Shallow Hal

When Gwyneth Paltrow’s face appears in a magazine, as it often does, the accompanying article will inevitably address certain details of the star’s life. Among them, one can count on reading about her devoted yoga practice, the spiritual advantages of a macrobiotic diet, her uniquely civilised Hollywood pedigree, and of course, her storeyed (though now stable) love life. Anyone looking for journalistic proof of her willowy beauty and positive self-image will find it there. Perhaps it is this fact more than any other that makes the images of Shallow Hal (Peter and Bobby Farrelly, 2001) so absurd. In one, we see Gwyneth paddling across a lake, smiling and looking slender as ever, while her companion, played by the robust Jack Black, wonders why his end of the canoe is tipping up into the air like the light side of a balance-scale. In another, we see her looking enviably svelte in a bikini as she cannonball-jumps into a pool, only to watch her generate a splash more appropriate in scale to an automobile driving off a bridge. In short, these images represent an unmistakable affront to everything we know about Gwyneth Paltrow’s body, as seen by our very eyes and as confirmed by Vogue: they make it, in effect, fat.

Naturally, the premise of the film goes a long way toward explaining this affront. In the story of the eponymous Hal Larson (Jack Black), who unknowingly loses his “shallow” interest in women when a self-help expert “reprograms” him to see them for their inner beauty only, Paltrow plays an obese woman named Rosemary Shanahan. Rosemary looks to Hal, on account of her outrageously sexy soul, like Gwyneth Paltrow. Despite the fact that the audience shares Hal’s perspective for the vast majority of the film, so that most of the time Rosemary looks like Gwyneth Paltrow to us, too, the other characters – not to mention gravity – cannot take part in the illusion. As such, Shallow Hal is a visual comedy, and virtually every scenario in it plays to the literal incongruities between Paltrow’s lithe body and the big impression it makes, on everything from furniture to the faces of onlookers. The images of that body, then, shadowed by the idea of what it is (thin, famous) and what it is not (fat, unfamous), bear the very structure of the film’s comedy.

Given the rather loaded terms of this structure, particularly in the context of contemporary American popular culture – where obesity is regarded as a subject more proper to a tearful but triumphant episode of Oprah than a sight gag involving the collapse of a steel chair – the response to Shallow Hal in the popular press was understandably mixed. Although the film ultimately intends to critique the superficiality of beauty, suggesting that with the right perspective, the soul of a 300-pound woman could be recognised for being as beautiful as Paltrow is in the flesh, critics fumbled for a way to address the politics of laughing at a fat-joke in 2001. In his review, Roger Ebert begins with an optimistic approach that could have been inspired by the film’s own message. He states, “Shallow Hal has what look like fat jokes…but the punch line is tilted toward empathy.” The sensitive, inner beauty of the jokes, in this formulation, justifies and overwhelms their slightly ugly appearance. But Ebert gradually seems to lose faith in this reading, and wonders if the comedy might have been less offensive if, in a bizarre form of penance, Paltrow had been forced to wear the fat-suit that represents her character’s “real” weight for more of the film. “What if she wore the fat suit in every scene?” he offers, “This would also be funny; WE could see her as fat, but HE couldn’t.” (1) Ultimately, he gives up. Ebert, well known for his own corpulence, cannot figure out how the comedy is both funny and empathetic at once, even though he believes it is.

The tentative nature of Ebert’s attempt to address the role of comedy in the production of Shallow Hal‘s positive message is typical of the film’s reviews more generally (2). And like many of these reviews, especially those written by women, at the center of Ebert’s reservations looms the celebrated beauty of Gwyneth, who represents not only the unlikely star of a fat-joke, but a problematic physical ideal, even for a soul (3). Critics simply could not account for the collision of laughter, moralism, and Hollywood spectacle on which this film absolutely insists. Indeed, when the Farrelly Brothers’ next film, Stuck On You (2003) reasserted this insistence, building its jokes out of sight gags in the life of conjoined twins following radically different dreams, the popular response was generally more accepting but still unable to reconcile the brothers’ distinctive blend of slapstick and moralism. Articulating the reservations of several other critics, Glenn Whipp of the Daily News of Los Angeles complained that the filmmakers’ “soft spot” had “unfortunately overtaken [their] comic sensibilities.” (4)

At least part of the critical impulse to dismiss the idea of a sympathetic sight gag or socially responsible slapstick – an idea that has become absolutely central to the Farrelly Brothers’ oeuvre – depends on a foundational philosophy of comedy. In “Of Human Nature”, Thomas Hobbes famously describes laughter as a rather aggressive expression of power and judgement over another (5). As a social relationship comedy always implies a hierarchy and thus negates the very notion of empathetic laughter. In the case of visual comedy, where someone’s body generally provokes laughter, presumably this implication would only intensify; judgement is immediate, superficial, and complete. Critically addressing the Farrelly Brothers’ rigorously visual comedy on any serious level thus presents a fundamental philosophical question about the moral and social nature of laughing at looking: Is the feeling of laughter ever more than a guttaral spasm of vanity?

