Spoilers for The Whale ahead.
Spoilers for The Whale ahead.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale has been greeted with plenty of standing ovations. It’s been heralded as a comeback for its star, Brendan Fraser. Hell, he’s already had Oscar rumors floating around, and the movie hasn’t even been released. Yet, the movie has also been accused of anti-fat bias from the get-go — for good reason.
If you’re not familiar with the movie’s premise, according to A24, The Whale is about “a reclusive English teacher living with severe obesity who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption.” Said English teacher is Charlie, a 600-pound gay man — played by Brendan in the movie.
It’s based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, so let’s take a second to explore what actually happens in the original production. Charlie is called a “monster” by his daughter, Ellie, who is played by Sadie Sink in the upcoming adaptation. He is said to be eating himself to death from grief. At one point, Charlie almost dies from the effort of masturbating to gay porn (which is the opening scene in the movie).
Subsequently, some were concerned that any adaptation of the play would fall into a number of anti-fat tropes seen across media: that fat people are constantly on the verge of death, that their bodies are a disgusting spectacle, and that their stories must involve trauma.
Then there’s Brendan’s casting. In order to play Charlie, Brendan had to don a fat suit and various prosthetics. This practice has seen plenty of controversy in other recent media — Renée Zellweger and Sarah Paulson have both discussed backlash for their use of fat suits. Why? As well as their ability to make fat bodies take on an uncanny valley look, they can be seen as harmful in a Hollywood ecosystem where the exclusion of bigger bodies has been widely documented.
Brendan himself did address the controversy at the London Film Festival, saying, “I’m not a small man — and I don’t know what the metric is to qualify to play the role. I only know that I had to give as honest a performance as I can.”
“I’m hopeful that we can change some hearts and minds at least in terms of how we think and feel about those who live with obesity,” Brendan continued. “So often, those people are dismissed in our society, or the object of scorn and derision, and it’s unfair to them. I believe that shaming people for that reason is almost the last domain of prejudice that we overlook, and I think we can do better to change that.”
Director Darren Aronofsky also alluded to the controversy in an interview with Variety, saying, “There was a chapter in the making of this film where we tried to research actors with obesity. Outside of not being able to find an actor who could pull off the emotions of the role, it just becomes a crazy chase. Like, if you can’t find a 600-pound actor, is a 300-pound actor or 400-pound actor enough?”
Aronofsky’s words spurred a negative reaction, such as from esteemed writer and professor Roxane Gay:
And Bros actor and co-producer Guy Branum:
So, what about people who have seen the movie? Many reviews have praised Brendan’s performance, and the film holds a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
That being said, plenty of reviewers have found issue with the way Charlie’s body was depicted. Polygon called it an “act of hate disguised as tough love.” Vanity Fair wrote that the film’s depiction of Charlie’s body was one of “leering horror” rather than empathy. Slant wrote “Considering how Libatique’s camera leeringly treats Charlie as an unsightly object of pity throughout, it’s difficult to deny the film’s fatphobia.”
So, in a media landscape where anti-fat bias is systemic, fat suits are frequently used to ghoulish effects, and fat stories center on trauma and spectacle — do we really need another movie?