Like fans all over the world, I was very saddened by actor James Gandolfini’s death at age 51. I wasn’t a diehard fan of The Sopranos (though I enjoyed it), nor have I seen Gandolfini’s entire body of work or know every last detail about his personal life. None of this stopped him from occupying a hallowed place in my fantasy life: James Gandolfini was my celebrity crush.
While obituaries are calling him an “unlikely” and “improbable” sex symbol, I felt just the opposite. While I’ve been attracted to, dated, and slept with many types of people, if pressed to say I had a type of man I typically swoon over, it’s fat guys. Or big guys. Whatever you want to call them. In an ode to big bellies at The Black Table in 2004, I wrote, “Nothing gets me hotter than a nice, big belly, perhaps not so surprising since I consider James Gandolfini and Monica Lewinsky both people I’d fuck in a heartbeat.”
Like I said, I didn’t know all the ins and outs of Gandolfini’s body of work, but I appreciated that he did indeed become a sex symbol despite not fitting our culture’s male body image ideal. If you think men aren’t subject to that kind of scrutiny, think again. While women now have fatkinis and most of the women-targeted and general interest websites I read regularly run pieces about body image (a recent sampling: “FATshion: 7 Adorable Plus Size Dresses with TINY TINY Prints” at xoJane; “On Plus Side: New Fashion Choices for Size 18" in The Wall Street Journal; “Victoria’s Secret Protesters Strip Down for Body Diversity” at The Frisky), but I have not seen a corresponding upswell of support for fat men. In fact, in an article about female desire at The Atlantic, former Playgirl editor Ronnie Koenig recently wrote, “While a shlubby sitcom writer might try to convince us that hot girls do, in fact, want to marry fat, funny bald guys, most women want to be visually attracted to their partner.” I agree with her that attraction is important, and her larger point, that women are visual creatures too, but it’s this casual dismissal of a whole slew of men based on how they look, a hewing to the conventional standards so many are fighting against when it comes to female bodies, that’s problematic.
The assumption that attraction is a one size fits all proposition is as offensive when we assume all straight or bisexual women want one type of guy as it is when we assume all straight or bisexual men want blondes with big breasts. Yet we are still perfectly comfortable with that as a culture. No, not everyone: Some women are proud to proclaim the fact that they like fat men (note the corresponding responses from the men in that forum), and there are even Big Handsome Men Meetup groups.
I’d argue that fat guys who are able to laugh at themselves, rather than apologize for their bodies, are sexy to many women (I’m focusing on women here, though gay male culture has its own body image issues, which are also problematic) — precisely because they are not trying to pretend they’re something they’re not. Even though it rhapsodized on Gandolfini’s sex appeal, a 2001 Sunday Mirror article began with the words, “He has the body of a couch potato….” I get that articles like this want to contrast Gandolfini with what’s more typically considered sexy, but again there’s this assumption that nobody would ever find someone with that body type hot. That way of thinking takes a toll on all of us, by reducing desire to a prepackaged set of options, and labeling anyone who falls outside of those a weird outlier.
Gandolfini stood out to me as someone who didn’t apologize for his size, and simply by becoming so well-known, he stood for a new kind of sex symbol. While the type often referred to as Big Handsome Men (BHM) has its admirers (here’s a list of why some women find them hot), we still aren’t at a place in our culture where fat isn’t seen as a target, a culprit, and an enemy.
Yet pop culture could do with more men turning the supposedly typical female fantasy on its head. Comedian Chris Grace stole the show in 50 Shades! The Musical not simply because he’s a big guy willing to play up his body in a red Borat-style mankini, but because he deliberately went against type as Christian Grey. In the performance I saw, many women in the audience at first seemed initially wary of his sex appeal, as they were about Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, but Grace won them over. He did so by flaunting his outsized character, managing to play E.L. James’s fantasy of a dominant man for laughs, rather than just literally throwing his weight around and waiting for guffaws. I want to see more of that take-charge attitude by big, chubby, fat, and not-skinny ripped guys. I want to see men who can laugh at our culture’s fat-hating, and laugh at themselves, without the punchline being simply “Fat. Ha ha.” That’s way too easy, overdone, offensive and lazy.
Many on Twitter haven’t wasted time pontificating about exactly why he died, because to them, fat people pretty much might as well be dead already. Andrea Wolter: “James Gandolfini died because he was fat and unhealthy. End of story.” Mike Weedon: “People say they are shocked by the death of James Gandolfini. Do they think enormous fat men live for ever?” The Hedgehog: “Watch Killing Them Softly and then claim James Gandolfini’s death is a surprise. The man was so fat he could barely breathe.” Justin Williams: “James Gandolfini r.I.p. But you knew that you were to fat so heart wasn’t good.”
I’m not writing highlighting these Tweets to debate how we should treat obesity as a health issue, but to point out that there fat hatred is too often tidily wrapped in the cloak of health concerns, whether you’re famous, well respected and/or recently deceased. Passing judgment on the health of someone you don’t know is seen as somehow okay because too many people think they “know” that fat=death. In response to a Facebook friend writing ,“I can’t believe James Gandolfini died. One too many cannoli I guess,” Snoggered posted on Tumblr:
Every time a celebrity dies who isn’t super old or super thin I find myself praying that they died of something other than a heart attack just because of little quips like this. It’s like saying “Oh a gay person died? Was it AIDS? because gay people die of AIDS all the time. It’s what they die of. If they didn’t want to die they shouldn’t have been gay with AIDS.
You don’t have to share my views of Gandolfini’s attractiveness to agree that a culture that makes weight a moral issue is problematic. I’m not arguing that Gandolfini’s death is any more or less sad because he was my go-to celebrity sex symbol, but I do hope that part of his legacy is to combat the idea that heterosexual men are only attractive if they have six-pack abs or look like Brad Pitt or Denzel Washington. In a culture where we treat fat like it’s a sin and have just labeled obesity a disease, Gandolfini defied the prevailing ideal of male hotness and by doing so, helped broaden (pardon the pun) our sexiness standards.I hope he also made way for more big guys in the public eye to own their erotic power.