Tag Archives: SFF

Brilliant Essay on “SF’s Big Fat Problem”

classic science fiction image with fat astronaut

Laurie and Debbie say:

First, it’s good to be blogging together again. We’ve had good reasons to be writing separate posts, and we’ve missed the synergy of our two minds.

Second, it’s great to find someone we don’t know writing an incisive analysis of fatphobia in written and filmed science fiction. R. K. Duncan’s “SFF’s Big Fat Problem” is thorough, thoughtful, and moving. (In case it’s not your world, SFF stands for “Speculative Fiction and Fantasy.”) He frames it very carefully for what it is and what it isn’t:

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.

That might be the only place we disagree. We both know (and we’re sure Duncan does) fat SFF creators who nonetheless flavor their work with fatphobia. Sometimes this is internalized self-hatred, other times it’s simple sloppiness, or unawareness, but it certainly happens, and deserves to be named.

Duncan begins by framing casual fatphobia and the depth of social stereotyping before he moves to SFF, and there he explains why he designed the essay for thin fans and creators:

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.

We’d like to believe it too, but evidence points in the opposite direction. From that point on, however, Duncan starts hitting high points and never stops.

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.

That’s a spectacular point buried in there, that taking the time to note the grace of a fat character is fatphobia. Duncan is extremely generous to the books that trouble him:

I don’t cite these specific books for being particularly egregious …. 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.

He goes on from books to discuss popular films, including one of Debbie’s pet dislikes–“fat Thor from Endgame,” with the same care and precision.  He has some very pointed comments about fat suits in movies. Writing about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (which he has chosen not to see because of the fat suit issue, he says:

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.

Because it’s tor.com, and moderated, the comments are intelligent and worth reading. We were especially struck by digenis’s thought:

It seems silly to imagine futures for our planet, let alone for life beyond the planet or on completely fictional fantasy worlds, that just reproduce the exact same body shapes, plugged into the same biased hierarchies of value…

In addition to being harmful or unkind, it is also unimaginative and short-sighted. That isn’t to say that other (futuristic) societies won’t have their own hierarchies of value or biases; just that it would be nice to see authors imagine them in new ways.

Duncan ends with a call to action:

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.

So much of our work is about wanting this to change; we’re simultaneously warmed by finding such a skilled writer doing this work, and infuriated because he still has to.


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