Once again, Hollywood is proving that there’s still a lot to learn when it comes to representation. Last week, NBC released the trailer for The Thing About Pam, a true-crime series about Pam Hupp, a real-life midwestern woman who has been charged with the 2011 murder of her friend, Betsy Faria, and is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Louis Gumpenberger. But the conversation around the series has been less about the heinous details of Hupp’s story; instead, people are calling out the decision to cast Renée Zellweger in the role of Hupp — and to put the Oscar-winning actress in a fat suit. As one social media user tweeted: “Either hire a fat woman to play a fat woman or make the character thin and let Renée Zellweger play her. These are the rational options. This is so unbelievably offensive. How do you not know better in 2022?”
We’re asking the same question. Body positivity advocates and viewers have made it clear that fat suits, and the messaging inherent in having actors wear them on screen, is harmful, out of date, and out of touch with what viewers actually want — which is real representations of actual plus-size bodies on screen, without the gimmicks. Fat suits are inherently fatphobic, reinforce harmful tropes about plus-size bodies, and make it even harder for actual, deserving, too-often-overlooked plus-size actors to be cast.
Zellweger is far from the first actor to don a fat suit on screen. In fact, Hollywood has a longstanding obsession with outfitting actors in fat suits. Examples include “Fat Monica” in Friends, Rosemary in Shallow Hal, Patty Bladell in the über problematic Insatiable, and Sarah Paulson as lawyer Linda Tripp in FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story. But these portrayals come at the expense of people who move through the world with plus-size bodies. “A lot of the time, the role that the fat suit is playing is itself meant to create or reaffirm and confirm fatphobia,” says activist and You Have the Right to Remain Fat author Virgie Tovar.
This is primarily because of the stigma and negative stereotypes often emplaced on plus-size bodies — and the message that these bodies can be worn — and taken off — like a costume. “It's hard to articulate the emotional experience of someone taking on and taking off your body,” Tovar says. The ensuing “shock value,” because of how dramatically it can alter an actor’s look, also essentially equates plus-size bodies with being inherently shocking. This is evident with the initial reaction to Zellweger’s latest role, with outlets like Vanity Fair, Hollywood Life, and The Today Show calling the actress “unrecognisable,” and other outlets noting her “dramatic transformation.”
Zellweger herself, when talking to Vanity Fair, said: “Oh, gosh, if you don’t recognise an actor or an actress in a performance, that’s a great compliment.” And while it may be an “accomplishment” for an actor to disappear into their characters, in the context of using a fat suit, it has a completely different connotation, treating fatness as something to “disappear into,” an acting tool that’s completely divorced from the realities and stigma that many plus-size people face IRL. Plus-size people can’t take off their bodies — and the marginalisation that often comes with them — at the end of the day. In many ways, “the fat suit is a way of saying you don't have to root for an actual fat person,” Tovar emphasises. “Don’t worry, this is secretly still a thin person.” The show — and the use of fat suits — are in themselves an act of erasure. As writer Libby Hill wrote for IndieWire, “The industry seems to be doubling down on pretending fat women don’t exist.”
Another issue with fat suits is that they’re typically used in a way that plays into many of the familiar, damaging, and stigmatising tropes plus-size characters have been subjected to on screen for decades. Historically, many plus-size characters and their story arcs have centred around the idea that plus-size people — specifically plus-size women — are the butt of every joke. “Fat Monica” from Friends is one example that millennials will know well. As writer Grayson Gilcrease wrote in May 2021, “she's viewed as this monstrosity that can only be happy if she loses weight” and can only be taken seriously as a person once she does. The same can be applied to Netflix’s Insatiable, starring Debby Ryan as Patty Bladell, a former plus-size highschooler who loses weight as revenge against those who made fun of her.
In both cases, Monica and Patty’s weights are presented as something to overcome and shed, which, in turn, will immediately make them desirable to those around them (in this case, both mediocre white men). And it’s used as an explanation for their obsessive traits after the weight is lost. Monica is anal and has a compulsive need to clean while Patty literally murders people to satiate the need previously filled by eating. (The use of a fat suit also allows movies and shows to depict rapid weight loss, which is incredibly harmful and inaccurate.)
Hollywood’s depictions of plus-size bodies often aren’t portrayed as deserving of love as they are. If by some miraculous chance, characters receive love, it often comes with conditions. Tovar points to Shallow Hal, a 2001 romcom starring Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit, in which Paltrow’s love interest (Jack Black) is only attracted to her after he’s hypnotised and can only see her as thin, as a prime example of this. “You’re saying there's no way that a woman of that size could be lovable, someone has to literally have some kind of a head wound in order to be able to see the beauty in a fat person,” Tovar says.
In The Thing About Pam, Hupp’s size isn’t solely used to further a narrative or promote the idea the character has to change to become happier or a better person, as if often the case in movies and shows that use fat suits; the real-life Hupp was/is plus-size, so the show creators likely saw the suit as a bid toward authenticity. But because of the inherent fatphobia behind the suit overall, it’s still problematic to place an actor in it, regardless of the storyline, Tovar says. If Hupp’s size is so integral to the narrative of this series, why not cast an actor who is plus-size? If it’s not, why put Zellweger in a fat suit at all?
Continuing to refuse to cast plus-size highlights Hollywood’s short-sightedness, and the ways in which they view plus-size bodies as a mechanism rather than a valid and morally neutral reality. The fact remains that, for some, there’s a safety in using the fat suit, because it means we don’t have to actually humanise plus-size people and can continue treating plus-size bodies as we have historically.
Representation, particularly at this moment, can be really, really powerful. And when you use fat suits, you basically take all of the power out of that.
This conversation is coming at a time when the idea of accurate and responsible representation in media is getting more and more attention. The decisions to cast ScarJo in Ghost In The Shell in the role of a Japanese cybernetic human, Emma Stone in Aloha as an Asian American person, Maddie Ziegler (who is not on the autism spectrum) as a teen with autism, and Eddie Redmayne (a cisgender man) in The Danish Girl as a trans character (for which he won an Oscar) have all been criticised recently. Many of these actors have even expressed regret over taking these roles, in light of discussions around representation and the importance of casting diverse actors in diverse roles.
And the conversation around roles that call for plus-size actors is the same. Again: Rather than putting an actor in a fat suit, why not cast a plus-size actor? Not only would this give opportunities to extremely deserving actors who’ve been overlooked by Hollywood for years, but it also allows plus-size people to see themselves on screen in a realistic, non-sensationalist, and respectful way. And the rise and success of shows and films like Shrill, Archive 81, and Dumplin’, which feature plus-size characters who are nuanced and whose narratives exist independent of their size as a plot point, have shown that these are stories people want to see.
The fat suit needs to be retired because “at some point if [Hollywood] wants to keep up, they have to actually meet people where they’re at,” Tovar says. For all the strides we’ve made for accurate and authentic representation, we still need the right actors in the right roles for all body types. “Representation, particularly at this moment, can be really, really powerful. And when you use fat suits, you basically take out all of the power of that.”