Trope Anatomy 101

Trope Anatomy 101: Your Body Is Not Your Confession

This month on Trope Anatomy 101, Carlie St. George examines harmful fat shaming tropes. Trigger warning.

Trope Anatomy 101

Trope Anatomy 101 is a monthly column in which familiar tropes, particularly in speculative fiction and pop culture, are broken down and discussed by new regular contributor and author Carlie St. George.

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Trope Anatomy 101: Your Body Is Not Your Confession

Today’s essay is going to get personal, folks, so I’m going to begin with some personal facts.

I’m almost, but not quite, 5’4” and–as of this morning–weigh 171 pounds. That number varies up and down by about 5 lbs. on any given day, but my BMI generally hovers just around that very delicate border between “overweight” and “obese.” I currently have obesity listed as a medical condition, which, I’ve got to tell you, doesn’t make me feel awesome. When it comes to clothes, I tend to fall somewhere between “plus size” and . . . do we just call it “normal size”? That’s disheartening. Sometimes I get double lucky and find stuff in both sections. Sometimes, I’m less lucky and can’t find anything in either. My jean size (always depending on the brand) is roughly a 12, and as far as I can tell, my bust to waist to hip proportions make no goddamn sense whatsoever.

I don’t like to think of myself as fat. Fat is a charged word, and one we’ll discuss a little bit later. But I am overweight, and have no particular shame admitting it: it is simply a fact, not a secret, judgment, or confession.

But being fat (or overweight, or plus size, or curvy, or whatever term one prefers to use) often comes with so many negative stereotypes that it’s no wonder many people end up feeling ashamed of their bodies and/or seeking out descriptors that don’t make them feel like total crap. These stereotypes are everywhere, and I’d like to talk about them by examining the kinds of stories we tell about overweight people and detailing a handful of harmful “fat tropes” that occur again and again in pop culture.

For instance . . .

Trope A: Stuffing Your Face Is Exercise, Right?

Now, diet and exercise are obviously very important factors when it comes to someone’s weight. No one’s disputing that. But it’s a common misconception that they’re the only factors, just like it’s a common misconception that fat people are constantly eating, and are either incapable of working out, or simply too lazy to bother. If you want to see the most concise distillation of this stereotype, go no further than “AKA Ladies Night,” the first episode of Jessica Jones.

In this episode, Jessica, a PI, watches an overweight woman get off a treadmill and immediately bite into a cheeseburger that, I guess, she just had waiting for her on the table? Yeah, that seems credible. “Two minutes on a treadmill,” Jessica ironically notes. “Twenty minutes on a quarter-pounder.” I really enjoyed Jessica Jones, but I suspect I wasn’t the only person flipping off its heroine at this point.

This kind of fat-shaming crap comes up time and again, and as audience members we’re nearly always expected to laugh at it, whether it’s in in a family-friendly adventure movie (The Goonies, where Chunk is directly or indirectly connected with food 22 different times), a musical comedy (Pitch Perfect, which is fat-friendly in many respects but nonetheless has the same tiresome references to Fat Amy trying to get out of cardio), or a horror comedy (Zombieland, where the first rule of survival is cardio because the “fatties” always get eaten.) Also, Dodgeball, which is particularly egregious about its fat-shaming, between skinny Justin getting crushed under an obese cheerleader (whose weight makes actual sloshing sound effects), to defeated antagonist Ben Stiller, who has once again become obese after losing his gym and has surrounded himself with mounds of food, pieces of which get lost in his rolls of fat–and that’s all before he starts a “man-boob” dance to “Milkshake.”

And while this trope runs rampant in Hollywood, film and TV don’t have a monopoly on it; you can also find it in children’s literature. Take, for instance, Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Of course it’s the fat kid, Augustus Gloop, who’s so greedy he ends up nearly drowning while trying to drink a chocolate river… because fat people, amirite? Augustus then ends up getting stuck in a glass pipe, which in itself is something of a trope: you see overweight characters stuck in spaces that are too small for them in TV shows (Community), classic cartoons (Winnie the Pooh), and even music videos (Weird Al’s “Eat It”).

But when it comes to the egregious fat-shaming of children, the novel easily has both film versions beat; Dahl repeatedly describes Augustus as a “big fat boy” who takes a handful of edible grass when everyone else is satisfied by a single strand. Dahl also takes care to note that it’s Augustus’s large stomach that’s prevented his ascent through the pipe, lest the reader forget the boy’s weight for a moment and think that the pipe is merely too narrow for his shoulders, or something.

