The Movie "The Whale" Perpetuates Stereotypes
Note: this has some spoilers about the movie The Whale.
I had mixed feelings about the movie The Whale before I even saw it since I’d already heard some of the controversy about the portrayal of fat people. (For those who don’t know, the movie is about a gay man named Charlie, a 600-pound shut-in who’s trying to reconnect with his daughter Ellie before he dies.)
I debated about watching it, but I finally decided to give it a try because of the actors. I’ve been a fan of Brendan Fraser (who plays the protagonist, Charlie) for a long time, and I liked Sadie Sink (who plays Charlie’s daughter) in Stranger Things.
After seeing it, while I think Fraser did a good job, I can’t say that I liked the movie – and a lot of it does come down to the messages it sends about fat people. Also, while I’ve read the arguments that the writer and others make about the fact that the movie is about one individual, not fat people as a whole, the reality is that media portrayal of this reflects much more general sentiments towards those who are overweight.
Charlie didn’t need to be fat, or at least so fat
The first thing I found questionable was the choice to make Charlie weigh 600 pounds. According to trivia notes from IMDB (and mentions elsewhere), it seems that the film’s writer, Samuel D. Hunter, went through a period of binge eating. At some point, he also got quite heavy because he talks about later losing around 130 pounds.
Before losing the weight, Hunter said he felt very isolated, and he wanted to use Charlie’s weight as a means of keeping him distant from others.
I have a couple of problems with this. First, it reinforces the idea that fat people should be shunned and kept out of sight of everyone because they’re just too disgusting to see.
Second, Hunter himself never got to 600 pounds, so he can’t speak or write with any real authority about what that’s like. And by making Charlie so heavy, it seems like Hunter was making a caricature of sorts, exaggerating his own weight out of all proportion. But while caricatures are meant to be funny, this was anything but.
Normalizing negative stereotypes
Then there’s the fact that the film played up so many of the negative stereotypes about fat people.
I already mentioned one, that fat people are too gross to be allowed in public. Charlie wouldn’t even let his pizza delivery guy see him, instead leaving money in the mailbox. The one time the delivery guy lingers to get a peek, his expression is one of horror when he glimpses Charlie.
Adding to that is the fact that Charlie teaches English classes online, and he always keeps his camera off. He doesn’t even want to let his students see his face for fear of how they’ll react, and likely because he expects them to ridicule him.
As for the reason Charlie is so fat? He suffered a great loss when his partner, Alan, died by suicide, and Charlie turned to food and binge eating as a way to cope. This reinforces the idea that people who are overweight have experienced trauma and/or are “eating their emotions.” This may be true for some, but it’s not the case for everyone who’s heavy.
As for how Charlie eats and looks, he’s portrayed as very slovenly, a messy and indiscriminate eater who shovels in food so fast that he literally chokes and nearly dies. I have no doubt this is exactly what a lot of people think when they picture fat people eating.
And let’s not forget the cruelty. To be fair, not everyone is mean to Charlie. His friend Liz (kind of his sister-in-law, since she was Alan’s sister), helps Charlie and is (generally) kind to him. But Charlie’s daughter Ellie is a whole other story.
Admittedly, Ellie is nasty to just about everyone, and she’s mad that her father left her to be with his gay lover. But still, almost the first thing she says upon seeing him for the first time in seven years is, “Am I gonna get that fat?” Then she demands that he walk across the room to her without using his walker, and seems to feel a perverse satisfaction when he collapses after one step.
Yet Charlie accepts that treatment, and the way others view him, as if this is what he deserves. He’s hugely fat, after all. Of course, people would be disgusted by him.
This very portrayal, though, makes it all the more likely and acceptable for people in real life to be that disdainful of fat people, and that’s not okay.
Thin actors playing fat people
One of the biggest criticisms of the film is that, as happens all too often, a thin person puts on a fat suit to play a fat person. Fraser has pointed out that he wore “prosthetics”, which themselves weighed a lot, rather than a fat suit, but that strikes me as semantics.
The concern with this is that the actor has no real knowledge of what it’s like to be heavy, and they can shed their fat appearance at the end of the day. Those who are heavy in real life can’t do that.
Plus, if the role calls for someone fat, why not cast a fat actor to begin with? It would make the role that much richer and more authentic, but it doesn’t seem to happen very often.
Sometimes good actors can’t save movies
Much as I like some of the actors in The Whale, I can’t bring myself to like the movie, and I’m not alone in that.
In GQ, Lucy Ford wrote: “There is nothing human about [Charlie’s] depiction, as our senses are warped uncomfortably in ways to highlight just how fat this man is. Charlie accepts being humiliated by his daughter and, later, his students like water off a duck's back as if it's the natural punishment for choosing to live the way he does. Hurt people hurt people, he reasons, but all that reinforces is the idea that fat people deserve any and all abuse hurled their way.”
And in The Guardian, Lindy West was even more scathing, writing: “…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… 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.”
After seeing that the movie has a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I think West is on to something.
Perhaps that’s why I can’t agree with all those people. I’ve also lost 130 pounds, but unlike Hunter, I never felt the need to write something like The Whale, and I can’t agree with how it depicts fat people.