In the first episode of The Obesity Myth, a patient Leanne emotionally describes what are sometimes categorised as fat fail videos, in which obese people are unknowingly captured in a slapstick moment that the Internet finds hysterical. “It’s not funny,” she insists. “I could have been one of those people they filmed.”
In these videos, fat people fall down, struggle to get into vehicles, throw up and generally appear to be hurting themselves.
They’re a cruel distillation of the cheap laughs we get from watching the humiliation of fat people. And it begs the question: will we ever evolve past the "fat person falling down" trope? And how does a kneejerk reaction to what may be perceived as political correctness inform that evolution? Is there such a thing as a good fat joke?
As a kind of disclaimer, I should point out that, having struggled with my weight in a variety of ways over the years, I have a close relationship with "fatness" and am deeply sensitive to the issues stemming from it. I'm not sure this gives me some moral authority to discuss the topic, but it should be clear that I'm coming from a place of understanding.
And in order to further explore the issue of laughing at fat people on screen, I invited culture writer Ben Boyer to engage me in a spirited, honest, trigger-filled conversation about this pop cultural phenomenon. I will let him explain his own relationship to the topic...
Ben Boyer: Yes - full disclosure up top: I am fat. Not ‘could stand to lose a few kgs.’ I’m a legit biggun. I’ve broken three chairs this year. Most of my shirts have butter stains on them. I have a burrito in my pocket right now, and I’m *not* happy to see you, because I want to eat this burrito without being judged. I am 150 kgs and then some.
Nick Bhasin: Since we’re being honest, I would not say I’m currently “fat” (except to my therapist haha lol crying emoji), but I definitely used to be. And even though I don’t deal with the day-to-day realities of being fat, I still think about fatness a lot. Probably more than is healthy. And I definitely notice fat shaming when it happens in movies like Shallow Hal and Norbit.
BB: I really started to think about this topic in a more real way a couple of years ago when a free speech debate broke out over Reddit banning a massively successful board that had hundreds of thousands of subscribers called “Fat People Hate,” where people would post rants about the looks and habits of strangers or co-workers they found repulsive.
As naive as this sounds, I genuinely didn’t know that people went around actively hating fat people. Sure, I feel like I’ve been ignored (in terms of larger cultural representation, say, or fashion), or laughed at (or worse, reminded of my size when I wasn’t thinking of it by someone angry, like a guy in traffic who called me a “fat fuck” when I was taking too long pulling into a parking space last week), but I didn’t know that there were angry proto-alt-right types quietly furious about me causing some hypothetical drain on society because of my fluctuating weight.
NB: Where do you think all this fat hate - the fat fails videos and questionable jokes in movies and TV shows - comes from?
BB: I feel pretty strongly that making fun of fat people is pretty much the last acceptable form of discrimination. You see it literally every day on social media, even from progressives who wouldn’t DARE make fun of anyone else with any other kind of personal issue.
Look at the US President, for example (Donald Trump, who played “Waldo’s Dad” in the 1994 film The Little Rascals). There are lots of reasons that Trump, a fat shamer himself, is a bad person - being overweight is not one of those reasons. So why is it OK to make fun of his weight? Does Trump reveal that discrimination against fat people is one of the few things that can unite people across the ideological divide?
What were we talking about again? Pasta?
NB: We were talking about movies and TV shows that seem to fat shame deliberately and obviously. The Fat Monica flashbacks on Friends, Hugh Grant’s struggle over dating a chubby woman in Love Actually, a strangely large section of Eddie Murphy’s oeuvre (The Nutty Professor, Norbit), Shallow Hal, Bachelorette, Wall-E, Austin Powers 3… The list goes on.
But are all of these equally offensive? Is there another way to look at how they look at fatness?
BB: That’s such an interesting list of examples - I think I could probably put them in order of offensiveness and intent (I am never not infuriated when I see those obnoxious Fat Monica Friends episodes during one of their 17 daily re-runs)- there is such a wide variety of material there in terms of tone and aim.
Some of them actually discuss fatness, for better or worse (can we call the study of films that discuss weight beyond making cheap jokes “passing the snack-del test”?)
(Note: I might have come up with a better joke if I wasn’t so obese.)
I think there have always been occasional cosmetic attempts to address obesity in a sensitive manner, but the louder, shriller voices are always going to be the “can’t you take a joke?” ones.
NB: A lot of these examples are fairly old, which had me wondering if this trope was now extinct. Society is evolving and we don’t make fun of fat people like we used to! We won, right?
In the heralded reboot of Gilmore Girls on Netflix, Rory and Lorelai spend a good portion of a pool scene using their implausibly fancy dialogue to make fun of fat men in bathing suits. Maybe it’s okay/funny because the targets are men and not women? I haven’t watched the show since the first season, when I screamed “PEOPLE DON’T TALK LIKE THAT” at the TV and moved on… but are these women supposed to be this odious? Is that part of their charm? So it’s cool if they’re on the verge of disgust when being forced to converse with a fat man?
