The Spectator

Shut Your Mouth, Chris Christie

The whole Jersey fat-guy authenticity thing is over.

Are we supposed to trust Chris Christie because of his size?

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Authenticity. It has become the most longed for, least well-defined, most argued-over quality in our culture, has it not? We profess to prize it above all else, we pay lip service to “keepin’ it real.” We disparage things we don’t approve of as phony.

And yet our fixation on authenticity is no simple matter, as Lionel Trilling reminded us in his still somewhat ambiguous Sincerity and Authenticity (I can never keep the two straight). Must we respect a Southern bigot for the “authenticity” of his racism? Is authenticity the same as sincerity?

Which brings us to the disturbing incident a few weeks ago when Governor Chris Christie made what sounded to most people like a lewd joke at the expense of a woman at a Romney rally. Christie was speaking in support of Mitt Romney (some have suggested he’s a potential Romney VP choice, and although he’s closed the door on presidential ambitions he’s conspicuously left it open with regards to the second spot).

The woman had called out something about “jobs going down” and Christie yelled back: “You know something may be going down tonight but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart.”

Ugh. The incident got replayed all over cable and what struck me is how some commentators there and on the Web either sought to deny there was any sexual overtone to the remark, or if they grudgingly admitted the possibility, seemed to take the position that the wisecrack was just Christie being Christie, the authentically loudmouthed Jersey fat guy that he is. We’ve been paying obeisance to Jersey fat-guy authenticity ever since the Sopranos made Jersey fat chic. True, there’s an alternate version of Jersey authenticity, the sensitive, wispy, suburban existential authenticity of Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State, but it’s outweighed, so to speak, by the Falstaffian, fat-guy gangster version.

Jersey fat-guy authenticity is a subcategory of Generalized Fat-Guy Authenticity, and you can trace the roots of Generalized Fat-Guy Authenticity all the way back beyond Falstaff to the Buddha with his fat bellyful of aphorisms. I always wondered about that: The Buddha preached abolition of worldly appetites, yet judging by the many representations of his bloated belly, the guy seems never to have missed a meal. Maybe there’s a mystic lesson there.

But let us not get lost in the mists of time. Let us look at the evolution of fat-guy authenticity, and the recent rise of the Jersey Fat Guy as an icon of authenticity, the trope that has endowed Chris Christie with his heavyweight hubris. (Indeed, he’s already overplaying it: The oral sex joke might have put him out of contention for the vice presidential nomination. And then this week he made another lewd spectacle of himself by calling a gay New Jersey legislator “numbnuts.”)

Before we go any further, let me make clear I have nothing against fat people, and in fact rarely have been described as svelte. I simply take exception to the way certain guys like Christie preen in their poundage, as the culture gives them credit for a certain authenticity because, in a metaphorical way, they’re not afraid to let it all hang out. 

Let us begin our exploration of fat-guy authenticity with the dawn of contemporary electronic popular culture, which first served up the fusion of fat and authenticity in the person of Jackie Gleason in The Honeymooners, that ’50s sitcom still widely available on the Web.

(Actually if you count cinema, my favorite fat man on screen was the great Sidney Greenstreet, best known as “the Fat Man” in The Maltese Falcon. Such an elegant, dapper, casually cynical fat guy. He created his own category: Sinister Fat-Guy Authenticity. No one since has been able to replicate that combination.)

But to return to TV: If you watch Gleason, aka “the Great One,” you inevitably feel that Chris Christie has styled his loudmouth lard-ass shtick on Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, a blustery blue-collar bus driver who served up a twofer of prole street cred and fat-guy authenticity.

Gleason’s big-body persona poses the question: What is it about being a fat bus driver that confers authenticity? Is it the disdain for fashionable material appearance (so superficial!) that betokens a higher level of truthful self-expression and philosophical sophistication? With Falstaff the fat flesh was the source of authentic jollity and authentic melancholy as well. Is it that his “too, too solid flesh” (that’s skinny Hamlet talking) seems often to weigh more heavily on his spirit because of the sheer ponderous magnitude of the loss death will bring?

I remember when Simon Russell Beale made a big splash as one of the first (relatively) fat actors to play Hamlet (for Trevor Nunn’s brilliant Royal National Theater production). I resisted it at first, but somehow Beale used his extra lard to convey the extra difficulty of his suicidal wish that his “too too solid flesh/ Would melt, thaw and resolve itself into a dew”—to deepen the tragedy on some level. (In fact, there’s an ongoing scholarly controversy over Hamlet’s weight because in the climactic duel scene, his mother the Queen calls him “fat” and in the 16th century the term may—or may not—have merely meant sweaty not lardy).

