Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fat People Are Not Your Literary Go-To For Evil

There I was, reading a recommended epic fantasy novel. All was going well: an interesting magic system; criticisms of religion and racism within the context of the world the civilization could have been born from; unabashed discussions of abortion and population control. All the sort of juicy subtexts I love to get my teeth into.

Then...boom. Here comes the evil Fat Character (TM).

Described in loving, and loathing, detail, this Fat Character (TM) was a cliche upon cliche. While I recognized that the biggest drawback of the book was the characterization and was dealing with that, I threw up my hands in despair when we reached Fat Character. They sweat, often described as pasty with high colour in their cheeks. They smelled bad. The Heroes often called them "ugly".Their belly and rolls of fat were often described as "disgusting". They wheezed and ran out of breath when using stairs. When they were killed (huzzah! Down with evil fat person! /sarcasm) their slit belly revealed layers of "disgusting yellow fat".

To compound our disgusting Fat Character, they were the epitome of evil. They were a sexual predator. They were a spy for the Super Duper Evil Guy. They dobbed in our Heroes without remorse. His mental faculties were questioned (hey, a double down on disableism!)

Even the other badly drawn characters had histories and motivations. But no, our Fat Character had no background, no history, no motivation, no reason to behave like he did. His only reason for being evil, it seemed, was Being Fat.

That's terribly lazy writing, it's sizeism, and it doesn't fly. In a society that erroneously uses size as a gauge for health, and health as a gauge for moral superiority, its no wonder some fat people are disenfranchised, angry, anti-social. Cliche fat characters in popular media and literature do not help. Fat people are not one monolithic personality or body type. They are not a stereotype. They are not your punchline or Go-To for evil.

Fat people have loves, hates, needs, dreams, sexuality, health, fitness, physicality and physical needs, and histories as diverse as everybody else. They are not ill or have mental health needs because they are fat (often in real life it's the other way round, and I don't want to hear a squit about "ZOMG Obesity Epidemic!!1!" because that is a myth in itself). If you don't think about these things when writing fat characters, you are dehumanizing them, even if they are aliens or fantasy creatures, because these are anthropomorphized literary extensions of ourselves and our myths.

It is certainly possible to write a morally ambiguous fat character, but they need more motivation. Were they/are they abused or bullied for their size? Are they denied food, health care, their sexuality, gender diversity, education, and families because of their size? Were they brought up in a culture of dispicability borne from misunderstanding of their needs? These things happen to fat people in real life, why wouldn't they happen to fat characters in literature? And no, none of these things make an inherently evil person either. Why yes, you have to think carefully about the characterization of a fat person. As you would with any person.

Here's one I ponder all the time: why are there no fat people in Star Trek? Because humans have eradicated all the health "problems" from their society, ergo being fat is seen as a "problem". Yes, there is the odd fat alien (Neelix, Morn, some Ferengis, for example), but they are always the cliche jolly, punchline or evil character. Star Trek is especially unkind to their female characters, having them wear tight fitting and revealing clothes, a performance for the male gaze. Those Federation uniforms look incredibly uncomfortable. I bet they pinch, and ride up the butt crack.

There are many amazing fat athletes, artists, scientists, scholars or politicians who don't see being fat as a problem or hindrance to their contributing to the world. The only problem seems to be the bullies and the sizeists who make someone else's bodily autonomy their business.

Where are these amazing fat characters in literature? I didn't start this post with any intention of using it as promotion for the anthology "Fat Girl In A Strange Land" (Crossed Genres) I'm appearing in next month, it was just curious serendipity that a fat character marred a book I was enjoying at a time when fat characters are at the forefront of my literary thinking. If you know of any other stories or books with positive depictions of fat characters, leave a note in comments, I'd love to hear about them.

Evil: its a complex negotiation of personal history, personality, upbringing, and societal and cultural expectations, not a physical attribute.


  1. JK Rowling is teeeeeeeeerrible for this. I re-read the Harry Potter series recently and in Half-Blood Prince when Professor Slughorn shows up it was just relentless.

    On the other hand, I'm just re-reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin and can actually think of quite a few fat characters with a variety of morals/personalities/backgrounds - cowardly boy packed off to the Wall, spymaster eunuch, deadly bodyguard, weak-willed noble daughter, life-loving Henry VIII-esque king, power-game-playing patriarch ... certainly not the bulk of characters at all, but at least there's variety and they aren't all introduced with red-faced sweaty heaved-his-gut-around pudgy-fingered huffing-and-puffing stereotypes.

  2. Having just rewatched all the HP movies in one sitting over the weekend, they were certainly kinder to Slughorn and Neville in the movie depictions (while not a big Potter fan, I recall some discussion over Neville's size somewhere). However, Harry's Uncle and Cousin Dudley were roll-your-eyes fat-bad.

  3. Great post!

    I always feel really sorry for Marina Sirtis in TNG. She looks so uncomfortable in that bodysuit and I saw an interview with her once in which she said she felt really pressured not to put on any weight because of the outfit.

  4. in real life every fat person i've encountered was either extremely selfish, ignorant, in denial to the point of toxicity, or lazy. cliche's are cliche's because they are rooted in truth.

    instead of writing insipid blog posts that detail your personal neuroses, why don't you become an accomplished writer (like the ones you're deriding) and invent a wonderful fictional fat character that is an archetype who we all strive to be? you know, the person who treats everyone kindly, effortlessly gets all the members of the opposite sex, and never takes more than their fair share (of food, money, etc.). or you can continue posting these blog posts, they're taking you places.

  5. Hey, congratulations I Swift for touching base on all the fat hat bingo points. You win an internet! Or possibly a fast, one way trip to googling Fat Acceptance 101. I can pretty much guess how you found this post - I can see the "fat people are evil" keyword in my stats.

    Perhaps in your hurry to hate fat people you missed the massive banner on the side of my blog for the "Fat Girl in a Strange Land" anthology I contributed to. Unfortunately, you may find it's not up to your body policing standards, because they're all stories about fat women who are treated as human beings, which you seem incapable of doing.

    Fat people do not have to change to your or anybody's arbitrary standards of goodness or sexual appeal. You show you know nothing about the pressure fat people live under in our beauty obsessed culture.

    I also thoroughly enjoy the implication that I should write what and how you want me to write, or you think I should be offended that you think I'm not a good writer. Obviously what I write about things that make you uncomfortable - guess what, you're not obliged to read them, just as fat people are not obliged to be around toxic bigotry like yours. I'm completely amused that you took the time to comment on this post when you have no idea who I am or my politics.

    You picked the wrong person. In short: there's the door bro, don't let it hit you in the ass on the way out. Hate does not fly here.

  6. Lavendar: Yes, I think I saw the same interview. She said something about not being able to eat a grape without it making a bulge in the body suit. And poor Jeri Ryan in that bodysuit as 7. It plays havoc on a woman's system to have to maintain that sort of weight for so long if you're not naturally inclined that way.