Reveling in the Gluttony and Glee of Fat Bear Week
It is October 2020, and I am in a socially distanced cafeteria line of a boarding high school in Thessaloniki, Greece. The awkwardness of navigating different comfort levels of COVID-19 is still fresh, layered over the regular awkwardness of existing in high school. But today, I have taken a break from scolding dour fifteen-year-old boys who are trying to show off their sparse peach fuzz instead of wearing a mask.
Instead, I am rapidly refreshing my phone, watching the results of the semi-final match of Fat Bear Week roll in. The humble website interface is not really made for the kind of fan that I have become: one who has pinned her happiness on the triumph of a single bear in an internet competition and is convinced that his apparent victory could be wrenched away by the fickle voting public at any moment. I refresh the page again, scroll past the photos of the bears who are pitted against one another today, and peer at the small bars that report the votes to see if they have inched further apart. Finally, I am confident enough to shout to my coworker Lina: “Otis has taken the lead! It’s a slim margin, but I think he’s going to make it to the finals!”
The Rise of Fat Bear Week
The Fat Bear Week competition has been held online every October by Katmai National Park since 2014. For a while, it was a cult favorite. The premise of Fat Bear Week is simple. The public is asked to vote for the bear who they believe is the fattest, based on a kind of reverse-diet-plan before-and-after photo comparison. In the “before” photos, bears are fresh out of hibernation, slim and still slightly dazed at re-emerging into the world. The “after” photos highlight generous fur-covered behinds, rippling rolls of fat, and sagging stomachs—traits suddenly turned (in the eye of the media) from aesthetically displeasing to coveted signs of robustness. At the beginning of the week, Katmai National Park rangers release a March-Madness-style bracket that pitches bears against one another in head-to-head matches. Like in any good sports tournament, the most recent winners lurk in the mid-bracket to challenge newcomers who have just won their first battles. Voting is fast and furious. The contestants have no idea they have even been entered.
I started following the fat bears while trying to avoid writing a paper for an undergraduate seminar on John Donne. As I moved from Pennsylvania to Greece, the competition grew gradually in popularity until its voting numbers exploded during the pandemic. Suddenly, there were dedicated social media platforms for Fat Bear Week, bear-themed merchandise for the fan favorites, and expanded park ranger programming. Katmai National Park counted over a million votes cast during the 2022 competition.
There is little voting guidance on the site. The Katmai National Park staff write that the male bears usually appear fatter, but the female bears are perhaps more impressive for feeding both themselves and their young. Otherwise, the public are left to judge for themselves, based upon a single photo and, of course, quippy profiles of the lovable brown bears. While there is a limit on the number of times a single e-mail can submit a vote, there is no rule that you cannot vote based on the cutest, fluffiest face. It is wholesome, simple, fun.
Yet, I find that the corpulent bears, the implicit jokes comparing brown bears and a certain group of gay men, or even the one time per year when popular media celebrates fatness cannot quite encapsulate my personal fascination with Fat Bear Week. What is it that keeps me setting the Brooks Falls livestream in the background while I work, year after year? What is it that motivated me to indoctrinate four years’ worth of high school and undergraduate students with my love of Fat Bear Week, setting writing assignments to argue the merits of Bear 747 vs. Grazer? As someone who loves both bears and the environment, whose first DVDs were a box set of Blue Planet documentaries, who is a queer academic attempting to bring environmentalism into relevance for a new decade, I struggled for years to put a finger on the full scope of my obsession with Fat Bear Week.
The Queerness of Irreverence
In her 2018 book Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, queer ecological theorist Nicole Seymour pushes against the mainstreaming of serious affect toward the environment and environmentalism. Although “affect” is a debated and slippery term, Seymour and I use it to most closely describe the “tone” of a work and the emotional “pull” that it exerts on its consumers. Despite my attachment to Sir David Attenborough, Seymour points out that mainstream environmental media like Blue Planet or Our Planet drown their viewers in self-righteous and serious emotions—guilt, shame, reverence, or wonder. Meanwhile, they cut out the gross, awkward, obscene, and otherwise un-photogenic aspects of nature and discourage “inappropriate” responses to nature—frivolity, humor, or repulsion.
Fat Bear Week bends, or rather queers, the affect of mainstream environmental media. Queering nature programming is more than just including the long-neglected homosexual and transgender aspects of nature in programming. To queer nature includes embracing non-normative feelings, celebrating the aspects of nature that do not fit within a restrained, purist ethic. In Seymour’s view, studying bad or inappropriate feelings in response to environmental media is inextricable from queerness as defined in queer theory: an “interest in … what counts as ‘natural.’” While the subject matter may not explicitly address gender or sexuality, both Seymour’s work and mine are driven by what she calls a “queer sensibility” that brings queer theory and its emotions—playfulness, irreverence, indecorum, and glee—to environmentalist media. Queering environmental media allows its messages to expand beyond the heterosexual, privileged middle class whose values are firmly stamped upon series like Blue Planet.
I argue that Fat Bear Week’s joyful, enthusiastic competition is queer, bad environmentalism in the guise of mainstream media. While the scenes of Katmai National Park—about as far into the mythical wilderness as one can get in 2023—may naturally inspire awe, the competition itself focuses on celebration, competition, and an unmediated view of nature. It revels in all things queerly environmental: frivolity, gluttony, and humor.
