Monthly Archives: February 2011

Fat Jokes and the Elephant in the Room

Lynne Murray says:

When I started to explore this topic I was going to discuss the CBS prime time comedy Mike & Molly, about a fat couple. I can’t recall another show where both partners are fat since Roseanne, 1988-1997.

I laughed at Roseanne, but Mike & Molly did not make me laugh. In fact I felt both angry and a bit nauseated at the underlying premise. I think there’s an elephant in the room on Mike & Molly and I don’t mean that as a fat joke.

The underpinnings of so-called fat jokes are two assumptions that are shared by great masses of our citizenry:

First assumption: fat people are out of control around food, waving a piece of chocolate cake in front of the dieting heroine is tantamount to holding a wine-tasting party for an alcoholic

Second assumption: rescuing fat people from eating forbidden food is a noble act. In Mike & Molly, the hero’s buddy grabs a sandwich out of his hands and characterizes it as an “intervention” because his friend was committing “suicide by meatball sub.” That’s a quote from memory because life is too short for me to watch that dreary YouTube clip again.

In his very useful (and funny) book, The Comic Toolbox, John Vorhaus starts off with the statement “Comedy is truth and pain.” Actually he puts it in full caps, and gives several examples, one of which is: A man falls off a cliff. As he plummets, he’s heard to mutter, “So far, so good.” (p. 4)

Humor has a different set of rules than other fiction. The primary rule is simple and brutal–it has to make you laugh, or at the very least smile happily at a nimble turn of wit. That’s tricky because what makes one audience member laugh makes another break out the hate mail and death threats.

The line keeps moving and changing. Some of that has to do with the changing concept of Truth. What people believe may or may not be true, but the success or failure of a joke to wring a laugh out of an audience can hinge on what the audience thinks is true. Anyone who has ever risked telling a joke to just the wrong person (or worse yet in an inappropriate setting) will understand how jokes are rooted in a social landscape.

The outrageously funny Australian comedy writer/singer (and barefoot virtuoso pianist), Tim Minchin has a song called Prejudice

that begins by toying with expectations that he will say a word American audiences find extremely offensive. He does not. However, at least one commenter to the YouTube clip even says, “I was expecting him to say n_____.” The joke is slightly spoiled in that some of insults he does play with in the last part of the song may be obscure for many American listeners.

Jokes that directly embrace prejudice can now get a joker fired, picketed or targeted as a blatant bigot. Yet these jokes were common coin when racism, sexism and anti-Semitism were in more publicly acceptable full flower. And many groups are still fair game.

As Marlene pointed out last week in a post entitled No Surprises, transgender jokes are alive and well in the mass media and protests about them get limited media attention.

I personally can testify from as much of a sampling of the field as I can endure, fat jokes in all formats seem to be going through a kind of boom right now. Ironically I think this may be a reaction to the increasing visibility of the fat acceptance movement.

(I went looking for the source of the much-quoted Mahatma Gandhi statement: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win” and found that it’s a disputed quote that may have originally come from a 1914 Convention of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.)

In 2009, The Big Fat Blog considered the topic of fat jokes, responding to a Dawn French quote:

“It is no more acceptable to make a fat joke than it is to make a gay joke,” she told Mandrake at the London Evening Standard Theatre Awards, at the Royal Opera House. “People need to learn to take everyone as they are.”

French said her weight had not helped her career, but added: “It certainly hasn’t hindered me. It’s about teaching people how to take you, how to accept you. You have to open people’s minds.”

Many Big Fat Blog commenters brought up the point that seems most glaring to me–the laziness of picking fat or dieting as a target.

Fat jokes are usually not well-honed, and that’s partly because they often are “easy” jokes, simply pointing out that someone is fat and suggesting they must be out of control. Often that observation is the entire joke.

On a deeper level I think fat jokes fail because they are based on a very unstable pile of horse manure, the lie that fat people are out of control and could become thin by dieting. It’s a lie that people believe, and can’t examine very carefully because their belief is so entrenched and dearly beloved. Exploding that lie would lead many fat people to deal with the reality that this is the body you’ll be living in, just as it is now. Better to live in the lie and point fingers at “those people” who can’t control their appetites than to give up hope of ever joining the few, the happy few (about 5 percent of dieters) who manage to attain and sustain weight loss

In a recent New Yorker, writing about Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory, and Mike & Molly, Tom Bissell says of TV sitcoms:

NOTE: Paid content at the link. I took the quotation from a friend’s paper copy.

Films, perhaps, show us who we want to be, and literature shows us who we actually are. Sitcoms, if they show us anything, show us people we might like to know. Because of this, the sitcom is a medium designed to reassure. The more reassuring the sitcom, the better its chances become of winding up in the financial promised land of syndication.

A lot of sitcoms are, in fact, darker than you realize. At its core, Two and a Half Men is about loneliness. The Big Bang Theory is about alienation. Mike & Molly is about self-hatred.

I’m not sure I agree about Two and a Half Men being about loneliness, to me it looks more like the story of a substance-abusing sex-addict older brother and the younger brother who yearns to be him (one of the reasons I stopped watching it). The Big Bang Theory is my absolute favorite show, but that may reflect on my own self as a woman who loves nerds too much.

I don’t believe that Mike & Molly really is about self-hatred. I contend that the “elephant in the room” on this show is fat-hatred, and tiptoeing around and pretending that it’s acceptable damages the humor. Maybe the show could be funny if it had the courage to face its own prejudice.

But that would be bad for business. And yes I mean the diet business

More on Cadaver Donation Selection

Debbie says:

I owe an apology to MedCure for sitting on their response to my post about their policies for so long; the reasons have to do with me and my situation, and not with Body Impolitic or their response.

