Rebel Wilson’s Obese Popularity, And Why “Super Fun Night” Needs MORE Fat Jokes, Not Less

Many critics are very deeply concerned about Rebel Wilson's fat jokes, but probably not for the right reasons.
Publish date:
October 9, 2013
fat, body politics, entertainment, rebel wilson

I watched the premiere episode of Rebel Wilson’s new ABC sitcom, “Super Fun Night,” from the treadmill. It could have been an ironic and funny juxtaposition, if I didn’t spend most of the 22 minutes frowning at what might be one of the most depressing situational comedies I’ve ever seen.

The show that had been heavily promoted as a hyper-wacky, humiliation-fueled slapstick farce (really, did you watch any of the early trailers? endless physical humor, an aggressively unflattering dress, a light up bra that -- of course -- lights up at all the wrong moments?) seemed uncertain of whether its heart was really committed to the protracted embarrassment of its protagonist. The result is a show that feels stuck between laughing at its star -- which it certainly encourages you to do -- and making her a desperately tragic figure.

Wilson’s Kimmie Boubier seems to be vamping off the sudden TV popularity of nerdy, painfully awkward but nevertheless endearing women, a trend that owes a significant debt to Zooey Deschanel in “New Girl,” whose early episodes shared a similar penchant for the destruction of property and bursting into song. The fact that Wilson does not look like Deschanel is a complicating factor, though -- it’s funny when a conventionally attractive woman is a giant ungainly dork, because this behavior unexpected and even charming, at least on television.

A fat lady who does the same things, however, is really just reproducing existing stereotypes. This means Kimmie’s absurd romp down a hallway at work, seen in the first two minutes of the episode, in which she accidentally pulls down a lighting fixture, is far harder to read; the women who look like Wilson are generally the women we are well trained to laugh at, not with, and so even I, a viewer who wants to see Kimmie as a funny and clever heroine, found myself cringing painfully. Same with the scene in which an elevator rips Kimmie’s skirt off in front of her office crush. Same with the scene in which Kimmie is booking it down the hall at work in search of jelly donuts.

As absurd as these scenes sound, they’re actually tame compared to my expectations. All those early promo clips came from a pilot that we’re not being allowed to see, one that, besides looking utterly insane, explains what “Super Fun Night” is, why these women need to draw Friday evening activities out of a rhinestone-enhanced can, and who they all are to each other (aside from the nebulous “best friends” who live together) -- which would suggest that the over-the-top-ness of it rubbed someone the wrong way.

I am reluctant to lay the blame for this at Rebel Wilson’s door, as my instincts are that the network intervened. I have no evidence to this effect, but to watch this show, it sure feels like there are multiple cooks involved, and not only are they fussing over the same broth, but in pitched argument about what sort of broth it should be. There are elements here that are of the same absurdist slapstick of the early promotional trailers, but there are also elements of Kimmie being presented as a tragic sad sack we’re meant to feel sorry for, and they are not working together.

It doesn’t help that the series immediately throws in a cardboard-cutout of an antagnoist in the form of Kendall Quinn, the predictably beautiful, tall and slender colleague who is malicious and mustache-twirlingly-evil to Kimmie for no apparent reason, aside from the fact that Kimmie has a friendly relationship with (and crush on) her co-worker Richard.

Because if your lead character is a fat woman, there has to be a pretty skinny lady who is mean to her, because that’s what skinny pretty ladies DO, and never has there ever been a true friendship between a fat woman and a conventionally attractive woman. Ever! Pretty skinny ladies are always intrinsically evil in the presence of a bumbling fat girl.

Rebel Wilson continues to be enormously likeable in spite of this mess, like an edgier younger sister to Melissa McCarthy, another actor about whom no media can say anything without mentioning -- straight-up or covertly -- her physical size. And Wilson’s size is always an issue for critics, even as they complain that she talks about it too much. But she is also wildly popular with audiences. We can assume her appeal has been sufficently proven because ABC has given her this show -- not only to act in, but to be creator and head writer on as well.