Given the Farrellys’ prominent position in American film comedy and the complexity, in my estimation, of their films’ theoretical engagement with visual comedy in general, looking closely at the comedic structure of Shallow Hal – especially its forthright provocation of questions about moralism and laughter, celebrity, and perception in popular culture – presents us with a fortuitous opportunity. On the most basic level, it will help us come to an understanding of the film and its use of comedy that is less equivocal than Ebert’s. But perhaps even more importantly, it will afford us a chance to consider visual comedy as a complex social relationship in contemporary popular culture. As the driving force of a film about visual perception, the comedic structure of Shallow Hal might lead us to an operative theory of visual comedy that reconciles social, moral positions and sight gags, and is uniquely calibrated to our distinctly visual culture.

Sight Gags as Self-Deception

In the field of film studies, Noel Carroll’s “Notes on the Sight Gag” stands as the most influential model for thinking about visual comedy. In it, Carroll characterises the sight gag in simple and direct terms before categorising its variants:

The sight gag is a form of visual humor in which amusement is generated by the play of alternative interpretations projected by the image or image series… The perception of incongruity in an event or situation amuses us, which in turn causes the risible sensations – laughter, for example – that we feel in response to humor. With sight gags, the loci of the relevant incongruities are the alternative, generally opposed interpretations put in play visually by the image (6).

In short, it is the spectator’s visual apprehension and interpretation of a misgiving that most basically constitutes the sight gag.

Carroll’s emphasis here on the pleasure of perceiving “incongruities” and the “play of alternative interpretation” draws its language directly from the wealth of philosophical writing on comedy. It was Aristotle who first declared comedy the province of a “harmless incongruity”, and Jean Paul Richter – a less well-known German theorist and novelist from the early 19th century – who first attached the perceptual play of “exchanged points of view” to Aristotle’s premise (7). Whether for simplicity or theoretical clarity, however, Carroll leaves aside the more complex discussions of laughter’s pleasure and ethics that preoccupy his two conversants, the latter in particular. As such, we are left with what Carroll himself characterises as a rather “rough” and “primarily descriptive” account – a model in the most basic sense – of what a sight gag is (8).

As a starting point, Carroll’s model is a perfectly good one, especially where it rearticulates Jean Paul’s. It allows us to consider, for instance, that when we see a pie hit the face of an unintended target because the intended (obliviously) bends over to pick up a coin, part of our pleasure comes from juggling our knowledge of the pie’s course with the characters’ understandable lack of it. However, in its formal concentration it leaves all of the truly interesting dynamics and possibilities of comedy, aside: Is laughing at such a thing an expression of superiority, as Hobbes argued so famously? What is it about perceptual play that might actually produce laughter? And how does this process take on the political power with which comedy is so notoriously associated? Carroll’s description offers a useful model for analysing visual comedy at the level of form, but it completely jettisons its vital social dynamics. And as we will see (if we have not already), a culture as thoroughly mediated by images as our own might be a dangerous landscape in which to do that.

The copious amount of philosophical work on the subject of comedy offers valuable and suggestive resources to the student of film and televisual comedy. However, very little of it is well suited to address the products of a culture that is not only exceedingly visual, but whose dominant media – television, film, and the digital – often seem to rend that visuality from the plastic or the actual altogether (9). As Carroll’s more recent work suggests, Jean Paul Richter’s “On the Ridiculous” represents an intriguing exception to this rule. Despite the fact that Jean Paul wrote the essay very early in the 19th century (between 1804 and 1812), his emphasis on point-of-view in the structure of the ridiculous action makes his work a particularly hospitable inroad to thinking about both Shallow Hal and comedy in (and especially about) contemporary visual culture more generally. Even more importantly, Jean Paul’s emphasis on the ethics of laughter that emerge from his precise rendering of this structure make it a valuable starting place for considering visual comedy as a social relationship.

