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The Whale's Point of View
The Oscar-nominated film is not just cruelly fatphobic; it is irredeemably juvenile
It’s Oscar night tonight, and Brendan Fraser is up for best actor for his role in the mind-numbingly terrible, unforgivably harmful film, The Whale—of which Lindy West has written the definitive takedown; see also her genius longer commentary. (I hope to heaven he doesn’t win. Otherwise, I wish the man well, and simply hope he comes to reconsider his choice to wear a fat suit.)
Fraser’s Charlie may be the main character in the film, and Fraser its star performer. But let’s get one thing clear: The Whale is not a film centering the perspective of a very fat man (whose weight, at 600lb, is supposed to be unfathomable). The Whale’s perspective throughout is different, and singular: it is that of his cruel, thin, profoundly immature, troubled teenage daughter, Ellie.
We first encounter Charlie in The Whale through the lens of a laptop: a black square, lecturing to his students at an online college, where he teaches expository writing. He lies to them throughout that his webcam is broken. This to spare them the monstrous indignity of having to look at a fat person’s face, much less their body.
As viewers, we’re invited into his small, sorry life, to gawk at and rue his fatness, and to occupy the role of the voyeur right from the beginning. The very next scene, memorably: Charlie’s nearly heart-stopping attempt to masturbate to gay pornography. After climaxing awkwardly, and nearly keeling over, Charlie tries to calm his body and preempt a fatal heart attack by reading aloud a dreadful essay about Moby Dick. We eventually discover it was written by Ellie, when she was in the eighth grade.
Ellie, now 17, played by Sadie Sink, enters the apartment and re-enters Charlie’s life in the process. (The two became estranged after her mother was awarded full custody nine years ago—since Charlie’s decision to leave his wife for his male lover, Alan, was the occasion for homophobic horror. Charlie, felled by Alan’s death by suicide, and consumed by binge eating disorder, was too depressed to reach out to Ellie for many years. Or something.) And it is Ellie’s view of Charlie that dominates the film and acts as a proxy for the viewer’s throughout its two-hour runtime. She, naturally, finds his body repellant, revolting, incomprehensible. She makes fun of him. (“What’s more surprising—that a gay guy has a daughter, or that someone actually found his penis?”) She is angry with him, obviously. (“I’m not spending time with you. You’re disgusting!”) She drugs him (putting Ambien in his sandwich), and semi-jokes about murdering him. (Yes, really.) She is breathtakingly cruel about the ways in which he is ill, and troubled, and disabled. She demands Charlie, who uses a walker, cross the room to her unaided. (Her: “Stand up and walk over to me; NO WALKER!” Him: “Honey, I can’t really…” Her: “SHUT UP! FUCKING WALK.”)
The film hence centers and honors the perspective of the most horrible possible take on a very fat person. It finds this perspective utterly natural and fairly reasonable if misguided around the edges. And it requires that the very fat person forgive all of this, in venerating the saintly Charlie—who declares Ellie an “amazing person,” “the most incredible daughter” he could ask for, finding in her meanness something truly valuable. (He relishes her haiku, insulting him and his apartment as smelly; he finds hilarious her caption on a photo of him she took surreptitiously and posted on Facebook—saying he’ll cause a grease fire in hell when he snuffs it. It’s not even clever!) Charlie’s attitude is beyond generous; it’s ludicrous, and an exercise in weapons-grade delusional wishful thinking. (It also should remind us of the tired trope of “the magical negro,” brilliantly called out by filmmaker Spike Lee, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, and theorized by other Black cultural critics, for decades now. Here we have a magical fat person redeeming his awful, awful daughter—and leaving her all of his money, to the tune of 120k, ultimately. At least he’s good for something!)
It’s bad enough that the film is premised on Ellie’s perspective being a reasonable, if dark, starting place, which we need to be gently, kindly disabused of as an audience member. (Though not to the point of ever questioning her basic revulsion: later, we learn that Charlie’s body is a mess of mold, sores, and brown patches. I get the sense that most middle-aged people could tell Ellie a thing or two about our own bodies that would also shock and appall her.) It’s even worse that the film never advances her perspective more than a millimeter. It’s worst of all that it doesn’t notice that her perspective on fat people hints at a society-wide plight that harms us at least as much as the sheer fatness of our bodies (the health risks of which are frequently overstated, as my forthcoming book on fatphobia argues). Why doesn’t Charlie go to the hospital when his blood-pressure skyrockets? Because he has a death wish, not because of systemic fatphobia within the health care system. OK then. Why doesn’t he befriend his kindly pizza delivery guy, Dan? Because he’s rightly ashamed of his body, not because his body is liable to be met with unjust stigma and hostility—as it in fact is, when Dan spies him and runs away from him, horrified. All righty.
The Whale contributes to and reifies these problems and harms of fatphobia for lack of one very simple realization: its perspective is essentially that of an exceptionally cruel and malevolent seventeen year-old.
Like Ellie, The Whale’s interest in Charlie is purely instrumental. She wants him to write her essays so she can not flunk out of high school. She is pleased, unsurprisingly, by the prospect of his leaving her his money. And the film seeks, by the writer and playwright Samuel Hunter’s own admission, not to illuminate the complicated social plight of very fat folks specifically. He piled the pounds on Charlie merely as a device: to force our hand to find this grieving, reclusive gay man that much more pitiable and tragic and alien. It’s belt and braces stuff, and a testament to fatphobia that this afterthought and ruse became the only thing most audience members can now focus on.
It is 2023. If you need a film to tell you that fat people are human beings, who deserve empathy, and care, and respect, and have inherent human dignity, then I don’t know what to tell you. And The Whale doesn’t either, trailing off as it does on the final lines of Ellie’s supposedly “amazing” essay, which helpfully analogizes Charlie to a “poor, big animal”—a whale!—right before he dies painfully and inevitably. His feet lift from the ground (Birdman did it better) as light floods the screen for the very first time in the film. Get it? This magical fat man with his dark little life is going to heaven! Dear lord, have mercy.
Charlie dies walking toward his daughter, without the help of his mobility aid, as she originally demanded upon their reunion. (Again, is this 2023? Are we really saying there’s something shameful about using a walker, or a wheelchair, or a grabber, for whatever reason? Are we really still that steeped in ableism? A rhetorical question, to which I know the answer is a resounding “yes,” disgracefully.)
Like a true good fatty, Charlie makes all of the concessions, laughs off others’ cruelty, apologizes for his body, and denies his own fundamental, legitimate needs to appease the whims of his thin daughter. And the audience, ultimately—or at least that is the presumption. We should be not repulsed but thoroughly insulted, offended, scathing.