Also, in last year’s Logan, there was a throwaway moment in an otherwise good movie where the script forces amazing human being Hugh Jackman to call a woman a “fatass” for a cheap laugh. And people on the Internet also apparently found it funny that this fat kid was running.
BB: The Logan thing was aggravating because it was pandering to the audience.
There’s also a horrible Bill Burr routine in his last Netflix special where he rants about fat people for 7 minutes (“shove some lettuce in there!,” he screams to rapturous applause - whatever you do, DON’T read the comments, lest you despair for all of humanity) - it’s cheap, badly written, lazy, and mean, but the most offensive thing to me personally is that it’s not funny.
I think it’s possible to make funny fat jokes. I re-watched the Comedy Central roast of Roseanne recently and it was packed with them. But like a lot of these things I think it probably comes down to two key factors: Intent and context.
Is the function of the joke to be mean? Is the joke based in some kind of misdirection, or twist on language or expectation?
NB: Stand up comedy is rife with fat jokes. There’s a deeply unfunny “Dear Fat People” video by a comedian that caused some controversy over its meanness. Aesthetically, it’s one of the most irritating things I’ve ever seen. All that quick editing and interstitial commenting on itself… it’s like being punched in the head over and over again. But it comprehensively lays out all the different kinds of fat hate there are out there, which can be collectively summed up with “stop being so fat”.
BB: I’m loath to even give people like that hideous YouTube person the oxygen of acknowledgement. I’d rather watch a snuff movie - or even that terrible Gilmore Girls thing you mentioned.
I spend a lot of time on Twitter, because I am a masochist, and it’s relentless there. I learned recently that Alt Right go-nowheres use the term “landwhale” for fat people, and it’s dispatched thousands of times a day as though it’s a good joke (go ahead, do a search).
NB: There is a long history of the fat comic performer - Oliver Hardy, Jackie Gleason, John Candy, Chris Farley, Melissa McCarthy, Rebel Wilson - but do we laugh at or with them?
I loved McCarthy so much in Bridesmaids (and I think she’s great in Spy, too), but for a while I wasn’t sure if I was laughing at the things she said and did because of her size. When she announces that she’d like to climb a man like a tree, is it funny because we wouldn’t expect a person who looks like that to be sexual? Or is it surprising that anyone would be that sexually aggressive?
I’ve decided it’s the latter for me, but I haven’t always been sure. And it certainly doesn’t help that reviews of the movie couldn’t evaluate her performance without commenting on her size.
BB: Your list includes some of the greatest comic performers ever; people who definitely used or use their physicality to their advantage but who are never just that trait. God, think of that Farley Chippendales sketch with Patrick Swayze - the joke is, on the surface, ‘look at the fat stripper.’ But I’ll be damned if he doesn’t make it high art.
Or Candy in Planes Trains and Automobiles - a textbook example of humanizing a cartoonish figure. Again, it’s context and intent.
NB: Julie Brister wrote an essay about being a fat actress - the kinds of roles she’s offered, the kind of humiliation she has to suffer when she takes a role. It’s pretty powerful and reveals the kind of resentment we have for fat people. As if they’ve brought this punishment up on themselves and deserve it somehow.
BB: People who don’t like Tons ‘o’ Funs take a couple of standard stands - they either couch their hate in faux concern (“I’m just worried about your health” is a classic), or they claim that fat people cost the government a lot of money (something pretty easily debunked by lots of easily Google-able research - the short version is that we die earlier so it all evens out!)
The general idea is that unlike other things that define someone as an “other,” obesity is a weakness, a failure - so mocking it is an easy way for someone to score a little moral superiority.
NB: Is there ever a time when it’s okay to laugh? As this Clickhole article demonstrates, we have a desire to laugh at body size difference, but it’s a minefield if you’re a sensitive person that doesn’t want to be insulting.
I love the absolutely unimpeachable classic Just Friends, mainly for Anna Faris’ comic tour de force that should have won her an Oscar (that fraud Rachel Weisz won for The Constant Gardner - Faris wasn’t even nominated!). But it does feature Ryan Reynolds in a fat suit. Those scenes are meant to be funny, but it doesn’t feel cheap to me. They’re treating the character’s former obesity seriously and it’s a big part of his journey.
BB: I’m with you on Just Friends - a definite sleeper favourite. Again, the lead character in that film is humanized, not there only as slapstick relief.
Fat people are people. Some of them are going to be completely happy with their size; others will be ashamed and caught in a struggle to get to a happier place. Some people might be going through some intense personal trauma that puts their fitness lower on the priority list. Some will brush off a fat gag without a second thought; others will be stung badly and have their day (month/year/late ‘30s) ruined. Some will have experienced bullying or discrimination in a more real way - something we now know can contribute to longer-term weight issues.
This is a complicated, sensitive, multi-layered issue with no easy answers. Often with those kinds of topics, I turn to the classics. My man Plato once said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” That feels like a good way to look at things.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go have a “Plato” my own… a plate o’ candy.
When you’ve gotten that out of your system and you’re ready to appreciate how complicated the issue is, watch The Obesity Myth on Monday at 7:30pm on SBS and now streaming at SBS On Demand: