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Allow me first to acknowledge that Brendan Fraser is a phenomenal actor and his brilliant performance in The Whale exposes so much honesty in the character of Charlie, a queer man grieving the loss of his partner and attempting to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) during his final days. There is no denying that Fraser is superb, as are Sink and Hong Chau as Liz, his caregiver. But looking beyond these actors' undeniable talent, The Whale is heart-wrenchingly problematic, to say the least.
Written by Samuel D. Hunter and based on his play of the same name, The Whale is less an autobiographical piece and more inspired by a particular time in Hunter's life. During the Toronto International Film Festival, Hunter spoke about the story of the film and the vulnerability of allowing audiences to see this deeply personal part of his history, revealing, "The story at the heart of The Whale and character of Charlie draw from some deep and difficult personal truths for me." Hunter added, "I grew up as a gay kid in a town in North Idaho, closeted and attending a religious high school, which taught that people like me shouldn't exist."
Odd to then make a film that perpetuates hate against fat people and argues they shouldn't exist. Bros actor Guy Branum spoke with PRIDE about this very point, saying, "I think that it's trying to use extreme fatness as a metaphor for gay pain." He continued, "As an actual fat gay person, I feel like my life doesn't need to be a metaphor for somebody else's pain." Which raises the question, were any fat people involved in the making of this movie?
Branum pointed out, "We also need to think about how much we are representing queer life and fat life through straight actors or prosthetics." While The Whale is absolutely a queer story, emphasizing the trauma caused by horrific homophobic religious organizations, I wish the story had chosen to focus solely on that aspect of the character and not demonized fat and disabled people. Instead, The Whale leans hard into fat-phobic territories, endeavoring to comment on experiences apparently foreign to the filmmakers. Some of their choices are baffling. Do neither the writer nor the director know a single person with a disability? And with Charlie employed as a teacher of an online English course, why is not a single student on his screen or any of the people in his life, including the pizza delivery driver, larger than slim? For most of my life I have known that the average adult American woman wears above a size 14. What country does Charlie live in?
In his talk at TIFF, Hunter presented an explanation about his own past relationship with food, saying, "For years, I used food as a form of self-medication, something that continued long after I had come out of the closet and made a new life for myself." Then, in what almost seemed like an attempt to course-correct his statements, he added, "Obesity manifests itself in many different ways; many people are big and happy and healthy, but that wasn't me. With the love and support of people around me, I found an off-ramp." Not only do many people in the fat community, myself included, find the word obesity to be demeaning and cruel (more on that in a minute), but the way that Hunter and director Darren Aronofsky chose to portray Charlie is unequivocally a stereotypical caricature.
Hunter's argument that this story was inspired by his personal pain -- "I wanted to tell the story of people who so easily could've been me" -- feels like a cautionary tale more than anything. Or, to plagiarize Juno, "a cautionary whale."
Many in the fat community, myself included, are not fans of the word obesity. Although it continues to be used in the medical field, it is historically not a medical term, nor does it have a medical diagnosis to go along with it. Listed as a description in the Body Mass Index -- which has its own racist history that I encourage everyone to explore -- this outdated height-to-weight ratio does not indicate health or illness. Yet The Whale uses this term in nearly every summary of the film, just as people hurl this term as fat people as an insult, often under the guise of concern trolling. Unfortunately, this BMI-based fat scale dehumanizes fat people with a spiteful intention of shaming them into weight loss, but as I try to avoid preaching, I simply suggest considering if you or a medical professional can identify a single disease or condition that affects only fat people. Spoiler: There isn't one.
As a fat person, I found The Whale a devastating nearly two hours of intentional fat shaming. Even for someone who considers herself incredibly confident in her own body -- something that took me years to achieve, to be not only content, but to actively feel positively and proud of how I look -- to then be reminded of how hated bodies like mine and undoubtedly those bigger are. It was painful to watch these stereotypes play out, along with hearing every other character in the film beg Charlie to will his fatness away. Ironic that in a film about a literal queer man, characters beg him to not be fat. Somehow, even after years of research proving that all bodies are different, and even if every person ate and worked out the same, we would still have different size bodies, The Whale continues to perpetuate severely outdated and harmful arguments.
Every time Charlie is seen eating, it's outlandishly grotesque. Aronofsky seems to believe that fat people consume food differently than nonfat people, that they gorge themselves, filling their mouths with as much food as can fit before swallowing, that somehow they are unfamiliar with forks. In a particular scene where Charlie is distraught and "eats his feelings," something people of all sizes do, the ridiculous way it was portrayed is so close to comical that I almost laughed out loud.
Have the creative team behind this film never had a stressful day and ordered a dessert to make themselves feel better? This is a universal action, yet their understanding of how it's done was alien. When soothing oneself with food, it is the flavor that triggers a neurochemical change, releasing endorphins. Watching someone place chips on top of turkey slices atop a slice of pizza and then dipping it into grape jelly and mayo is a joke. No one, no matter how compulsively they eat, wants to stuff their face with things that taste like trash. Pleasures, such as drugs or alcohol or even food, ease pain by being enjoyable. Perhaps Aronofsky has never dined with another human being, because he is obviously unaware of how food enjoyment and consumption works. Truly, a more accurate scene would have shown Charlie unwrapping his favorite treat and enjoying every delicious morsel in each delectable bite before licking his fork clean.
Many have written at length about the controversial use of fat suits, as they continue to be featured on both the big and small screens. Actress Sarah Paulson admitted in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that wearing a fat suit in Impeachment: American Crime Story was a mistake and harmful. "I think that controversy [surrounding fat suits] is a legitimate one," she said. "I think fat-phobia is real. I think to pretend otherwise causes further harm." She continued, "I think the thing I think about the most is that I regret not thinking about it more fully. And that is an important thing for me to think about and reflect on." Ultimately, she concluded, "You can only learn what you learn when you learn it. Should I have known? Abso-f--ing-lutely. But I do now. And I wouldn't make the same choice going forward." On the other hand, NBC and Renee Zellweger didn't waver in their decision to employ a fat suit for the recent limited series The Thing About Pam.
With more diverse stories being told, the argument over representation is consistently broached, and while "hiring the best actor for the role" is absolutely key, authenticity behind the role is crucial. Aronofsky revealed to Variety that it took him 10 years to find his Charlie in Fraser. Yet based on comments from Branum and Daniel Franzese of Mean Girls fame, there are a number of actually fat queer actors who were not given the opportunity to audition. So how can we be sure Charlie was played by "the best actor"?
There are, realistically, very few roles available to fat actors, and I'd bet even less for fat gay actors. Franzese told People, "So when they go time and time again and cast someone like Brendan Fraser, me and the other big queer guys, we're like, 'What the ... ?' We can't take it!"
Aronosky claimed to Variety, "I considered everyone -- all types of different actors, every single movie star on the planet. But none of them ever really clicked. It just didn't move me, or feel right." I believe that he may really believe that, but it is becoming clear how many fat actors were overlooked. In People, Franzese lamented, "To finally have a chance to be in a prestige film that might be award-nominated, where stories about people who look like us are being told? That's the dream."
One of the biggest disappointments in The Whale was that underneath the excruciating fat-phobic rhetoric was a touching story about loss, family, and trauma. But the way this writer and director chose to present Charlie to an audience was deliberately gratuitous and distracted from the moving message the story was attempting to send.
Yael Tygiel is a fat and queer entertainment host, producer, and writer. She writes about body positivity on TheFatGirlShow, and entertainment in FANVERSATION and Collider. Keep up with her on Instagram @yaeltygiel.
Views expressed in The Advocate's opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.