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In defense of Leslie Jones

By Rich Heldenfels Published: May 5, 2014

The above bit by Leslie Jones on "Saturday Night Live" has caused some considerable debate, including this piece in Ebony, and talk-back by Jones herself on Twitter. But when you look at "SNL" -- and I have, more than once, ask yourself what exactly is Jones talking about?

Where the discussion of her comments has focused on her use of slavery to make an extreme point (and let's remember that freakin' Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar by using slavery as the foundation of an over-the-top exploitation film) -- Jones is in fact using Hollywood and slavery to make a point about body image.

She starts, after all, with the idea that Lupita Nyong'o was named People magazine's most beautiful woman -- an honor Jones herself knows is not coming her way. Where Nyong'o is, indeed, beautiful, it is a kind of beauty locked into a lot of (white) social conventions about size, shape and elegance.

Jones, who has talked about her size in her standup going back years, is not that kind of woman.She knows that her physicality reminds people of something else embedded in the culture --  something that dates back to what slave times might have callled the "most useful" woman, admired for her strengthy and her ability to bear children. She is pointedly drawing parallels with a male stereotype ---- note the way she imagines giving birth to Shaq, Kobe, LeBron, Kimbo Slice .. -- whose attibutes also fit the ancient idea of black men being most admirable for their bodies. (She didn't give birth to Obama, did she?)

And, again, the monologue started with the idea of beauty -- and that being a strong, big woman, black or white, is not something that will draw great admiration. As I have said before, Melissa McCarthy gets to portray vigorous, sexual women in "Bridesmaids," "Identity Thief" and "Mike & Molly" -- but when she gets partners, they are men who do not fit conventional ideas of male attractiveness.

Jones took a tricky path to her point. And I can understand who some people thought wait, did she just make a joke about slavery, especially when it involves a star of the earnest, remember-the-inhumanity 12 Years a Slave. But a lot of comedy involves taking risks, and turning seemingly untouchable topics into a way of talking about what's going on in our culture. And Jones was making a point, even if it got lost in the noise that greeted her method.

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