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Good "Fat" and Bad "Fat" in Fiction

Fiction loves a fat character…if that character is antagonistic and held up for ridicule or villainizing, that is. Antagonistic and fat characters can be found in all kinds of fiction, from Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist, to Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter, to the sea witch in almost any form of The Little Mermaid, to (occasionally) the witch in Hansel and Gretel. To twist the knife further, these characters are often juxtaposed against "good," but malnourished and pitiable, characters from whom they take even the basic necessities (food).

Of course, there are some fat protagonists in classic literature or myths and fairytales, as well. Santa Claus, typically portrayed as fat, is a personification of goodness and charity. The Ghost of Christmas Present, when juxtaposed with the gaunt yet greedy Scrooge, is a reminder that "fat" can also be healthy, prosperous, and joyful. However, most fat characters tend to be either 100% good or 100% bad in "older" forms of literature.

In the last few years, authors have become more aware of these issues, and there are now more body-positive books, especially geared toward young women. However, some of them are not as positive as they seem. Dumplin’, for example, stars Willowdean, a fat girl who competes in a beauty pageant to show she’s worthy to…but then has to watch a "typical" contestant win. Watch Us Rise has Jasmine, a black girl who is put down and demonized for being both black and big. One Fat Summer has Bobby, who begins to find inner peace and acceptance by his social circle…after losing weight.

How has "fat phobia" in fiction evolved and changed? How is it influenced by how our modern society views body size? Throughout the article, you might explore questions such as, what size constitutes fatness, how fat characters could be represented as more three-dimensional, and whether stories about body size lend themselves to fat phobia or pigeonholing fatness by default.

  • This is a fascinating point. Often times the representation of fat characters are sidelined to serve the interests of the main character. Their stories are underdeveloped or nonexistent, they are allowed little to no dimension as a character, and are mainly there to act as props. The reason behind having "bad" fat characters could serve multiple purposes. Firstly their size could be a representation of gluttony such as the mayor in City of Ember. It could act as an abuse of the representation of fat individuals, specifically men, as being perverse, unkempt, or sexually undesirable. Or their fat bodies could act as a juxtaposition of their malnourished moral state, with the "weak" physique being representative of a "weak" character. The "good" Fat character needs to have the subcategory of the fat funny friend. This trope is rampant in 2000s comedies, using fat characters as throw away people used for laughs. Though some claim it is progressive, since they are taking control of it and taking ownership of their representation, it is still regressive in nature. More often than not they are laughing AT the character not WITH them, and they are still only used as a parallel to the thinner main character. This subcategory also feeds into the "always jolly" characteristic which can be damaging in its own right. Rather than allowing the character their own pains, struggles, and complexity, they are denied the ability to exist in their own right. This kind of representation says that their whole identity is found in their physical appearance and weight, not their personality. Though flawed, a more progressive representation of the "fat" best friend can be seen in Sookie from Gilmore Girls. Though the main character is still a slim white woman with sexual magnetism, Sookie's weight is never addressed even in passing, she is allowed developed storylines and has a discernible personality that grows over time. She is allowed to exist as a person, not just according to her physical appearance. – LadyAcademia 6 days ago
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