Like Carroll’s theory of the sight gag, Jean Paul’s conception of the ridiculous relies entirely on a viewing subject’s perception of another’s action in a given circumstance as an erroneous or contradictory one. He writes:

An error in itself is not ridiculous, any more than ignorance… The effort and the situation must be equally clear in order to raise their contradiction to a comic pitch. But we still have only a clearly expressed finite error; it is not yet infinitely absurd… Here comes the main point: We lend our insight and perspective to [another’s] effort and produce through this contradiction the infinite absurdity… It is our self-deception in attributing to the other person a knowledge and motivation contradictory to his effort which produces that minimum of understanding, that perceived nonsense, at which we laugh. As a result, the comic like the sublime never resides in the object, but the subject. (10).

Shallow Hal

This formulation of the ridiculous is notable for several reasons. First, Jean Paul gives a lucid theoretical explanation for why it exists, as they say, in the eye of the beholder, highlighting the perceptual impetus (11). Secondly, Jean Paul makes an important distinction between subjective perception and the object perceived, jettisoning early theories of the comic that presumed behaviour seemingly contradictory to its situation was absolutely, rather than apparently, so. Indeed, it is with this distinction in mind that Jean Paul critiques the reigning Aristotelian tradition of thinking about the comic, noting, “The usual definitions of the ridiculous are false because they suppose only a simple, real contrast [between a circumstance and a character’s understanding of it], instead of…an apparent one.” (12) By making this distinction between appearance and the actual, Jean Paul underscores the “sensuous clarity” he holds to be a requisite to the ridiculous scenario, and creates the possibility that it is the spectator who is projecting a contrast between the character and its circumstances out of “self-deception”, rather than recognising a real one (13). This process of projection on the part of the spectator, who must recognise her own folly in order to laugh, will be central to understanding the social dynamic of comedy in this formulation.

Jean Paul goes on to summarise his conception of the ridiculous as “the sensuously perceived infinite lack of understanding”, and names its three fundamental elements:

The contradiction between the effort or existence of the ridiculous being and the sensuously perceived circumstance I call the objective contrast; the circumstance itself I call the sensuous element; and the second contradiction between the two, which we impose on them by projecting our mind and point of view, I call the subjective contrast (14).

In this account, the subject apprehends a ridiculous scenario when multiple perspectives of a single circumstance contradict each other, that is, in the relay between perception and an object. It is for this reason that Jean Paul argues against the Hobbesian tradition of regarding laughter as a subject’s expression of superiority over the object of laughter; for Jean Paul, on the contrary, that relay of perception holds the possibility of knowing others – of imagining the difference of another’s position and perspective – but no absolute knowledge whatsoever. It is also for this reason that Jean Paul locates the ridiculous firmly in the realm of understanding, as a free play of subjectivity, thereby isolating the ridiculous from the political, which is strictly the province of satire. And so, with its reliance on the sensual world, the limits of perception, and the absence of any absolute apart from absurdity, the pleasure of the ridiculous becomes revelry in the finite limits of our bodies, our knowledge, and our earthly world (15).

This kind of revelry is certainly intriguing from the contemporary perspective, where the diffuse, doctored images of Hollywood and the television news make any claim on the stability of knowledge or perception, well, ridiculous. Regardless of what kind of media Jean Paul had in mind when he conceived of the ridiculous in these terms, his emphasis on the role of perception in its constitution of the ridiculous makes it particularly amenable to the comedy of visual culture in general, even where that comedy departs from visual gags per se. Certainly one cannot get too deep into an episode of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show without regarding its comedy on somewhat similar terms, and the same could be said for a film like Neil LaBute’s Nurse Betty (2000) (16). That is, both of these comedies deal explicitly with the degree to which the profusion of popular images define the way we know the world (17). While The Daily Show does so by sending up the flimsy, constructed images of the television newscast, Nurse Betty does by making a comedy of one woman’s emotional obsession with a soap opera. But perhaps more than any other existing example, Shallow Hal, with its shifting registers of point-of-view and unstable perceptual representations of beauty, avails itself of Jean Paul’s conception of the structure and pleasure of the comic. I will turn now to an analysis of the film’s central comedic conceit – that is, the incongruity of Gwyneth Paltrow’s beauty and her character’s weight – to shed light on the film, to unpack further the social dynamics of visual comedy, and to tease out what might be added to or taken away from Jean Paul’s theory to make it viable in the contemporary context.

