Last weekend, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had a Marie Antoinette moment: Having closed the state’s beaches to the general population, he and his family relaxed on the sand. Aerial photographs caught him in the act, and illogical explanations followed.
What also followed? “Beached whale” jokes.
Chris Christie is undeniably obese. He has long struggled with his weight, and underwent surgery several years ago. Jokes about his weight are not new. And I’m not about to defend Christie personally: His use of the beach and his subsequent denial was at best petty, at worst the sort of political bullying also involved in closing the Fort Lee lanes of the George Washington Bridge. Christie deserves to be publicly attacked for his blatant abuses of power.
When we make “beached whale” and other jokes about Christie, though, we’re not just attacking him personally. We’re reinforcing social values about being overweight, and the collateral damage is anyone else struggling with their self-esteem due to their weight.
Compare our cultural reaction to “fat jokes” to other forms of ableist humor. Last year, Donald Trump was widely criticized for miming Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter with a disability. FoxNews suggested that Trump wasn’t truly miming Kovaleski, but rather that Trump has a “stupid person” motion that happens to resemble Kovaleski’s limitation, but that’s just as bad: The idea that Trump has go-to mimicry for “stupid people” is ableist, regardless of whether it’s aimed at someone specific or not.
I’ve seen liberals hold out that moment—Trump’s mockery of Kovaleski—as the moment that should have locked Trump out of the Presidential race for good. That sort of ableism is a bridge too far. We have no tolerance for blatant ableism against persons with physical and mental challenges.
I’ve seen some of the same liberals making “beached whale” jokes about Christie. Note that the first two jokes at the Humoropedia link above are from Conan O’Brien, a comedian that was liberal enough to struggle with Jay Leno’s more moderate, more staid audience.
One thing that’s different, of course, is that Christie is a reviled politician, while Kovaleski is a bystander of a reporter caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s “fake news” narrative.
But fat jokes aren’t limited to Christie. Louie Anderson and other overweight comedians make self-deprecating jokes, and fat-shaming has been called “the last acceptable prejudice.” Last year, the Daily Beast referred to the show title “The Second Fattest Housewife in Westport” as “subversive and provocative, perhaps offending in the way that generates eyeballs but not in the way that makes one morally opposed from tuning in.”
The Daily Beast is writing down what a lot of us are thinking: Fat jokes are awkward, sure, but they’re not morally wrong. The laughs that Anderson and others get have the same nervous energy that many comedians rely on. We shouldn’t be laughing, but we are.
So why are we?
One difference between obesity and many other physical characteristics is that obesity is seen as changeable. Someone with a permanent physical disability, like myself and Kovaleski, can’t do anything to get rid of that disability. You can’t easily change your skin color (although there’s an industry in India to do just that), height is dictated by genetics and childhood diet, and most people accept the gender they’re assigned at birth.
Overweight people, meanwhile, can lose weight.
Naturally, it’s not that easy, and mocking people for their weight is counterproductive if the goal is get them to lose that weight.
There’s also a gender bias in fat-shaming. Women tend to be treated viciously for weight issues; the tabloids are full of stories about once-lithe celebrities who are now size 10s or 12s, a normal weight for American women. Women heavier than that are fetishized as “chubbies” and “BBWs” (the latter also being used as an empowerment term). Meanwhile, we men are given more latitude for having “beer bellies” and battling the bulge, but are then the fodder for “beached whale” jokes when we get too big.
When we mock someone like Christie for his weight, there are two forces at play. First is the general acceptability of fat jokes in our culture. Second is a feeling that we can make casual ableist jokes about people we hate because we don’t care about their feelings anyway.
Recently, Donald Trump mocked Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski including slurs on their mental and cognitive ability. In Andy Behrman’s social media clarion call to not let Trump’s ableist attacks pass without comment, I saw a person suggest that Trump is the one who needs help.
This is an admittedly mild example, but I’ve seen far worse attacks on Trump’s presumed mental health. If someone’s mental health or cognitive abilities is not to be the fodder for jokes, it shouldn’t matter who that person is. If our standard is “Don’t mock someone for their challenges,” then we shouldn’t mock someone for their challenges.
The same goes for fat shaming. We either have a consistently applied standard, or we’re hypocrites.
This isn’t about defending the feelings of the likes of Christie and Trump. Both of these people have made a significant amount of their career about being callous towards others, and have fully earned the disrespect of liberals. Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high,” and while I agree with that sentiment in general, I’m not concerned about the feelings of Christie and Trump. Go low with them: They’ve earned the verbal assault, and the record indicates that Christie doesn’t even care about it.
What concerns me is that, when relying on the easy low-hanging fruit of fat jokes, as well as other traits such as “manhood” size, we’re referencing dangerous cultural values in general.
Trump and Christie have noxious policies. That’s true regardless of their physical characteristics. Let’s criticize them for their noxious policies. Let’s criticize Christie for relaxing on the beach after closing it for everyone else. He deserves it.
But let’s cut out the fat jokes, because the fat jokes hurt lots of people who aren’t Chris Christie, and they don’t deserve it.
Related, here on GMP:
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