This is a conversation that seems antiquated, as conversations around body-acceptance take the center stage in the landscape of representation, but yet, actors are still wearing fat suits in order to portray characters that are actually plus-sized. So the question remains: why not just hire bigger actors? The very fact that adding a few fake pounds to a lithe actor’s frame still carries the jarring pejorative is an indication of how outdated the whole practice is and should be.
A recent reckoning came upon the cast of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: Impeachment, when actor Sarah Paulson wore a prosthetic to portray American civil servant Linda Tripp, who played a major role in the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal circa 1998. There was scandal in this choice, rightly so, but it seems as though it faded overnight and people who weren’t directly targeted by this forget the lesson this could’ve potentially taught Hollywood: don’t put thin actors in fat suits.
“Mainstream media are not going to be in business for long if they don’t step up their game,” Kathleen LeBesco, PhD, a Senior Associate Dean at Marymount Manhattan College told VICE. “In an attention-fractured society, we crave better storytelling. Fat suits aren’t going to cut it anymore.”
An even more recent example of this comes as the show The Thing About Pam cast Renée Zellweger as Pam Hupp, a person who is not conventionally thin by Hollywood standards. Their solution? Put Zellweger in a fat suit.
A lot went wrong, and while the main question remains, “why not hire larger actors?” there is another, more confrontational question on the line: “Who bears the responsibility to say no to using these devices when there are talented actors out there who can fill the roles?”
There are a lot of factors to consider, but ultimately, responsibility is on everyone involved in the production. However, in order to narrow it down, let’s weigh in on some individual scenarios.
Say you are a young person trying to make their break in Hollywood, and the only way a casting director says you can play the role is if you wear a fat suit, does that then become your responsibility to stand up to a potential employer and deny work on the grounds of ethics? The true altruistic would say yes, absolutely. But the realistic nature of the situation is, most people who are trying to make it as a big name in Hollywood aren’t always the most ethically sound if it means getting a job. And who can blame them? Achieving fame is a horribly hard game to play.
But let’s consider another scenario, much akin to the Zellweger or Paulson situations. They are both well-established, critically acclaimed actresses who have no trouble getting roles. Their names carry weight, they’ve done their time as newbies, and by extension, they have a moral obligation to reset the trends for the acting industry as a whole. If they say no to wearing a fat suit, it can cause a domino affect where saying “no” to something like that isn’t just an option, it’s the morally responsible thing to do.
But we’ve focused a lot on the role of the actor here, who, let’s be honest, unless are an A-lister, likely don’t have much of a role to play in “creative” decisions. What we usually forget is that, when there’s a problem, it’s usually better to find it at the root and dismantle it from there, if you can dig far enough into the garden.
The irony of this controversy exists in the fact that Hollywood knows fat suits are dehumanizing and caricaturizing of actual plus-sized people and by extension, fat actors. If you cast an actual fat actor to play a fat character, there will be no controversy, therefore less clout around your film or show, and as the old public relations adage goes, all press is good press.
So, ultimately, the responsibility of the “fat suit decision” lies on the shoulders of everyone involved, but the remedy to this is to destroy the idea that garnering press and attention around your film or TV show on the basis of controversy is a tired and outdated method, and credit should be given when stories are told authentically, ethically and from the perspectives of those who have actually lived these experiences.