The Nutty Professor (1996)

Eulogy for the Fat Suit: The End Is Near for This Comedy Trope

More than 200,000 people have already signed a petition asking Netflix not to release its new show Insatiable on Friday. The series is about a fat, bullied teen named Patty (aka Fatty Patty) who experiences newfound respect and popularity as a skinny hottie following a horrible accident that requires her jaw be wired shut. “The toxicity of this series, is bigger than just this one particular series,” writes Florence, the young woman who began the petition. “This series will cause eating disorders, and perpetuate the further objectification of women’s bodies. The trailer has already triggered people with eating disorders. Let’s stop this, and protect further damage.”

Alyssa Milano, who plays Patty’s mom on Insatiable, disagrees.

Same for Netflix Vice President of Content Cindy Holland. She defended the series by saying it addresses these issues directly via satire. Still, the fat suit lead actress Debby Ryan (of Disney Channel Jesse fame) would seem to indicate we’re not talking about high-brow satire here.

The fat suit (or it’s more PC name, the “weight-gain suit”) is a prosthetic undergarment that’s used along with special-effects makeup to give someone the appearance of a body dramatically larger than their own — as in a 100 pounds larger. While fat suits may make practical sense in creating the appearance of larger characters (in instances where scheduling doesn’t allow time for an actor to gain and lose weight), they’re almost always used as a part of a cliché storyline in which the person wearing them is either the brunt of the joke because of their size, or is depicting some sort of “before” or “after” scenario in which gaining weight correlates to their fall from social grace and losing weight leads to their acceptance.

“Actual fat people are only seen as unlovable or bad in TV shows and movies instead of worthy of love and respect,” says La’shaunae Steward, a plus-size model living in South Carolina with more than 72,000 followers on Instagram. “There are young fat girls who will watch Insatiable and think losing weight is the right way to get bullies to stop bullying you for how big you are. The whole world tells fat girls and boys we’ll never be good enough until we are smaller. This show is fucking trash for promoting this to young viewers, especially those who are young and battling eating disorders.”

“Being suddenly thin isn’t going to solve all your problems,” adds Bruce Sturgell, the 38-year-old founder of Chubsr, a lifestyle destination for big and tall men. “It’s ridiculous that productions are still creating these stories that say being fat is horrible and that you can’t live your best life unless you’re ultra-skinny with flawless skin and perfect abs. I want to see more plus-size people portrayed as leads in shows. Bigger people are multifaceted. They can play the revenge seeking anti-hero or the love interest as well as anyone else.”

“Fat people are typically cast as objects of ridicule, revulsion, or horrified pity,” continues horror writer and TV critic Gretchen Felker-Martin. “You’ve got your Gilbert Grape mom sad sacks eating themselves to death and your cringe comedy spectacles like Lori Beth Denberg in Dodgeball. Fat people usually get cast in thoughtless, thankless roles by people who see them as bits or morality lessons instead of human beings.

“I think I was eight or nine when I started to feel deep, self-conscious shame while watching fat jokes in media. I have early memories of The Nutty Professor filling me with this soiled, pitiful weakness and degradation that still fills me whenever I see one of those awful public pity news pieces on a 700-pound woman or something.”

According to Felker-Martin, none of this would be such a big deal if fat people actually got roles. A recent study Stacy L. Smith at the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC, for example, found that only four out of 34 female leads were a size 14 or greater. And while the same research wasn’t done involving male actors of size, they’re still largely denied the chance to play your “average guy.” (Unless they’re named Kevin James or Jim Belushi.) In fact, instead of casting these dudes, they have thin actors sport fat suits — or as my colleague C. Brian Smith paid homage to a couple of years ago, they go on insane junk-food diets to pack on the pounds, before quickly losing all those lbs. (Personally, I still can’t believe Ryan Gosling gained 60 pounds for The Lovely Bones without asking Peter Jackson.)

As part of all of this — and as a fat person who acts — I took another look at my favorite movies featuring actors/actresses in fat suits thinking it would complicate how I feel about how they’re used in Hollywood. But in doing so, I realized they were no different:

  • Goldie Hawn is the fat loser whose nemesis steals her husband away in Death Becomes Her. She can only seek revenge once she’s experienced a dramatic weight loss.
  • In Mean Girls, Rachel McAdams weight gain has everything to do with popularity, as Lindsay Lohan’s character sabotages her by disguising densely caloric nutrition bars as diet aids in hopes of dethroning her queen bee status.
  • And the small, child-sized fat suit Abigail Breslin wears in Little Miss Sunshine is only meant to accentuate her ugly-duckling status. (Though, in fairness, this film comes the closest to not tying redemption to her losing weight.)

Skinny actors have had some memorable reflections after wrapping their fat suit roles.“When you’re overweight, it’s like you’re invisible,” Eddie Murphy said about his Nutty Professor experiences. “I felt no sexual energy from men. When I come to the set with the suit on and feel none of that, it’s palpable,” Gwenyth Paltrow said of her time filming Shallow Hal. Contrarily, John Travolta felt plenty of sexual energy on the set of Hairspray: “Every man and every woman wanted to feel those breasts and feel that ass — and I was, to be frank, a slut! I said: ‘Go ahead and feel me!’ I didn’t care, and I think I would be shameless as a woman. I learnt a lot about women. They have a lot of power, man!”

Although Felker-Martin thinks the comedic use of fat suits is universally “indefensible,” she doesn’t think using them as practical costuming tools in other circumstances would be as much of an issue if fat people had more chances to act. “Given the absence of other narratives about fat people, sustained exposure to the idea that fatness is pitiful and thinness is powerful can greatly influence even the most resilient, self-possessed teenager,” she says. “It’s not unlike trans actors, in that if we were equals in the field and getting cast in cis parts and stuff, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue for a cis person to play us.”

Quick, someone get Scarlett Johansson a fat suit.