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Fat Chicks in SFF – Alis Franklin

One of the things I loved about this series last year was that it made me think. Each essay pointed out things I’d never considered, or helped me to get a better understanding of other people’s experiences. This year’s essays are no different.

In reading Alis Franklin‘s post, one of the things that stood out for me was a comment toward the end. She talks about how it’s easy not to think representation matters when you see yourself in so many stories that you don’t comprehend what it’s like to not see that reflection…but that it’s also easy to think it doesn’t matter when you never see yourself. Because your invisibility becomes “normal,” and it never even occurs to you that it could or should be any different.


I was in high school. I had glasses, dead-straight straw-brown hair with bangs a decade out of fashion, and a tendency to wear too-big tie-died t-shirts featuring screen prints of aliens and dragons. I was good at English, bad at Math, terrible at sport, and spent most lunchtimes playing games with colons in the name, like Magic: the Gathering and Werewolf: the Apocalypse.

In other words, it was the 90s, I was a nerd, and I knew I was never going to be a hero.

Don’t get me wrong. This latter realization wasn’t because of the bookishness, the bad fashion sense, or even my complete inability to run or catch or throw. It wasn’t because I had no friends. I had plenty (all the better to play TCGs and RPGs with). I wasn’t because I was bullied (I wasn’t), or didn’t date (I did).

It wasn’t even because I was a girl. Well, not really. At least, that was only half of it.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? I knew, at the tender age of thirteen, that I would never be a hero because I was a girl, and I was fat.

#

There are no fat chicks in SFF. And by “SFF” I’m including the broad tent of my teenage nerdish interests: sci-fi and fantasy novels and TV shows and films, yes. But also video games, comic books, trading card games, horror, urban fantasy, roleplaying games. The works. There might as well have been a great big NO FAT CHICKS sign hanging outside the entrance. And me, peering in through the flaps, loving the show but always knowing I would never, ever be it.

There are no fat chicks in SFF.

There are geeks, sure. Geeks a-plenty, and I loved the Willows and the Mizuno Amis as much as the next bookish loser. But Ami wore a sērā fuku and Willow cosplayed a vampire by putting on skintight leather pants. All it took was one look from that to my own chubby knees to realize that would never, ever be me. The geeks might inherit the Earth, but–for women, at least–they had to look hot while they did it.

(Years later, I found out about “fat Willow,” the version of the character that appeared in Buffy’s original pilot. By that stage, the fact that actress Riff Regan had been replaced by waifish Alyson Hannigan for the “real” show wasn’t enough to elicit much more than a resigned sigh.)

Books were worse. Even before I knew phrases like “male gaze” I was rolling my eyes over the endless litany of SFF heroines with an obsession for describing their cup size in extravagant detail. I didn’t think much about cup size as a teen, but I sure did think about my muffin top and double chin and bingo wings, and how it would be nice to once–just once–read about someone who had all of those and yet still saved the world.

Boys had it better. Not great, admittedly, but better. Weight in male characters can be a marker for the down-to-earth everyman (the Bilbos of the fantasy world), or can go hand-in-hand with power, both in the physical (Broadway from Gargoyles) and political (Londo Mollari, anyone?) sense. There’s certainly an argument about the limited roles fat guys are found in–comic relief, “the heavy,” older mentors–but at least more than one of them exists.

Fat chicks get Dolores Umbridge; the “toad-like” sadist, whose attempts at femininity and beauty are there to emphasize the horror of her perversion of the mother archetype embodied by “acceptable” fat characters like Molly Weasley. Ditto The Little Mermaid’s Ursula (anti-mother), or Discworld’s Nanny Ogg (mother). Don’t get me wrong, I love Ursula and Nanny as much as anyone, but I was thirteen and much too young to be trapped into an adult woman’s archetype. Meaning I would’ve loved someone my own age as well as build to look up to.

I got one, after a fashion, in 1995, when Terry Pratchett introduced Agnes Nitt. Agnes, like Nanny, is a talented witch … one whose primary talent–resistance to mental manipulation–is predicated on her hostile relationship to her own fatness. Agnes’ unhappiness with her weight has given her a split personality: Perdita X Dream, her “inner thin girl.” When Agnes loses control, such as when being hypnotized by vampires, Perditia  takes over.

You can be fat (I guess), and you can save the world (once or twice), but gods forbid you be happy while you do it.

#

Around the same time Agnes Nitt was making her entrance on paper, MTV made an animated adaptation of Sam Kieth’s comic, The Maxx. It’s a semi-surrealist superhero deconstruction, and though it never quite got the momentum that the Frank Millers and Alan Moores of the world did, I loved it.

I loved it because of Sarah. Because, for the first time, I’d seen myself.

