‘The Whale’ in the Room: The Hidden Winner at This Year’s Oscars
Everything Everywhere All at Once swept this year’s Oscars (and rightfully so), but it wasn’t the only big winner of the night. The stunning sci-fi epic had some competition in Hollywood’s newest darling: Ozempic. Though referenced fewer times than Lydia Tár, the latest “it” drug has achieved the sort of rapid celebrity worthy of an obligatory one-liner during Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue. It may have only been name-dropped once, but Ozempic—which has become shorthand for a class of diabetes medications being used for weight loss—was ghoulishly hovering in the background of two Oscar wins.
You can probably guess which movie is engaged in a mutually beneficial situationship with everyone’s new favorite diet drug, and yes, it rhymes with Ishmael! Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale managed to snag the Oscars for Best Actor and Best Makeup—the two wins it needed most because they validate the professed motives of Aronofsky, screenwriter Samuel D. Hunter, and star Brendan Fraser, all of whom have maintained that their film was actually made to generate empathy for fat people.
The Whale is based on Hunter’s stage play of the same name, which centers on Charlie, a middle-aged man grieving the death of his partner, Alan, which has driven him to increasingly self-isolate. Charlie weighs 600 pounds, which we’re told is his fault because he can’t stop housing pizzas and fried chicken instead of eating Clif bars—in stark contrast to Alan, who nearly starved himself to death in a heavy-handed superficial metaphor that speaks to the film’s narrow perception of fat people. Charlie is housebound and has to use a walker to get around, which is true of some—but not all—higher-weight people. The whole movie, which takes place almost entirely in Charlie’s dark, cluttered home, is most effective as a brazen confessional, not unlike Aronofsky’s Mother!, a hilarious work of self-mythology about the filmmaker’s ego and how it affects his treatment of women in relationships. Unlike the god-figure in Mother!, Aronofsky has no personal experience with being fat or disabled, and although Hunter has discussed his individual struggle with overeating and depression, he’s also never been fat or disabled.
I’m not here to thoroughly dissect The Whale and its blatant fatphobia—Lindy West already did a great and way funnier job of that, both in her essay for The Guardian and in her fully unfiltered tear-down of the film in her newsletter (no subscription required, but you should subscribe, just like you should pay every fat person you know who took time out of their lives—which are actually very nice and fulfilling and even sexy sometimes—to watch what amounts to negative-body-image revenge porn). If I’m being generous, The Whale is an awfully misguided experiment in eliciting empathy. After all, The Whale says that fat people—besides being giant flesh-sacks filled with cornstarch and water not dissimilar from the filling they use in stress balls—are nothing if not overly generous to people who don’t deserve it. Less generously, The Whale introduces a fat guy and tries to see if it can make an audience conceived, baptized, and raised in diet culture see him as a human being.
And then it does everything in its power to prevent that from happening. Nowhere is this more blatant and egregious than in the moments when Charlie “succumbs” to his binge-eating compulsions as the score takes on an apocalyptic dissonance. Aronofsky, who did a much better job of exploring eating disorder pathology in Requiem for a Dream, treats Charlie like a horror movie monster.
If we had more movies and TV shows about fat people simply existing the way other people do, then maybe The Whale could be seen as Hunter conceived it: one person’s experience. (Then again, if we had more movies and shows featuring fat people, The Whale would look even more ridiculous.) Instead, because The Whale is the rare piece of narrative media about a higher-weight person, it becomes representative and prescriptive, rather than descriptive. It endorses—however unwittingly or unintentionally—assumptions people generally make about fat people; about why they’re fat and how they live. It validates the stereotypes fueling the stigma that keeps fat people from seeking basic healthcare.
Another crucial part of The Whale‘s awards season narrative was the involvement of the Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), a non-profit that claims to “elevate and empower” people in larger bodies through “education, advocacy, and support.” Both Aronofsky and Fraser have spoken about consulting with the OAC, which, on the surface, seems like a perfectly typical non-profit trying to help a marginalized group. Take a closer look, as writer and activist Ragen Chastain did in her Weight and Healthcare newsletter, and you’ll find a cynical list of corporate partners and donors that includes Novo Nordisk (the company behind Ozempic and its weight loss counterpart, Wegovy), Eli Lilly (the company behind the similar drug, Mounjaro), Weight Watchers (which just purchased a telehealth provider that offers prescriptions for these drugs), the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery, and numerous other companies that are part of our $72 billion weight loss industry.
