Fatties Need Not Exist: DC Comics and Body Diversity
How a groundbreaking comic book figure made flab fab
The word “fat” in the text below is used as a neutral descriptor rather than a pejorative judgment.
Two weeks ago was the debut of DC Comics’ Suicide Squad, the rebirth of an old book that featured the black and heavyset Amanda Waller as a core cast member. Nicknamed “the Wall” both for her indomitable determination and her plus-sized figure, Amanda has become a highly recognizable staple of the DC universe, visibly unique among an overwhelming slew of thin, white female counterparts. Her usual position of power—a government agent supervising drafted supervillains for black ops missions—reaches rare heights for a character so far outside the DC norms of race, gender and body type.
But after this month’s relaunch of DC’s entire line of comics, which is winding back the clock on its superheroes’ saga and bringing cosmetic changes to several of its characters, the modern Amanda Waller has become strikingly thin—and the resulting reaction has predictably crackled with controversy. While choices like this have proven DC’s “diversity”-committed relaunch more nominal than authentic to incensed fans, some readers have defended DC’s decision. And considering rising obesity statistics for real-life African-American women, it’s understandable that apologists don’t want to carelessly encourage biases that brand fatness a predisposed and permanent quality of black females. But while it’s an embarrassment to American economics that black women are particularly affected by poverty, and that poverty so often correlates with obesity, being embarrassed by the idea of big black women themselves is an issue that deserves some serious reevaluation. The traits they’re usually given in media, often construing them as crass, clownish, and forever members of the underclass, are of course problematic stereotypes. But when an established fictional icon like Amanda Waller subverts those stereotypes about people of size and color, it sends the seldom-spoken message that fat women—even fat black women—are still worth a damn.
Not that Adam Glass, the writer responsible for Amanda’s new look, has addressed the social implications of his choice in any depth so far. When pressed by Bleeding Cool for comment, Glass merely said that the new Amanda was defined more by her personality than her size, and that this version of her is a younger one at the start of her career. This kind of excuse would have been appropriate for a character like Clark Kent’s editor-in-chief Perry White, who’d been drawn with extra fat on and off before the relaunch and seems deliberately toned up for his de-aged look. But because Perry hasn’t been consistently depicted as fat over the years, he’s never been any kind of real symbol for size diversity in the DC universe. Amanda Waller, on the other hand, has been fat since her introduction in the ‘80s, and took on special significance as one of the few overweight characters in all of mainstream comics. And because youth and thinness don’t necessarily go hand in hand, Adam Glass’s age-based excuse for Amanda’s reinterpretation has left offended readers unsatisfied. In any case, some artistic interpretations of Amanda before the relaunch could have easily passed for younger takes on the character with her weight preserved.
But even if Glass hadn’t given a statement, there would have been plenty of excuses made by fans to fill the void, as comment threads on Bleeding Cool and Comics Alliance prove. Some readers have expressed understanding after assuming that this new Amanda Waller is based on Angela Bassett, the slim actress who played the character in summer’s Green Lantern movie. Aside from the fact that DC and Glass haven’t confirmed this, the premise that a film’s reinterpretation of a character would necessitate a comic book match to avoid confusion is iffy at best, especially given that Green Lantern underperformed financially and critically. That logic would parallel turning Batgirl, the redheaded daughter of Batman’s ally Commissioner Gordon, into the blonde niece of Batman’s butler—for the sake of 1997’s panned Batman and Robin movie. On the other hand, Gary Oldman’s brown-haired Commissioner Gordon of the successful new Batman films didn’t dissuade DC from making the comic book character a pronounced ginger post-relaunch. And DC likely won’t be turning Perry White black after Laurence Fishburne plays him in 2013’s Man of Steel, no matter how poorly or prolifically it creates revenue. All in all, DC has a choice in the matter of what its characters look like, whether or not a related film makes deviations from source material.
Another misplaced assumption made in the aftermath of Suicide Squad’s release is that Amanda’s younger, skinnier iteration lays the groundwork for a gradual weight gain in the future, which is highly improbable. It’s doubtful DC would obligate itself to the extra hassle of coordinating subtle shifts in Amanda’s artistic design, considering the several creative teams sure to handle the character on both Suicide Squad and crossover events—ostensibly over an indeterminable amount of time. One of the central advantages DC sought in relaunching its line was the opportunity to revel in its characters’ younger years. Not only does “comic book time” already progress at an imperceptible rate under normal circumstances—allowing the lifespan of its heroes’ adventures to stretch on indefinitely—but DC has expressed pointed interest in exploring the earlier days of its cast of characters for the long haul. Aging its fictional community, DC has found, is bad for business, which means the lightweight version of Amanda isn’t going away anytime soon, if ever.
