27 October 2013

Why Is There a Fat Man at a Food Bank?

Saw this in this week's Spectator.


Thousand words and everything, cartoons like this give you an amazing insight into the Speccie's mentality. The message of the joke itself is a fairly simple one:
  • 'Food bank' contains the word 'bank', which normally refers to the money, or occasionally blood, variety.
  • There is a potentially humorous incongruence between these two senses of the word 'bank'.
  • 'Mash' (an abbreviation for 'mashed potato', and therefore a foodstuff) sounds near-identical (to the point of the two being minimal pairs) to 'cash' (i.e. money).
  • 'Mash point' (a meaningless phrase) and 'cashpoint' (a real, existing, concrete object) therefore also sound similar.
  • By adding 'sausage and' to the beginning, not only does the phrase become humorously unwieldy, we also now have the name of a meal which, it is easy to imagine, could be dispensed and withdrawn through such a machine.
  • The similarity between 'mash' and 'cash' and between 'food banks' and 'banks' as in the financial institution can be combined, with amusingly absurd implications. (This, notably, recalls the 'Jobs, Hope, Cash' hypothesis of recent years.)
  • Since the connection between signifier and signified is arbitrary, it is absurd and incongruent (and therefore pleasantly amusing) to imagine that similarity in the sounds of the two words can result in any similarity in meaning, even if - as in this case - two sets of phonological similarities seem to match up.
But in most jokes, the interesting part is not the punchline but the feed-line. In setting up the absurd and illogical punchline, the feed-line often needs to be based on either obvious or indisputable truths or, failing that, things the listener assumes to be true. This is not the joke. This is not the bit we're meant to laugh at. This is the bit we're meant to gloss over and assume is true so we're ready for the silly absurd bit we're about to hear.

So my question is, why the fuck is there a fat guy at a food bank?

There are two ways this cartoon could have panned out. Either way, to draw someone withdrawing from the mashpoint the cartoonist had to ask themselves "what sort of person uses a food bank?" and the two main criteria, obviously, are:
  • Poor
  • Hungry
I don't think this is a particular controversial statement. But since it's hard to show a person's bank balance and the contents of their stomach in one line drawing that's mostly about mashed potato, you need to use symbolism. The second quickest way to do it is:
  • Stereotypical dolechav (working and/or shirking-class, conveyed efficiently through the clothes in the picture)
  • Greedy person who eats a lot of food (and must therefore always be hungry)
Both of these point to 'fat'. Weirdly though, the first quickest way to symbolise poor and hungry is a thin person, since
  • Poor people often do not get enough to eat - and these tend to be the ones who need food banks.
  • Insufficient calorie intake can, and often does cause weight loss and thinness.
The problems with this shorter, more realistic version are, however:
  • It's less funny, as fewer people enjoy laughing at thin people than enjoy laughing fat people.
  • It fits less with the target audience's (Spectator readers) imagination and assumptions about who uses food banks, and their aesthetic objections to certain types of people.
  • It makes food bank users seem unhappy and sympathetic, rather than fat and round and funny and well-fed, and therefore makes food banks a sad indicator of the economic conditions of poor people, rather than a pleasantly diverting play on words.
Now, either the cartoonist never considered that a food bank user might be thin/average-sized and poor instead of fat and greedy, or at some point an editorial decision was made, and either a real editor or, more likely, a hypothetical editor in the cartoonist's head said "no, don't draw him thin, draw him fat, for the reasons listed above".

The reason the food bank man is fat and happy is because the cartoon is not meant to resonate with any kind of actual objective reality, but with the imaginations of Spectator readers. Now, we all know that know the Spectator isn't there to provide people with facts but to give them that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you know James Delingpole and Rod Liddle share all the idiotic prejudices you were a bit anxious might be wrong. We also know that, as a demographic, these people are worthless turdscum unworthy of even a short break from being hit in the balls with a crowbar. But today we learn what their problem with poverty is - firstly, it leads to people who aren't them getting free things, and secondly, it causes unsightly fat people.

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