No, Grousing Comedians Are Still Not Right That Audiences Are Too Sensitive

by Neil H. Buchanan

One particularly frustrating aspect of the all-purpose, empty complaints about so-called political correctness is that they are actually bipartisan.  That is, right-wingers -- prominently including Donald Trump -- constantly whine that all of our problems are caused by being too politically correct ("We can't even shoot immigrants at the border, ya know?" "Why can't police rough up suspects?" "People shouldn't feel bad about saying 'Merry Christmas!"), and everyone else rejects those particular examples but then says, "Even so, PC culture can get out of hand."

Let us leave aside the ongoing reality that no one can actually define the key term here in a way that does not boil down to "being sensitive to things that I don't care about, even though I'm outraged when people are insensitive to what I do care about."  In fact, most of the time, the complaint is really about being expected to care about other people's concerns.

Lack of a clear idea about what is truly at stake rarely stops people from arguing passionately that they are right.  What is especially interesting, however, is how comedians -- a group that strongly leans left in its political attitudes, most definitely including social and cultural matters -- constantly grouse about their audiences being too sensitive.

Back in 2006, "Seinfeld" alumnus Michael Richards was seen on video unleashing a nasty stream of racist bile at some African-American hecklers during his stand-up act.  Even though he apologized and his friends did not defend his remarks, Jon Stewart used the occasion on his show to complain that audience videos were making it difficult for comedians to hone their acts before live audiences.  The idea, I guess, was that a comedian needed to be able to make some racist and sexist comments while working toward what might be funny?

More recently, English comedian Ricky Gervais has practically turned his career into an effort to say, "You're all PC policing me, but I don't care.  In fact, I don't care so much that this is pretty much all I'm going to talk about.  How much you're not bothering me.  At all."  One might imagine that his time would be better spent figuring out what his audiences would not find offensive, but complaints about political correctness are (in entertainment almost as much as in politics) the lazy way to express grievance.

I clearly hold a low opinion of those who hide behind such complaints, but is there a limit to my contempt?  Are there situations in which "PC has gone too far"?

I have been thinking about this question after (finally) going to see the latest tent-pole movie from Marvel Studios: "Avengers: Endgame."  That film has set all kinds of box office records, and it has been in theaters for over a month; so I assume that many readers of this column have already seen it.  In any case, I am not going to take care here to avoid spoilers, although my focus is not on the story line.

Because I had already heard a lot about "Endgame," I arrived with relatively low expectations.  It was a long, sprawling final chapter in the "Avengers" canon, and it was almost guaranteed to be a mess.  In some ways it was, but I actually liked it a lot.  I even liked the final half hour, which amounted to little more than a long, emotionally manipulative series of victory laps and curtain calls.  Yes, the filmmakers were being self-indulgent, but they have earned it.

Prior to the ultimate battle scene, a big part of the comic relief in the film revolved around the character Thor, who has always been played by Chris Hemsworth for laughs as much as for hunkiness.  (Hemsworth's comedic chops were on delightful display in 2016's remake of "Ghostbusters," a movie that was savaged by sexist trolls for being politically correct for starring, gasp, women.)  But Hemsworth is the ultimate gorgeous hunk, with an impressively muscled physique that usually is not hidden under things like, I don't know, shirts.

The big joke in "Endgame," then, is that Thor has (for very good reasons, having been part of the losing side in the previous film that ended with half of all life in the universe being destroyed) gone into a five-year tailspin, fueled mostly by beer and pizza.  He is first seen in a ratty bathrobe and with an unkempt beard and long hair, happily drunk and in denial -- and clearly out of shape.

Rather than putting him in a simple "fat suit," the filmmakers put him in what I assume is called a "fat skin," a prosthetic outer layer that looks convincingly like a fat belly and sagging chest.  When Thor's robe first falls open, the audience's reaction was delighted laughter.  So was mine, so much so that I identified it as my favorite touch in the film when I talked to someone about the movie afterward.

I was then told that the filmmakers had received a lot of negative feedback about that choice, because some people viewed it as body-shaming.  It is no longer acceptable to make fun of fat people, so it is apparently also not acceptable to make fun of a person for becoming fat.

Again, my general attitude about entertainment -- and comedy in particular -- is that funny is whatever the audience thinks it is.  As I wrote in a column last year: "[E]ntertainers should shut up about their audiences' supposed touchiness and try to write better jokes."  Should filmmakers have the same response that I argued the creators of "The Simpsons" should have had about the legitimate "brown-face" complaints about the character Apu, that is, that changed audience expectations require changes in creative choices?

In general, yes.  There truly is no basis on which a creative person can say that an audience owes her the right to make any joke that she wants to make.  Free speech is a fine thing, but the freedom to stop listening is not only morally important but the essence of the business model of the entertainment industry.

Even so, not every complaint about any particular creative choice is as legitimate as any other.  People who want to say, "No, this really is funny, and I don't think it demeans nor should it offend," are not necessarily saying what Republicans say about everything they dislike: "You people have just gotten too sensitive."

As a person who is still fighting a lifelong battle with weight issues (currently, I am happy to say, on the winning side -- but always knowing that it might go wrong again at any time), perhaps I have simply bought into the unenlightened mindset that says that fat is ugly.  Maybe my laughing at Thor arises from my own body image issues?

Maybe, but the joke in "Endgame" is not that "fat is funny, and fat people can be ridiculed," at least not as a general proposition.  The joke is that Thor -- the ultimate chiseled specimen of Hollywood-style manliness -- has simply stopped being what we think of Thor as being.  It is not that "he's fat, which is always funny," but that he has reacted to tragedy by becoming just another middle-aged guy who is out of shape.  The filmmakers are not saying that he is pathetic because he is fat, or that all fat people are pathetic.

And Thor himself actually does not care about being fat, as he shows no sign of being embarrassed or trying to cover up or make excuses.  He is sad, and he is dealing with it in a way that is unhealthy in many ways.  Hemsworth is also a good enough actor to pull off being a fuzzy-headed, friendly doofus.

Does that mean that people who are offended by that aspect of the movie should "just stop it with your PC crap"?  Of course not.  If enough people agree with them, future films will not rely on this kind of humor.  It is possible that relying on fatness -- no matter the context or the character's backstory -- will someday be viewed in the way that we currently view, say, Mickey Rooney's mind-bendingly offensive "oriental" character in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

I strongly doubt it, but it is not out of the realm of possibility.  After all, even though the humor of Thor's situation is that the god who had zero percent body fat is now a couch potato, people could decide that relying on "fat is funny" in any context needlessly reinforces pain and shame for real people who have been harmed by social bias against people who are not standard-sized.

If that happens, then that is what should happen.  And if I am still around when that happens, I will think: "Wow, I can't believe that I once laughed at that kind of joke."  Just as many of us now look at, for example, the early seasons of "Friends" and think: "How much homoerotic panic can go into one TV show?"  Again, if it happens, then it happens.

In the meantime, it is perfectly healthy for people to debate what counts as appropriately sensitive versus overly touchy.  At this time and in this place, most people (including me) found the visual joke about Thor to be hilarious.  But all such reactions are contingent, and we can live with that and change as needed.