And then, of course, there’s this charming passage: “But Augustus was deaf to everything except the call of his enormous stomach. He was now lying full length on the ground with his head far out over the river, lapping up the chocolate like a dog.”

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was written in 1964, but for all the great effort that’s been made by the body positive movement in recent years, the sheer derision dripping from those words is the same scorn you find in 2015 with Jessica Jones. Fat people are constantly being judged in stories, by other characters, or even by their own writers, who–either intentionally or unintentionally–repeatedly perpetuate the myth that a person’s size is automatically indicative of sloth and/or gluttony. And this is important because one, it’s untrue, and two, it’s this myth that fuels awful people like Katie Hopkins, who decided to gain and lose over 40 pounds, purely to prove that there’s no excuse for being fat and that all obese people are only obese because they’re lazy.

It’d be nice to think Ms. Hopkins is an outlier, but if the last few weeks of research have taught me anything, it’s that it’s depressingly easy to find all sorts of people online who harbor an unbelievable amount of hatred and disgust for anyone who weighs more than whatever arbitrary number they deem attractive or acceptable. Which leads me to our next trope:

Trope B: Ha-Ha, You’re Fat! You Can’t Be Sexy!

Let’s begin with a positive subversion.

I first saw Chicago (the movie) when I was 16, and while it regularly makes people’s Top Ten Overrated Best Picture lists, it still remains significant to me 14 years later because of one song: “When You’re Good To Mama,” as sung by Queen Latifah. It might sound silly to some, but that scene was a revelatory experience for me, because until then, I had never seen an overweight woman get to be so overtly sexy in a movie without it being some kind of joke. And to me, that felt like an open door.

It felt like someone saying, “Hey, you don’t have to settle for being the unattractive best friend in your own story. Fat girls get to be hot, too!”

The message stuck with me because, typically, that’s not the one we receive from fiction. Fatness is often portrayed as synonymous with ugliness, undesirability, or repulsiveness; sometimes, the comedy is even supposed to arrive from such characters believing themselves to be attractive: think Fat Bastard and his catchphrase “I’m dead sexy” from the Austin Powers movies. (Or, for that matter, Broomhilde from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Orwen from the Disney version of The Black Cauldron, or half a dozen other parts for fat female characters who “hilariously” try to seduce a man.) The entire joke centers on the presumption that nobody could want anyone so huge, which is also a message that will stick with you, especially after you hear it time and again.

This reminds me of Friends, actually, specifically the two-part episode “The One That Could Have Been,” where everyone imagines what their lives would have been like if they had gone down a different path. While most consider careers they could have chosen or romantic partners they could have stayed with, Monica wonders what her life would have been like if she remained overweight. Only Chandler believes that he and Monica would still be together; when he asks, “What, you guys really think I’m that shallow?” Ross responds, “No, I just think Monica was that fat.” It seems like the most dickish, mean-spirited thing someone could say, but it’s supposed to be funny; I know, because the laugh track helpfully tells me so. It’s also worth noting that while Monica momentarily glares at Ross, she doesn’t actually seem angry with him, likely because she agrees that she was this unbelievably fat. It makes me sad for her.

The good news is that she’s wrong: Monica and Chandler do get together in the alternate timeline, and best of all, Chandler is actually the one (briefly) pining after her, rather than the other way around. On the other hand, Monica (who is dating the most boring man alive, the kind of guy who gives impromptu pop quizzes about nuts versus seeds, and is, presumably, the kind of guy fat girls have to settle for) is also now a 30-year-old virgin, and while she says that she’s just been waiting for the right man, I don’t believe it for a second; after all, if that was something important to her character, why wouldn’t it have also applied to Skinny Monica? Shouldn’t Skinny Monica have been a virgin when the show started and only lost her “flower” to, say, Richard or maybe Chandler himself? Did Fat Monica ever date Richard or any of Skinny Monica’s past boyfriends, or would none of them but Saint Chandler have willingly touched her body?

And to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a virgin at any age, whether you’re asexual or choosing to abstain for religious or other reasons, but I can’t see any reason Friends would have made Monica a virgin here unless it was to make fun of both virginity and obesity, to turn her lack of sexual experience into another tired joke about how fat people are too pathetic to get laid. And when being fat is so frequently linked to being disgusting or unattractive, it can be very hard not to internalize those perceptions, especially when desirability is so often equated with thinness, and when significantly fewer characters (especially female characters) are allowed to be overweight. This is particularly true when it comes to Hollywood romance. Try to think of a mainstream rom-com where the leading lady is a fat woman. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