Nevertheless, her network overlords still don’t seem to trust her. Ironically, the moments when that first episode succeeds happen when it’s allowed to be the deranged out-there slapstick promised by the early clips; it has too-brief moments of feeling like an American cousin to Miranda Hart’s UK sitcom “Miranda,” also a vaguely-autobiographical tale of a physically substantial woman who does a lot of falling down and a lot of self-deprecation and a lot of bursting into song at inopportune moments.

While “Miranda” was not exactly met with universal critical acclaim either, it remains an enormously entertaining show, and that’s largely due to Miranda Hart being almost impossibly relateable and self-aware. And hilarious. Like even her worst jokes always make me laugh.

“Super Fun Night” loses its way with its heavy-handed efforts to make us feel sorry for its lead character, like at the piano bar outing when Kendall purposefully tries to out-sing Kimmie, to exploit her insecurities and embarrass her in front of her crush. These scenes are like being hit in the head repeatedly with baseball bat of obvious, like the show is literally shouting at its audience that Kimmie is not pretty or sexy like the pretty sexy lady is, and don’t you want to root for the underdog here? (It’s a safe bet, considering we already know that Rebel Wilson can sing.)

The question remains, though, do we really need help to feel sorry for Kimmie, and women like her? We’re all busily feeling sorry for fat women all the time, particularly fat women who are socially inept. There is nothing new or provacative here. In Kimmie, we have an opportunity to let a non-Hollywood-standard woman simply be FUNNY, instead of pathetic and depressing, but this show just won’t let that happen.

There’s been a lotofconcern over Rebel Wilson’s apparent reliance on physical humor, primarily directed at herself, mainly focused on her size. She makes a lot of fat jokes. “Super Fun Night” is riddled with them (Jezebel counted 13 in the total 22 minutes) and Wilson has pointedly said that “As long as I look like this, I’m going to make fat jokes. All comedians have to use their physicality, so I use my size.”

Still, a Forbes article from earlier this year lamented, “There’s a lot more to Rebel Wilson than her weight, so there’s probably plenty of material to mine from. Let’s move on, because there’s no doubt she has a lot more to say.” It’s a pleasant suggestion, albeit one that is difficult to reconcile with the fact that, months later, Lynn Hirschberg’s profile of Wilson for New York Magazine was positively rife with references to her size, as Gawker subsequently pointed out in a helpful guide attempting to answer the burning question of whether Rebel Wilson is fat.

I believe that critics and culture-watchers are legitimately tired of fat jokes. I will even accept that their apparent deep concern is that Wilson is selling herself short, when she has so much more to offer.

But I also suspect some of this concern is due to the discomfort Wilson’s using her body as a focal point causes her audiences, critics, and even some of her fans. Wilson’s self-directed fat jokes are brutally self-conscious, but not strictly in the sense of betraying the expected insecurity -- they are self-conscious of the fact that it is virtually impossible for Wilson to exist in Hollywood without her weight being a constant focus.

Indeed, the truth is, for many women of Wilson’s size and larger, it’s difficult to ever simply “forget” that they are fat, because so much of the world is constantly reminding these women -- women like me -- of that fact. If it’s not strangers calling us names on the street, or coworkers snickering across a conference table, it’s the environment in which most of us live, where even something as banal as taking a seat on the subway or buying a dress is an unavoidable reminder that we are bigger than we are “supposed” to be.

This is a reality for a lot of women, and making fat jokes verboten is hardly a solution -- Wilson’s jokes can, in their own way, confront the often contradictory pressures she faces to not make her body such an overwhelming focus, while seeing her body made into the overwhelming focus by everyone else. Not talking about this subject won’t make it go away, and even if Wilson refused to ever make a fat joke again, she would still be the subject of commentary on that basis, be it kind, cruel, or humorous. And until now, Wilson has had every reason to believe that doing so would limit her career, rather than expand it.

