There’s a temptation, when a marginalized group is getting representation for the first time, to say nothing but good things. Those who are critical are accused of not being supportive or overly critical (as we recently saw with Albert Ching’s piece on why he doesn’t want an Asian-American Danny Rand.) But when it comes to how a group wants to be represented in media, how a person within that group feels needs to be important.
I have some critical things to say about Faith/Zephyr and her first appearance in Harbinger, Issues #4-6, which turned me off from reading the first fat superheroine. It’s because of how she was presented in these issues that I am hesitant about reading her new series that’s going to be premiering in January. But I want it known that I say these things because I think Faith has the potential to be amazing for people like me, who grew up never seeing themselves in stories. I want to believe that Valiant wants her to be.
I never had a lot of thoughts about what it meant to not see myself represented in media, because I never saw myself represented in media. I grew up a fat kid in the 90s. I actually became fat in 1990, when I was in the third grade. I have a vivid memory of exactly when this happened, because one day when the six or so TAG (Talented and Gifted) students were waiting for the bus to take us over to the TAG center for activities, another boy in my grade, Jason Mason, asked me: “What happened to you? Last year you were so pretty.” (Read: skinny)
I was not “that” fat. I didn’t have any fat rolls or a double chin, but I was still apparently fat enough to always be labeled fat from that point on, and I started to hide my body in oversized t-shirts and plaid flannel shirts (again, it was the 90s). I had no conception of what fashion meant, other than that it wasn’t for me. That all changed one afternoon in my senior year of high school when I went shopping with a friend and I was able to buy jeans and a shirt in a regular straight sizes store. I realized I wasn’t this horrible enormous creature. I didn’t really know what that meant though, since I’d been hiding from mainstream fashion for a decade.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college that another friend decided that I needed to know I could dress not in giant unisex clothing if I wanted to and took me shopping at Avenue and Lane Bryant. (Thanks, Lily!) But again, I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant for me. Even though clothes at Avenue and Lane Bryant fit me, they weren’t clothes that I wanted to wear—and they were quite a bit more expensive than straight sized clothing. I still felt alienated from fashion compared to my straight size friends.
Then came graduate school. The two most used life skills that I took away from graduate school were 1) the ability to write on any topic, for any length, at any time, and 2) a personal sense of style. It was a moment of personal triumph for me, when a woman stopped me on campus one day and said she was the fashion editor for the school paper. I was confused, thinking it was some kind of prank; they were going to ask the fat woman about fashion. Ha ha! But then she told me that she really liked my personal style and the outfit I had on that day, and wanted to profile me in their ongoing column that featured different students—basically an OOTD.
But I digress. The point is that, I have always been fat, and I’ve never seen myself reflected in the media I’ve consumed. The fat women I remember from the 90s were Roseanne on Roseanne, Delta Burke in the later seasons of Designing Women, and Oprah (sometimes). I remember very few fat cartoon characters growing up aside from Ursula from The Little Mermaid, and she was the villain. Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast spent most of the movie as a teapot, but in her human form she was an older woman. Villains, mothers, and grandmothers could be fat, Disney told me. (And have white hair?) But there were no young women who were fat in any media I remember from my childhood, and certainly no heroines.
When I did find a fat woman in media who was younger and not a villain or a mother, I latched on to her immediately. Sookie, played by Melissa McCarthy, is the real reason I kept watching Gilmore Girls long after it stopped being funny. But where were the fat teenaged characters I could relate to? They weren’t in the movies. They weren’t on TV. Maybe they were elsewhere.
I got into comics in 2005 through a friend who was obsessed with DC Comics, and so that was all I read, until another friend tempted me into Marvel Comics, saying they were doing great things for queer representation. I read Young Avengers, and then I read Runaways, and that was when I met Gertrude Yorkes, who quickly became the reason I kept reading. Although I loved Gertie’s personality, one of the main reasons she became my favorite characters was because she wasn’t skinny. Her weight fluctuated too much from artist to artist to say that she was fat, but compared to the other teenage girls I’d seen represented onscreen or in comics, her body was the closest I had seen to one that looked like mine, and especially my body when I was Gertie’s age.
And Gertie was smart and brave and a definitive sense of personal style and a psychic dinosaur and had a boyfriend, and it was AMAZING. Since Gertie’s death (for which I will never forgive Brian K. Vaughan), I’ve never seen a fat woman as a superhero until Faith.
