Often, we don’t spare a second thought to the things we choose to laugh at, especially when it comes to mainstream visual media. There are so many “comedies” that, in the name of raking in cheap laughs (and commercial success), resort to extremely problematic rhetoric —often being sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist and so on. Here’s a list of 7 comedies that you may have thought were funny, but were actually far from it:
In the hunt for problematic and downright offensive Adam Sandler movies, one is really spoilt for choice—but this one just takes the cake. In an attempt to increase his life insurance policy, a New York City firefighter Larry (Sandler) coerces a male colleague to enter a civil union with him, and eventually get married to keep up the ruse. But troubles arise when the straight pair is investigated by City officials, and along the way, have to also deal with homophobia. In theory, this could have been a great way for a straight man to realize the various hurdles a gay man has to face in his daily life. But no—instead, this film plays on age-old homophobic stereotypes, asserting again and again how, for two straight men, pretending to be a gay couple is lowering themselves to the most humiliating low imaginable. There is a constant reiteration of the “Having people think you’re gay is gross” trope, and there is also the “If you’re gay you have an excuse to be close to women” syndrome in the most disturbingly perverted manner. Just, stop already Adam Sandler.
This franchise is already notorious for terribly insensitive jokes, but what makes this particular movie utterly repugnant is its horrifying transphobia. While on a trip to Bangkok, an intoxicated Stu (Ed Helms) has sex with a transsexual woman or “ladyboy”, and when he realizes the next morning while sober that she is not cis, he is so horrified that he exclaims, “I had sex with a dude with titties!!”—which is blatant misgendering, and is demeaning to ANY trans person. The joke here is supposed to be that though the woman is attractive, her penis makes her “disgusting” and that anal sex is the worst thing that can happen to a straight man. This view of trans women as sexual predators or deviants has been used in many films as a comedic device. When will Hollywood realize that this is decidedly not funny?
For some utterly unfathomable reason, there was a period in the 2000’s when almost every famous black comedian decided it would be hilarious to dress up as an overweight woman and make sexist and body-shaming jokes (see also: the Big Momma franchise), and comedian Eddie Murphy was no less. He plays a triple role in this film, amongst which is a domineering overweight woman named Rasputia. There are enough jokes about her weight to make you want to scratch your eyeballs out, but as if that wasn’t enough, Murphy adds insult to injury by turning her into the most despicable human being possible, and a walking, talking stereotype. But even that isn’t the end—Murphy further adds to the disgusting quotient by also playing an old Chinese man while sporting yellowface. Why couldn’t you just stick to being Dr Doolittle, Eddie Murphy?
Disney’s history of whitewashing and cultural othering is a fact widely acknowledged by now, and this beloved classic is perhaps its biggest example.”Arabian Nights”, the opening musical sequence, states that Arabia is a place “where they cut off your ears, if they don’t like your face”—which is seriously messed up. This is just the beginning. Aladdin’s skin colour actually gets fairer (just, UGH) once he wins the heart of Jasmine and defeats the evil Jafar in the happily-ever-after conclusion. Also, Jasmine’s costume is socio-historically inaccurate, and serves more to objectify her rather than represent the times she lived in. How is this aimed at children?
While the Sex and the City TV show became a cult hit as the feminist comedy which articulated the experiences of life as a single woman in New York City, its film counterparts regressed a million steps back and turned these erstwhile complex characters into snobbish, entitled, first world whiners. The second film in the franchise is so glaringly problematic that this list would be woefully incomplete without it. In the movie, the four protagonists travel to Abu Dhabi for a vacation, where Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) takes issue with Arab women who wear abayas (black robes). She jokes about how hard it is to eat fried food (after one robed woman keeps lifting her veil to eat some french fries), constantly passes comments about their clothes, openly disapproves of their cultural traditions,and ever stops to invest in these women as people—reeking of sexism, racism and white privilege. So, in a movie that should have been about celebrating womanhood, they end up ridiculing and othering womanhoods that are not their own
Jim Carrey can be problematic too, and this movie proves it. This film faced a lot of outrage from mental health groups when it released, and rightly so. In the movie, Jim Carrey’s character, after suffering from a phase of depression, develops a violent split personality called “Hank” who goes around attacking everyone who had previously wronged him. It perpetuates the common misconception that schizophrenia is a condition that’s only about developing multiple personalities, along with reasserting the myth that mentally ill people are inherently violent and obscene. Infact, the word “schizo” is thrown around in the movie as a casual slur. In a time where mental health disorders are still largely vilified, this film exposes neurotypical privilege at its worst.
While some of Will Ferrell’s movies are great, some can go horribly wrong, and this one is perhaps his worst yet. The plot follows the story of a rich and unlikable white guy who hires a black car washer (Kevin Hart) in order to prepare him for his upcoming prison sentence. This leads to nearly three hours of extremely cringe-worthy racist and homophobic jokes that circle primarily around Ferrell avoiding the inevitable rape he will undoubtedly face in prison. In one especially unsettling scene, Kevin Hart’s character tells Will Ferrell that he must now learn how to perform oral sex on men in order to survive prison—because prison is full of gay men who are sexual predators and will rape you—and takes him to a men’s bathroom to teach him the same. This leads to a bevy of homophobic stereotypes and jokes that will make you want to gag as much as Ferrell does at the mention of gay sex.
These are only a few examples. There are so many more films and TV shows out there that are meant to be humorous, but are actually really hurtful to one marginalized group or the other. It is an age old debate about whether or not comedy should be politically correct, and whether pushing certain boundaries is considered okay if the intention is to draw laughs. Comedy can be an extremely subversive tool, so why not use it to challenge the problematic elements within society rather than perpetuate and reaffirm the same? So, next time you laugh at something, think twice about who you’re actually laughing at—the systems that cause oppression, or the victims who face the same oppression.