Nick Cannon’s hip-hop themed sketch comedy show Wild ‘n’ Out returned to MTV2 On July 9th, earning the highest ratings the network has seen since its inception. The show has been praised for its alternative perspective and inclusivity due in part to its diverse cast. Though black male comics are in the majority, they have been joined by black female personalities such as Loni Love and Tyra Banks as well as South Asian comedian Rasika Mathur and white comedian Mikey Day. This season, Cannon and the show’s producers seem to be dedicated to broadening the range of representation with the addition of openly gay black comic Chaunté Wayans and Thai rapper Timothy DeLaGhetto.
While not every identity group is represented on Wild ‘n’ Out, it seems safe to say that the show attempts to operate in a post-racial, inclusive space. Though jokes about race are a mainstay on the show, they are often tongue-in-cheek in an effort to use humor as a means of healing tension and consequently render it moot. Put another way, Cannon and crew try to laugh away the pain of misogyny, racism, and practically any other –ism.
Though the concept of relief through humor is in no way novel, Wild ‘n’ Out’s execution seems to be flawless. But, how realistic is it? Can we really laugh away generations of oppression and separatism?
To answer this question we can analyze one such attempt as it has progressed over the course of the show: fat shaming.
We can loosely define fat shaming as any suggestion that a person take action to reduce their weight. Fat-shaming can take various forms such as frowning as a person eats, making judgmental looks at a person whose weight has recently changed, suggesting a person adopt a more “flattering” wardrobe, and encouraging a person to eat “lighter.”
It has been said that fat-shaming is a means of encouraging people to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Though fat-shaming affects people no matter race, sex, gender, or ability, it is most often directed at women as a way of disciplining them into meeting societal standards for attractiveness. While men, such as Wild ‘n’ Out’s Spanky Hayes, can jovially lift their shirts, exposing and rubbing their bellies for the pleasure of their audience, women are expected to be ashamed of their weight and to act and dress accordingly in loose-fitting clothes so as not to disgust spectators.
It would seem that the producers of Wild ‘n’ Out sought to mend such wounds in casting well-know plus-sized media personality Loni Love in the show’s initial run. While Love did not seem to face direct scrutiny for her weight, she often employed her size to gain the adoration of the audience; at one time leaning over host Nick Cannon during a sketch and asking, “Can you bench press 200?” In making her size the central topic we are left to ask whether Love is giving us permission to laugh or if she is submitting to our desires?
Over the years, Wild ‘n’ Out has made no secret of its acceptance of fat-shaming jokes. Not only were such jokes a mainstay on the show throughout the first four seasons but even after a six-year hiatus, the fifth seasons’ very first episode employs fat-shaming jokes for a vital segment. During a regular sketch titled “R & Beef” an audience member complains that his girlfriend has put on too much weight and as a result he finds her less attractive. In response, the black team generates and performs a song admonishing said girlfriend for her unattractive gut and her greedy snacking habits. When jokes such as these become normative, we must ask whether Love’s self-deprecation can be an effective defense.
The practice of admonishing oneself to make the audience comfortable is a regular comedic trope. It is as if to say “I will make fun of myself so that when I make fun of other people it’s ok.” Or, so we think. Another plausible explanation is that we make fun of ourselves because we are aware of our marginalized position. It is quite likely that Love knew from her experiences and the tone of the show that fat women are not adored unless they are funny. Nearly every plus-sized woman in media today is a comedienne. Moreover, weight is often cited as a reason for the disproportionate marriage rates between black men and black women, adding a racial component to the mix. To be a woman of size is undesirable, to be a black woman of size is unacceptable. Love could have simply been submitting to this authority, making her oppressors feel comfortable with their beliefs rather than urging for change.
In the case of fat-shaming (or fat-acceptance) it would seem that humor as healing does not work (at least not in isolation). When we joke about women of size we invoke very dangerous stereotypes that serve to underscore racist and misogynist sentiment. Given this fact, inclusion is not enough. We must actively work to combat stereotypes rather than joking about them in a murky (yet entertaining) grey area. While this may seem challenging, there are alternatives. What about poking fun at the boyfriend for his small minded beliefs? What if Cannon had responded that he loves plus sized women?
What do you think? Can humor heal? Can it override oppression? Is anything off limit in jest?
Kara Hunt is a freelance and academic writer and artist. She holds a doctorate in Culture & Theory with specializations in critical race theory, humor theory, and pop culture. Coincidentally, these are also her favorite topics to debate and write about. Kara is slightly obsessed with Quantum Leap (the show and the possibility) and strongly believes that fast food commercials featuring black music or jargon should be preceded by a trigger warning to protect her sanity.