Editor’s note: Sarah Stewart is a film and cultural writer living in western Pennsylvania. The opinions expressed here are those of the author only. View more opinion pieces on CNN.
With Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” — out in select theaters — opening in theaters across the country this week, the movie could become a powerful source of sympathy. Just maybe not in the way intended.
The movie, which garnered high praise even as it sparked notable controversy, stars Brendan Fraser as Charlie, a 600-pound gay man who slowly eats himself to death. It is based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, and one of its most discussed features was the fat suit Frasier wears.
The film has been a flashpoint for controversy since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival this summer. While critics and audiences seem almost in agreement that they want nice guy Fraser to take home all the accolades for his selfless performance, a growing chorus has described the film’s tone and content as fat-phobic.
I haven’t seen “The Whale” yet, since I’m not in one of the two cities it was playing in prior to its extended release this week. Given the critical acclaim the film has received and my desire to see Frasier thrive after what he’s been through, I had originally planned to watch it when I could. But after spending some time reading and listening to how harmful fat people say photography is for them, I take another look.
By many accounts, the film plays on The Weight of Charlie as an utter tragedy and a visual horror show.
“Aronofsky plays Foley’s voice when Charlie eats, to emphasize the wet sound of lips smacking together. He plays ominous riffs under these sequences, so we know Charlie is doing something very bad indeed,” Katie Reeve wrote in Polygon. In case viewers didn’t realize they were supposed to find him repulsive, he reads an article about “Moby Dick” and how the whale is a “poor big animal” with no feelings.
From the very beginning, the film appears to deeply insult Charlie: he is shown nearly dying from a heart attack while masturbating to porn. “It was quite clear that Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aronofsky considered obesity the ultimate human failure,” asserted Roxanne Gay in The New York Times, “a despicable thing to be avoided at all costs.”
So maybe it’s a good occasion to devote some effort to listening, reading, and amplifying the voices of the fat community regarding their ideas about “Pisces.”
It’s not like there’s been a dearth of commentary about how bad obesity is, from official government warnings to comedians like Ricky Gervais making it one of their pet subjects. In a more novel twist, though, early news of “Pisces” this year coincided with an upsurge in discourse about both acceptance of obesity and an outspoken critique of Hollywood’s history of horrific portrayals of obesity in general, most notably in its use of the fat prosthesis. Earlier this year, Sarah Paulson and Emma Thompson came under fire for wearing prosthetic body suits, the former as Linda Tripp in “Impeachment: American Crime Story” and the latter as Miss Trunchbull in Netflix’s “Matilda.”
Hunter, who also wrote the film, told Entertainment Weekly, “I understand why there are some of these reactions because the history of portraying obese people in cinema is not good,” but argued that the film is “an invitation” to be with “Charlie. For viewers who are.” They take this invitation and go in,” he said, “I think you’ll find that this is the exact opposite of how obesity has traditionally been portrayed and dealt with in cinema.”
For me, the best that can come out of all the hype surrounding “The Whale” is the concentration of fat people’s opinions in the movie. Are you planning to see the “whale”? What do others tell them about the movie? How will this affect them, and how do we all think about obesity? Shouldn’t those of us who haven’t had this lived experience maybe… dumb F?
Aubrey Gordon, author of the upcoming book “You Just Need to Lose Weight” and 19 Other Myths About Fat People” and co-host of the excellent podcast “The Maintenance Phase,” has been a critical voice on the subject. In a 2021 episode of the show, she examines the obesity epidemic, including That is the ways in which research data has been misused over the past two decades to foment moral panic about obesity.
For me, Gordon and her co-host, Michael Hobbs, have been instrumental in evolving the way I process stories and information (and misinformation) about weight, “wellness,” and the loud cultural voices talking about health and lifestyle. The episode on Dr. Oz is a clever and hilarious jump point.
