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What to Know About the Controversy Surrounding The Whale

There’s a lot of sensitive subtext shrouding Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which hits U.S. theaters on Dec. 9.

Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 off-Broadway play of the same name, The Whale follows Brendan Fraser as Charlie, a reclusive 600-pound gay English teacher grieving the death of his partner, while trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter Ellie (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink) before he dies.

The A24 psychological drama—the Black Swan filmmaker’s first movie since 2017’s Mother!—has garnered a lot of attention for revitalizing Fraser’s career with a leading role that’s generating Oscar buzz. But the film has also been accused of fatphobia, with some saying the use of a fatsuit turns Fraser’s character into a spectacle. Here’s what to know about the discourse that has surrounded The Whale since its debut at the Venice Film Festival in September.

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Fraser’s long-awaited comeback

At the height of his popularity in the 1990s, Fraser starred in Airheads (1994), George of the Jungle (1997), and The Mummy (1999). But as the century turned, he gradually retreated from the spotlight.

In 2018, Fraser told GQ that the trajectory of his career was affected by a divorce, the death of his mother, physical health issues, and an alleged assault by Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) president Philip Berk at a HFPA-hosted luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel in 2003. While Berk recalled groping Fraser in what he referred to as jest in his memoir, calling the allegations “a total fabrication,” Fraser said the alleged assault was more sinister.

“I felt ill. I felt like a little kid. I felt like there was a ball in my throat. I thought I was going to cry,” Fraser recalled, adding that he was inspired to speak about the experience after witnessing the courage of his friends during the #MeToo movement, which began to ripple through Hollywood in 2017. Fraser also alleged that the HFPA rarely invited him back to the Golden Globes after the incident, but the organization maintains that “his career declined through no fault of ours.”

Why is The Whale being accused of fatphobia?

Some of the film’s critics believe it perpetuates tired tropes of fat people as suffering, chronically depressed and binge eating. Some have also called Fraser’s transformation into Charlie, with the use of a fatsuit, dehumanizing, pointing out that fat people can’t take off their weight at the end of the day in the way the actors can, and that fat actors were overlooked when casting the role.

Fraser told Vanity Fair that Charlie was brought to life after five or six hours in a makeup chair, using a metamorphic prosthetic suit that was “not exactly comfortable” and carrying around 50 to 300 extra pounds during various scenes. Fraser added that “the torso piece was almost like a straight jacket” and he often needed mobility assistance from the crew.

These painstaking efforts taken to emulate Charlie’s physical shape left some plus-size, gay actors questioning why Fraser—a heterosexual actor who weighs much less than his character—secured the role.

Daniel Franzese, an actor best known for his role as Damien in Mean Girls (2004), told People he and other larger gay actors are generally overlooked for roles, even when they have the direct life experience. He said he was “conflicted” because he loves Fraser and wants him to have his moment but the casting choice represents a wider issue.

“To finally have a chance to be in a prestige film that might be award-nominated, where stories about people who look like us are being told? That’s the dream,” Franzese said. “So when they go time and time again and cast someone like Brendan Fraser, me and the other big queer guys, we’re like, ‘What the…?’ We can’t take it!”

Writer and Maintenance Phase podcaster Aubrey Gordon also expressed her disappointment in the film during a series of tweets in September that called the movie out for having a “staggeringly” anti-fat premise. While she hadn’t yet seen it, she touched on the stageplay’s plot in which the story opens with Charlie worrying that he may have a heart attack after masturbating to gay pornography.

In a follow-up observation, Gordon tweeted, “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.”

How have the cast and crew responded to criticism?

Fraser has said that he sees the film and his character differently. He told People that using a fatsuit and prosthetics was “one of the more exacting ways” to create an accurate character. He added that Charlie’s costume would “respect the laws of gravity and physics” in a way that is unique compared to previous movies’ efforts which have often served up mocking or comedic portrayals of fat bodies.

Charlie was brought to life with the help of makeup effects specialist Adrien Morot, who used a 3D printer and digital sculpture to create Fraser’s fatsuit. Aronofsky maintains that Charlie has been portrayed with empathy and understanding, telling Variety that a lot of his colleagues in entertainment have created “one-note” movies that “depict obesity with crude jokes.”

He added that they tried to cast an actor who would “pull off” the emotions of Charlie’s character, but the health complications that can accompany severe obesity made it “an impossible role to fill with a real person dealing with those issues.”

The name The Whale is a double entendre: On one hand, it refers to Charlie’s obsession with an English paper on the classic novel Moby Dick. But Hunter, the writer of the original play, also told Variety that it “deliberately pokes at some people’s prejudices.”

He added: “I wasn’t surprised by the blowback, because of the history of the way that obesity is treated on film. And we live in cynical and reactionary times.”

What role have fatsuits played onscreen?

From the unflattering characterization of “Fat Monica” in Friends to John Travolta embracing a 30-pound fat suit to play Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (2007), fatsuits have historically been used as a comedy device to encourage viewers to laugh at overweight characters. Television and film have largely moved on from frequent use of fat suits, but they have not disappeared entirely.

Last year, Sarah Paulson wore a fatsuit in American Crime Story to portray Linda Tripp—the woman whose recorded conversations with Monica Lewinsky were pivotal in President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal. But Paulson did express some regrets about taking up space in a role that could have cast a plus-size actor.

“It’s very hard for me to talk about this without feeling like I’m making excuses,” Paulson told the LA Times. “There’s a lot of controversy around actors and fatsuits, and I think that controversy is a legitimate one. I think fatphobia is real. I think pretending otherwise causes further harm.” Still Paulson insisted that actors can bring something beyond their physical self to a role.

More recently, Emma Thompson sparked further debate on the issue when she stepped into a fatsuit to transform into the formidable headteacher Miss Trunchbull in Matthew Warchus’ adaptation of stage show Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical, which premiered at the London Film Festival in October and in U.S. theaters on Dec. 9, and hits Netflix on Christmas.

Some found the portrayal to be “dehumanizing and degrading,” while others said putting on costumes is “what actors do.” Thompson’s role also led to debates on whether actors should rapidly gain weight to accurately take on these roles, or whether it was time to start casting real plus-size actors instead.

On Fraser’s part, his role in The Whale has made him one of the frontrunners in this awards season’s Best Actor race. Time will tell whether the controversy is enough to harm that campaign, and whether it raises awareness on a path toward broader change in the industry.