Thunder Thighs

In which I become an annoying old person and massively spoil Avengers: Endgame

When I was twenty-five years old, my mother died. It is the central wound of my life, my adulthood origin story. There was Mom, and then there wasn’t, and everything since has felt, one way or another, like a reaction to that fact.

In the year after Mom died, I spent basically all my spare time lying prone on the living room couch, watching HGTV. I walked my dogs around the block and then fell asleep, exhausted by the effort. I avoided my friends and alienated my partner. I canceled everything I could cancel. And I gained back sixty-five pounds that, a couple of years before, I had worked very, very hard to lose.

That in itself is the opening of an origin story—the one about how I eventually gave up dieting, started a fat acceptance blog, wrote half a book, and became, for a little while, something of an authority on sizeism and body positivity. Learning not to hate myself will always be bound up with the loss of my mother, both because it occasioned my first major regain and because (how much I miss her notwithstanding) she was the Number One contributor to my food and body issues in the first place. If I were inclined to put a narrative bow on the whole thing, I’d say I had to sacrifice the person I loved most in the world to eventually move forward—not as the person I thought I was supposed to be, but as the person I really was.

If you’ve seen it, you will recognize that I just borrowed a key theme from Avengers: Endgame to make a point about life after my mother’s death. I guess I’m a person who would do that now? If you haven’t seen it, I absolutely was not kidding about the spoilers, so please don’t yell at me if you choose to keep reading after this point and learn more than you wanted to know.

Because I was once something of an authority on sizeism and body positivity, the first plot point of Avengers: Endgame my social media feeds spoiled for me—in the two goddamned days before I got around to seeing it—was that Thor gets fat. Or, more accurately, that someone gets fat, as a manifestation of PTSD. Problematic!

Although I have seen every Marvel movie at least twice and am accustomed to turning down my feminist brain to enjoy them, I went in prepared to have some part of the experience ruined by casual fatphobia and worn-out jokes. (All fat jokes that rely on the listener finding fat inherently disgusting are worn out. There is no such thing as a new or unusually clever one. This is not an open question.) When I saw an enormous bowl of scrambled eggs pushed across a diner table, I braced so hard for a fatsuit reveal that it took me a minute to process the actual reveal, of a merged Banner and Hulk.

Later, when the Problematic Fatty was revealed to be Thor, I was taken aback not by how rough he looked, but how cute his new belly was. I’ll stipulate that I appreciate a belly more than most, and that it’s basically impossible to make a Hemsworth genuinely unattractive, but that’s not the point. The point is that I’m forty-four years old, and I’ve seen a lot of attractive thin and/or muscular people made “fat” by make-up, prosthetics, and special effects in that time. This felt different.

They didn’t put a false double chin on him, for starters, or inflate every part of his body equally.

His digitally enlarged/de-muscled arms were occasionally a bit distracting, but at least he wasn’t wearing padding that only went up to his skinny shoulders, making his arms look like they were attached to his body with brass brads.

He didn’t have an inch-deep fake chin trench, a head three times the size of a normal person’s, a fashion sense more appropriate to someone his mother’s age, or baby hands.

He doesn’t look like his body was assembled by squabbling chimps in a dark room.

Or like whatever the fuck is going on here.

Instead, he looks like his fat prosthetics and effects were designed by someone who has actually seen a fat person. That right there is cause for celebration.

And for the most part, he looks like a highly plausible version of a guy who went from being very active to very sedentary, and from occasionally enjoying an oversized beer to living on very little else.

To be fair, he also looks like a guy who hasn’t bathed in a while, which is genuinely shitty in terms of fat representation, given the stereotypical association of fatness with poor hygiene. If we saw more clean, happy fat people in media just living their lives, it wouldn’t sting so much to see a character who happens to be both fat and greasy, but as things are, that’s always a bummer.

