Maybe I’m old. Maybe I’m 10,000 years old and in the time between my vibrant youth and the present day, the marks of good comedy have undergone a total revolution. Or perhaps, the MTV Movie Awards just look 10 times harsher in the blinding light of (semi) adulthood.
Complaining about the crass, lowbrow value of the MTV Movie Awards is a bit like complaining that a Michael Bay movie didn’t make enough sense. MTV and their award shows are notorious for being pop culture romps where popularity is touted above quality, and blockbuster mega-movies like The Avengers win the prize for Best Movie. MTV hits the punch lines they know will work, and fills the stage with stars like Tom Hiddleston and Matt Bomer who may be lesser known among wider audiences but are demi-gods amongst the teens. All of that is 100% fine. In fact, that’s the beauty of the show. It’s a night where pop culture trumps high culture and viewers (i.e. teens) hold the power by being able to vote on who wins rather than leaving the winners up to some stuffy academy who would never even allow for Best WTF Moment to be a category. But this Sunday night’s MTV Movie Awards teetered into a territory so malicious that the show’s pop value was almost completely obscured. The tone was biting, the jokes centered around body image, and there was a hint of racism in the air. With shows like this marketed towards America’s teens, it is no wonder bullying is rampant, and looking different is laughed at. Sunday night's ceremony preached "laughing at" humor straight from the pulpit.
The topic that took the brunt of the blows on Sunday night was body image. It appeared that the entire punch line of Rebel Wilson’s hosting gig was built around her weight. One of the show’s opening monologue jokes had Wilson telling James Franco, “I’m just a fat simple girl from Australia,” and things only escalated from there. Certainly there were echoes of Wilson’s oft-quoted line from the film Pitch Perfect when Wilson’s character Fat Amy defends her nickname choice saying she calls herself Fat Amy, “so twig bitches like you don’t do it behind my back.” And I get it. Keep your power by getting in on the joke before anyone else can even make the joke. But there is something sad about the idea that making a joke about how you look is seemingly the only socially appropriate way to get away with looking different.
The fat jokes didn’t end there. There were many more quips about Wilson’s size, there was an overweight man, called “Chunky,” who shirtlessly delivered chocolate to Wilson, and there was Taylor Lautner who accepted his Best Shirtless Performance award in a fat suit.
On the flip side, the objectification of the male body was on full display as well. Channing Tatum, who was not in attendance but appeared in pre-recorded clips, was salivated over and celebrated for almost the full two hours. Wilson at one point held up her cue cards showing the audience that they didn’t have words on them, instead they had images of Tatum's butt in a thong. The juxtaposition of celebrating Tatum’s muscles and laughing at Wilson’s curves created a strong message: this body is beautiful, and this body is just funny.
Later in the evening, Wilson faced the topic of body image head on, but once again turned the moment into a (not funny) joke. Coming back from a commercial break Wilson looked at the camera dead panning, “I thought I’d take it down for a moment and just talk about something very serious … and that’s body image shame. I just want to say to everyone out there that thinking negatively about your body is nothing positive. I myself was born with a slight deformity, I don't really want to go into details about what that is but I have learned to love myself and I want to say to everyone out there no matter what size or shape you are just love yourself.” The message would have been noteworthy, had Wilson not been giving the monologue with her shirt down to expose two faux nipples on one faux breast.
Race was on the chopping block as well. At one point Wilson gabbed about the Best WTF Moment award saying, ”My personal WTF Moment was when I found out I lost out to Jamie Foxx for the title role in Django Unchained. I was like, ‘What the? I could play black! I’m really into fat white chicks.’ Yeah, I’m inside one right now.” Race and body image humor, all rolled into one.
Then of course there was Will Ferrel accepting the speech for Comedic Genius and bringing an Asian woman and three Asian children onto the stage with him saying they were his family (for all those out there saying Will Ferrel’s wife might be Asian, she’s not. She’s Swedish.) Ferrel looked out at the crowd and said, “I want to thank my beautiful wife Pam, our two daughters Elizabeth and Tammy, and our son Chow Yun Fat.” He then made fun of his "wife" for not speaking English. You know, like all Asians.
With this sky-high platform at their disposal and the teen demographic at their feet MTV has an incredible opportunity to help alter the tone of the conversation amongst today's teens. With all of the issues of bullying, both online and in person, laughing at the issues of race and body image is not the message to send. If Rebel Wilson is on stage in front of millions of people crafting an MTV show around why looking different is funny, then the millions of teens watching will hear that message loud and clear.
There are plenty of ways to keep the spirit of the show while losing the malice. Keep it pop, keep the comedy slapstick, bring out the teen icons, and the out-of-control fashion. But if teen idols are standing in front of America's teens with a strong message of which body is beautiful and which body is not, then those minds will take that message to heart. MTV has a gift in their hands. Teens look to them for examples of what is cool, what is funny, and what is crossing a line. So please MTV, keep it lowbrow, keep it pop, but make it kind.