Please help me unpack this
August 25, 2017 8:08 AM   Subscribe

I had a rather negative reaction to a video posted on Facebook and I need to process why it bothered me and if my reaction was warranted.

A retired liberal arts professor, a generally nice man (though I don't know all that well), posted the above linked video with the caption 'feeling amused.' And so I watched, and was very much NOT amused. I made a sarcastic comment about how how "funny" it was because fat people don't know how to dance. Ha. Ha. Hmmm. His response was of mild surprise, because he thought it was "puncturing the stereoptype" and he felt it was funny in the same way Chris Farley's physical humor is funny.

I don't think those are fair comparisons, but I don't feel like it's worthwhile trying to argue that back and forth with him on Facebook. I would love to know what my fellow MeFites think and help me come to terms with my reaction, for better or worse.
posted by BeBoth to Society & Culture (18 answers total)
Perhaps on the surface it appears to puncture the stereotype, but there are a few business-as-usual tropes that I noticed being communicated in the clip. I think first and foremost, the audience is meant to notice how visually disgusted and confused everyone seems to be by the male protagonist's choice in dancing partner, because she is overweight. Next is how absurd it is that she's dancing (and, more below the surface, existing) at her size, which is exaggerated. There was the quip made about losing 150 lbs (to which the overweight female subject remarks 'me too!'), which I feel was meant to communicate to the audience that at one point she'd been even larger, and even more absurd in her existence. Finally, the end, where her size is such that the male protagonist is visually strained by holding her up after the final dance move. And then helpers rush to push up her body because, though he didn't drop her, it's implied that he would have very soon. By not dropping her, he is somehow chivalrous, gentlemanly, or in some other way a champion. (See also: struggling 'against the odds'.)

All in all, same old Hollywood using a fat woman as a prop. I've never seen this film and I don't know the plot, but from this clip it seems like she's a tool to make the male protagonist appear kind, or capable of holding back what the clip seems to think is 'obvious, deserved, and allowed disgust' with said fat woman's body. Even the triumph at the end is at her expense. She doesn't get to share in the triumph, she just doesn't get dropped. And the clip seems to send an underlying message of "she should have been dropped, and anyone else of lesser character wouldn't have ridiculously chosen her to dance, let alone held her up". He looks good. His story continues. She goes back to being a prop in the background. Status quo of treating fat people as laughable for doing everyday things carries on.

Does any of that resonate?

Note: I'm not agreeing that any of these tropes are correct or true, just stating what I noticed.
posted by Vrai at 8:42 AM on August 25, 2017 [13 favorites]

I don't love it. The joke isn't "haha, turns out she can dance!" The joke is "haha, she's so fat that it takes monumental effort and sometimes several people to lift her!"

She's still the butt of the joke. The people who assumed she couldn't dance (or who were snide about her dancing?) don't have their minds changed, and the joke certainly isn't on them. None of them look abashed in the least.

If this scene were exactly the same, minus the gentlemen helping her up at the end, and minus the lingering shot on the man's face as he strains to lift her, I'd potentially pay the puncturing the stereotype comment. As it is, tho, the scene feels like fat people (especially fat people who dare to do physical activity) are funny.
posted by mishafletch at 8:43 AM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

There are definitely some cheap "ha ha fat" laughs in it, especially toward the end. With the other couple, the man pulls the woman across the floor. Steve Carrel gets pulled. That's also humor based on gender reversal, with the implication that the fat woman cannot be feminine. Then when he does lift her, it's clearly physically impossible, and at the end, there's "humor" based on what a huge effort it is not to drop her. So I agree that there's a surface idea of puncturing the stereotype, but her size is still a big joke.
And I don't know what movie this is, but I'm guessing that she doesn't appear again, and she's certainly not going to be in a relationship with anyone.
I agree that she is primarily there to make him look like a good guy. I wouldn't be too hard on your professor though. This sort of thing is absolutely made to look as if it's puncturing the stereotype (how generous of the filmmakers to have a fat woman be cheered for dancing). It's sort of like that horrible movie "Shallow Hal", which was just an excuse to make every fat joke in the book.
posted by FencingGal at 8:48 AM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