Sarah is a geek and a loser. She wore the same big, round glasses, the same oversized sweaters and shapeless jeans, had the same mess of un-styled (albeit curly) hair. She wanted to be a writer, like me, was standoffish and vulnerable, like me, and–most importantly–she was fat.

Just like me.

Sarah - Maxx

And yet, Sarah’s narrative arc doesn’t revolve around her weight. On her outsider status, yes, but she’s no Agnes; cast a skinny chick in Sarah’s role and her plot would be unchanged. Except Sarah wasn’t skinny.

She wasn’t helpless, either. Sarah is one of the protagonists, one of the characters who both moves the action and through whom the action moves. She’s flawed and imperfect, dealing with problems both mundane (depression, a fraught relationship with her mother) and fantastic (her father is a semi-dead rapist sorcerer who dwells outside reality). She’s lonely and angry and awkward, yet the narrative doesn’t deny her humanity or her importance. Sarah is, in other words, a hero in the context of the story in which she’s placed.

And, as a teenager, I identified with her. Hard. Because she was someone I knew I had the potential to be. Someone I wanted to have the potential to be, warts and all.

In the twenty years since I first saw Sarah, I can count on one hand how many times I’ve identified so hard with a fictional character. Sarah’s who I think about in conversations about diversity and representation, particularly when anyone dismisses the idea as unimportant. Because, thing is? If I hadn’t had a Sarah, I’d probably think representation was unimportant, too. It’s an easy position to take, not just when you’re so used to seeing yourself everywhere you don’t know what it’s like not to, but also when you’re so used to not seeing yourself that it doesn’t occur to you things can be so radically different when you do.

#

So. This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you it gets better. Because I was a fat girl, into SFF, and I found my One True Representation, and it changed my life. That’s, how this goes, right?

Yeah. Right.

Thing is, it didn’t get better. I had Sarah and her rage and Agnes and her body hatred, and they were one of only a handful of characters who looked like me in an ocean of others who did not. Because there are no fat chicks in SFF, except for when there are. But how statistically insignificant does that number need to be before people will allow the hyperbole? We can test it, you and I. We’ll play a game. You name a fat woman from a videogame, comic book, fantasy, or sci-fi title, and I’ll name six thin chicks and a fat guy. Who do you think’s gonna run out of examples first?

I don’t have any answers here, no uplifting mortal. Only anger, and a rallying cry. I want more fat women in genre fiction. I want fat women whose narratives don’t revolve around their being fat, and whose fatness is not used as a lazy shorthand for mothers or for monsters.

I can’t turn back the clock and force things to be better. I can’t be a teenager again, watching the same shows and reading the same books, but this time finding them populated by big girls who laugh and love and fight and save the world. Whose big bodies are symbols of beauty and of power, not shameful obstacles to overcome. I can’t do that. But I can say there are girls out there now, girls with muffin tops and bingo wings and chunky knees, and they’re looking for heroes of their very own.

And I can ask you, oh fearless reader, what you plan to do to help them.


Alis Franklin is a thirtysomething Australian author of queer urban fantasy. She likes cooking, video games, Norse mythology, and feathered dinosaurs. She’s never seen a live drop bear, but stays away from tall trees, just in case.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 53 comments — Leave a comment )
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scarlettina
Feb. 24th, 2015 03:01 pm (UTC)
Excellent, true essay. Kudos to Ms. Franklin!

As a fat chick with dark, curly hair, I found a character that I recognized in a Spider Robinson novel, and I was so profoundly grateful that when I finally met him, I was barely able to utter a word, I was so dazzled. Which is hilarious given that Spider's one of the most approachable people in the field and that I'm notorious for being able and willing to talk to almost anyone about almost anything--to the delight and horror of friends, relatives and professional associates. That I found myself in Spider's work was terrific; that I should be so blown away that I was left speechless in his presence is pretty telling about how rare such an event really is. And that's what this is all about. It shouldn't be this way, because finding ourselves in fiction shouldn't be an experience rare as hen's teeth.

It's one of the reasons, Jim, that I like Lena Greenwood so much. There's a little more of her to love than fiction and American beauty standards tend to allow, she's got issues in her relationships with men and with her past, but she's strong and smart and loving, and she doesn't give up learning--and that's awesome.

Edited at 2015-02-24 03:02 pm (UTC)
scarlettina
Feb. 24th, 2015 03:04 pm (UTC)
Post-script
I don't know what drop bears are, but if Ms. Franklin is looking for creatures that fall out of trees, she should come to the Pacific Northwest to meet our tree octopi. They're notorious for inflicting tentacles from above.
Re: Post-script - jimhines - Feb. 24th, 2015 03:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
shiv5468
Feb. 24th, 2015 03:46 pm (UTC)
Eh Agnes Nitt explores the tension between being a fat girl in a thin world. That's as valid a character as a fat character entirely at ease with being fat.
jimhines
Feb. 24th, 2015 03:52 pm (UTC)
Why does the fat character's story/power have to be about her fatness?

