THE WHALE and the Emancipatory Politics of Body Horror
If THE WHALE is a work of body horror, it contains the seeds of new becomings.
"Jonah and the Whale", Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh (Compendium of Chronicles), ca. 1400. Retrieved from: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/453683
This post was inspired by and is partly in dialogue with an article in The Conversation by Prof. Beth Younger about the now Oscar-winning film The Whale. My interpretation should not be read as a refutation of the points she makes there, but more an offering of another interpretation of the film. I won’t summarize Younger’s views here except insofar as I need to, so I encourage you to read it yourself. Please also note that if I discuss a movie at all, and I discuss many, I will probably spoil it.
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The Whale exists in a tension. On one hand, Aronofsky claims that it’s an “exercise in empathy”, as Younger points out. On the other, it has been very fairly criticized for reinforcing stereotypes about fat people. It is also reductive in regards to the issue of obesity as a public health issue. While the fatness of many people can be easily chalked up to some manner of eating disorder, a serious medical condition, obesity is also positively correlated with poverty and living in a food desert; one of the bitterest ironies of living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world is how expensive fresh, healthy food can be.
This is not primarily a film about engaging with widespread cultural attitudes towards fatness or its status as a public health issue. Fatness and the baggage it carries with it merely acts as a vehicle for tragedy. It does not question, but in fact partly relies on the audience’s cultural background assumptions that fat people are disgusting, pathetic, and even monstrous. As Younger argues, it’s on this final point– that the film uses the tropes of the body horror genre to portray fatness as monstrous– that I want to focus on. Without contradicting her point that the film is primarily a negative depiction of fatness, I believe that if it is indeed a body horror film, there is an unexplored potential for an emancipatory politics of the body in the film and the genre as a whole. Body horror embraces the atypical body and explores corporeal becomings beyond our culture’s falsely reified ideals of the human.
First, we must zoom out from this film in particular and examine the horror genre in general. What we find is that, just like the Robin Wood quote Younger cites, horror is often the place where civilization first recognizes everything we would otherwise attempt to suppress. Hollywood censors famously let you get away with much more in a horror movie than any other genre, because in some ways it is less threatening to the status quo. So long as taboo topics such as cannibalism, queer identity and gruesome murder are commodified and tucked away somewhere one expects to find it, fewer gatekeepers object that a film may offend public morals. It is therefore no coincidence that a number of horror films have been the first places radical ideas and marginalized ways of being were explored or celebrated.
Take, for example, the infamously gay second entry into the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Or the 1972 blaxploitation horror film Blacula, which sympathetically portrays a vampiric African prince battling the corrupt, brutal and racist LAPD. Just imagine the reaction you would get from a big studio–in 1972, let alone now!– if you pitched a mainstream action flick where a black superhero spends 92 minutes killing racist cops. Now consider the mainstream success of the inverse, the previous year’s Dirty Harry, where a white cop faces off against the most despicable human beings alive, especially black criminals. The attitude towards horror films is simply much more permissive, and frequently at the vanguard of the intellectual content you simply could not get away with in other genres. Name another genre that would explore Bataille’s ideas about human sacrifice or adapt the Marquis de Sade.1
Blacula (1972) poster. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068284/
This emancipatory potential is not always present, of course, particularly when looking at the slasher films of the Reaganite 80s. It’s practically cliche at this point to mention how Friday the 13th reflects the electoral victory of the Moral Majority when it delights in splitting open the heads of sexually active teenagers. 1983’s Sleepaway Camp infamously ends by revealing that the killer, Angela, was born with the name “Peter” and has a penis, reinforcing the pathologization of trans women. The bold transmisogyny of this reveal did not exactly spark mainstream outrage, which makes sense considering the public reaction to the concurrent AIDS crisis. Positive or negative, subliminal or overt, marginalized people seem to find their first big-screen representations in horror. Negative and subliminal portrayals that reinforce stereotypes are far more common, but I nevertheless argue that:
1. Any portrayal of marginalized identities whatsoever in pop culture breaks an important taboo that cannot be reversed.
2. Even when said portrayal reinforces a taboo or stereotype, it serves to normalize their presence in mainstream culture.
