Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are solely the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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As Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” – which has been in select theaters – opens in theaters around the country this week, the film could become a powerful empathy generator. Just perhaps not in the way it was intended.

Sara Stewart

The film, which has garnered significant praise even as it’s prompted notable controversy, stars Brendan Fraser as Charlie, a 600-pound gay man slowly eating himself to death. It’s adapted from a play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter, and one of its most-discussed features has been the fat suit Fraser wears.

The film has been a flashpoint for controversy since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival this summer. While critics and the public seem nearly unanimous in their desire for nice guy Fraser to get all the awards for his dedicated performance, a mounting chorus has described the film’s tone and content as fatphobic.

I have not yet seen “The Whale,” as I’m not located in one of the two cities it’s been playing in prior to its expanded release this week. Given the acclaim the film’s received and my desire to see Fraser thrive after what he’s been through, I had originally planned to see it when I could. But after spending some time reading and listening to how harmful fat people say the portrayal is to them, I’m taking another look.

The fat suit isn’t the same as a lived experience

By many accounts, the film plays Charlie’s weight as an absolute tragedy and a visual horror show.

“Aronofsky turns up the foley audio whenever Charlie is eating, to emphasize the wet sound of lips smacking together. He plays ominous music under these sequences, so we know Charlie’s doing something very bad indeed,” wrote Katie Rife in Polygon. “In case viewers still don’t get that they’re supposed to find him disgusting, he recites an essay about ‘Moby-Dick’ and how a whale is ‘a poor big animal’ with no feelings.”

From the beginning, the film apparently humiliates Charlie abjectly: He’s shown nearly dying from a heart attack while masturbating to porn. “It was crystal clear that Mr. Hunter and Mr. Aronofsky considered fatness to be the ultimate human failure,” asserted Roxane Gay in the New York Times, “something despicable, to be avoided at all costs.”

So maybe it’s a good occasion to devote some effort to listening to, reading and amplifying voices from the fat community regarding their thoughts on “The Whale.”

It’s not like there’s any dearth of commentary about how bad being fat is, from official government warnings to comedians like Ricky Gervais who’ve made it one of their pet subjects. In a more novel development, though, early news of “The Whale” this year coincided with an uptick in discourse around both fat acceptance and open criticism of Hollywood’s history of generally horrific portrayals of fatness, most prominently in its use of the fat suit. Earlier this year, Sarah Paulson and Emma Thompson came under fire for wearing prosthetic body suits, the former as Linda Tripp in “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” and the latter as Miss Trunchbull in Netflix’s “Matilda.”

Hunter, who also wrote the film, told Entertainment Weekly, “I understand why people have some of those reactions because, look, the history of portraying people suffering with obesity in cinema is not good,” but argued that the film is an “invitation” to “be with” Charlie. For viewers who “do take that invitation and go inside,” he said “I think you’ll find that this is the diametric opposite of the way obesity has traditionally been portrayed and dealt with in cinema.”

To me, the best thing that could come out of all the publicity surrounding “The Whale” is the centering of the opinions of fat people on the film. Are they planning to see “The Whale”? What are other people saying to them about the movie? How will this affect them, and the way we all think about fatness? And shouldn’t those of us who haven’t had that lived experience maybe just… shut the F up?

A lot of us need to listen to these voices

Aubrey Gordon, author of the forthcoming book “‘You Just Need to Lose Weight’ and 19 Other Myths About Fat People” and co-host of the excellent podcast “Maintenance Phase,” has been a crucial voice on the subject. In a 2021 episode of the show, she examined the obesity epidemic, including the ways in which research data has been misused over the past two decades to gin up a moral panic about fatness.

For me, Gordon and her co-host, Michael Hobbes, have been instrumental in evolving the way I process stories and information (and misinformation) about weight, “wellness,” and the loudest cultural voices speaking about health and lifestyle. Their episode on Dr. Oz is a smart, hilarious jumping-in point.

