Is it OK to Laugh at ‘Fat-Jokes’?

Who has not seen or heard fat jokes?

Usually a stereotypical depiction of a fat person highlighting their ‘funny’ relationship with food, their ‘facetious’ aversion to physical activity, their ‘farcical’ physical appearance, their ‘ludicrous’ clumsiness, their ‘jolly’ self-indulgence, their ‘entertaining’ lack of self-control – in short hilarious!

Not just the general public, but media, movie makers, comedians, and, I am sad to say, even researchers and health professionals, will freely use ‘fat-jokes’, stereotypical cartoons, or tell ‘typical’ stories, without a second thought on how hurtful, insulting, unjust, and simply stupid such jokes may be – I guess, anything for a laugh is fine – after all a ‘joke is just a joke’ – no offense?!?.

So what is it with disparaging jokes? Who makes them and why does anyone think they are OK?

An article that takes a closer look at how group dominance beliefs facilitate and legitimize ‘cavalier humour beliefs’ was recently published by Gordon Hodson and colleagues from Brock University, Ontario, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

As the authors point out,

“Humor and joke telling remain among the last bastions of openly expressed intergroup stereotypes and bias in Western cultures….people generally tolerate intergroup jokes, minimizing negative outcomes associated with humor generally.

Rather, “humor invokes a conversational rule of levity”, encouraging audiences to disengage criticism and relax normal social conventions, quelling criticism of the joke or the teller. In fact, indicating displeasure with an intergroup joke could even come at a social cost, conveying prudishness or a failure to appreciate an implicit understanding that a “joke is just a joke” and, by implication, harmless.”

The paper examines the important role of Social Dominance Theory (SDT), which the authors summarize as follows:

“In SDT, it is proposed that human societies almost universally adopt hierarchical power structures. As a result, access to resources and power are distributed unequally across social groups. Over time, relative advantages and disadvantages become entrenched and further differentiate social groups, making it increasingly difficult for subordinates to change their social status and to access valued resources or prestige.”

“For their part, dominants are particularly invested in endorsing ideologies justifying the attainment or maintenance of structural intergroup relations conferring unequal benefits to high-status groups. This often results in heightened outgroup prejudice, particularly directed toward low-status outgroups seeking upward social mobility”

Importantly, the authors also note that:

“Central to SDT is the proposition that “group-based hierarchy is also affected by… legitimizing myths… [the] attitudes, values, beliefs, stereotypes that provide moral and intellectual justification for the social practices that distribute social value”

This is probably, why the ‘inferior’ stereotypes associated with excess weight (lack of control, indulgence, gluttony, etc.), provide a ‘legitimizing myth’ and thus a socially acceptable target for jokes.

Although the paper does not specifically address the issue of ‘fat-jokes’, it does explore the role of subtle (or not so subtle) legitimizing myth operating in intergroup humor settings.

While some humour theorists (e.g. Freud) have suggested that:

“…humor allows expressions of hostility toward others through socially sanctioned forms, masking true intentions from source and audience (including the target).”

others have

“… emphasized the socially positive, disinhibiting functions of joke telling…“humor is essentially a way for people to interact in a playful manner”, a liberation from serious constraints of everyday life.”

The paper goes on to describe three sets of experiments that examine a number of related hypotheses on the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of laughing at disparaging ‘cavalier’ jokes and even presents a novel ‘Cavalier Humour Beliefs’ (CHB) scale.

“In all studies, social dominance orientation predicted favorable reactions toward low-status outgroup jokes almost entirely through heightened CHB, a subtle yet potent legitimatizing myth that “justifies” expressions of group dominance motives. CHB contributes to trivializing outgroup jokes as inoffensive (harmless), subsequently contributing to postjoke prejudice.”

Although fat-jokes are not specifically addressed, this paper better helps understand the sociopsychology that ‘legitimizes’ disparaging jokes, and therefore provides context to why (certain) people find such jokes funny.

Debunking the ‘mythology’ about obesity and speaking out against the propagation of simplistic and stereotypic depiction and discussion of obesity, its causes and consequences may be an important step towards a Canada where telling and laughing at ‘fat-jokes’ becomes unacceptable and something no self-respecting Canadian would consider funny or witty.

Imagine a Canada where no one laughs at fat-jokes – wishful thinking?

Edmonton, Alberta

Hodson G, Rush J, & Macinnis CC (2010). A joke is just a joke (except when it isn’t): cavalier humor beliefs facilitate the expression of group dominance motives. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99 (4), 660-82 PMID: 20919777