Big, black and ... comical?

Eddie Murphy's new comedy stars a ribs-loving, man-chasing overweight black woman.

Published February 22, 2007 8:00PM (EST)

There's nothing quite like a discussion of women's weight to ruffle some feathers -- there are 183 letters (and counting) in response to last week's post on whether fuller-figured black actresses are exempt from mainstream beauty standards. So, in the interest of tossing some gasoline on the fire, I couldn't pass up the Washington Post's take on Eddie Murphy's "Norbit," which, it seems, is an hour-and-42-minute-long fat joke.

Most of you are probably at least superficially familiar with the film, thanks to its jaw-dropping advertisements and previews. If you're lucky enough to have escaped the promotional deluge, this poster -- sorry, in advance -- speaks adequately for the whole. The movie's Web site also features several games, including an interactive chat feature called "I love ribs" with Rasputia, the lead character's overweight wife. Ask her how she is and she'll respond, "Do I smell ribs? You better not be hiding any!" Look, I get outrageous, politically incorrect humor -- I am of the Dave Chappelle and Borat generation, after all -- but this is stupid. So stupid, in fact, I at first had a hard time summoning outrage.

But I'd just been lamely stunned into submission by those ads. The Post article quotes one of Salon's own readers in response to Stephanie Zacharek's review of "Norbit": "Hell, I'm white, and even I'm offended by this depiction. Where's the outrage at this inside the black community? Am I the only one who finds a mammy-esque element in Rasputia?" Actually, as the Post points out, there has been quite a bit of outrage within the black community.

And -- looking beyond just the attention-grabbing ads -- there's plenty to be outraged about. Rasputia is an overweight black woman with a ravenous hunger for ribs and her seemingly uninterested husband. She's an extreme caricature of what the Post's Robin Givhan last week called the "diva-like sexpot: strong, aggressive and entitled." It's a stereotype with an impressive range -- from inspiring horror and disgust (in the case of Rasputia) to inspiring awe and desire. Take one look at the "Norbit" ad and tell me that doesn't reveal a cultural duplicity toward black women. Unlike white women, they may sometimes be "allowed" to be both big -- in La-La Land terms -- and beautiful. But the flip side of that is extreme cultural anxiety: Just look at Norbit's horrified face in the ad.

Consider, too, that Norbit's true romantic interest (which isn't his wife, silly) is the very thin and much lighter-skinned Kate, played by Thandie Newton and whom one moviegoer described as "soft and frail." Brown argues that the movie raises questions about "the light and dark images that haunt so many races and the fairy tales that imply the more fair the complexion, the more beautiful the woman."

Clearly, to pick up on last week's fiery debate, it's not as simple as saying that black women are exempt from Hollywood's traditional beauty standards. (On that note, check out AlterNet's piece on the culturally constructed paradox between blackness and femininity.) And even those few who are supposedly deemed "exempt" still have to contend with the hateful side of that "big and beautiful" stereotype. So, unlike Brown, considering the presence of curvaceous black celebrities like Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah doesn't do a thing to render the "Norbit" ads any funnier to me.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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