Brendan Fraser’s Comeback Movie ‘The Whale’ Is Getting Backlash For Its Anti-Fat Storyline

"So many people seem so proud and happy to show fat people that they don't even think of us when they think they're watching fat stories."

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If there’s one thing that all of us can agree on, it’s lovely to see Brendan Fraser back. But not everyone is as pleased about the project that has ushered his return.

— Content warning: This article contains references to disordered eating and anti-fat language — 

Two weeks ago, his new film The Whale premiered at the Venice Film Festival to a six-minute standing ovation, bringing the actor (and several onlookers) to tears.

Most of us know that Fraser has had a difficult run in Hollywood: in a 2018 interview in GQ Magazine, he said he was sexually assaulted by the then HFPA President Phillip Berk in 2003, and openly wondered if he was subsequently blacklisted by the industry. (Berk denied the allegations.)

Fraser has also described the toll that being a leading man took on him, speaking in the interview of being in and out of hospital for the better part of a decade after doing his own stunts. He also alluded to the difficulty of achieving his famed George Of The Jungle physique in a podcast, stating that those who wish to achieve the same look should “go back in time and eat nothing but, like, broccoli and Styrofoam. Lift weights until you puke and then go wash your mouth out and keep doing it”.

After years away from the big screen, then, the excitement around seeing Fraser star in Darren Aronofsky’s anticipated new film The Whale is palpable, and those who watched the movie at Venice are gushing about Fraser’s performance, where he plays a 270kg man named Charlie who tries to connect with his estranged daughter (Sadie Smith) amid eating himself to death.

The author and activist Aubrey Gordon, who also hosts the hugely popular podcast Maintenance Phase, pointed out that the movie’s premise is inherently anti-fat, and that to gush about the film — as many who have seen early screenings of the film have — is to support a fundamentally dehumanising premise.

“Stigma is a core part of the pitch for The Whale. It is central,” writes Gordon. “When someone gushes about The Whale without saying one single thing about its staggeringly anti-fat premise, they’re telling me they’re not someone who can see even the most blaring anti-fatness. And that means they’re not someone I can count on in the face of anti-fatness.

“When you talk about The Whale, you’re also talking about very fat people,” she adds. “And very fat people are listening. They’re hearing the way you celebrate media that posits their lives as small and inevitably tragic. I certainly hear it.”

Also noted was that Fraser wears prosthetics and a ‘fat suit’ to play the film’s central character; a prop that has long been called out for being fatphobic and stigmatising, while taking away opportunities from fat actors to play the roles.

And while The Whale has not yet had its mainstream release, early reviews are already dripping in demeaning and fatphobic language: reviews from both The Guardian and Variety liken the film’s protagonist to the Star Wars character Jabba the Hutt, while Deadline describes Charlie’s weight as “very literal kind of body horror”. Charlie is also regularly described using the problematic term “morbidly obese”.

Michael Hobbes from Maintenance Phase endorsed his co-host’s comments. “[Brendan Fraser] has been through a lot and I wish him all the best, but please listen to fat people when they say that this movie is harmful,” he said on Twitter.

Gordon added: “I haven’t said anything here about the director, the actors, the crew, or the film. What I’m talking about is the way it’s being enthusiastically discussed, without ever grappling with its subject matter, or its impact on the people it aims to portray.”

“It’s hard not to feel like this is a very basic litmus test of seeing fat people’s humanity,” she said. “So many people seem so proud and happy to show fat people that they don’t even think of us when they think they’re watching fat stories. It just feels really, really lonely.”

Photo credit: Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images