What you’re slightly more likely to see–as just evidenced by Friends–is a skinny woman donning a fat suit in order to play a plus-size character. This brings us back to Shallow Hal, a film that’s ostensibly about a superficial man learning to appreciate inner beauty, but is actually about turning a fat woman into a punch line at every turn. If you’ve remained blissfully unaware of the film, Shallow Hal is a romantic comedy where, under the influence of a spell, Hal can only see inner beauty, not outer; thus, when he looks at the pleasant, obese Rosemary, he sees her as the hot and skinny Gwyneth Paltrow. An actual fat-positive movie would star an obese actress and allow her the opportunity to be sexy, but Shallow Hal doesn’t believe in its own moral and is mostly concerned with a lot of visual sight gags where Rosemary’s weight continuously breaks the laws of physics, not to mention actively endangers the lives of children.

Norbit, also excruciating, uses almost the exact same sight gags in its waterpark scene, up to and including purposefully unflattering close-ups of Rasputia (Eddie Murphy, again donning a fat suit) in a bikini. Unlike Rosemary, Rasputia is the antagonist of this film (another trope we’ll come to shortly), but she may actually epitomize the comically sexy fat woman: consider this montage where she, in various erotic costumes, charges at Norbit, tackles him like a linebacker, and demolishes the bed beneath them. Also, this movie poster with the tagline: “Have you ever made a really big mistake?” Ah-ha, witty tagline, I see what you did there. Rasputia is also described as a “monstrous woman” in the movie’s summary on IMDb, and if you tell me that “monstrous” is meant to indicate only her personality, not size, well, I just don’t believe you.

So if overweight characters don’t get to be beautiful, sexy, or romantic leads, who, exactly, do they get to be?

Trope C: Big N’ Dumb, Big N’ Evil . . . or Big, Dumb, N’ Evil

While there are certainly clever fat characters out there (though few that aren’t simultaneously cowardly or weak), it’s very common to see overweight people portrayed as “thick” in both body and mind. You see this in cartoons all the time: Homer from The Simpsons, for example, or Peter Griffin from Family Guy, because it’s an equation that’s proven to sell: fat plus dumb equals funny. Which might not be so terrible if it didn’t lend itself to the false belief that fat actually equals dumb, as this blog post on The Fat Word illustrates.

On the bright side, at least Homer and Peter are the protagonists of their own stories. Far too often, it’s the other way around: overweight characters are far more likely to play villains than heroes. I was a big fan of superhero cartoons as a kid (“as a kid”, I say, like I didn’t just watch Young Justice this year), and finding overweight characters in them is hard enough. Finding plus-size heroes? HA. The only fat character I can even think of in X-Men: The Animated Series is the Blob, and let’s just say his representation leaves something to be desired. Meanwhile, here are some fat characters from my beloved Batman: The Animated Series: Penguin, Detective Bullock, and the subtly named Boss Biggis. Penguin is the only one likely to be deemed as particularly intelligent, while Bullock is the only non-villain on the list . . . and even then he engages in brutal police tactics and isn’t what I’d call overly competent.

Overweight villains aren’t limited to cartoons, either. They can also be found in literature, as author A.J. Fitzwater discusses in her blog post, “Fat People Are Not Your Literary Go-To For Evil.” She recounts her experience reading an epic fantasy with a fat character who embodied the usual checklist of stereotypical fat character adjectives: sweaty, smelly, ugly, wheezy, disgusting, etc. (You’ve probably noticed by now that there’s a lot of overlap between Fat Tropes; I very nearly put Monica from Friends in the Stuffing Your Face section, for instance, considering how many irritating food jokes I saw in those two episodes alone.) But this character wasn’t just gross, of course; he was also sinful.

“To compound our disgusting Fat Character,” Fitzwater writes, “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.”

That last is especially common in children’s literature, where fat kids might be shy friends or otherwise weak characters who need protecting (which, yay?), but are even more likely to be mean, greedy, and not terribly bright children who are either bullies themselves, or the primary bully’s dim-witted goons. The Harry Potter books are somewhat notorious for this: not only do Draco Malfoy’s nearly interchangeable friends, Crabbe and Goyle, fit the bill, but also Dudley Dursley, Harry Potter’s obese and abusive cousin.

A few representative examples of how Dudley is described in Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone from pages 20-21 alone:

“Exactly why Dudley wanted a racing bike was a mystery to Harry, as Dudley was very fat and hated exercise–unless of course it involved punching somebody.”

“He had a large pink face, not much neck, small, watery blue eyes, and thick blond hair that lay smoothly on his thick, fat head. Aunt Petunia often said that Dudley looked like a baby angel–Harry often said that Dudley looked like a pig in a wig.”