Clearly fat sends a message of truthiness: At the very least we tend to think of schemers as skinny, even snake-like. (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar calls Cassius, “lean and hungry.”)

Of course, there were problems with Jackie Gleason’s fat bus driver prole authenticity. He was a fat bus driver also given to threatening physical violence against his spouse. “To the moon Alice!” Ha Ha. He’s talking about punching her out so hard she flies off to the moon. Just joking of course! Hilarious, at least according to the laugh track. But maybe inadvertently truthful: Makes you think of the folk superstition that there’s a mean fat guy trying to get out of every jolly fat guy. But Gleason was Hollywood’s idea of a lovably authentic fat American prole and for years, a decade at least, America bought into it.

The next fat landmark on the map of popular culture was Roseanne Barr, a kind of female Jackie Gleason. I think her sitcom persona was exquisitely done, and is still much underestimated. She actually made the whole fat-equals-wisdom equation work somehow, although when I think back on her show it what really nailed it was that grating wiseguy voice of hers—that flat nasal tone that seemed to take in an awareness of all the tragedies on earth and somehow transform them into a comic Mother Courage shtick. And now that she’s just announced she’s running for president—who knows—she could be a real threat.

Around the same time, we saw the emergence of what you might call the “Generation F” fat comics: John Belushi, John Candy, Chris Farley.

Here we had self-aware fat guys who played on the mixture of sympathy and trust we accorded (mostly) lovable fat guys: Belushi, authentic in a crafty samurai way, a demented truth-teller demonstrating the real streak of rage beneath the blubber; Candy the eternal sadness, the tears of a clown just below the surface; Farley the way failure of self-acceptance lead to self-destruction. You have to wonder sadly how they all would have turned out if they hadn’t expanded in popularity so rapidly.

Of course, among contemporary fat icons there are political commentators: Michael Moore, Rush Limbaugh, and a new heavyweight on the horizon, conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin. (He pronounces it in a somewhat nonregular guy fashion, as “Le-VIN”). Levin has the New York Times number one nonfiction best seller now, Ameritopia, and his last two books were Times No. 1s, but he doesn’t seem to get much attention outside the right-wing talk radio universe. He doesn’t have the same high profile as Rush—just the same wide one. The right wingers call him “the Great One,” not intentionally meaning fat, more invoking Gleason in his grandeur. Have you ever heard him?

Levin is actually more erudite than Limbaugh and he’s got a genuinely touching devotion to doomed shelter dogs (his book Rescuing Sprite shows an authentic heart that contrasts to his heartless approach to those humans in need of society’s help). But he’s frequently given to proving he’s an authentic American no-nonsense guy by yelling at callers who disagree, “GET OFF THE PHONE YOU BIG DUMMY!” Or by uttering what he thinks is some transgressive un-PC sentiment and telling us “THERE, I SAID IT” afterward, like he’s risked being burned at the stake, patting himself on the back for his transgressive courage. He’s more likely to be burned at some barbecue if one can judge from his frequent boasting about his Paula Deen-like diet and his concomitant complacent references to his heart attack. He’s constantly referring to, trading on, one might say, his gluttony, in reproof to anti-obesity crusaders and other “meddlesome” government types, as if the volume of his flesh gave weight to his words.  (Then there’s Paula Deen, the Southern version of fat authenticity but I don’t want to get into a debate about diet and diabetes.)

I think Levin’s “THERE I SAID IT” style of supposedly blunt truth-telling is akin to Chris Christie’s I’m-so-bluff attitude. But here’s where the explicitly Jersey version of it enters in.

Sure, Jerseyness was a trope for “realness” before the Sopranos. But it wouldn’t have been what it is if Tony Soprano hadn’t fused authenticity and Jersey so masterfully. More than Tony, the Sopranos was about all those fat guys, gofers in track suits, who created a veritable slovenly Jersey world, one we were supposed to find as charming as exotic pork products.

It was the Sopranos crowd, the Sopranos zeitgeist, that Christie was playing to with his dumb oral sex joke.

“Yeah, something’s going down tonight, but it ain’t gonna be jobs, sweetheart.”

