When I read the announcement of Fat Princess a week ago, I saw the events described in this post unfolding in my minds’ eye, and the whole thing was so annoying that my jaw fell slack and I had to go read something else to avoid thinking about it. But now I feel like I have to report on it, since I’m a feminist blogger who also designs video games for a living. Fat Princess, published by Sony and developed by fledgling Titan Studios in Seattle, has been getting a lot of word-of-mouth buzz in the last week. Is it because of the cute, cell-shaded animations? Hmmm, people certainly like the artwork, but that’s not exactly it. Is it the fact that you and 31 of your friends can run around a little medieval landscape, bonking each other with swords, building fortifications, and capturing territory? No, that’s not it either!
Oh wait, that’s right. It’s because of the fat chick! Because you know, fat women are hilarious! Mighty Ponygirl over at Feminist Gamers and Melissa at Shakesville have both posted reactions. And then it began, of course: a flood of predictably idiotic trolls streaming in from gaming communities.
The prototypical online gamer (at least the kind that burn their free time posting on message boards and blogs) is not only used to screaming offensive inanities at each other, but is crouched in a perpetual defensive posture, waiting to lash out if anyone dares slight their console of choice, claim that video games brainwash teens into shooting up high schools, or suggest that any game they like might be worth a political critique. I blame Jack Thompson for this. It only took a post on Neogaf followed by dismissive snorts from Joystiq and Kotaku for the usual suspects to whip out their concern trolling (“but being fat is unhealthy! we should be making fun of it!”) and completely unconvincing hand-waving (“you’re trying to SAVE the princess, it’s PRO-fat!”). My own reactions, after the cut.
Look, the humor here is not that hard to understand, especially if you look at the last few decades of gaming. There’s a classic fairy-tale trope in video games going back to Donkey Kong where a male protagonist must rescue the damsel in distress. “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” Sound familiar? You don’t need to be a brilliant feminist scholar to realize that this kind of story, with a male hero rescuing a helpless girl, is not only a cliche but a sexist cliche that long predates the invention of Pong. That’s why it’s a Good Thing that Nintendo let Princess Zelda and Princess Peach kick as much ass as everyone else in the Super Smash Brothers series and other games. Even though they’re still wearing cheesy princess dresses, making them playable characters who can hold their own has gone a long way towards redeeming their origins as passive prizes to be collected.
Fat Princess is a send-up of that tired old cliche. Believe me, there are a lot of ways you could send up that cliche, but of all the possibilities, Titan chose to make the princess FAT. The joke here is also obvious: LOL who would want to rescue a fat chick? It’s a shtick that’s been used in animation and film plenty of times; the dashing hero thinks he’s rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress, but the “joke” is on him because it turns out she’s larger than acceptable! And therefore unattractive and a horrible burden for him to rescue, of course.
In Fat Princess it’s not an unexpected surprise, but more of a prank that the opposing forces play on each other. Each side has captured the other’s princess; in addition to fortifying, defending, and capturing territory, you can feed your captive food. Because women are helpless in the face of cake, of course, she just eats and eats. And of course, absolutely anyone who eats a lot is going to balloon up into a spherical caricature of a heavy person, right? That’s how fat people get made! And of course she’s so heavy that it takes a whole crowd of soldiers to carry her! Because that’s what fat people are like! The cartoon-logic is impeccable. It’s also very recognizable, from a long history of our culture mocking the fat, blaming fat people for their bodies, perpetuating all sorts of bullshit about fat. It’s so recognizable that it doesn’t really need to be explained to anyone who has a problem with this kind of mockery.
The most ridiculous gamer-community defenses of this game are the flimsy ones that claim that Fat Princess doesn’t really perpetuate negative stereotypes about fat people, or that it’s pro-fat because you’re trying to rescue a fat girl. I’m sorry, but it’s been obvious since it was announced at E3 that a lot of people found this game downright hilarious. Just look at the coverage from last week. And it wasn’t because of the cartoony little soldier boys and girls hacking each other up; Castle Crashers, another hotly anticipated game with a similar art style and theme, didn’t get the same “OMFG I’m laughing my ass off” reaction. The game is absurd, deliberately so, because of the inclusion of the eponymous Fat Princess.
And that boils down to making fun of fat people, whether it’s overtly mean and cruel, or just “played for laughs” in that way that meant Chris Farley had no choice but to play a blustering oaf. The reason “token fat guy” is a sidekick in that god-awful Not Another Teen Movie. Because fat people are automatically jolly and hilarious, right? Look, just admit it. You think the game is funny because of the fat girl. Society teaches us that this is funny. I used to think fat people were inherently hilarious too — when I was 15 years old. Then I grew the fuck up and realized it made me an asshole.