“How’s that, popkin? Two more presents? Is that all right?”
Dudley thought for a moment. It looked like hard work. Finally, he said slowly, “So I’ll have thirty . . . thirty . . .”
“Thirty-nine, sweetums,” said Aunt Petunia.
“Oh.” Dudley sat down heavily and grabbed the nearest parcel. “All right then.”

How about that? In two pages, Dudley Dursley managed to hit pretty much every trope I’ve spent the last 2500 words or so describing.

The litany of damaging fat tropes in children’s literature is particularly troubling, as Rebbeca Rabinowitz notes in her article: “Diversity 101: Who’s That Fat Kid?” she discusses how overweight characters in children’s books are almost always bullies or victims, not to mention an even more troubling trope: fat children who only overcome their emotional difficulties by changing their lifestyles and losing the weight; in such books, a happy ending demands the acknowledgement that “fatness is unquestionably the thing you want to change from, not a state that’s okay to end up being.”

It’s a harmful trope for both children and adults, and worthy of far more discussion, but to be honest–other than my disgust at what appears to be Kate’s entire arc in a trailer for an upcoming and supposedly inspirational TV drama, This Is Us–I actually have little personal experience encountering it, as the kinds of stories I’m regularly drawn to–superheroes saving the world, starships exploring the great unknown, detectives solving the mystery, and final girls surviving to live another day–don’t generally engage in that particular narrative, mostly because they rarely include overweight characters at all. It was difficult in some cases (especially with adult literature) to think of good examples for this column, not because fat representation is overwhelmingly positive, but because it is so often entirely absent. Because, as we’ve seen, when fat characters are included, they’re likely gluttonous, unattractive, dumb, slothful, or cruel; many times, however, they’re simply invisible, absent from the fantastical worlds that can imagine mythic pasts full of dragons and magic, or far futures with technological marvels and alien wonders… but can’t imagine fat people inhabiting those worlds, questing there, commanding there, saving the day.

As always, there are subversions to the tropes I’ve discussed today. I tried and failed to think of any overweight superheroes, but research did lead me to two: Faith and Big Bertha. (Big Bertha, it should probably be noted, is only big in her hero form; otherwise, she’s very thin.) Meanwhile, I stopped watching Criminal Minds somewhere around, oh, the eighth or ninth season, but Penelope Garcia remains one of my favorite characters on TV, if for no other reason than how her overtly flirty friendship with hot as hell Derek Morgan is never played for laughs or treated like lonely, desperate pining. And as Book Riot points out in “Combating Fat Phobia in YA Lit,” Nimona is an excellent example of a young, intelligent character who “gets to have an entire arc without her fatness being used as the catalyst, as the thing to overcome, as the object of ridicule, shame or misfortune.” Pivotally, Nimona can shapeshift into any body, and still chooses one that isn’t thin. That’s a big deal.

But again these are the exceptions, not the rule, and the standard narratives remain troubling. Fatness is just a body shape. That’s it. That’s all it is. It doesn’t make you an inherently better or worse person, a smarter or dumber person, a stronger or weaker person. Fatness may often result from poor diet and lack of exercise, but that isn’t always the case, and even when it is . . . why do we equate a like of junk food and a dislike of treadmills to being a personal slob, to having poor hygiene, to showing a poor work ethic or being a creepy, lonely weirdo? None of those things actually correlate with obesity, but you wouldn’t know it from the overload of hate I saw during my research. Within one Google search of “fat superheroes,” I found a list of characters (and even the actors playing them) who needed to lose weight, an article posting pictures of real fat cosplayers that would supposedly make readers “skip lunch,” and an entire blog literally devoted to nothing but fat-shaming. It did its job, I guess. I felt pretty shitty after reading it.

Maybe a fat person genuinely loves their body. Maybe they don’t love their body, but are currently more focused on investing their energy into other commitments. Maybe they have a partner who, thick or thin themselves, still thinks their significant other’s body is sexy as hell. Why do we treat that desire as a perversion at worst and a comically bizarre fetish at best? Why do we perpetuate so much intolerance and scorn for what’s ultimately some extra meat on the bones? Fat is just a body shape, but we’ve long since turned it into a joke, an insult, a condemnation, and how have we done this? Stories. Through our stories, we have created and fostered a cultural belief that this arbitrary physical difference is a sign of stigma and shame.