In discussing the rhetoric about “whale” on Twitter, Gordon pointed to Another Hollywood movie involving a fat suit: 2001’s “Shallow Hal,” the Farrelly brothers comedy in which a man (Jack Black) is hypnotized into believing a very fat woman (Gwyneth Paltrow, in the suit) is beautiful.
When the makers of “Shallow Hal” were accused of being fat-phobic, they said the “heart of the movie is in the right place.” that – that, Gordon said On Twitter, off topic. “It’s very sad and extraordinarily disheartening that so many people take skinny creators saying ‘we didn’t mean to hurt fat people’ as saying they somehow don’t or can’t hurt fat people. It’s very admirable and disappointing that, after more than 20 years old, still working.”
She goes on to say on the “Whale” version, “A lot of the rhetoric this time consists of fat people saying this will make life harder for me” and the response from people who aren’t fat is largely “No, it humanizes you. I would argue that this is it.” We are invited to do it.”
Guy Brannum, the actor, TV presenter, and comedian who had a role in the recent romantic comedy “Bros,” has also been vocal about his objections to “whale” and its portrayal of fat people. In an interview with NPR’s Glenn Weldon, he cited Aronofsky’s citing health risks as a reason to cast an actor in a fat suit, rather than simply casting a larger actor. “I desperately pleaded with Nick Stoller, the ‘Bros’ manager, to take out a full-page ad in Variety attesting to the fact that he worked with me for four months,” he told Weldon, and not once did he explode on the set of Obesity. ”
Brannum also shared his experience reading the play on which the film is based: “Part of me hoped it would be as good, as insightful about a life like mine. Instead it was a sad, pathetic story of a sad, pathetic man. I mourned the main character, Charlie, and how much A diminutive of the author’s imagination who presented his life, trapped in a crappy apartment, endlessly eating fried chicken.Him so he might enjoy a little happiness for a change.
Notoriously fat and weird, critic Sean Donovan wrote movingly about his experience watching the film, particularly his distaste for the “soap opera” about Charlie’s martyrdom refusal to seek medical treatment so he could leave all his money to his daughter (Sadie Sink) who he hates.
As Donovan points out, there are other, more plausible reasons a man like Charlie might avoid hospitals: “Shaming in medical settings is such a real danger to the abnormal and obese population that we avoid it precisely when you need it most.” These contexts never surfaced. In The Whale to his detriment, as they could have invested the film in breathtakingly real challenges and barriers facing gay and fat people in the world.”
Donovan’s assertions are corroborated by Scientific American, whose stigma correspondent Virginia Sol Smith covered the many ways medicine taints anti-fat bias, from doctors admitting they are “disgusted” by overweight patients to the “obese paradox” , which refers to its findings in some cases, “obese people.” [are] They don’t die of heart disease like we’ve always been told they will,” and that being physically active is actually more important to heart health than your body size.
It’s in Aronofsky’s failure to engage any of these viewpoints — and he’s talked a lot about the film since its release — that it shows just how little connection there is between “whale” and the fat people who live and breathe.
So instead of watching this movie, I make plans to read and listen to writers who are working to change the perception and portrayal of fat people. In addition to Gordon’s book and podcast, there’s critic Clarkisha Kent’s memoir “Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto,” due out next March, and journalist and author Yvette Dion’s new book “Weightless: Making Room for My Flexible Body and Soul.” Also worth reading: “Shrill” by Lindy West (later a TV show starring Aidy Bryant), a memoir that became an instant classic when it was published in 2016.
I think West should have the final say here, from her 2011 fat-shaming essay, “Hey, I’m Fat.” Her lyrics describe why, for all that may be wonderful about “Pisces,” I don’t want to see it.
“That’s what the whole thing is about — it’s not about ‘health’, it’s about ‘eeeewww.’ You think fat people are lousy. Eeeewww, a fat person might touch you on a plane. With their fat! … And sorry, I refuse to eeeeeewwww your.”
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