I have loved you and your work since I was a teenager. If I remember correctly, it was The Young Ones that brought you to my attention. Then I remember you in The Tall Guy. My bookshelves are full of your movies on DVD; Sense & Sensibility, Love Actually (you’re the best part in that movie!) Peter’s Friends, Dead Again, Late Night, Brave, the Men in Black films, Howard’s End, Much Ado About Nothing, and my favourite movie of all time, Stranger Than Fiction (nobody ever talks about what a brilliant movie this is.)
I’ve also loved your work for women’s rights over the years. Campaigns you have done for sexual trafficking, domestic abuse, women’s health, body image and so many more. I’ve loved how honest, passionate and full of common sense you have always been. I have loved your sense of humour and willingness to laugh at yourself.
Recently I heard you in the media talking about how you struggle to see your own body in the mirror, and how women are not used to seeing “untreated” bodies on screen, how we are indoctrinated to hate our bodies. Which made my dismay all that more sharp when I saw that you are wearing a fat suit to play the role of Trunchbull in the new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The ultimate in a “treated body” for film.
Emma, do you not see how your wearing a fat suit to play the baddie is demonising other women’s bodies? I gave you a pass on Nanny McPhee, because I saw the moral of that story as being that people you don’t really know can look scary, but as you get to know them and love them, you see their beauty shining from within. But there’s nothing I can find in this portrayal of Trunchbull that gives any indication of there being a better message about women’s bodies. All I see is “It’s not enough for me to act mean and scary, I have to use a fat body to demonstrate that I’m the bad guy.”
I’m a librarian. I’ve read Matilda to children for many years. Trunchbull, in the book is described as:
“above all a most formidable female. She had once been a famous athlete, and even now the muscles were still clearly in evidence. You could see them in the bull-neck, in the big shoulders, in the thick arms, in the sinewy wrists and in the powerful legs. Looking at her, you got the feeling that this was someone who could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half. Her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy for ever. She had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes.”
Nowhere is she described as fat, or having an enormous bosom, or a fat face. But looking at your costume for the film, all I see is your face and body with a lot of prosthetics on them to make you look fat.
Admittedly, Quentin Blake’s original illustrations did make Trunchbull somewhat blockier than muscular (but she doesn’t really have “small arrogant eyes” in his drawings either), and the original movie and subsequent stage plays have taken their look from those drawings, and used fat actresses. But you Emma, you’re the one in the media talking about how women’s bodies are scrutinised and ridiculed and made to feel unworthy if they’re anything but perfect. I expected you would understand. I expected that you, a woman I consider one of the finest actors alive, would be able to portray Trunchbull without using fake fatness to make her horrifying.
I am a very fat woman. I also work with children. They don’t see me as scary or mean. I’m like Miss Honey to them, only I’m almost 50, very fat and not in any way pretty. But I’m colourful and smiley and cuddly. They want to crawl on to my lap when I read to them, or hug my leg as they talk to me in the book stacks. Or lay their heads on my enormous bosom when they’re tired or grumpy or sad.
When I look in the mirror at the body that does look quite like the fat suit you’re wearing in those photos, at my face that is round like the embellished one you have as that character, I hear your voice in my head about how women can’t look in the mirror without hating their bodies. Then I am reminded that famous actresses put on fake versions of my body to portray women who are mean, scary bullies, because who could believe a slim woman is a mean, scary bully? Can it not be imagined that someone who was slim could ever be a horrible person? I mean, a thin person never made anyone feel bad about themselves, did they?
One of the reasons I always loved Roald Dahl is because when I was a little, chubby girl in primary school I read The Twits, and this quote spoke to me:
“If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
We know now that Roald Dahl was problematic, and we adapt around them. No-one knows how to adapt writing from the past like you do! You’ve literally won an Oscar for it! In this case, he wasn’t the one that made the character hurtful to fat people, but you can definitely be one to start to undo that, to make a real difference.
Look it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever see this. But other people will. Perhaps someone who thought they might take their kids to see this film might think again, or take the time to explain to their kids why your wearing a fat suit in the movie is not OK. A fat person might read this and realise that they’re not alone in being hurt and angry that you’ve chosen to do this.
But just on the off chance that you or one of the people you work with sees this, I want you to know this. Slim actors wearing fat suits hurts us. It makes us hate our own bodies, and it contributes to other people hating us for our bodies. Not to mention that it denies fat actors work. When there is a fat character in a film, at least hire a fat actor, but interrogate what you are saying with that character.
I know the film has been completed and it’s unlikely any changes can be made now. I know you’re probably not able to say anything about wearing that fat suit even if you do now understand why it was the wrong thing to do. What I would like you to do, is from this point on, think about what prosthetics say when you’re asked to wear them in a movie. You can also use your considerable platform to speak up for ALL women’s bodies, not just those that fit into a narrow window of “acceptable”. I’d also like you to advocate for fat actresses as well. You’ve produced some pretty big movies so far, there’s your opportunity to ask “Can we just get an actress with the body type, rather than using prosthetics?” and “Does this character really need to be fat?”
Because after having watched you for so many years, I believe that you are not someone who has ugly thoughts, I believe that you have good thoughts that shine out of your face.
An Actual Fat Woman.