Some want to take the word “fat” back and apply it to themselves, show that it’s just a descriptor of their size and not of their beauty or moral character, that they aren’t ashamed of it. It’s lovely, when I see people do that. It makes me feel better about myself . . . but not everyone’s ready, able, or willing to simultaneously apply the word “fat” to their own bodies and divorce it from all the negative connotations that our society has reinforced, never mind deal with how the word “fat” is ultimately subjective, and that it can mean different things to different people. Fat is a charged word, and while it’s inspiring when people use it positively, I won’t push others to apply it to themselves, certainly not when I’m uncomfortable doing so myself.

So, what am I pushing for? What do I hope to someday see?

I want to see characters whose fatness is not symbolic of anything. Characters who are fat simply because some people in the real world are fat . . . I like books that confront fatphobia head-on, and I’d also like to see books that aren’t especially about fatness but that feature fat characters. Fat folks contain multitudes just like everyone else. Allow fat characters the humanity that not-fat characters have . . . Sometimes, as fits the story, let fat characters be happy and loved just as they are.

That’s Rebecca Rabinowitz again, and she pretty much sums up exactly what I’d like to see, not only in children’s lit but in speculative lit, in Hollywood rom-coms and sitcoms, in action blockbusters and space operas and Saturday morning cartoons. I like stories that deal with the problems overweight people face, but I don’t want those to be the only stories fat people are allowed to have. I want stories were weight doesn’t come up at all, where fat people, especially fat women, can be cops or superheroes or love interests or soldiers or princesses or anything else we generally only allow thin people to be.

And it’s not easy. The tropes I’ve written about today, they’re insidious. They crawl inside your brain, often without you even realizing it. I know I’ve struggled with them in my own writing, trying and sometimes failing to find the right balance between subversion and expectation, between what we’ve been unconsciously taught and what I know to be true. And we’re not always going to agree on what’s offensive. There’s always going to be someone with a different opinion, and that’s okay.

But we have to talk about it. We have to listen to one another, and work to create stories that don’t judge and dehumanize people just for being overweight.. or else we’re just going to keep perpetuating these false beliefs, leaving an uglier world where fat has become a four-letter word and where hate is always one disgust-filled meme click away.

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12 Comments

  • tee+d
    July 21, 2016 at 11:46 am

    Thanks for this excellent and in-depth write-up.

  • Justine S.
    July 21, 2016 at 12:08 pm

    Fabulous. I’m so glad you mentioned Nimona, it’s a great example. My 8 year old son, who is a fanatical reader of graphics, loves that one in particular. His first reaction when he saw Nimona in the bookstore was to bring it to me and say: “Look at her, mama, she’s so lovely and curvy! I love her legs!” He immediately saw Nimona as different, but in a way that was extremely attractive to him.

  • Mary Kate
    July 21, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    Thank you so much for this, extremely well thought-out and well-written. I’m a YA writer and in my most recent manuscript have a secondary character who’s an overweight girl because she has a thyroid problem. I want her weight to really be a non-issue as a character–as you said, I’m including her because this is the world we live in and I want to be inclusive. Articles like this have helped a lot in terms of knowing what’s trope-y and what’s not.

  • Marie
    July 21, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    Here’s a mystery hero, both book and TV, Nero Wolfe, and for the second run of Perry Mason movies, his weight was a non-issue not related to his causes. I can’t think of many females as these nasty tropes have metasisized.

  • janicu
    July 22, 2016 at 8:30 am

    The book (and movie?) Bridget Jones’ Diary messed me up because she’s supposed to be overweight when she’s… 120 lbs? Every entry was her trying to lose weight. When I read that, I was in college and I was so confused. I thought: are women supposed to be under 120 lbs, or they’re fat? I have no idea how tall Bridget Jones is, but I just tried putting that in a BMI calculator and she has to be under 5 ft for this to be considered overweight. So….WTF dude. The way the movies really casually call normal-sized people overweight is a mind-fuck. So many examples. What sucks is, as a young woman, you internalize this and torment yourself over it.

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  • Got My Book
    July 24, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    FYI: I linked to this post my Sunday Summary this week.

  • Darla
    July 27, 2016 at 9:23 am

    Thank you so much for this <3 Sometimes you start to feel like you're crazy and imagining all these things, so to see it spelled out so eloquently is refreshing and encouraging, and I needed it this week. I think on a semi-subconscious level, this is why I love The Gilmore Girls so much. Not only is Sookie fat while still being found sexy by Jackson and generally beloved by all, but she's allowed to eat amazing food on screen and enjoy it, and talk about how much she likes food and cooking without being ridiculed. I think she might be alone among the fat female characters I've encountered in that regard. There's no shame between her and food, ever. I've also been enjoying Paula on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend for similar reasons.

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