Fat Jokes in Movies: Can We Be Done With Them Now?

Fat jokes. They're a requirement for any journeyman comedian.  They undergird schoolyard insults and they backstop street humor (“Yo mama’s so fat…”), and they make up countless sight gags involving all the funny things that fat people do (you know, walking, talking, eating, swimming).  But are they funny? Hollywood, I, for one, think the jokes are getting as old as they are cringe-worthy and cruel.

In Hollywood, "fat” is only acceptable as a punchline. In no other manner is being overweight, particularly for a woman, desirable. Even when it comes to comedy, the actress – Rebel Wilson or Melissa McCarthy or Roseanne Barr – has to be that much funnier, that much more willing to expose or make fun of her plus-sized skin to remain marketable.

In "Pitch Perfect," Wilson's character actually refers to herself as Fat Amy.  As she says in the trailer: "So twig bitches like you don't do it behind my back." Sure, this is ostensibly some form of self-aware, "probese" declaration of body acceptance, but it's still yet another way of exploiting the fact that this gifted comedic actor isn't a size zero, so it has to be an issue in the movie.

Of course it's better that Wilson's "Fat Amy" take charge of the jokey moniker rather than give the power to the so-called "skinny bitches," but the idea that her weight needs to be addressed is only a slight improvement over the depiction of womanhood in men-in-fat-drag comedies or that awful Farrelly Brothers movie "Shallow Hal" that starred Gwyneth Paltrow as both her slender self and in a mordibly-obese skin suit.

In case you don't remember, the entire premise of "Shallow Hall" supposedly taught that a woman’s character counted more than her appearance, but how did the movie teach this lesson?  By depicting the inside of a sweet, loving overweight woman as a hot skinny woman trying to get out. That’s insulting to women of all shapes and sizes. It's easy to gloss over that fact by concentrating on how Hal (Jack Black, whose own obesity is never an issue in his movies) learns not to just base his relationships on looks. But ultimately, “Hal” shares the lesson of every other mainstream Hollywood production: fat equals unlovable and undesirable, but thin is what every woman should be to please her man.

Recently, in a totally unscientific poll of movie-savvy girlfriends who range from a petite size-2 mother of three to a comfortable-being-a-size-18 single 30-something, we tried to brainstorm, with the help of IMDB, how many movie roles in the past decade or so featured overweight women who aren't constantly moping or getting flack about their weight – who still get the guy or at least seem happy with themselves. Here's our embarrassingly short list.

Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids." Even if some marketing exec decided to make McCarthy wear a dress with sleeves for the movie poster, her character Megan doesn't seem concerned with her weight. No one mentions plus-sized dresses at the bridal boutique or throws fat jokes her way. Megan has no compunction about shamelessly flirting with the Air Marshal Jon (McCarthy's real-life husband Ben Falcone) and entreating him, "Hey, not Air Marshall Jon. You wanna get back in that rest room and not rest?" It's worth noting: Even though the script avoids the topic of Megan's weight entirely, the punchline of her story seems to rely on the audience's assumption that no man would want her, so we're shocked/delighted when her advances pay off.

America Ferrera in "Real Women Have Curves": Having met the gorgeous Ferrera, it's sad that I have to include her in this list.  But since definition of "curvy" in showbiz means “thin woman with large breasts,” Ferrera stands as "Hollywood plus sized" darling (with added ethnic appeal).  In Patricia Cardoso's moving coming-of-age story, Ferrera's high-school senior Ana learns to love her body, despite her tyrannical mother's constant criticism. By the time she’s ready to lose her virginity, she’s so accepting of her body that she asks her (ever so eager) boyfriend  “Leave the lights on. I want you to see me."

Mindy Kaling in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin": For most of the Judd Apatow comedy, Paul Rudd's character David can't stop obsessing over his ex-girlfriend Amy. He's so despondent over Amy, the viewer begins to imagine her as some bikini-model blond goddess, and then it turns out to be Kaling, who was a good 15-20 pounds heavier than she is now. It's remarkable that her "everywoman" size is never mentioned, and instead the still-lovesick David keeps coming on to her: "I want to take you to Paris and make love to you under the Eiffel Tower," he confesses.

Nikki Blonsky in "Hairspray": Blonsky's Tracy Turnblad is a full-figured gal who can't stop dancing to the music in 1960s Baltimore. Despite being a big girl, she lands a lucrative spot dancing on the "American Bandstand"-esque "Corny Collins Show," scores a modeling gig with the Hefty Hideaway boutique, and even manages to attract the attention and eventually the love of the gorgeous lead dancer, Link Larkin (Zac Efron).

I'm sure there are others, but after an entire happy-hour of conversation, that's all we could come up with.  And yet, within our seconds of our first sips, we had come up with dozens of movies starring overweight actors (though usually comedic stars) paired with svelte girlfriends or wives, and we're not supposed to think twice about it.

That's what's dangerous about the double standard of fat jokes in movies. Young men and boys are given the impression that for the most part, they can be as big as Jonah Hill or Kevin James (in anything pre-"Here Comes the Boom") and still be charming and attractive. It's a shame that the same can't be said about women.

Being overweight is not a protected class.  And I’m not suggesting it's a hate crime to make a fat joke. But in a medium that, at its best, lays bare fundamental truths about life, I lament that that women who aren't super skinny can't be portrayed without overt references to their weight. Women of all sizes can be more than hilarious, and it's time writers and filmmakers embraced that.