Spy: At last fat is getting a chance in Hollywood

Fat people get a rough deal in Hollywood. Starting with Fatty Arbuckle and Oliver Hardy, they usually feature to be ridiculed. Dressed up in hot pants or tight ballet outfits, they prance around for cheap laughs, or get stuck in windows and sewage pipes from which they have to be extracted. Overweight women rarely feature at all, save as gluttons, hysterics or embodiments of evil. It's hardly surprising the net is teeming with posts from those offended by shows like Dance Your Ass Off or comedies like The Nutty Professor, in which Eddie Murphy was put in a fat suit.

"I couldn't stop crying," writes one upon discovering three new characters in a Disney theme park: Glutton, Lead Bottom and Snacker, a trio of evil fat bugs who pig out on burgers and fries (the characters have since been replaced). The irony of anti-obesity campaigns such as this is that overweight people – particularly children – respond negatively to humiliation and typecasting. Studies have found that shaming fat people increases the risk of harmful behaviours like binge eating.

While public health is hardly on the agendas of media multinationals, some studios are starting to realise they have not only neglected but outright alienated a significant part of their audiences. Spy, a new release by 20th Century Fox, underscores the seismic shift taking place in development departments of the majors.

Spy would be a straightforward James Bond spoof except that the film's protagonist, CIA agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is not only overweight but also likeable and bright. In fact, she ends up outsmarting her slim, young opponents, of whom there are many.

The film starts with Susan pushing paper in the rat-infested basement of the Langley HQ. Despite getting top grades in training, she has never been considered for the field because of her oversize frame. Consequently, Susan's self-confidence is close to zero and she thinks of her life as a "disaster". She's also keenly aware of already being middle-aged (another Hollywood no-no).

Yet by a sudden twist of fate, Susan is propelled to the frontline. Since she has never left her appalling workspace, Susan is the only person in the CIA whose face is not known to Raina Boyanov (Rose Byrne), an evil Bulgarian woman about to sell a stolen nuclear weapon to terrorists. Susan volunteers to become Raina's shadow.

The film now applies all the spy movie clichés to someone trapped in a stereotype. Instead of giving her an exciting secret identity, Susan's superiors plonk a ridiculous wig on her head and make her pretend she is a Kansas housewife who won a trip around the world by playing bingo. The CIA's gadget man hands her secret weapons, but instead of concealing them in diamond earrings, they are hidden in packs of laxatives and haemorrhoid cream.

She is instructed to "observe only" but, needless to say, Susan ignores these orders and embarks on car chases, fistfights and hands-on-action worthy of a James Bond. The wig ends up in the dustbin and Susan morphs into the glamorous operative "Amber", who just happens to be a bit on the large side.

As a final coup de grace, Susan butchers one of the Eastern European babes she has always both envied and detested. The film's message is as unsubtle as it could possibly be: overweight people should feel more at ease with their fat. None of this makes for a particularly good film (and good-looking Eastern Europeans may be offended), but the effect could be helpful. While dishonest political correctness won't remedy the obesity epidemic, it is clear that what we're doing at the moment is making things worse.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is deemed "too old"

Hollywood routinely parades some groups, such as fat people or dwarfs, for cheap laughs (see The Man with the Golden Gun or "Mini-me" in Austin Powers). Others, such as women north of 35, are often ignored entirely. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, 37, left, was recently told she is "too old" to star opposite a man almost two decades her senior. Combine fat and middle-aged and you have got exactly the type of woman who is as rare as a snow leopard in Hollywood movies.