Is Mario The Great Unsung Fat Acceptance Icon?
August 13, 2012 Leave a comment
Mario’s been with us for 31 years now and during that time he has remained relatively unchanged as a character. This has been fairly easy to accomplish since, as great franchise-driving characters go, he really doesn’t have any personality whatsoever. Despite this, he has remained one of the most iconic corporate icons in the world, largely due to his starring roles in several medium-defining games but also thanks to his peculiar design.
The design choices that went into creating Mario were all largely due to necessity and technical convenience rather than a specific choice or artistic vision. Famously he received a hat since hair was hard to draw, he became a plumber because dungarees made his arms easier to animate and he received a moustache so they didn’t have to bother giving him a mouth.
The same goes for his sizeable belly. As explained by Shigeru Miyamoto himself:
“The reason Mario is a plump shape is because gaming devices at that time could only read collisions between square boxes, not because I wanted to make him cute. His design turned out like that because I adjusted for the capabilities of the gaming device of the day.”
In short; Mario was made fat because it made it easier to program collision detection on the old machines they were working with. For all the vision Miyamoto had when he designed the Mario games, very little of that extended to the art design, so it’s particularly impressive when you consider the longevity that the characters have had since then. Even three decades later Mario remains one of the most recognisable faces of the industry and one of the most well-known mascots in the world.
And he’s definitely fat. And so is his brother.
Could it be that Shigeru Miyamoto accidentally create one of the most under-appreciated fat acceptance icons when he made Mario? Mario’s design has changed very little during the course of the franchise, remaining just as chubby now as he was in the series’ beginning. This is in stark contrast to many other iconic mascots that have been forced to trim down considerably over the years.
Bibendum, a.k.a The Michelin Man went from this:
While Sonic The Hedgehog, Mario’s long time rival, started out looking like this:
before getting his extreme makeover:
Mario, however, has been allowed to keep his chub intact throughout. Clearly it is perfectly possible to reinvent a stylised corporate mascot and in the process make them appear more svelte without losing that character’s commercial appeal. Nintendo have not (yet) chosen to put Mario under the knife which is a positive sign in its own right but is this due to a current of body positive sentiments within the Nintendo corridors?
First of all, it is worth to note that Mario is never portrayed in any of the games with any stereotypical negative fat attributes. You might expect a fat character to regain energy or get superpowers from eating a lot, but nothing like this is found in any of the official Nintendo games. Food or eating never plays much of a part in any of the games, in fact. As for being out of shape, Mario again goes against type and is constantly shown to be superhumanly athletic and limber. At this point he has been an Olympic athlete thrice and starred in dozens of sports titles with nary a mention that his size would be a setback for his sporting prowess.
You might argue that Mario’s lack of personality or character development would be a point against this theory. It is true that Mario has always been the most uninteresting person in the Mushroom Kingdom, where even his brother has received some growth as a character over the years. Mario is a total blank slate – the prototypical Hero and nothing more. But I believe that this is actually one of the most compelling reasons why we might view him as a positive fat character. Mario is a total gameplay device, void of meaningful personal expression, so while he is the default Hero he is outside of the convention because of his fatness. He is a default that doesn’t follow the expected default manly look at all. Compare this to Samus , who was such an important female figure in gaming because she was a stock character that just happened to be a woman, without her being a woman really mattering to the gameplay or plot. In the same way Mario is a stock hero archetype that just happens to be a chubby dude when he might as well not be.
But just how much praise does Nintendo deserve? Hard to say, since I believe there was never a concious intention to portray a positive example of a fat character. Mario is a first and foremost a brand, a mascot and a familiar, friendly selling point for a company out to make money. Consider that while Mario and Luigi are big guys with no demeaning fat jokes at their expense, their enemy Wario is shown to be much fatter and one of his main character traits is that eats a lot, wears clothes that are far too small and his special attack is farting. Similarly, there are very few fat female characters in the Mario universe, with the few exceptions being minor characters in spin-offs. Points off there.
Regardless of this I still think they should be commended from not changing Mario to make him more athletically built or slimming him down just to appear more modern. Mario is loved for the way he is and he remains a happy, smiley, chubby role model for fat positivity. I think at the very least Shigeru Miyamoto should get a slight pat on the back for not stopping himself during his early sessions designing this tiny, pixelated character called Jumpman and going “hmm, nah, I probably should make him look too fat”.