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chris
23rd February 2023

Brendan Fraser and the failure of the fat suit

Brendan Fraser has been critically praised for donning a fat suit in Aronofsky’s latest film, the question is: are fat suits still offensive?
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Photo: The Whale @ A24.com

As a child, fatness in film was inherently funny to me. Fat suits were in most comedies, I was shown The Nutty Professor, Big Momma, Fat Bastard in Austin Powers and encouraged to laugh along. Even though I was fat myself, these were funny, off-the-wall characters, with larger-than-life personalities, and made even larger by prosthetics.

As a teenager, I watched re-runs of Friends, and ‘Fat Monica’ reinstated this phenomenon of fat as funny. The audience is met with flashbacks, where Fat Monica is nervous, dorky, and always eating. She is ignored and looked down upon by her future love interest, Chandler. The laugh track goes wild. We are taught that fat characters can never be desired, it is only after losing weight that these characters can be attractive.

A new direction

Although the comedy of fat suits has a long-standing history, more recently there is a new type of fat representation creeping into film: pity. Brendan Fraser has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in Aronofsky’s The Whale. The Whale follows the story of an overweight recluse who attempts to reconnect with his teenage daughter while nearing the end of his life. 

Brendan Fraser, in this much-anticipated return to the screen, is wearing a 330lb fat suit. Fraser claims this fat suit taught him more about the experience of fat people, telling Graham Norton: “It also let me know that, to be a person that size, you really have to be very strong, physically and emotionally. And I grew to appreciate that by having played this part”.

Although I personally have a soft spot for Fraser, this just reinforces the bad taste of using fat suits. Why is wearing a suit to imitate fatness the only way that actors can empathise with fat bodies? Fat experiences which have much to do with social and institutional fatphobia are reduced to being solely about physical heaviness. Why are fat voices not listened to? Surely we can understand fat experiences and the emotional resilience it takes to face fatphobia in ways other than dressing up as fat.

The problem with fat suits

Aside from using fatness as a vehicle for comedy, there are issues with the very notion of a fat suit itself, no matter how it is used on screen. These creations almost never look like fat people, even in attempts that try to make a realistic fat body, they often hang strangely off the body, with large stomachs and little weight anywhere else. This is not the truth of what fat bodies look like. 

Fraser’s fat suit in The Whale still does not look like a fat body. Similarly, Aranofsky’s film ignores the truth of heart disease, which often leaves sufferers with nausea, vomiting, and no appetite. Instead, The Whale indulges itself in constant binge-eating scenes. Both the fat suit and the treatment of eating and consumption in this film ignore reality, and instead work in conjunction to disgust the audience, in particular, to disgust a thin audience. In this way, the film sees to reinforce the status quo beliefs about fat people in most mainstream media: that we are disgusting and it is our own fault.

The use of fat suits also excludes fat actors. Instead, thin or straight-sized actors are used to play fat roles, as they can simply wear a fat suit. This minimises the body diversity we can see on screen, as well as allows for more insulting caricatures of fat people to be brought to life. Characters that may well be seen as offensive by fat actors are instead played by thin people with no lived experience of this role.

Fat suits perpetuate a lie. That there is ‘literally’ a thin person inside every fat person, waiting to break free. As a thin person sheds their fat suit at the end of the day, it reinforces ideas of how fat people can simply shed their weight to become who they really are: the thin person inside.

It implies that this is the normal, the natural, the right thing to be. It situates weight as a costume, something that sits upon the body and is not part of the body. This further alienates fat people living in fat bodies. Their body is not seen as part of who they are, but as something attached to them, something which drags them down in a way that thin people’s bodies do not.

The viewer feels righteous watching the thin actor in a fat suit, they can empathise and root for them without breaking their own cultural code, and they can love fatness without ever loving any fat characters or actors. The Whale furthers this idea with its ending. The fat man is set ‘free’, he is finally weightless at the end of the film as his feet rise up off the floor. Aranofksy’s work with its use of fat suits, and of the evangelical ending of his film reinstates that fatness is something we must aim to break free of. 

The fat suit’s comedy days seem to be fading away, but unfortunately, the fat suit remains. Its visuals changed slightly to mimic reality and its emotional capacity turned towards pity, shame, and repulsion. Underpinning both of these uses of prosthetics is a fatphobic undertone, the idea that fat people are not good enough to tell their own stories. The Whale’s use of fatsuits is just as fatphobic as Fat Bastard is, except instead of inducing laughter, Aronofsky aims to make us cry. 


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