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Reading Between the Lines

May 19, 2014

Fat PoliticsFat News

The long-running comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live, no stranger to controversy, was in the spotlight again after writer and comedienne Leslie Jones, a newly-added cast member, appeared in a Weekend Update segment last week where she portrayed an “image expert” who made some edgy jokes about how she would have been popular back in the days of slavery as a breeder. She also joked about how the selection of People magazine’s Most Beautiful Woman, Lupita Nyong’o, who won the Best Actress Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, made her question society’s view of beauty and black women.

Leslie Jones

The segment caused quite a bit of outrage, especially at Ebony and xoJane. Jones, hired by SNL in response to criticism that the show ignores minority women when selecting cast members, was accused of making light of slavery and acting out the stereotype of the loud, angry, tactless black woman.

But there were also some supporters, such as this editorial at Splitsider, this piece by Roxanne Gay and this post at The Daily Beast. While I can understand the negative reactions, as a fat woman of color,Most Beautiful I know where Jones was coming from. You just need to push the outrage aside and read between the lines, because she made some excellent points about race and body type.

If you ignore the slavery bit, what I think she was really trying to say, in an unclear and roundabout way, was that as a larger, dark-skinned black woman,  the majority of modern society and the black community in general, would not find her attractive or worthy of dating, as opposed to dark-skinned thin women like Nyong’o, or light-skinned thin women like Beyoncé, Halle Berry, Rihanna, Zoe Saldana and Kerry Washington.

She also alluded to the fact that if she were around in a different time period, she would be thought of as sexually desirable. It wasn’t that long ago that larger women were the ideal, highlighted by the Rubenesque period. Then the late ’60s came, and it was all about waifs, with Twiggy as the main face of the movement.

Then you have visibly-fat black women who are consistently mocked and shamed for their size, the three major ones I can think of being Gabourey Sidibe, Queen Latifah, and Mo’Nique. Everything they say and do is overshadowed by hateful remarks about their weight, with Sidibe getting the majority of the disdain.

Even though we should not consider our value as human beings by how many people find us attractive and want to date us,  it can be extremely frustrating to feel like you aren’t loveable and worthy of having love because you don’t fit an ideal beauty standard. And when you add race and ethnicity into the mix, it gets even more complicated. Black culture is perceived as more accepting of fat women and fatness overall, but in reality, that isn’t the case. If that were actually true, than Leslie Jones, Gabourey Sidibe and every other fat woman of color would not be mocked for being fat. Michelle Obama wouldn’t have chosen ending childhood obesity as her cause to champion. The rap song “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot would celebrate women who don’t have “little in the middle.”

We still have a lot of unpacking to do when it comes to discussion of race, sexuality and weight. All three are very sensitive topics, but when you put all three together, it’s like we need to walk on eggshells to talk about it. Sometimes when all you focus on is how it’s being said, you miss out on what is actually being said, even if it wasn’t delivered all that well.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2014 10:32 am

    I must not spend a lot of time watching TV or going to the movies. Because Jones doesn’t even register on my radar as being other than “average” size. I see women on the street every day who look like she does. If that’s what people mean when they wail about “The Obesity Epidemic” and how “OMG those giant fatties are TAKING OVER,” it explains a lot.

    Also, has the purpose of the Weekend Update sketches has changed dramatically since I watched SNL? The characters most people seem to remember fondly are precisely the ones who majorly (and obliviously) stick their foot in it, all the while valiantly attempting to “tell it like it is” for the rest of us.

    “…We still have a lot of unpacking to do when it comes to discussion of race, sexuality and weight. All three are very sensitive topics, but when you put all three together, it’s like we need to walk on eggshells to talk about it. Sometimes when all you focus on is how it’s being said, you miss out on what is actually being said, even if it wasn’t delivered all that well.

    ❤ ❤ ❤

  2. Happy Spider permalink
    May 22, 2014 5:05 am

    You said you have to ” push the outrage aside and read between the lines” but I don’t think you have to do that. Jones isn’t making an argument; she’s telling a joke. She’s a comedian. So how she says something is more important than what she said. Did she make you laugh or didn’t she? If not, then she failed.

    I didn’t see the Saturday Night Live episode but I looked at Jones’ monologue on the internet the next day. I thought it was really funny. I cracked up when she talked about popping out babies left and right and yelled out random names for them. You say that the joke wouldn’t have been so bad if not for the slavery bit, but I thought the slavery bit was exactly what pushed the joke over the top and made it funny. Reading the links you made in this post, I see I failed to understand the joke Jones was making. That’s probably because I am not black and don’t know the black culture Jones is coming from. So you and the others say Jones is making a joke about being sexually attractive, but I thought she was making a joke about control.

