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A fat man walked into a bar…

September 26, 2013

Fat Health

Ah yes, the fat joke — the old standby of tired hacks who need a quick laugh in a dying set. But is it ever OK to tell a fat joke?

Rebel WilsonA few days ago, Plus Model Magazine & Blog reported that actress Rebel Wilson had talked about using her own body size as a punchline. The remarks were apparently made during the cover interview for Issue 5 of Hunger magazine. I don’t have access to the magazine, so I can only muse on the isolated quote on the Plus Model website:

“As long as I look like this, I’m going to make fat jokes. All comedians have to use their physicality, so I use my size.”

The second part of this quote actually got me thinking. My knee-jerk reaction had been 100% negative, but maybe she was right. As a Jewish woman, there is an understanding that I am “allowed” to tell “Jewish jokes.” If I were Irish, could I tell an “Irish joke with impunity”? How about a person of colour telling a “black joke,” a gay man telling a “gay joke” and so on and so forth.

What is humour if not identifying the amusing in every day life. It is the recognition of the reality in the absurdity that makes it funny. And each of these groups comes replete with its own rich culture, and thus a potential rich seam for humour among its members and those who know them. This is well recognised. If an out-group individual told one of these jokes, it would be considered racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semitic, and we’d all be up in arms; but really, what is wrong with me using my own culture and, yes, my own physicality, as a comedic tool.

And therein lies the rub — as a tool, how you use it is what matters. I understand what Rebel is saying about using her physicality in her humour, but it’s not as simple as that — content and intent are key.

A lot of this type of humour tends to be preemptory: “I’ll say it first so they don’t have to and then we can all laugh about it together, while I’m busy crying on the inside.” While I have no doubt that some Jewish/Irish/gay/black/fat jokes are piercingly insightful observations on the whimsicalities of human existence, most are simply just not funny. Rather, they are a means for raising a cheap laugh by reinforcing prejudicial stereotypes of a marginalised group whilst allowing the audience to feel smugly superior. And that comes with consequences. A joke is rarely just a joke.

WSAW_fat jokesThis week is the Fourth Annual Weight Stigma Awareness Week. What is a little unusual about weight stigma, what sets it apart from some of the more well-discussed forms of prejudice, is that being part of the stigmatised group does not tend to offer much protection. Whilst the English may laugh at the Irish, the Irish themselves are fiercely and rightly proud of their culture and heritage. Likewise, whilst anti-semitism clearly exists, most Jews will hold their heads high, atop shoulders carrying thousands of years of history. Yet most members of the group, Fat, would give their right arm, bingo wings included, to get the hell out of the group. Others may despise fat people, but often, fat people feel the same way themselves. And on top of all the harm that societal stigmatisation does, both directly and indirectly, to the health and well-being of an individual, some of the worst damage occurs when that disgust is internalised — when we believe it.

As a successful actress and comedienne, Rebel Wilson is something of an icon to many plus-sized women and girls. She probably didn’t set out to be a role model for anybody, and didn’t ask to be one, but she is, nevertheless. There are so few examples of bigger women who have had mainstream success that this is inevitable. And that comes with a responsibility. I have never seen Rebel’s stand-up, so I don’t know how she shoulders that responsibility — it may well be admirably. I can only hypothesise. I hope that her humour does not belittle her big body, but rather celebrates its immense awesomeness. I hope that she demonstrates with her words, as well as her existence, that Fat is not tantamount to Failure, rather than contributing to the continued stereotyping of big women. Because if these young women and girls who are already being told by the entire world that their bodies are damaged goods hear the same message from someone who has managed to make it to the top despite looking  just like them, that would be the saddest punchline of all.

Update 3rd October: Oh dear

Never Diet Again Sigs

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Nof permalink
    September 26, 2013 11:54 am

    This is why I have a mixed relationship with fat comics (John Pinette most notably). John Pinette is really funny. He has some great jokes relating to how fat people are treated. One in particular from his “Still Hungry” show deals with him getting full bloodwork and a stress test done, and how *shocked* his doctor is when everything comes back normal, to which he replies “You could be a little happy for me. You don’t have to look HORRIFIED that I don’t have anything bad!”

    But at the same time, I don’t know a comedian who’s broken out of the dieting mindset. A lot of their jokes start with “I know I should watch what I eat…”; “I know I shouldn’t eat McDonald’s”, etc. (Although Jim Gaffigan has a nice “everyone has a McDonald’s” piece). They tend to, from what I’ve seen, rely on very self-deprecating humor. And that just doesn’t feel right to me, for reasons you’ve articulated more eloquently.

    • September 29, 2013 4:40 am

      I dunno – that’s pretty eloquent. Thanks Nof.

    • September 30, 2013 9:47 am

      Though it’s not explicit in his routine, I think Jim Gaffigan’s McDonald’s routine points a finger at everyone’s foibles– regardless of whether they’re fat or thin. (Or am I not remembering correctly?)

      I do think it’s easier for him as a dude to openly feel tolerance, rather than shame, about his own love for junk food– precisely because almost everyone in this culture shares it. There’s not a lot of self-loathing in Gaffigan’s spiel, at least not that I can detect. A woman comedian…? I have a feeling the audience would want a lot more angst and pleas to the audience for understanding from her to find such a monologue funny. I hope I’m wrong, though.

  2. Theresa permalink
    September 26, 2013 1:08 pm

    I love the joke that Nof just posted from John Pinette, because it’s not really a fat joke, it’s a *FATPHOBIA* joke. And IMO we need more of those. Put the ridicule where it belongs: on the fatphobes.

    • violetyoshi permalink
      September 26, 2013 10:34 pm

      I’ve grown to love John Pinette’s show All You Can Eat. I recently saw an episode about presidential food, where he revealed the one of the White House chefs was a fat biker, which goes completely in the face of who you’d expect to be a presidental chef.

    • LittleBigGirl permalink
      September 30, 2013 11:58 am

      Yes. I love John Pinette. I don’t see him as a self hating fattie, or a “good fattie” etc. I find his humor about food and physical activity is relatable no matter what your size – he is pointing out how crazy *everyone* gets about both. IMHO, existing fat stigma is the reason his jokes sometimes sound fat hating or fat apologist – not the other way around.

      Dammit – I need to finish my own blog submission about this topic instead of trying to discuss it in the comments! Okay, no one say anything thought-provoking about any popular fat issue until I’m done, or I’m just going to end up with 20 half-started word files! 😉

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