Besides, seeing as DC promised to prioritize diversity as a core facet of its relaunch, an underrepresented group should not have to wait its turn to be acknowledged at the end of an unspecified timeline, or at whim—especially if it was already better represented before a relaunch hyped as more diversity-oriented. Prior to her debut in the new Suicide Squad, Amanda was a refreshingly matter-of-fact woman of size whose value was immeasurable considering the idealized bodies almost always favored in comics. Despite a supposed dedication to varying the kinds of characters in its books, DC has failed once again to understand the seriousness or complexities of its commitment.
Not your mama’s big fat mama
But the conversation about how Amanda fits into that commitment has continued without DC, as fans have debated whether her original figure sustained a “fat black mama” stereotype often assigned to African-American women. Although the concept has been referenced by post-relaunch apologists to express valid worry over racial generalizations, the pre-relaunch Amanda lacks key attributes that would truly qualify her for the caricature.
The recycled image of the fat black mama is a direct result of the “mammy,” a false icon created by white southerners in the antebellum period that designated black women suitable only as domestic servants. The mammy was indeed overweight, despite the fact that slaves were of course not fed well. But unlike Amanda, the mammy found pleasure in subservience, harboring no desire for empowerment or self-sufficiency. Although few apologists would argue that Amanda ever echoed the slave archetype per se, it’s interesting to note how much this icon has in common with the modern “mama” they believe she still reflects. Like the old stereotype, the more recent mammy commonly remains fat, black, and limited to a career of housework. This pattern has been reinforced over time, with stay-at-home TV characters such as Theresa Merritt in That’s My Mama, Mabel Thomas in What’s Happening, Nell Harper in Gimme a Break, or Ella Payne in Tyler Perry’s House of Payne—making it clear that even as the mammy archetype evolved, her place in society did not. And yet DC Comics’ sole fat and black female character has held top-tier federal roles throughout her existence, making high-impact decisions with international ramifications on a regular basis. Further, Amanda has never exhibited the maternal authority of the mammy; her own power was instead earned through a keen intellect and hard-nosed perseverance that demanded respect of the professional variety over the familial kind.
Another aspect of the fat black mama caricature defied by Amanda is that of the “sassy” buffoon. Nowadays, this role is most popularly fulfilled by Tyler Perry as Madea, a recurring film character used for comedy due to her uncultured, obnoxious and loudmouthed demeanor. Madea’s cartoonish belligerence channels the pushy personality of Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind, one of Hollywood’s original mammies, and epitomizes the roles big black women often play when used as comic fodder.
This buffoonery stems from popular notions of fat black women as too hateful, too proud, and too confrontational to be seen as fully human in media—a reputation that colors them not just prone to anger, but to unjustifiable and unending anger (especially when compounded with the finger-snapping, neck-rolling, pouty-mouthed stereotype of black women in general). However, Amanda Waller has never been written in this style of “sassy”—a descriptor oddly reserved for black women more often than not—but rather as a leader legitimately perturbed by challenges to her authority or threats to national security. And while earlier takes on Amanda showed outbursts of hers that were mostly job-related, the modern Amanda has more often been written with extraordinary poise, and enough of it to inspire similar interpretations outside of comics (such as the overweight versions of the character in the highly popular Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice cartoons, and the full-figured live action version on Smallville played by Pam Grier). All in all, entertainment has largely portrayed fat black women as lacking either power or composure; the pre-reluanch Amanda lacked neither.
A fat chance at fat-positive
But despite DC getting most aspects of Amanda “right” considering the stereotyping that preceded her, the company could have arguably done a bit more to subvert the mammy image from the start. Because the mammy was conceived as overweight in order to de-sexualize black women according to typical standards of beauty, and was usually depicted as old and homely to achieve the same ends, early drawings of Amanda with the same characteristics held her back from reaching her progressive potential. However, Amanda’s image gradually shifted to consistently having younger and traditionally feminine features well before DC’s relaunch, better distancing her from mammy comparisons regarding sexuality.
Still, although Amanda was married at one point and conceived kids—meaning she presumably remained a woman with carnal needs afterward—she’s led a generally sexless life in DC continuity. Some readers may have found this aspect of the character refreshing, due to the common hyper-sexualization of women in comics, but the fact that DC’s only prominent fat character hasn’t had a love life to speak of regurgitates tired conceptions of overweight women already abundant in entertainment—namely that they’re less likely to have many sexual or romantic opportunities. Occasionally, entertainment surprises like the TV programs Roseanne or Mike and Molly counter those conceptions, but tend to stay drops in the bucket.
