Brendan Fraser in The Whale

Discomfort with a Human Story of Severe Obesity

The Whale is premiering next week in theaters everywhere, after a New York premiere this week and a tour of film festivals that has many people suggesting Brendan Fraser will win an Oscar for his performance in the film. But why should we care? In a word, this film is already prompting discomfort with a very human story of someone living with severe obesity. The subject is so intense that people quite literally can’t figure out what to think and feel about this movie.

It is the story of a gay man, Charlie, weighing 600 pounds and facing death from congestive heart failure. It is the story of his strained (to say the least) relationships with people he cares about, most especially his estranged daughter.

Real People, Real Lives

Implicit and explicit weight bias has served for years to reduce the people living with obesity to cartoonish caricatures. Or worse, to make them invisible. The fact is that our culture simply dehumanizes people living with obesity. So telling a very human story about someone with severe obesity causes discomfort. It confronts us with our biases.

When the people making The Whale approached the Obesity Action Coalition for advice on the portrayal, OAC President Joe Nadglowski saw an opportunity:

“Our goal was to make sure the representation of severe obesity was realistic and respectful – not the caricature we so often see in movies or television shows. The reality is, there are people in the world with severe obesity. They have lives, they have purpose, they have struggles, they have stories. And those stories deserve to be told.”

Inevitable Controversy and Strong Feelings

Inevitably, this film will stir up some strong feelings. It already has. Some fat activists are objecting to casting Fraser in this role because he doesn’t actually weigh 600 pounds. About this controversy, Fraser said:

“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.”

Rachel Leishman writes that her feelings about this film are quite complicated. She says:

“The movie itself is uncomfortable. You’re watching a man who does not care about himself, his health, and anything about his own well-being let himself die because he doesn’t feel worthy. That alone is uncomfortable, but marry that with the fact that everyone in Charlie’s life is yelling at him for one reason or another, and you’re left with a lot of uneasy feelings that are hard to wrap your head around.”

So yes, it’s complicated. At the end of the day it is just one dramatic depiction of one person and his relationships. But the response to this film, including the discomfort it prompts, will tell us a lot about how we think and feel about a very human story of someone living with severe obesity.

For more about the film and the conversation it is sparking, click here, here, here, and here.

Brendan Fraser in The Whale, official trailer © A24 film studio / YouTube

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December 1, 2022

3 Responses to “Discomfort with a Human Story of Severe Obesity”

  1. December 01, 2022 at 6:40 am, Sarah Bramblette said:

    A man who doesn’t care about himself? I might see a man who cares more about his daughter than himself but what parent doesn’t? His refusal or anyone who has severe obesity to seek medical care does not mean they don’t care about themselves, it means they know others especially in the medical profession don’t or won’t care about them.

    • December 01, 2022 at 8:40 am, Ted said:

      For sure, Sarah, that is a trope that is all too common, based on people assuming they know what someone else cares about. I think Charlie’s story is more complicated than that stereotype. Often, it’s impossible to know what people care about. I have trouble sorting out my own feelings, let along figuring out someone else’s.

      The prevalence of weight bias in healthcare makes the situation even murkier, as you so rightly explain.

  2. December 01, 2022 at 9:43 am, Allen Browne said:

    Thoughts – Dec 1

    No matter what the body looks like, there is a human being inside. A human being who deserves love, dignity and respect. There are many very understandable ways for a human being to interact with (or refuse to interact with) a world without love, dignity, or respect. Or, as somebody once said, “you can’t tell a book by it’s cover.”