1. Gay News

LGBTQ Nation: Where are all the Bears? How fatphobia has erased bigger gay men from our TV & movie screens

Timothée Chalamet’s career reached unseen heights following the 2017 release of Call Me By Your Name. Centered on a gay love affair, the film follows 17-year-old Elio Perlman (Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer) exploring their sexuality behind closed doors in northern Italy.

Call Me By Your Name crushed at the box office, raking in over $41.9 million dollars worldwide. A market for queer male love stories always existed, but the mainstream success of Call Me By Your Name, the third-highest-grossing release of 2017, signified what stories would sell: queer love centered around skinnier gay men and their buff boyfriends.

“Of course people want to see Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer on screen because they’re beautiful,” Chandler Matkins, a musician and actor living in NYC, told LGBTQ Nation. “They don’t want to see people that look like me or someone bigger doing queer things on screen.”

Hollywood has a tough time selling queer love stories in general. Not since Brokeback Mountain had there been so much excitement for a gay romance – a twelve-year gap of limited blockbusters for the queer community since the movie’s release in 2005.

Even with Brokeback Mountain, queer casting was the same: fit, straight actors who were muscular but not in an intimidating way. Little room existed for depicting any man outside this stereotype, the scale constantly teetering between “skinnier twinks” and muscular “circuit gays.”

As for bigger gay men, little representation exists.

“Hollywood in general, even outside of the LGBT community, is very fatphobic,” says Matkins. “They have to make gay love palatable for straight people. They have to make queer love pretty.”    

“The overall lack of complex fat-queer characters in shows meant for queer audiences means that whoever put together the show held a thin-centric view of who constitutes queer communities,” Jason Whitesel, author of the book Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Political Stigma, told LGBTQ Nation. “This contributes to fat erasure in queer media.” 

When bigger gay men, or “Bears,” are seen in shows, it is often as stereotypes depicting them as campy, flamboyant, or superficial.

The most well-known example would be Cam Tucker from ABC’s Modern Family, a gay man played by a straight actor (Eric Stonestreet). In the show, Cam plays a flamboyant stereotype created to appease straight audiences. The gay best friend, as proven by Will and Grace, is not nearly as intimidating as what heterosexual people depict the queer scene to be: sex-crazed, disgusting and unappeasable to traditional American values. Fat gay men, as women’s best friends, walk the neutral line of being unthreatening.

“Fat people in the media are presented as tropes,” says Whitesel. “Cam is always the comedic, flamboyant sidekick and there’s nothing wrong with that but in order for him to be in the media, he has to fit some trope.”

Because of this unspoken precedent to make fat gay men accessible to straight audiences, realistic portrayals are rare.

Though more than 5 percent of adults in the United States identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community (and that number is expected to rise), only 10 percent of television characters in 2019 were queer and only 38 of those characters were trans. That number dropped to 9 percent in 2020. In 2021, the number of queer characters decreased by 1 percent and of the 773 series regulars appearing on primetime television, only 70 are LGBTQ+. Though this number has increased through 2022 to 92%, Bears still remain absent.   

And the experiences of real-life Bears may explain why.  

 “Gay men reported greater likelihood that the overweight man would be blatantly ignored, treated rudely, or mocked behind his back if he approached an attractive potential romantic partner,” writes Olivia Foster Gimbel and Renee Engeln in their study Fat Chance! Experiences and expectations of antifat bias in the gay male community. “These studies suggest that anti-fat bias is a challenge for many members of the gay community, even those who are not technically overweight.”

Legitimate, vulnerable accounts of Bears accurately portrayed in media exist on lesser-known mediums, such as The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, a web series created by Brian Jordan Alvarez, or on shows not highly marketed by mainstream networks, such as Looking on HBO Max, a 2014 show written by Mean Girls alum Daniel Franzese that aired for only two seasons. 

In Looking Daniel Franzese plays an HIV-positive Bear and appeared completely naked on screen. He was shown in a romantic relationship with someone who had an “ideal” body, giving a fleshed-out plot line to a bigger actor.  Media does exist showing body positivity, with people like Sam Smith trailblazing conversations around how he presents himself, but at times, it is not enough, as S. Bear Bergman writes in Xtra Magazine while covering the need for a more unapologetically fat music video. 

This phenomenon goes to show the desperate need for more fat representation in mainstream media. 

“A lot of media representations are white, thin, or muscular,” says Whitesel. “Looking made Franzese more than just a “comic sidekick,” not unlike fat men in specialty and user-created gay-Bear porn. So, there’s an established world of Bear media, it’s just not presented by mainstream gay tastes.”

The contrast between searching “gay bear” and “twink gay” on IMDB showcases the outstanding gap between bear and twink content.

While “gay movies of the 2000’s” is dominated by twink movies that have swept Oscars over time, searching “gay bear” pulls up low-budget indie films or quirky comedies where the gay man’s sexuality is the butt of the joke. This lack of media representation is disappointing, to say the least, when considering the amount of fatphobia in the queer community and the impact it has on how fat gay people see themselves.

As Patrick Mcgrady writes in a Florida State report titled Sexuality and Larger Bodies: Gay Men’s Experience of and Resistance Against Weight and Sexual Orientation Stigma, “overweight gay men may be especially at risk for mental health problems that result from experiencing associated prejudice, discrimination, and negative self-evaluation.”

With such little room for bigger gay actors in Hollywood, the lack of roles can be extremely disheartening. Actors looking to land positions on television face the obstacle of landing agents who won’t be fatphobic towards them while finding projects that genuinely want to tell queer stories. 

The latest controversy surrounding The Whale and the employment of a fat suit for a non-fat actor in lieu of hiring someone large shows the lengths Hollywood will go to shut fat people out of the community in general, queer or not. This makes the competition tough and opportunities narrow for fat gay men in particular.

“My friend has told me horror stories of meeting with agents who explicitly say we don’t hire fat gay men,” says Matkins. “You’re either too gay to feign straightness and typically, fat roles are always written as straight roles.”

The trend of skinny love extends past American films into films abroad. Summer of 85 was a popular French film that premiered to a sea of praise following closely alongside the love story set out in Call Me By Your Name. It follows two men who eventually begin dating after Alexis’ (Félix Lefebvre) boat capsizes and subsequent problems arise that only occur when wrapped up in the quick emotions of being sixteen. France pushed out its twink love stories with the release of Winter Boy two years later, and each were award-nominated films in their individual fields.

The effect this all has on queer viewers who don’t fit that stereotype can be incredibly damaging.

“I worked with a group of fatter gay men called Girth and Mirth in Columbus, Ohio, and hearing how much others commented on their appearances was really hard,” says Whitesel. “Even to the extent they might be on the dance floor and somebody would slip their hand up their shirt to see what their body was like.”     

“I remember being at a Halloween party and getting looks because I was fat,” says Matkins “But I wouldn’t be worried about those things if I had seen the way I feel depicted in front of me.”    

As queer media expands, from sweeping accolades for Netflix’s Heartstopper to dominating discourse with Love Simon, filmmakers have a duty to expand coverage of the community.

Queer love comes in multiple forms and sticking to one story narrows the scope of LGBTQ+ representation, pushing those at the fringes further out of society. It’s time the media, and society, re-examine how the queer community consistently fails Bears. Both on and off-screen. 

LGBTQ Nation