And we, as a society, failed miserably. And we continue to fumble over our misteps.
Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale boasts, arguably, one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema by Brendan Fraser as a severely morbidly obese (a medical term used by the United States National Library of Medicine) man named Charlie, who suffers from major depression and binge eating; the performance recently nabbed Fraser an Oscar for “Best Actor” during the 2023 ceremony.
The film itself, as a whole, is spectacular, as well, and an unprecedented look at the link between these two disorders and how they can lead to severe morbid obesity. However, some critics have ignorantly misjudged this film as a misrepresentation of the morbidly obese, focusing solely on the film as a portrayal of the condition of obesity, even though it depicts one man’s psychologically intricate journey.
It has been called, “fatphobic,” “body horror,” “torture porn…with a fat suit rather than a meat cleaver as the bringer of cinematic shock,” “mean-spirited,” “hateful and vile,” “an act of hate disguised as tough love,” and a film lacking “any hint of true empathy and understanding.” These people pointed and gawked at the film, hiding their disgust for an accurate physical representation of a 600-pound person on screen for the first time by virtue signaling, with some even making offensive weight and food puns in the process to describe their hatred of, not the film, but the image of someone struggling with not obesity, but morbid obesity and major depressive disorder.
These critics are patently false, perpetuating fatphobia in the process. If they had anything else to say about the film other than its portrayal of weight and their attempt to conflate everyone in the obese community as one, then it might have come off as more subjective, rather than a statement of anger about a dying, severely morbidly obese man.
What do morbid obesity and major depressive disorder have in common? According to the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM), the largest biomedical library in the world: “Previous research indicates that a high proportion of individuals with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) meet the criteria for food addiction, and are also at an increased risk of weight gain and chronic disease.”
Nearly 25% of people with major depressive disorder experience food addiction. And obesity is a blanket term — “its repercussions constitute an important source of morbidity, impaired quality of life, and its complications can have a major bearing on life expectancy.” @ith cardiovascular disease, from which Charlie suffers, is one of the main causes of death in people with obesity.
According to the NLM, the classifications of people who are larger than others are “Overweight, Obesity, Severe Obesity, Morbid Obesity, and Severe Morbid Obesity.” The last category into which Charlie falls.
The irony in many of these negative reviews is that most of the critics blasting it are, themselves, fatphobic, even using offensive, faux-clever descriptions, and fat and food puns to describe its shortcomings — “larded with melodrama,” “Aronofsky’s heavy-handed film is crushed by the weight of its self-importance,” “A massive performance as a mammoth man,” “the effect is one of ‘pay the nickel, see the freak,’” “overcooked nonsense.”
Did any one of these people understand how offensive their lampooning of the film was to the obese community? Further, did anyone from these reviews take a step back and do their research about the various stages of obesity?
Did they realize that this is one case of a man who became depressed to the point of binge-eating to cope with said depression until he reached this wait?
Did they realize that this is a portrayal of one man, not a representation of an entire, diverse community?
Did they consider that the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), a non-profit that raises “awareness,” improves “access to prevention and treatment of the disease of obesity, and fights “to eliminate weight bias and discrimination,” which acted as a consultant on Aronofsky’s entire film, would participate if the film negatively portrayed the fat community?
The OAC defines weight bias as “negative attitudes, beliefs, judgments, stereotypes, and discriminatory acts aimed at individuals simply because of their weight.” That is exactly what these critics are doing. Aronofsky merely acts as a fly on the wall to portray the character of Charlie in such a realistic way that it borders on Italian Neorealism filmmaking.
Charlie has several diseases, one of which is congestive heart failure. And these critics classify the portrayal of its root cause as vile and horrifying, even classifying it as torture porn. That severe of reaction to a story about how one human being’s depression led to severe morbid obesity is extreme. Rob Simonsen’s score, which some critics felt added a negative connotation to the entire fat community, echoes the feeling of Major Depression when Charlie attempts to cope with his pain and binge eat. And it captures the feeling of hopelessness perfectly.
I’ve been there, and know what it’s like. Stemming from my depression, I developed a binge eating disorder to ease my pain. I stuffed myself with fatty foods like Charlie did.
I would hear myself chewing and swallowing anything I could find to ease my pain. This internal awareness of the self-destruction that I felt and heard and sensed is encapsulated accurately by Sound Effects Editor Coll Anderson.
I gained more than 100 pounds in four months, developing health issues for a reason.
My blood pressure and cholesterol levels went through the roof. So it’s not easy to imagine Charlie gaining 300 pounds over several years with the same diagnosis as me. So what is the real reason people are so upset about a severely morbidly obese man with binge eating and major depression disorders? Because of their lack of understanding, their prejudices, and their own “horror” of the sight of a 600-pound man with his shirt off, binge eating, or simply going about his daily routine. It disgusts them, so they feign activism, claiming to speak for the entire fat community, amalgamizing everyone in it in the process.
And that is an act of hate disguised as empathy.
The Whale intends to challenge people think about their own prejudices. The ignorant refused, and, instead, channeled their inability to accept Charlie’s lifestyle and disorders as a realistic, real-world issue from which certain people suffer into faux-activism and more opportunities to use offensive, subject matter-related puns in their reviews.
The critics immediately defaulted to, “this is gross.” In a Variety profile, Aronofsky said, “There are people out there who are going to immediately shut down when they see a character like Charlie. I want people to connect to the film—I hope they do.” Indeed, they shut down and didn’t even bother to do the research into what Charlie suffers from. They refused to connect with him. Refused to accept that there are people like this. Fraser, however, did the research, consulting with as many people with the same intertwining diagnoses as Charlie’s.
“’The Whale’ is leavened in those moments when Fraser’s boyish giggle and bright-eyed wonder peek through, heartbreaking reminders of a persona that once lit up movie screens with goofy charm,” said ABC News. Fraser isn’t a persona.
He’s a human being.
He, himself, has gained weight since he “lit up movie screens” decades ago.
As Fraser told Newsweek: “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.”
Why is this heartbreaking? What about his comeback and his portrayal, which eerily resembles his own depression and weight gain as a result of a tragedy in his own life, is heartbreaking in the context of The Whale? It isn’t.
An overweight actor inhabiting the role of one man in the fat community, who happens to have a story similar to Charlie’s, is not something to mourn. It’s something to celebrate. Finally, we are seeing stories on screen about real people in the fat community with diverse backgrounds and reasons for their larger appearance on various tiers of the fat spectrum, as outlined by the NLM. Unfortunately, the masses are rejecting them due to their own prejudices.
Now, that’s heartbreaking.