A week or so ago I saw The Batman (2022). I entered the cinema with the promise of striking cinematography, gritty characterisation, and many giggles to be had about the trajectory of Robert Pattinson’s career ahead of me (from one iconic, brooding bat-centric character to another). Such promises were fulfilled, but as the lights came up and I shuffled from my seat, I found myself dwelling on one image: the uncanny appearance of the character Penguin.
There was something strangely unreal about the antagonist’s appearance – an awkward stillness in his expression and a distinct familiarity in his eyes that I couldn’t quite place. Once a friend informed me who the actor was, this brief uneasiness was quickly understood. Beneath the layers of prosthetics, the makeup, and the fatsuit composing his ‘Penguin-ness’ was none other than the ever-recognisable Colin Farrell. An impressive transformation, no doubt, but one that leaves me feeling… uncomfortable, to say the least.
I questioned why a film production crew would invest time and money into making a thin man appear fat, when one could: (a) hire an actor who already looks the part, or (b) if casting Colin Farrell was a necessity for reasons unknown (surely the film has enough star-power already), why not allow the character to appear thin, as Colin Farrell is?
This practice of transforming thin actors through prosthetics and fatsuits seems to be Hollywood’s latest obsession, with actor Jared Leto also appearing (unrecognisably so) in a fatsuit for House of Gucci (2021). Yet it is not a new practice in any way. Fatsuits have been used in film since the golden age of cinema, and have been common ‘comedic’ props since the 90’s (see: Friends [1994-2004], The Nutty Professor , Shallow Hal , and so on). They set up many a joke in which fat bodies are the punchline. And it’s getting old.
Such portrayals directly perpetuate stereotypes about fat people; at best characterising them as the ‘funny fat friend’ and at worst rendering the appearance of being fat as a sign of ‘corrupt’ internal character. As seen in Friends, and later in New Girl (2011-2018), we are often presented with fatsuits as a retrospective device to show a character’s development and personal growth, as if to say: look how far they’ve come! Sure they’re neurotic and deeply insecure, but at least they aren’t fat anymore!
These stereotypes of fatness, which link it to laziness, gluttony and stupidity, lead to the stigma and biases that allow fat people to be degraded, harassed, dismissed from job opportunities, denied proper healthcare, and more. What’s more, Hollywood manages to create these images of fatness without putting a single fat person on screen.
This leads me back to The Batman, and that lingering question: why use a fat suit at all?
It is important to note that while the character of Penguin does succumb to the portrayal of fat people as morally corrupt, the use of a fatsuit does not appear so explicitly malicious as many of the other examples. Fat people are not, textually speaking, the butt of the joke. So, as previously mentioned, why not cast an actual fat person? Why is Hollywood only willing to show fatness on screen as a costume?
One explanation could be Warner Bros’ attempt at ‘comic book accuracy’ without compromising the image of the Hollywood ‘star’, and typical thinness associated with it. Yet I would argue that the film wasn’t all too concerned with accuracy to its source material, at least in terms of the characters’ appearances (see: the lack of emerald green bowler hat worn by Paul Dano’s Riddler). Instead, I think there’s something to be said about the attention drawn by such feats in prosthetics. The transformation of Colin Farrell from thin, conventionally attractive actor to fat, nefarious mobster is one distinctly catered towards public spectacle. It is unsurprising in a media landscape riddled with ‘before-and-after’ photos and ‘glow-up’ challenges that we would be fascinated by the temporary transformation of the ‘ideal’ into its supposed opposite.
But the damage remains. In rendering fat bodies as a costume to be worn and then discarded, films like The Batman reinforce the pervasive dehumanisation of fat people in popular media. ‘Fatness’ becomes something ‘fictional’ portrayed on screen for our entertainment, and is thus opened to public scrutiny that disregards fat people’s humanity.
Hollywood’s obsession with fatsuits undeniably degrades and ‘others’ fat bodies, and should have no place on our screens moving forward.