Hungry for Revenge? Approaching the Aesthetics of Fatness in Cinema
By Eve Reid
Still from Piggy, 2022, directed by Carlota Pereda.
“Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?”
Ironically this is a line from The Whale, play-turned-blockbuster movie directed by Darren Aronofsky, released in December of 2022. I am hesitant to delve too far into the particularities of the plot of the Whale due to its gratuitous debasement of its protagonist but will provide a succinct summary for you to understand why I am looking to examine its subjects: Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is an agoraphobic, online college professor of English literature who lives alone in a dingy apartment in Idaho. He suffers from grief over the loss of his male lover, which has caused him to fall into a binge eating disorder, and a tense relationship with his estranged teenage daughter and ex-wife, which has left him as a recluse. A nurse named Liz and a young missionary named Thomas attempt to make Charlie realise that his health is at risk, however, Charlie is absorbed in two things: his love for the book Moby Dick and his desire to reconnect with his daughter.
Interestingly, The Whale was well received following its debut at the box office. Brendan Fraser was back on our screens following an unfortunate hiatus and it was maybe the emotional potency of Fraser’s comeback performance after a Hollywood blacklisting that blinded the critics to the glaring issues that the stage-to-screen adaptation brought to light. Surely, director Aronofsky is a master of the psychodrama genre by now, Black Swan (2020) and Requiem for a Dream (2000)being other examples of his works dealing with obsession and explicit ‘body horror.’
Unfortunately, the film lacked substance. Charlie is debased from start to finish. As a fat gay man, he seems to be continually punished to encourage some kind of sympathetic reaction from the viewer. When we are first introduced to Charlie, he is depicted masturbating to gay pornography which results in an actual heart attack. In several other scenes, we see the character either vomiting, choking, struggling to move off his couch or desperately binge eating. This is made worse by the fact Brendan Fraser is enveloped in the most terrible fat suit and prosthetics. Charlie is made into a dehumanised spectacle while the viewer, and the film’s supporting characters, watch in shock as he slowly kills himself.
In reviews of The Whale, some critics such as Geoffrey Macnab from The Independent, were quick to defend the extreme way in which we are forced to feel socio-moral disgust for Charlie on the principle that the script was firstly written for stage. I am inclined to take this argument into account as with mainstream media, which I would argue The Whale falls under the category of, one expects to be presented with something they can share a universal moral position on. This may not always be the filmmaker's purpose, however, binary tropes of good and evil permeate the characters and plot points of The Whale, turning people and things into representations of what is right and wrong. Essentially, cinema acts as a medium for Jean Baudrillard’s ‘simulation’ and Guy Debord’s ‘spectacle,’ where fiction poses as societal truth. In stage productions, this distinction is less pronounced. As Samuel Weber states in Theatricality as Medium, the medium of theatre has more potential for subversion, undermining the Western desire to make value judgments based on a single integrative view. I imagine that seeing The Whale on stage may have been similar to watching the play adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life which recently came to London’s Savoy Theatre. A Little Life follows the story of another anguished gay man, who has suffered terrible abuse at the hands of others throughout his life. There is power in the body horror of this play, and although the graphic violence against the protagonist is relentless, the audience can grasp its symbolic nature through the staging and performance. The Whale, however, is a story with a severe approach to representing ‘Otherness’ which, I therefore believe, would benefit from the nuanced perspective that theatre allows. This is not to say that there should be no movies made about fat people. On the contrary, bigger bodies are overall underrepresented in film and media. The Whale’s script simply just does not translate well to the realm of the moving image as it reinforces ideas about the abjection of bigger bodies and their subsequent medicalization, not to mention its blatant homophobia which appears to only serve the purpose of characterizing Charlie as a perverted home-wrecker. Jerry Mosher in Bodies Out of Bounds Fatness and Transgression describes this type of representation as the trope of the fat, male body becoming a symbol of insecure male performativity -- a ‘phallic potential buried under folds of flesh.’