Admittedly, it would be easy to hand-wave Amanda’s nearly nonexistent romances on several story-driven grounds: she’s often in high-stakes government positions and wouldn’t have the time or the mindset for dating; she’s sometimes portrayed as a villain, while heroes are more likely to have relationships readers can root for; she doesn’t have a solo book warranting the “screen time” for courtship subplots; etc. But whether due to circumstance or coincidence, Amanda has been an addition to a wealth of instances in which fat characters are relegated to the sidelines of sexuality—likely coming from a pop culture consensus that altogether, we’re not comfortable with fat people making love or finding it. Fortunately, simple allusions to a sex life off the clock or showing a “morning after” panel every once in a while would have made this an easy fix on DC’s part, however occasionally done. Unfortunately, thinning Amanda down has cut off any opportunity to further innovate her as a fat-positive character, despite the relaunch being touted by DC as a new frontier for underrepresented populations.
But some readers reacting to Amanda’s change see it not as a diversity issue and more of a health matter, insisting that her obesity was unacceptable and promoted a self-destructive lifestyle. Unfortunately, their stance overlooks the stark difference between endorsing obesity and recognizing size diversity. Especially with genetics or metabolism factoring into why some have extra fat in the first place, DC’s acknowledgement that fat people exist is the farthest cry from glorifying overeating or living in a sedentary manner. Additionally, some interpretations of Amanda portrayed her as slim enough to be merely overweight rather than obese. But DC’s decision to retool Amanda as definitively thin wipes out the entire spectrum of larger body sizes used to depict the character; now, she doesn’t have the option of even looking slightly overweight. Regardless of whether obesity-preoccupied apologists recognize it or not, fat can be tied to identity as much as it is to health, as evidenced by fat acceptance organizations, fat-positive philosophies, and everyday discrimination that affects individuals’ sense of self. Getting rid of Amanda’s fat isn’t as simple as erasing her health issues; in the skinny-centric DC universe, it also means erasing people.
Moreover, asserting that an obese character doesn’t belong in comics implies that worth is determined by size. This attitude echoes the kind of message sent to those with excess weight issues, and contributes to a culture that mocks, bullies, and shames them relentlessly. And because society pressures overweight people to consider themselves “less than,” Amanda Waller stood out as a confident anomaly—unencumbered by stereotypically low self-esteem—and offered simple dignity and representation for those her size.
To be fair, genuine concerns about how black women are treated in entertainment are valid to voice. There’s nothing wrong with wanting fit black female icons in DC comics, but they need not be mutually exclusive with Amanda’s former body type. Certainly, DC has few black women with much prominence thus far, and the fact that a fat one had been front and center cannot be entirely separated from the problems that kind of image has caused for African-American females. However, the importance of a fat black woman who is the intellectual equal (and even superior) of surrounding white characters cannot be stressed enough. Again, DC would still do well to continue building up its cast of thin black females, first and foremost out of an earnest interest in diversity; and should Amanda’s original form return, a bigger presence of fit black heroines would curb accusations of overemphasizing fatness in African-American ladies. Obviously, there’s room for both kinds of size to be appreciated in the DC universe.
Likewise, concern about how health issues are addressed in media is also justified. For example, Marvel’s ban on its heroes smoking could have potentially positive effects on younger readers, and was a morally sound choice to enforce. But the difference between banning something like smoking in comics and erasing obesity in them is that cigarettes aren’t as commonly tied to identity—or the issues of self-worth, social punishment, or systematic prejudice that come with it. It’s true that the health risks of obesity shouldn’t be ignored, but neither should the persons living with it.
Unsurprisingly, people either unaffected by size discrimination or unconcerned with diversity have labeled this controversy a frivolous matter. But to a company that announced itself concerned with diversity, the Amanda Waller outcry should be taken extremely seriously. Over the past month, DC’s relaunch has seen several missteps when it comes to social awareness, leaving angry fans to pick up the slack by expressing how the publisher should and must improve. With a dying industry that can’t afford to keep dividing its supporters forever, DC needs to take the burden off of readers in recognizing the full meaning of the diversity it seeks to reflect, and when it comes to issues like Amanda’s weight, finally begin to pull its own.
Photos courtesy of DC Comics, Warner Premiere, The Tyler Perry Company, and Ferris State University.
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