When see see a character on screen that looks like us, immediately we are them. If they are dirty, disheveled, slovenly then we are too because in that moment we are them. We are thrust into their shoes by virtue of the fact that we share a commonality. In that first moment we experience exactly what they do. If they are hideous then so are we. If they are doing something cringey then so are we and on and on. We are forever bonded with that character even if we hate every second of it. The feeling of having experienced their existence from their point of view and from the outside at the same time follows us forever.
I am still haunted by the two second entrance of T-Rex from Tre Parker and Matt Stone’s Orgazmo – TW do not google that. I slept with the light on for a month after seeing the shining and now I can laugh and repeat “red rum” with no problem. I saw Orgazmo very soon after but even after all these years just the word T-Rex triggers a downward spiral of self loathing. That particular character was robbed of her humanity in a sexual context which is particularly upsetting. My point is that her existence as a punchline was brief but gut-wrenching.
So not only are these things immediately devastating but they also cause long term harm. The character is real and true for us in that moment as an example of fat people and thus of ourselves. We do not stop to think until later that the character is just how people see us or how the writer sees themselves. Not that this helps, the idea that people see us this way is also distressing in the extreme.
Identifying with characters is simply a fact of the immersive experience of film and television. Everyone experiences this. However, white, cis, hetero, straight size, able bodied, un-addicted, mentally “healthy” characters are the default and thus viewers who fit into one or more of these categories see more positive examples of themselves repeated over and over. These positive examples balance out the ugly representations of villains, etc that look like them just because of the sheer volume of characters.
So it is easy for someone in one or all of these groups to not understand what the big deal is about. It’s just one or two jokes. It’s just a few seconds here or there. Yes but those few seconds are the only portrayal of us in this whole universe! In this whole enormous monstrosity of a film. That is a big deal to us. It harms us and we have to deal with the emotional fall out and the choking sense of injustice.
On the other hand, people of color, trans and gender fluid, rainbow family, fat – used with pride, disabled, addicted/recovering and those of us playing life on the mental health equivalent of NIGHTMARE MODE, see mainly negative portrayals of ourselves. For me personally that means seeing dirty lazy fat characters who got fat through some failure of character and lack of willpower and who exist to be the butt of all jokes.
Reducing a character who lost an eye and kept fighting, made the the decision to free a monster to stop his own sister from killing the universe and restarted a goddamn star with physical strength and will power, to the butt of anti fat, anti addict jokes is damaging. Full stop.
Full stop is what the writing team should have done with these “character arc” decisions.
Those of us who are freaks and broken survivors like Rocket, Nebula, Loki, who identify with Black Widow & Scarlet Witch and admire Captain America and Thor, and who are also fat have just been slapped in the face by something we loved.
People who say that it’s just a movie or just a small number of things underestimate the earth shattering impact that 2 seconds of bad representation can have on a person for the rest of their life.