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Washing the Whale (With Dove)
fat activists and a soap company are angry about brenden fraser's oscar win for his portrayal of a fat person in the whale. why did it strike such a chord?
One of the most maddening trends in American culture today is the way we pathologize relatively mundane things (situational anxiety, boredom, rationality) while making whole identities of actual pathologies — morbid obesity chief among them, and our topic of discussion today. I have no tolerance for the public targeting of people struggling with their weight. But disease is not an identity, and it is certainly nothing so immutable as race, which is to say no, actually, Brendan Fraser wearing a fat suit is not the same thing as blackface. This has really all gone far enough.
River Page unpacks the recent Oscars controversy at the crossroads of acceptance and sanity.
Darren Aronofsky’s film The Whale, which stars former 90s hunk Brendan Fraser as a reclusive, obese writing teacher, did well at the Oscars last Sunday. The film won best makeup and hairstyling, and Fraser won Best Actor, all to enormous controversy.
People were particularly incensed at Fraser’s use of a fat suit. “It apparently doesn’t matter how many fat people tell Hollywood how degrading it is to put thin actors in fat suits,” wrote Rebecca Bodenheimer in The Daily Beast. Dove, the soap company, even waded into the controversy, saying, “Stop giving fat suits awards!! We want better representation in Hollywood. #LetsChangeBeauty
USA Today reported that “Some experts have argued roles like this should go to actors who naturally have this body type.” But nobody naturally weighs 600 pounds, as Brendan Fraser’s character, Charlie, does in the film. The Whale itself seems to make that clear. Charlie has an extreme binge-eating disorder — he is literally eating himself to death. People weren’t happy about that either, by the way. Writing in the New York Times in December, Roxanne Gay called the film, at various points throughout her review, “inhumane,” “demeaning,” “exploitative,” and “cruel.” Gay wrote:
“The Whale,” Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, is one you hope, desperately, will be seen by an audience that has the necessary cultural literacy, the empathy, to watch the story and recognize that the onscreen portrayal of fatness bears little resemblance to the lived experiences of fat people. It is a gratuitous, self-aggrandizing fiction at best.
Roxanne Gay never really explains how the film differs from the lived experiences of “fat people,” an overly broad category. Obviously, someone 50 or even 100 pounds overweight might not share the extreme struggles of a 600 pound person, as depicted in the film. Like other equally useless identitarian categories — Asian, Latinx, and Queer, just to name a few — fat is the enemy of nuance, describing vast swaths of the population who ultimately have very little in common with one another. Gay’s main gripe, like those of others who found The Whale insulting, seems to be that the film is a tragedy. Charlie, a gay man traumatized by the suicide of his partner, is not a happy fat person, he is miserable. His obesity is a manifestation of his pain and a further source of it. Gay wrote:
It was crystal clear that Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aranofsky considered fatness to be the ultimate human failure, something despicable, to be avoided at all costs.
600 pound morbid obesity might not be despicable, but it is tragic, it is a human failure, and it should be avoided at all costs. People do not become 600 pounds by living normal, healthy lives or by making good choices. We can empathize with the suffering of drug addicts, for example, in real life and in cinema, while still recognizing that drug addiction is something that should be avoided. We do not demand that drug addicts be represented positively in media or that their suffering be blunted for the sake of dignity. Being hopelessly addicted to something that is killing you, whether food or heroin, is not a dignified way to live.
The remarks by Bondheimer, Gay, various Twitter users, and even the Dove soap company all spring from fat activism, which is equally absurd as Dove's tweet when you spend more than 30 seconds thinking about it. The story of the movement begins with a June, 1967 article published in a different America, in a little corner of New York Times, next to an ad for Woody Allen’s Broadway hit, ‘Don’t Drink the Water.’ “Curves Have Their Day at the Park; 500 at a ‘Fat-in’ Call for Obesity,” the paper announced in a witty tabloid vernacular it lost long ago to the ravages of time and self-import. The Times’ irreverence was matched by the campy antics and humor of the protestors themselves, something equally lost — and for similar reasons. At the event that day, the first fat activists burned posters of Twiggy, the English model Leslie Lawson, so named because of her size. A 26-year-old history teacher reasoned that “[i]f everyone was fat, there’d be no war. Nobody could pass the physical.” And a young jock ate lasagna and said he wasn’t fat, but “was working on it.”
In 2021, over 50 years later, the Canadian Medical Association Journal published an article called “Fat Acceptance as Social Justice.” Its first sentence shows how drastically the tone has changed. In perfect activist-class English, it starts: “The fat body has long been a site of medical surveillance,” and a few paragraphs later, it goes on to say that the word “obesity” harms people:
[W]e use the term “fat” rather than the deeply problematic medical term, “obesity,” which causes harm to people under the guise of benign objectivity. Categories can shape how individuals view themselves… they reinforce judgments about people who do not conform to a norm. Thus, “obesity” is not merely a statistical category, but is rather an evaluation about what constitutes an ideal weight. To “fatten” a category… “means examining it through the lenses of fat studies and the fat justice movement.”
When we look at The Whale controversy, including the issue of the fat suit, and all the talk of appropriation and representation, it’s easy to see how fat activists have copied the language and tactics of black activists. Some said the quiet part out loud and directly compared the fatsuit to blackface. Of course, being fat is not an immutable characteristic like sex or skin color. Neither is it an identity that people are born and raised in like certain religious affiliations or ethnicities. People are not born fat; they become fat, and despite what fat activists might tell you, they can become less fat by simply maintaining a caloric deficit (people with rare medical conditions being the exception that proves the rule).
It’s also worth noting that unlike fat people, blacks are actually a minority in the United States with a centuries-long history of categorical oppression. Fat people constitute a majority in this country; more than 70% of Americans are overweight or obese. The fat American majority faces no real systemic oppression in the US — and they never have. They have never been enslaved, lynched, placed in internment camps, or disposed of their lands. Even some subsets of the white Christian population, the archetypical oppressors in the progressive cosmology, have faced more significant historical discrimination and oppression in this country than fat people. Before the Revolution, Quakers were jailed, publicly whipped, and ultimately banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. At its height in the 1850s, the “Know Nothing Party,” with more than 100 elected congressmen and eight governors, was built on explicit anti-Catholic animus. Even some (at least partially) mainline Protestant groups like Germans were subjected to McCarthy-like persecution and suspicion during WWI. And this is all to say nothing of America’s permanent white underclass, so-called “white trash,” descended largely from colonial-era Anglo and Scotch-Irish stock, which were subjected to forced sterilization by the state in a eugenic attempt to purify the white race.
All of the controversies over The Whale only speak to the lack of consequential social oppression fat people face in the United States. Fat activists should question why this film, portraying morbid obesity as a horrific manifestation of human suffering, has struck such a cord. On some level, perhaps they know that they are not being oppressed by society, but rather by themselves — their addiction, their lack of self-control, and the unhealthy way they cope with their emotions. Until then, I guess Dove can market soap to people with the most surface area to scrub.
Or read one of our greatest hits —
The Fifth Estate, by Mike Solana
The Sugar Babies of Stanford University, by Nicola Buskirk
NIH-Funded “Food Pyramid” Rates Lucky Charms Healthier Than Steak, by Justin Mares