Menu
Social Justice

Contextualizing The Whale

Updated April 5, 2023
A black background with a ring of hands with the pointer finger all pointing inward.

Trigger warning for discussions of “ob*sity” and spoiler alert for the movie The Whale

There was lots of breathless coverage this week about Brendan Fraser saying in an interview with Newsweek:

“Ob*sity is the last domain of prejudice that we as a society still haven’t changed the way we speak about it, the way we refer to people, the way that we care about one another.” 

He was discussing this in the context of an interview about his starring role in the film adaptation of the play The Whale, in which he plays a very heavy man.

First of all, let’s get this straight: “ob*sity” is in no way “the last domain of prejudice.” Ask the families of any Black person who has been killed by police or those First Nations communities living with boil water advisories or any woman who’s been stuck in the gender pay gap or any wheelchair user staring down a flight of steps in a public building. Prejudice is alive and well in all these domains and more.

Yes, it is absolutely true that many people think anti-fat comments/thinking are socially acceptable because shaming people about their weight is a path, somehow, to making people thin. In other words, the belief that we are fully in control of our weight is a key reason—or maybe THE key reason—why many folks do not regard size/weight discrimination as, well, discrimination. If you don’t like being discriminated against, the thinking goes, then just lose the weight. (Oh, okay then! Thanks for filling me in!)

So, yes, blatant micro-aggressions about size are often much more acceptable in workplaces, for example, where blatant micro-aggressions about race or gender or sexual orientation may not be.

However!!!

Nothing about blatant anti-fat bias makes it a “last domain of prejudice,” as proven by 4 years of the Cheeto Smallhands being the American president for 4 years, and Pierre Polievre winning the leadership of the Conservative party here in Canada. There are many corners of society where all forms of prejudice are acceptable, alive and well. (Like the last place where I worked, which permitted a real buffet of micro-aggressions against anyone who wasn’t thin, white, straight and able-bodied!)

Finally, playing the “oppression Olympics” is soooo passé. It’s critically important to see anti-fat bias as one form of systemic oppression that exists alongside and in relation to other forms of bias and discrimination. 

Mkay? Now let’s move on to the pop culture analysis.

As annoyed as I was by this quote, it did get me wondering if it’s actually possible for The Whale, once it goes to wide release, to change hearts and minds about fat people. Films do have the power to do this; in fact, one that could be analogous in its cultural context could be the Jonathan Demme film Philadelphia

Thesis: it’s possible that The Whale could be to 2022 what Philadelphia was to 1993: a tragic tale intended to humanize a stigmatized main character by way of pity.

The evidence:

In the case of Philadelphia, the pitiful protagonist is an HIV-positive gay man played by (a much-beloved, non-threatening) Tom Hanks, who dies in the end.

In the case of The Whale, the pitiful protagonist is a a very heavy gay man played by (a much-beloved, non-threatening) Brendan Fraser, who dies in the end.

Cultural context for Philadelphia: In 1993, LGBTQ+ rights were still very much in flux, and HIV/AIDS had much more stigma and fear attached to it than it does today.

Cultural context for The Whale: In 2022, legal protection against size discrimination is barely a thing in many jurisdictions, and anti-fat bias is rampant in many corners of society. 

The plot of Philadelphia: Tom Hanks has been fired from his job, so he and his lawyer Denzel Washington set out to prove that he was fired unlawfully as a result of discrimination. From the Wikipedia article: “The defense repeatedly suggests that Beckett [Tom Hanks’ character] brought AIDS upon himself via gay sex, and is therefore not a victim.” But by the end of the movie, we learn that Tom Hanks is very much a victim! Because he and Antonio Banderas love each other very much! And so therefore Tom Hanks should not have been fired! But we learn this too late because whoops Tom Hanks died!!! 

The plot of The Whale: Brendan Fraser is estranged from his daughter and he’s sad so he’s “eating himself to death” [gahhh this entire concept is so fatphobic.] In other words, he is dying due to a condition he brought upon himself, and is therefore not a victim. But by the end of the movie, we learn that Brendan Fraser is very much a victim! Because he had a hard life and turned to food for comfort! And so therefore he shouldn’t have been discriminated against! But we learn this too late because whoops Brendan Fraser died!!!

Both characters’ stigmatized, outsider status is redeemed by the end, but dying was the only way to get there. Do you see how this is kinda problematic? This tiresome goddamn trope—have we really not moved along any further in our storytelling in the past 30 years? Or, as Aubrey Gordon put it:

"The number of people who describe this premise as 'humanizing' is so disheartening. If the only way you can 'humanize' a very fat person is to watch them humiliated, terrified, ashamed & killed off in a stereotypically stigmatizing way, it's time to do some serious reflecting."

I think Brendan Fraser is well-intentioned. He seems aware that discrimination against fat people is definitely A Thing, and appears to be trying to come to the defence of people who experience size bias. He likely thinks that The Whale paints a humanizing picture of what some fat people go through, much as I’m sure the makers of Philadelphia thought their film would do for people with HIV/AIDS.

And it is true that, when it first came out, Philadelphiadid prompt cultural conversations about HIV/AIDS, specifically how it was affecting the gay community. At least, this is what I remember. It also seemed to provide basic information about routes of transmission that some corners of society probably needed to have reinforced by someone as likeable as Tom Hanks. I don’t think it necessarily moved the cultural needle in a grand way, but was likely a useful or even educational tool for some people.

So, sure, it seems possible that The Whale could prompt the same kinds of cultural conversations about the unfairness of the weight stigma that fat people face when it has its theatrical release December 9th.

But the work to do that will involve having to wade through so many fatphobic premises that are baked right in to the film that I have to seriously question Brendan Fraser’s optimism that this film is really going to create any benefits for fat folks, and won’t in fact create additional harms.

Complicating these conversations is Fraser’s own career arc in Hollywood. He was once a young and chiselled hunk, and is now simply older and thicker, as so many of us are. As his body has changed, there is no doubt he himself has faced size discrimination in an industry that has impossibly rigid beauty standards, even for men. The loss of his pretty privilege no doubt means he has faced some shit first-hand. I guess we’ll see if  his life in Hollywood gets any easier as a result of this supposedly culture-shifting film. I’m not holding my breath.