It seems like Adam Sandler may join Daniel Tosh as the latest comedian to poke fun at images of fat people that are deemed positive within the fat acceptance movement. Or maybe not. I’m not sure.
Last week, a friend won tickets to see a pre-release showing of Sandler’s new movie, That’s My Boy, which is not slated to open until June 15th. I reluctantly accompanied my friend to the theater, which was a block away from my house, and sat through yet another intentionally sophomoric effort by Sandler and his production company, full of gross-out humor, sex gags (no pun intended), and, of course, fat jokes. For the purposes of this blog, I am most interested in the fat jokes, but unlike other jokes made at the collective expense of fat people, these struck a chord that would resonate for a while afterward. Sandler managed, whether inadvertently or not, to play in the gray area between praise and insult, celebration and ridicule.
Let me explain. (Spoiler Alert)
The first of two main fat jokes comes via a fat, African-American stripper named Champale (played by the comedienne Luenell Campbell) who Sandler’s character, Donny, considers a friend and confidante. As Donny vents to her about his estranged son, she performs as a typical stripper: hanging off the pole with only her legs, then only her arms, then elegantly twirling down the poll into a split, etc. Of course, the thought of a stripper having such a serious conversation while dancing is funny in and of itself. However, based on the timing of the theater audience’s laughter, the oddly timed conversation was not the true punch line. What I saw as an attractive stripper “working it” was implicitly hilarious to most of the audience.
I suppose such a reaction to a fat woman acting sexy and beautiful should not be a surprise—we need only look to Tosh’s abuse of Janie Martinez’s Adipositivity photo a few weeks ago to see a similar phenomenon at work. I was surprised, though, about how much this made me think. In the context of the movie, no one was laughing at Champale. In fact, she was well-respected and admired by the clientele. The actual audience in the theater laughed, but the audience within the movie seemed to be sincerely enjoying the show. Champale would recur throughout the movie as a sexy and confident black woman with a good head on her shoulders (and what of her race and current ideas of fat in black communities?). Is this fat shaming or fat activism?
The other joke comes in the form of a fat, male marathon runner. Although the odds are against the runner, he triumphs in a way that brings glory to himself (he wins the Boston Marathon) and success to the story’s protagonists (Sandler’s character bet on him and wins big). Of course, this is not done without some insult. The runner trips while closing in on the finish line, because falling fat people are apparently quite funny. Also, in lieu of bottles of water handed to runners throughout a race, the fat runner is given a gallon of chocolate milk, which he graciously guzzles. On the one hand, there is a potentially positive Health at Every Size message here; on the other hand, the falling and chocolate milk reinforce stereotypes of clumsiness and gluttony that make the runner’s success clearly ironic.
Stigmatization as Praise
Before you accuse me of over-thinking this, I want to say that I know this movie is a categorically silly comedy and that what seems like fat activism probably isn’t. But a question still arises that I’ve been mulling over for a while. Who decides what activism is and what it isn’t? When is praise really a more insidious form of stigmatization?
Thomas Conley speaks to this idea in Toward a Rhetoric of Insult. He writes that “one side of insult calls for shared values and beliefs, rests on a kind of intimacy between insulter and the one being insulted, and can be a way of reinforcing social bonds, not just asserting alienation….Things, in short, are not as simple as they might seem. Praise and insult are not as clearly opposite to one another as they are commonly believed to be” (Conley 125). What I see as a triumph of beauty and spirit in websites like Adipositivity is seen as a source of laughter and disgust by many others. What I see as a celebration of fat female strength in sites like “The Big Beautiful Wonder Woman Blog” is a definite knee-slapper to almost everyone I know. What is meant to be positive enforcement of fat pride can be seen as ironic reinforcement of fat stigma. What can be done about this?
I’m still thinking about an answer to that question, but I resolve to seriously celebrate the health, aesthetics and humanity of fat people every chance I get. Rather than wear t-shirts that read “I Love Fat Chicks,” I inform people about organizations like NAAFA, express the beauty and strength of fat people, and do it with either a straight face or a smile of appreciation. Maybe Champale the stripper has planted an (adi)positive seed that can grow into acceptance and praise of fat bodies. No matter what, images of fat beauty, strength and health must never go away, no matter who is looking at them.
Conley, Thomas. Toward a Rhetoric of Insult. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. Print.
Erec Smith holds a Ph.D. in English, with a concentration in language, literacy and rhetoric, from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is author of the novel Creamy Nougat and currently teaches at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. His interests revolve around diversity and rhetorics of marginalization regarding race, gender, weight, or their potential confluences.