Fat Joke Fail: In Which I Do Not Namecall Ricky Gervais

By | January 5, 2009

The Telegraph has helpfully pointed out some unkind comments about fatties made by Ricky Gervais.

My initial reaction to this is a big ol’ “whatever”: he’s a comedian, he’s trying to be funny. It’s hardly as though he’s the first to spout off a vicious diatribe against fatassery for laughs, and he certainly won’t be the last. I am not, as a rule, opposed to fat jokes, when they are funny. There is much that is funny about being fat, just like there’s much that is funny about many aspects of the human condition, the beautiful and the tragic, in equal measures.

But then he blogged about the Telegraph’s article about him:

I heard someone on the radio once say that they were tired of the prejudice aimed at the overweight. They said something like “you’re not allowed to make fun of gay people, so why are you allowed to make fun of fat people? It’s the same thing.”

It’s not the same thing though, is it? Gay people are born that way. They didn’t work at becoming gay. Fat people became fat because they would rather be that way than stop eating so much. They had to eat and eat to get fat. Then, when they were fat they had to keep up the eating to stay fat. For gayness to be the same as fatness, gay people would have to start off straight but then ween themselves onto cock. Soon they’re noshing all day getting gayer and gayer. They’ve had more than enough cock… they’re full… they’re just sucking for the sake of it. Now they’re overgay, and frowned upon by people who can have the occasional cock but not over indulge.

When a doctor tells me that that’s how you become gay, I’ll stop making jokes about fat people.

Ah, now we have something: an object lesson in why conflating oppressions is not always a bright move.

Here’s my issue, which may very well come as a surprise to Gervais: not everyone agrees that gay people are born “that way.” There’s large numbers of perfectly rational people who do not believe that gayness is intrinsic or 100% nature-based. And I’m not referring to hateful religious assholes here, either (hence the “rational” qualifier), or even to otherwise kind people who believe that gay people are somehow ill or mentally defective. There are intelligent, accepting, normal people, of all sexual orientations, who do not believe that gay people are born “that way.”

This is because sexuality and sexual identity are not static, either/or, black-and-white, carved-in-stone constructs. They’re fluid, and incredibly subjective. In my life, I’ve known people who’ve sworn they knew they were gay as early as three years of age. I’ve also known people who candidly stated that they consciously chose to date members of the same sex. I’ve also known people who just plain don’t jive with the popular dualistic concepts of sexuality and gender in general, and thus who dated folks regardless of their gender identity or presentation.

We’ve yet to discover hard medical proof that all “authentic” gayness is always a part of who we are from birth. This is likely because there isn’t any. Gayness (or queerness) is not something that can be independently authenticated. How do you measure how much gay makes you a Real Gay? To recall the first semifunny thing in Gervais’ bit above: how much cock makes a man gay? Can a man suck the same cock a certain number of times to qualify? Does he have to experience a certain threshold or multitude of cocks in order to be gay, and how many is that? And who decides?

Also, here’s another idea: the concept that all gay folks are born gay is a tremendous relief to many people, since it suggests that it’s impossible for someone to “turn” gay by accident or design. Hence, I would hazard, the reason why the born-that-way model is so popular amongst straight men who like to think of themselves as broadminded – it allows them to accept queerness without acknowledging that they themselves could ever possibly be queer, since they were “born straight.”

Lest I fall into the trap of conflating gayness and fatness myself, I will not draw exact parallels here, but I will suggest that there are certain similarities. While conventional wisdom may agree that fatness is caused exclusively by overeating and lack of exercise, the fact that the majority agrees upon something does not make it true. Not unlike gayness, medical wisdom has yet to offer a clear and indisputable, universalized explanation for why some people are fat and others are not; in fact, the more research that’s done, the less clear the whole issue seems to be. While it’s also true that medicine offers the BMI as a measuring stick for determining fatness (or rather, “obesity” as a medical category), disregarding the BMI for the moment, it’s not unreasonable to argue that casual, man-on-the-street determinations of fatness are enormously subjective. One person’s “fat” is another person’s “average”. Very often, for many of us, indentifying fatness begins with “as fat as, or fatter than, me”. There is no way of determining a fully universal point at which fat becomes a clear visual identifier; it’s different for everyone, both the person being assessed and the beholder, because bodies are different, and standards are different.

Whether or not fatness or gayness is easily measured or authenticated is irrelevant.

Whether or not fatness or gayness is biologically inherent is irrevelant.

What’s important here is the suggestion that certain people are owed humiliation for looking a certain way. It’s played for laughs, sure. But some jokes are just unnecessarily mean-spirited, and perpetuate the already-common idea that treating people of certain characteristics (whether it’s somebody who is fat, or oddly dressed, or super queer) like garbage is totally hilarious. Funny jokes are funny. Harrassment and venom are not. If I feel inclined to deconstruct your joke to this degree, the joke’s not very effective. A good joke distracts me so much with laughter that I don’t care about it being potentially offensive.

One thing I do – sort of – agree with Gervais on:

Gervais, whose star appears to be rising in Hollywood, said in September that he felt ashamed of his weight and added that said overweight people should be branded ‘fatty’ to cut rocketing obesity rates…

“I laugh about being fat, but I should be ashamed. I should walk down the street and have people shouting ‘Fatty!’. That’s what I want, to get me out of it.

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis is familiar with my personal affinity for words like fat, fatty, fatass, death fat, big giant fat fatty fat fat faaaaaaaat, et cetera. Though my intention differs from Gervais – I am okay with not feeling like shit about myself, thank you – I agree that these are words people should be comfortable using, just not as weapons.

After all, they’re just words. Like George Carlin – someone whose fat jokes have always made me laugh – said, it’s all about the context.

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