Some time ago, we began to see posts going around on social media about your new film, The Whale, starring Brendan Fraser in what’s being hailed as his “comeback role” as Charlie, a 600 lb. recluse and food addict.
Immediately, our hearts sank. We didn’t need more than the title and a photo of Fraser in a fat suit to tell us everything we needed to know about the fatphobia at the heart of this film and the very real harm it will do to the very real fat people who experience the fallout from it.
Still, we dug into it, reading articles and interviews and reviews to better understand what we’d be facing. You see, as a professional practice of therapists, coaches, and educators who embrace body affirmation and fat liberation as core values, who offer a welcoming and informed space for people struggling with body image issues and weight-related trauma, we know that our clients will be coming to us with the pain your movie has caused them.
We know that you believe you’re doing a good thing with this movie. That you’re handling the topic of fatness “sensitively” and exploring what you believe is the reality of extremely high weight people. We know that Brendan Fraser has struggled with weight gain, the death knell of many a Hollywood career (and we’re all among the countless fans who have sympathized with his mental health struggles and cheered for him to have the love and success he deserves). We know that playwright Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the theater script as well as adapting it for film, formerly grappled with his weight.
All of that doesn’t change the fact that fat people will be harmed, and some may even die, as a result of your film.
Approximately 10,000 people– one every 52 minutes– dies as a result of an eating disorder centered around the desire to lose weight. There are clear correlations between suicidal ideation and weight discrimination (forms of which include bullying, social isolation, refusal of medical care, and pressure to lose weight from friends and family) in adolescents and adults. Fat bias kills. It’s a simple statement of fact.
You might want to protest that your intention with The Whale is to encourage the audience to empathize with Fraser’s character Charlie. We’d like to respond with a quote from Aubrey Gordon’s recent Twitter thread about Shallow Hal and The Whale:
It’s disheartening, too, that so much of the discourse this time around consists of fat people saying “this is going to make life harder for me” and the response from people who aren’t fat is largely “no, it’s humanizing you.”
Perhaps you truly don’t understand what’s so harmful about The Whale. We’d like to break it down for you– and if not for you, then for the countless people who may see the movie and not realize what’s so bad about it.
Let’s start with the original theater script and why Charlie is fat and a compulsive eater. In the first drafts of the script, Charlie isn’t fat. Hunter said in a New York Times article about the decision to add that in:
I’m hoping that people look at Charlie less as someone who has given up and more as someone who has made a decision, self-destructive as it may be. Charlie has decided years ago that he’s going to gain this weight, that he will submit to it entirely, that he’s going to construct his own fleshy coffin year by year. It’s sort of a long-form suicide. In a way Charlie doesn’t hide himself because he’s obese — he’s obese because he hides himself.
The idea that fat people choose fatness as a means of creating “armor” or distancing themselves from painful emotions, or as a form of self-harm or self-sabotage, is a dangerously misguided (if extremely popular) stereotype. While some people do believe that they gained weight as a form of self-defense, many others are bombarded with supposedly well-meaning messages about how the “secret” to their weight gain is that they subconsciously chose it to wall themselves off– shades of “you chose your present trauma in a past life” or “everything happens for a reason”.
The explanation that fat bodies are isolationist structures to shut out the world also encourages fat people to view their own bodies as the enemy in the course of trying to do the work of emotional healing. Weight gain happens for a wide variety of reasons, many of them outside one’s direct control. And while compulsive eating can be connected to emotional distress, one of its main characteristics is a feeling of being unable to control one’s eating, not doing it as a “long-form suicide” by intention.
The notion that fat people are fat by choice is popular, but harmful– because if it’s a choice, then clearly (says our fatphobic society) the people making it are making a bad choice that they should just fix. As if it’s that easy. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)
The point is, the fact that Hunter threw in an extreme fatness angle out of some misinformed sense of pathos, and drew on fatphobic cliches to do it, makes the very premise of the movie problematic and offensive. He added it in because it was an easy shorthand to make the character sad and pathetic, not because it was truly necessary to the script.
And then there’s the fat suit.
It’s less common now to see a fat suit used for cheap jokes, as producers and directors reluctantly yielded ground to the many activists calling it out as dehumanizing and offensive. But you all think you’ve found a loophole: call it “historical accuracy” (as when Sarah Paulson played Linda Tripp) or “sensitive”, and it’s just part of telling a story, right? Craft the suit with painstaking reality, as with this one that Brendan Fraser praised as “beautiful and arresting”, and you get a pass, right?
Fatness is not a costume for actors to put on for Oscars cred.
Every use of a fat suit carries the stained legacy of the cruel, mocking ways it was used in the past. Your intentions can’t erase that. And using them just further erases the reality and existence of people who live in those bodies every day. Instead of telling our own stories, it means someone else is telling us what they think our story is or should be. And, always, getting it wrong.