    People are controlled by physical force. When masses of people are controlled for long amounts of time they alter their conduct and their thoughts so as not to provoke the physical force. This allows the people in charge to pretend that they aren’t threatening anybody. “See,” they say, “my subordinates like to have someone to govern them. See how meek they are and how cheerfully they obey. Obviously I am naturally a king and they are naturally serfs. The few people who rebel are unnatural troublemakers, freaks, who are completely unlike all the normal meek people around them and therefore I am right to torture and murder them.” So the thing about being controlled is that not only is your body controlled but your mind is also. Your mind learns to keep your place, not cause trouble, and react immediately when your superiors tell you to do something.

    What are some ways we are controlled? Society controls us by telling us we are ugly and repulsive. We are supposed to accept this and be ashamed of ourselves for being so defective. We are not supposed to complain, because only pretty people have the right to complain; we are unworthy. Another control is that women are supposed to be sexually submissive. Men are powerful and aggressive and they initiate sex. Women are pure and meek and wait for men to approach them. A woman who goes against this is threatened with rape or death, but doesn’t she deserve this? She is an unnatural troublemaker. Most women are naturally virtuous and that totally isn’t because of fear of rape because we hardly ever explicitly threaten them. An ultimate form of control is slavery. We could talk about rape or the unequal master/ slave sexual relationship, but that’s too luridly awful and moreover not unique to slavery. Let’s talk instead about intimate relationships. One of the points that the contemporaneous abolitionist literature hammers over and over is the great evil of separating husbands from wives and parents from children. No outsider has the right to disrupt these sacred bonds but under slavery people have no control. Owners can separate husbands and wives at whim and moreover force people to be together who don’t want to be together.

    So, Jones’ monologue. She starts by saying that she is considered ugly, but instead of accepting this and lamenting her inferiority she starts bragging about how strong and powerful and attractive she is. Fine, fair enough. Then, bragging further about how powerful she is, she starts talking about going after men in a sexually aggressive way. This is getting a bit transgressive for me, since I am fairly prudish and conservative, and I began to be amused. Especially because the guy next to her started looking uncomfortable. “That’s right,” I thought, “women have appetites. Deal with it.” But THEN, Jones started talking about _slavery_. Now that is REALLY transgressive, that is shockingly transgressive. What can you do in the face of a mention of slavery except solemnly hang your head at the thought of the unspeakable suffering? (Note how this gives power to the skaveowners. They have the power of being monsters. Instead of being ignored as worms they are feared for the suffering they can inflict). But, instead of being afraid, Jones mocks the attempt to control. Just as she jeered at the people who would call her ugly or deny her sexuL assertiveness, she jeered at those who thought they could own people and control people’s intimate bonds. She laughed at them. She said she would have been strong and in control.

    In real life, Jones wouldn’t have been able to laugh at a slaveowner. They are too powerful, they have all the backing of society behind them. Who in real life ends up being an amazon like Sojourner Truth? Not me for sure. Such exceptional people are rare. But as I said earlier, the thing about control is it puts chains on your mind as well as your body. Laughter and mockery at least frees your mind, evn if it can’t free your body.

    There were also two minor things about Jones’ monologue that struck a nerve with me. First of all, I didn’t realize she was serious when she said how much less attractive she was than this list of other, famously beautiful, black women. Since I’d always heard that US society judges black women, especially dark skinned women, to be unattractive, I thought Jones’ lamenting how much more attractive the other women were was a backhanded way of pointing out that these women– black women– were in fact judged to be beautiful and so f*** you to people who say black women are unattractive. “That’s right,” I thought she was saying, “black women are beautiful. They are on the front page of People magazine. Deal with it. And we have a whole range of body types so I can talk about how they are different from each other and yet all beautiful.” The second thing is that I found I apparently had a simmering resentment against the guy ( the Duck Dynasty guy?) who recently made the news for saying that he thought blacks were happier when they were slaves (Note how he didn’t say HE would be happier as a slave. No, it’s the other people who are supposed to be slaves and submit to his bidding). I thought I’d dismissed this as soon as I heard it, but apparently not. I got really mad when Jones talked about owners breeding slaves like cattle. “That’s right!” I thought, “You tell it like it is! Those a**holes want to play out their vile king/serf fantasies and pretend that slavery wasn’t so bad and that people were happy that way, but I’ve seen the classified ads and read the quotes and the books. I’ve heard people, real live actual people, being referred to as livestock. Livestock, just as you say here. All of us has seen this. It is taught in elementary school. How dare anybody pretend it didn’t happen?”

    If Jones appears in Saturday Night Live again and I watch it, then maybe more exposure will get me to understand why everyone hated her joke so much. I ‘ll have more context to understand where she is coming from.

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