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An edited photo of Brendan Fraser in The Whale

Am I Disgusting? - An Analysis of The Whale

  • 8 mins

Introduction

"The Whale" is a 2022 film directed by Darren Aronofsky, featuring Brendan Fraser as Charlie, a gay overweight man grappling with his family relationships and traumatic experiences. The movie primarily explores Charlie's tumultuous relationship with his estranged daughter, Ellie, who hasn't seen him in eight years. Throughout the film, Ellie directs a barrage of emotions and hurtful comments at Charlie, often targeting his character and weight. The movie has garnered mixed reviews, with some perceiving it as an exploitative attempt at fat-shaming and others as a masterpiece that thoughtfully delves into the systemic and personal challenges faced by overweight individuals. In this analysis, I align with the latter perspective, highlighting how the film skillfully weaves religion into its narrative, adding depth through its intersection with homophobia and loss.

 

If you haven't watched the film, I strongly encourage you to do so to form your own judgment. In my experience, the film does an excellent job exploring religious themes and addressing systemic issues related to obesity, as well as society's perceptions of overweight individuals. I walked into the theater with no expectations, but I emerged with it ranking among my favorite films of 2022.

 

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

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The Main Conflict and Subtle Dynamics:

While the central conflict of the movie revolves around Charlie and Ellie's strained relationship, Charlie's interactions with Thomas hold equal importance. Thomas, portrayed by Ty Simpkins, is a missionary from a local church who unexpectedly crosses paths with Charlie in his apartment. What initially appears as an unusual and random encounter evolves into an intriguing dynamic, with Thomas attempting to impart the word of God to Charlie. While the concept of a missionary seeking to save a non-believer might seem cliché, what sets this apart is the viewer's opportunity to witness how Thomas perceives obesity and homosexuality through a Christian lens.

 

Exploring Themes: Honesty and Disgust

One of the film's central themes is "disgust." Ellie, in several instances, directs insults at Charlie, using the word "disgusting" to describe not only his weight but also his past involvement with another man, which contributed to the breakdown of their family structure. Thomas's perspective on this term adds an intriguing layer to the narrative.

 

Another vital theme is honesty. Charlie values honesty, whether it's conveyed through positive or negative feedback. Throughout the film, Charlie tests Thomas's honesty, allowing us to compare Thomas's early responses to those at the film's conclusion. This exploration of honesty adds depth to the characters and their evolving relationship.

 

"The Whale" is a film that delves deep into complex themes, offering viewers a thought-provoking exploration of religious, societal, and personal issues surrounding obesity and homosexuality. It challenges preconceived notions and encourages introspection on themes of disgust and honesty. While opinions on the film may vary, it undoubtedly provides ample material for analysis and discussion.


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Analysis

Towards the film's conclusion, a pivotal moment occurs when Thomas recognizes Charlie's unwillingness to go to the hospital. He respects Charlie's choice to spend his final moments at home. In Christian beliefs, death is an inevitable part of life, but what holds greater urgency is an individual's salvation and their acceptance of Christ as their savior. In fairness, Christians do have concerns about earthly suffering, albeit often on a somewhat superficial level. Early in the movie, Thomas even asks Charlie if he should call 911 on his behalf. However, as events unfold, he grasps that this is an opportunity to save Charlie, not physically, but spiritually.

 

Thomas comprehends that Charlie's weight has reached a point where saving his body is beyond reach, but the salvation of his soul remains possible. Some might view this as a commendable perspective on Charlie's predicament, offering him a chance at self-redemption. In a positive light, Thomas provides Charlie with a second opportunity to "save" himself. In many ways, Thomas stands apart from the other characters confronting Charlie. He is willing to either accept or overlook Charlie's weight and sexuality. Yet, a lingering question remains - is this acceptance genuine?

 

Genuine Acceptance

My concern lies in the practice of Thomas's acceptance. To be fair, I believe Thomas possesses the capacity for empathy and to accept Charlie's trauma and weight. He undoubtedly experiences sorrow, sympathy, and pity for Charlie – emotions that anyone might feel. However, I believe his empathy falls short of true understanding. Christians, in general, often feel sorrow and sadness for the less fortunate, motivating them to facilitate change. However, I don't believe they genuinely put themselves in the shoes of non-believers. If they did, they might be more critical of missionary work and evangelistic practices from the start.

 

In the film, Thomas, despite his well-intentioned efforts, inadvertently exploits Charlie's weight, reducing him to an impressionable, lost soul in need of guidance back to God. Interestingly, Charlie is an educated individual, specializing in literature and having read the Bible multiple times – something not all Christians can claim. Charlie has actively attempted to engage with Christianity or at least sought to comprehend it. Despite these efforts, he has chosen not to embrace the faith based on his own discernment and understanding.

 

True empathy, in Thomas's case, would involve recognizing that his proselytizing essentially amounts to psychological manipulation that ultimately serves no purpose other than exacerbating individuals' feelings of despair about their circumstances. Genuine empathy entails not only stepping into someone else's shoes but also adopting their values and thought processes. Merely placing oneself in another's shoes without embracing their beliefs and values falls short of empathy. Some Christians may attempt empathy by trying on different perspectives while keeping their own underlying values and beliefs intact. Consequently, the proposed solution remains unchanged – turning to God.