Does This Shot Make Me Look Fat? Perception, The Body, and Laughter

Shallow Hal

As I noted at the outset of this essay, the celebrity of Gwyneth Paltrow, who is so widely hailed in the popular press as the very essence of grace and desirability, supplies the basic absurdity of Shallow Hal. What could be more ridiculous than watching the Gwyneth Paltrow be treated like an obese woman? But as we saw in the case of Roger Ebert, laying a finger on exactly how such a revered body fits into a comedy about the cheapness of beauty, and what it means to laugh at such a comedy, in a moral and social sense, is somewhat tricky.

Take, for instance, an emblematic comic scenario in the film, in which Hal meets Rosemary’s parents for the first time. The scene comes at a crucial juncture in the narrative. Hal still does not know that Rosemary is obese, nor does she have any idea about his illusion. And meeting her family for the first time bears out not just the fate of their romance, but the fate of Hal’s professional future as well: Rosemary’s father (Joe Viterelli) is the owner of the corporation where Hal, who was just passed up for a promotion, works. Hal and Rosemary have spent the day at the beach and returned to the Shanihan residence for a getting-to-know-you dinner. The scene takes place in the dining room as the four characters finish eating. Rosemary, seen by the camera as Gwyneth Paltrow, gets up with her mother (Jill Fitzgerald) to clear the dishes while Hal tells Mr Shanihan his big idea for the JPS Corporation.

The scene is shot, from this point on, in a classic relay of shot/reverse shot close-ups between Hal and Mr Shanihan as they finish up their conversation. The carcass of a turkey sits prominently between the two men during this entire conversation, as if to remind us of the very thingness and utility of the body; in short, its finitude. Mr Shanihan tells Hal that he’s very impressed with his idea, but to “Cut out the act” of his interest in Rosemary. The shot cuts to Hal, who looks at Shanihan with disbelief. Shanihan, in close-up, goes on: “I think we both know we won’t soon be seeing her [Rosemary] twirling a baton, marching along with the Dallas cheerleaders.” The shot cuts back to Hal, who looks bewildered, and glances back towards Rosemary. The next shot, then, gives us Hal’s point-of-view: Rosemary is bent over the counter with her back to the camera. She is wearing a barely functional pair of hot pants and a blouse tied high above her midriff. The hot pants scarcely cover half of her famous derriere, but she is, after all, Gwyneth Paltrow. She looks like most American girls would like to in such a skimpy outfit, and the tightness of the shot only accentuates the resemblance of this pose, this body, and this outfit to the kind of cartoon pin-up World War II soldiers kept by their cots. Hal, like the viewer, looks back at Rosemary’s father wondering what kind of man would not see perfection in that body, mumbling that he doesn’t understand. Next, the camera shows Mr Shanihan looking where Hal just has, but showing the viewer a much different result. The close-up point-of-view shot is, this time, of an obese woman, replete with splotches and dimples, wearing the same exact outfit, to a significantly less USO-like effect. Mr Shanihan shakes his head at the site. The rest of the scene consists of Hal’s heroic speech to Mr Shanihan about how his “insane perfectionism” has made Rosemary insecure about her body, and judgmental people of his ilk should be ashamed. As we will see later, however, this point just might have been made more effectively by the sight gag of Rosemary itself.

In her review of Shallow Hal for the Boston Globe, Sarah Madsen Hardy wrote, “The problem with Shallow Hal is pretty well summed up in a comment overheard at a mall theater one recent Friday night. A teenage girl fumed, “I didn’t really need to see that much of Gwyneth Paltrow’s butt.” For Hardy, moments like the one described above, where Gwyneth’s butt takes center stage, “represent the film’s stake in the vision of beauty it seems to condemn”, making the politics of its comedy suspicious, and thus not funny (18). However, if we take this opportunity to examine the mechanics of the comedic scenario described above, we might, with the help of Jean Paul, take at least the initial steps toward unpacking the contradiction between the Hollywood spectacle of beauty and comedic moralism that Hardy is identifying.

