Hollywood’s concerning dependability on fat suits must come to an end

By Riley Dauber 

Opinion Editor 

At the ninety-fifth Academy Awards, the winner for Best Makeup and Hairstyling was, disappointingly, “The Whale.” 

“The Whale” stars comeback kid Brendan Fraser as an obese English teacher trying to reconnect with his daughter. 

In rewarding the film’s makeup, the Academy wanted to recognize the new technology and 3D printing aspects that went into creating the fat suit that Fraser wore. While the technology may be impressive and groundbreaking, it is just another example of films using fat suits instead of casting plus-size actors. 

“You invented a new technology instead of just casting a fat actor to play the role,” Visiting Professor of Communication and Media Studies Dr. Stephanie Brown said. 

Fat suits were popular in movies and television shows in the 1990s. Courtney Cox wore a fat suit on “Friends” to portray her character, Monica, before she lost weight. Each time Cox was on-screen in the fat suit, the laugh track would play, reiterating the fact that the audience is meant to laugh at the fat character, even when she is not doing anything funny.  

“‘Hairspray,’ ‘Friends,’ and movies like ’Shallow Hal…’ played a key role in the normalization of fatphobia as we’re encouraged to laugh at the ‘fat’ character’s expense,” Mollie Quirk wrote for Glamour.  

Even when fat actors were cast in these comedic roles, their weight became the butt of every joke. One prime example is Rebel Wilson in the “Pitch Perfect” trilogy, where her character, Fat Amy – yes, “fat” is in her name – frequently mentions her weight and makes fun of herself. 

However, the use of fat suits has since moved away from comedic roles, and are instead popping up in dramas and biopics. 

This year alone, two other films with fat suits were nominated for Best Makeup and Hairstyling at the Academy Awards. In “Elvis,” Tom Hanks played Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager, and “The Batman” features Colin Farrell as Penguin. Both actors donned fat suits for their respective roles. 

“Allowing actors to wear fat prosthetics to tell these stories is alienating fat actors, actresses, and other fat media professionals…There is nothing realistic about these fat suits. They are still used for shock factor, but through a dramatic lens over a comedic one,” writer Gina Tonic said. 

Actors are often praised for their ability to transform into these roles; it is seen as a daring and impressive acting choice to wear a fat suit, thus becoming unrecognizable to play a particular character. 

When discussing a role in which she wore a fat suit in “The Thing About Pam,” actress Renee Zellweger said, “If you don’t recognize an actor or an actress in a performance, that’s a great compliment. You’re not trying to tell your own story.”  

However, these actors are portraying people they simple do not resemble in real life. 

What makes this situation worse is the Academy’s praise of these performances. Before Brendan Fraser’s Best Actor win for “The Whale,” Gary Oldman won Best Actor in 2018 for his performance as Winston Churchill in “The Darkest Hour.” Oldman, like Fraser, donned a fat suit for the role. 

This lack of authentic casting is detrimental to fat representation in the media. Fat actors are losing roles to thin actors, meaning they are not in the room to tell their stories or portray these characters accurately. 

In an interview for People, actor Daniel Franzese, famous for his role as Damien in 2004’s “Mean Girls,” said, “To finally have a chance to be in a prestige film that might be award-nominated, where stories about people who look like us are being told? That’s the dream. So when they go time and time again and cast someone like Fraser, me and other big queer guys, we’re like ‘What the…?’ We can’t take it!”  

Plus-size actors are continuously overlooked for roles because Hollywood is quick to cast traditionally thin actors and put them in fat suits. 

“There are hundreds, if not thousands, of fat actors who are looking for work – but instead of them getting picked for a role that would suit their body type and kick fat suits to the curb, thin actors are given the job and told to wear a fat suit,” Quirk wrote.  

The roles written for fat people are also anything but positive or complex, and the authentic roles are few and far between. 

Dr. Brown was reminded of the 2001 comedy “Shallow Hal,” in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays a 300-pound woman who appears skinny through the eyes of lead character Hal. The film is meant to teach viewers about appreciating someone’s inner beauty, all while poking fun at the fat character, who is played by a thin actress in a fat suit. 

“All of the movies…where they cast the actors and put them in fat suits…I wouldn’t have wanted a fat actor playing that [role] anyways because the roles are always horrible,” Dr. Brown said. “I’d rather they write good parts and then cast plus-size actors in those roles.” 

Although the recent examples of “The Whale,” “Elvis,” “The Batman,” “The Thing About Pam” – and don’t forget “Matilda” – do not provide a positive future for plus-size representation, if Hollywood could continue to hire both plus-size creators and actors, it may lead to more authentic and realistic portrayals of fat people in the media. 

“A lot of times the excuse they give is ‘there’s just no bigger actors who are as good as these actors.’ That’s a Hollywood problem, because you’re creating a pipeline for talent because you’re not writing any roles or casting them in anything,” Dr. Brown said. 

It is crucial for creatives and viewers of underrepresented groups to see themselves represented on-screen. However, just because a show features a fat character – fat suit or not – it does not mean the portrayal is positive. 

To further these positive portrayals, plus-size creatives need to be in the writers’ room. And, in general, Hollywood needs to stop relying on thin actors in fat suits to play fat characters. 

“Why don’t you just cast somebody who looks like that? That’s what most people look like,” Dr. Brown said. 

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