When we first meet Baron Harkonnen in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, the weight of his presence is felt instantly. He sits alone in a vast room, his naked figure peeking out from behind a wall of mist. As the camera slowly approaches him, it’s not his power we are encouraged to look at, it’s his body.
The rolls of Stellan Skarsgård’s fat suit fill the screen and his artificial hunchback stands to attention. The camera lingers on his body and seems to encourage the audience to look on in disgust, to be repulsed by what they see.
Villeneuve wants us to know that Baron Harkonen’s evilness is directly tied to his weight. We see it in the bath scene where his (once again) naked body is submerged in thick black oil. And it’s clear when we see him gorging his face with rich foods just moments after his soldiers have slaughtered people to gain control of his enemy.
To make matters worse, Oscar Isaac’s naked, Adonis-like body lays across from the Baron as he eats, forcing us to compare their physiques and make judgements on them.
The book itself doesn’t do much better. Readers talk on discussion boards about how uncomfortable the writing of Baron Harkonen made them feel. The author, Frank Herbert, took every opportunity he could to describe the character’s enormous, gross body in offensive detail, using it to denote his wickedness.
Villeneuve did update some controversial elements for the film – in the book, the Baron is openly gay but also a paedophile, the combination of which falls into old stereotypes about gay men – but he makes a choice to double down on its humiliation of the fat form, continuing the story’s legacy of exclusivity.
Dune is not the first to create a relationship between size and morality. It is something we see more often in the depiction of the good guys. Just think, when was the last time you saw a fat person save the day?
But why? Why does Dune, and so much of sci-fi, hate fat people?
Fatness has a complicated history with Hollywood in general. Many films ignore the existence of fat people altogether, and when they do appear, they frequently fall into hurtful stereotypes.
From characters like Austin Powers’ Fat Bastard to Melissa McCarthy’s Meghan in Bridesmaids, fatness is often used as a punchline, or as a way to evoke disgust towards a character. It’s as though they are the last acceptable target across the board. And don’t even think about finding a fat character who simply exists free from judgement on their weight, because it is virtually impossible.
Sci-fi in particular has an issue with fat people. For a genre that has, for decades, taught children and adults alike to dream without limitations, to imagine and create worlds where nothing is impossible, why does it draw the line when it comes to what size you can be? Even trailblazers in representation like Star Trek repeatedly casts just one body type. There are aliens for Christ’s sake! Is it really that hard to imagine a fat person in space?
Many of the futures in these films and TV shows are built around an aspirational, idealistic world. They envision the heights of what humans can achieve and so when fat people are left out, it tells them the world doesn’t want them. It tells them that the advancement of humankind doesn’t involve them, that they’re holding us back.
Cinema and television have the power to transport us away from our own mundanity. And science fiction, more than any other genre, has the ability to bend reality. To exclude fat people from that for what boils down to aesthetic purposes is borderline cruel. It is a clear message from Hollywood that they are uncomfortable with the concept of fatness.
As Captain Kirk once said, “The prejudices people feel about each other disappear when they get to know each other”. Hopefully, sci-fi will get to know fat people sooner rather than later.
Feature image credit: edited on Canva