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SFF’s Big Fat Problem


SFF’s Big Fat Problem

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SFF’s Big Fat Problem


Published on October 25, 2022


This is going to be a Jeremiad, not a hopeful essay. If you want the good news about fat protagonists in SFF, look at this lovely piece from Meg Elison. If you need education about fatphobia and the ways it harms fat people mentally and physically, try these episodes of Maintenance Phase on anti-fat bias, eating disorders, and the obesity epidemic.

If you are fat, stay if you need righteous anger, but please don’t make yourself read this if you need something soft right now. This essay is for thin SFF fans and creators.

You’ve been taught some things about fat people. Whether or not you believe them, whether or not you’re aware, you have been told by classic fictions and the silent osmosis of culture that they are lazy, gluttonous, messy, disgusting, out-of-shape, and cowardly. From the place where biased medicine and diet advertising meet, you’ve learned they are unhealthy, a burden on our healthcare system, and that they could lose the weight if they just made an effort, stuck to a diet, exercised more often. From modern fiction, you’ve seen them munch junk food like a reflex, puff and sweat at any exercise, and hate themselves until a little pitying affection lifts them up. All of these are obviously wrong, obviously harmful stereotypes, but even as you work to unlearn your biases, you know these things with the same thoughtless knowing that tells you the clever young man outsmarts the clumsy giant. This is the culture we have inherited. The ways in which these stereotypes inform basic social interactions, institutional design, and especially medical care, routinely devastate the mental and physical health of fat people, up to and including death from medical neglect.

It has been utterly exhausting to exist as a fat person on the internet these last few years. I mean, it always has been, but the number of people pretending to be on the side of good who immediately pivot to mocking Trump or Boris Johnson for their weight over any of their actual cartoonishly evil behaviors has been particularly offensive. I have seen again and again that people I respected have absorbed villainous fatphobic caricatures to the point they find aiming them at our public figures easier than engaging with the real harm those people do, or that they think calling someone fat is a real substitute for recognizing their veniality and corruption. Every time, I have to wonder who sees me in that same shorthand. That’s just the recent flavor of the steady drip of cruelty and trauma that fat people experience in every public space. It’s an example you might recognize of the kind of pain that becomes white noise for fat people without becoming less painful. Keep how often you’ve seen those digs in mind as we go on.

Books are no better about casual or extreme fatphobia than any other media, and I read much more than I watch, and hold books closer to my heart, so each slap stings that much worse when it’s in print. Print SFF reviews rarely call out fatphobia, and some who do, like Charles Payseur, work in short fiction rather than long, so I’m not likely to know it’s coming before I pick a book up for myself. I’ve also searched reviews after encountering fatphobia more than once, and not managed to turn up any mention of passages and characterizations that were quite blatantly fatphobic to me as a fat reader. I meet it in work for critique, when a fat character puffs going up the stairs, just a thoughtless little bit of characterization, easily mended, but it stings, and not everyone has a fat critique partner to catch and call out these moments. I want to believe it’s only that writers and editors without access to a fat perspective miss fatphobic passages, that they would change them if they recognized them, that we all agree that it is bigotry, that it is violence to treat fat people like that. I want to believe it enough that I’m stripping myself raw to reach everyone who reads this.

As a child, I got used to reading past fatphobia and not noticing the hurt. I got used to thinking of myself as ugly, as undesirable, as obviously lesser than my thin, visibly fit classmates. I left Harry Potter behind long before I was cognizant of being stung by its disgusting fat caricatures, but the damage remains. I was a little more aware by the time we all watched and read Game of Thrones, and historically literate enough to be offended by the nonsense of stigmatizing fat in a medieval setting. We have enough records and enough armor made for them to know fat knights weren’t somehow out-of-shape for battle. Even Tolkien, who I re-read for comfort, doesn’t shy from using fat as a pejorative synonym for lazy and soft, and Bombur is one reason I re-read The Lord of the Rings more often than The Hobbit.

