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The joy of Faith: Taking Flight and the power of the fat heroine
Faith Herbert is fat. She's a lively teenage girl with ambitions to be a journalist and a love of animals helped along by her volunteering gig at a local animal shelter. She loves her grandmother and her friends, even when she feels like the third wheel to the latter, and she spends a lot of time obsessing over a TV series called The Grove, for which she runs a popular fan blog. She's figuring out her sexuality and dealing with two major crushes at the same time. Also, she can fly. And she's fat.
Valiant Comics made a real splash when they reintroduced Faith, a psionically gifted hero who saves the day under the guise of Zephyr, to readers with a successful reboot written by Jody Houser. The series offered a vibrant take on the well-trodden territory of superhero tales by showing Faith as an independent and forever optimistic woman with a secret identity, a mega-hot but surly ex-boyfriend, and a job writing pop culture articles on actors named Chris. All in all, she was our kind of hero. That she was a proudly plus-size hero whose weight was never derided, turned into a punchline, or even made a point of was the icing on top of the cake. Faith's identity was inextricably tied to her body, but that didn't mean her story had to be smothered by fatphobia, as is our cultural default mode.
Faith's origin story is retold in YA form with Faith: Taking Flight, a chipper and highly readable prequel novel by Julie Murphy, the author best known to young adult readers for her best-selling novel Dumplin'. She turns out to be the perfect person to take on the mantle of Faith, thanks to her vivacious voice and her wholehearted investment in creating a well-rounded heroine whose fatness is a key part of her life but not the thing by which she is exclusively defined to the world.
When you read a story with a happy plus-size girl, it makes you re-examine decades of cultural norms that treat fatness (especially among women) as the ultimate ill and a shameless excuse for mockery. Being a girl or woman any bigger than rail-thin in pop culture meant you were destined to be identified entirely by your size. It meant endless scenes of staring sadly at scales, of being the woman in the bar who the schlubby frat-bros look at with derision, of countless montages of binge eating that the audience was supposed to laugh at.
Fatness is something to get rid of in our society. Every celebrity who loses a few pounds will inevitably receive over-enthusiastic write-ups from the tabloids spewing harmful rhetoric about how they look so much better now and wow, what a glow-up! Concern-trolling talk-show panels and newspaper columnists churn out hostile think pieces on the regular declaring how the mere presence of a plus-size person enjoying their life is "glorifying obesity." The message being sent is clear: To the rest of the world, it is impossible to be both fat and happy. Hell, they don't see it as feasible for one to be fat and simply living your life without fuss.
That's what makes characters like Faith and writers like Murphy so desperately necessary. They're a potent rebuttal to decades of systemic fatphobia through the act of creative joy. When you read a book with a fat heroine who doesn't once hate herself for it, you wonder why every other story isn't like this. Did they simply not see this as an option? Why wouldn't young men and women alike harbor open crushes on a girl like Faith, as they do in the novel?
Bethany Rutter, the British YA author behind the novels No Big Deal and Melt My Heart, explained in a piece for i News why she will always center fat protagonists in her fiction, something that also rings true in Faith: Taking Flight:
"Even the idea that a young, fat woman could be the protagonist feels powerful. Protagonist, the person who drives the story, who makes the choices, who participates. That's a role fat people so rarely get to occupy. More often than not, we're the disempowered side-character, someone whose obnoxious, stupid or evil nature is signposted by their fatness. They are not allowed to be the characters who drive the plot and make decisions because so few people, and consequently, so few authors, believe that they could be sufficiently compelling, sufficiently human, to have the kind of rich interior life that a protagonist generally needs [...] Young adult novels need protagonists of all sizes because one of the most powerful feelings you can experience as a young person is the thought that your life has meaning. I want fat teens everywhere to start believing that they deserve to be the protagonist in their own story, not just the cautionary tale or the comic relief."
Aside from her joy over her own body, Faith's status as an unabashed fangirl brings endless delight to the reader. It's not hard to imagine her hanging out with Kamala Khan and squeeing out over fanfiction and long-winded theories about their favorite TV series. Given how many stories feature characters who seem utterly disconnected from the pop culture of their own worlds, to the point where it impacts the verisimilitude of the narrative, it's refreshing to see a protagonist whose life is indelibly impacted by the movies, TV shows, and games she loves. Many books overlook such details or give their heroes vague pleasures to make their characters easier for the reader to relate to. Think of how Bella Swan only ever read the classics. A lot of readers are fearful that making references to modern life of the era will date the book quicker. What this does, instead, is deprive these fictional teens of the things that make them adolescents. It also makes Faith that much savvier. How would a 21st-century teenage girl react to her new powers? She would take a leaf out of every superhero comic, TV series, or movie she's ever seen.
What makes Faith: Taking Flight soar is its uncrushable optimism. Even as the story takes darker turns, especially regarding the origin of Faith's powers and the central mystery, the overwhelming mood is one of happiness and positivity for the future. Faith has options ahead of her, and that in and of itself is radical for a fat girl in fiction and real life. She is unconstrained by sizeism, and what could be more joyful than that?
Faith: Taking Flight by Julie Murphy is available now from wherever you get your books.