The first fictional movie character I saw that I related to was Martha Dumptruck, the fat, bullied teen who is an incidental (but nevertheless crucial) character in the 1988 film Heathers. I was only 11 when Heathers came out, and while the bigger teenage mysteries were beyond my understanding, Martha’s social position as punching bag for her peers felt so familiar that it made me ache with recognition and shame.
For all but the last scene of the movie, Martha (real last name Dunnstock, the "Dumptruck" moniker a reference to her size) suffers in literal silence. In an early scene, the popular girls use a forged note to fool her into thinking one of the handsome football players likes her; Martha is humiliated when he and his friends laugh in her face, and she wordlessly rushes out of the cafeteria as the rest of the school looks on. Martha is always positioned as physically isolated from her classmates, and the scene in which she attempts suicide by walking into traffic with a note pinned to her chest is one of the most heartbreaking things I can watch—even today I’d rather sit through the entire Hostel series, eyelids propped open Clockwork Orange-style. That would be less stressful.
Martha has one line in Heathers, and it happens at the very end of the movie, when Veronica, protagonist and cool girl, makes an effort to befriend her. Veronica's invitation is the first time we see anyone treat Martha like a full-fledged person. Martha’s silence prior to this point renders it difficult to see her as more than a caricature, and intentional or not, this makes a strong statement about how people like Martha spend much of their lives shouldering the yoke of other people’s assumptions, without an opportunity (or the confidence) to respond, and to assert her humanity. When Martha finally speaks, it’s a striking moment in which the presumptive miserable fat girl stereotype suddenly becomes someone worth talking to and getting to know, because the popular girl has chosen to acknowledge her as an equal. It is even an uncomfortable moment. Although we know Veronica isn’t the villain, her willingness to connect with frumpy, uncool Martha is surprising enough to break suspension of disbelief. But it also gave a frumpy, uncool kid like me a tiny sliver of hope.
I was a kid with “social problems” in middle school, that mild euphemism adults use to describe those children who are more likely to draw bullying and taunts than true friends. For about two years, I was the favored target of my social clique. There was nothing I could say or wear or do that wouldn’t be mocked, until finally I willfully isolated myself, because a Martha Dumptruckian life of eating lunch alone as a pariah at an empty table was a palpable relief compared to the constant criticism of my peers. (It was, honestly, pretty great, and I read a lot of books at lunch for a good chunk of the eighth grade. In retrospect, I should have done it sooner.)
These days, when I read interviews with stereotype-smashing and fashion-industry-subverting plus-size stars, and the inevitable question about influences comes up, nobody cites Martha Dumptruck as a crucial formative force. Lots of people cite Miss Piggy, which makes sense—Miss Piggy is one of very few visible and long-standing fat female characters in mainstream media to be confident and powerful, in spite of also being an actual pig.
But as much as I adored the Muppets, and still do, Miss Piggy was not my favorite during my childhood years. She intimidated the shit out of me. I didn’t understand why she had to be so loud and aggressive, and her vocal refusal to play by the rules society had established for women like her—rules I’d absorbed even before my age reached double digits—struck me as shrill and annoying. I didn’t understand why anyone put up with her. It was only as an adult that I began to appreciate what made Miss Piggy so special, and so important.
The new Muppets TV series on ABC just concluded its first season this week, with a premise that clearly intended to speak to the grown-ups most longtime Muppet fans have become, rather than the children we once were. Miss Piggy hosts a late-night talk show, Kermit is her executive producer, and the rest of the Muppet gang work on the production. It sounds similar enough to the original Muppet Show, but the execution has been uneven, with some viewers actively disturbed by Muppets making mature jokes and suffering the slings and arrows of dating and single life. Still, I think we might have been a little hard on these new, super meta, weirdly adult Muppets with their awkward relationship baggage and massive professional and personal insecurities. And of all the characters, Miss Piggy may offer the most conflicted portrayal, particularly toward the latter half of the season.
At the start of the new series last year, I heard from many people who were disappointed by the fact that Piggy is a frequent target for fat jokes, people who were frustrated that the writers were doing the character an injustice by making her a punchline. I understand this discomfort, and why a surface read of the show would be distressing to people who really just want to see fat characters on television who aren’t being mocked.
But Miss Piggy is not so straightforward. From her earliest incarnations, her character has always been mocked, maligned, and attacked. In the original Muppet Show and movies, her colleagues relentlessly rag on her for being a pig; they paint her with shallow stereotypes and make cruel jokes at her expense. She is called fat and unattractive, her talent as a performer is assailed, and Kermit’s romantic interest in her is inexplicable.
This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, she is a pig. Since she is also a puppet, it’s safe to assume that this was not an accident of birth; she was created as a pig for the explicit purpose of being a punchline. I’d argue that the mockery of Miss Piggy has actually become less pointed and vicious over the years; in the fuller history of 40 years of appearances in Muppets productions, Piggy rarely gets through a scene without someone giving her shit. It is part of her character to be treated like crap -- and to give as good as she gets, much of the time.
