What The Brendan Fraser ‘The Whale’ Controversy Was Really About

From allegations of fatphobia and a ‘Brenaissance’, here’s everything to know.

Darren Aronofsky is one of the auteurs of the 21st century whose works are marked by controversy and divisiveness. In part due to casting Brendan Fraser, The Whale is one of them.

While the reception for the film’s star-studded cast at the 79th Venice Film Festival was undoubtedly warm—lead actor Brendan Fraser received a six minute standing ovation for his performance of a morbidly obese gay man—reviews are doing little to address the allegations of fatphobia that have shrouded the film.

With The Whale following the story of a 272 kilogram man who attempts to reconnect with his bitter adolescent daughter, the film’s use of a digital fat suit and prosthetics has been anything but praise-worthy.

Yet, reviews of The Whale don’t offer anything to illuminate whether the film’s treatment of it’s polarising subject matter is nuanced, with some calling the film Oscar-worthy (it’s been nominated for three Oscars, including a Best Lead Actor nod for Fraser), while others citing the movie as “unconvincing”.

With Fraser leading the small-but-mighty cast and his resurgence as a film star being cited as a ‘Brenaissance’, this film has certainly piqued our interest—but not for the right reasons.

Content warning: this article discusses sexual assault, disorded eating and fatphobia and may be distressing to some readers. If you are experiencing sexual abuse, eating disorders or other unwanted behaviour, please contact Beyond Blue, The Butterfly Foundation and 1800 Respect.

What Is ‘The Whale’ About?

As per the film’s official premise on A24, The Whale chronicles the story of a “reclusive English teacher living with severe obesity who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption”.

Adapted from the 2012 play of the same name by New York based playwright, Samuel D. Hunter, who has also written the film’s screenplay, the film will explore the plight of a gay, infinifat literary teacher as he comes to terms with his life choices as his health fails.

Of course, with the film directed by highly decorated film director Darren Aronofsky, we can rest assured that this seemingly straightforward film about one man’s quest to reconnect with his estranged daughter will be anything but simple.

As we know, the reason for Charlie’s estrangement from his 17-year-old daughter Ellie (played by Stranger Things star Sadie Sink) is because he abandoned her to pursue a relationship with his now-deceased lover.

Riddled with guilt, Charlie satisfied his grief and depression with binge eating compulsions.

The film will see Charlie deal with his decisions, while lay the challenges of a reclusive, morbidly obese, gay middle-aged man living in suburban Idaho.

Brendan Fraser in The Whale, with prosthetics making him appear morbidly obese
Brendan Fraser in ‘The Whale’. (Credit: Courtesy A24)

Why Is ‘The Whale’ Controversial?

Since Arranosky and A24 announced the project in January 2021, the film’s polarising subject material has been met with strong criticism and backlash, specifically from the body positivity community and plus sized people themselves.

Fraser donned an extra 50 to 300 pounds in prosthetics throughout filming, with his fat suit digitally altered to add on the pounds.

Athough Aronofsky’s film is likely to be more sensitive than the Shallow Hal-era fat suits of old, the very nature of using one is mired in controversy.

On social media, people called out the film’s exploration of the experiences of obese people as “disheartening, exhausting and profoundly isolating”.

“It is so disheartening, exhausting and profoundly isolating to see this concept created over & over & over again, and reliably created by people who aren’t fat,” Aubrey Gordon a fat activist and creator of Your Fat Friend, said on Twitter.

Stranger Things’ alumni Shannon Purser, who has historically called out and chastised body shamers, wrote: “I understand that my experience is very different to the experience of infinifats, but the voyeuristic element of this is just gross”.”

“Skinny people love the “shock value” of fat people,” she added.

Reviews for The Whale–which is already generating Oscars buzz–confirmed fat people’s worst fears, with Charlie’s body described in endlessly demeaning terms.

“Charlie is morbidly obese, a giant pool of Jabba the Hutt-type flesh,” wrote one film critic in The Guardian.

“The sloping jowls that consume his neck, the big wide back and gigantic jelly belly that spills down over his crotch, the arms and legs that are like meat slabs—Charlie is a mountain of a man,” wrote another in Variety.

Sure, they’re talking about a fictional character, but what do these reviews say about society’s treatment and regard for actual people who are this sized?

Where does the worth and value lie for “a fellow the size of Jabba the Hutt”, as Variety put it? Are their experiences and stories any less moving or worthwhile telling because of the space they occupy?

In using a fat suit, the experiences of plus sized people are reduced to outdated stereotypes that being fat must equate with laziness and ugliness.

That being fat means you are framed as being unattractive, unhappy and ultimately to have failed by “succumbing to letting themselves go”.

Of course, for a film entitled The Whale we should’ve expected this.

The film wants us to believe that Charlie is the proverbial whale, his self-deprecating point of view makes him see himself identify with this insult too-often slung at people who are not of a traditionally conventional size.

His love of the Melville novel Moby Dick only further cements this.

And yet, the film’s creators do little to nothing to address the harm and prejudicial weight a title like this holds.

According to Variety, Arranosky frames Charlie as “an addict living a life of isolated misery and self-disgust, scarfing away his despair”.

So why does it take putting a beloved Hollywood actor in a fat suit to humanise people who may have very similar shared experiences?.

Fraser himself said that portraying Charlie gave him “an appreciation for those whose bodies are similar”.

“I learned that you need to be an incredibly strong person, physically, mentally, to inhabit that being,” he told Vanity Fair.

Fat people are so often dehumanised by the media and belittled by society. They’re denied access to healthcare, cut out from opportunities, and held up as responsible for all the world’s health ills.

So, Brendan Fraser realises the hardships of inhabiting a fat body. But unlike others, he gets to take his fat suit off at the end of the day.

Fat people have to read reviews describing a body like theirs as akin to a grotesque Star Wars villain.

We can support the Brendan Fraser renaissance, and still acknowledge the harm this movie brings.

Darren Aronofsky and Brendan Fraser both appeared pleased with the reception of The Whale at the 79th Venice Film Festival
Darren Aronofsky and Brenden Fraser at the 79th Venice Film Festival. (Credit: Source: Getty)

Is There A Trailer For ‘The Whale’?

A trailer for The Whale was released by A24 in December 2023. It shows that while it deals with a dark subject matter, Brendan Fraser’s trademark lightheartedness and comic timing comes through.

It mostly focuses on Fraser’s character, Charlie, attempting to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he hasn’t seen in years.

“Are you actually trying to parent me right now?” Sink says in the trailer.

“Who would want me to be a part of their lives?” Fraser replies.

Where To Watch ‘The Whale’ In Australia

After being released into Australian cinemas on February 2, 2023, The Whale is now available to watch on Stan Australia.

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