joyful. And playful. And devoid of any fatphobic nonsense. And for that, I’m grateful. For Cass’s memory, and those who knew and loved her; but also for me and the many fat people around the world who hold her to their hearts.