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Overwatch’s Brigitte, a plucky, tanky support character first introduced to the hero shooter in 2018, has always stood apart from her counterparts on the game’s roster. In comparison to both the other support characters and many other female characters in the first-person shooter, she’s got more HP, and a more average body build than Blizzard’s signature style for women: Slender with a back curve so severe they need a chiropractor on speed dial.
Brigitte being in Overwatch is a welcome reprieve from the litany of characters based off that same slim design; however, the game sadly underscores this difference with troubling voice lines that not only highlight Brigittte’s love of food, but also try to paint her as having an undisciplined and unruly relationship with stuffing her face. It’s yet another example of a female video game character who could fall outside of traditional desirability standards being portrayed as embarrassing, shameful, or ridiculous.
While players are waiting for a match to begin, characters often speak to one another, and their interactive voice lines populate based on which characters are queued for the match. In one interaction between Brigitte and fellow healer Mercy, Mercy suspects Brigitte has stolen the last slice of pie. “I was saving it for later,” Mercy says, admonishing her colleague. “It wasn’t me this time!” Brigitte replies.
As with many voice lines, the interaction is supposed to read as humorous, but it does paint Brigitte, despite the rigor and discipline she brings to her role as a smith and a soldier, as unable to control herself around food. In an interaction with scientist Mei, who is also thicker than the average female Overwatch character, Mei asks Brigitte if she wants to go to the gym after their mission, to which Brigitte replies, “No way, today’s my cheat day. I’m going to eat a whole apple pie and sleep.” Mei responds, “Cheat day? Is that allowed?!” (In a now-defunct voice line, Brigitte tells fellow Overwatch child Pharah that she’ll hit the weights with her if they can get something to eat after.)
Brigitte and Overwatch’s body diversity problem
Blizzard has long faced ire for its design of female characters. Almost a decade ago, a Blizzard executive responded to criticism that it created over-sexualized female characters, especially in its Heroes of the Storm franchise, by saying, “We’re not running for President. We’re not sending a message. No-one should look to our game for that.” And while Brigitte is not oversexualized in her presentation, her stereotyping goes in the other direction: suggesting that female characters who are not super slender instead have a troubling relationship with food.
Brigitte’s body type exists somewhere in the middle of the Overwatch-women spectrum and is different from many of the other sex-forward designs Blizzard has embraced in games like its Diablo series. She’s not as slender as Mercy, Tracer, or Widowmaker, but not as buff or tall as Zarya and Junker Queen, the two women in the tank category. Though her introduction cinematic shows her as muscular and thick-thighed, many fans noticed early on that her in-game rendering looked noticeably different, with some pointing out that she had been made thinner in gameplay. Brigitte’s body type is emphasized even further by the problem of her impossibly tiny waist, which itself indicates that there was some ambivalence as to how to render Brigitte’s physique as the tank hybrid she is meant to be while also giving her Blizzard’s signature cinched torso.
Yes, there are other, larger female characters in the game; however, they come with their own fraughtness. Zarya, the Russian soldier, is certainly larger than a lot of the other women, but that’s due to her bodybuilding background. Zarya’s voice lines often emphasize her physique and show her offering weight training tips or generally poking fun at the puniness of the rest of the roster, regardless of gender. And while Mei is depicted with a larger body type in the original Overwatch, as Stacey Henley of The Gamer points out, she has also been noticeably slimmed down in the sequel, with a look that is “more determined to show off her small waist” and a slimmer face, with her “cute cheeks replaced by a sharper, more shapely visage.” (Interesting to note: One of the original Overwatch character designs was a fat female character named Mama Hong. Many people still want to see her come to the game, though she’s never been suggested as a potential hero outside of concept art.)
It’s clear from most of Overwatch’s female roster that there are very few bodies deemed acceptable for women, which is important context when talking about Brigitte’s voice lines. It’s also especially interesting to think of Brigitte as a larger character when considering the long history of reserving larger body types for “fat villains” in media. Brigitte is not only a part of the “good guys” in Overwatch lore, she’s also a very cheery character with a positive personality and a sterling reputation as an armorer. Yet Blizzard gives her voice lines that contradict her persona of a soldier and disciplined armor crafter; around food, she loses her cool.
“It can be potentially empowering to have this storyline of this bigger person who is reclaiming these tropes,” Virgie Tovar, author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat and The Body Positive Journal, told Kotaku. “But for the average user, it is reiterating stigmatizing views that promote the idea that fatness is caused by eating behavior in a way that thinness is never tied to a cause and effect.”
