Seeing Through the Layers
Fat Suits and Thin Bodies in
The Nutty Professor and Shallow Hal
Katharina R. Mendoza
In November 2001, audiences flocked to theaters to see actress Gwyneth Paltrow's famously thin figure encased in a latex and foam fat costume in the romantic comedy Shallow Hal. Once novel, the fat suit is now just a regular part of the U.S. entertainment industry's repertoire of special effects. Calling this phenomenon the “new minstrel show,” Bitch magazine writer Marisa Meltzer observes, “Fat people are now America's favorite celluloid punchlines” (2002, p. 19). The steadily growing list of film and television actors who have suited up in fake fat stretches from “Weird Al” Yankovic parodying Michael Jackson in the music video for “Fat” (1988) to John Travolta's sadly un-Divine Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (2007); from Courtney Cox in Friends (1995) to the entire cast of the sitcom My Wife and Kids (2001).
Hollywood's preoccupation with creating fat bodies for the big screen seems incongruous in a cultural climate that values thinness and feeds a billion-dollar weight loss industry. Drawing on drag, camp, and blackface, LeBesco has theorized the disruptive potential of fat suit performances. Just as drag can denaturalize essentialist gender identities, “the power and possibility of fat drag, it seems, comes in denaturalizing the thin 'original' body of the actor” (2005, p. 233). As yet this disruptive potential remains largely unrealized, and LeBesco, like other critics, finds that “whatever critical consciousness might emerge in the form of a 'size prejudice is bad' vibe of a Shallow Hal or The Nutty Professor ultimately finds itself sacrificed for cheap laughs at the expense of fat people” (2005, p. 237). Obviously there is more to the fat suit phenomenon than simply making mock, and so I extend reading fat suit performances to the narrative arcs that contain them, which I find undermine that potential critical consciousness in ways more insidious than cheap fat jokes. As cultural objects that create a visibility for transgressive bodies that only seems anomalous, fat suits in film are demonstrative and constitutive of normative discourses on fatness and weight loss.
This is particularly evident in the films Shallow Hal and Eddie Murphy's 1996 remake of The Nutty Professor, which I have singled out not because they use fat suits, but because they are movies that use fat suits to tell stories. Both films feature