When Will Fat Suits Go the Way of Blackface?

Photo: Netflix

When I first watched the trailer for Netflix’s Insatiable, I thought the show might actually be about a plus-size woman. It wouldn’t be so shocking in 2018 — after all, plus-size women are on magazine covers, in movies, and on television. However, by the conclusion of the trailer, I was disappointed: The show isn’t about a plus-size woman named Patty living her best life: it’s about a formerly plus-size woman who loses weight after her jaw is wired shut. What’s more: In the early part of the story, when Patty is still plus-size, it’s just thin actor Debby Ryan wearing a fat suit.

Insatiable has already come under plenty of criticism for fatphobia: It’s a revenge fantasy that hinges on the notion that living as a fat person is miserable, and that becoming thin is the only way to obtain the life you've always dreamed of. The fat suit on Debby Ryan is a large part of the criticism, despite the fact that it only appears in the first episode. As a black woman, though, seeing the presence of a fat suit on a straight size actor reminded me of another trend, one that involved turning a non-marginalized person into a marginalized one for the sake of comedy: blackface.

Of course, there are fundamental differences between discrimination against people on the basis of race and size — what blackface represents is far more insidious than a fat suit. Yes, black people and fat people both experience discrimination, but fat people aren’t targeted by police for being fat. Historically, they weren’t excluded from water fountains, pools, or buses for being fat. They aren’t regularly assaulted for being fat, nor are they scapegoated by politicians as a way to stoke fear in the heart of their constituencies. For decades, blackface was used as an expression of how white performers and audiences were simultaneously fascinated by and envious of black people, while also being repulsed by them. It was used to mock black people on stages, radio, and television, presenting the very idea of dark skin, features, and culture as inferior, or at the very least, funny looking.

Though blackface and fat suits certainly don’t share the same sordid past and implications, there’s no denying that they’re both used as comic relief at the expense of marginalized people.

One of the lessons that blackface taught us is that the damage of harmful stereotypes remains long after the makeup and prosthetics are removed. Blackface made it permissible to quite literally laugh in the face of racism without having to interact with or potentially understand the experience of an actual black person. Fat suits function in much the same way: Instead of representing the real, lived experiences of fat people, it turns them into a joke. When you put an actor in a fat suit, audiences aren’t required to see the fat person as real, because they’re literally not. They also don’t have to confront the reality of fatness. Instead, all the audience has to do is sit back and wait for the punchline.

Insatiable uses a fat suit as a crude and unrealistic caricature with no other purpose than to turn “Fatty Patty” into the butt of the joke, a convenient way to demonstrate that being fat is akin to being miserable and deserving of cruelty and laughter. In that sense, its similarities to blackface are undeniable — and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

In a 2001EW article, director Allison Anders compared blackface and fat suits, stating, “This practice of skinny actresses donning fat suits is essentially the new and acceptable blackface in Hollywood” and that they are “paid millions to do it.” In 2002, Marisa Meltzer wrote a piece for Bitch Magazine entitled, “Are Fat Suits the New Blackface?” In it, she observed how the audience laughed along to a trailer of Shallow Hal, a movie about a superficial man who is hypnotized to see a plus-size woman named Rosemary (played by Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit) as thin (Gwyneth sans the fat suit) in order to see her as beautiful.

“Such virulence makes all this faux fat seem very old-fashioned; it reeks of our country’s less-than-perfect past,” Meltzer wrote. “After all, it seems like a long time ago — although it was not — that great white actors of the twentieth century performed in blackface.”

Fat suits were hyper-present in ‘90s and early 2000s entertainment (Shallow Hal, Madea, Big Momma’s House, Friends, and America’s Sweethearts all featured fat-suited characters whose main purpose was to serve as a fat joke). However, to see them used as a device in 2018 is galling, particularly in light of the changing attitudes toward fatness, size inclusivity, and body positivity. It’s been more than 15 years since Meltzer argued that the practice felt old-fashioned, and yet, here we are. Film and TV execs are still using fat suits for a laugh and, somehow, not seeing the problem with it. Insatiable? I'd say we have had enough.

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