There’s a feeling every fat person knows. It happens in that moment when you’re watching something and enjoying it, and then suddenly it’s like you’ve been slapped in the face. Your stomach sinks and your heart twists and your chest tightens. Your smile dies and tears might even form in your eyes.
You’ve been hit with a fat joke.
Fat jokes can come from the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times. It’s not out of the ordinary to hear them in the mouths of otherwise kind characters, within shows and movies that are lauded as progressive and inclusive (I’m looking at you, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine). When a fat character is involved, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be fat jokes, or at the very least, the fat character will be the joke.
It’s why, as a fat person, I carefully monitor the media I consume. If I know there’s going to be a fat character, I have to consider whether it’s worth watching a show or movie where I might find bodies like mine being mocked or shamed. When I do turn on media with a fat character, I hope for the best but expect the worst. I brace for it to hurt.
Sometimes, though, I don’t get the chance to prepare myself. Sometimes the fat joke blindsides me and leaves me breathless in ways I could never have anticipated. Like when one of my favorite celebrities dons a dehumanizing fat suit, turning one of my favorite characters into a walking, talking fat joke.
Yes, I’m talking about Fat Thor.
Fat Thor in Avengers: Endgame shocked me and absolutely broke my heart. But he’s just the latest, glaring example that while things may be improving for fat representation on the whole, there’s still a long way to go — especially when it comes to male characters.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Avengers: Endgame was probably the most anticipated movie of the year. It was certainly my most anticipated movie. I’ve been obsessed with the Marvel Cinematic Universe since around 2011 — because while I enjoyed Iron Man and its sequel, it was the release of Thor in that year that really got me hooked.
There was something about seeing Chris Hemsworth playing a literal god, stomping around spouting vaguely Shakespearean lines and being mildly and affectionately objectified that really sucked me in. My love for the character only grew over the years, reaching new heights with Thor: Ragnarok (2017), as director Taika Waititi unleashed his chaotic energy into the MCU and crafted a movie that allowed Hemsworth’s comedic talents to shine, even while stripping Thor of his girlfriend, his father, his eye, his best friends, his hammer, and his homeland.
Hemsworth, under Waititi’s direction, plays Thor as a three-dimensional hero who can deliver one-liners but also, crucially, show emotional vulnerability. And by Odin, is he powerful. By the end of that movie, Thor has realized that the external things he’s relied on to define his worth — his father’s opinion, his hammer — aren’t as important as he thought, and what really matters is what’s within. His power comes from himself, and the moment he embraces this and soars through the sky in a streak of lightning, set to the sound of Led Zeppelin's “The Immigrant Song,” is one of the most glorious moments in MCU history. Ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok is a movie about a man learning to love himself — not in a cocky way, as Thor does in the beginning of the series, but in a way that recognizes his true worth.
This theme powers Thor through the events of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. Despite losing half his people and his brother at the outset of the movie, Thor shelves his grief and moves forward with a determination born of his hard-earned self-belief. While there are many funny moments in relation to Thor’s character — including jokes about how beautiful his body is — Thor is allowed quiet scenes of contemplation as well as huge, action-packed sequences that showcase his power and heroism.
But one crucial thing happens in Infinity War that sets Thor on a darker path. As he confidently battles the supervillain Thanos, Thor sinks a blow into Thanos that should kill him — but it doesn’t. “Should have gone for the head,” Thanos berates Thor, right before snapping his fingers and erasing half of all life in the universe. Thor gets a front row seat to the disaster, knowing he came this close to preventing it. On top of all the trauma he’s already experienced in the lead up to Infinity War, it’s one hit too many for him, and he breaks.
Avengers: Endgame had a unique opportunity to explore Thor’s PTSD and depression in a nuanced and meaningful way. What does it look like when an actual god fails? How does someone with power literally running through their veins grapple with the idea that they were still powerless in the face of destruction and death?
According to Joe and Anthony Russo, the brothers who directed Avengers: Endgame, the answer to such questions is alcoholism, binge-eating, a general lack of self-care, and subsequent weight gain. These things aren’t inherently problematic. A fat, depressed alcoholic Thor could have led to a really interesting and refreshing exploration of mental health and addiction, and the way those things intersect with masculinity and the expectations placed on men and “heroes.” It could have been a golden example of how a fat man could still be powerful, and worthy, and attractive, and a superhero.
Instead, it becomes the comic relief of the movie. While other characters are given space to grieve and make inspirational speeches and try to move on with their lives, Thor wallows. His trauma is never treated with sincerity or respect. He’s become fat and lazy, dirty and gross, and for that he is punished. The camera lingers on his bloated torso, in a cruel subversion of the loving gaze normally aimed at a shirtless and ripped Thor. Other characters mock his appearance, comparing him to “melted ice cream” and suggesting Cheez Whiz flows through his veins.
