When Nick Frost's Bajie first appears in AMC's Into the Badlands, he’s a fat, scheming, enslaved miner who finds himself chained to the series’ protagonist, Sunny. He’s gross, he eats more than his share, and he trades Sunny’s life for a shot of freedom. Or so we think.
As we find over the course of events in the series, Bajie is not who he seems. Rather than being an ill-fated opium dealer who was sold into slavery, it turns out that Bajie was once a super-powered monk who discovered his order was up to no good. That’s not to say that Bajie is altruistic. Not at all. He always has an agenda, and he’s also a disrespectful ass much of the time.
At the end of Season 2, Bajie helps Sunny face his foe, Baron Quinn, and return to his partner, Vale, and their child. To do so, the two have to fight through an army of the Baron’s devotees, all willing to die for their cause—which turns out to be good, because Sunny and Bajie are a lethal combo.
Bajie’s fighting style is not just to hack and slash, though he does a fair bit of that, but also to move acrobatically, with flips and stunning martial arts combinations. He even uses two pairs of nunchucks to defeat half a dozen soldiers with swords, not just destroying them, but striking one badass pose afterward. He’s not above using his size to his advantage, though, and just when Sunny and Vale most need him, he takes down the Baron’s sidekick.
The first time I saw Bajie fight, I freaked out. I was not at all prepared to see a fat man spin, jump, flip, kick, fight, and move with as much grace and composure as the other characters of Into the Badlands. He isn’t lesser because of his body size, and he isn’t a joke. While he does sometimes live with comments about his body, such as when a guard asked who would feed a slave so well, overall Bajie is a fat person who is clever, deadly, and not defined by his fatness. Furthermore, Bajie exists in a world populated with diverse characters, including other fat people, so instead of having to be the exemplar of fatness, he just gets to be Bajie.
Bajie’s narrative is so appealing because of that very fact: He’s a fat person whose body is a source of strength and power, and whom others rightly fear.
So many depictions of fat people treat us as if we are undesirable and incompetent. When fat people are shown with supernatural abilities, kicking ass and making the world a better place, that narrative is undermined, especially when their fatness is neither the focus of the narrative nor something the character tries to change or is ashamed of.
We live in a society that tells fat people that our bodies are disgusting, unworthy, a burden on our healthcare system, and a sign that we are somehow lesser beings, which is why seeing supernatural fat people is so empowering. When you have the audacity to have a fat body, the whole world will do its best to make sure you know you have no right to take up so much space, a reality that is only compounded for people who are queer, gender variant, disabled, and people of color, among others.
Just being in public and living invites hatred from strangers who see it as their civic duty to remind you that you are too fat, too much to be here. As if that weren’t bad enough, these hateful comments are couched as if they’re meant to be helpful, as if these random people are actually concerned about the health of fat people. If they genuinely were, then they’d be concerned about the impact such comments and the ongoing stress associated with them have on the physical and mental health of fat people, but that fact is frequently lost on straight-sized individuals.
Even in response to earlier articles I've written regarding the power of fat people in genre, readers have commented, reminding me that they still think being fat is unhealthy. For those of you so invested in that narrative, I suggest reading the recent study that is helping straight-sized people open their goddamn eyes to the ongoing discrimination against fat people and the cost of the stress associated with those experiences.
There are a lot of terrible portrayals of fat people and fatness in media, even in genre. Look no further than Avengers: Infinity War and you’ll get to enjoy the LOL-so-funny-oh-wait-that’s-fat-shaming moment when Thor meets the Guardians of the Galaxy. When Star-Lord sees an unconscious Thor, he’s immediately intimidated and wants to prove he’s just as manly. Luckily it doesn’t turn into a big ship contest due to Thor’s vessel being destroyed by Thanos. What proceeds is still barf-worthy in the way Star-Lord’s body is critiqued by Rocket and Dax (who mimes a rotund belly in reference to Star-Lord), and he responds by deciding to get a Bowflex so he won’t be so disgusting. The scene proves that even when there’s no reason within the narrative to do so, audiences can be counted on to enjoy having a laugh at the expense of fat people. Of course, the list could go on and on and on. Genre, and our wider society, certainly has a problem with fat people.
That’s why it’s so powerful to see these fat characters defying societal norms, defying our definition of who gets to be a superhero and creating room for fat people to see ourselves as powerful, dignified, scary, and flawed. To see fat bodies celebrated, envied, and feared by characters within the narrative, to see a character that doesn't worry themselves with dieting, to see the way their bodies move and contort—in a world so invested in the erasure of fat people, to see fat heroes live and breathe and fight and make the world better is to feel respected and valued as a fat person.
Thankfully, Bajie isn’t the only fat hero who has made an appearance in recent years.
Deadpool 2 brings a fat kid of Maori descent, who just happens to also be a fire-wielding mutant, to the screen. Russell, aka Firefist, is a focused, angry superhero seeking vengeance on the adults who tortured him at a school for mutant conversion. Russell also gets to be funny, and what’s remarkable about that is that his sense of humor is based in physical comedy, but not in such a way that Russell is the butt of the joke. Instead, it is Russell who gets to laugh in Deadpool’s face as he mimes pulling himself away on an invisible rope.
Faith, of the Valiant comics, has been an empowered fat superhero for a while now, and her story is being adapted to the big screen. She’s even a female hero who looks like a real human being, wears clothing that is comfortable, and has a body that ascribes to normal human anatomy, meaning that she doesn’t contort herself into the tired comic book trope of the boobs-and-butt pose. Faith is incredible because she knows who she is, she’s powerful, she’s sexy, and she has no time for fat shaming.
In Steven Universe, a young human-alien hybrid named Steven navigates the world left behind by his mother, Rose Quartz, who gave up her physical form to give Steven life. Not only are both Steven and Rose round-bellied characters, but also their gem, the source of their superpowers, is located smack dab in the middle of their rotund midsections. Rolls of fat and their jiggling tummies frame the gem that provides them with weaponry and so much more. In fact, Rose chose the form she took, wanting to be a huge woman. That doesn’t mean she’s not also dignified and sexy—she’s who two other major characters spend their time pining over. And Steven? He’s some kind of mega-hero, capable of more than anyone thought possible.
Steven, Rose, Faith, Russell, and Bajie each provide powerful counternarratives to our society’s insistence on the despicability of fat people. What’s really fantastic about each of these characters is that they’re flawed, relatable, yet powerful people who happen to be fat. In a world where the body is a battlefield, not just for fat people but for women, disabled folks, people of color, and others, centering the stories of those our society would rather render invisible is an act of resistance.