If the new drama Run This Town proves nothing else, it’s that movie fat suits should be retired. (The one that actor Damian Lewis wears to play Rob Ford is ruinous.) Not because they throw you out of the story and cancel suspension of disbelief – though they do. Not because actors, no matter how skilled, can’t properly act through them – though they can’t. But because they are offensive: body shaming, fat-phobic and possibly even triggering.
In the past 30 years, fat suits have been used almost exclusively for two reasons. One, to make the audience recoil (Mike Myers as Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers franchise; Jenna’s weight gain on 30 Rock, with its catchphrase “Me want food”). And two, to represent a character’s lowest point, whether it’s how they’ve “let themselves go” – Betty Draper in season five of Mad Men; Thor in Avengers: Endgame – or the nadir they rose from, like teenage-loser Monica on Friends; younger, not-hot Julia Roberts in America’s Sweethearts; and sad Debby Ryan on Insatiable before her jaw was wired shut.
Almost every time a fat suit is applied, the story is the same: Look at how pathetic this person is/was. Pudgy Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, out-of-shape Ben Stiller in Dodgeball, self-loathing Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly) in Stan and Ollie – their weight is a sign of their failure as human beings. Gaining weight is a punishment for nasty Regina (Rachel McAdams) in Mean Girls, and it embodies Samantha’s (Kim Cattrall) unhappiness in the first Sex and the City film. (She gains maybe 11 pounds, and her dearest friends recoil from her in horror.) And as careful as Jillian Bell is to not fat-shame her character in Brittany Runs a Marathon, her weight loss is synonymous with success.
A fat suit is never used at the end of a film, to show a character’s triumph. Putting one on is never the apex of the hero’s journey. Fat is a thing to be mocked, pitied or overcome, period.
And the things actors say who wear them – for this alone, fat suits should be banned. Roberts, doing press for America’s Sweethearts (in flashbacks her chubby self was also painfully naive and a virgin, as if anyone over a size 4 must be dim-witted and asexual), recounted how it took so long to apply her latex, her makeup artist suggested she take a nap. “If I fell asleep and woke up 60 pounds heavier, I’d never sleep again,” she replied. (Every time an actor wears a fat suit, mention is made of how long it takes to apply it, as if it were a heroic quest, evidence of stamina, fortitude and – yuck – bravery.)
Gwyneth Paltrow, playing plus-sized in Shallow Hal, discussed with great compassion (ahem) how unattractive “fat clothes” are. Tyra Banks, who donned a fatsuit for a segment on her talk show, described how shunned she felt. Sienna Miller, padded to play Roger Ailes’ wife in the miniseries The Loudest Voice, gaily described how she and Russell Crowe, also padded to play Ailes, “laughed a lot” about how “unrecognizable” they were. The point is always the same: Isn’t it just awful how lonely and ashamed these sad fat people are?
I can think of one place where a little padding may be necessary: to indicate the healthier “before” in a story about dramatic weight loss due to cancer or drug addiction, as Ellen Burstyn did in Requiem for a Dream. For everything else, why not hire the actor you need?
A hundred size-10 actresses could have played Beth Ailes; a hundred plus-sized actors could have been fine – not to mention, able to properly emote – as Rob Ford. Could it be that productions don’t want to hire plus-sized actors because they then would feel uncomfortable making fun of them? Or because they’d have to write a complete character for them to play, rather than a caricature?
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