How to Talk About Rebel Wilson’s Weight and Super Fun Night

The show and its reviews are full of mentions of the actress' size—but there's a right and a wrong way to bring up the subject

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Gilles Mingasson / ABC

Rebel Wilson on 'Super Fun Night'

When Marianne Kirby saw the Associated Press review of Rebel Wilson’s new sitcom, Super Fun Night (premiering Oct. 2 on ABC), she winced. In the first sentence, Wilson is compared to “another portly comedian, the late John Candy.”

Kirby, an activist and writer who focuses on the politics of weight and body image, wasn’t surprised to see that Wilson had created a character who talks a lot about her own size—”that’s kind of part of her schtick,” says Kirby. And, while disappointed, she expected that people talking about Wilson would address that issue too, specifically referencing another large-sized comedian. After all, the way critics and writers talk about actress’ bodies isn’t exactly controversy-free: earlier this year, Rex Reed’s review of “tractor-size” Melissa McCarthy in Identity Thief drew ire, and Gawker recently did a round-up of all the ways Rebel Wilson’s weight was inserted into a New York magazine profile.

What was unexpected to Kirby was a new conversation the show engendered. Though Super Fun Night has received mixed notices, reviews of the show may herald a new era in the way actors’ looks are discussed. A large number of critics have shifted the discussion from Wilson’s body type to the way the show relies so heavily on it for its humor.

“She always has the right [to make fun of herself],” says Kirby, “and everybody else has the right to be uncomfortable about it and not think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s a problem to talk about her body unless it’s the only thing people are talking about. In coverage I’ve read, people are talking how she talks about her own body, which is absolutely fair game.”

(MORE: Mary Pols reviews Pitch Perfect)

Even on a subject with which it’s so easy to offend, response to Super Fun Night‘s fat jokes has been nearly unanimous—and nearly unanimously meets Kirby’s standards of respectfulness.

That Associated Press review, for example, goes to on say that “Wilson has burdened [her character] Kimmie Boubier with constant tiresome references to her less-than-perfect physique.”

“Presumably we’re supposed to find Wilson’s incessant self-deprecation somehow empowering, like a veiled form of self-confidence. But the frequency of the weight-related punchlines, not to mention the droll way in which Wilson delivers them, ends up being depressing,” says The Daily Beast.

“Still, while the star’s skill is beyond question, the show may want to limit how often it asks us to laugh at what are, essentially, fat jokes, even when the overweight person is in control of the joke. There are only so many times you can use Kimmie being disrobed in public as a subject of humor without it crossing from comic to cruel,” says USA Today.

“Simply put, Wilson is a big girl. And despite some obvious quirky charm and keen comedic instincts, she’s stuck in a show/role that relies almost completely on fat jokes…” says The Winnipeg Free Press, “that quickly begin to feel more pathetic than amusing.”

Because the show relies so heavily on those jokes—a sweaty Spanx gag, for example, or Wilson’s character’s frantic rush for free doughnuts—even the headline writers who use quips like “living large” and “trim the fat” aren’t referring to Wilson’s weight unprompted.

(MORE: Mary Pols reviews Bridesmaids)

Which is not to say that the way we talk about size is suddenly perfect.

The next step, says Kirby, is to examine not just whether Wilson’s fat jokes are funny but why she might make them. There’s a distinction between making fun of yourself because it hurts less than hearing others make fun of you (Kirby’s suggestion for the motivation behind many size gags) and making fun of yourself because you’re a professional comedian (Wilson’s own explanation for why she makes jokes about her appearance). Even when Wilson’s jokes work, like in her widely acclaimed Pitch Perfect turn as the character “Fat Amy,” the line is still there. Kirby says she couldn’t make it all the way through that movie: “[Rebel Wilson] is super charming and she has a great energy about her, but as a fat person, and as a fat person who has worked really hard in body acceptance both personally and in an activist capacity, it’s really painful to watch those sorts of jokes.”

With Super Fun Night, the discomfort is being felt outside the fat-activism community too—and that’s a good sign that fat jokes are no longer seen as harmless gimmes.

“Every time I click on something [about Super Fun Night], I’m kind of wary,” says Kirby. “I do have that fear that it’s going to be horrible. Then, when it’s like, ‘hey, we don’t want to watch her constantly put herself down, that’s not funny and it’s boring,’ that is totally a pleasant surprise. I don’t know that anybody said that to John Candy.”

9 comments
sparroweye66
sparroweye66

I did not find it just a show about size.  It's about three girls who are best friends and insecure about dating, life, etc.  Have seen two shows now and I love it.  The karaoke show as fantastic. I hope to hear more singing.  Actress who plays Kendal is terrific as are those two girls who play Kimmie's best friends.  I was never in the cheer leader, class president group so i can relate to these three.  Love, Love, Love the show. Has nothing to do with fat jokes. 

