Gotham has had numerous issues in the past. To start off, its pilot wasn’t very good. Selina threatened someone with a false rape accusation. Barbara, our resident bisexual, fits just about all the harmful bisexual stereotypes out there: she cheats and is indecisive. And of course, we have yet another cishet white male lead. This is all rather frustrating, but surprisingly, I still love this show.
Gotham might have some problems, but it’s not all bad. And unlike other versions of Batman, it seems that the writers actually have a grasp on what mental disabilities and illnesses are and are not. So Gotham has some good things going for it as well, and discussing its treatment of mental disabilities is a post I plan for after the season is over. But while Gotham seems to be doing all right for representation on one front, it is still failing marvelously at others. For the most part, I like what the show has done with Penguin, but I question a few of the decisions behind his character design. That is to say, by making this incarnation of Penguin thin, while also making him sympathetic, the show unfortunately perpetuates a damaging mindset about body weight.
The Penguin, also called Oswald Cobblepot, has been part of Batman’s rogue gallery since the early 1940s. A sociopathic mobster and a criminal genius, he’s not a very likable character, and until Gotham came out, I can’t say that there was ever an incarnation I cared for. Not helping is the fact that the Batman mythos constantly goes out of its way to make the Penguin more detestable at every instance; he spits food when he eats, is short, and let’s not forget his body weight: the Penguin is “chubby”. And all of this, including his weight, is supposed to make us hate him even more. I’ve always taken issue with Penguin’s weight for this reason. There is nothing inherently wrong with being heavy, though society likes to tell us otherwise, and the Penguin sadly fits into a lot of negative stereotypes about heavy people. Just take a look at this scene from Assault on Arkham:
It’s not hard to see what’s so wrong about this. In it, the Penguin eats a platter of raw fish half the size of his own body—some of which are still alive. Though he has a plate and silverware of his own, he instead picks the fish up with his bare hands straight from the platter and eats them whole, within two or three bites. The entire incident outlines his weight and plays into the mindset that heavy people are heavy because they eat a lot. Not only that, it takes his eating habits and makes them as disgusting as possible—he’s literally eating live fish whole. But there is—thankfully—more to the Penguin’s character than simply being disgusting and overweight. He is an iconic character—always wearing a suit, holding an umbrella—and his personality easily sets him apart from the others in Batman’s rogue gallery. Penguin is less sporadic than some of them, like the Joker, and significantly more aristocratic.
Many of his traits translate over to Gotham’s version of his character as well. In Gotham, while Penguin is still a sociopath, he is polite, dresses up in suits, and is smart enough to play two mob bosses at once. We see him murder, manipulate, and use people, and though we don’t agree with his actions, we also see why he is the way he is. I’m significantly more invested in him than I have ever been. Had you asked me before the show came out who my least favorite Batman criminal was, Penguin would probably have been my answer. What’s interesting about him in Gotham is that the show has gone out of its way to make Penguin sympathetic, while still presenting him as evil. And that’s no easy feat when the character in question is a sociopath.
Unfortunately, in the process of making Penguin likable, the show also decided to make him thin, because well… I guess overweight people are significantly less likable than skinny people, or some bullshit like that. What’s so sad about this is that I doubt many people noticed it or were bothered by it. Hell, I probably wouldn’t have noticed if not for my coworker. As someone who is significantly underweight, probably due in part to numerous health issues, I am nevertheless blessed with thin privilege. And about a month or so before Gotham’s pilot premiered, for the first time I actually looked up and researched thin privilege and fat-shaming. The only reason I did this was because someone thought it was appropriate to make fun of my coworker, who’s a very good friend of mine, to my face, simply for being overweight.
Right now, all of the main characters on the show more or less have perfect bodies. Fish Mooney is thin and beautiful, as are Barbara and Cat. Gordon is young and fit, and Harvey’s a very physically capable person. And the only two overweight characters that we really get to see are the mayor—who’s corrupt and entirely unlikable—and the slightly better developed Butch, Fish Mooney’s henchman. So we are left with no sympathetic characters who are overweight. I think I could forgive Penguin’s newer weight if the show went into his eating habits more. At the end of the pilot, Gotham implies that Penguin may have a binge-eating problem when dealing with stress. After Penguin loses just about everything—his status with Fish Mooney—and survives an execution, we see him murder a fisherman for a sandwich. So I assume that Gotham would go into that more, focus on Penguin’s eating habits, and maybe have him start to gain some weight as the story progresses—the first season is, after all, about him. And who knows, maybe that will happen in a later season should the show be renewed, because it sure as hell doesn’t look to be happening this season. Though that would sadly still perpetuate the “fat people are fat because they eat a lot” stereotype, I would be significantly less peeved about his weight. At least dedicating some time to this issue would show that the writers might care about having this conversation. However, this could easily lead into another problem—as the show progresses Penguin runs the risk of becoming less sympathetic during his rise to power. Thus, having him gain weight while also potentially losing his likable qualities is a pretty reprehensible idea as well. Unfortunately, other than the pilot, Penguin’s eating habits don’t show up again, and I’m not going to hold my breath that they will.
Fat shaming is a huge issue, and it’s unfortunate that Gotham decided to erase Penguin’s body weight. By making him a well-rounded, sympathetic character, while at the same time erasing his iconic body shape, the Gotham writers have inadvertently propagated the idea that only thin people can be well-rounded or sympathetic. In the comics, and even the Arkham games, Penguin’s weight was often something that we were meant to hate him for. Like, look, he eats a lot and he’s an all-around disgusting human being, so of course he’s fat! But in Gotham, he’s significantly more likable and refined, so of course he’s thin! What this tells me is that the show did view his weight in the original source material as an unlikable trait that needed to be removed in order to make Penguin sympathetic. To me, that’s taking the easy way out. What Penguin has been doing in the show has no bearing on his weight—if he were overweight, it wouldn’t change the plot at all—and as Gotham made him sympathetic, it could have easily used him to talk about fat-shaming and some of the problems overweight people have to deal with. If you’re not skinny, people will perceive you as undesirable, lazy, ugly, older than you really are, etc. These are all things that could have both helped and hindered Penguin’s character. People would underestimate him and his willingness to work for what he wants, while also mocking and belittling him for it. Keeping Penguin overweight would only help to define his character.