Still, more than anything else, Fat Thor looks like The Dude. If you somehow missed all the visual cues to that effect, Tony calls him “Lebowski.” And this is where I become that old activist who feels worryingly removed from the current generation, because I have seen two different critics complain that comparing him to The Dude is, in itself, a fat joke. I forget who the first one was, but the second was Mathew Rodriguez—a brilliant young writer whose work I enjoy, and whose core argument I substantially agree with—in Out. (I hope he will forgive me for my old-person grouchiness here, and for putting two Ts in his name when I signed a book to him a couple of years ago.)

So. Here’s Jeff Bridges as The Dude.

You might notice that he’s not actually fat. Dadboddish, maybe, but not fat.

Walter Sobchak is a fat guy. Jeffrey Lebowski is a guy who does not dress to flatter his figure, because he is not interested in what you think of him.

Why does this matter? Because the casual conflation of “Dude” and “fat” actually reinforces some of the worst stereotypes about fat people—to wit, that questionable hygiene, laziness, ugly clothes, and self-destructive behavior are, in fact, synonymous with fatness. If you see somebody in pajama pants and a bathrobe, with dirty hair and an overgrown beard, and automatically read that person as fat, you’ve still got a bit of work to do on the internalized fatphobia we all develop in this culture.

As an old person who has perhaps dated and/or married one too many men who held The Dude up as a role model in their twenties, I actually saw the Lebowski references as a clever shorthand, and not a completely negative one, for all the ways Thor has changed besides the weight gain. The Dude is slovenly and probably alcoholic, but he’s also fun to watch because he knows who he is and does not give a single fuck. And that, more than anything, is what I see Thor trying to channel in his grief.

Thor is not, by nature, a guy who doesn’t give a fuck. Thor gives so much of a fuck. But giving so much of a fuck and still not being able to save your parents, your brother, your best friend, your homeland, or half your people is a deeply depressing circumstance, even for a guy who is basically Mr. Peanut Butter crossed with a vengeful God. And sometimes—ask me how I know—depressed and traumatized people become sedentary, get obsessed with TV, drink and eat until they feel as miserable physically as they do emotionally. Sometimes they gain weight, and sometimes they lose weight; both are common symptoms of depression. So an image of grief that looks like Fat Thor seems like a perfectly reasonable narrative choice to me.

The problem is, they cheapen it with the aforementioned worn-out jokes. Thor arguably has the saddest story, but he’s one of the funniest characters—not because he has a sense of humor, but because he doesn’t. He’s all confidence and bluster, a platinum-dense brain in the body of a deadly serious Norse God. He’s become a major source of comic relief in the Avengers movies, in part because Thor: Ragnarok demonstrated Hemsworth’s timing and the extreme charm of Goober Thor, and in part because it’s so easy to set up contrasts around him. Few can beat him, but many can outsmart him. He’s the God of Thunder but, when not depressed or vexed, generally a ray of sunshine. Above all, he never doubts himself, especially when he’s wrong. (I still laugh out loud at Hemsworth’s delivery of “No. Why would I?” when Dr. Strange asks if he has a computer for receiving hypothetical e-mails, not to mention every last instance of “Rabbit.”)

“Literal God becomes The Dude” is another one of those inherently comedic contrasts, but because they added more than 1998-Jeff-Bridges-level fatness to the mix, it gets tricky. As I said, I agree strongly with the core of Rodriguez’s argument, and with other critiques of how Fat Thor was handled. Rocket calling him “Tubby” was fairly minor and certainly in character, but Frigga looking at a future version of her beloved son and saying, “Eat a salad” was bullshit. (You could just as easily release the tension of that scene with a laugh by having her say “Wash your hair,” without having to make it about food.) Rhodey’s Cheez Whiz crack was a further reminder that Hollywood will still put a fat/food joke in any character’s mouth, regardless of whether he’s typically an asshole or not, because it’s assumed normal people would never think less of anyone for it.

All of that stuff was just sloppy and lazy, like every fat person I ever saw on screen for the first forty years of my life.

But two things about Thor’s transformation are so staggeringly different from 99% of the depictions of fat people I’ve ever seen in movies, I still walked away from Endgame feeling like I’d witnessed important progress.