You run into the same thing with other types of representation. Why does the autistic character's story have to be all about their autism? Why do non-white characters' storylines have to be about them being non-white? And so on...

It's not that these aren't valid stories. But I think it's more than reasonable to want characters who are just part of the story without their story being restricted to the way they differ from the default.
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luciab
Feb. 24th, 2015 04:03 pm (UTC)
I think this is when I am really glad that when I read a book, I climb into it and live there. In my mind, I am there, not as the overweight 67-YO with high blood pressure and diabetes that exists in reality, but as whichever character is telling the story. I am a bit more removed from male protagonists, but not disastrously so, since I've always considered myself a "tomboy", even as much as I dislike sports. None of this is in disagreement with anything that was written here; I am in fact utterly disgusted with my body, but I'm glad that my imagination allows me to escape it sometimes.
beccastareyes
Feb. 24th, 2015 04:39 pm (UTC)
Now I'm just reflecting on Tris from Circle of Magic (by Tamora Pierce) who is fat, but seemed to internalize much less of it than Agnes. Tris doesn't like being teased, and (mean) people do tease her about her weight early on, but it comes off much more as Tris believing people are mean and awful* than that there's something wrong with being fat. And a lot of Tris's growth of a character is realizing how much her childhood messed her up with regards to trusting others, because so many people were horrible to her that she had to protect herself pre-emptively.

(Also, IIRC, in later books, it's just accepted that Tris is fat, just like her friend Daja is tall.)

* And it's not just childhood taunting about her weight that taught her this. Tris was probably the geekiest and most introverted of the four protagonists, so was an outcast by other means, and her magic was so out of control that her relatives passed her from shitty situation to shitty situation until they dumped her on the temple's doorstep. Like your description of Sara, Tris Chandler would have been a very similar character as a skinny girl, but she's not. And Tris isn't the only one with issues of the four protagonists: Briar has similar 'has never learned to depend on anyone before now because he never could' issues.
(Deleted comment)
rosefox
Feb. 24th, 2015 06:56 pm (UTC)
Alis, if you're still looking for book recs, I recommend Rae Carson's The Girl of Fire and Thorns and its sequels. The protagonist is a fat brown teenage girl, and over the course of her adventures, she loses some of the weight that was the result of stress eating but never becomes super-skinny or waifish; she just goes from big and sedentary to big and strong. She's also a wonderful, active, powerful, smart character.

I rec that book a lot to people looking for big protagonists in SF/F, along with the Crossed Genres anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land, and every time I wish I had more than two books to recommend. We really need more!

Edited at 2015-02-24 06:56 pm (UTC)
socchan
Feb. 27th, 2015 02:14 am (UTC)
Let me tell you about Shira Glassman! In her latest book, A Harvest of Ripe Figs (third in a series, but stands alone really well), one of the main characters, Esther, is a fat brown-skinned Jewish violin star. There is no dieting narrative, no fat shaming, and she doesn't even lose a little weight. The story is all about how her violin (a historical treasure that she gets to play because she's so talented) is stolen, and the (brown-skinned, Jewish, lesbian, celiac) queen, Shulamit, who is the other main character, suspects illegal use of magic. Also, the queen's long-term girlfriend (effectively wife, but there's legal and political stuff) is a plump, brown-skinned, bisexual Jewish chef, and she's in all three books so far, plus stars in her own (dubiously canon) short story. (Absolutely everyone in books one and three are Jewish, and at least half the cast in book two is.)

ALSO, Shira is donating all her royalties through the end of March from the sale of Figs to Trans Lifeline, a crisis/suicide hotline run for and entirely by trans people.

The series itself is ridiculously adorable and fluff-filled and everyone who likes lighthearted fantasy should give them a try. The e-books also incredibly reasonably priced, and as of last week, they're also all available in paperback.

Here is a link to the book through Shira's publisher, which will net her the most royalties (and again, through the end of March, the most money to Trans Lifeline for the sale of Figs). You can find the other books through there, or on Amazon. Shira also recommends buying through Wild Iris Books, which is her local queer-run bookstore, and if you order through them you have a good chance that the books will be signed (and maybe doodled in!) by the author herself. Also, check out Shira's Tumblr for art of her characters!
starcat_jewel
Feb. 24th, 2015 07:55 pm (UTC)
Somewhat-tangential thought: one good place for there to be pushback about casting leads who aren't traditionally skinny is community theater. There are always more good actors available than there are roles for them, and some of them don't fit the Hollywood stereotypes. And it would be interesting, too, to see what kind of reviews those productions get. Would they talk about the female lead's acting ability, or only her weight?
deborahblakehps
Feb. 24th, 2015 08:53 pm (UTC)
I read a bunch of contemporary romances written by Brit writers (I'm in the US) and I love that they often have large women protagonists, or women who are over 30. (You want an underrepresented hero, how about Women of a Certain Age?) Jennifer Crusie wrote some nice not-skinny heroines too.