Even one of the few sincere moments Thor gets in the movie — when he encounters his dead mother and gets to have a conversation with her about who he is and who he wants to be — is undercut when she nastily tells him to “eat a salad.”
Meanwhile, the rest of the characters don’t really challenge the idea that Thor is less worthy because he is fat. When he tries to wear the new Infinity Gauntlet and reverse the damage done by Thanos’s snap, the other characters panic and push him away, as if his mere proximity could do damage. And while Thor does get his hammer, Mjolnir, back and manages to land a couple of hits against Thanos in the final battle, it’s Captain America who receives the shining moment of glory with Thor’s hammer in his hand. While it’s a cool moment, proving the long-held fan theory that Steve is “worthy,” it’s also another way the story systematically sidelines Fat Thor.
Indeed, even when Thor is fighting Thanos, he barely makes any impact, which is a stark contrast to the way Thor was able to overpower him in Infinity War. Cumulatively, the message is clear: Thor is not what he was, and, just as his muscular physique once communicated his power, his fatness is now the embodiment of his weakness.
I could give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and believe they intended for Thor’s journey to be meaningful (although the constant stream of fat jokes certainly belies that). Whatever the intention, though, the effect was this: I sat in a theater and felt my excitement turn to heartache as Thor swung his fat-suited body clumsily across the screen, and everyone around me laughed. I had to endure that laughter every single time — every single time — the padded-up Thor appeared over the course of the next three hours. The laughter was never with Thor, but always at his expense. Even when he wasn’t doing anything particularly funny, the audience giggled, because isn’t it hilarious that Thor has a gut?!
I was shocked to see Thor treated this way, even more so because I thought we were finally moving forward as a culture. Lately, there’s been, if not a proliferation, then a few baby steps toward more widespread and positive fat representation onscreen. Through movies like Dumplin’ and Isn’t It Romantic, and TV shows like Good Girls and Shrill, fat characters are finally being shown as desirable, lovable, powerful, and human, without being reduced to the butt of the joke.
There have even been fat superheroes, thanks to the Netflix reboot of the ’80s cartoon She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. The show casts aside the one-size-fits-all generic bodies of the original and reimagines the characters in a diverse range of body types, with more than one plus-size character. Their weight and size is never commented upon, and they are all just as powerful as one another. It shouldn’t feel so revelatory, but it does.
What’s significant about all these positive representations is that every single one of them focuses on fat (and predominantly white) women. As a fat woman yearning to see myself reflected onscreen, until now I have largely embraced this fact. I’ve reasoned that fat men have long been more visible in pop culture — and even portrayed as desirable. Consider the incredibly long list of fat men depicted in (mostly) loving relationships with (mostly) thin women across decades of pop culture — like The Simpsons, Family Guy, and The King of Queens, to name a few.
The thing is, while fat male characters might have been more visible, it doesn’t mean the representation has always been positive. Most of the time, fatness in male characters is associated with laziness and buffoonery. In all of the examples I’ve listed above, comedy is derived from the sloppy, foolish husband being nagged by his thin, uptight wife. Their body types are visual shorthand for their internal lives, reinforcing damaging stereotypes that suggest being fat is a character flaw.
These stereotypes crop up again and again whenever fat men are portrayed onscreen. For characters like Schmidt in New Girl and Terry in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, their former fatness is symbolic of their prior failings. By shedding the weight, they’ve become better, stronger versions of themselves. Their fat bodies (portrayed with fat suits) are treated as both a punchline and a horror they’ve escaped from.
Conversely, in Avengers: Endgame, Thor has left the better, stronger version of himself behind. His fat body is a physical manifestation of his mental state — that is, a mess — and yet the audience is invited to laugh at it, and by extension his trauma, along with the other characters. It’s hard to imagine a character like Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow being slapped in a fat suit and mercilessly mocked about her size by those who are supposed to be her friends. (Then again, Avengers: Endgame did fridge her character, so the movie is not exactly a beacon of feminism.) Still, it’s astonishing that such a plotline about Thor made it to the big screen in 2019.
Marvel has traded on the sex appeal of its stars — and of Thor in particular — for over a decade. They’ve reinforced time and time again what a hero looks like — tall, muscular, waxed, oiled, white, male. They’ve expanded that somewhat in recent years through the likes of Black Panther and Captain Marvel, although the physical appearance of superheroes even in those movies largely conforms to the same old narrow constraints of what beauty is. With Fat Thor, Marvel had the chance to push those boundaries further. Instead, they diminished his hero status. It was as though the fatter he got, the less he was worth.
Which leaves fat people sitting in the audience – people like me, and no doubt countless others, including little kids – feeling pretty worthless too.
Fat men and fat women deserve the chance to be heroes. They deserve the chance to be people.
They deserve to be more than a fat joke.●
Jenna Guillaume is a Sydney-based freelance writer and the author of What I Like About Me, a body positive YA rom-com.