First, if I recall correctly after seeing it twice, Fat Thor is never seen shoving food in his mouth; he is mostly, if not exclusively, shown self-medicating with alcohol. (Whether alcoholism should be treated in such a relatively glib manner is beyond the scope of this essay, but nearly all evidence suggests Thor has actually developed a beer gut, not a Cheez Whiz gut.)

If you don’t think the lack of food-in-face is a big deal, let me remind you:

2000:

2009:

2011:

2018:

So I was grateful for that small mercy.

The other crucial difference between Endgame’s treatment of Fat Thor and basically every other Hollywood depiction of fatness not called Dietland (2018), Dumplin’ (2018) or Shrill (2019) is something I noticed right away but came to appreciate even more as I thought about it.

Thor never loses weight.

The moment I saw his naked fake belly on screen, I assumed we were building toward a montage that would see him shower, shave, do some push-ups, and emerge looking like the old Thor, in tip-top shape for the final battle. Because that’s the only way the rest of his narrative could have happened in the kind of movies I grew up on, or even the kind I’ve known for most of my adult life. Until very, very recently, the idea of a fat hero was considered too ludicrous to deserve serious consideration. The only people suitable for big final battles were extremely buff men—and even if you didn’t start out that way, you got that way before you could be expected to do anything but pound 10,000 calories a day and accept being relentlessly bullied by your closest allies.

Or, as my friend Jess put it, “Ten years ago, they would have made him Nutty Professor-fat and then instantly thin.”

I’m at an age where my brain automatically compares every new thing to old things, which means I sometimes—increasingly often—feel out of step with younger activists’ perspectives. (Might as well admit I loved the big girl power moment, too; none of this is wrong, but after a lifetime of watching no more than one woman on screen at any time in action movies, I am not above gratefully accepting a little pandering.) My irritation with stuff like “Eat a salad” can’t be separated from my overwhelming relief at not seeing so many of the dehumanizing images, cruel jokes, and painful laughs I’ve come to expect. Young people are right—so very right, let’s be absolutely clear—to criticize the media they love and keep demanding better. Their moral clarity on this topic is, in fact, another sign of enormous progress.

Nevertheless, thinking about Thor’s particular fatness—or about the very existence of the Captain Marvel movie, or the way Wakandan women work and fight alongside men, their equality never at issue—thrills me, and I worry about how quick we are to erase history and downplay progress. Do I notice the cheap shots, the pandering, the negative messaging that’s still there? Of course I do, and it’s important to call attention to all of it. That’s doing the work, which will continue for a long time.

But burnout is real, and one of the few ways I know to stave it off is to celebrate the progress activists have made in changing the media landscape, no matter how far we have left to go.

So for now, I’d rather celebrate that I got to see a moderately fat guy—a fat god, no less, which could be a whole other essay—fight alongside Iron Man, Captain America, and various other impossibly buff superheroes. I did not have to watch his friends bully him into losing fat and bulking up before they’d include him in their plans. I did not have to watch him berate himself for “letting himself go” or, conversely, act disproportionately confident because he can’t read social cues. He’s disproportionately confident because he always was, because he’s Thor, not because the audience is meant to believe fat people can’t tell how much we’re hated.

And I got to watch that fat god break down as he was reunited with his late mother via time travel, the briefest respite from his overwhelming grief. I got watch her explain to him that “nobody is who they’re supposed to be,” so the trick is to figure out who you are, and just be that person.

“Eat a salad,” she tells him by way of farewell, and I don’t know, maybe it’s not even out of character. For all I know, his mom was always kind of an asshole about weight and food. I get it, man. Doesn’t mean she didn’t love you. Doesn’t mean you don’t miss her.

But the cheap laugh line is not the important part of that scene. What’s important is what he realizes on his own, after feeling his mother’s powerful love one last time. Standing on Asgard, before he ever met Hela, he holds out his hand and—even if it does take a minute—Mjolnir returns to him.

And fat, Dude-looking Thor, with a wrong-colored fake eyeball and a sweatshirt in place of a cape, grins his first big, goober grin of the movie.

“I’m still worthy!” he yells.

I got to see that. It only took forty-four years.