I hadn’t planned on engaging with The Whale. In fact, one of my fat friends and I joked extensively about how much we were not, under any circumstances, going to shine our light on The Whale, no disrespect to the fat writers who chose to do so. Why would we? There is nothing new in it, as much as its director, Darren Aronofsky, believes he has made a novel masterpiece of fat humanity. Every bit of The Whale is old.
However, I changed my mind about watching The Whale when another friend (a thin one, so you can take him seriously!) texted me, fresh out of a pre-release screening, that it was one of the worst, stupidest movies he’d seen in years. Well, now I was intrigued! The hype around The Whale – in particular Brendan Fraser’s Oscar-nominated performance – had been so self-serious, so high-minded, I’d assumed it was a well-made art film whose creators just happened to have chosen a subject matter they likely weren’t equipped to handle. But to find out it was simply bad? The thought of gilded Academy voters weeping over a video of Fraser in a fat suit choking on a meatball sub gave me a strange pleasure. The joke, suddenly, was on them. Delicious as a Cheeto sandwich sprayed with ranch dressing, a meal that The Whale’s protagonist eats while crying. Standing ovation! LOL. You idiots.
I have been writing about being fat, begging for my humanity to be seen, for a long time. I might tell you, with reservations, that we’ve made some progress in my time. Smaller fat people have a few more clothing options. Weight Watchers has rebranded to pretend it isn’t a diet programme. High-fashion designers will sometimes send a token fat model down the runway, even if they don’t sell garments in her size, while mid-market brands feature a slightly more realistic range of models. It is now trendy, on Instagram, to suck the fat out of your waist and tummy and spray it inside of your butt and thighs to make them a little fatter (although I hear heroin chic is also coming back – as if it ever left). I personally was allowed to make three seasons of a television show in which a fat woman leaves the house and has many friends and lovers and is not particularly depressed. That’s something, isn’t it?
The structural oppression of fat people (substandard medical care, lower salaries, exclusion from public life) remains unchanged but, hey, at least it’s fashionable to have a huge ass now, and the thin people are a little nicer to our faces. But how do they talk about us when we’re not around? The Whale, I fear, holds the answer.
After watching The Whale, observing its reverent reception at the Venice film festival and beyond, and following Aronofsky’s ongoing press tour in which he repeatedly insists that his film is in service to fat people, generously “humanising” us, I have to say: wow, ha ha, OK, no.
Maybe it’s unfair to use one independent film as the barometer for an entire society’s attitude toward fat people; maybe it’s a straw man argument to accuse one fat character of being a stand-in for all fat people. But as a professional fat person I can tell you that people in general are incapable of seeing any fat person as an individual, and as a professional film critic I can tell you that if The Whale didn’t reflect and validate society’s real opinion of fat people, there’s no way society would like The Whale this much. There’s very little entertainment in it. It is not fun or funny or sweet or deep or beautifully written or illuminating. It sucks to watch and it is very, very silly.
No, people respond positively to The Whale because it confirms their biases about what fat people are like (gross, sad) and why fat people are fat (trauma, munchies) and allows them to feel benevolent yet superior. It’s a basic dopamine hit, reifying thin people’s place at the top of the social hierarchy. Look at me, Mom! I’m doing empathy on the big greasy monsters! Thin people hate us so much that this is what it looks like when they’re trying to like us.
Charlie is a 600lb gay man who hides in his apartment and violently binge-eats because he’s depressed that the love of his life, Alan, died by suicide (before jumping off a bridge, Alan starved himself nearly to death – and they say fat people are clumsy and heavy-handed!). When we first meet Charlie, he is sinking into his rotting couch, surrounded by garbage and what looks like a 32-ounce Hydro flask of mayonnaise, masturbating to pornography. He climaxes, triggering some sort of cardiac event, which prompts him to slurp his wet hand out of his sweatpants with a pop like a cork and, squealing, beat at his chest in a desperate effort to breathe. Or, as I like to call it, Wednesday!
Aronofsky told the Los Angeles Times: “What I really love about cinema is that it is this great exercise in empathy and that you can watch a movie about any person in the world, and if it’s an honest, truthful portrayal, you will be brought into their life, into their circumstance.” Honest according to whom? Truthful to what standard?