Miss Piggy is not a positive figure for self-acceptance because she demands and receives respect from her colleagues and the public at large; she is a positive figure because she doesn’t. She is a character who has to fight against the pressure to internalize the negativity that surrounds her; she refuses to allow the assumptions and aspersions of other people to influence her opinion of herself. Nor does Piggy contain her rage; she resists, sometimes with violence, a fact of her portrayal that is no doubt complicated enough to warrant its own essay. Miss Piggy is not beyond criticism. She is often unlikeable and unsympathetic, and a lot of the time the personal and professional crises that befall her are caused, directly or indirectly, by her own insecurity and her over-the-top narcissism.
Still, Miss Piggy is a powerful influence precisely because she has never lived in a world in which she was widely beloved and accepted; she has lived in a world where she is usually the butt of the joke. Miss Piggy has instead chosen to learn to love and accept herself enough to counteract all the garbage thrown her way. She knows how to keep her head up even when it seems the whole world is laughing at her. She is not free of self-doubt, but confronts her insecurities on a daily basis, and much of the time, she overcomes them. As a result, Miss Piggy is a role model for loving the person you are, and for believing in yourself, even when literally everyone around you is telling you that you shouldn’t.
Piggy’s status as self-accepting body-positive role model hasn’t gone unnoticed by the creators of the new Muppets. They dedicate the central plot of one late-season episode, “A Tail of Two Piggies,” to Piggy’s effort to launch a sort of tail-acceptance movement after a wardrobe malfunction at a red carpet event results in her curly pig tail popping out of her dress, which causes her enormous embarrassment. On further reflection—and following a conversation with an excited fan who thanks Piggy for addressing oppressive tail stigma—Piggy decides that her tail is part of her, and nothing to be ashamed of, and she plans to show her tail purposely, live on her show, to make a statement about body shame.
The gimmick doesn’t fully connect as either metaphor or commentary, but by the time Joan Jett appears to play “Bad Reputation” while wearing a fake pig’s tail, it’s tough not to enjoy the absurdity of it all.
A good fictional character should include some degree of conflict, of good attributes and bad, but we don’t see that very often with fat characters in narrative media, and this is especially true for fat female characters. We don’t have many realistic fat role models on film and TV at all. With a very few exceptions—Gabourey Sidibe’s role as Becky Williams on Empire is notable among them (and as a general note, can somebody give this brilliant woman her own series already?)—the majority of visible fat characters tend to be comic relief, or spunky sidekicks who support the real star of the show, or interchangeable punching bags for others to comment on.
Even otherwise thoughtful and groundbreaking media can fall into this trap. Last fall, when it seemed that everyone I knew was heralding Netflix’s Jessica Jones as a deeply feminist series that provided a near-perfect template for effectively telling stories about women’s sexual trauma, I was perplexed by the fact that in the first ten minutes of the first episode, there is a totally gratuitous joke at the expense of a fat woman seen exercising privately in her apartment.
I kept thinking, Everyone says this is a feminist show, surely that woman will show up later to rebuke the lazy commentary made at her expense. But she doesn’t. She appears once, at a distance, framed in the window of an apartment building, and she is ridiculed by the title character, who is watching her from across the street, and she is never seen again. This moment no doubt exists to demonstrate that Jessica Jones’ character is A Strong Tough Woman Who Speaks Her Mind And Doesn't Care About Anyone's Feelings, although there are numerous other ways this could have been expressed without being unnecessarily shitty to an anonymous fat woman. Jessica Jones truly is a landmark in serial storytelling, and provides a brilliant example of how to do so many things right. But this is hardly A+ feminism, when such a cheap shot can pass with no analysis and no remorse. Even Martha Dumptruck got to talk.
The above is just one recent example, and the fact that it happened in a series that otherwise seems to give a shit about women is evidence of how common and unquestioned it is. Both television and film are rife with one-dimensional portrayals like this, where the bodies of fat people are trotted out to serve as cardboard cutouts at which the real characters can hurl humor or irreverence or anti-political-correctness. In spite of Miss Piggy's continuing popularity and 40-year career, I’m sure the conventional wisdom is that the world just isn’t ready for a fat human with a Piggy-like attitude to star in and carry her own show.
And who knows, the conventional wisdom may be right—although a similar approach didn’t seem to hurt Roseanne 28 years ago, and sometimes it feels like we’re taking two steps forward and three steps back. Fat women in real life are complicated and messy, and sometimes kind and sometimes mean, and sometimes good and sometimes bad, and our bodies are only a part of who we are. Miss Piggy is far from infallible or perfect, and she may be a pig puppet, but at least she gets to have a personality, and to be an individual; she is never an anonymous woman in the window of an apartment building, too distant to even get a line of dialogue. We can do better. And we should.