Can Fat Thor Advance Fat Acceptance?

On fat suits, what Avengers: Endgame achieves, and what it doesn’t.

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Image by Carlos Gabriel Morales Toro from Pixabay.

NOTE: This essay contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame.

Until its opening night, I hadn’t planned on seeing Avengers: Endgame. That’s when my inbox was unexpectedly inundated.

Have you heard of that part?
It turned my stomach.
It wasn’t that bad!
I liked the point they were making.
I had to leave the theater — I wasn’t going to be ridiculed that way.

Messages poured in from fat people across the country and around the world about their experiences watching the movie. I couldn’t figure out why. After all, superhero movies rarely depict fat people — what could the problem possibly be? I asked one person who’d written in what all the fuss was about.

The fat suit. It’s terrible.

I sighed, overcome by a familiar wave of disappointment and anxiety. My stomach sank, muscles tensed, breathing stopped as I thought of the countless humiliating moments I’d spent in movie theaters, watching actors in fat suits, hearing friends and strangers alike laugh uproariously at cruel caricatures of bodies like mine. Norbit. Shallow Hal. Just Friends. Austin Powers. The Nutty Professor. So frequently, fat roles went to thin characters. And so frequently, those roles were defined by hurtful punchlines or condescending pity.

While superhero movies have never been on the vanguard of body positivity or fat acceptance, I’d quietly hoped that Marvel would forego commenting on fat bodies, instead continuing its trend of showcasing more muscular ones. I was crestfallen, but also intrigued. Comic books have a long tradition of making marginalization and difference into strength, perhaps best exemplified by the X-Men, a longform allegory for diverging approaches to liberation and justice in marginalized communities. So I bought myself a ticket, entered the theater, and felt my breath shallow and race as I settled in.

The fat suit didn’t arrive for nearly an hour — long enough that I’d forgotten to stay tense, had forgotten the flashes of Norbit and Shallow Hal. Long enough that I’d been subsumed by the world of the film, and its touching explorations of the Avengers’ responses to grief, trauma, coping and resiliency. Long enough that I’d let my guard down.

That’s when Thor reappeared. He was different than I’d ever seen him before, marked not by his might, his hair, his hammer, or the body we’ve so long known to be his. Following a devastating series of traumas and failures, Thor had dealt with his guilt and depression by drinking, seemingly endlessly. Thor had become an alcoholic, and his body had become evidence of his coping.

Thor’s entry was made by his belly, low and rounded, naked, before panning up to his familiar face. His body was soft and wide, bearing a striking resemblance to so many men watching in the movie theater. Upon his appearance, the audience around me emitted a tense smattering of giggles — the kind of sniggering reserved for church services, libraries, detention. (Friends from across the country and around the world later tell me that, at this point, their audiences loosed gales of laughter, howling at the simple sight of a fat body on screen.)

As the film progressed, Thor’s fellow Avengers and family members made repeated fat jokes about Thor’s changed body, replete with de rigeur punchlines about cheez whiz and eating a salad. Thor’s grief was shown plainly from time to time, and the audience choked up. Then, when a wide shot returned, they returned to the comfort of laughing at a body like mine.

When I left the theater, I found myself feeling numb, unsure what to make of it all. My stomach was unsettled, my muscles still tense, waiting for the blow to land. On the drive home, I pulled the movie apart to see how it worked, searching for what it was trying to say about bodies like mine.

In some ways, fat Thor was a small, but meaningful, step forward. Through some merciful twist of fate, there is no weight loss sequence. Thor is not lectured about his self esteem, his fitness routines, his health. He is not subjected to the commonplace concern trolling that plagues so many fat people, on screen and off.

No, Thor stays fat. He fights fat. And in the show stopping final battle, he wins fat. There is no work out montage, no on-screen dieting, no disgust expressed on screen — that is largely left to the audience’s reaction, and to the camera work that knowingly lingers on Thor’s rounded belly, pausing for the laughter to subside. There are no labored explanations for his weight gain, no didactic lectures about the nature of his body — just a natural metabolization of grief that each of his fellow avengers are processing differently.

In some ways, fat Thor isn’t nearly as bad as I expected, and does represent some small step forward in portrayals of fat characters. Certainly, some fat people have offered that they felt seen by a portrayal that linked weight gain to post traumatic stress, an origin story of fatness that’s less commonly told than, say, simple gluttony. But in other ways, Avengers: Endgame falls into the same tired tropes about fatness that fat people have heard a million times before.

Fat jokes are a constant. Rocket Raccoon, War Machine, Iron Man and Thor’s own mother make a litany of jokes about Thor’s size, the food he eats, and more. Worse — and even more predictably — those who make fat jokes are never reprimanded, never face accountability for the hurt they may be causing to someone they ostensibly love. The central joke stems from a tired old trope: that fat people are thin people who have let ourselves go, and that fatness is always a sign of neglect, some evaded moral duty to shrink ourselves endlessly.

On a deeper level, the movie still reinforces the deeply held cultural belief that fatness must always be an outgrowth of some dysfunction. Fat people, we’re told, can only exist in fat bodies because of some weakness in our character, our back stories, our bodies. Avengers: Endgame, like so many movies before it, insists on an etiology for fat bodies, and the origins of fat are always rooted in dysfunction and deviance.

While Thor’s body is permitted to stay fat within the context of the movie, his body can only be the product of deep pain. It must be explained. It must be exposed. And it must be excused. After all, people deserve an explanation for a body like mine. It is the crushing and unpayable debt that people who look like me live with every day.

And ultimately, despite its minor steps forward, it’s still a f***ing fat suit. It still operates the same way as so many fat suit performances before it. It is still a thin person dressing up as a fat person in order to make cheap fat jokes. And ultimately, it doesn’t contribute anything new to the conversation about fatness or fat people — it still exploits our bodies as a shorthand for trauma and a shortcut to punchlines.

In the days following the movie, as it settles in, I find myself nonplussed. After all, it wasn’t as bad as the colossally cruel Norbit, the deeply misguided Shallow Hal, or the euphorically vicious Austin Powers.

No, Avengers: Endgame doesn’t take its place amongst the most vicious fat suit performances. But then, this is what fat suit performances increasingly rely on: the idea that they’re not as bad as the worst. The idea that they can openly and gleefully mock fat people, as long as they counterbalance it with some trauma, some tears, some momentary sadness that burns off like fog under the heat of just one more punchline. In the case of fat Thor, some folks are already claiming it as a modest victory for fat acceptance.

Fat suit performances may have softened, but they haven’t transformed. And truthfully, the bar for fat suit performances is painfully low. When it comes to fatness, we haven’t even gotten to more nuanced conversations about typecasting, breaking out of stereotypes, or casting.

As a fat person, I don’t expect radical, liberatory narratives about my body. I’m not asking for the moon. I just want to go to a movie and know that I won’t be openly mocked. You wouldn’t think it’d be this hard.

Like this piece? There are more like it, including Nocturnal Animals and the Metaphor of Fat Women. You can also find Your Fat Friend on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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Your Fat Friend writes about the social realities of living as a very fat person.

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