“Acceptable” Prejudice

This one may get a little rambly, so bear with me …

Earlier this spring, I went to a comedy musical play. It was around the time of the Oscars which, this year, were so appallingly lacking in diversity that some celebs chose to boycott. The cast of this play had at least 15 people and only one person of color in the group. In one scene, she does an ad-lib aside about being the only person of color in the cast, in which she mentioned the oscars, and made a few salient points about casting. And then one of the leads said, “OK, now get out of here, the white people are talking.” So some self-awareness in the mix, if not actual diversity. And a sign that the writers were trying not to be bigoted asshats. Or so I assumed.

But in an otherwise clever and nuanced script, there were at least two minute-long breaks for fat jokes. As in “she’s so fat that …” blah blah blah. And when I say “breaks,” I mean the action of the scene paused and a character just reeled off fat jokes. It was clearly just filler. Mean-spirited filler.

Now believe me when I say that I appreciate the importance of being able to laugh at one’s self and the value of satire. I understand the significance of policing language and jokes to the point where no one feels comfortable saying anything remotely controversial. To be perfectly honest, I sometimes wish I could crack wise without worrying about a call-out. At this point, I’ve been conditioned to fear poking fun at anything or anyone, including myself. But I’d rather be inclusive and welcoming than acerbic, and that’s the choice I’ve made. That said, I do occasionally read articles about the terrible offense people have taken at such and such a joke and feel like the world could stand to lighten up a little.

This play, though? It really didn’t need to go there. It could have rolled along just as entertainingly without a literal break in the action created specifically to make fun of fat people. I don’t mean to imply that it’s fine to make fun of X group but not Y group, or that every piece of content mentioning a concept that might upset someone should include a trigger warning. But this was so low. It was not satire and it was not clever. It was base, schoolyard humor shoved into an otherwise well-written show.

And it reminded me of articles I’ve read pointing out that making fun of fat people is one of the last socially acceptable forms of outright bigotry. Obviously being a prejudiced jerkface about any group of people is going to spark anger and could and should be avoided. But even TV shows, movies, and comedians that generally steer clear of race jokes, sexism, religious jokes, ageism, and ableism still feel perfectly free to say shockingly insensitive things about fat people and make loads of jokes about weight. Why are people who understand the importance of treating most people with respect and sensitivity completely comfortable being cruel to fat people?

Some people maintain that fat is just another adjective that describes human beings, a sort of reclamation or disarming of the term. And while I respect that philosophy, I know that some people still view the term as an insult. And regardless, humor fueled by cruel intentions – toward any person or group – is unnecessary.

As you might’ve guessed, I don’t have a solution for this situation, per se. But I wanted to point out that there are ways to be funny without being cruel (see Eddie Izzard, Mitch Hedberg), and that otherwise open-minded people who make nasty cracks about fat people can be gently but firmly told to knock it off. No type of bigotry should remain socially acceptable, no group or type of people should be sanctioned targets for prejudice. Ever. The end.

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10 Responses to ““Acceptable” Prejudice”

  1. Anabel3

    People still think that fatness is based on choices and puritanistically, represents a moral failing is is therefore fair game for ridicule. All the most recent studies of dieting and the highly publicized Biggest Loser studies show that focusing in weight, instead of general fitness at whatever size, is a losing game. And what’s the cost? All of us, fat, skinny, in between, and dissatisfied are trapped by fears of these kinds of public ridicule. It’s ok as long as it’s not you, and you’ll buy that LA beach diet juice to avoid becoming a target. It’s more than cruel intentions toward a specific group, in this case this kind of language is meant to control behavior

    • Monica H

      I definitely believe you’ve hit on the key factor here. Our social myth is that fat people make “poor choices” and therefore they have brought it on themselves. In addition, it doesn’t seem like prejudice when seemingly the evidence is so obvious – I know they really are lazy and have no willpower because I can see the evidence! It’s not a prejudice, it’s a fact!

      Of course none of what I wrote above is actually true. But because this is the story our culture tells over and over, it makes it seem acceptable.

      The absolute worst part is that shaming people in this context is not only hurtful emotionally, in many cases it is also counterproductive. It is an attempt to control others’ behavior that ends up more likely to lead to more of the same.

      I hope eventually we will realize that this damages all of us, and we would all be happier and healthier if we reached out to others with love and compassion, rather than ridicule and shame.

  2. Kris

    I just saw Zootopia yesterday and had a similar moment. Overall the film does a lovely job of pointing out the ways categorizing and stereotyping people is harmful, but there is a moment where a fat character has a donut stuck/hidden under his voluminous chins and that leads to a cheap laugh. The fat character is a cop, so I guess one could argue the joke also plays with the cop/donut stereotype, but I saw it very much like your experience with the play, just there for an easy laugh at the expense of fat people. In a movie about tolerance and acceptance and not assuming what people will/can do based on the various categories in which we place them. It rankled, and also limited my enjoyment of what was otherwise a great movie.

  3. crtfly

    Law in place or not, there is still plenty of discrimination against people purely because of their age or perceived age.


  4. Courtney L.

    Thank you! One of the things that I love about Melissa McCarthy movies is that she hasn’t done fat jokes in them (so far that I’ve seen.) In Spy, Rose Byrne insults her character every few minutes and never once makes a fat joke.

  5. Leah

    Sal, I wonder if you mentioned this to the theater company? It seems like valuable feedback for them.

    • Sally McGraw

      Good point, Leah. The play was one that was written years ago and toured, so I assumed that the jokes were part of an existing script and they were just using what had already been written. But I will reach out. Thanks for suggesting that.

  6. Nebraskim

    10 upvotes on this posting. Applause for you Sally.