If, then, we accept that The Whale is a horror movie that depends on viewer disgust towards and fear of fatness, it nevertheless contributes to the normalization of discourse about anti-fat cultural attitudes. And like all body horror, it may be the first place where the audience encounters an expansionist view of what the body can be.
Most horror movies typically feature some manner of external threat consistent with a reactionary worldview. In John Carpenter’s classic 1978 slasher Halloween, a mentally ill man stalks a suburban neighborhood and cuts up white teenagers, lurking behind their picket fences. Body horror, on the other hand, conceives of the threat as fundamentally internal– be it mental illness, the instability of identity, or the consequences of new technology. In Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), an inventor experimenting with his teleporter accidentally crosses himself with… well, a fly. The rest of the film focuses on his slow metamorphosis into a bizarre half-fly half-man.
Like his other films (namely 1981’s Scanners and 1983’s Videodrome), it invites questions about how telephones, television, and other new means of communication which spatially and temporally displace the voice and image from the body affect our ideas about what it consists of. The character Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome even directly declares the television screen the “retina of the mind’s eye”. Other human fears– such as diseases, parasites, even pregnancy– are explored with an intimacy that is unparalleled in other subgenres. All in all, it is a genre that asks the question of what the human really is in light of the fundamental malleability of its physical manifestation.
The protagonist of Scanners (1981) sends a psychic attack through the phone.
“My body is a temple”; so the saying goes. In Genesis, God created Adam in his own image, and it is from this that the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations derive the theological doctrine of imago Dei, Latin for “image of God”. This concept is the basis for the Vatican’s official condemnations of a number of existing and theoretical medical techniques, including abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, embryonic experimentation, and human genetic engineering. Other Christian and Jewish denominations even consider tattooing a sin, citing Leviticus 19:28, although some theorize the ban originated from the practice of tattooing slaves. And yet, I would argue that this doctrine of the unchangeable body is what Nietzsche might call life-denying, or if I can coin a new term, body-denying. No one has ever seen any such eternal, Platonic image of the human body that we have an ethical obligation to strive towards. What we have is not even a singular, united thing, but a beautiful multiplicity of becomings that is merely conceived of as unity. No one can seriously argue that the body was created in the image of anything at all when one cannot even step in the same river twice. As I once told a friend of mine that works at a tattoo shop, body modification embraces and celebrates that the body is material, not spiritual or ideal, and malleable, not eternal. It is an assemblage that can lose and gain components without changing its nature, because it really is not a single thing at all.
On some levels, body horror resonates with this doctrine of the sacred body-form when it exploits our disgust at and fear of flesh in revolt– but when have new horizons ever not terrified us? Consider the treatment of unconquered spaces in film. We are just as likely to romanticize the exploration of land and adoption of new ways of being in Westerns such as Dances With Wolves (1990) as we are to exploit the terror of the untamed wilderness in films such as The VVitch (2015). Although body horror is intended to scare us, we do not have to understand the changing of the human body as bad in and of itself. It allows us to consider the possibilities of existence beyond the simple, artificial categories of human and non-human. This is not a low-stakes issue, but impacts popular thinking on the oppressive nature of reified ideals of the body. The Catholic Church may crusade against the death penalty because of the doctrine of imago Dei, but it more often restricts than protects bodily autonomy through opposing euthanasia, abortion, and gender-affirming care.2
As Donna Haraway wrote in A Cyborg Manifesto, we are already moving beyond such rigid boundaries as human, animal and machine. The bifurcation of nature from humanity has been a disaster for ecology, as Murray Bookchin wrote in What is Social Ecology?. There is no possibility for an ethics or politics of liberation that rests on some transcendent arbiter such as God or the Platonic forms, and certainly not with reified conceptions of the category “human”. In depicting this taboo the way he does, Cronenberg may be construed as giving some manner of warning against changing our bodies. But I propose instead that he is trying to shock us out of our preconceptions. After all, he practices the crime of art. It is more likely he is with me in abolishing the category, “human”.
