No, The Whale is not about obesity or fatphobia, it’s about self-destruction

And it begs the question whether portraying a drug addict or alcoholic would be as shocking to us today as it is seeing someone killing themselves through the overly consumption of something necessary to life.

Lidia Zuin
7 min readMar 17, 2023


Warning: a few spoilers ahead.

When the movie The Whale was announced, there was all the commotion around the coming back of Brendan Fraser after all those years of neglect. The reason why this once Hollywoodian favorite was absent from the silver screen for so long is that in 2003 he was sexually assaulted by Philip Berk, the former president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. This has made a deep impact on him, almost leading him to quit acting. Good thing he’s back in great company, the director Darren Aronofsky, and with an Oscar.

For those familiar with Aronofsky, you may know that he is no easy director. His films Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and Mother! are all emotionally and even morally heavy. The most recent one, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, caused so much outrage in the audience to the point of dividing it between those who love the film for being so shocking, and those who hate and despise it for being so shocking. That’s Aronofsky.

With The Whale, there was all the controversy around not having a fat actor portraying the character Charlie, who suffers from class III obesity. I am definitely not going to address this here as there is already plenty of analyses focused on that. But apart from that, I have seen people outraged by the way Charlie is portrayed in the movie and how it does not address fatphobia. Well, it really doesn’t.

Unlike films such as To the Bone (2017), starring Lily Collins, The Whale is not about eating disorders per se. I will refrain from making comments about the first movie as I didn’t watch it, but it’s widely known that Collins herself had an eating disorder and playing a character with the same issue was challenging to her. In fact, she even lost weight for that role, about 9kg, which is quite problematic in many aspects.

Luckily, having actors replaying their own traumas or issues on screen does not seem to be as common as the other way around, when actors are traumatized by the roles they play or for taking a method acting approach. With that in mind, I am not so sure how desirable it would be for an obese actor to replay their own issues on screen and how much this would be about diversity and inclusion rather than just plain torture.

I remember seeing someone saying that Cronenberg treated Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Fly better than Aronofsky treats Charlie in The Whale. While the first is literally turned into a gigantic fly, the latter is a human being experiencing a very real problem though he is ultimately dehumanized for that too. While Cronenberg’s body horror is very visual and gruesome, Aronofsky’s take is absolutely not more subtle when he decides to name the movie with an offensive slang and use Moby Dick as a recurring theme.

In a previous post, I have written about the ability of horror movies to address real trauma through metaphors. Oftentimes the zombie is not just a walking dead, as well as aliens are not simply weird beings coming from outer space. In Night of the Living Dead, for example, there is a whole interpretation about how the story addresses racism whereas Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about right-wing paranoia over communism. In The Whale, we are invited to think about obesity not from a metaphorical perspective, but through the literal and visceral representation of it. Still, Aronofsky’s movie is not about obesity per se, but rather how that was the outcome to the “poison” that the character “chose” to take in his descent into self-destruction after the traumatic event of losing his partner to suicide.

Interestingly enough, we learn that before taking his own life, Charlie’s partner, Alan, was already engaged in a series of self-harming behaviors. It is stated in the movie that, contrary to Charlie, Alan stopped eating, whereas Charlie tried to find comfort in food after his partner’s death. The consequence of both self-harming actions is that Alan lost a lot of weight and Charlie put it up.

We don’t see Alan and what he looked like, but we have plenty of examples on screen of people drinking to their death, dying of overdose, or how certain diseases lead to the consumption of one’s body. Take The Machinist and the extreme thinness of Christian Bale: it is horrific, but I bet many people find Charlie’s obesity more disturbing. Why is that? In a world where something like “heroin chic” existed (and might be coming back), where a diabetes drug is the new weight loss solution, and 9 kg is what separates an actress from portraying an anorexic, extreme thinness is not scary but rather desirable at any cost.

Now, in the characters surrounding Charlie we see the many ways people react not necessarily to obesity itself, but to someone who is slowly killing themselves through the excessive consumption of food. Instead of replacing meals with alcohol and drugs, Charlie tries to find in food a means to cover this immense hole in his soul. However, it is important to stress that as much as the excess of alcohol may lead to cirrhosis, the excess of food may also lead to gaining weight and the development of obesity, but not all people who suffer from cirrhosis have excessive drinking habits, nor people who suffer from obesity have excessive eating habits.

Charlie’s obesity is a consequence of his depression and grief. Food is the way he found to punish himself and also a means to carry on. But unlike drugs or alcohol, which are not things we need to survive, there’s a different scenario here. The truth is, when someone is at the peak of their desperation, literally anything could be lethal — water intoxication or the excessive consumption of water can lead to death, for example.

Facing Charlie is facing someone slowly killing themselves with something that is ultimately necessary for life. It’s not like quitting alcohol, as you cannot live without food. That’s why it is so challenging to his friend Liz, who is a nurse, when she brings him extra large meatball sandwiches: Charlie needs to eat to live, possibly not this kind of food, but that’s what he likes, what gives him comfort in a context where life is unbearably painful.

On the other hand, Charlie’s daughter Ellie treats him with absolute hatred and disgust. It is indeed heartbreaking, especially because Charlie is trying hard to make amends. But to a teenager who was left unable to see her father for almost 10 years, only to discover him on the brink of his death by self-destruction, that’s not easy. Instead of choosing or allowing herself to be sad and fragile, she found protection in hatred and violence.

While her mother thinks Ellie is simply evil, Charlie does not want to believe in that. What seems to be a desperate attempt to bond with his daughter (who is supposedly truly a bad person) turns out to be his last redemptive action. In fact, he is so helpless that the only thing he can offer to her is the money he saved. Practical and grievous, Ellie accepts to be “paid” to be with her father, but as much as her hatred and violence, the acceptance is just another cover-up to her fragility.

And though no one can save anyone, as stressed by Liz, Ellie is Charlie’s last hope of doing things right. As much as Charlie refuses to go to the hospital, even lying that he doesn’t have money to pay the bills, Ellie also refuses to love and be loved — she uses social media to carve this cold and pitiless persona. Instead of finding comfort or protection in food or alcohol, like her mother, Ellie feeds on hatred that similarly is consuming her.

But the essay on Moby Dick that Charlie keeps reading throughout the movie is a reminder of hope — we only realize that at the end of the film when one last sentence is revealed to us. There is a point when Charlie tries to avoid eating candy bars and stick to a more balanced diet, takes a shower, shaves his beard and so on, but life is so painful and his damnation is already so irreversible that he falls into a binging frenzy that is as heartbreaking as painfully accurate.

Apart from this specific scene, I have seen people complaining about Charlie’s constant sweat, the wheezing, as if these stigmatize the life of an obese person. But, to me, Aronofsky was never worried about offering a realistic portrait of obesity, but rather a realistic portrait of someone unconsciously leading themselves to death. In The Whale, obesity is not the end, but the means. It could have been drugs, it could have been alcohol, it could have been starvation, but it’s absolutely fitting to have Aronofsky portraying self-destruction through overeating as simply being fat is already a nightmare to many people or even the worst thing that could ever happen to them.

Therefore, The Whale is definitely no source for discussion about fatphobia or even obesity as it does not offer a portrayal of how obese people live and are seen by society. As much as Aronofsky’s previous movies, here we find again another character descending into self-destruction. Not through drugs, not through perfectionism, not through renunciation, but through disordered eating. To each their own pain, to each their own poison — which here is definitely defined by its dose.

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Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Technical and science fiction writer.