We should begin such an examination by isolating the moment of the absurd itself: Mr Shanihan is calling the knock-out Hal sees obese, and Hal is calling the obese girl Mr Shanihan sees a knock-out. In Jean Paul’s terms, then, Rosemary trying to look seductive from afar is the sensuous element. From here on out, things get a little more complicated. The viewer of the film, knowing that Rosemary is obese, recognises that although the shot we see of Rosemary’s body is from Hal’s subjective point-of-view, there is an objective contrast between what he sees and the sensuous element of Rosemary. However, because the viewer must project this knowledge onto Hal’s vision of Rosemary in order to perceive the humour of the scenario, Hal’s vision also facilitates the subjective contrast that makes the viewer laugh at the incongruity between how he perceives Rosemary and how Rosemary actually looks. And just to make things more ponderous, the shot the viewer sees of Rosemary from Mr Shanihan’s point-of-view stands in objective contrast to the sensual element of Hal’s vision. But it also cues the viewer to a second subjective contrast between the body Mr Shanihan thinks he’s talking about and the body Hal thinks he’s talking about, both of which rely on two different bodies visualised before the viewer. In this way, Jean Paul’s conception of the ridiculous as “the sensuously perceived infinite lack of understanding”, finds perhaps its fullest, most chaotic expression in the comedy of Shallow Hal. (19).

Armed with this basic understanding of how the comedic structure of the film plays out in Jean Paul’s terms, we can begin to see that it deals less with some grotesque absurdity in the fat body in which Rosemary pops up from time to time, and more to do with the play of conflicting perceptions and the ethics they demand. Indeed, if we follow Jean Paul, then the pleasure of Shallow Hal – the laughter – springs not from a Hobbesian judgment of the body, but from the free play of subjectivities searching for a vision of the body in an unstable economy of images; from feeling the limits of our own bodies and our own knowledge as that vision fails us. Of course, the retreat from the realm of the moral and political that this emphasis on perception and understanding allows Jean Paul will not suffice here. It does not, in other words, account for Gwyneth’s butt. And although Jean Paul’s interest in perception and point-of-view greatly resembles the inherently cinematic point-of-view structures that facilitate the comedic mechanism of Shallow Hal, this resemblance does not completely explain the appropriateness of his theory for either that film or visual culture comedies more generally. In order to do so, and also to account for all the politics that Gwyneth’s butt implies, we must dig still more deeply into the film’s comedic point-of-view structure, especially as it relates to the Hollywood spectacle its critics evoked above.

I See Famous People: Narrative, Spectacle, and Feminist Film Theory

Hollywood’s objectification of the female body is no secret. But exactly how that objectification fits into the Hollywood spectacle as a visual, narrative practice is the subject of Laura Mulvey’s landmark “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In it, Mulvey posits a psychoanalytic reading of the pleasures and identifications that Hollywood narrative filmmaking elicit from the spectator, a reading that brings us closer still to understandings the mechanics and politics of laughing at Shallow Hal. Writing on the position of the female body in relation to both the progress of the film’s narrative and the gaze of the spectator, Mulvey collapses the terms of this relation:

The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of the story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative… Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen… A woman performs within the narrative; the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude (20).

In this formulation, Mulvey posits that the visual structure of Hollywood cinema combines the perspective of the spectator with that of the male protagonist, so that all of us, together, can gaze at the eroticised female body without disrupting the narrative flow of the film, or calling attention to the purely (sexually) spectacular, wholly unnecessary nature of that halted gaze. In other words, when Bogart takes a long, hard look at the lovely Ingrid Bergman’s dewy face in Casablanca, his gaze permits us to do the same without having to explain the politics of our pleasure. Hollywood narrative, then, using the perspectival close-up, trains the viewer to participate in a structure of vision that inherently normalises the objectification of the female body; it justifies the pleasurable spectacle of that body through a theoretical male gaze.

The structure of Shallow Hal‘s central comedic conceit described above throws a provocative wrench into Hollywood’s

Shallow Hal

spectacularised female body as Mulvey describes it. As we recall, two radically different bodies – Gwyneth-Paltrow-Rosemary and obese-Rosemary – command the objectifying perspectival close-up in the film, and the relay between these competing gazes constitutes the very comedic structure of the film. And indeed, throughout the film, the obese Rosemary appears almost exclusively in fragmenting close-ups of her body: In the eyes of other characters in the film, we look at Rosemary’s thick legs as she mounts a diving board, Rosemary’s dimpled upper arms as she sheepishly throws away the wrapper of a candy bar, and yes, Rosemary’s exposed butt as she poses coquettishly for Hal in the kitchen. The film structures two opposing male gazes with which the spectator identifies, so that the position of that spectator cannot be reconciled without either sacrificing the fantasy of the star’s body for Rosemary’s “ugly” reality, or willfully disavowing the fact that the star’s body is an illusion. Either way, the spectator must confront his or her role in Hollywood’s quietly objectifying visual regime.