Why would the OAC, which claims to want to eliminate bias and stigma against people in larger bodies, accept money, input, and support from companies that prey on fat people and people who are afraid of becoming fat people? There is an obvious answer, of course (cue CashRegisterSound.mp3), even if the path there isn’t readily apparent. The OAC perpetuates the false claim that obesity is a disease, like cancer or type 2 diabetes, which means that people with larger bodies should be treated the same way we treat anyone else with a chronic disease: with medication. Most private and government-funded health insurance plans do not classify obesity as a disease and therefore do not cover weight loss medications (e.g., Wegovy), which cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. Even if insurance covers Wegovy or a similar drug, patients still need to use a manufacturer coupon to make the drugs affordable; think $25 instead of $300 for the weekly injections.
Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly are already making record profits off the discovery that semaglutide and tirzepatide are useful for weight loss (at least in the short term), but think of how much more money they could make if insurance companies had to cover them. More people would have access to these drugs, including pre-teens and teens: Under the American Academy of Pediatrics’ new guidelines, kids as young as 12 should be prescribed weight loss drugs. Would it surprise you to learn that seven of the 14 doctors who wrote these aggressive new guidelines accepted money from companies that profit off of weight loss products, including Novo Nordisk? And that none of them declared a conflict of interest? It really makes you wonder why Eli Lilly recently decided to lower the cost of insulin after years of pushback from diabetes patients and advocates. Could it be that they’re anticipating profits that will offset this financial loss? Surely it’s a coincidence that Eli Lilly is fast-tracking the FDA approval process to begin selling tirzepatide for weight loss!
What the hell does The Whale have to do with our country’s endlessly borked healthcare system? At the risk of looking like an absolutely unhinged Charlie Day gesturing at a conspiracy board, the answer is everything, everywhere, all at once—but, like, in a more nuanced way. Structurally, The Whale is functioning as propaganda for the weight loss industry—which, as we’ve already covered, doesn’t exactly need any more help. By promoting the OAC in interviews as some sort of benevolent advocacy organization, Aronofsky and Fraser are legitimizing the group’s messaging. Speaking with the New York Times, Fraser compared binge-eating disorder (an eating disorder that affects people of all sizes) to drug addiction and “vices,” such as gambling and sex addictions. The actor spoke with “maybe eight or 10 people” with higher weights and asked them to detail what they eat in a day, which is a truly insane thing to ask someone you just met. “[T]hey would describe it to me in [the] way a person drinks, a person uses substances, sex, gambling addiction,” Fraser says, suggesting a bizarre false equivalency trifecta between harmful habits (“vices”), drug addiction, and eating disorders.
Although the OAC claims to believe body weight is not the result of personal choices, they strongly promote the use of “evidence-based treatments that are proven safe and effective by sound data,” including “medical obesity management, pharmacotherapy and bariatric surgery”—none of which are proven to be safe or effective for long-term weight loss, not that the OAC included any evidence or “sound data” to support those claims. Also conspicuously absent from the OAC’s goals: changing how healthcare providers learn about, discuss, and treat fat people. (To be fair, that would undermine their entire mission, which is to doggy-paddle like Scrooge McDuck in an Olympic-sized pool filled with gold doubloons.)
When Samuel D. Hunter says he conceived The Whale as a depiction of one person’s experience, I almost believe it given that the only input the filmmakers solicited is from one organization with a very specific view of body size and health. Fat people, higher-weight people, people in larger bodies—however they choose to be described on the size spectrum—are still just people, and they are every bit as complicated as everyone else. Had the filmmakers made the effort to speak with fat people who aren’t associated with the OAC, they might have learned that there are people who weigh several hundred pounds and are actually healthy and happy, that people of any size can have an eating disorder and that anorexia is chronically underdiagnosed among those in larger bodies, and that there isn’t a single health concern or disease that only affects fat people.
The problem with responding to stigmatizing experiences (watching The Whale as a person recovering from an eating disorder in a larger body definitely qualifies) with facts like “you can be fat and medically healthy!” or “thin people develop type 2 diabetes, too!” is that no one in a larger body should ever have to justify their existence or why they deserve to be treated with basic human decency and respect. But if we take Aronofsky, Hunter, and Fraser’s intentions at face value, then The Whale is exactly what they meant for it to be: a nearly two-hour exercise in justifying a fat person’s right to exist and be treated with compassion.
And that’s exactly why it fails. The entire structure is inherently flawed. By spending so much time trying to qualify Charlie as a human being, Aronofsky and Hunter are essentially acknowledging that his size makes him inhuman. For the people in the audience, The Whale confirms their worst assumptions about fat people. For people in larger bodies, it confirms our worst fears about how thin people see us.
(featured image: A24)
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