Should we laugh at fat people in movies?

I just saw Ted and I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that one of the characters is an overweight child that features fairly prominently and who is mocked consistently for his size.

I always wonder about these kind of roles, and why actors agree to parts that deliberately exploit their physical appearance for laughs. I’m not talking about actors like John Candy or Jorge Garcia whose characters are fat, but this is not their only characteristic. I’m talking about the smaller roles; the actor who will be credited as “Fat Guy No. 3.” in a Farrelly Brothers film. These kind of bit-parts exist only as a visible gag, platform for the leading actor to deliver a punchline or just to be hilarious by virtue of being fat. Hilarious. In some cases, filmmakers don’t even bother to add comedy, the mere presence of a fat person is side-splitting enough to carry a whole scene, or even a whole movie.

Bonus laughs if it’s a skinny guy in a fat suit. Double bonus laughs if it’s a skinny guy in a fat suit pretending to be a woman. Triple laughs if it’s two black guys in suits pretending to be two young white girls.

Fat suits aside, why do genuinely overweight actors choose roles that cause them to be the subject of ridicule and is it fair to belittle them on screen, even if they’re willing?

I found myself wondering how Seth McFarlane, as a director and actor, was able to stand there and verbally abuse an overweight child. No matter how willing and prepared the kid may have been for it, it can’t be psychologically sound to hear yourself called “Tubby McFatFuck” take after take. Nor should that kid think that being dangerously overweight is acceptable or a source of amusement.

I know I’m probably sounding like a conservative nut or an over-anxious parent here, but I assure you I am neither. But I did suffer from bad acne as a teenager and I can’t imagine I ever would have leaped at the chance to star opposite a CG teddy bear and have him point out how hideous my face is to an audience of millions of people.

For a society that is so weight-obsessed, we’re all far too quick to laugh when someone is unable to control their weight. We have become far too flippant with obesity-based humour. Actors like Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence have dedicated entire movies to this lame joke and it has become so common-denominator that we don’t even notice it anymore.

I know that obesity is just another fact of life and I’m not against the idea of it being used as a source of comedy. If a grown adult wants to subject themselves to humiliation in front of rolling cameras, they’re entitled to, but I don’t think its fair to subject a child to these kind of cheap jokes, just for the sake of a few laughs.

But he obviously thought it was worth it to meet Markie Mark and Mila… eh… Mila.



10 responses to “Should we laugh at fat people in movies?

  1. You have a valid point, but the reality is where you draw the line. I haven’t watched “Ted”, but if the Fat Kid gets a moment at the end where he is redeemed or has a moment of comeuppance against his antagonist then I think it is OK. The same can be said for any film.

    Also, a distinction should be made between an adult and a kid. I think it is perfectly OK if you are mocking an adult actor because they know what they are getting into, and should be able to defend themselves if they feel the line is being crossed. A child/kid is depended on the surrounding adults to defend them if they are not sure how to deal with something.

    • He doesn’t really get to redeem himself at all, but does get the honour of the closing joke in the film. And a good one it is too.

      Anyway I liked the film a lot but do completely see where you’re coming from, particularly with regard to this guy being an impressionable kid. I think he’s about 14 now and you would hope that there was someone explaining why they were calling him “Susan Boyle” and “fat kid” the whole time… But it is the Family Guy style of humour so we shouldn’t have expected anything else.

      Oh and good to see that the guy isn’t being typecast having played the young version of notoriously-thin Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover II…

      Finally Dave I think there could be a spot working for Fox News’ family values in the media hour if you decide to pursue this caring, conservative take on things!

      • Don’t get me started on Obama’s healthcare bill, nigel. And why do kids have to swear so much these days? I blame all these 58 cents and 2pax types, that’s not real music. Give me John Denver anyday.

    • I agree victor, I’m not bothered when it’s and adult, merely perplexed. In this instance, it was a kid and there was no moment of redemption.

  2. Ted isn’t released in this part of the world until next month, so I can’t comment on specifics, but this argument crops up with regard to most objectionable material in movies: violence, sex, drug use, or in this case, verbal abuse. Inevitably, the context decides whether or not it is gratuitous. Is the teasing essential for the plot and/or the character’s story, or does it teach us something about human nature? Is it clear that we should empathise with the victim? My guess is yes, in this case.
    As for the actor, well, we can only hope he’s developed a thick skin.

    • I’ll let you judge the context for yourself when you see it Joe; and you should see it, it’s quite an enjoyable film, and for all its flaws, has some genuinely impressive achievements, in particular the CGI and the relationship between Ted and Mark Wahlberg. I appreciate that ridicule can be acceptable if it teaches us something or if it serves a purpose, but I was perturbed enough to write this post, not that it felt gratuitous (because it actually is an appropriate reaction for the character to insult the child), but that I couldn’t help thinking about how the kid would feel about it. It’s easy for actors to escape from a character when the cameras stop, but that child can’t escape from his body and that’s what he was being ridiculed for. I just don’t think that was necessary or fair to the child, with or without his approval. That said, it’s one small part of a film I did enjoy, I just thought it was worth discussing.

      • Finally saw Ted. Very enjoyable and funny despite a few lulls. Having seen the teasing in context, the kid is clearly set up as a villain, thereby limiting the level of sympathy we can have for him.Also, the teasing is a normal response for Ted’s character, so it doesn’t seem especially mean-spirited. All-in-all I don’t think it was wanton or especially insensitive (a relative term, obviously).

        I’d hope that any psychological impact the insults had on the actor were lessened by repeated table-reads and rehearsals. Oh, and the paycheck.

  3. First of all, these actors are taking advantage of their physical appearance for financial gain. That kid was no actor but he gets to be in this movie (which, aside from some humorous segues which had nothing to do with the actual plot, was frankly dreadful) which in many ways is elevating the humble fat kid to the status of ”fat kid who got mocked by Seth McFarlane.” He’ll live off that for years.

    Is it any different to have an actor in a movie solely because they’re good-looking? At least having someone in a movie because they’re fat doesn’t imply that they’re stupid or vain. How many movies have a vapid blonde chick or some vacuous Adonis being made fun of for their lack of intelligence?

    I write this because I am beautiful, overweight and as thick as two short planks.

    • Fair point saucy. However, I do think that in the case of people being ridiculed for their lack of intelligence on screen, they are either a) just playing a part and aren’t really as thick as any sized planks or b) actually are stupid, in which case, they’ll be too slow to realise that we’re not laughing WITH them.

      Maybe the answer is to hire fat kids who don’t realise they’re fat. I suggest a special Hollywood breeding lab deep underground where mirrors are not allowed, children are fed nothing but Chicken Nuggets and cups of lard and are constantly being told how beautiful and perfect they are.

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