Friday, October 16, 2009

Et tu, Amy Poehler? What's so funny about desiring a big, black woman?

Fat, black woman. Big, black chick. Those descriptors are lazy comedy shorthand in a racist, sexist and sizist society. Want to bring on the cheap laughs? Then trot out an over-sized, brown-skinned lady. Even better, despite her fatness and blackness, give her a more than healthy opnion of herself. See, that makes it doubly funny, see, cause even though everyone knows neither black women or fat women are hot, this character doesn't seem to know this and actually behaves as if she is attractive and worthy of amorous attention.

See how it works? I've come to expect black women, especially plus-sized ones, to be the butt of the joke in low-brow comedy films--the sort of flicks commonly associated with Eddie Murphy, Rob Scheider or Tyler Perry. But usually your benign, weekday sitcoms eschew hateful comedy. I've been watching NBC's Amy Poehler vehicle "Parks & Recreation" off and on this season. I want to like it. I'm a fan of "The Office" and generally find Poehler charming. Each time I tune in to the show I hope it will be better. But last night, "Parks & Recreation" lost me for good. Because I can't relax and laugh in the face of the dehumanization of women.

In last night's episode of "Parks & Recreation," Leslie Nope (Poehler) and her colleagues at the Pawnee, IN, Parks and Recreation Dept.were visited by officials from their sister city in Venezuela. Introducing herself to the lead official (played by "Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen), Nope expresses that her job is to see her visitor's "every need." Of course, the officials take this to mean she will procure women for their sexual pleasure. (Yeah, that one's never been done before.) One replies, "Do we just select the woman we desire? I will take the large, black one." To which Nope's sidekick mumbles, "Interesting choice." Armisen's character intones, "Do you have some kind of book with photos of the women that are available to us? If not, I too will take the sexy, black one." The "large, black one" herself says, in a talk-to-the-camera shot: "I am not surprised at all. I've been to South America. I did very well there." This joke plays through the show and in the end we see the black woman has returned to Venezuela with the officials and is sipping a drink beside a pool in a floral muu-muu thing.

See, the gag was funny because someone--those wacky foreigners--found a large, black woman attractive when there were clearly skinny, white ladies around to choose from. Woooo! Wipes tears from eyes. That's a knee-slapper! How absurd! I mean to think that anyone would find a fat woman...a fat, BLACK woman sexually attractive. That is the message behind the joke. What else could the message be? If the official had chosen Amy Poehler's character as the object of lust, would that have solicited an "Interesting choice" comment?

I shouldn't be surprised by this, but I am. Amy Poehler, along with Tina Fey, has enjoyed third-wave feminist celebrity icon status since the 2008 elections. And, at least on the surface, Poehler is about some sort of "girl power." She launched the "Smart Girls at the Party" Web series to "help girls find confidence in their own aspirations and talents." Perhaps this kind of empowerment is only for some girls--ones of the right color and size--because I can't imagine how seeing themselves portrayed as undesireable might empower young, black girls or girls who are overweight. Always being the butt of the joke rarely inspires confidence.


DaisyDeadhead said...

I call it "Aunt Esther syndrome"--from Sanford and Son. Alice Walker wrote a pretty good piece on Aunt Esther, too.

Aunt Esther was regarded as conventionally "unattractive" (she wasn't big or fat) and Redd Foxx repeatedly called her "gorilla"--which is what particularly pissed off Walker. I think size fetishism has taken over the media since then, and instead of "gorilla"--which they aren't allowed to say now (even Fred Sanford couldn't)-- they get a big black woman to imply the same kind of thing: See how big and uncivilized she is? Hardy har.

I've noticed lately how some old racist routines are updated, scoured for the uncool language, then trotted back out. For instance, on Tuesday I wrote about old-time radio shows, and then I realized the plot was the same as the 60s cartoon "Jonny Quest" (JQ added a boy of color to the group, so it wouldn't be so blatantly colonialist-appearing) and countless other "adventure" TV shows and movies ...after all, I think the original template was Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"...

Love your blog and what you write about. Keep up the great work.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

This is dissappointing to hear, as I've loved Poehler's comedy and writing in the past. Thanks for another great post.