Getting it wrong? But you all talked to the Obesity Action Coalition! Well, we’re genuinely sad that that’s where you went for insight on lived experience for people of size. The OAC is not a friend to fat people. It’s largely funded by the diet industry, pathologizes high weight and people of size as a problem to be eliminated, and shares stigmatizing and medically-unsound information about the consequences of high weight and the benefits of weight loss. Ragen Chastain at Dances With Fat profiled the many ways they cause harm.
Let’s also talk for a moment about the title. “The Whale” is a reference to Charlie’s favorite book, Moby-Dick, as well as the biblical tale of Jonah and the whale. That one is Samuel Hunter’s fault; but you, Darren Aronofsky, looked at a play whose very title is a painful slur that many, many, actual, real, living fat people have been hurt by– and you said, “Yes, that’s definitely a sensitive examination of life as a fat person and a movie that needs to be made.” That part is on you.
Reviews of your movie talk about your detailed, grotesque shots of Charlie’s repulsive eating habits– grease rimming his mouth, food falling on his clothes. Are you truly unaware that a huge aspect of fatphobia is disgust at the very idea of fat people eating? That fatphobia insists that when fat people eat, it’s gluttonous, gross, sloppy, crude? And, for that matter, that one of the most pervasive and simply wrong fatphobic beliefs is that all fat people are fat because they constantly overeat and eat only “junk” food? Your examination of binge eating, if that’s what this is, crosses a line to become an exploitative freak show that relies on some of the worst and most biased ideas about people of size.
Finally, there’s the fact that Charlie is days away from death due to his size. The belief that fat people are a cheeseburger away from death’s door is another lie that just won’t die, and fuels the fatphobic need to “helpfully” concern-troll people of size and shame them “for their own good”, because everyone is oh-so-concerned about their health.
(If people were genuinely so concerned about the health of fat people, they’d be rising up en masse to revolutionize health care and eliminate the medical weight bias that results in terminal illnesses going undiagnosed and untreated in people of size. No…? Nothing…? Could it be that none of your weight-shaming is actually about health…?)
People like Charlie are held up and demonized as the ultimate bogeyman, the future that awaits anyone who has the audacity to put on a few pounds. This is no different; The Whale will join the ranks of fatsploitation media like My 400 Pound Life or The Biggest Loser as the fatphobe’s closing argument: “You don’t want to end up like THAT, do you??”
And it’s oddly fitting that Charlie is also a queer man mourning the death of his lover. One of our culture’s favorite literary tropes, throughout history, is that those who live outside social expectations must be “punished” with literary suffering and death. Queer characters, historically, have ended up dead or sick or watching their partners die.
You and Samuel Hunter have managed to bring fatness and queerness together in a Grand Guignol spectacle of tragedy porn that allows all those people straight in both size and orientation to feel the relief of knowing that the things they fear the most will be punished with death. Because both queerphobes and fatphobes would like nothing more than for the people they hate to simply cease to exist, so that they never need to face their hatred and bigotry directly, so that they don’t have to confront the possibility that they may just not be very nice people.
We’re tired, Mr. Aronofsky. We’re tired of constantly trying to educate a world that will fight to the death to justify fat hate no matter how otherwise progressive it may be. We’re tired of explaining why fat jokes aren’t funny, of pointing out the countless knee-jerk ways that people express fatphobia every day. We’re tired of the endless trauma inflicted daily on people of size. We’re tired of having our lived experiences patronizingly and wrongly explained to us by people who have never spent a day in our shoes. And we’re tired of media depictions of fat people that are created by thin people, gatekept by thin people, and given six minute standing ovations by thin people while the voices of fat people are excluded, ignored, or shouted down.
This letter is likely to never reach your eyes, or Samuel Hunter’s, or Brendan Fraser’s. But even if it does, your damage is still done. You have still harmed fat people, the largest and the smallest of us. You can’t unring that bell now.
The best we can hope for is that this will be read by people who can be reached, who are willing to learn and grow and understand why films like this are so harmful. And we hope this will be read by people of size who felt sick when they heard about this movie, who will see that they weren’t alone in feeling bad because this film exists.
Living as a fat person is often difficult and painful, Mr. Aronofsky. But it’s not because our bodies are fat. It’s because it means existing in a world full of cruelty, inaccessibility, shaming– and of supposedly well-meaning people making “sensitive” media about fat people and giving it names like The Whale.
The therapists, coaches, and educators of The Pincus Center for Inclusive Treatment & Education
A note about terminology: We have alternated the term “of size” with “fat” deliberately. We understand that the word “fat” is still very uncomfortable for many people of size, and we recognize why. However, we subscribe to the belief that “fat” is and should be a neutral descriptor like “tall” or “blonde” and choose to reclaim it as such, thus taking away its power as an insult or slur. We feel that treating the word “fat” as offensive is to agree that being of size is a bad thing– and we do not agree to that at all. Body size and shape is morally neutral and we believe our language needs to reflect that.