The Hunger and the Horror
The competition’s guise as mainstream environmentalist media is convincing. For those voters whose appetites cannot be sated with photos alone, the real action of Fat Bear Week happens in the Brooks Falls livestream—a classic snapshot of wildness. If you’ve ever seen an image of a salmon jumping into a brown bear’s jaws, that photograph was probably taken at Brooks Falls. According to the Fat Bear Week website, it is one of the healthiest remaining ecosystems for brown bears and sockeye salmon. Viewers can tune in at almost any time of the Alaskan day to see some of the largest brown bears in the world feasting. There will never be a human in sight because the camera faces away from the visitors’ viewing platform. Life here fulfills the promise of romanticized, wild nature going about its beautiful processes: a brown bear catches a soaring sockeye salmon in a single bite.
But the livestream cameras do not turn away after the iconic image of a bear catching a fish. They linger as the bear devours its fishy feast with unsettling delicacy, stripping the skin and less desirable flesh away to get to the fattiest organs. There is something incongruous in the massive size of the bears’ lips and claws and the deft efficiency with which they can butcher a fish that is barely width of a single paw. Sometimes, the richness of their salmon harvest even means that they can discard the majority of the fish’s carcass. After they slaughter one, leaving the carcass to wash downstream and be scavenged, the bears immediately turn back to the racing waters to capture their next prey. The rawness of the livestream dwells on the gluttony of the season. Bears stake out on the Falls for hours, devouring fish after fish (as many as forty-two per day, for weathered experts like Otis). This show of unrestrained gluttony creates an affect of muddled horror and wonder, impossible to distinguish from one another.
The very premise of the Fat Bears revels in a celebration of what the directors of Disneynature might deem “inappropriate” gluttony—encouraging viewers to cheer on the bears’ wholesale slaughter without imposing an ethical framework or explicit educational goal. The fattest bears are the most successful bears, because they have the best chance of surviving the upcoming months of hibernation. In hyperphagia, the state that bears enter before hibernation, their brain switches off the receptors that would normally indicate fullness. These bears are quite literally insatiable.
The “inappropriate” actions on camera do not stop there: between moments of classically aesthetic nature, viewers are privy to the shock of imminent, unexplained death. This is no “Circle of Life (Elton John’s Version).” Bears turn in an instant to challenge one another for prime hunting spots in the water. Some return with disfigurements or scars that impede their future success. Perhaps most heart-wrenchingly, males relentlessly pursue females for breeding. Females desperately charge at males to discourage them from killing their cubs. The livestream once captured a cub stumble into the current, wash downstream into the paws of a male, and die with one swipe of a giant paw. The bears show no prim restraint in their gorging, their pursuit of mates, and their violence. And viewers have no omniscient narrator to encourage a certain response or to lead them along an educational journey. Fat Bear Week’s exposure of an unedited nature is a queered view of the bears, embracing awe and repulsion, reverence and fear.
Yet, in the midst of nature’s brutality, Fat Bear Week is a celebration of the bears and their environment. Fat Bear Week refuses to be saddled with the guilt and anxiety woven through mainstream environmental programming. Katmai National Park is a successful ecosystem and the bears have enough salmon to gain sufficient weight year after year. Elsewhere, the salmon runs are drying up, the Alaskan tundra is melting, and bears’ hibernation is disturbed as the seasons themselves change. But Fat Bear Week gives voters a break from the doom and gloom of environmental media. Perhaps a mainstream environmental activist would call Fat Bear Week irresponsible.
But Fat Bear Week reminds its viewers that nature can also be fun. Engaging with nature can be frivolous, without some kind of mission. It is just as good to laugh at these bears, to be a little disgusted by their salmon butchering, to be shocked as two enormous monsters of flesh charge one another with the aim of doing bodily harm. Nature itself is not always neat, reverent, or just. A competition of Fat Bears without a constant reminder of the need for climate solutions does no harm; in fact, it opens the door to viewers outside of a heteronormative box who might otherwise be pushed away by the persistent ethics, guilt, and anxiety of engaging with the environment through media.
Bringing the Bears Home
Gluttony and agency, repulsion and affection. Embracing these inappropriate actions and nonnormative reactions implicate both the bears and the voters of Fat Bear Week in a new kind of queer, bad environmentalism. And that very abnormality makes Fat Bear Week so widely appealing. Fat Bear Week encourages a lack of restraint in both its bears and its humans.
This lack of restraint found me, in October of 2020, openly cheering for an elderly bear in an online competition in the cafeteria of a boarding school. As a teacher, I was hard at work trying to convince teenagers to be enthusiastic about what they loved. What better way to encourage teens to look beyond their carefully restrained, socially acceptable shell than to show them a livestream of enormous predators devouring salmon in the far reaches of Alaska? Fat Bear Week was the only piece of my writing curriculum that I brought back across the Atlantic, to a class of weary freshman in their required writing course taught by an equally weary graduate student. But for a week in October, we found a way to celebrate the natural world together, without creeping guilt or anxiety. I found a way to convince them that their own interests were valid, that they should not change their appetites to conform to societal expectations.
I found what I was missing in Fat Bear Week—a place in environmental media that refused to limit itself to an agenda of restrained, heterosexual ethics. That refused to deny its own joy. That refused to keep itself small. I found queerness in Fat Bear Week that reflected my own fat, queer, frivolous identity: in its purest form, an invitation to look outside of expectations.
Featured image: A bear catches a fish at Brooks Falls, while another fish makes the jump nearby. Photo by F. Jimenez, Katmai National Park and Preserve, 2023.
After two seasons living in grizzly country, Margaret McGuirk (she/her) has personally encountered two fat bears. She does not know how many fat bears have encountered her. Her current work sits at the intersection of sustainability, agriculture, and dispute resolution. She holds an MS in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah, where her thesis examined community-based collaborative conservation for ranchers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Contact.