“It can be potentially empowering to have this storyline of this bigger person who is reclaiming these tropes. But for the average user, it is reiterating stigmatizing views that promote the idea that fatness is caused by eating behavior in a way that thinness is never tied to a cause and effect.” — author Virgie Tovar
These voice lines, then, reflect a societal stigma toward fatness. Not only do we believe that fatness is bad, we believe it is a consequence of individual weakness. “Obesity, we are told, is a personal failing that strains our health care system, shrinks our GDP and saps our military strength,” Michael Hobbes writes in The Huffington Post. “It is also an excuse to bully fat people in one sentence and then inform them in the next that you are doing it for their own good.” But Brigitte’s voice lines don’t just blame her for her own body type, they also paint her as unruly, slovenly and undisciplined, all traits that are negatively associated with fat people.
And while this weight stigma is pervasive throughout society—hello, we just gave an Oscar to Brendan Fraser for playing a self-hating fat person in The Whale (and for the makeup team that made his fat suit)—it’s especially highlighted in the way that fat people are rendered in video games. “Largely speaking, early video games cast fat bodies as the ubiquitous enemy—the brute, a boss, the escalating threat. Ironically, fatness became a way of visually signaling that an enemy has more health,” Anshuman Idasshetty wrote for The Outline in 2018. Speaking to Idasshetty, Todd Harper, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore’s program in Simulation and Digital Entertainment, said, “Imagine a body normative enemy advances towards you…You hit it with your sword, once, and it flickers away. A larger, fatter enemy appears and requires three hits of your sword to kill because there is simply more of him.”
Almost all visual culture has a fatphobia problem
The negative portrayal of fat people in video games is a reflection of a culture that teaches people to hate fatness at a young age. Children learn implicit bias against fat people by age 3 and children’s media reflects that: think the villainous Ms. Trunchbull vs. the slender Miss Honey in Matilda. As we enter adulthood, and especially for the smaller portion who enter the fabulous world of geekdom, that association doesn’t end; some of nerd culture’s greatest villains, such as Jabba the Hutt, The Blob, Kingpin, and Penguin are sporting hefty physiques.
In 2016, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian pointed out the lack of body diversity among Overwatch’s female roster, especially in comparison to the men on display, including the towering Reinhardt, the short Torbjorn, and the portly Roadhog. In 2019, video game researcher Caitlin Geier posted a similar criticism on her personal website, one that pointed out that male Overwatch characters were allowed to have more types of avatars beyond that of a slender girl arching her back and tooching her booty, to paraphrase Tyra Banks.
“It’s disappointing to think that I could never be a hero in the Overwatch world unless I became anorexic, developed a penchant for uncomfortable, form-fitting clothing, and bowed to male society’s desire to see women ‘smile more,’” Geier wrote. “I’m tired of feeling that female characters in games (and movies and TV and any other visual media) have to sell sex in order to seem strong.” Beyond just a wider range of body types, men on the roster are able to have scarred skin, Geier points out, while all the women are smooth-skinned, and though some men are able to conceal their faces, all the women have visible visages. Though this point was made over four years ago, no new female characters introduced since have contradicted it. One of the newest female characters, Junker Queen—who spends her days brawling in the Australian outback—doesn’t have visible scars, but rather face paintings (and a slender waist).
“I can see the character potentially being empowering in that way. But I think for the average person, these storylines probably cycle over and over again. And so they reaffirm these reductive ideas that seek to connect body size, morality, and food.” — Tovar
As a fat person and a Brig player, I can find some humor in her voice lines. (I know this is the internet and you want me to be angry and humorless about this, but sorry.) I, too, love to crack a fat joke and love to emphasize how much I love food. And, as someone who hates the gym, I applaud my beloved Brig for balancing her trips to the weights with pies and naps. In a phone conversation, Tovar also mentioned that there is a strange sort of play that fat people can have in hearing these voice lines. We have the ability to play with these tropes, make fun of them, co-opt them, or reclaim them in order to find joy. But that doesn’t mean every gamer will glean the same message from hearing that Brigitte plans to eat an entire pie and sleep directly after. “I can see the character potentially being empowering in that way,” she said. “But I think for the average person, these storylines probably cycle over and over again. And so they reaffirm these reductive ideas that seek to connect body size, morality, and food.”
Kotaku reached out to Blizzard for comment but didn’t get a response in time for publication.
Given Blizzard’s own history with manic pixie nightmare girls and over-sexualized female characters, it’s hard to give Brigitte’s body type and voice lines centered around food a generous reading, though it’s important to recognize that not everybody will have the same takeaway. As the lines stand, they have two very opposite potentialities: the ability to subvert or the ability to reify negative stereotypes. The fuzziness of this contradiction is not unlike Brigitte herself: her body ever-morphing, a playstyle that seems to often be counterintuitive to the rest of the game, and a role that straddles support and tank. However, as with the constant tweaks and reworks to her kit, her voice lines could use a second glance to make sure they’re something we can truly rally (to me!) behind.