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Film Essays

Like, OMG, You’re So Shallow!: The Cult of the Body and Anorexia in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

[This is the fourth entry in a series exploring themes in Jean Baudrillard’s America and how they relate to film; please read the introductory piece here, the second is here, and the third is here. All text in quotes or italicized is from America unless otherwise noted.]

If any movie qualifies as a ‘guilty pleasure,’ it is definitely David Mirkin’s Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. It is the tale of two best friends, Romy White (Mira Sorvino) and Michele Weinberger (Lisa Kudrow), who are preparing for their ten-year high school reunion. The pair find themselves living in Los Angeles, with only one job between them (how they are able to afford their giant beach front apartment is never quite explained) and no boyfriends to speak of; they worry that they will arrive at the reunion and be treated the same way they were in high school: as losers. To avoid this fate, they start futile attempts to make major life changes. When this inevitably fails, they decide to simply lie and claim they are successful businesswomen. Naturally, when they arrive at the reunion, their ruse is revealed and they eventually decide that it doesn’t matter that they weren’t rich or famous, they were awesome the entire time.

Awesome indeed.

The film is so enjoyable because it’s fun and campy without being too horribly stupid and the themes of the film, resonate with anyone who went through puberty, specifically that high school is hell for everyone. We all secretly (or not so secretly) want to return to the people who made us miserable and show them how we are better people than them. The movie also documents the “cult of the body” and an “anorexic culture.” Regarding the “cult of the body,” Baudrillard says:

This omnipresent cult of the body is extraordinary. It is the only object on which everyone is made to concentrate, not as a source of pleasure, but as an object of frantic concern, in the obsessive fear of failure or substandard performance …

This “cult of the body” can mean more than simply the physical body, rather it can also mean your ‘embodiment,’ that is to say, how you are perceived from the outside. Not only is it the way you look, but how successful people perceive you to be. “Anorexic culture” also plays into this obsession with embodiment. On this subject, Baudrillard says: Anorexic culture: a culture of disgust, of expulsion, of anthropoemia, of rejection.” Once again, this is not simply the physical act of anorexia; it is the mental state of rejection of the self. That you are not good enough, therefore you must be in a constant state of self-rejection and denial.

For the majority of the film, Romy and Michele both embrace these ideals; as soon as they find out about the reunion, they go into overdrive trying to recreate who they are into who they think they should be. They begin to work out incessantly, even calculating the insane number of miles they need to run each day to reach their goal weight.

The only thing they don't try hard at is finding sensible footwear.

Michele also begins searching for a job so that she can appear to be a success and Romy looks for boyfriends for both of them so they don’t have to look like lonely losers. They represent the frantic obsession that dominates our cultural landscape; we want to look as though we have it all together and are desirable, or even enviable. Their current quest for physical, occupational and romantic perfection is juxtaposed with their high school selves, who do not share the same devotion to the cult of the body, as represented by Michele being in a neck brace and Romy being ‘fat.’ As the flashbacks demonstrate, the two were constantly tormented due to how they were perceived, specifically by the “A Group.”

When their attempts to change their lives fails, the two decide that all they really need is the appearance of success. Michele makes professional outfits for them both, and Romy secures a car by pretending to have sex with the service manager at her job at a Jaguar dealership. After one of the best scenes in the movie, asking a small town diner waitress if the diner has a ‘businesswoman special,’ the two decide they should claim to have invented Post Its.

What business are you in, exactly?

It’s at this point in the film that the two become “anorexic,” they begin to reject who they are, to hide that they are not who they want to be: “The anorexic staves off lack by emptiness…” They construct a shell to hide that they have nothing behind what they present to their classmates. Unfortunately, their classmate Heather Mooney (Janeane Garafalo) exposes their façade, and Romy and Michele are shown to be frauds.

The moral of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion is that you should always be yourself. After their lies have been exposed, Romy and Michele shed their professional costumes and return triumphant to tell off the “A Group,” clad in the colorful clothes made by Michele. All of the sudden, everything falls into place in ten minutes, something they weren’t able to do in two weeks: A fellow classmate who is a Vogue editor declares their clothes the latest trend; the nerd who harbored a crush on Michele arrives handsome, charming, rich and still madly in love with Michele; the “A Group” is shown to not be as happy as they appear; and, a few months after the reunion, Romy and Michele have their own successful business on Rodeo Drive.

In a Helicopter

All you need to achieve your dreams is to believe in yourself... and it always help to have a billionaire with a crush on you.

Yes, the ending is cliché and pandering, but even still, its message is highly relevant. While no one expects for all of their dreams to come true by merely accepting who they are, it does well to show the dangers of obsessing over gaining acceptance through superficial means.

Looking at a Yearbook

[Citations, for those who want them:
-Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. 2nd ed. New York: Verso, 2010.
-If you would like specific page numbers, please e-mail us at: VideoWordMadeFleshEditor@gmail.com and set the subject ATTN: Theo – Baudrillard Quotes]
By Theo Estes  4/26/2011

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A Touch of Humanity: How WALL-E Taught Us to Be Human
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Sadism and Indif
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3 thoughts on “Like, OMG, You’re So Shallow!: The Cult of the Body and Anorexia in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion

  1. Quick correction:

    “the nerd who harbored a crush on Romy arrives handsome, charming, rich and still madly in love with Romy;”

    The nerd (Sandy Frink, played by Alan Cumming) actually had a crush on Michele. Not Romy.

    Posted by Yurpdod | May 2, 2011, 7:00 pm


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