IDK, the "amusing" comment wouldn't have bothered me so much, because it could have just meant "this is a lovely".
But comparing it to Chris Farley's humor - I'm thinking the Patrick Swazye Chipendale's shirtless dancing skit - is not okay.
Laughing at fat people doing things when the same things wouldn't be amusing or funny if thin people did it? Not cool.
posted by Neekee at 8:49 AM on August 25, 2017

I agree with you, and I also agree that it's not worthwhile trying to argue back and forth on Facebook. Vrai and mishafletch pretty much covered it.
posted by freezer cake at 8:49 AM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

You could discuss it in terms of punching up or punching down. She is clearly the butt of the joke.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:54 AM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

Yeah this made me feel pretty weird and uncomfortable and you're not wrong to get a bad vibe from it. It's not subverting anything, the whole joke is that she's a big woman. But yeah, arguing about it on facebook is probably a dead end. Instead I'd just watch Melissa McCarthy's Spy which is a genuinely funny movie involving a plus size woman doing incongruous physical feats (not that it doesn't have some problems otherwise).
posted by dis_integration at 8:59 AM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Gross. Her fatness is still the butt of the joke. (It's not about whether fat people can dance; it's about whether they ought to be visible doing it; the clip makes it clear that it's bizarre. And your professor friend knows this perfectly well.

(It's still not worth arguing about on FB)
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:04 AM on August 25, 2017

There are definitely "fat" jokes there, which are pretty obvious and not terribly funny. I don't mean "not funny" in the sense that I'm super upset or offended, but in the sense that they just aren't funny. But she also basically wins by defying everyone's expectations.

That being said, you feel how you feel about it. I think that whether other people are offended or amused by the scene doesn't really matter all that much to your feelings. I can see being upset because "Haha...fat!" and I can also see being amused, because the character defies expectations.

I try to match my reaction to the offense, such as it is. I would acknowledge that there are "fat" jokes here, and that they're pretty dumb, and that might upset people, but that the character was positive in some ways as well. But that's as far as it goes for me. I would chalk it up to dumb jokes in a bad movie and move on, without arguing about its offensiveness online or in person.
posted by cnc at 9:15 AM on August 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree with the above, that this is all extremely lazy and dumb humor that begins and ends with "a fat lady dancing, lol." Your negative reaction is warranted! And I agree with your impulse to call it out on Facebook, just as I would if someone were to post a video of racist, misogynist, or homophobic humor.
posted by ejs at 9:35 AM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I've seen this before, possibly in whatever movie it's in, and it irritated me, too. They poked listlessly at one of a whole balloon bouquet of stereotypes and then released all of them to bob all over the set. There's the "skinny bitchiz are vacuous, presumptuous, and mean and need to be taken down a peg" stereotype. That one they polished lovingly. They also strengthened "Only the Attention of a Man Makes a Woman Worthy of Notice." They did not come close to puncturing "fat people can't dance," and they easily could have popped it if they'd choreographed anything interesting or tried to do something unexpected or even made a minimal effort to avoid contradicting themselves with stupid stuff like the unliftable joke at the end that we have all seen tenbillion times. The stereotype that some might argue they went for, "fat women are unworthy of male attention" didn't get punctured, either. What we learned from that scene was that paying attention to a fat woman is a useful means to an end, namely, putting uppity skinny bitches that won't "dance with you" in their place.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:40 AM on August 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

oh, I totally agree that you were right to say something. I just think that now that you have, your work here is done. He knows it was a "fat lady dancing lol" situation, he's just embarrassed and defensive now.

(I'm really annoyed at his Chris Farley comparison too. Chris Farley made his own fatness and its ludicrousness in the context of Chippendales dancing the butt of the joke, willingly and for the lolz. That was the point. There are some fat female performers who own their fatness and its humor value the same way - but this lady, made up, nicely dressed, and dancing at a wedding, was not one of them.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:40 AM on August 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I didn't even get to the other offensive parts people listed because of how nasty the very opening part was, when the blonde woman showed how stuck-up she was by turning steve carell down for a dance just because she didn't want to dance with him. the nerve! well, joke's on her, because he wasn't talking to her, he was talking to the woman behind her, as she would have known if she weren't so full of herself as to think a man looking at her and asking a question was addressing her. bitches, right?

this is not only using fat women as pity props to make men look good, it's using them as pity props to put thin women in their place.

fuck that
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:44 AM on August 25, 2017 [11 favorites]

Not only is it a crappy joke, it's a crappy joke made at a snail's pace. Bleurgh.
posted by threetwentytwo at 10:02 AM on August 25, 2017

Best answer: Hmm, well, I'm listening, but I thought the clip was at least okay, (not perfect, but okay), so maybe let me share that point of view?

