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.
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?
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.