Cindy said...

Why do we insist that someone be the butt of the joke? Fat jokes have started to become more and more off limits unless you make it a Big Black Woman. It's one of the reasons I don't enjoy Tyler Perry's films. A man in drag playing a caricature of a negative stereotype is not really funny.

Disappointing that Amy Poehler allowed this to be a part of the show. It's lazy and tasteless writing and comes at the expense of members of your viewing audience.

Great post Tami!

bridget said...

I was so sad to see this last night! I love Parks & Recreation and I love Amy Poehler but my heart just sank at last night's episode.

So disappointing.

GoldenAh said...

I've seen snippets from SNL, and they have a young baby face black male (who is heavy-set). Guess who he plays half the time? You got it! A crude fat black woman with extremely high self-esteem.

This BBW joke / mockery / contempt has left the black sitcoms / movies / other comedy routines, and moved on to become mainstream (again).

As for white women and their feminism, I know they were never talking to me. Although we are useful to them when they need the labor and bodies to exploit.

Sabrina Messenger said...

Exactly. As a plus size Black woman of a certain age myself, I am beyond sick of those movies like Norbit and Madea. I so long to see a movie where WE get to be the serious romantic interest and are taken seriously.

Unfortunately, as long as people continue to go to those other 'exploitation' movies and buy the DVDs, open season on plus size Black women of a certain age will continue...because it's profitable...and that sucks.

Tracy said...

Amy Poheler, Sarah Silverman, and yes, Tina Fey all remind me of the girls that I went to college with -Feminism and equality was great, as long as you(bw) were behind me.

I call this troup the "Good ole Boy's Ole Girls Club" - It's only progressive if we can be just as racist and stupid as men. I have never thought that Sarah and Co. were as funny and clever as they thought they were. And let's face it, an uncanny resemblance to Palin is what put Fey on the map, not her by the numbers, desparate career girl schitck on 30 rock.

This is not Pohler's only assault on bw - her popular "ghetto girl" SNL routine also helped her make a name for herself. Fey helped prop up Poehler during her run as head writer for SNL - but did you see anything worth mentioning from Maya Rudolph (except for Donatella?) - no!!

I don't waste my time or brain cells on the ilk that these women try to pass off as "comedy"

MacDaddy said...

I will not listen or watch any show that includes fat jokes on anyone. I stopped when, one night, I heard Jay Leno do a fat joke about Elizabeth, only one of the greatest actors ever.

This wallowing in the dirty of sick comedy says more about the comedian than the fat black woman

Ellen said...

I didn't see the episode of Parks & Rec that you wrote about but I've been giving this some thought, and I hope that my comments won't offend.

I really didn't interpret your description of the Venezuelan's choice the way you did. Isn't it possible that the writers of that episode are mocking the way idealized feminine beauty is marketed in this country? That the Venezuelans' preference for a BBBW over any other female in the room suggests to me that the writers are commenting on how outside the US and away from bombardment by our media of the ideal woman being a white, slender, blonde Botoxed and collagened Barbie clone, some men actually dare to seek out their genuine physical types. That the black female character comments that she "did very well" in S. America supports this.

I really believe that the writers are mocking our ridiculous and pathetic media-driven culture. Can you imagine if the men in question were American born and raised? The pressure would be on them to choose a female based on our Barbie clone standard of beauty, with non-blonde, non-white, and non-slender types being viewed as consolation prizes. And too bad for them if they'd really prefer a small breasted Hispanic woman or a fuller figured Asian woman or a Jewish woman in a wheelchair, or, for that matter, another guy!

As bad as the media makes life for all women in this country, it makes life difficult for men, too. I know that when we're decrying the unfairness of being female in this country and we have our feminist hackles raised, it's really easy to forget that guys pay a price, too.

tinfoil hattie said...

Wow. Great post. I nodded and nodded. I HATE the "big fat black woman! haw haw!" movies, tv shows, and jokes. I am not a fan of 30 Rock, Tina Fey, SNL, or Amy Poehler. Guess I'm a bad feminist!

Thank you!

Heidi said...