Shesaid
Shesaid

I adore Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson. They are heroes to many bigger gals because they don't let their weight hold them back. They are incredibly talented and HILARIOUS women.  But I don't enjoy Mike and Molly because it's one fat joke after another. It's not that I'm sensitive to it - it's that it's tired and old and just not funny. It would be as if you were making jokes about a bald person for a half hour every week or an alcoholic. I'm surprised Melissa continues to be a part of that show. I love her acting and her humour - but why can't the story lines just be about her and her husband and their family dynamic and life and all the funny in it. I mean even Mike's best friend makes constant digs about his weight.  I don't know too many people who would be best friends with someone who would do that. 

It was disappointing to see Rebel (who is writing the show) have her character in Super Fun Night be so self-deprecating. 

What I'd like to see is more woman who look like Melissa and Rebel and many of us out here be a part of shows where they can just use their talent, physical comedy and humour to be funny and tell stories and the stories and the funny not be all about their weight.  They are (we are) so much more than our body size. 

samsid
samsid

The show is more than about weight issues, it is about laying out raw insecurities and having some fun with it.  I certainly find it very relatable and funny, given that I can feel excruciating insecure about some of my attributes yet deep inside also think its very funny that I am uncomfortable about silly things as I am being insecure.  Maybe there are multiple viewpoints that are valid.  Do get tired of being politically correct about laughing at myself.

sarstan
sarstan

I agree with a previous poster who said that the spanx thing isn't a plus sized issue. Any woman who's tried spanx can relate. I laughed out loud at Wilson trying to put on Spanx. I didn't think the donut/birthday cake thing was funny, but maybe I'm being too sensitive. Maybe Wilson does eat a lot of donuts and cake and is unapologetic about it. I dunno. I liked the show on the whole. I wish Wilson had kept her accent, but I did find the show good enough that I will keep watching as it finds its legs.

stonecutter0602
stonecutter0602

From a too young age, women in this culture are obsessed with their appearance: from perfect weight to shining hair to makeup to flawless skin to super-white teeth to fashion.  It's pathological. Ronald Perelman and Estee Lauder became billionaires exploiting this epidemic pathology, which has only waxed and never waned, if ubiquitous TV commercials are any measure.  Then they put this fat chick in a sitcom to capitalize on audience schadenfreude.  Now Time undertakes pretentious philosophical discussion regarding the cynical effort to profit from ridiculing Ms. Wilson's extreme obesity?   Sorry, I don't buy it. 

When Melissa McCarthy raises her leg to block the way of a fellow male passenger on her plane in "Bridesmaids", and says in character, "Feel that steam (coming from her extended pants leg), that's from my undercarriage", and this scene is highlighted in trailers, what's that visual joke supposed to convey to the viewer?  "Undercarriage"?  You can't have your 7-layer cake and eat it too (pun intended)!  Fat may be fast becoming the new "normal" in this society, but it's still a locus of ridicule, personal humiliation and social agony ("discomfort" is too mild) among the middle and upper classes.  No amount of fat "activism" (whatever that is) is going to change that reality any time soon.  

DeannaC
DeannaC

You don't have to be plus size to feel the sweaty spanx thing. I think it's more a woman problem than a weight problem. Regardless of size, women deflect, deprecate and disparage their bodies. If not their bodies, some other perceived flaw.

RicardoElsewhere
RicardoElsewhere

Roughly a third of Americans are either obese or near that. Though a sad statistic, it nonetheless means that there's a huge (no pun intended) market-share out there to be entertained by one of their own.

JoeWatchesTV
JoeWatchesTV

I contend that people who feel discomfort with Rebel Wilson making fun of her weight have their own issues that color their responses. I also feel these discomforted people are probably thin. Obviously Rebel Wilson does not have a problem exploiting this for humor, so should we? If people don't want to laugh along with her that's fine, but she shouldn't be limited because of the audience's issues with weight, with overweight people and with eating.

mark120953
mark120953

Rebel Wilson may be talented but I could not see it in the premiere episode so I give it about a month before ABC executives move it to Saturday night and then cancel it. What intrigues me is Conan O'Brien is a consultant on it and one might think as a gifted writer,he would point Ms.Wilson in a better direction than caught skirt in an elevator door sight gags or fainting when over stressed. Not everyone can be Hugh Laurie on American tv but we had our fill of Benny Hill more than a decade ago and Ms.Wilson is giving us only reasons to wince and then wonder why we are supposed to empathise in her size. Melissa McCarthy pulls it off with more class and humor on the CBS Mike and Molly not to forget her recent movies.