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.