Runaways Fails Its Fat Fans, and It Fails Gert Yorkes

Marvel’s Runaways is streaming now on Hulu.

When I heard a TV series was being made of Marvel’s Runaways, I promised myself I wouldn’t follow the development of it. After half a dozen Marvel controversies — the whitewashing of Scarlet Witch and The Ancient One, other troubling casting decisions with characters like Dr. Strange and the Iron Fist — I’ve learned to pick and choose my Marvel properties cautiously, and to never get my hopes up.

Runaways follows a group of diverse and fascinating teenagers, and has remained my favorite Marvel team since I read their first run when I was in high school. If Marvel was going to fuck it up, I wanted to be able to pretend the series had never happened.

I ignored casting news and updates until the first six episodes were out. Relatively positive reviews seemed to indicate I wouldn’t be heartbreakingly disappointed by the series’ portrayal of my favorite teens, so I dove in.

A handful of hiccups aside, I wasn’t disappointed. But one of those hiccups was harder to ignore than the others:

Gert Yorkes isn’t fat.

Gert — the clever, sarcastic, purple-haired daughter of two evil time travellers, and owner of a pet velociraptor named Arsenic — was, naturally, my favorite character when I read Runaways. The purple hair and pet velociraptor aside, she was the most like me: intellectually ambitious, socially abrasive, and overweight.

Runaways Volume 5, Issue 2 / Kevin Wada Textless Variant Cover

Although Gert is drawn at varying size throughout the comics she’s in, she is always markedly heavier than the other girls on the team. Most of the time, she’s noticeably larger than her tiny, superhero-bodied companions Karolina and Nico, with no excuses for her weight like an appealing hourglass shape. Even when she isn’t explicitly fat, she’s still larger than the others: thick-thighed, round-faced, and curvy. And despite some social insecurity, she never apologizes for it. She wears crop tops, sometimes; she ends up with the hot guy she has a crush on; she gets to be a hero.

The purple hair and pet velociraptor aside, Gert was the most like me: intellectually ambitious, socially abrasive, and overweight. - @cprevas #MarvelsRunaways Click To Tweet

The Gert Yorkes of TV’s Runaways is some of these things: she has Gert’s cynicism and her socialist leanings and her budding, halting feminism. She makes good plans; she does her best to support her sister; she learns to stop hating the girl her crush has a crush on. She is — as all teenagers should be — a flawed but well-intentioned character with immense room for growth and potential.

But she isn’t fat.

Runaways cast / Photo from Hulu

I want to be clear: this is not an attack against actress Ariela Barer in any way. In fact, it’s difficult to complain about Barer herself: her performance as Gert is never lacking. She embodies the purple-haired hero with dedication and exuberance, and outside the show she is a vocal feminist whose Twitter reveals that she takes great pride in her Latinx heritage and her bisexuality. Divorced from the source material of the Runaways comics, Barer is everything the television series deserves.

With the source material in mind, however, the casting falls short in a major way.

Barer spends most of the front half of the first season in a baggy denim jacket, as if clever costuming will hide the fact that she is roughly the same size as the rest of her female castmates. But no matter how they dress her up, no matter how she slouches or how heavy her sweaters are, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Barer — and, by proxy, Gert — is not fat.

Runaways cast, from left: Chase Stein (Gregg Sulkin), Gert Yorkes (Ariela Barer), and Molly Hernandez (Allegra Acosta) / Photo by Paul Sarkis/Hulu

It rings true with the same trend that saw Faking It’s Katie Stevens don baggy sweaters to play the emphatically plus-sized role of Nadia in the 2013 Los Angeles revival of Bare: A Pop Opera, singing “she’ll have your piece of pie / then inhale another ten / there’s a thin girl inside her with twelve of her friends” without seeming to see any irony in the fact that she isn’t fat.

Skinny actresses put on fatness like a costume, pretending at representation without actually having to alter their acceptably skinny bodies. At the end of the day, the message is clear: fatness is acceptable as a costume, and positive images of fat woman are fine when a costume change is all you need to fix the problem.

My complaint is not with Barer, but with the practice of casting skinny actresses in fat roles. It’s the fact that, as a teenager, I saw someone who looked like me on the page and saw her be a hero, and now television has told me that, in order to be that hero, she has to be skinny, just like every other superhero.

Fatness is acceptable as a costume, and positive images of fat woman are fine when a costume change is all you need to fix the problem. - @cprevas #MarvelsRunaways Click To Tweet

In a culture in which fat characters are almost never heroes, in which fat people are regularly portrayed as lazy, food-obsessed slobs, relegated to the role of comic relief or the butt of any number of jokes, or worse — in the case of the Harry Potter series — as cowards and despicable people whose weight is reflective of their moral shortcomings, Gert Yorkes was a hero I could look up to as an overweight teenager. She was smart, witty, kind, a feminist and a superhero, all while being fat.

To have that character taken away from us is to be told we aren’t worthy of this representation. It is an explicit equation that hero = skinny, and it is a slap in the face to everyone in the world who is trying to learn that their worth does not lie in their weight.

I like Runaways, so far. It’s fun, and I will keep watching it. I will keep enjoying the dynamics between the characters, and all the other things it does well. But I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to rid myself of the sinking feeling I get every time I’m reminded that the Gert Yorkes of this show is not the Gert Yorkes I idolized as a teen, and that Marvel no longer seems to think there’s any place on a superhero team — even one as ragtag as the Runaways — for someone like me.