This confrontation is only intensified by the end of the film, when all of the irresistible carrots dangled before Hal, and thus the spectator, throughout the narrative – Gwyneth Paltrow and a leg up in the corporate jungle – vanish with the film’s supposedly happy ending: Hal decides Rosemary’s soul is hot enough for him, and gives up his job to join her in the peace corps. There is, we are disappointed to learn, no sexy girlfriend and no successful future-millionaire; just the kind of sincere and humane world of benevolent desire that only politicians and people under the influence ever really dream they have the absolution to embrace (21). The double-gaze, absorbed by the narrative, as Mulvey argues, leaves us just as undeniably miffed by the singular closure of that narrative. Indeed, the quiet acknowledgment of how disappointing this theoretical Hollywood ending really is, and the embarrassment that comes with it, is perhaps the film’s most complex gag of all for the audience to ponder. But what does this confrontation have to do with comedy?

Keeping in mind the fact that the comedic structure of Shallow Hal operates, as I have shown, on the very perspectival tensions that demand this confrontation – that it is a comedy of and about visual perception – one cannot deny that the two are intimately intertwined. And if we follow Laura Mulvey’s conception of the visual pleasure of Hollywood cinema, we must recognise that the comedy of Shallow Hal turns more on the absurdity of recognising that pleasure for what it is, as the teenage girl in the multiplex inadvertently did, than it turns on any fat-joke. We do not laugh because our perspective makes us superior to Hal or to Rosemary. Just as Jean Paul suggested, we laugh at the limits of perception that we share with all those around us and at the finitude of our vision as we try to imagine another’s position; the physicality of our laughter expresses our own physical finitude, and thus, our shared failure to achieve any absolute knowledge. And to be sure, this failure is even more pronounced in the visual culture of Hollywood. Nearly every sight gag in the film asks us, through the perspectival close-up: Who structures the way we look at the body? We laugh because in each instance we believe, for at least one self-deceptive fraction of a second, that we do.

* * *

If we accept this understanding of the intentions, mechanics, and pleasures of Shallow Hal‘s comedy, then we have an answer for critics like Ebert and Hardy who could not reconcile the film’s simultaneous investment in Hollywood’s celebrity spectacle, comedy, and moralism or social responsibility. To put it simply, by asking us to gaze fetishistically at the body of an obese woman in the same way that we normally would at the body of any given starlet, Shallow Hal makes a comedy of the moral and political implications of the basic visual protocols of contemporary culture. This gaze reminds us, importantly, that Gwyneth Paltrow’s famous body is as much at stake in this visual economy as is the body of an obese woman.

But perhaps even more importantly, we might also have found a way to address the question of how thinking about the film’s visual comedy in terms of Jean Paul’s theory of the ridiculous, a theory fundamentally resistant to moralism and politics, could result in a fundamentally moral and political understanding of it. Certainly we cannot adjudicate the viability of Jean Paul’s resistance to moral and political factors in the idea of the ridiculous in his own time. But in ours, the very emphasis Jean Paul places on perception translates most often into visual perception, and as both Laura Mulvey and, I submit, the Farrelly Brothers tell us, the moral and political stakes of visual perception can no longer be taken for granted. Because Jean Paul’s essential understanding of the comic – that it is a way of knowing and trying to know others – is an epistemological one, it became political by default when comics first realised that the mind defines images less often than images define the mind; it has become only more so with the accumulation of apparati for deeply ideological visions, from Hollywood on. The very perceptual emphasis that makes Jean Paul’s theory of the ridiculous such a flexible and useful one for thinking about the politics and social stakes of laughing at Shallow Hal, also makes it a very promising model for thinking about comedies in and about visual culture more broadly. For it does not simply offer terminology that accommodates certain dominant visual protocols, such as Hollywood narrative cinema. It offers a way of recognising how different stages and aspects of culture imply the political in comedic structures to different degrees, however unavoidably they do; it offers the social experience of our shared failure to master these various stages. And perhaps most importantly of all, in the form of film and television comedies of visual culture like Shallow Hal, it allows us the small but valuable pleasure of laughing nevertheless.