I knew nothing about Valiant as a company or Harbinger as a series. I just wanted to read about this actually fat superheroine. I slogged through four issues of Harbinger just to read Faith’s origin story. Harbinger is pretty typical superhero comics fare—white teenage boy hero, secret companies with agendas doing bad things, etc. But when I finally got to Faith’s appearance, I was not disappointed by her.
Faith herself is a pretty amazing character, and I like her quite a bit. She’s a fangirl with an active online life and has an amazingly positive attitude. Unfortunately, these character traits don’t read as something positive so much as cliched in order to set up a character as pathetic—like “that fat guy who reads comics and lives in his mother’s basement.” Even with these tropes defining her, I hoped that Faith would play against type, but unfortunately it’s clear on the very first page that Faith is meant to be viewed as pathetic, naive, and even stupid.
What an idiot, the text tells us, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, like in this scene where Faith is deciding to go through with the procedure even though Peter thinks it’s way too dangerous.
Take it from a fat girl. I would rather be called fat than overweight, because fat is not an insult, but “overweight” implies that there is something wrong with my weight, when medical science says otherwise. Also note that Faith is described as desperate.
In this same issue, when Faith finally gets her powers and saves our hero, Peter, from certain death, her celebration and joy is once again treated as pathetic or short-sighted in the grand scheme of things.
In addition to the way the narrative presents Faith’s potentially endearing qualities as mockable, Faith’s body in this scene is particularly bulbous and fatroll-y for maximum irony. This girl thinks she could be played by Christina Hendricks?
I stopped reading after that issue. Even though I supported the idea of Faith as a character, and I like Faith on her own merits, the text presents Faith in such a way that she doesn’t feel like a positive step towards representation. Instead, she’s grotesque—her body type exaggerated for ironic effect. It’s because of this that when I first heard about Faith getting a solo book, I was hesitant to get my hopes up, even knowing the women involved with the title, whom I both admire.
Then I saw the first promotional image:
While Marguerite Sauvage’s work is incredibly beautiful, Faith’s weight is still a punchline. Isn’t it funny, the cover tells us, to see a fat woman on a telephone line next to these tiny birds? Isn’t it laughable, or ironic, or maybe even precious in that sad way, that this enormous woman can fly?
The other promotional artwork is marginally better:
The grotesque nature of the way the other artist presented her body has been removed, thank goodness, and she’s drawn beautifully, but that’s because she’s now the right kind of fat, where it’s evenly distributed. Faith has gotten to retain her giant stomach and general largeness, but she now has zero fat rolls and her double chin is missing.
The re-shaping of Faith’s body is endemic of the way that media and certain plus size brands try to erase unacceptable fat bodies, even when they have the best of intentions. Plus size retailer Lane Bryant has gotten hashtag heat for its #ImNoAngel and #PlusIsEqual campaigns, which are intended to promote positivity—but this positivity is not reflected in their actual models or clothing sold by the brand, as the recent #AskLaneBryant fiasco reiterated.
We are making progress. We’re starting to see more younger fat women in media of all ages, sizes, and ethnicities, like Gabourey Sidibe and Rebel Wilson. Oh, and Melissa McCarthy’s still around, and she’s still the one woman who doesn’t do “fat comedy” even though she does comedy and is fat.
Things are changing in fashion too. Project Runway’s winning designer this past season, Ashley Nell Tipton, is a plus sized women’s clothing designer—she not only designs clothing for plus sized women but also is one herself. Melissa McCarthy insisted that her clothing line be sold on the main floor and not in the segregated plus size area. Hot Topic released their most recent Doctor Who clothing collection the same day on Torrid (instead of making plus size women wait for months as they did with their Avengers collection), and also sold it on their website, side-by-side with straight sizes in addition to being sold on Torrid. These are all good things.
I want Faith to be a good thing. But if Valiant wants my support, I need Faith to be a reclamation. In the same way women have reclaimed the pulp heroines, like Red Sonja and Vampirella, I need Faith to be reclaimed for fat women. I need her weight to not be a punchline or a joke or an irony compared to her superpower. I need other characters to not comment on how weird it is to see a fat woman flying around. I need her to be the wrong kind of fat, with a double chin, enormous stomach, and fat rolls. Faith could be remarkable. She could be an inspiration and desperately needed representation for fat girls everywhere. But only if Valiant loves and accepts her as much as Faith loves and accepts herself.