When a friend and I went to see Snakes on a Plane, they had a preview for Norbit. My friend and I are both large, and they previews of course, were horrible. Everyone else was just laughing and laughing, and I was getting pissed.

Finally at the end of the preview, I said in a really loud voice, "HA!! It's funny because she is FAT! FAT PEOPLE ARE FUNNY! HA HA HA!"

People thought I was crazy. However, I find guerilla activism to be the best kind.

Jennifer said...

I didn't see the episode of Parks & Rec that you wrote about

See, right here? Is where you should've stopped.

Killervirgo said...

I am not sure what the objections to this scene. Is it that she was referred to as large, black, sexy or all of the above? If they would have referred to her as the sexy one, would that have been okay?

Are we assuming that Donna (the character in question played by actress/comedian Retta) is not considered sexy by anyone, and only these "wacky foreigners" find her sexy because they don't know what sexy should be?

Ellen, even though you didn't see the episode I think your comment is spot on.

It should also be mentioned that Amy Poehler isn't a writer on this show. I am sure she is giving the power to play around with what she says, but more than likely she doesn't run the show like Tina Fey does with 30 Rock.

See the scene in question:

Seriously McMillan said...

It's about all black women and the stereotypes we fill.

I fill the chunky, but loveable best friend of a white girl roll, similar to the role Sherri Shepherd played in the "Less Than Perfect".

Then, we have the ghetto, ride-or-die, tell-it-like-it-is black female AKA Nene Leakes from TRHOA.

And last, but not least, is the fat girl that is a butt, gut and heart and would just be so cute if she lost weight because she has a pretty face...?

I think they all suck, but we only have Gabrielle Union to play the stereotypical smart and sassy HBCU graduate.

Obviously, Amy Poehler and the writers have spent all their time asking Tracy Morgan for advice on writing a black female character instead of doing the "research" themselves.

Seriously McMillan

Anonymous said...

Its difficult for me to fully buy into Tami's interpretation, and I think that what Ellen said here is worth consideration.

Are we not past the age when race determines appeal? I think the profiles of Beyonce, Halle Berry, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Parks&Rec's own Rashida Jones serve as very credible evidence that we have turned that corner. Black women are seen as sex-symbols, for better or worse.

Fat people definitely still feel the brunt of jokes. Hearing my kids talk about 'chubby chasers', I have wondered about what people see as the humor in the expression. Is it self-deprecating humor, like Ellen suggests? Perhaps. There is something funny about having tastes that are seen as being in stark contrast to the conventional, and 'chubby chasers' seems to fit that mold.

So why then, did Parks and Rec choose a black woman? Well possibly because black women have a long-held stereotype as having well-developed senses of humor, and the capacity to see past skinny-white-chick depictions of beauty. They can't be mocked for failing a standard of beauty that they don't believe in from the outset. I remember Esther Rolle as the character Florida in the TV series Maude and Good Times, being typical of that stereotype. I don't think in that sense it is in any way meant as demeaning.

I didn't catch anything demeaning in the Parks and Rec episode, such as the 'gorilla' humor Daisy references. They do play fast and loose with stereotypes though. There is the unscrupulous guy of Indian decent, a white trash ex-boyfriend, the biological clock ticking main character. It seems as though every comedy now has to take a page from the Simpson and South Park, and add in a heavy dose of irreverent humor.

Angie said...

I saw the episode. I didn't think the men's "choice" of the black woman (I think her name is Donna) was supposed to be a joke. They chose her because they were the most attracted to her, and as a viewer I don't think we were supposed to find that attraction odd or "wacky." I think the way the men referred to her (as if she were an object instead of a person) was supposed to be a joke, making fun of the men. So in that respect I agree with you, we were expected to "laugh in the face of the dehumanization of women."

I forget which character said "interesting choice," but I just interpreted that as a comment on the way the men STATED their choice.

Anonymous said...

It's just a misdirection. Nothing is "wrong" about being attracted to big and/or black women, but it's unconventional and unpredictable, which is why it's funny. It's not meant to be depricating.

Anonymous said...

Amy Poehler didn't write this episode or deliver the joke. Why are you pinning it on her?


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