  1. Roger Ebert, “Heavy Duty: Farrelly Brothers Walk Thin Line between Comedy and Cruelty in Shallow Hal”, The Hamilton Spectator, 9 November 2001, sec. D1.
  2. See for example: Philip Kerr, “Fat Club: Philip Kerr Says It’s Fine to Laugh at Obesity if It Makes People Lose Weight”, New Statesman, 28 January 2002, sec. C; Sara Madsen Hardy, The Boston Globe, 2 December 2001, p. N11; Dusty Smith, The Dayton Daily News, 9 November 2001, sec. C. Of all the reviewers, Philip Kerr is the most brash and certain about the political nature of the film’s comedy. He writes: “Now, according to the Farrelly Brothers, the premise of this story could easily have led to what they call a fat-joke movie. Nothing wrong with that, I say. I like fat jokes. Fat jokes have been entertaining us for centuries. How are we going to encourage fat people to lose weight if we don’t laugh at them?”
  3. For women who grapple with Gwyneth’s body at greater length, see: Hardy; Smith.
  4. Glenn Whipp, “Stuck Could Use a Bit More Glue”, The Daily News of Los Angeles, 12 December 2003, p. U15.
  5. See Thomas Hobbes, “Of Human Nature”, in L.A. Selby Bigge (ed.), British Moralists, Bobs-Merrill Company, New York, 1964, pp. 298–299.
  6. Noel Carroll, “Notes on the Sight Gag”, Theorizing the Moving Image, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 146–147.
  7. See Aristotle, Poetics, trans. Richard Janko, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1987; Jean Paul Richter, The Horn of Oberon: School for Aesthetics, trans. Margaret R. Hale, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1973, p. 30.
  8. Carroll, p. 155.
  9. I am referring here to the likes of G.W.F. Hegel and Friedrich Schelling, who like many of their contemporaries, understandably conceptualise the comic in terms of dramatic performance, a mode that stands at the intersection of the plastic, the visual, and language. I will attend more carefully to the disconnect I propose between the visual, language, and the plastic in film later in the paper, at which time I will also try to address why this disconnect would be relevant for a theory of comedy. G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J.B. Baillie, Harper Torchbooks, New York,1967; Friedrich Schelling, The Philosophy of Art: Theory and History of Literature, Volume 58, trans. Douglas W. Scott, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis,1989.
  10. Richter, p. 79. Italics are his.
  11. Interestingly, the original title of Shallow Hal was Eye of the Beholder; a title that would have indicated more forthrightly the film’s interest in the idea of comedy that I hope to show.
  12. Richter, p. 79. My italics.
  13. Richter, p. 78. Jean Paul also wants to make a provision that the character is not necessarily stupid, as “We laugh only at the more intelligent animals which make a personifying, anthropomorphic projection possible.”
  14. Richter, p. 80.
  15. In its refusal of any form of absolute knowledge on the part of the laughing subject, Jean Paul’s theory departs significantly not only from the theories of his contemporaries, but also from Carroll’s.
  16. Of course, Jean Paul’s resistance to political and moral resonance in the ridiculous would be problematic for both of these examples, as they will be for Shallow Hal, but I will address this subject later.
  17. I mean to imply this definition of the comedy of visual culture throughout the paper.
  18. Hardy, p. N11.
  19. Richter, p. 80.
  20. Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures Indiana University Press, Bloomington, p. 29. I will not address the psychoanalytic dimension of Mulvey’s essay here, as I do not feel one must justify the structure of vision she describes with psychoanalytic models.
  21. The disappointment of this ending has as much to do with the structures of Hollywood narrative as does the disappointment of the competition between two spectacular female bodies. As David Bordwell has written, “That the climax of a classical film is often a deadline shows the structural power of defining dramatic duration as the time it takes [the protagonist] to achieve or fail to achieve a goal… Usually the classical syuzhet [plot] presents a double causal structure, two plot lines: one involving heterosexual romance, the other line involving another sphere – work, war, a mission or a quest… In most cases, the romance sphere and the other sphere of action are distinct but interdependent…and coincide at the climax. Gwyneth Paltrow and corporate ascent are explicit promises that the double causal structure of the film makes to the viewer, but does not keep. David Bordwell, “Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedures”, in Philip Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, Columbia University Press, New York, 1986, pp. 18–19.

About The Author

Meghan Sutherland is the author of TV Milestones: The Flip Wilson Show (Wayne State University Press, forthcoming). She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Media, Technology, and Society program at Northwestern University.

Related Posts