I would like, now, to present Carlota Pereda’s film Piggy (2022) as a point of contrast. Piggy falls under the category of revenge-horror and succeeds in transgressing the usual presentations of ‘excessive bodies’ on screen, an idea explored further in Bodies Out of Bounds Fatness and Transgression. The plot follows as such: teenage protagonist Sara is relentlessly bullied for her weight by her peers, cruelly labelled Cerdita (little pig), and taunted in her village and at the local swimming pool. After the bullies steal her clothes, they are kidnapped by a murderer who has been watching them interact with Sara. Walking home from the pool half-dressed, Sara comes across the van in which her bullies have been bundled into but ignores their pleas for help. Her neighbours eventually discover that she has information on the whereabouts of the missing teenagers, and she is forced to give information to the police, only to be relieved of this duty by the onset of her menstrual cycle. The murderer then breaks into Sara’s home, attacks her father, and kidnaps her. Sara is brought to an abattoir where she finds that her bullies are hung from hooks. There, the anti-hero murderer encourages Sara to kill her bullies, but the young protagonist instead decides to release them and turns on him, ultimately killing him by biting a chunk out of his neck.
Interestingly, like The Whale, themes of the aquatic and the animal are in play in Piggy. In the former, Charlie at one point rises from his seat on the couch to reveal a patch of sweat on his back in the shape of a whale’s tail. In Piggy, Sara is the daughter of a butcher, for which she is teased, and eventually becomes victorious in the bloodied warehouse of an abattoir. With regard to this animal imagery, Mosher describes how:
‘Invisibility is the performativity most expected from fat; the fat actor is thus saddled with the daunting task of playing both the elephant and magician- a huge, docile animal that must make itself disappear.’
While Charlie is confined to this stereotype, for which we can conflate the ‘elephant’ with the eponymous whale, Sara is eventually liberated from it in Piggy. Spoiler alert: Charlie’s death takes place while his daughter reads him her essay on Moby Dick, ensuring that the protagonist personifies the novel’s whale at his moment of his death. There is no liberatory aspect here. Charlie is a fabrication of fatness through which a shallow social voice speaks, confined to the exploited status of the animal. In contrast, Sara’s freedom from body shaming begins at the pool, which is ironically also where she is most vulnerable to it. Like many other girls who enjoyed swimming as a child, the swimming pool is the site where I also was most aware of my body in how it looked in comparison to that of other girls; it became a site of fear on socio-material grounds. The exposure and lack of protection afforded by the act of taking off one’s clothes to get into water is, therefore, utilised as a recurring trope in the revenge-horror genre. For example, in the 1976 horror film Carrie, the female protagonist is targeted in the shower. The materiality of the fat body in Piggy, however, complicates this. The ‘Othered’ body is not granted the pleasure or luxury of swimming, or of being publicly exposed, and Sara faces verbal abuse because of this. The watchful proto-antagonist, poised to kidnap Sara’s bullies, affords her a level of undisclosed protection in the hostile environment. She is also afforded protection by her own body in other instances in the movie, such as at the police station where she starts her period in the interrogation room and at the movie’s conclusion where she must use her mouth to ‘devour’ her kidnapper and escape. Bodily ‘matter,’ specifically orality, which is abject in The Whale, is here representative of a covert feminine power which Cecilia Hartley describes in her chapter, ‘Letting Ourselves Go,’ in the 2001 publication Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression.’
Hunger, exploitation, abjection, and marginalisation are themes that are inseparable from matters of fat aesthetics on screen, and cinema has a long history of perpetuating harmful stereotypes related to fatness. The horror genre allows for an effective repurposing of these labels to enact revenge on behalf of fat subjectivity, something which is usually relegated to the margins of comedic relief and gaudy spectacularism. In The Whale, Charlie's body and struggles are utilised as dramatic devices to elicit repulsion and moral judgment from the audience, we pity Charlie because he desires human connection and decency. However, simultaneously, the audience is invited to pass judgement on his appearance and behaviours because the camera unwittingly sutures the viewer’s gaze with a ‘sizeist’ perspective. In contrast, in Piggy the fat body is not under the scrutiny of the same pathologizing narrative that penetrates The Whale. The horror genre here provides a more neutral ground for exploring the darker aspects of human nature, where the cruel can be punished and the targeted subject can enact their revenge.
Bibliography/ Suggested Further Reading
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Braziel, Jana Evans, and Kathleen. LeBesco. Bodies Out of Bounds Fatness and Transgression. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books, 1994.
Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Weber, Samuel. Theatricality as Medium, New York: Fordham University Press, 2004.