Body positivity comes in all shapes and sizes but unfortunately, it seems superheroes do not…
An average-looking Superman, a body-building Wonder Woman; to Hollywood, this is just not doable. Narrow fantasies of sex sells. And the film and TV industries know it. So we see many more men with six-packs than men without. We very rarely see a woman with a dress size larger than 8. And the comic book genre is arguably one of the worst for this miss-representation.
There’s no denying sex has always dominated Hollywood. In terms of serious films such as drama or action, it’s rare we see a character with a spot on their face, or slightly discoloured teeth. Having said that, it isn’t unheard of for a character to be created for their personality rather than their aesthetically pleasing traits.
Actor Bo Roberts has starred in the likes of Chain of Command (2015) and 300: Rise of an Empire (2014). He believes there is a type of casting that plus-size actors, certainly men, are generally picked for. “There are already plenty of plus sized villains to choose from,” he says. “The penguin, The Blob and Kingpin just to name a few, are all well outside of having a small issue with their weight. Being overweight is demonized by society which makes it an easy trait to attach to a villain.”
“Being overweight is demonized by society which makes it an easy trait to attach to a villain”
These characters were all created in the comic books as plus-size. Could this mean that in fact it isn’t Hollywood’s fault, but the source material simply isn’t there? Not only does the industry lack in plus-size, but there is also next to no representation of cis bodies and trans body positivity.
Abbey Plumb, a previous comic book shop employee now working in the gaming industry doesn’t believe so. “We already have plus sized superheroes, they’re just not at the forefront of baseline consumption,” she explains. “Rather than just plus size characters, it would be great to see a wider variety of builds and body types on the big screen, but this is a bigger issue than just what we see in superhero films.”
In research conducted by Edcoms for Credos between 22nd February and 4th March 2016, they found that while “67% of boys said it was unacceptable to use digital techniques to manipulate body shapes in advertising.” But, in comparison to this, “42% of boys who think male images are realistic also believe there is a ‘perfect body’ to strive for, compared with 16% of those who think male images are unrealistic.”
This shows the severity of pressure boys are now feeling around having a certain body-type. As the majority of mens bodies we see in advertising campaigns and Hollywood films are large and toned, it would make sense to assume this is the body-type men feel they should be attempting to get.
Heart of Leadership is a non-profit organisation with the mission to help girls tackle the pressures of achieving in life. They claim that ‘98% of girls feel there is immense pressure from external sources to look a certain way’. As well as this, they state that ‘92% of teen girls would like to change something about the way they look, with body weight ranking the highest.’
Generally, the women that come to mind when we think of superheroes are muscly but with an extremely exaggerated hourglass figure. Equally, when thinking of superhero men, we see huge muscles bulging out of their skin tight costumes. From women’s cleavage popping out of their leotards, to men’s legs the size of tree trunks, there may be plus-sized superheroes somewhere in the depths of the comic book industry, but they certainly aren’t well-known.
Katie Powell is a theatre and screen actress who has appeared on TV shows such as Beowulf (2016) and The Dumping Ground (2013). She doesn’t believe there’s much hope for women in the near future, but perhaps more so for men. “I think we could see a plus size male superhero,” she says. “I can imagine a comedy comic book film having someone like Jonah Hill as the protagonist.”
“I think we could see a plus size male superhero”
But this is where another issue is brought up. When plus-size actors and actresses are cast, they’re generally type-cast as the humorous character. An example within the current comic book films would be the most recent Thormovies (2011 — present). In this particular franchise, there is a curvier woman casting, Kat Dennings. However, she plays Darcy Lewis, the comical friend of Thor’s true love interest, Jane Foster played by Natalie Portman.
Roberts also links the idea of a plus-size casting with comedy. “I think we will [see a plus-size superhero] but in the comical sense,” he states. “The entire idea of a superhero that has been created is of a person who is aspirational. The often depressing backstories humanize super heroes in a way that makes one think a plus size hero would emerge eventually but so far I do not know of any. Thinking about comedic leading actors though… Chris Farley, Kevin James, Rebel Wilson etc etc.”
While seeing plus-size superheroes on the big screen still seems like a far off idea to the lack of diversity in body image, perhaps we need to focus more on the variety of body-types within the villainous society. This is an area that we’ve already discussed as being more open-minded about plus-size characters, and they never even have to crack a joke.
“One of our greatest villains is plus size, Kingpin!” Plumb exclaims. “I would argue the assumption is that we (western society) are deemed to be conditioned into perceiving plus size builds with negative connotations, rather than positive. It is however worth mentioning overall there is a fair balance of plus size male and female villians.”
Okay, so the fact that there are more plus-size villains than superheroes is a controversial one. Yes, many fans love villains, and enjoy the likes of Kingpin and The Penguin. Even when we look at the villains with smaller frames such as Loki and The Joker, there is next to no attention on the way they look — or at least not in an attractive or sexual manner.
The real body positive activists within the industry are coming from the dark side. While this is arguably because plus-size is seen as a negative trait rather than a positive, it still doesn’t make the audience view these characters any differently. The industry should look at this as proof that comic book fans aren’t as shallow as they first presumed, and it’s about time we saw more plus-size superheroes.