In Real Life is a graphic novel based on Cory Doctorow’s short story “Anda’s Game,” initially published as part of his 2007 collection Overclocked. It was supposedly inspired by a true story in which a Mexican man announced at a conference that he paid players to amass virtual wealth that he could then sell to Western players.
However, we’re not here to talk about economics or even MMORPGs. We’re here to talk about body image – and both versions’ vastly different approaches to it.
Though a number of things differ between the short story and its comic adaption, two major things remain the same: one, Anda is a young gamer who joins an all-girls MMORPG clan called the Fahrenheits, and two, Anda is overweight.
In the short story, Anda’s weight struggles are a key plot point: she’s medicated for a skin condition called Acanthosis Nigricans which often precedes obesity-related diabetes. She goes on a diet, gets jeered at, has double-PE in school, and sees a school nutritionist.
The comic book adaptation, however, drops all of this. Though Anda’s body type doesn’t change, as shown in Jen Wang’s illustrations, no one comments about her weight this time. Acanthosis Nigricans isn’t mentioned, the jeers are dropped, and school scenes are limited, allowing for this version to focus on parental concerns about a young girl interacting with a community that isn’t always welcoming of females. The entire story-line changes – and that’s a good thing.
More than two-thirds of American adults are some shade of overweight. Despite this, they receive disproportionate representation in literature and comics – almost none – and when weight is presented, it’s an obstacle to overcome, or a punchline. It’s even more unusual to see an overweight female character; women are almost always treated as secondary characters, sometimes existing only as eye candy (though, to be fair, their representation in video games has improved some in the past twenty years, according to a study by Indiana University researcher Teresa Lynch).
Some may argue that it’s unhealthy to present children and teens with overweight heroes and heroines. They’ll cite the dangers of diabetes or the importance of portion control and regular exercise – and say that these protagonists will give kids the wrong impression of what is and isn’t healthy.
But with the wealth of information available online and in classrooms, is that true? As Rich Johnston from Bleeding Cool puts it, “Realism demands a range of body types in characters […]”. Overweight men and women exist; don’t they deserve representation?
Anda is, in many ways, a gamer first and overweight second, and Doctorow and Wang aren’t the only people who think this distinction is important. Released at the beginning of 2016 was a Valiant series called Faith – featuring (you guessed it) an overweight protagonist. As writer Jody Houser said in an interview with People: “‘I wouldn’t call her a plus-size superhero, she’s a superhero who is plus-sized. And I know it’s a very fine line there, but I think it’s an important distinction.’”
An important distinction indeed.