Fat-shaming, Harry Potter, and kidlit

I am reading Prisoner of Azkaban, the third Harry Potter installment. Here’s the first paragraph of Chapter Two:

Harry went down to breakfast next morning to find the three Dursleys already sitting around the kitchen table. They were watching a brand new television, a welcome-home-for-the-summer present for Dudley, who had been complaining loudly about the long walk between the fridge and the television in the living room. Dudley had spent most of the summer in the kitchen, his piggy little eyes fixed on the screen and his five chins wobbling as he ate continually.

Do fat people always sit around and watch TV? Are fat people obsessed with their refrigerators? Do they eat all day long? Are fat kids spoiled and self-indulgent? Are there thin people who are lazy and addicted to television?

Before you argue that my irritation with the portrayal of Dudley means that I want to censor artists with my PC views– the fat, evil character is a cliche. It’s not original, and its ubiquity in kidlit doesn’t show imagination or innovation. You know what would be creative? Fat heroes in kidlit, showing fat characters who are good, magical, and smart. Fat characters who are leaders, not followers. Fat protagonists, not the sidekicks or comic relief.

When you teach your kid that people come in different shapes and sizes, as well as colors and genders, and one is no better than the other, it sucks to read in books and see movies where fat characters are continually derided and made fun of by the hero of the book. In most of kidlit, as well as movies, when others are teased or mocked, there is usually a lesson to be learned: bullying is bad. But fat characters are exceptions to that rule: making fun of them and teasing them is often portrayed as justified and deserved.

I just watched the movie Chamber of Secrets, the second Harry Potter, where Crabbe and Goyle, Malfoy’s dumb sidekicks are lured into a trap by cupcakes: their appetites are their stupidity.

As I just posted, I’ve only read books one and two so far. Commenters told me that Dudley redeems himself in later books, and also that Mrs. Weasley is a positive fat character.  But does Dudley’s later redemption justify the mockery? Does Mrs. Weasley just happen to be fat, or is her fat part of her character and the dilemmas she finds herself in? Dudley’s fat is Dudley.

Update: I finished the chapter: More fat-shaming in Harry Potter: the inflating of Aunt Marge

31 thoughts on “Fat-shaming, Harry Potter, and kidlit

  1. I fucking love HP and JKR. But when I read the books, I couldn’t help but notice the constant bullying of Dudley. It was also really upsetting because I was a kind of chubby kid, and the fact that it ALWAYS had to point out that fat kids (I.E. Dudley) were spoilt, and useless and deserved to be teased, et cetera. It always made me wonder “Am I like Dudley? Do people think of me like that? Do I deserve to be bullied?”. But I really doubt it had an effect on many kids, considering that most of them are weightist anyway. And the part where he calls him a stupid fat pig, again and again, and you’re meant to take his side, was really annoying, not only because of the fat things, but also the fact that it actually ENDORSED bullying. You know, the thing that makes kids commit suicide and shoot up their schools. This really upset me, because it also makes points about NOT teasing people in the series. And I do believe that those sort of jokes must be one of the four biggest vessels for bullying, along with homophobia, being too intelligent (nerdy)/unintelligent (dumb) and having a disability. If you ask me, bullying should be classed as a form of harrasment and illegalised. Along with stricter gun control, I reckon it could almost totally stop school shootings.

  2. Riddle aka Voldemort is attractive, yes; but he is the outlier. As he gets more evil, his apparance becomes more snakelike. Malloy has a sharp pointed, face, and is frequently compared to a ferret. All the ordinary Slytherins are noticeably and pointedly unattractive.

    • Hi Lesley,

      Your point about Voldemort getting more evil and more snakelike is good, totally agree. Also though, from my point of view of as a writer, I get that particular metamorphosis, Voldemort turning into a snake, and it makes sense to me. If that was the only ugly/ evil; combo in the book, it would be OK with me but as it is, its just one of many and that sucks.

      Also your point on Malfoy is good. I’ll pay attention to how he is described.

      MM

  3. I actually hadn’t thought about it before, but you’re right. And what about Prisoner of Azkaban when (you did say you watched the movies so this won’t be a spoiler) Harry’s aunt is fat and he accidentally makes her grow fatter and fatter until she becomes a ballon and flies away?

  4. I would suggest looking more closely at Neville’s character, especially as the series progresses. He gets bullied a lot (mostly by Slytherins) – and is even treated dismissively by some of his housemates – partly because he is kind of pudgy and forgetful. However, I would argue that he is one of the most heroic and strongest characters in the series.