This week’s Wilson-related news has been that she is apparently being courted by a number of diet companies for a spokesperson gig. If this is true, it wouldn’t be Wilson’s first time at the weight-loss rodeo. In 2011, Wilson took just such a job for the Australian arm of Jenny Craig (you can still read her blog entries on their site), a decision apparently motivated by Wilson’s having seen so many negative comments about her size on the Internet. (And how adorable is that article, so naively shocked that this sort of thing could happen?)

Ironically, she quit the Jenny Craig gig when American opportunities started opening up for her -- opportunities that came because of her size and her willingness to showcase it, rather than in spite of these things.

Hollywood has a short history of falling in love with talented young fat women, only to hamstring their careers with the severely limited roles considered suitable for actors who don’t fit the Hollywood leading-lady standard (consider the outstanding Gabourey Sidibe if you need another example of how the film industry loves to praise an unexpected star turn without actually providing her any further leading roles of similar merit). So in this respect, Wilson’s getting a whole TV show to herself is indeed progress -- but it’s unlikely to do much good if no one trusts her with it.

The truth is, it’s possible to do a funny and poignant television series about a fat lead character without making any fat jokes at her expense at all -- the UK’s brilliant “My Mad Fat Diary,” starring the magnificent Sharon Rooney, proves this, as a series that deals with weight and eating disorders and the more general indignities of being a teenager in a way that doesn’t pathologize its protagonist, and recognizes her as a complex and specific individual, not as a representative of a universalized experience.

But that might not be the show Wilson wants to make. And as an introduction to Rebel Wilson as a leading actor, this is where “Super Fun Night” falters -- it doesn’t make Kimmie Boubier a full-featured character so much as a caricature, and by paying so much meticulous attention to these stereotypes and assumptions it (even unwittingly) reinforces them. It worries. You can feel the show worrying even as you watch it -- Is all of this too much? Should it be tamer, quieter, less in-your-face? What should it do next? Wait, don’t go away!

I want to trust Rebel Wilson; there’s a reason she’s so damn appealing, and it’s not just the way the perceived incongruity of her size set against her refusal to apologize may fascinate and thrill her audiences. So rather than demand Wilson quit it with the fat jokes, I want to see her take them further, to stretch the stereotypes she’s reproducing and mocking to their very limit, to see if they will break.

We’ve seen what happens when this humor is defanged -- we get an unfunny, unimaginative, perplexing show like last week’s premiere of “Super Fun Night.” We get middling brain-numbing sitcoms like the humor of “Mike and Molly.” We have plenty of that already. I want to see what happens when it’s fully unleashed. I want to see Kimmie Boubier literally diving into a mattress-sized box of jelly donuts, to take these flimsy efforts at lazy humor to the absolute limits of discomfort-inducing satire. Isn’t this what Rebel Wilson really does best?

I want people to laugh because they’re nervous and embarrassed, because they recognize their own assumptions and how ridiculous they are, as much as they laugh because the jokes are genuinely funny -- this is a challenge when dealing with a subject as lazily-trodden as tropes about fat people, but it is a challenge I’d like to see Wilson rise to.

In a broader sense, do fat jokes make life harder for fat people? Possibly. Possibly not. It depends on the joke. Fat jokes that make fun of stereotypes and cultural assumption, rather than their subjects, can be instructive.

However, Rebel Wilson doesn’t necessarily owe us an education. And “Super Fun Night” doesn’t have to be political. It does need to be funny. All this overwrought critical concern about Wilson’s fat jokes (and, by unspoken extension, her fat body) is not helping with that, considering that an overabundance of self-restraint is often the worst enemy of humor.

So I suggest that we let Rebel be Rebel, a bit self-conscious, occasionally strange, always unflinching and constantly aware that her body makes her a radical unicorn in the industry currently in love with her because she is so peculiarly different from everything else they’ve got. Let’s see what happens if we truly abandon our assumptions and drop the charade that the complaints about Wilson’s fat humor are anything other than an expression of our own discomfort at seeing how our fat-disparaging culture affects a talented, likeable, hilarious woman like Rebel Wilson, and how she sees herself, and how she expects us to see her.

You bring the light-up bra. I’ll bring the jelly donuts.