Valere at MedCure sent a long email a day or two after I posted, most of which is below with my comments interspersed:

In a nutshell, MedCure’s sole mission and reason for existence is to create an opportunity for people to donate their bodies after death in support of medical education and research. The criteria for acceptance or suitability for donation is driven by the medical researchers and educators that rely on us to find them suitable donors for their purposes. In other words, we are not the decision makers on what is acceptable and not acceptable but follow criteria handed to us in screening potential donors for research purposes.

Let me be completely clear. I think this is a marvelous service and I’m very glad it exists. I’m still interested in exploring and understanding specifics.

So regarding the finer points discussed in your blog…

We do not actually conduct autopsies. Autopsies are scheduled by a medical examiner if there is a suspicious cause of death or to rule out how and what a person died from. If someone does require an autopsy after death, it is usually because death occurred by some misfortune other than natural causes. An autopsy will prevent a person’s donation from being suitable because of the added time in getting this completed. In addition, once the body has been “opened” for inspection, it creates potential problems for transportation (e.g. leakage). I know that might be TMI (too much information), but that is the case.

I’m not sure how I got the impression that autopsy was included; looking at their site now, I can’t find that information anywhere.

Regarding infectious diseases… We screen for diseases not to discriminate; this is requested and required by us from the medical researchers. Some diseases are still contagious after death. VERY rarely, we receive a request for a donation with the very diseases we state we do not accept. The request is so infrequent however that I feel it is more honorable to tell people that we DON’T accept those donations so they aren’t mislead into thinking they will be accepted. It seems to cause families more grief and despair for the body of their loved one to be unsuitable and learn of this after death has already occurred than to be up front that it will likely not happen at all.

Of course, screening for diseases makes perfect sense, and I said so in the original post. And I completely agree that it’s more honorable to state refusal policy up front.

All of the criteria for donor suitability is determined AFTER DEATH. We do have a pre-registry screening process that we offer to those who are severely ill or on hospice and their life expectancy is less than 6 months. Whole-body donation is much like transplant donation in that HOW and WHAT you die of along with the body’s condition may prevent donation. We know people like to “make a plan” and know that it is certain, but the only assurance we can give is to provide this screening to identify anything we foresee (red flags?) that might prevent a donation being accepted in advance. Even then, we still encourage prospective donors and their families to have a plan B “just in case”. Another problem we encounter sometimes is weather problems! If we cannot make transportation arrangements for a donor to get to us in a timely manner, that is also a reason for decline.

The uncertainty is completely understandable to me, and not especially relevant to the points I was making. It does seem that in many cases, it would be possible to confirm that a body was unacceptable for donation long before death, including both in the case of the infectious diseases in the case of someone in prison and (if severely underweight or overweight was quantifiable and/or consistent) in those cases for someone whose weight was unlikely to change in the months or weeks before death.

History of illegal drug use depends on the drug used and the method of delivery. It is very common for persons to test positive for Hepatitis or HIV if they had a history of drug abuse. Many never had any symptoms of having these diseases during their life. This is the same for incarceration. We define incarceration as serving time in a federal prison for 6 months or more. There is a really strong correlation with people being incarcerated and a high incidence of testing positive for Hepatitis especially. I’ve always wondered why this is the case, but it is. I’ve seen the test results to prove it over and over again.

As I suspected, these regulations are about the correlations between certain behaviors and certain infectious diseases. If they test the bodies anyway for infectious diseases, why involve the correlating factors? Why exclude prisoners or drug abusers who do not have HIV or hepatitis? Any correlation that is not 100% is a form of stereotyping, and the tests have to be conducted anyway. I do see that the correlations probably lead to cost savings, which is almost certainly a factor.

Overweight and underweight more than just a body image problem. When it comes to transporting an overweight donor, it can add a significant cost as well as create injury to our employees and the medical researchers that are the recipient of the donor. The expression “dead weight” is a real one. We all feel like we weigh twice as much once we spiritually exit our bodies for some reason. But it is important to distinguish that this criteria is at the time of death. A person’s weight can fluctuate a great deal if they are ill for several months or years prior to death so we do not prevent people from registering their intent to BE a donor but I want people to know in advance this may prevent donation from occurring. In regards to low body weight, donors that are severely emaciated are not requested by researchers because they do not represent the norm. But again, sometimes the researchers request these donations. …This criteria fluctuates often so I just list it as “severely under or overweight” to represent what is usually the truth. This criteria is subject to change so I don’t put an actual BMI number on our website. Many people register their intent to donate far in advance of their eventual death and I am certain that criteria will continue to evolve and change.

Well, “dead weight” may be a real phrase, but in terms of pounds, if I die tomorrow my body will weigh then what it weighs now, or very close to it. I would personally be happier if they gave a maximum number of pounds, rather than “severely overweight,” since (as our readers know), a 300-pound football player is not considered overweight and a 300-pound woman is. And if the issue is that researchers’ needs change, then why not just say something like “we may have weight restrictions at given times depending on researchers’ needs”? Meanwhile, I cut material about Valere’s own weight, which she might not want to see plastered over the Internet. She’s discovering the crazy randomness of BMI, which I’m always glad to see someone learn.

As far as race, age, ethnicity, disability and any other things that make us human, that criteria has never been a consideration by our researchers. In other words, they are not requesting donors of a specific race or ethnicity but they do sometimes request certain disabilities or age ranges. Our program does NOT consider these factors for donation acceptance however and neither do the researchers we work with. The more you “live” in your body, the better for medicine I say!

Fabulous! One way to make this policy operational would be to disconnect incarceration and history of drug abuse from HIV and hepatitis, and just use the tests for those diseases to set criteria for donation, although again I acknowledge the cost-saving factor.

Once again, I’m really glad MedCure is in the world, and I thank Valere for her detailed and thoughtful response.