The Exhausting Fatphobia of "The Whale"

The Exhausting Fatphobia of "The Whale"

Brendan Fraser’s comeback film, “The Whale,” has made tons of headlines thanks to people’s excitement over seeing his return to screens. He’s received emotional standing ovations at film festivals, reunited with former costars, and been candid about his life and career journey during his press tour. And yet, “The Whale,” released by A24 and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is very bad.

In the movie, Fraser plays Charlie, a gay, fat man who is estranged from his teenage daughter and supports himself by teaching writing classes over Zoom. He loves writing and reading, though we never actually see him do any. No, Charlie’s days consist of teaching his classes with the camera off, waiting for his friend to bring him food, and eating the food. In the opening scene, he masturbates while watching gay porn, which causes him to have a cardiac event, which is only stopped by having a door-to-door missionary read aloud his favorite essay, which, of course, is about “Moby Dick.” It’s a bad start for a movie that never gets better.

Fraser and Aronofsky have both spoken about how they wanted to use “The Whale” to make the plight of homebound fat people visible. And yes, there are innumerable fat people who, like Charlie, stay at home because of fatphobia and the inaccessibility of the outside world. Ask any fat person who’s had to pick a table at a crowded restaurant about how outside structures can be inhospitable to our bodies and how those obstacles are worse the larger a person is.

And yet, if visibility was really one of the filmmakers’ goals, wouldn’t they have used someone whose weight is closer to Charlie’s? Fraser is, as he’s noted, a big person, and I’m not at all discounting his experience of gaining weight in an industry that can be severely fatphobic. But his experience is nothing like Charlie’s. Screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the play the movie is based on, has said the story is inspired by his own experience as a fat child and the weight he gained in early adulthood. He is no longer fat. Hunter’s story, too, is absolutely nothing like Charlie’s in the movie. While all fat people face discrimination, it’s larger ones who face the most marginalization, and neither Fraser nor Hunter has any first-hand knowledge of that.

Aronofsky seems to believe that anyone who’s as big as Charlie wouldn’t have physically been able to make it through a single day on set. “From a health perspective, it’s prohibitive. . . . It’s an impossible role to fill with a real person dealing with those issues,” he told Variety in October. But that’s Aronofsky’s own fatphobia; there are people who weigh 500 or 600 pounds who can handle acting in movies, who handle full-time jobs and full-time lives of their own. They wouldn’t have spontaneously dropped dead because of the stress of filming. The cast and crew have admitted that they went to great lengths to accommodate Fraser’s fat suit; it took him hours to put it and its accompanying facial prosthetics on, and on Dec. 10, Variety published a story about how Fraser needed to use five bags of ice per day to stay cool. Surely hiring an actor who didn’t need to wear heavy, dangerous prosthetics would have saved time, energy, and money and, frankly, looked better. I’ve yet to see a fat suit that makes an actor look like a real fat person. Fraser could get accommodations for his fat suit, but Aronofsky couldn’t imagine accommodating a fat actor.

But maybe hiring a fat person like Charlie would have clued them into the harmful stereotypes the movie repackages as its plot. Charlie calls himself disgusting multiple times, and the camera agrees with him. The viewer is invited to gawk at Charlie; every time he rises from the couch, the music swells, as if he was the literal whale of the movie’s title rising above the waves. Charlie’s apartment is depressing. His clothes are always sweaty and greasy. His hair is terrible. He has accessibility devices to help him get through his routine, but they are all jerry-rigged and look like they’re falling apart. He’s judged for using them at all. Every time Charlie yells, or laughs, or grunts, or groans, it turns into a coughing attack.

Aronofsky told Vanity Fair in August, “Unfortunately, so many characters portrayed in the media who are living with obesity are treated awfully — either they’re humiliated, made fun of, or just living in squalor.” “The Whale,” he said, wasn’t like that. I have to wonder if he’s seen his own film.

Charlie doesn’t feel like a real person — just a shell of a man made for some unclear political point and to make thin audiences cry.

Then there’s Charlie’s apparent health issue. Early in the movie, his friend who happens to be a nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), tells him he has heart failure and needs to go to the doctor. It’s very serious; he’s actively dying. But besides her warning and Charlie’s frequent chest pains, this isn’t incorporated into the plot at all. As Heartline explains, a common side effect of heart failure is severe nausea and vomiting. But that doesn’t affect Charlie, who manages to chomp down on a big sandwich (which he eats so fast he almost chokes) and a giant bucket of fried chicken, one of the most tired, fatphobic stereotypes there is.

Charlie refuses to receive any sort of medical treatment, despite the fact that he has thousands of dollars in his savings account. It would be one thing if he didn’t want to go because he feared fatphobia from medical staff, a real issue that keeps many fat people from receiving medical care. But no — it’s because he’s saving all his money to give to his estranged daughter, from whom he was cut off contact by his ex-wife when he left her for a man, who’s since died. I spent most of the movie just begging someone to call an ambulance. Heart failure is not a death sentence.

In “The Whale,” Charlie is the good-hearted fat person who must quietly suffer and die. But don’t worry — no matter how much people might hurt and abuse him, he’ll always think the best of people. Even when his Zoom students finally see him and act with literal, over-the-top shock, he still sees the good in them (and, of course, none of those students are fat themselves).

That’s also part of the larger issue here. It would be one thing if Charlie and “The Whale” were just one character and one film in a rich tapestry of films and TV shows about fat people. But there are so few fat people even in supporting roles in current media. Pay attention the next time you watch a crowd scene, and see how many background characters are fat. It’s an incredibly small number. So when Hollywood does choose to spotlight a story about a fat person and it’s this one, it sucks. Defenders of “The Whale”‘s prosthetics have said there are no famous or talented fat actors like Charlie who could have played the part. But that’s a reflection of Hollywood’s fatphobia, too.

But, in a way, it all makes sense, since Aronofsky and Fraser have implied over and over that this isn’t a movie for fat audiences. “The hope is we can change hearts and minds about how we relate to one another or don’t relate to one another, how we may dismiss one another, by simply by virtue of how we appear to one another,” Fraser told Reuters earlier this month. Aronofksy has repeatedly called it an “exercise in empathy.” Implicit in these statements is that it’s meant to have that effect on thin people.

Charlie’s struggles do affect real fat Americans every day: fatphobia, ableism, accessibility issues, poor healthcare, and workplace discrimination. But “The Whale” doesn’t want us to interrogate society and why so many fat people find themselves in dire straits. It doesn’t implicate thin people as a source of the difficulties fat people face. Instead, it’s just supposed to be a sad story about a guy who always sees the best in people, even when they’re mean to him. A guy who thinks he should be punished for being gay and for being fat, who chooses to punish himself even more for both those things. Charlie doesn’t feel like a real person — just a shell of a man made for some unclear political point and to make thin audiences cry. But I’m not crying for him.

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