Of course, that's not SFF, but it's something.

Now I want a protagonist who battles aliens while having hot flashes.
jimhines
Feb. 24th, 2015 09:06 pm (UTC)
"You want an underrepresented hero, how about Women of a Certain Age?"

Stay tuned...
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lone_wolf_lupa
Feb. 25th, 2015 12:53 am (UTC)
Fun fact: Broadway originally was supposed to be female. But the Disney execs didn't like that for some reason.

http://www.s8.org/gargoyles/askgreg/search.php?rid=272
gelsey
Feb. 25th, 2015 08:51 am (UTC)

Good essay. My only issue is expecting any younger character, fat, skinny, blue or green or whatever, to be confident inside their own skin and able to not have issues regarding their weight or appearance. Generally you find the degree of comfort and enjoyment in a slightly older character - as with the other examples given. I would find it much more plausible that the young character have to battle it out. In fact, I'd be prone to thinking Mary Sue if a younger character didn't have some self image issues, whether or not fatness factored into it, especially if it was a more contemporary thing. Younger tends to be when all of us are dealing with creating ourselves and trying to fit in, and so of course is when doubt is worst. Only with experience do we find a greater degree of freedom in being oneself and happy in the skin you exist in, and sometimes not even then.

jeliza
Feb. 25th, 2015 05:42 pm (UTC)
It's SFF, though, so if the background society isn't fatphobic, then one could easily have a younger character to have the usual growing up issues and not have weight be one of them without triggering the 'too good to be real' characterization thing. (I did know some RL fat girls who didn't have any self-esteem issues about their weight when I was a teen, but they were rare birds.)

It is sometimes amazing to me the faults of our own society that are unconsciously expected to also be required of an imagined society.
airsucker
Feb. 25th, 2015 01:42 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
jimhines
Feb. 25th, 2015 03:40 pm (UTC)
[Deleted a comment for trolling and/or general dickishness. I have very little patience for either, especially on guest posts.]
queenarmadillo
Feb. 25th, 2015 11:13 pm (UTC)
Even as a fat, young (ish) female, I love the way TP writes women. Granny Weatherwax is probably the fictional character I would most like to be, and in many ways most identify with despite the fact that she is neither young nor fat. For me, the ability to relate to a character is way more around seeing aspects of my personality in them than my physical attributes.
I also think it is somewhat odd to want to read specifically about fat women, then not like that it becomes a plot point. If its not a plot point and they have more vivid physical features which the author refers to in animating them, I wouldn't necessarily expect a character's weight to be written about sufficiently for me to know whether they're fat or not. As an example, I always assumed Hermione in the HP books was on the chubby side. I dont recall a physical description either way, but in my head it seemed to fit her personality, so until the later films came out that was my view of the character. Given the issues she has with her teeth and hair, you may have there a fat young female who is comfortable with her weight. The thing is, if you are comfortable with an aspect of yourself and it neither interferes with nor contributes to your role in the story, making a big enough deal about in the text that anyone but the most die-hard fans even realise that it is an attribute would seem like just as poor writing as the terible fanfics that start with a character's (entirely irrelevant) bra size.
jimhines
Feb. 26th, 2015 12:47 am (UTC)
I tend to be a strong fan of Pratchett in general.

When you talk about the physical description of a character though, one of the things you run into is that the lack of description is often assumed to be the "default," whatever that is. Most readers will assume a character is white until proven otherwise, for example. (And even then some of them will throw a fit when a black actress is cast to play Rue in the Hunger Games...)

Likewise, I think there's a tendency to assume "thin" unless otherwise stated. Not all the time, obviously. But for the author, if you want your characters to read as different-from-the-reader's-default, you do need to be more explicit in the description.

It's a tough thing to balance sometimes, but I do think it can be important.

The one other example I'll throw out is Dumbledore being gay. It's great that Rowling said this character was gay, but it's never stated on the page, and...it's just not the same, you know?
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filkferengi
Feb. 27th, 2015 08:56 pm (UTC)
If you like mysteries, Sue Ann Jaffarian's Ophelia Gray & Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman mysteries are excellent!
thedragonweaver
Mar. 7th, 2015 05:11 am (UTC)
You know, I don't think I've ever run into a woman who is fat and comfortable with it in SFF—but I've been lucky enough to run into some examples in real life. The most confident of them has recently lost weight for medical reasons, but she's the one who said, "My self esteem reached a peak after I gained weight; so many women who lose a lot of weight are shocked to find that their self esteem doesn't magically go up when their weight goes down. You have to be comfortable in your own skin first."

She will kick the butt of anyone who makes assumptions about somebody based on their weight or any other superficial trait. I admire her so much.
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