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.

Catch me around the Web

Earlier this week, I spoke with Tony Cox of the "UpFront with Tony Cox" radio program about the "new feminism." I was joined by Ann Friedman of Feministing and Erica Kennedy, author of the new book Feminista. Listen to our converation here. If you're short on time, go directly to segment B at about 9 min and 20 sec in.

Also, I have an article on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" about the incident in Louisiana where a mixed-race couple was turned away by a bigoted justice of the peace:
What bothers me about the not-uncommon-enough "God! Will someone think of the children?" argument against interracial partnering is the tremendous failure in logic it entails. There are plenty forms of bigotry still around in these modern times – racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia … I could go on. The only way to shield children from intolerance is not to have them at all. Or, of course, the people like Bardwell who make this argument could, just stop being so bigoted and, thus, make the world a better place for all of us.

But it's not just that this thinking is illogical, it is also cynical and defeatist. Cynical in its belief that society is inherently hateful and will never change, but also in its failure to recognise that even marginalised people can triumph – that every day brown people and biracial people succeed despite the bias against them that still exists. And since when is the appropriate response to a wrong acquiescence? Since when do we concede defeat to bigotry? If Bardwell had his way, if we all gave in to "the way things are" and denied ourselves equality and the freedom to live and love as we choose, I daresay we might never have reached a day when one of those poor mixed kids that Bardwell expresses faux concern for could live in the White House as president of the United States. Read more...


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