Which brings me to my second point about The Whale: although Aronofsky and writer Samuel D. Hunter are not clear on their beliefs, their film is profoundly concerned with the question not only of what the body is, but also what the body is worth.
It is indisputable that the tragedy of The Whale partly comes from how disgusting Charlie is perceived to be by himself, the other characters and presumably the audience. As Younger wrote in her piece, the camera frequently lingers on each part of his bloated body. When a pizza delivery man is shocked by his appearance, he spirals into a self-destructive binge-eating episode, as if he’s aiming to liberate himself through death. The tension between the suicidal rejection of his own body and his distaste towards its result drives the film forward, because it is also self-reinforcing. The greatest temptation towards metaphysical self-destruction– once again, to deny life in Nietzsche’s words– naturally comes from a missionary for a fictional church.
As the missionary, a young man named Thomas played by Ty Simpkins, explains, his church preaches that the end times are imminent and that Christ will return to rid the world of all suffering and evil, and replace Charlie’s body with a one of pure light. Charlie explains that he in fact used to be a member, but left because his partner, Alan, committed suicide over religious guilt. Thomas blames Alan’s homosexuality for his death, and assures Charlie that God will free him from his body. Charlie angrily rejects this, demanding to know if Thomas finds him disgusting and if he truly believes that Alan is dead because he loved Charlie. When he answers in the affirmative, Charlie kicks him out.
Thomas’ church appears to be based off the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who similarly and famously preach door-to-door and predict an imminent apocalypse. Above is a 1920 advertisement for a public lecture. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Franklin_Rutherford#/media/File:1920_Rutherford_NationalTheatre_BostonEveningGlobe_Dec17.png
Nietzsche wrote extensively about his health problems and their influence on his philosophy in his biography Ecce Homo. Criticizing Christianity as a life-denying philosophy that aimed at a good afterlife rather than the here and now, Nietzsche opted instead to always strive to be a “yes-sayer”. Although Charlie shows self-destructive and life-denying tendencies on both a physical and a religious level, rebuking Thomas seems to be his final act of accepting life, suffering and his body. If Aronofsky ended the film here, his meaning would be much clearer. Suffering is part of life and part of living in a fragile, constantly-aging and sometimes frighteningly malleable body. The issue is not if Charlie’s body is seen as disgusting, but if we are to turn to an outright rejection of the body simply because of this subjective and meaningless value judgment. The fact of the matter is that in spite of his suffering, his body also gave him love in the form of Alan and his daughter Ellie, and he cannot reject the suffering of the body without also rejecting joy.
This only leaves the question of how to interpret the ending. The dying Charlie fantasizes about one of his few happy memories with his daughter, looks upward, and cries in ecstasy as his feet lift off the floor and the screen fades to white. Clearly the implication is that he ascended to the Heaven he rejected. Whether this is literal or a fantasy is irrelevant, but I will go with the latter. It seems that in death he reversed his rebuke of body-denial and embraced his self-destructive tendency to separate himself from his body. It is unclear to me why Aronofsky would undermine the message of his own film this way, but then again ambiguity is not inherently a bad thing; the audience is free to interpret the film without reference to the intentions of the artist.
It is for these reasons that I do not consider The Whale to be a film that is wholly counter to an emancipatory ethics and politics, although its portrayal of fatness is counterproductive to say the least. Aronofsky is free to defend himself, but does himself no favors by digging in his heels and dismissing the fair critiques of Younger and others. But if it is indeed a work of body horror, it nevertheless holds enormous potential to be an emancipatory work of art that embraces the body as existing beyond the constraints of a fictitious Platonic ideal and as an example of Nietzschean amor fati.
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Consider these other examples: George A. Romero cast a black man as the hero in his 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead, only to very deliberately be shot and killed by a gang of white men believing him a zombie. He would continue his socially conscious themes with a critique of consumerism in Dawn of the Dead. Also consider 1974’s Black Christmas, which features a sympathetic subplot about a young woman wanting to get an abortion. This was even more controversial to portray then than it would be now.