In newer works, the vocabulary of fatphobia is different, but it’s still there all too often. Less likely to be sniveling fat villains or cowardly knights, more likely to be workouts, diets, the casual fear of getting fat. It’s the word “obese,” which you should expunge from your vocabulary unless you’re engaged in activism around how the medical system treats fat people, popping up next to the smell of diabetes, whatever that is, in M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s fat children being as unathletic as their bullies say they are. It’s Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor’s taking time to mention the grace and balance of a fat character when it doesn’t bother to be concerned about those things in anyone else. It’s authors being very clear how worried they are about gaining weight when they post on social media about meals and workouts.

I don’t believe this change from intentionally pejorative caricature to unconscious fatphobia in more recent works means the SFF community is taking a stand against or even noticing the more egregious fatphobia when it comes up. A Master of Djinn, by P. Djeli Clark, is one of the most nominated and awarded fantasy novels of 2021. It’s been on countless lists and garnered many glowing reviews, and it opens on a fat man walking up some stairs in the heat, while the reader is invited to be disgusted by his laziness, his grossness, to disdain him as a fat man before they are invited to hate him as a colonizer. It’s obvious, needless, painful fatphobia, and I haven’t seen a single review of the book mention it. I haven’t seen it mentioned at all by anyone who isn’t fat.

I don’t cite these specific books for being particularly egregious though they, especially A Master of Djinn, did upset me personally. I cite them because they’re the ones I’ve read recently enough to remember the hurt in detail. Indeed, I would, and will come December, still recommend The Goblin Emperor wholeheartedly. I wasn’t kidding when I say this all blends to white noise. I don’t keep an inventory of all the places I met a little fatphobia and flinched at it and moved on. I remember the worst of my childhood reads, occasional clear flashes from the vast library of my teens, and what I’ve read in the last few months and discussed with fat friends and partners and colleagues. The hurt of most fatphobic moments remains as hypervigilance when a fat character appears, as tension waiting for the whip, not memory of every slight and injury.

The work of catching and preventing these fatphobic passages has to be on whole production teams and on the whole community. Critique partners should notice these sections. Editors should notice and mark them. Early readers should bring them up. Reviewers should note them in their reviews. We should all be having a conversation about how fat caricatures as villains serve to harm an already marginalized community, about how casual use of medicalizing language serves to other fat people, about how so much unremarked fatphobia makes SFF an unwelcoming community for fat creators and fat fans. For me at least, and maybe for someone else you know, there’s no amount of fat-positive books and fat main characters whose publishing will erase the pain of the community ignoring this kind of fatphobic stumble when it happens. I can adore Cora the mermaid in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, feel indescribably seen by Ish in Max Gladstone’s Last Exit, and thrilled to see Nine Hibiscus in Arkady Martine’s A Desolation Called Peace, but the joy of good fat characters is not an antidote to the harm of bad ones.

So much for print, where I honestly feel most readers aren’t even aware of much of what I pointed out. I expect a much higher proportion of SFF fans knows that film and TV treat fat people terribly. I certainly expect it more blatantly on film. The clearest signpost to the still-rampant fatphobia in SFF on film is the fat suit. They inevitably deliver an awkward, inauthentic performance that makes a fat character into an unnatural and monstrous thing, because a fat person is not a thin person inside a suit. It is always wrong to put an actor in a fat suit. It is always wrong for an actor to accept a role wearing one. And we sure have had a few years for the prominent, execrable use of fat suits, and the jokes and hate they encourage.

Of course, I don’t mean to suggest film and TV do notably better without fat suits. I watched Outer Range recently, and the only fat character, county surveyor Karl Cleaver, is a constantly-eating corrupt bureaucrat who dies because he looks away from the road to get more snacks. His being played by fat actor Kevin Chamberlin doesn’t make the hateful stereotype better. It means a fat actor got work instead of a thin one, and everyone still got to nod along with everything they know about fat people. I did not watch the television show based of Terry Pratchett’s City Watch books, but the thinning of an importantly fat character from the books, Sybil Ramkin, was offensive enough in stills and previews.