In discussing the discourse around “The Whale” on Twitter, Gordon pointed to another Hollywood movie that involved a fat suit: 2001’s “Shallow Hal,” the Farrelly brothers comedy whose running gag is that a guy (Jack Black) is hypnotized into believing a very fat woman (Gwyneth Paltrow, wearing the suit) is beautiful.

When accused of being fatphobic, the filmmakers of “Shallow Hal” said that the “movie’s heart is in the right place.” That, said Gordon on Twitter, is beside the point. “It’s deeply telling & extraordinarily disheartening that so many people take thin creators saying ‘we didn’t mean to hurt fat people’ as saying they somehow DIDN’T or CAN’T hurt fat people. It’s deeply telling & extraordinarily disheartening that, after 20+ yrs, that still works.”

In the release of “The Whale,” she continued, “so much of the discourse this time around consists of fat people saying ‘this is going to make life harder for me’ and the response from people who aren’t fat is largely ‘no, it’s humanizing you.’ I would argue that’s our call to make.”

Guy Branum, an actor, TV host and comedian who had a role in the recent romantic comedy “Bros,” has also been outspoken about his objections to “The Whale” and its portrayal of fat people. In an interview with NPR’s Glen Weldon, he noted Aronofsky’s citing health risks on set as his reason for putting an actor in a fat suit, rather than just casting a bigger actor. “I desperately pleaded with Nick Stoller, the director of ‘Bros,’ to take out a full page ad in Variety attesting to the fact that he had worked with me for four months,” he told Weldon, “and I did not explode once on set from fatness.”

Branum has also shared his experience of reading the play the film is based on: “Part of me hoped it might be good, insightful about a life like mine. Instead it was a sad, pathetic story of a sad, pathetic man. I got sad for the main character, Charlie, and how little the author’s imagination offered his life, trapped in a bad apartment, eating fried chicken endlessly,” Branum wrote on Instagram, following it up with a description of taking the play on trips with him so it might enjoy a little happiness for a change.

Critic Sean Donovan, who identifies as fat and queer, wrote movingly of his experience watching the film, particularly his dismay at its “soap opera” plotting around Charlie’s martyrish refusal to seek medical treatment so he can leave all his money to his daughter (Sadie Sink), who hates him.

As Donovan pointed out, there are other, more plausible reasons a man like Charlie might avoid hospitals: “The shame felt in medical spaces is a real danger to queer and fat populations, causing us to avoid them precisely when they are the most needed. These contexts never come up in ‘The Whale,’ to its detriment, as they could have invested the film with the breath of true challenges and barriers facing queer and fat people in the world.”

Anti-fat bias has real-world casualties

Donovan’s assertions are backed up by Scientific American, whose weight stigma reporter Virginia Sole-Smith has covered the many ways in which medicine is tainted by anti-fat bias, from doctors who admit they’re “disgusted” by overweight patients to the “obesity paradox,” which refers to findings that in some cases, “fat people [are] not dying of heart disease like we’re always told they will,” and that in fact being physically active is more important for heart health than how big your body is.

It’s in Aronofsky’s failure to engage any of these viewpoints – and he’s done a lot of talking about the movie since its release – that he makes clear how little connection there is between “The Whale” and living, breathing fat people.

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    So instead of seeing this film I’m making plans to read and listen to writers who are working to change the perception and portrayal of fat people. In addition to Gordon’s book and podcast, there is critic Clarkisha Kent’s memoir “Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto,” coming out next March, and journalist and author Evette Dionne’s new book “Weightless: Making Space for My Resilient Body and Soul.” Also worth a read: “Shrill,” by Lindy West (which later became an Aidy Bryant-starring TV show), a memoir that became an instant classic when it published in 2016.

    I think West should have the last word here, from her 2011 essay on fat-shaming, “Hello, I Am Fat.” Her words describe why, despite whatever may be great about “The Whale,” I don’t want to see it.

    “This is what’s behind this entire thing—it’s not about ‘health,’ it’s about ‘eeeewwwww.’ You think fat people are icky. Eeeewww, a fat person might touch you on a plane. With their fat!… And sorry, I reject your eeeeeewwww.”