From the very beginning we felt that something was not right here. And we weren’t the only ones. Our critical view stems from a coarse-minded, activist perspective, dealing with thickness in a socio-political context. What we are highlighting fits into a broader discussion about how fat people are still portrayed in the 21st century. Immediately after the first photos of Brendan Fraser dressed as a fat person, the activist circles related to work against weight discrimination were in an uproar.
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An Oscar-winning movie or a “secondary carnival attraction”?
The first of the loudest voices of criticism belonged to Roxane Gay. Her book “Hunger” about the experience of thickness in 2021 was published in Polish. “A minor carnival attraction,” she wrote. She pointed to the dehumanization of the protagonist and the harm that fat people are caused by performances created from a mixture of stereotypes.
The same accusation of exoticization and dehumanization is raised by Lindy West, an American writer and activist, the author of the best-selling book “Shrill” adapted into a series. She wrote as many as two texts about Wielorybie, one for and the other. In it, Lindy points out to the creators that although they try at all costs to create an aura of imminent death, contempt and disgust around the 300-kilogram character, many people weighing that much function in everyday life. Some of them, alluding to the film’s opening scene, experience masturbation without having a heart attack.
Gay and West are not the only people who criticize the film, but they certainly have the largest reach. Especially now that after the Oscars, we’ve woken up to a world where, although fat people are not hired in films, dressing up as them is rewarded.
Does a fat person have to choke on a sandwich?
Already after the first 15 minutes of “The Whale” you can ask yourself: did the creators adapting the content of Samuel D. Hunter’s play brainstorm about what they think about fat people and decided to show what they repeated most often? This movie is full of stereotypes! Of course, probably every person, to some extent, fulfills stereotypes related to belonging to a given social group in their lives. However, in the case of The Whale, all these beliefs are combined to reinforce the fat man narrative. Exactly – fat, i.e. one who seriously failed in life and “lost” in food.
Charlie eats pizza every day, chokes on a greasy sandwich, has a drawer full of candy bars. In many available comments about the film, you can read that it is an image of “food addiction”. Apart from the fact that from a scientific perspective such a thing does not exist (unlike binge eating disorder), this is also a rather naive approach. It allows, however, to look at the main character as the only one responsible for his fate. As a guilty person who must atone for his sins by… getting up off the couch and taking a few steps. We do not underestimate the burden of this activity for a person with specific mobility capabilities. However, the choice of such a hero in this context quite clearly shows what the creators think about fat people.
“Chew your food like a normal person!”
At meetings during Aronosfky’s press tour, he spoke with complacency about the empathy with which his film is allegedly made. But the camera doesn’t show it at all. From the technical point of view, the hero’s performance is conducted with open disgust.
We don’t know if there’s anything left in the operator’s trick deck that could make Charlie even bigger. The hero getting up from the couch begs for a copy of the humpback whale jumping out of the water. The audience almost waits for her to fall over onto her back and blow her nose at the fountain, and Krystyna Czubówna’s velvety voice will flow from the off-screen: “a mature individual with a blood pressure of 238/142 once again escapes death.”
All the noises made by the fat character are beaten to the point of absurdity by the sound editing. When Charlie wheezes, the room seems to lack air. When they eat – especially when they eat! – a sensitive microphone collects every click. McDonald’s would not be ashamed of such a publicized sandwich chewing. Here, however, the work of the sound engineer does not serve to emphasize the crunchy crust of the bread or the tenderness of the lettuce. It’s about extracting the animal element from the act of eating, perpetuating the association between fatness and unrestrained, big food. After all, a man does not eat YES, and certainly not SO MUCH. “Chew your food like a normal person!” says Liz, summing up basically everything Aronofski’s film shows about fat people and our relationship with food.
When Charlie gets up from the couch, the main scene of the action, and with great effort, using special accessories, he moves around his small and dark apartment, everything around him creaks and creaks as if it is about to collapse. None of these sounds are heard when the apartment is visited by the other four characters. The floor magically stops creaking and the walls stop shaking.
Pity or empathy?
Another important thread in the discussion about Aronofsky’s latest film will be the decision of the creators to use a costume that significantly thickens the main actor, i.e. the so-called fat suit. The fat suit has long been used on the small and big screen, especially to show the audience’s supposedly comic past, as in the TV series “Friends” or “Jess and the Boys”. As a rule, it goes hand in hand with a whole set of stereotypes about fat people: that they eat a lot, are less intelligent, lazy, amusing, awkward. In the case of Wieloryb, the creators want to convince us that this time the use of strong characterization is justified, because the goal is to evoke sympathy, not malicious laughter. But is it really compassion? Or pity? Relief that it doesn’t concern us?
As a society, we want to see a figure – according to the current standards of beauty – disfigured. This gives us a kind of bitter satisfaction. The culture of diet, social media, the whole slimming and “beautifying” business gives us a clear signal – what you currently look like is not enough, you have to try harder. That is why we are impressed by the grotesque depiction of a fat person on the screen, be it Charlie from “Wieloryb” or Lena Tremer from “Wielkie Woda”.
This does not only apply to the enlarged body size, but generally to appearance features considered incorrect, here examples may be the famous roles of Charlize Theron in the movie “Monster” or Nicole Kidman in “The Hours”. However, the thickness is so specific that discrimination is experienced in relation to it, also in education and work.
Brendan Fraser’s Fat Suit won an Oscar
So the question is: was a person of the right size considered for this role at all? Are such people accepted into acting schools? What message about their value and talent do fat children who dream of acting hear? Meanwhile, Brendan Fraser’s fat suit won an Oscar, Anna Dymna’s fat suit received overwhelmingly positive reactions, as if it were a characterization of some fantastic monster from an adventure story. Because it’s a bit like that, that’s how the general public, and often even themselves, think about fat people.
When you watch this movie, it’s easy to let your emotions fool you into a cathartic experience because the story is deep and real. After all, everyone has their own idea of what the life of very fat people looks like, grown on the basis of pop culture and prejudice. And here Darren Aronofsky “saves” us from internalized stereotypes, painting us a story on the screen, which he argues is told with empathy, humanizes fat people and shows the truth. Painful, naked, “truth” that thin people tell.
Bruce is a talented author and journalist with a passion for entertainment . He currently works as a writer at the 247 News Agency, where he has established himself as a respected voice in the industry.