I expect you all remember fat Thor from Endgame, the endless parade of mocking slapstick and body-function jokes, and the contempt for someone supposedly ruined by grief and shame into a useless shadow of his former self. You know, because gaining weight makes you weak and cowardly and useless and disgusting. Did you laugh at those jokes? I know plenty of people in the theater I saw Endgame in did. And of course they did. Making Thor fat was meant to make him a punchline, to cut off the compassion due his trauma and grief and make him the butt of jokes instead, and it worked, because too many people still believe that cruelty and contempt are what fat people deserve.

Looking ahead in film, we’ve got Emma Thompson putting on the fat suit to play the villain in the new Matilda film, and early media coverage with precisely nothing to say about that choice, as if it’s not even worth wondering whether she needed be fat, or if she did, whether a fat actress would have been a better choice. Roald Dahl’s oeuvre is wall-to-wall body shaming, with special emphasis on the direct connection of fatness and ugliness with evil. For an adaptation of his work to make no attempt grapple with that poisonous legacy and simply give us one more thin actress putting on a suit to play the monster smacks of thoughtlessness, of unconcern with what it means to have a fat villain and how to do so without furthering the monsterization of fat bodies.

Our centerpiece for film, though, must of course be the recently Hugo Award-winning Dune. I will admit, I haven’t seen the new Dune. I’m never going to. I’ve stopped watching movies and shows that use fat suits, in large part because of how I’ve seen the figure of Baron Harkonnen used as a stick to beat fat people with. The Baron is truly one of the ur-examples of the monsterization of fatness in SFF. Who can forget that scheming, traitorous sadist, distended flesh billowing on his suspensors, strong enough to carry the double helping of disgust at the fat body and the utter evil of gay pederasty in one corpulent package?

Stellan Skarsgård is a brilliant actor. I have loved his work in many films. He could, without a doubt, have portrayed the evil and depravity of the Baron without a fat suit. Or, if Denis Villeneuve’s directorial vision required a fat Baron in keeping with tradition, he could have chosen a fat actor, and perhaps gotten a performance with the authenticity and power of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin. Dune was the overwhelming leader in nominations and votes for the long-form dramatic presentation Hugo. To me, that says quite clearly that, for many people in this community, the union of nostalgia and modern production quality is more than enough to outweigh a niggling concern about harmful fat stereotypes, if such a concern intrudes at all. It was and remains unspeakably demoralizing that I saw no thin people even raise concern about Skarsgård’s casting from its first announcement through the release of the film.

In my lifetime, SFF has become unimaginably more welcoming of my queer self than it was when I began to read. My fat self, not so much. This essay is a callout for everyone who feels they are a part of this community. Do better. Think twice before you consume or recommend a movie or show that uses fat suits and fat stereotypes. Notice where your favorites pivot to the monstrous fat villain, or shorthand a lazy, unfit coward with a swollen belly and a sweaty brow. Call out your friends and favorite authors when they do. Warn your fat friends before they blunder into stories that hate them. I want this to change. I want studios and directors to think twice before they plow ahead with a thin actor in a fat suit, because they understand that might lose them viewers, even if they don’t understand the moral reasons not to do it. I want to know about fatphobia in a new book, even just a scintilla in a whole doorstopper, before I decide whether to open it, and that will only happen if everyone starts paying attention, and if everyone is ready to acknowledge that it’s not okay to make fat people the object of your scorn or joke or pity.

R. K. Duncan is a fat queer polyamorous wizard and author of fantasy, horror, and occasional sci-fi. He writes from a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home, where he dreams of travel and the demise of capitalism. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford college. He attended Viable Paradise 23 in 2019. His occasional musings and links to other work can be found at his website.

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