I thought the point is that she goes from being embarrassed to being an awesome dancer and that together they are angry at society's anti-fat attitudes and proving them wrong (even if yeah, he's not strong enough to sustain a certain physical position).

The other people's disgusted looks are definitely just them being the bad guys of the situation, so the point is: bad guys look down on fat people and good guys don't. (Often movies have a crowd of bad people, and the point isn't to reinforce the rightness of that viewpoint.)

I took the "lost 150 pounds" thing as (a) this is where he's coming from, knowing that anti-fat attitudes are BS, as someone who used to weigh more, (b) but it's not like he's "the good one" who lost weight, as she has lost weight too, (c) what matters is how one feels, e.g., having energy. In my mind, they end that conversation as equals having both experienced weight loss that gives them lots of energy to really enjoy the dance.

My issues with it are (1) that Steve Carrell "saves her" from her low self-esteem or embarrassment, so it's a white knight thing. I don't know the context, but I wish it was that she was with someone who was looking down on her, saw that SC wasn't like that, and chose him because she realized she deserved someone who respected her. And (2) she goes from being embarrassed to being just as good as everyone else, and I would've liked it more if it turned out that she was far more awesome than the bad guy dancers. But overall, I thought it was okay.

I agree that this person's "amused" comment leaves a lot of ambiguity, so it's good that you called it out. Is he laughing with the good guys, or is he amused like "lol fat woman dancing"? His comment could've been much more like "people who hold anti-fat stereotypes are finally being presented as the movie villains they are" or "glad society is finally realizing that it's how you feel, not how you look, that counts" or something. It's not a perfect clip, so it would've been helpful if he were more clear.

And maybe I'm giving it too much credit because I want there to be body-positive stuff out there so maybe I'm willfully seeing it that way? But when I watch it, I feel like "ha, they sure showed those superficial jerks!" so I think it's at least possible to enjoy it from a body-positive perspective.
posted by salvia at 11:41 AM on August 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

(b) but it's not like he's "the good one" who lost weight, as she has lost weight too,

I also want to clarify that I thought it was a little problematic that they bonded over losing weight, though I can see why they did it (as explained above).
posted by salvia at 12:04 PM on August 25, 2017

Movies are either amusing or not depending on who on the screen we attach our sympathies or else identify with.

I'm guessing the prof sees himself with Maxwell Smart, the Steve Carell character, the movie's daffy hero who is going to a new length to this traditional "dance-with-someone-else-to-make-the-girlfriend-jealous" scene, while also bringing up the underdog, against expectations.

I'm also guessing you put your sympathies on the woman because she's the underdog, presumably in real life as well as this contrived ball.

He may also be drawing differently on the context of the scene within the movie than you. Nobody looks at the same video and sees the same things because of the things and people they pay attention to the most, while -- without realizing, generally -- ignoring other things/people. The cinematic camera and edit try very hard to direct your attention, which is why it's difficult to try watching this scene with your sympathies on, say, Agent 99 (Hathaway)'s dance partner, the least important person in the scene, but the camera and edit can only do so much to focus your sympathies and affection. Some movies just try harder than others; this was a spy comedy based on a 1960s TV show, so it's not going to be one of those movies.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:11 PM on August 25, 2017

"Some movies just try harder than others; this was a spy comedy based on a 1960s TV show, so it's not going to be one of those movies." Get Smart is beloved by the multitudes and deserved much better. Anyway, it's never necessary to make a lazy bad movie. The lightest of fare can be done well and be beautiful and great. But if for some reason you've decided your material isn't worth your time and you're not going to try hard, at least don't attempt a comedic scene about a vulnerable group of people who could get hurt by your halfassery. If you're going to phone it in, go with "dog people, amirite?"
posted by Don Pepino at 1:55 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

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