  5. I am a huge Harry Potter fan, but I don’t think we can ignore or defend her use of mean-spirited stereotypes about fat and “ugly” people. Yes, Mrs Weasley is “plump”, but Rowling never dwells on her appearance the way she does with Dudley. There’s that nasty passage where D has to go on a diet because he can’t fit into his school uniform: what would be a deeply humiliating experience for a teen is played for laughs, and kind of a “serves ‘em right” vibe. There’s also the not so subtle implication that it’s Mrs Dursley’s fault that Dudley is so fat. And can it really be a coincidence that every single Slytherin character is described as physically unattractive?

    • Hi Lesley,

      I am a huge fan too.

      Agree Mrs. Weasley does not “counter-balance” Dudley.

      As far as the Slytherins, there is Malfoy and Tom Riddle. They are not “unattractive.” Is that right? And as I posted a couple days ago, Gilderoy is “attractive” and evil.

      Great point about Dudley’s fat being the mother’s fault.

      MM

  6. Have you read Holes by Louis Sachar? The main character, Stanley Yelnats is fat at the beginning, but he loses weight throughout the book because he is at Camp Green Lake, a place for delinquent boys where they make the children dig holes. In any case, he is most definitely a fat protagonist who does not fit any of the fat shaming stereotypes. (And if you’ve only seen the movie, I remember reading when it came out that they director really wanted to do the physical transformation of Stanley as well, but it was too difficult to do with a minor actor–Shia LeBoeuf–so they just took out any references to his weight).

  7. Very interesting point of view! I had never looked at it that way before, but its true. Fat people arent just fat because they sit and eat all day. Some people are just big boned, or eat when they are stressed, or countless other things. I love JKR, so I cant criticize her work, but I feel you. I do.

  8. Dudley became more buff and big, and was portrayed more as a bully than a fat tv obsessed boy. No doubt there will always be stereotypes in books and films, but that is how one is able to understand a character better. It shouldn’t be over done, but Mrs. Weasley is plum too, and Hagrid is big, so theres a balance in the HP series.

    • Hi Jenya,

      I’m sick of fat being used as a character trait to “understand a character better.” Narratives are metaphorical, and I get why “fat” is a convenient metaphor, but I’m sick of it in kidlit, especially when kids, younger and younger, worry about getting fat.

      Hagrid is a giant.

      MM

      • Isn’t the term ‘giant’ used sometimes to teased big kids? The giant in HP isn’t so bad. Just saying.

        It can’t really be helped that a certain size or height is used as stereotypes. If one wishes to save children from stereotypes, lets give them Dr. Seuss. HP, after all, becomes a YA book after the 1st and 2nd book.

        • Hi Jenya,

          Maybe “giant” is sometimes used, but I think of it as basically positive for males, the San Francisco Giants is our baseball team.

          I’ve blogged a lot about stereotypes in Dr. Seuss (mostly males, even crowd scenes) and Dr. Seuss also has a fat problem.

          What’s better about Harry Potter becoming YA?

          MM

          • It’s Jeyna btw. LOL.

            Giants are taken positively? Not in certain countries.

            When HP is a YA book, there should be a different approach to stereotypes as YA and children think differently.

            Dr. Seuss characters are rarely human, they don’t really have stereotypes or relation to people. I doubt anyone would take a fat looking monkey who may be a slob and relate it to a human being. Besides, children are innocent and the contents of Dr. Seuss’ stuff are generally positive, with barely any stereotypes that most people will notice.

            To me.. so long a YA/ children book/film brings out positivity, where-ever the minor stereotypes may be, it doesn’t matter.

            Personally, the fat stereotype doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t change the way I view a person. But the racial stereotype can cause dis-unity.

          • Kids are rather innocent. A friend told me he noticed how children takes no prejudice to men with tattoos and are as friendly and playful around them like any other person. As an adult, we would have acted different, somehow thinking they are more dangerous.

            I think kids learn what they are thought through what their parents or teachers emphasize on. If a parent constantly points out that a fat person is a certain way, then a kid would learn from that, however, simply reading a book wont really affect a child as they view the world more innocently than everybody else.

          • Hi Jeyna,

            “simply reading a book wont really affect a child as they view the world more innocently than everybody else.”

            I would agree with you if it were one book, or even a couple, but fat characters are mocked and demonized for their fat in a huge amount of kids media.

            MM

          • Unfortunately, that’s how it is. And sometimes, the stereotypes are true; whether people become like that base on stereotypes or they were the cause of stereotypes, the only way to stop it is by not living up to a stereotype.

            One can argue and say stereotypes should not be used, but is it entirely an authors fault? Often times, even we unconsciously stereotype people through our own writing and art, without intentionally wanting to.

            Best give some creators of children media the benefit of doubt, because not all the time, it is their intention of falling for a stereotype; you can’t exactly control all the characters you see in your head, especially those who come out of inspiration.

Leave a Reply