The Background Body of How to Train Your Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon premiered in 2010 and it still remains Dreamworks' highest-rated film according to Rotten Tomatoes. Its imaginative viking world has led to sequels, television shows, video games and graphic novels, and its fanbase has awaited the third installment of the film franchise for four years. Originally based on a book series, it would be easy to credit this success on characters who were already developed and stories that were already written, but it is very evident when one compares the books to the films that they are cousins more so than siblings. Several of the most popular characters from the film are completely original to Dreamworks, and many characters from the books remain on the pages, never making it to Hollywood.
Being set in a viking village, we have expectations for what kind of people we will see. Historically, vikings were massive in comparison to other people. An Arab explorer allegedly described them as "tall as date palms" back in 922 AD. In fiction, they are often illustated as miraculously large people, and the How to Train Your Dragon films don't deny that. Stoick the Vast (the main character's father/chieftain of the village) is incredibly large. The specific fan website for the franchise notes that Stoick is 6'9. In the book, he's 6'7, but he's also alive there, so here's further evidence of inconsistency. Many of the background characters and even the children resemble this viking standard build, but we'll find the same flaws that we've found in other franchises in these characters.
Hiccup had to be small. I am not going to argue with that because it makes sense for the point that the movies were trying to make about the toxic masculinity that Hiccup wasn't measuring up to and they had to make sure that he looked like he absolutely did not belong in the village he was raised in to make his relationship with Toothless, his dragon (and certified dream pet/friend), seem like a saving grace. However, I would argue that this should mean that Hiccup should be the only small character, given that every background character is rounder and taller (across genders). However, we'll notice right away that the main characters' physiques are all closer to the ideals of modern, Western beauty trends.
With the male characters of the main cast, we actually see a great amount of variety. Hiccup begins as the puny, weak, nerdy boy archetype. (Though, by the second movie, he gets, how do I say this, hot? He's suddenly 20 and 6'1 with a jawline and a cool outfit and even in the theatre when I was 16 I was like "OH.") We then have Tuffnut, who's very slender and lanky. Fishlegs (pictured below) is husky and very large, which is interesting given that he does come from the books, but in the books he is described as very skinny and riddled with medical diagnoses. Considering that he is written comedic relief in the movie/television/everything-but-the-books franchise, it's not all that shocking that he was suddenly made fat. We've seen this trope time and time again, especially on Disney channels as I recently discovered. Fat equals funny for creators of children's entertainment, which is dangerous. However, we'll move on. Snotlout is written as your classic "Napoleon" archetype. He's 5'6, but very muscular and very hell-bent on proving his masculinity at any turn, through violence or, more often, arrogant speech. Though these body types largely accord to the stereotypes of entertainment, there still exists a variety in what's presented. They aren't all 6'1 or muscular or lean. They're all different, even down to the hair and eye coloring.
Then we go to the female main characters. While I was researching, I noticed this phrase used quite frequently throughout appearance descriptions. "Her character body is the same as many of the background Viking females seen in the TV series," or "a stout woman with the modelling of the background women of Berk." This description is given to any female character with under five lines. This doesn't sound problematic until we look at the physical descriptions of the main female characters. Take Astrid, a badass viking warrior who happens to be Hiccup's love interest. She's described as "petite for a viking," but this is pretty much only in reference to her build, as she is 5'9. Ruffnut, a twin to Tuffnut, is described as "skinny for her age," while she is also 5'9. With identical heights and shared thinness, the two main female characters of the Dragon Riders don't express the same kind of diversity in size that is seen through the male characters. It's especially exceptional when put under the viking microscope. We expect their appearance to resemble the many women behind them who eat the same diet and share the similar genes from this small community, but they don't.
My sister, an avid fan of the franchise, once said, "You can tell when a character in the series is going to be a main character because she'll be skinny and she'll stand out from the background." This couldn't be more true. In the television series that is shown on Netflix, they introduce another female character to the Dragon Riders. Her name is Heather and she's NOT blonde, but she's still 5'9 and thin. She has some pretty cool traits, being that she's written as mysteriously untrustworthy and riddled with issues from her past, but she feels watered down when they slap her in as a love interest for Fishlegs.
Thus, all three of our main, age-similar-to-viewer ladies are of the same height and physique while all four of our male mains differ radically. There are no TSC (tall, strong, chunky) girls, even in a show about vikings. Even in the areas where representation would seem obvious, it doesn't come up. It doesn't even guest star. It stays in the background, where TSC women have often been pushed.
Even older female protagonists aren't allowed to be thicker. Hiccup's long-lost mother, Valka, is described as slim in comparison to most viking women.
In the video games, you can find a bunch of female characters who are essentially Fishlegs with pigtails act as bullies to Astrid.
In the books, you can find Big-Boobied Bertha, who is rumored to shave and is written as masculine due to her size.
Across most mediums, there are problems with size in this franchise, and certainly no TSCs. It's a shame because this is one of my favorite movie franchises out there. So many lessons are articulated through its two installments. Being unafraid to be unlike the rest of your family, pursuing what you think is right in spite of the popular opinion, treating living creatures with kindness, embracing the good qualities that you have instead of focusing on the ones that seem bad, speaking up for yourself, protecting those that you love, bravery and just being your truest self are painted beautifully for audience members of any age. I think a lot of these lessons would be important to TSC girls while growing up. While we have seen the movie that tells the shorter, skinnier, nerdier boy who just doesn't feel tough enough that his moment in the sun is coming, we never really see that narrative for outcast female figures. We pretend to write stories for the outcast members of society, but we do not write for a good portion of those people. Hollywood gets aroused by the idea of the misfit or the black sheep, but it still holds that character who is meant to be disgusting to her peers to the same beauty standards as the foil character who is meant to be "Homecoming Queen" or whatever beautiful-but-evil archetype they decide to pursue.
To make a long story short, it is often in the franchises with the messages that would be most helpful for TSC girls to hear where we see the least representation. It is often in the very franchises that you thought you could rely on that they don't even come up, like in a village of hulking vikings and a bunch of warrior prodigies. It is often when messages about "embracing who you are and just being yourself" are being stated in a tearful moment on screen that viewers cannot see themselves in the characters learning how to do the thing that they so desperately deserve to do in real life.
Thank you for exploring the land of Berk with me. I look forward to talking about some children's literature tomorrow! I hope you learned something today, no matter how small (even if it was that there's a character named Big-Boobied Bertha).