Superheroes Should Come In All Sizes, Not Just in ‘Thin Straight Male’

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For the vast majority of my life, I’ve been fat. Despite how many years this has been a part of my identity, it is still something I struggle to accept on a daily basis. It makes me question everything I eat, be cautious of everywhere I sit, and constantly worry about how I present to other people. This mindset was not created through my own actions; it is the result of the fatphobia, “the fear and/or hatred of fat bodies,” that permeates Euro-American society. Because of fatphobia, I’m frequently suggested different and new diets by others. Above all else, I’m often asked if I’ve lost any weight — as if my body is the most important part of me as a person. I can’t get through a family celebration without one of my relatives snidely commenting during a meal, “Haven’t you eaten enough already?” At nearly every turn, I am reminded of and chided for being a fat woman because society continues to believe fatness is an acceptable point of mockery.

For a large portion of my life, I’ve also been a huge fan of superheroes. This may be surprising because the superhero genre has never really been all that accepting of fat people of any gender. Superheroes, from Superman to Batman to Spider-Man to Wonder Woman, are never represented as fat in any way; they are always skinny with ridiculously enormous muscles and breasts. They rarely have realistic physiques, which perhaps influences fans like me to have unhealthy views on what is the “ideal” body type. By having superheroes be depicted with highly unrealistic but conventionally attractive bodies, fatness is presented as antithetical to the very notion of heroism.

The few times fat superheroes have appeared in movies, their portrayals have reflected fatphobic attitudes and mostly been seen as something to laugh at. The most recent and prominent example of this trend is in the 2019 film “Avengers: Endgame.” Years after the events of “Avengers: Infinity War,” Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has gained a lot of weight due to heavy drinking and post-traumatic stress — a fact that was hidden from the marketing for comedic shock value. Whenever it has the opportunity, the film plays up Thor’s fat body — created through a fat suit — for a joke. As an audience, we are told through unflattering camera angles and other characters’ disgusted reactions to Thor to laugh at his character throughout the movie, despite his clear trauma from seeing many Asgardians and his entire family die right in front of him.

Outlets like The Mary Sue have already pointed out how the movie’s treatment of Thor is extremely fatphobic and ableist. Scenes like Thor’s mother Frigga (Rene Russo) advising him to eat a salad and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) slapping Thor in the face when he is having a panic attack really exemplify this point. The fact that some fans actually wanted Thor to magically become thin again near the end of the film shows this even further. Why can’t Thor simply be fat? Why must he be shamed for his weight by a person he loves? Why does his fatness have to be the butt of the joke after “Thor: Ragnarok” made Thor funny without relying on his appearance? This is because, as a society, we have been trained to hate the existence of fat people unless they are providing us with comedy.

“Avengers: Endgame” is not the only movie based on Marvel Comics characters to pull these fat-shaming tactics. In “Avengers: Infinity War,” several jokes are directed at Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), commenting on how he has gained weight and doesn’t look as attractive as the then-unconsciousness Thor. 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” has Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) taunt Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), also known as the villain “The Blob,” for being fat; there’s a special irony in this one since “Stranger Things” actor David Harbour was apparently not allowed to take on the role because he was thought to be “too fat” for it. “Deadpool 2” features several fat jokes that are directed at Russell (Julian Dennison), and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” while it is a film I love dearly, also makes fun of Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) several times for being an overweight Spider-Man. Every time, the notion that a superhero can be fat is seen as something deserving of ridicule, shame, and degradation.

Even when the character’s fatness isn’t made into the joke, fat superheroes are shamed for their bodies in other ways. DC’s recent film “Shazam!” unfortunately delivers the message near the end that the “ideal” superhero body is thin, muscular, and able-bodied. In the movie’s final act, the main character Billy Batson (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi) turns all of his foster siblings into superheroes like him. Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), who has a disability that impairs his movement and an obsession with superheroes, loses his disability in his new superhero body, making it so that he obtains his “ideal” form as a superhero. Similarly, Pedro (Jovan Armand), who is fat and shown during the film to be working out in order to be stronger and lose weight, obtains a superhero body that is no longer fat but instead thin and muscular. In both cases, superheroes are forbidden from being anything beyond the typical thin and able-bodied standard. We are not allowed to imagine that someone fat or with disabilities can hold that kind of power unless they change to fit the accepted ideal.

Fat-shaming doesn’t only affect the superheroes of these movies — it also extends to the depowered side characters, who, even when no jokes are made at the expense of their bodies, are still treated as the comedic relief. Ned (Jacob Batalon) in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a primary example of this, acting as best friend and funny sidekick to Peter Parker (Tom Holland). While never mocked for being fat, he is purely there for comedy like making nerdy jokes and being in awe of Peter’s powers. Etta Candy (Lucy Davis) in “Wonder Woman” also serves this function, existing on the film’s sidelines to merely provide a few jokes that aren’t about her weight at the very least — although her frequent comments on Diana’s (Gal Gadot) seeming perfect slightly hint towards the notion of thin being the ideal.

Etta Candy’s presence here also makes something apparent about the rest of this list of characters: where are all the fat women? Aside from Etta Candy, every other character is a man. If it wasn’t for her, fat women simply wouldn’t exist at all in these movies. The absence of fat women in the superhero genre shows the interconnected nature of fatphobia and sexism. Because women are seen as objects of heterosexual male desire, the concept of a fat woman is deemed unthinkable since it goes against the accepted thin ideal. While fat women are made obscure, fat men are still given a place in these narratives because their bodies are not as scrutinized as women’s.

If we stretched the definition of the superhero genre to fit a less traditional definition, we get two contemporary animated television shows that feature fat female characters: “Steven Universe” and “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.” Steven, Amethyst, Greg, and Rose Quartz are all major characters in “Steven Universe” that have fat bodies. Meanwhile, in “She-Ra,” Glimmer and particularly Spinnerella are both shown to be fat as well. In all of these cases, while some have humorous elements to them, none of these characters exist purely for jokes. They are allowed to be full-fledged characters who are neither defined by their fatness nor made into comedic relief.

In accounting for these differences in fat representation, I believe that “Steven Universe” and “She-Ra” succeed where other superhero films fail because both are created by queer women — Rebecca Sugar, a bisexual non-binary woman, and Noelle Stevenson, a lesbian who uses she/they pronouns according to her Twitter location. As queer women, they are not subject to the heterosexuality and hypermasculinity of fatphobia and thus are able to see past the sexism of this stigma in the superhero genre. They disregard traditional norms of gender and sexuality in their shows, dismantling the notion of the “ideal” man and woman that is so popular in mainstream superhero films.With the examples of “Steven Universe” and “She-Ra,” we can see how the superhero genre could do better in terms of fat representation if it didn’t so consistently fall prey to conventional norms.

Maybe, if we had less heterosexual male superheroes, fat characters could be brought in more as heroes themselves or simply as characters who aren’t around solely for comedic relief. Maybe, even if these types of heroes are still around, they could have romantic interests who are fat women that they are attracted to without having to go through a “Shallow Hal” scenario. Or maybe, you know, fat characters could just allowed to be actual human beings and not the punchline for once. Please, superhero writers and creators — I am a human being and deserve to be treated as one.

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