Thursday, October 17, 2013

Super Fun Night & Representations of Fatness (originally published in Little Village Magazine)

*I did not include full citations, but YOU NEED TO!
*This piece also lacks a strong thesis statement, but yours should have one

ABC’s Super Fun Night features Rebel Wilson as awkward, yet successful, New York City lawyer Kimmie Boubier (yes, it is a boob joke, pronounced like “boobie-yay!). Together with her also awkward roommates, Marika (Lauren Ash) and Helen-Alice (Liza Lapira), Kimmie decides that instead of staying home every Friday night like they have for over a decade, they are going to go out in the world and find some fun. As Kimmie puts it, “We’re never gonna bust out of our cocoons if we don’t put our busts out there!”

As an Australian comedian, Wilson is probably best known in the U.S. for her role as Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect (2012) or as Kristen Wiig’s crazy roommate, Brynn, in Bridesmaids (2011). Her unique style of self-deprecating humor, and the fact that she both created and stars in this Conan O’Brien produced show, helped generate a lot of early buzz for Super Fun Night; however, upon release of the pilot screeners, the critical excitement quickly turned into critical aversion. The reason for the unenthusiastic response: too many fat jokes.

Kevin Fallon wrote for The Daily Beast, “... the frequency of the weight-related punchlines, not to mention the droll way in which Wilson delivers them, ends up being depressing.” Similarly, Lily Rothman notes in her review for Entertainment Weekly, “Wilson has burdened [her character] Kimmie Boubier with constant tiresome references to her less-than-perfect physique.”

These responses, plus the original pilot teaser with its relentless body-shaming and scenes of social rejection, pretty much convinced me I was going to hate this show as well. But then something weird happened. When I watched the revised pilot, I actually liked it.

Yes, fat humor can be a sign of lazy writing. This is exemplified by CBS's Mike and Molly, where the two main characters, played by Melissa McCarthy and Billy Gardell, often embody fat stereotypes and humor constantly revolves around dieting and overeating. Shows like The Honeymooners, The Simpsons, Family Guy, King of Queens, Fat Actress and The Drew Carey Show are also guilty of using easy fat guy/girl jokes.

But does it always have to be offensive and perpetuating of negative stereotypes about weight or physical appearance? No.

One joke depicts Wilson running down the hallway of her office, warranting a colleague to call out, “Boubier, what’s the rush?” She responds, “Gary just tweeted that there are jelly donuts in the break room.” This exchange clearly taps into stereotypes concerning the amount and types of foods that fat individuals eat. However, when the thin colleague expresses an equal amount of excitement over the donut rumor and rushes out of the office with her, this scene not only shows that the love for donuts transcends all body types, it also doesn't shy away from embracing the idea that, regardless of body size or gender, people can and should be able to enjoy eating whatever they want. Maybe I am giving this scene a generous read, but I am so sick of television shows, films and advertisements trying to convince women, in particular, that salads are fun and inspiring of smiles.

Still, there are some off-hand remarks by other characters that do come across as lazy fat jokes and that encourage viewers to laugh at Kimmie because of her size instead of the silly situations in which she finds herself. For instance, a fellow lawyer tries to explain how Kimmie may be involved in a secret romance by saying, “You get a big one on the leash, you wanna keep it on the DL,” implying that anyone dating Kimmie would or should be embarrassed because of her size. Later, Kendall, Kimmie's nemesis and the show's mean girl says, “You have the heart of a lion, and the body of a much much larger lion.” Unfortunately, neither of these lines are particularly funny, and when you combine them with repeated Spanx jokes I can see why viewers or critics may take offense.

The Spanx jokes, to me, seem to make more fun of Spanx themselves as opposed to Kimmie's body wearing them. An opening scene involves a sight gag in which an elevator door closes, tearing off Kimmie's dress to reveal her beige Spanx. When Kimmie's love interest returns to find her in a state of partial undress, she takes a sip of her smoothie and grins with an expression that simultaneously conveys embarrassment and a kind of an endearing, clumsy coolness. The Spanx exposure and her reaction to the situation are the source of humor, not her body.

Another Spanx joke marks Kimmie's exit from a piano bar later in the night, she says “Well, I’m gonna go now before my boob sweat seeps into my Spanx.” And finally, a montage at the end of the episode shows Kimmie dancing around her apartment, straining to get her Spanx on. Again, this could be read less as pointing out the incompatibility of her fat body and Spanx, and more as exposing the futility and silliness of anyone wearing Spanx in the first place. Aren't all our bodies sweaty, less-than-perfect and often sources of both embarrassment and humor?

Ultimately, there are elements of the show where it is clear that Rebel Wilson is making light of her size and showing that fatness itself isn't always as serious as the obesity epidemic context may frame it to be. She generally seems to accept her body, and if the show continues, I think it has the potential to be one of the few that promotes body acceptance--assuming it doesn't veer off into overeaters anonymous territory or switch to an endless string of failed diet jokes. 

While it’s nice to see critics being sensitive to fat jokes, especially considering the fact that they’ve long been an easy and offensive source of comedy that may perpetuate size discrimination and fat stigma more broadly, I wonder what the difference is between Kimmie in Super Fun Night and Rebel Wilson’s other characters, or even the physical humor of male comedians like Chris Farley or John Candy, that inspires such sensitivity to this show. If you are going to hate the show, don't hate it because of its focus on fat just yet. Hate it because it has thus far only succeeded at proving itself better than the series premiere of Dads.

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