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A Person First, and Overweight Second: Body Image in Doctorow’s “In Real Life”

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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.

"In Real Life" cover featuring Anda on the left and her avatar Kali on the right

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.

For more information on the Faith series, check out PCU’s reviews of the first installment here and here.

About Natalie (34 Articles)
Writer. Editor. Blogger. Rejector of stereotypes. MFA candidate. Currently writing a novel about gender issues and dirt bikes. Home base: www.natalieschriefer.com.

7 Comments on A Person First, and Overweight Second: Body Image in Doctorow’s “In Real Life”

  1. Reblogged this on But Why? and commented:

    Diversity in literature (or movies) is about more than race and gender — body image is an important topic to discuss.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A really interesting article and honestly a great look at diversity that isn’t always included in media unless it’s the butt of a joke.
    I think it can be because there is still a stigma around people that are overweight and the type of person that they must be. We always see it as the worst of us.
    It’s a stigma that needs to disappear because the average person in America is at least a little overweight, my only reason to address it is to prevent it causing health issues, and I say this as an overweight diabetic who had his diabetes brought on early due to unhealthy living and obesity.
    I think the change in the story could be good and bad, good because there doesn’t need to be a whole host of emotional and mental issues attached to the character being overweight. She can just be overweight and get on with the story, and Bad (from someone who hasn’t read this) because I don’t know if those other issues were important to the development of the overall story, especially if it is based on a real story.
    I think overall that it is something we should be seeing in TV, Movies, video games and comics/graphic novels. That someone can be overweight and it is ok. And that it can inspire kids and teens struggling with weight that they can still be heroes too without looking like Captain america or Wonder Woman.

    And great mentioning Faith from Valiant Comics, I was gonna mention her before I read the end of the article and as far as I am aware she is the only obese hero leading her own title and it isn’t a plot point in anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This was a very interesting post, and so were the comments.

    Like

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