 

In essence, Thomas's well-intentioned efforts inadvertently underscore the importance of true empathy, which involves not just understanding another's perspective but also understanding their values and beliefs, without attempting to impose one's own.

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Missionary Work

From a Christian standpoint, engaging in missionary work often feels deeply empowering. It's a way of believing that you are fulfilling God's purpose by guiding others towards salvation. However, the perspective significantly shifts when viewed from the standpoint of non-believers who find themselves on the receiving end of such efforts. From their vantage point, nothing about Christianity appears empowering. Real empowerment involves having the freedom and autonomy to make decisions that align with one's own beliefs and values. When presented with an ultimatum that hinges on a choice between heaven and hell, whether overtly or subtly, it can feel more like coercion than empowerment.

 

There's an intrinsic nobility in wanting to help others, and the act of saving others is commendable. Yet, it's imperative to critically examine the motives behind this desire to save.

 

At its core, evangelism often revolves around the notion of pleasing God. It's a way of demonstrating to the divine that you're employing the skills and talents bestowed upon you for a virtuous purpose. Who wouldn't wish to utilize their abilities for good? In the film, Thomas perceives an opportunity to gain the approval of his parents and, ultimately, God, by attempting to save just one individual. As fate would have it, that individual happens to be Charlie. This highlights the complex interplay between personal motives and religious conviction in the realm of missionary work.

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"Yes, You're Disgusting!"

Unconditional acceptance is a rarity in our world. More often than not, we tend to attach conditions or rules to our acceptance of others, creating something of an oxymoron. After all, true acceptance should necessitate no change in the person being accepted. While the broader discussion surrounding the acceptance of individuals with different body types and its connection to fatphobia merits its own exploration, I'd like to delve deeper into the concept of acceptance within the context of Christianity.

 

Early in the film, Thomas stumbles upon Charlie's apartment and undertakes the typical behavior of evangelists – feeling compelled to "save" him. However, what proves more intriguing is how Thomas responds when Charlie asks him if he finds him disgusting. Perhaps out of common courtesy or feeling the weight of societal expectations, Thomas replies that he does not find him disgusting.

 

Towards the film's conclusion, Charlie poses the same question to Thomas, to which he responds with a regrettable "yes." At this moment, Thomas's true colors become evident, revealing an inability to fully accept Charlie for who he is. It becomes apparent that Thomas's acceptance and love towards Charlie were conditional all along.

 

Ironically, this unwillingness to accept different belief systems is what often fuels Christian evangelism. Coupled with a black-and-white sense of justice, this fervor for evangelism becomes even more pronounced. Paradoxically, Christians, who are supposed to promote acceptance and understanding, can be perceived as unwilling to accept those who hold divergent beliefs. It's worth noting that this critique isn't specific to Christianity alone but rather an observation about the fundamentals of evangelism.

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Christian "Love"

Christian love can sometimes seem deceptive because it involves helping the less fortunate while still holding the belief that non-believers need saving. While there has been a shift in the approach to evangelism over time, this hidden agenda often remains concealed.

 

In certain aspects, Thomas stands out as a commendable Christian figure. He authentically engages with people, a stark contrast to other missionaries who often maintain a superficial approach. This shift in approach enables Thomas to broaden his perspective and push the boundaries of his empathy, yet it falls short. It's crucial to stress that the core issue isn't whether one's interpretation of the Bible aligns with LGBTQ acceptance; it's that Charlie has made the personal choice not to embrace Christianity.

 

In the end, Thomas's sympathy for Charlie is overshadowed by his ego and his devotion to God. It's not genuine love for Charlie, despite his conditional acceptance of Charlie's physical and mental state. Thomas might genuinely believe he is acting for the greater good, saving Charlie as a way for him to attain a happier life in heaven. However, love should not be seen as a means to an end. True love encompasses the acceptance of someone's soul, beliefs, gender, sexuality, and intrinsic qualities.

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Final Thoughts

I understand that missionaries aim to make a positive impact, and some may argue that modern missionaries contribute positively to society. I also acknowledge the efforts of many progressive Christians who seek to address historical church wrongs and colonialism. However, concealing the more vindictive aspects of scripture in favor of highlighting the "loving" elements of the Bible is not a viable solution. Evangelism can never be truly neutral, as it is built upon a perilous worldview that regards individuals as inherently sinful and flawed.

 

This inherent perspective on people has historically justified practices such as forced rehabilitation and colonialism. Beyond its perilous implications, it is also an unhealthy mindset to hold about others. Charlie, while undoubtedly bearing scars from trauma, does not require salvation of his soul. The film beautifully portrays his humanity, his love for his daughter, and his dedication to his students. He even extends acceptance and understanding to Thomas by welcoming him into his home. Charlie's soul is already inherently beautiful.

 

Also, it's important to remember that individuals, especially those who are overweight, do not need to be "saved". What they truly require is empowerment and a listening ear. True acceptance involves supporting individuals in their journey, without imposing external expectations or judgments, allowing them to find their path towards well-being and happiness on their terms.

 

Image Credits: A24 via AP; Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty/A24

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