The sad thing is that the game doesn’t even need this fat chick schtick in order to be a good game. Mighty Ponygirl is right: the gameplay sounds like it would be great on its own, as long as it’s done right. The whole princess thing is just an additional mechanic that makes it more and more challenging to win the game. And the princess doesn’t even need to be a princess; from what has been released so far, she’s essentially nothing more than a heavy, inanimate object that takes a long time to move. Except this object is portrayed as a person who got fat by eating too much. And that’s not playing fat for laughs? Right.
Mighty Ponygirl already suggested two alternate ways of portraying this mechanic and it’s not hard to think of more. Heck, I’d even play Velcro Princess. You attach more and more random crap you find to her, Katamari style, cats and armchairs and scullery maids, until she becomes impossible to move. The princess would stil bel a helpless inanimate object, but since you can play any of the other classes in the game as a female character, it kind of makes up for it. And it doesn’t make fun of fat people.
By the same token, it’s not like games with fat characters have to mock them or reinforce stereotypes like “fat people can’t move on their own” and “fat people will eat anything you put in front of them.” This opinion seems to confuse the more dimwitted dewd-gamers, who say things like “what, you don’t like skinny chicks in games, and now you don’t like fat chicks in games, there’s no pleasing you feminists!” Figure it out, dumbass. We’re complaining about mocking, objectified portrayals of fat people and over-representation of certain other body types as sexpots, heros, and sexpot heroes. Heck, a lot of gamers have complained about it too, even in the early coverage of Fat Princess on Kotaku.
A strategy game with a name like Fat Princess could feature the princess as one of your most important military units, powerful and important for strategy because she’s fat. (And if you think that means she’s a sphere that rolls other units over, you’re missing the point by a mile.) Or, like any number of large male characters in games — Barret from Final Fantasy VII and E. Honda from Street Fighter both come to mind — her weight could simply not be a big deal. But that’s probably too much to ask from a culture where fat women get treated like pariahs far more than fat guys do.
The art director of Titan Studios, James Green, e-mailed Joystiq to ask “Does it make it better or worse that the concept artist (who designed the look, characters, everything) is a girl?” Tsk tsk, James. Don’t blame your female artist for the idea behind this game unless she came up with it herself. If she didn’t, then she was asked to draw a fat fairy-tale princess along with those other characters, and she did a good job at her assignment. For the record, it doesn’t make it better OR worse that she’s a girl. Game developers who are women — and I should know, I’m one of them — are just as capable of making decisions that are sexist, fatphobic, or bigoted as male game developers are.
To get the taste of Fat Princess out of your mouth, I’d like to give you all a trailer of a less offensive game. Sadly, I can’t give you anything that portrays large women in a positive or even neutral light. I don’t know if such a game even exists, which says a lot about the context here, about what’s reprehensible or responsible. (Is there a Shrek game that stars Princess Fiona?)
In lieu of that nonexistent game, here’s an upcoming title with a female protagonist who’s not a passive object at all: Mirror’s Edge. The main character, Faith, is less sexualized than average for female game heroes: she’s wearing a tanktop, light pants, and running shoes, because she’s a courier in a totalitarian future where important messages have to be carried by hand to avoid omnipresent surveillance of the wires. Of course, it almost doesn’t matter what she’s wearing. You’re playing the game from her point of view, seeing her arms and legs twist (what, not her butt or her boobs? shocking) as she parkours her way across rooftops and evades or defeats security forces. She can do so without even firing a single bullet or killing anyone, if that’s the way you choose to play it.
(Warning: this video might make some people motion sick. The actual game has visual aids to keep this from happening, but they’re not apparent in the video.)
Impressively, even the short demo of Mirror’s Edge shown in the video passes the Bechdel test as Faith meets up with her contact, another rooftop runner who accepts delivery of her package. Are you paying attention, Titan Studios? Next time, let your game succeed on its own merits as a 32-person real-time-strategy cartoon-gorefest. It looks like it would have been good. You didn’t really need to drum up extra PR in the form of fatphobic controversy. After all, your biggest problem isn’t lack of attention. It’s the fact that almost nobody owns a Playstation 3, and your game’s being published by Sony so it’s probably not going to be sold anywhere else. Aww, too bad!
Oh, and before I forget: the moderation policy for this comments thread is going to be “nothing that even remotely stinks of trolling.” If you’re not a regular commenter on this site, you’re welcome to comment if you have something useful and new to contribute. That means none of the same tired old cliched anti-feminist or anti-fat bullshit; if you want to talk about fat, you’re required to read up on the politics of fat acceptance first. And guess who gets to decide if your comment is useful? That’s right. Me. If you don’t like it, I have pile of stickybombs you can sit on instead.
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