The Whale is not a real fat person telling their own raw story with all the complexities and contradictions of lived experience. Charlie is a fictional character created by a thin person, a fantasy of fat squalor, a confirmation that we “do this” to ourselves: that we gorge buckets of chicken like mindless beasts, that we never see the world, never let the sun warm our bodies, never step into the sea, never make art, never feel human touch, never truly live. Portrayals like this steal from us in two directions: we are denied both the freedom to enjoy food and to have complicated relationships with it. I suppose my criticism boils down to this: a fat person, even one with a life identical to Charlie’s, could never have made The Whale. It is fundamentally not of us and therefore incurably untrue.
A recent profile in Playbill mentioned that playwright and screenwriter Samuel D Hunter’s “own struggle self-medicating his depression with food influenced Charlie’s long, passive culinary suicide”. Hunter is not fat – he is a thin person with baggage around food and body, an assuredly painful state that afflicts us all but does not offer meaningful insight into life (and such lives exist!) at 600 pounds.
In a New York Times interview from 2012, Hunter said: “For me the play is fundamentally a story of a father trying to reconnect with his daughter. The weight is an element of the storytelling, in the same way that the play has a unit set or five characters.” Charlie did not need to be fat (or, as Hunter put it, “construct[ing] his own fleshy coffin”) to tell this story. Charlie’s fatness is a tool used to evoke in thin audiences the same feelings that fat people seem to evoke in Hunter and Aronofsky: horror, disgust, distance, alienation. “By the end,” Hunter says, “Charlie becomes an unlikely vehicle for the audience’s empathy.” Unlikely? Why? Is he a serial killer? A mafioso? What a thing to say.
In a naked PR manoeuvre to undercut exactly these objections, Aronofsky and Fraser have both breathlessly touted the production’s partnership with the Obesity Action Coalition, a nonprofit that says it aims to “elevate and empower those affected by obesity through education, advocacy and support”. Spend a few minutes on the OAC’s website and you will find a funders’ list of pharmaceutical giants and bariatric surgery centres. These are people who want us to pay them to make us disappear. The old guard, the old way. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
In one scene – intended, I think, to demonstrate Charlie’s jolly self-awareness and good attitude – his “friend” Liz jokes that she’s going to stab him to death if he doesn’t stop saying “I’m sorry” all the time. Charlie responds, “Go ahead! What’s it gonna do? My internal organs are two feet in at least!” This is indistinguishable from the kind of things that thin people (and fat people trapped in the cycle of penance) say about me in comments sections and internet forums when they fantasise about my well-deserved death. In The Whale, it’s a joke written by one thin man for another thin man in a fat suit to deliver under the direction of a third thin man, and then they all get an award. That’s not how gallows humour works, my brothers!
Even the central metaphor (hammered to death via a subplot about a Moby-Dick essay our protagonist’s daughter wrote in eighth grade) doesn’t work. Have the film-makers actually read Moby-Dick? Is the connection they’re drawing between this story and Herman Melville’s simply “whale”? If the protagonist, Charlie, is the whale, then who is his Ahab? Society? Or is Charlie Ahab and his Moby Dick is pizza? More importantly, who reads Moby-Dick in eighth grade!?
At one of the film’s emotional peaks, Charlie slobbers that he hopes there isn’t an afterlife so that his ex-boyfriend can’t look down from heaven and see how fat he’s gotten, see the mould between his skin folds and the infected ulcer on his anus. And I’m supposed to say what? Thank you? For this? “Representation matters”? I’d rather slap four pieces of pizza together in a big stack, dip it in grape jelly and cram it down my pelican gullet, while the score screeches a downmarket Carmina Burana until I drop dead. That’s what I was planning to do tonight, anyway.
To the film-makers: You are not on the gallows with us; you are the hangman. You are not noble, long-suffering Liz trying to save Charlie, or Charlie’s inexplicable, glowing benevolence in an unjust world; you are the dirty apartment, closing in. Fat people are already trapped, suffocating, inside the stories the rest of you tell yourselves about us. We have plenty of your stories. What we don’t have is the space to forge untainted relationships with food and our bodies, to speak honestly about our lives without being abused, to explore our full potential without having it stolen by a world that thinks of us as Charlie – if it thinks of us at all.
Lindy West is the author of Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman.