Virtual Fitness, Science Fiction, and “Fat Lit”


My husband and I are writing a science fiction/adventure novel that explores personal relationships in a world where most of the characters have opted for cyborg implants. Some of the characters, however, have not. The story follows a married couple who wind up getting divorced over technological differences. He doesn’t see her as human and she feels confined by his attitudes about her cyborg implants. Since it is written as a science fiction/adventure story, there are explosions and virtual reality battles and so on. It’s been a real hoot to write.

We’ve sometimes amused ourselves by wondering what aliens would learn about humanity if they accessed our movies and books before actually observing life on earth. It is possible that they might conclude that women are not as healthy as men because very few of them live past 30. They might conclude that women are more genetically homogenous than men because they are usually attractive and thin. They might conclude that there is some kind of causal connection between someone’s weight and how funny they are.

We decided to make the cast of characters in our novel reflect the diversity of people we meet in real life. We don’t want to mislead the aliens. Women who are not mere love interests exist, women over 30 exist, LGBT people exist, people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds exist, nice people exist, bigots exist, and so on. Our reasons for doing so have more to do with realism than with politics, but I like it that it lines up with our politics as well. Up until recently, our readers have responded quite positively.

We just ran into a snag with the readers when we decided to make the protagonist, who is female, heavy. Very heavy. She isn’t particularly funny or someone’s sidekick. She finds love, though not with her husband. She is capable, smart, and efficient. She’s far from perfect, but the main issue that concerns her is her claustrophobia. She doesn’t spend that much time thinking about her weight, nor does it play a role in the story. It is simply one of many facts about her.

What fascinated and distressed me about the reader responses we received was that they worried that a large, female protagonist would alienate a mainstream audience and gear the novel to a niche market (“Fat lit”). It’s frustrating that they might be right about that. One reader reported feeling a disengagement with the protagonist at the very point in the story where the protagonist reveals her weight in conversation with a friend. This was the same reader who previously couldn’t bear the possibility of the protagonist dying at the end (we won’t say whether she does or doesn’t).

Another intriguing aspect of the reader responses to the protagonist is that there was no objection to making her addicted to cigarettes. So the concern isn’t about her health. There was also no objection to our initially making her passive and with very few skills, although we did change that for plot reasons simply because we hadn’t given her the skills to do anything to move the plot along. (It’s too long a story to explain why we initially made her without viable skills. Short version: we were trying to set up a David and Goliath scenario.)

Despite the fact that her weight plays no role in the story, it has become clear that her weight is unavoidably political. For one thing, we now have to give more thought to the part of the story where she becomes fit. We initially made this choice because we thought it would be interesting to show a futuristic tech-dependent society that is more active than our current one. Most stories about cyborgs and virtual realities involve characters with nearly unused physical bodies, much like Bruce Willis’s character in Surrogates, or Keanu Reeves’s character in The Matrix. But current trends in computerized fitness, as well as the Kinnect and the Oculus Rift made us interested in imagining a different cyborg future than the one envisioned in Surrogates. In the world of our novel, the best virtual reality games are played by using the body in harnesses, so gamers train physically in order to improve their scores (a future version of this idea).

But the responses of my readers has forced me to think on this a little more. I did a quick internet search and found this thread. The choice to make her become fit ties in to the “redemption through weight loss” theme. I’d like to avoid that. This thread is full of many things to avoid. I’ll quote a few.

From BuffPuff:

“You could publish it, film it or put it on the stage . . . just as long as the characters you were portraying were shown to be wretched, embittered, lonely and seething with self hatred, preferably enough to hang themselves in the final act.”

From Shieldmaiden1196:

“I guess I appreciate she has fat protagonists, but there is a certain condescension to those protagonists. I’m a fat woman. but I don’t identify as a fat woman every second of every day….there are actually whole hours that go by in which I’m not thinking about being fat.”

Or from here, the “Fat Girl” trope:

“A character who’s at least overweight and Always Female who is portrayed as being either insecure, unimportant or both.”

What we can and cannot write without making a political statement says a great deal about our society. I was already aware that making the protagonist female was a political choice. I hadn’t given much thought to how much her weight mattered until now.

Rhonda Martens is a philosopher who lives in Winnipeg with her husband and cat. She loves dancing and refuses to stop wearing mini skirts.

5 thoughts on “Virtual Fitness, Science Fiction, and “Fat Lit”

  1. “One reader reported feeling a disengagement with the protagonist at the very point in the story where the protagonist reveals her weight in conversation with a friend.”

    This is a normal response and not specific to a protagonist’s weight. If you make no mention of a character’s hair colour for four chapters and then reveal in chapter 5 she was nicknamed “carrot top” as a child, all the readers who had become invested in a character they imagined to be blonde or brunette will feel a disengagement. Anytime you allow your readers time to form their own mental image of a character and then rip that image away from them by revealing too late that you, the author, intend the character to have a different physical appearance you will cause reader alienation.

    Which is not to say prejudice against a female and/or fat protagonist doesn’t exist no matter how or when you reveal these facts. I believe that for many readers it does. I hope writers can help to change these attitudes by crafting engaging stories which feature non-stereotypical characters. It sounds like your novel will be a step in this direction.

  2. Thanks Laura, that’s insightful. That often happens when novels get made into movies or TV shows as well. In the visual format, the appearance of the character becomes set the moment they show up on the screen.

    It’s possible that given our fat phobic culture, my readers interpreted their own reactions as that of fat phobia rather than of simply having their mental image of the character disturbed.

  3. If you really want to alienate your readers, and maybe you should, you could have your main character get cyborg implants and get in shape so she can “kick ass”, but then after she succeeds she has those particular implants removed and goes back to being fat and out of shape because she no longer needs to “win the day” and is actually happier as she is with only the implants she has chosen.

    1. Ha! That’s both funny and interesting. It might even work because the underlying philosophical theme has to do with narrative identity and the interplay between who we are and the choices we make.

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