The whole incident called to mind the episode of the Sopranos in which Uncle Junior’s mistress gossips about his proficiency in the “going down” department, causing him to feel shame in front of his clueless crew. The thing that makes Christie’s remark particularly odious to me is his slimy condescending use of the word “sweetheart.” That and its official sanction by Christie’s party sycophants.

“The video,” my colleague Torie Bosch noted, “was uploaded to the New Jersey GOP’s YouTube account. They seem to think his remark about ‘going down’ is a zinger, something to be proud of, rather than recognizing it as flagrantly demeaning, even misogynistic. How would Christie have responded to male protesters saying the same thing? Probably not by changing the subject to what acts they perform in the bedroom. His handlers should be apologizing for the remark, not promoting it.”

Apparently her post took a lot of abuse from Internet dimwits, some trying to push the line that it really wasn’t an oral sex joke at all.

Perhaps the most ridiculously inept and inauthentic defense of Christie’s remarks came from blogger Ann Althouse:

Now, obviously, the words “going down” mean “happening,” especially when the subject of the verb isn’t a person and when there’s no object preceded by the word “on.” That is, to refer to oral sex, he would have something closer to “somebody’s going down on something tonight.” Moreover, if one were inclined to make an oral sex joke when the word “jobs” is already in the mix, you’d jape about “jobs.” Going down? Oh, there will be some going down tonight, and there will be jobs, maybe not the kind of jobs you want, but there will be jobs.

Can you believe that? Disingenuous pedantry about subject/object synchronization when the boys at the Bada Bings all over Jersey are snickering. Sure, nothing sexual about that use of “going down”: It’s all about “something going to happen.” This ranks as the second most ridiculous deconstruction I’ve ever seen (and believe me, as a Yale grad school dropout, I’ve seen a LOT). The greatest of course is Quentin Tarantino’s opening scene in Reservoir Dogs: the gang’s hilarious exegesis of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.”

I can’t believe Althouse’s analysis hailed from authentic stupidity. (She’s a law professor after all.) Rather, I suspect we can attribute it to (an important distinction) inauthentic obtuseness.

I can’t help thinking the whole episode—including the recent “numbnuts,” which demonstrates that Christie thinks playing stupid and vulgar has been a plus—it’s a sign that Chris Christie’s crossed a borderline from being Chris Christie to playing Chris Christie. But the media in this age of Newt’s three-ways and Herman Cain’s harem is going to let him get away with it, even though his bullying humiliation of that woman who was asking an authentic question about jobs is far worse than some stupid hotel assignation.

(By the way should we consider Newt fat? Technically, in a body-mass way, he probably is. But he comes across so angry all the time you never sense he’s ever felt the placidity of a fat guy. He’s so inflamed it’s like he’s burning up his calories in front of us. Even if he is fat, it’s not reading authentic.)

I don’t even want to bring up J——-S——, but isn’t it time we ditch the whole Jersey authenticity meme? Maybe it once had some validity and sure I like Boardwalk Empire but I think it’s too late for Jersey to reclaim any authenticity. The whole state has embraced its theme-park-for-dummies status.

Unless you count Bruce. I have always loved Bruce, at least after he stopped blatantly imitating Dylan when he broke out with Born to Run. I could play “Darkness on the Edge of Town” forever. When he’s being the Raymond Chandler (or the Raymond Carver) of rock there’s no compare. But I’ll never forget the moment when I first saw that “Dancing in the Dark” Brian De Palma-directed video. The one where Bruce is all made up and calls a then-unknown model, Courtney Cox, up to the stage to dance with him.

I just couldn’t believe that was staged. I remember having a big argument with my girlfriend at the time, with me claiming (on the basis of no evidence except my belief in Bruce’s rock solid authenticity) that it was spontaneous and I remember her laughing at me contemptuously for not realizing Courtney was a model prepped for the moment, for not noticing all the make-up Bruce was wearing on what looked like a newly sanded super smooth face.

Okay, it was kind of naive of me to be fooled. But somehow, though I still love the songs he makes (“Tougher than the Rest” is a recent fave), something was lost.

Maybe, Bruce, it’s time for you to put on some pounds. I think we’d all feel better if you ditched the ripped facade for some heavy pasta and cheese steaks and the physiognomy they would beget. Pork products, Bruce! I think we’d all welcome a Fat Bruce replacing the Smooth Bruce. Even Lionel Trilling would call it more authentic.